Jordan Peterson: Critical commentaries

Jordan Peterson is a Canadian academic who has recently and rapidly risen to prominence as a spokesperson for various right-wing and conservative views on gender, intellectual life, and social issues. Here, we have collected together some critical commentary on his work. Additions are most welcome.

Robinson, in The intellectual we deserve, writes, “Jordan Peterson appears very profound […] Yet he has almost nothing of value to say.” Robinson describes the tactics JP uses to achieve his appearance of profundity and intellectual value. Yet his writings and speeches are “comically befuddled, pompous, and ignorant.”

Peterson’s 1999 book Maps of Meaning offers “an elaborate, unprovable, unfalsifiable, unintelligle theory”. Because of the way he writes, some of it appears to hold true, but is so abstract that it cannot be proved or disproved. He is like other grand theorists who ‘use verbosity to cover for a lack of profundity’. His obscurantism is “a tactic for badgering readers into deference  to the writer’s authority”. For example, the diagrams and figures in Maps of Meaning are “masterpieces of unprovable gibberish”. While his self-help book inflates the obvious into the awe-inspiring.

Many critics of his work have failed to note what he’s saying. But the problem of the misrepresentation of Peterson is that he’s highly vague and vacillating. The multiplicity of possible meanings in his work makes it irrefutable (which is bad). As Robinson comments, “he’s a Rorschach test who can be interpreted many ways”. And some of what Peterson says is just plain wrong. He holds an incredibly ignorant, simplistic, and dismissive view of politics and of social justice efforts.

Robinson argues that, “Peterson is popular partly because he criticizes social justice activists in a way many people find satisfying, and some of those criticisms have merit. He is popular partly because he offers adrift young men a sense of heroic purpose, and offers angry young men rationalizations for their hatreds. And he is popular partly because academia and the left have failed spectacularly at helping make the world intelligible to ordinary people, and giving them a clear and compelling political vision.”

Beauchamp (above) notes that Peterson is seen by his supporters as an avatar of reason and facts pushing back against irrational ‘social justice warriors’. His approach as a public intellectual is to ‘take inflammatory, somewhat misinformed stances on issues of public concern outside his area of expertise’. His framework allows dismissal of any kind of privilege, as a “Marxist lie” designed to enable the Marxist-postmodernist effort to seize control of the state.

There are of course defences of Peterson's work in response to such commentaries, and debates over how to understand his work. Here are some: