Sunday, 11 February 2018

An exchange about Jordan Peterson

GS: ....He is clearly seized by his ideas and reading, as much as by his pragmatic yet moral purpose. But I wonder how long before he exhausts himself and flakes out or says something distinctly stupid, something so careless and wrong that his opponents might hang him with it.... 

Exchange follows from here:

SN: He already has said some pretty stupid things. I’m neither a fan nor an opponent, but some the stuff he gets away with is beyond ridiculous.

GS: Which particular things were stupid, and which beyond ridiculous?

SN: I mentioned them in your Peterson thread (having to listened to some of his YouTube output), but to summarise, what stood out was his opinion that Marxism (including what he calls ‘cultural Marxism’) and postmodernism are a) synonymous and b) un-Western and anti-Western.

Another clunker is his analysis of societal categorisations by ‘cultural Marxism’ as though creating social categories was an utterly new thing (when it’s the oldest trick in the history of rulers and ruling groups). 

He also speaks as though rugged individualism were synonymous with Western civilisation - another assumption that does not hold up against intellectual history.

Which is not to say there aren’t some pearls in what he says. He’s clearly a clever, passionate man. But perhaps the eagerness you mention above blinds him to some of his own failings. He’s no longer a teenager, so he can’t expect the same indulgence he received as a super-bright 16-year old.

GS: He talks about neo-Marxism. The association with postmodernism is via group identity, the assimilation of the individual into the group. He sees the individual as a responsible being not merely a recipient of group rights. That seems a reasonable point of view to me. I haven’t heard him say anywhere that rugged individualism is solely a western trait. What he does say is that there is a body of religion and philosophy that is specifically addressed to the individual mind, and that that body of thought is central to western notions of conducting a life. That does not seem ridiculous to me. It needs more argument than a single YouTube lecture but it is worth proposing.

SN: There is such a body of thought. There is also a strong communal, collectivist body of thought that is equally central to Western philosophy and custom, going back as far as the monastic and Beguines traditions. There is also an ancient liberties, that rights-based body of thought that is central to our history from the Peasants Revolt onwards. Its contemporary incarnation is not immune to criticism, but to criticise it on the basis of them being anti-Western or to think bandying the M word like a ghoul is persuasive is intellectually dishonest. I’m more impressed by the conservative argument about rights calling equal responsibilities (which he also uses). Defining those responsibilities is the key, of course - but there we’re on even ground, and can debate accordingly.

It also ignores the fact that Marxism and neo-Marxism (I assume you mean what he calls cultural Marxism) is a child of the Enlightenment, every bit as much as Adam Smith and Nietzsche are.

GS: He uses both terms, neo-Marxism and cultural-Marxism. I take the point that there have been collectivist bodies of thought and rights-based bodies of thought. He may be mistaken in identifying the key to western thought as something based on individual rights and responsibilities but at this point of time, at a time of identity-cultures (people speaking not as individual, considered minds but bellowing and raging as members of this or that group, however intersectional) he feels it is important to redress the balance. I agree with him on that point.

Group identity simplifies matters to a degree that having to be responsible for your own soul or reason does not. He is continually referring back to facts, statistics and processes of enquiry. To some degree he is of Sam Harris's Enlightenment mindset in his use of research. in others he moves to the less easily described life of images and archetypes for a record of human response to questions of spirituality and morality. I am sure he would allow that Marxism - which I regard as a good analytical tool because, after all, classes and class interests exist - is a product of the Enlightenment, but that may be where he departs from it. I don't know how justified his use of neo-Marxism and Marxism is in terms of analysis but he is clearly influenced by the tremendous historical and human cost of bluntly applying Marxist principles to all social questions. He feels much the same about Nazism and I think he is very persuasive when he argues that the concentration camp guard lives within us too.

I don't think his references to the practical application of Marxism are dishonest. He sees a flaw in an idea and in a way of acting on it and he looks to mend it through his understanding of Jungian archetypes. He wants a synthesis between Jung and scientific method. Why? Because he thinks we desperately need it.

There may well be flaws in his own ideas. I think there are bound to be, but I like the way he is going. In the current context it seems almost revelatory, which is why he suddenly has so many followers. It is also significant that he has opened a territory where other minds, from both left and right, can meet and discuss things openly, without mass pressure. I have found a number of others who want to use that space. I welcome that. I too think it is needed.

The discussion goes on on Facebook:

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