May 14, 2023

Peterson and Political Metaphysics

How Jordan Peterson's metaphysical politics might show us what's in store for our American future.

#philosophy #politics • 2286 words

Author's note: This is more political than I'd like to be -- as they say, politics is the mind-killer -- but... it's hard to write apolitically about politics and a political pundit. I don't usually write about politics in public, so I'm still getting better at it.

I. Jordan Peterson, Wielder of Order

Jordan Peterson is interesting.

From what I can see of him, he's in many ways a regular political pundit -- proselytizing for conservatism, to struggling young men in particular, often through rhetorical shows of strength by "destroying feminists" and their ilk -- and I'd normally write him off in terms of intellectual contribution for being so. Normally.

Peterson's background as an intellectual makes him a bit of a stranger kind of pundit. He was an assistant professor in Psychology at Harvard before taking a tenure post at the University of Toronto. Old Harvard newspaper articles reveal some pretty satisfied students. In 1999, years before his political breakout, he published a book titled Maps of Meaning: initially intended to be his application for tenure at Harvard, its bibliography included Dante, Dostoevsky, Arendt, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and a number of other intellectual all-stars. Reviews tended to be favorable, though Peterson himself has said he didn't receive much serious criticism.

In other words, it seems he was a serious intellectual -- I'm holding judgment on whether he's a capable one, but it seems he cared about it and invested a lot of time into it. Something lured him into conservative politics in the 2010s -- money? ideology? attention? -- but vestiges of his intellectual career undoubtedly remain. This means there's something quite interesting about his punditry in particular.

What's interesting about Peterson is how he blends a sort of popular metaphysics into his doctrine, mixing it with Christian conservatism in ways that we rarely see in the modern political sphere. Plenty of philosophical undercurrents, exist elsewhere, to be sure: there are obvious influences, for example, of Marxist historical materialism in much of left-leaning rhetoric, and if you're willing to reach deeper, traces of Aristotle's influence on Christian theology filtered down into modern conservatism. Peterson, though, does not simply have implicit philosophical undercurrents to his politics: he espouses his own dualist metaphysical doctrine, one which he developed decades prior during his time as Harvard professor.

A few years ago -- notably before he went down the rabbit hole, so to speak, or at least before I was aware of him doing so -- I read his book, 12 Rules for Life, in which he delved into these ideas. His academic background gave him a pretty well-developed system: it's the classic "balance between chaos and order" idea, though I'm simplifying it here. Essentially, just as there are essential elements to the objective world -- physical things, like atoms (though even this point I might dispute) -- there are essential elements to the subjective world too, those elements being Chaos and Order.

Chaos is the unexplored territory, nature, the feminine birth; Order the stable familiarity, culture, the masculine certainty. Walking the line between chaos and order, mastered skills and learning, security and engagement, (et cetera, ad infinitum) is where "meaning is to be found" — order is too little alone, while chaos is too much.

This Political Pundit Peterson then utilizes this construct to justify his ideas about hierarchies and gender. Stability is order; order is male; the patriarchal hierarchies we see all across the animal kingdom are male, and stable, and normal. The conclusion he reaches from here is that patriarchy is the natural state of animals, and therefore it is natural -- and, by an appeal to nature, desirable -- that human society should be so as well.

I'm reducing his doctrine to a simpler form because its analysis is not my priority here. I just want to illustrate the point: metaphysics can be introduced to politics. It's not too kooky for 'the modern man'. Peterson's coincidental intersection of intellectualism with punditry may have revealed the next great path down which politics may turn.

II. Political Epistemologies

We see some epistemological departures from the broader American view on both sides of the aisle already: a number of different political groups (and I'm being deliberately vague here, but I believe you know who I'm talking about) have turned away entirely from empirics; debate may be had as to whether they ever had turned to it in the first place, but I feel like the expectation for the past ~century was that science trumped politics, at least in a facile sense. Power shaped policy behind the scenes, but the public had the facade of being driven by science; rhetorically, being 'against the science' was bad. Hence tobacco companies funding faux-research to cast doubt on the carcinogenic effects of their products: politics wasn't yet at a place where ignoring science was within the Overton window.

We still see traces of this belief in science in today's culture wars: common conservative rhetoric wields "basic biology" to justify positions on certain... complex psychological and social phenomena, and putting aside the fact that they need to use basic biology because advanced biology says otherwise, there is at least the appearance of valuing empirics. Ignoring science is still an optics loss they're not ready to take. Science is still valuable, in a twisted sense. Similarly, most climate change denialism does not argue that science doesn't matter, just that the science is ambiguous or inconclusive, and therefore no action is needed; it acknowledges science as a source of truth, and pretends to operate within that framework.

But there are some sects that have turned away from empirics (i.e. reality) and still found success. Generally speaking, they allow their politics to dictate their perceptions of reality, enabling an absolutism of principle that would be otherwise impossible. It is therefore not unheard of for something as fundamental as one's epistemology to be corrupted by simple politics -- and certainly, with a complex and mystical metaphysical system, that could become even easier.

III. Mythological divergence

Peterson's metaphysics therefore hint at the potential for a political future. Epistemics are grounded in metaphysics' assertions about reality; by integrating a metaphysical doctrine into the political sphere, movements could harden their positions into absolutism by creating their own systems for 'truth' that are not tied to reality. For example, a broader ideology could be created from Peterson's Chaos/Order theory: if one believes in constructs like "chaos and order" and that is where their politics begin, plenty of otherwise-indefensible political positions could become valid. Political positions could be taken in order to "restore order to the chaos" instead of being taken because of their empirical merits; perhaps some sections of society are "disturbing the order" and need to be... taken away. (Sound familiar?) By beginning with these metaphysics, epistemics could shift away from looking at real-world impacts, from things like sociology and demography, and towards maintaining this metaphysical construct.

This kind of mythological organization may be, I fear, the default state of society. At the risk of revealing the limited extent of my pop anthropology knowledge, culture and myths were what enabled large swaths of humans to collaborate as human societies developed, way back at the beginning of human history. These common frameworks allow us to trust each other without knowing each other personally. These meta-narratives -- to draw a term from Lyotard (at least, what I can understand of his work) -- placed evolutionary pressure on those who wouldn't accept them, because those people couldn't participate in society. And these meta-narratives were never built on empirics, either: most ancient social hierarchies we see were artificial, invented, in order to organize society. Be it caste or class, worth has historically been assigned to people for relatively random reasons -- nothing to do with their contributions of society, only their place in that society's myths. In other words, brains are not built to be rational, they're built to cooperate; humans are built to be able to accept narratives, not facts.

And so I worry that with the collapse of modernism will come a descent into a deeply metaphysical politics, one that encompasses the possible range of a person's views. A politics that possesses a person, hijacks their entire worldview. A politics so deep-seated that it can hardly be called simply "politics" anymore -- it would be more adequately called, simply, belief.

I worry that what Peterson's metaphysics give us a glimpse of could be the future of political doctrine -- in pursuit of an ever-more memetically effective politics, we'll create metaphysical systems to justify ever-more extreme positions. Our myths, our meta-narratives, will diverge. That is the point at which society breaks apart. That is what possesses people to commit atrocities: it is the myths, not the realities that do it. This, to me, is the extreme but logical extension of the current path America is headed on: as long as we keep ruthlessly optimizing for rhetorical effectiveness, this is where we'll end up. And it scares me.

Addendum: Can Metaphysics guarantee Politics?

I've spent enough mental energy catastrophizing about future disasters that go unfulfilled -- supreme court rulings, voter suppression, international relations -- that I tend to doubt any conclusions that induce that state of vague but strong worry within me. Hence I was already somewhat skeptical of my own ideas here, looking for a reason to qualify or dispute them.

When I discussed this post, in draft form, with some friends of mine, we realized this argument may hinge on one key question: can metaphysics guarantee a particular politics?

I was speculating on why Peterson ended up with the political beliefs he did -- they seem in many ways to be inconsistent with, or at least a stretched interpretation of, his philosophy. This is a trend we've seen with plenty of intellectuals throughout history; to take two significant examples, Heidegger was a Nazi, and Sartre was a Stalinist. (He did denounce the Soviets after they invaded Hungary in 1956, but... the fact that it took him a war to do so says a lot.) Otherwise intelligent-seeming people, with developed philosophical systems, ended up endorsing deeply destructive ideology despite themselves. Richard Rorty may be onto something with his distinction between writers on personal perfection (philosophy for the individual person) and societal perfection (philosophy for the broader society), and the un-bridgeable gap between them:

Authors like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Baudelaire, Proust, Heidegger, and Nabokov are useful as exemplars, as illustrations of what private perfection — a self-created, autonomous, human life —can be like. Authors such as Marx, Mill, Dewey, Habermas, and Rawls are fellow citizens rather than exemplars. They are engaged in a shared, social effort - the effort to make our institutions and practices more just and less cruel. We shall only think of these two kinds of writers as opposed if we think that a more comprehensive philosophical outlook would let us hold self-creation and justice, private perfection and human solidarity, in a single vision.

There is no way in which philosophy, or any other theoretical discipline, will ever let us do that.

~Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. XIV (I just started the book lol)

Heidegger and Sartre were both philosophers of the personal kind; perhaps that is the distinction that matters; since their work was of the personal kind, their thoughts were free to expand in unexpected ways outside of that domain. Considering Peterson's recent works (two of what might be called intellectual self-help books) he may be one of those personal thinkers also -- though I can't say the synopses of Maps of Meaning I can find imply that about him. That could explain what allowed him to descend from philosophy and psychology into pseudo-intellectual punditry. (I'm being very critical here, but some of his positions are embarrassingly poorly-thought-out. That's not the subject of this post, though, so I'm steering back towards the topic of the addendum.)

It is unclear as to whether Peterson's metaphysics, if you began from them, would always -- or even sometimes -- lead you to his politics. He constantly reiterates the importance of balancing Chaos and Order; if one takes this literally to discuss the two genders he's assigned to those concepts, that would mean we should have gender equality in society, not patriarchy. This brought me to the question: can any set of beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality actually translate into real positions in modern politics? Or is the metaphysical realm of thought too disconnected from the pragmatic, concrete aspects of politics?

In theory, this ambiguity, if it exists, would prevent politics from embracing it -- maybe? At the very least, it could help prevent a divergence in mythology, since if that mythology can be reinterpreted to support different positions, it doesn't have to be completely scrapped by opponents of the initial believers.

Perhaps there is a way, though: in order for the two to combine, politics could depart from pragmatics -- it could become wholly ideological. I don't think this is likely, since the country would still need to address the rest of the world, but it's hard to imagine the turn of culture; that would be the worst outcome. I hinted at it above --

By beginning with these metaphysics, epistemics could shift away from looking at real-world impacts, from things like sociology and demography, and towards maintaining this metaphysical construct

-- but I wanted to mention it once again.

I'm not sure if this matters to my thesis -- we haven't focused on effective reasoning in our politics probably for centuries -- but it may be relevant. I'll keep thinking on it.

(there's a contact page on my website, if those thoughts seem interesting to you, wink wink)

First draft, 00:15-01:45 14-05-2023 Major addition, 21:45-23:30 18-05-2024