Early in 2018 I was searching YouTube for Stephen Colbert’s latest monologue on the Trump administration and I discovered a lecture on problems with postmodernism and neo-Marxism in universities. Having argued against postmodernism myself for many years and witnessed some of its excesses, I decided to take a look. What I discovered was a Professor of Psychology from the University of Toronto, Jordan Peterson, bitching about universities. So, I thought, here’s something I can relate to.
Clicking on YouTube is one of the most profound decisions humans make these days as the algorithms then determine the rest of our lives. I was assailed by a plethora of Jordan Peterson videos of lectures and interviews, many of which had titles such as; Peterson destroys feminist, Peterson destroys postmodernist, etc. Hence the slightly tongue-in-cheek title of this article. I particularly enjoyed a discussion between Peterson and Second Wave Feminist, Camille Paglia on problems in today’s universities.
I was happy to move on from that but then Peterson came to Australia promoting his new book and as well as featuring in interviews on all of the major radio and television networks, filled theatres for his lectures. His name started coming up more and more in my classes, mainly from young men who had attended his lectures and had been inspired by him. Students kept asking me what I thought of him so I decided that I needed to take a closer look. So this article expresses some of my thoughts.
All I know about Peterson from his book and videos is that he is a fairly conservative, metaphorical Christian. He is a father of two and boasts about his successful long-term marriage and like all of us, if we only admitted it, wants to create the world in his image. His intellectual heroes are Jung and Nietzsche which seemed odd until I discovered that he suffers from depression. Much of what Peterson values in their work seems consistent with what he would value for his own therapy, such as his interest in the dark side of human nature.
Peterson is one of a group calling themselves the intellectual dark web, an assortment of disgruntled academics, and angry journalists and comedians. They are all united in their belief that freedom of speech is under attack in both universities and the media and believe, despite the collapse of communism in the 1980’s, that the socialist left is running the world. For the academics, led by Peterson, this is revealed in the domination in universities of the ideologies of postmodernism and neo-Marxism which are drowning out alternative views.
I should say something about where I’m coming from. I’m a process philosopher in the tradition originating with Laozi and Heraclitus and includes all of those thinkers who understand reality to be primarily holistic, dynamic and vibratory. I’m also a father in a successful long term relationship but have never suffered from depression, just mild anxiety at times. I study metaphysics, theories and stories about the fundamental nature of reality, and I am primarily interested in health and understanding the conditions for healthy life.
My intellectual heroes are Aristotle, Friedrich Schelling, Georg Hegel, Alfred North Whitehead, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the Japanese Kyoto School and my good friend and colleague, Arran Gare. Over twenty years I have seen physics and biology converging towards the process view expressed so well by Friedrich Schelling’s Naturphilosophie; that reality is fundamentally unordered activity and vibratory order emerges from the limiting or constraining of activity. Reality is, therefore, fundamentally vague, ambiguity is a condition for life and our emergent material, mechanical and analytical approaches are abstract.
I can hear mechanistic materialists and Sam Harris fans already saying that reality is about facts, not stories. From a process view we are temporal, meaning interpreting and generating creatures. We take partial knowledge of particulars of reality and situate them within broader contexts in order to make sense of them. The fundamental way we do this is to generate stories to make sense of atomic facts. So whether you are a scientist or a poet, you can’t create meaning without a story. So I prefer to work with meaningful stories rather than meaningless facts.
There are many themes in Peterson’s work that reflect my own. I have been helping students grow up and become good people for many years now through teaching philosophy. I also helped people stand up straight in my previous life as a fitness coach. A major focus of my work has been on complexity theory, emergence, edge of chaos and biosemiotics, so I can relate to Peterson’s themes of balancing order and chaos.
I encourage dialectical thinking towards transcendence; being able to understand opposing views as related and not independent. This involves development in an Aristotelian, Hegelian, Piagetian sense of overcoming resistance to simplistic views leading to more complex views of reality. One such simplistic, highly abstract view I reject is the utilitarianism of classic liberalism preferring an ecologically based version of virtue ethics. My sense is that Peterson, as a psychologist, and many in the Dark Web, come to their positions from a different place to me, one I argue that is more abstract and thus less in touch with reality.
Let’s talk about universities, for example. I know a bit about postmodernism. Nearly twenty years ago when I started my Ph.D the media department at my university were all reading Derrida and the social scientists were reading Foucault. My supervisor and now friend and colleague, Arran Gare, had published a book in 1994 called, Postmodernism and the Environmental Crisis, which was a great influence on me. Two years earlier, an associate of ours, Boris Frankel, published his book, From the Prophets Deserts Come.
Both of these books provide far more accurate, complex and insightful understandings of postmodernism than Peterson provides. For Gare, postmodernism has its roots in poststructuralism and 20th Century developments in mathematics and philosophy of science which challenged science’s exclusive claims to truth and objectivity. Poststructuralism was an important intellectual movement which provided an important counter to structuralism and opened up new ways of thinking. American, Whiteheadian process philosophers often refer to themselves as Constructive Postmodernists. Ironically, an important influence on this movement was Russian culturologist, Mikhail Bakhtin, whose theory of polyphony was inspired by Peterson’s other great hero, Dostoevsky.
Postmodernism, however, through its simplistic interpreters, developed as a rejection of narratives of progress and degenerated into a form of nihilistic, radical atomism. As Frederic Jameson described it, it is the argument for living in a schizophrenic-like, sensually enhanced constant present. For Gare, this atomism and lack of narrative renders postmodernists impotent in the face of the totalizing forces destroying the global ecosystem, including destruction caused by Russia and China as well as the West.
For Frankel, postmodernism also has its roots in poststructuralist critical theory which is applied to any cultural product other than political economy. Frankel was reacting at the time to the dominance, not of postmodernism or Marxism, but of neoliberal economic rationalism and seeing, like Gare, the popularity of postmodernism in the academy as making universities vulnerable to neoliberal attack. Postmodernists oscillate between nostalgia and pessimism and advocate, as Foucault promoted, individual, often insincere and therefore ineffective acts of resistance. Like Gilles Deleuze theories, a process thinker, postmodernism always seemed to me to be more about infinite multiplicities rather than bounded collectives, as Peterson argues.
As I said earlier, Peterson’s thesis is that all of the problems in today’s universities can be traced to Marx. This is both true and false, (I don’t have a problem with contradictions). Any philosopher worth his salt will know and understand the importance of the genealogy of thought running through Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche and the profound influence this had on our understanding of the dialectic between the individual and the collective. Marx, therefore, is a central figure in this.
However, I don’t believe Marx is directly the major influence on universities the dark web argue for. On the contrary, postmodernists reject Marx and his major influence, Hegel, as being conservative and totalizing. They similarly reject classic liberalism. What they support is a sort of chaotic, infantile individualism; an extreme form of negative freedom that goes beyond even anarchism. This is what makes the view ultimately silly, because it suggests that order itself is oppressive and needs to be overcome.
But postmodernism is effectively dead these days and so, I argue, is not the main problem. It is actually something worse. In today’s media and social science departments, and throughout universities, at least in Australia, I don’t see or hear of academics reading Derrida and Foucault anymore and no one reads Marx. Mostly they’re looking at pictures on their phones, but what they do read are the most recent empirical research papers from their disciplines providing the latest data. They read them to see where a gap might be in the data that they can fill. Back in the late 1990’s you could have an argument with a postmodern academic about the merits of Foucault, but now there is no argument because there is no theory. Most of today’s academics are just data collectors.
This fits with a postmodernist constant present but it’s coming from a different place. I questioned why our libraries were throwing out old books and why our postgraduate students were actively discouraged from engaging in Marx by social scientists because it is not current, or empirical. I also questioned why our postgraduate students were being made to study social science research methods. It then dawned on me. There is a theory driving most of today’s researchers but it is totally invisible to them. It is logical empiricism, a theory which was totally discredited by philosophy of science in the 20th Century but has seemingly made a strong comeback.
For the uninitiated, logical empiricism was the view popular in the 1920’s and 30’s that statements could only be meaningful if verifiable through empirical observation. Philosophy of science in the 20th Century revealed its methods as highly abstract and unable to account for the real complexity of reality. This hasn’t stopped Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, however, from still believing in it as well, it seems, as today’s university managements. Only Arts and Humanities departments are attempting to resist this revival which is coming at a cost to them as their methods and role in today’s universities are seen as less relevant.
So this is the scourge ruining our universities and not postmodernists, feminists or Marxists. But what’s driving it? Something that both Gare and Frankel saw coming in the 1990’s but Peterson and the dark web fail to make any mention of; the neoliberal transformation of universities into transnational business organizations.
I don’t know if Peterson or Bret Weinstein have read Martha Nussbaum or Philip Mirowski, but if they did they would have a deeper understanding of what is really going on in universities rather than blaming a bunch of angry and frustrated kids trying to express themselves and gain some control over their nihilism. Nussbaum revealed the shift away from education in self-governing citizenship to how to make money and Mirowski revealed the roots of this in neoliberalism and the Mont Pelerin Society and how this ideology has infested and undermined public institutions and thus democracy, globally.
For today’s business-model universities, whether they are publicly funded as in Australia, or not, knowledge has become a commodity which they sell to students re-defined as customers. Thanks to neoliberal governments reducing public funding, universities seek private investment in research designed purely to make money. This is through producing technological products to sell in the global market or to lift global rankings to better market to the cash cow that is international students. Most damaging are the efficiencies and savings they are always demanding in the provision of teaching and the willingness to replace essential units with whatever the latest trend is.
If you don’t believe me look what’s now happening with the UK ‘student-led’ higher education reforms and the Orwellian, ‘Office for Students’. In Australia, entry requirements for universities have been discounted to get more customers and assessment standards have dropped to make sure they all get a certificate to get a job. Systems have been computerized and roboticized to reduce staff costs and more and more we are seeing students encouraged to not attend but study through their smart phones. The academic profession has been downgraded and casualized with many reduced to highly qualified day labourers while management becomes top heavy. Fees have increased and the level of service has dropped leaving universities vulnerable to possible legal action from disgruntled customers and education trade unions.
Here is where we get to the neoliberal root of Peterson’s and his friends complaints. Restrictions on academic freedom and political correctness, I argue, do not come from a bunch of radical commies or transgender postmodernists, but from the risk management policies of business-model universities to protect themselves from litigation. The concern is more about the size of insurance premiums than the welfare of students and academics. Whether it’s gender or ethnic diversity, sexual harassment, bullying, or personal pronouns, neoliberal universities are ticking all of the boxes their lawyers tell them to so as to not upset their customers or their global brand. Governments in the neoliberal world act in a similar way.
This leaves Peterson and his disenfranchised mates engaged in an argument which ran out of puff at least ten years ago. That’s when most of the postmodernists and neo-Marxists retired from my university. It is in fact the progeny of classic liberals which Peterson so admires who are creating the conditions he so despises through their efforts to create and maintain an education free-market full of self-interested individuals maximizing their happiness at the expense of others. It’s not Marx, it’s just business. Universities don’t listen to or support Peterson and his mates, or me for that matter, because they are not the customers, just the service providers hired to look after the customers and keep them happy.
Marx’s part of this story is dialectical as the great fear which drives paranoid neoliberals to create the conditions the dark web hate. A profound irony, however, has been revealed by one of our own philosophers, Christina Neesham, who argues that in Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts it is one of Peterson’s classic liberal heroes, Adam Smith, who is Marx’s major inspiration. For Smith, the wealth of nations is measured by the wealth of the working class who are in conflict with the propertied class. Well, it was a book more about moral sentiment than self-interest.
In relation to this, I have heard Peterson argue that Marx’s biggest problem was that he believed that it is capitalism which creates inequality and that Marx was not aware of Pareto distribution, which Peterson argues is a deterministic iron law of nature. I won’t go into the many problems with Pareto distribution but to argue this about Marx is to deny his Hegelian roots in a dialectic of progress. It’s well documented that Marx believed capitalism was an advance on feudalism and a necessary stage towards its transcendence towards a more egalitarian stage. It is also well understood that both Russia and China skipped this stage.
This brings me to perhaps my biggest issue with Peterson and some of his mates, that despite their obvious intelligence they seem to be incapable of dialectical thought, which Piagetian scholars identify as among the highest stages of cognitive development. Peterson argues in the classic liberal tradition that we are essentially individuals. Much of his admiration for Nietzsche is based on his celebration of the individual. But there is no mention in Peterson’s work I have seen of Georg Hegel. As I said before, you can’t properly understand Nietzsche or Marx without situating them within the historical dialectic between at least Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel and Schelling.
Essentialism is already a problem associated with western rationality that the poststructuralists identified, but dialectically we are relational creatures related to all in the universe and so we can’t be essentially individual. Hegel showed this in his response to Kant’s abstract idea of the preformed ‘I’. We do not enter the world as an individual but learn to become one, as Jung understood. This is through our development of self-consciousness requiring social engagement with others. Individualism, however, is an immature and alienating stage which needs to be overcome. Both Eastern and Western developmental psychology understands that a good development process is one in which you eventually transcend the egocentrism of individualism and understand yourself as part of greater wholes.
I have noticed over the years that just as a hammer sees a world of nails, psychologists tend to see a world of individual brains. Consequently, the achievement of individuality in a Jungian sense is one which Peterson celebrates but to take the individual as primary is, as process philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead argued, to commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Like order and chaos, the relationship between the individual and the collective is always one of dynamic tension that emerges when the individual emerges from the whole and ends when the self, de-centres or disintegrates and returns to the whole. Capitalism and socialism reveal two related aspects of our nature which we oscillate between. When one becomes polarized in one or the other, it is unhealthy.
There are many examples of a lack of dialectical thinking in Peterson and his mates largely expressed as false dichotomies. For example, Peterson’s defence of equality of opportunity and rejection of equality of outcome. At the risk of being labelled a philosophical pedant, isn’t equal opportunity also an outcome? This used to be referred to as the fallacious ‘level playing field.’ It is fallacious because of the problem in modern physics of initial conditions.
Peterson is arguing, perhaps inspired by Friedrich von Hayek, that you can create equality of opportunity but then we can’t and shouldn’t, control where this then leads. But in order to continually generate equality of opportunity, don’t you have to constrain future processes towards this end as an equal outcome? This is what happens when governments have to continually intervene in markets to generate competition. When you understand the two positions dialectically, the relationship is no longer a problem.
Another false dichotomy infecting the dark web is that between faith and reason. To be fair, Peterson as a metaphorical Christian has a more conflicted take on this and I’m sympathetic to his Nietzscheian views on truth and more complex understanding of perception. However, there is a general sense among these thinkers that they represent secular Western rationality against religious faith. The problem here is that science no longer understands the universe in terms of 17th and 18th Century mathematical determinism. We have also seen the many challenges to the primacy and nature of reason in 20th century philosophy of science and through the emergence of complexity science.
Leaving institutional religion aside, living processes are now understood as anticipatory ones which model the future and seek to actualize their models, something Jung would also understand. The problem is that this is against a background of ambiguity and indeterminism which makes our future modelling prone to error. This means that whether you’re a secular scientist or a Catholic priest, when you step out of the house in the morning you are taking a leap of faith based on your belief (and reasoning) that the future will be consistent with the past. I can generally predict that the university buildings will be there tomorrow, but I have no idea whether most of my students will be.
Faith is a metaphor composed analytically of individual consonants and vowels from the phonetic alphabet to express the sound that we make to express the vague feeling that we have that we can confidently step forward into the future despite not having all of the facts. Without this we would be paralyzed. Logical Empiricism was discredited because it was revealed by philosophers of science that you could never have enough facts. Analytical philosophy also failed because it was discovered that you could never gain certainty through reason, only probability. If ambiguity is the condition for generating negative entropy, then replacing faith with reason could destroy life.
These false dichotomies are perhaps a consequence of dark web members seeing themselves, as children of the Enlightenment. But which Enlightenment? For Margaret Jacobs and Jonathan Israel there were two Enlightenments, the Radical Enlightenment, which promoted equality and democracy and the Moderate Enlightenment which actively resisted such tendencies seeking to maintain the status quo of entrenched inequalities of wealth and privilege. Once again we see little sign from these members that they recognize these more complex relationships. What progress we have made in greater inclusiveness has been thanks to those radicals such as Giordano Bruno and the civic humanists and not Hobbes, Locke or Newton.
For example, wages in the USA have not given workers any more purchasing power in over thirty years. Workers even now are reluctant to ask for more money because of cuts to unemployment insurance in 2013 making workers fearful of losing their jobs. Over a similar period, although they have stalled recently, Australian real wages increased thanks to agreements between government and trade unions to tie wage growth to inflation and productivity increases. Australia has long had a healthy dialectic between labour and capital, which has recently been put under threat by neoliberalism. Progress was achieved, not through Enlightenment ideals of autonomous individualism, but through the counter effects of other Enlightenment ideals of collective, democratic organization.
Such collectives, Peterson argues, are not ontologically real and so cannot have agency or be held responsible. This shows a complete ignorance of emergence in living systems and a form of crude, atomistic reductionism. If collectives cannot have agency and be held responsible then we human beings cannot have agency and be held responsible, because we are collectives. We are a collection of components all suppressing their individuality for the good of the whole. When individuals get together they display behaviour which is different to that of the individuals and so collective behaviour cannot be reduced to the parts. Our brains are some of our best examples of collective emergent behaviour and one would think Peterson would understand that.
As Peterson suggests, order is important. Living organisms are order that create order. Cleaning up your room is important (even though the most brilliant and interesting people I’ve met have been messy and disorganized). But when humans build abstractions upon abstractions we find ourselves becoming further and further removed from reality, with the result that we destroy the conditions for life; the very problem Peterson identifies in crude, scientific Marxism. But this is also the fundamental problem with Peterson and the dark web in that, unlike C. S. Peirce and A. N. Whitehead, for example, they see reason as more fundamental than feeling, or individuals as more fundamental than societies, or facts as more primordial than stories. A little holistic, dialectical thinking could go a long way with this group.
Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore on Flickr.