Friday, March 23, 2018

The Intellectual We Sould Expect

Back before Ted Kaczynski was identified as being the Unabomber, as the unknown package bomber was insisting that if the New York Times and Washington Post  would publish his 35,000 word manifesto he would stop killing people, the tech-skeptic Kirkpatrick Sale was approached by the F.B.I. to see if he had any ideas as to who the serial bomber-killer might be.  When he wrote about it in The Nation he said:

The F.B.I. has said it believes he was a student of the history of science, but on the evidence here he was a social psychology major with a minor in sociology, and he shows all the distressing hallmarks of the worst of that academic breed.  He spends twelve pages, for example, on a strange and somewhat simplistic explanation of “something that we will call the power process,” consisting of four elements “we call goal, effort and attainment of goal,”  plus “autonomy,” all in an effort to explain why people today are unhappy and frustrated.  Only someone trapped in the social sciences would talk that way.

I thought of that while reading Nathan Robinson's article about the current celebrity super-star "public intellectual"  psychotherapist, bullshit artist, Jordan Peterson.   It's a detailed and excellent exposé of the method of spinning out verbiage that is so vague that, as Robinson points out, will inevitably lead to people trying to pin Peterson down as to what he means will inevitably have to do what Cathy Newman was condemned for doing, "putting words in his mouth" because the words that come out of Peterson mostly denote nothing in a string of connotations without any actual meaning.  It is tempting to list some of them here but Robinson does such an excellent job of exposing Peterson's crap as crap that it is best to read his article.

Robinson calls Peterson "The Intellectual We Deserve" noting the many "serious" journalists, opinion scribblers, academics, and what these days pass as intellectuals who have praised the imperial nudity of Peterson's verbiage, correctly finding in it a symptom of the seriously awful state that intellectualism and thinking are in in the West.  And Peterson is only one of a string of such alleged intellectuals, "public" or not who could serve as such examples of snake oil intellectualism that have risen and fallen into the large boneyard of discontinued intellectualism, much of it reputed to have been science, some of it still waiting to fall into it.   That he holds a university position in a respected university in the field of psychology is not any kind of surprise, the history of psychology as an academic subject called science  has contributed more than just about any other so-called science to that graveyard of once prominent and temporary "truth".

As serious as Robinson finds the danger of such a degraded replacement for an intellectual life nowadays, I think it's going to get worse and for obvious reasons.   In the criticisms of Alex Rosenberg's position of scientistic atheism and the logically necessary result of that, nihilistic eliminativism, declarations that our minds, our consciousness, our ideas, our words even the content of our logical discourse are devoid of meaning or significance, it is pointed out that it inevitably means that the kind of nonsense that Peterson spouts is equivalent to the soundest, most evidence supported and even empirically verified holdings of history, science, mathematics in that none of them can have the ultimate status as the truth. 

One of Rosenberg's most exigent critics, the conservative Catholic philosopher Edward Feser, has paid him the compliment of acknowledging that a debunking of Rosenberg's claims on that count*, since they are made philosophically are not easily disposed of, at least in the context of philosophical discourse, but when someone makes those claims Rosenberg does, anyone who asks him why that doesn't apply to what he just said is fully justified in pointing out that his own claim is covered under his debunking.

 An obvious self-contradiction doesn't need to go through the formal exercise of a philosophical discourse when the internal contradiction of a statement is so obvious.   It is exactly like the central formulation of scientism, that science is the only means of attaining truth, which isn't, itself a scientific statement, science being unable to ascertain the truth of that claim, so it not only might be false, it is obviously false.   If it were true it would disprove itself.   A professional philosopher needs to go through all of the steps necessary to do it philosophically but for the rest of us, when something so clearly contradicts itself and provides the means of knowing it is false, we don't need to do that.  Though reading it might help in an argument.

And the same is true for the widespread holding of 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st century western intellectuals in the so-called "enlightenment" tradition of scientism, among whom Nathan Robinson point out, where some of his supporters put Peterson .

If science is taken as the only means of discovering truth and only material objects and the forces operating on them are true, eliminating all other explanations of things, it eventually forces the conclusion that our minds are incapable of attaining any transcendent meaning, our ideas being mere manifestations of chemical processes without any inherent truth or falseness, that any such idea will be derided as "folk psychology" or some other term of dismissal, any freedom of thought an illusion.  That is an inevitable result of materialism, it has been pointed out for about as long as people thought about the idea with any rigor, there is nothing shocking about any intellectual culture which adopts materialistic scientism falling into a state of such decadence as ours has.   There are other means of falling into decadence, that is merely the one which has resulted from a surrender to the hegemony of materialism.

That someone like Kirkpatrick Sale used the typical habits of writing of some of the worst of such materialists who allegedly study the mind that is so debunked in an alleged scientific form to try to diagnose the Unabomber doesn't surprise me.  I remember reading that article when it was first published and being struck at how true it was of the writings of those in the social sciences.  That Jordan Peterson comes from that tribe of academics is no surprise either.   Materialistic scientism is an inevitably corrosive ideology that will inevitably lead to that, even when found in a field such as philosophy which should require a sufficiently rigorous logical apparatus to prevent it.   Clearly you can hold an academic position in a respected university, even in philosophy, while you pump out the acid that corrodes all academic discourse into a decadent puddle of insignificance.   Is it any wonder that the stuff has flooded into the mid-brow professions of journalism and lower, that such "public intellectualism" where it would do the same? 

Most of those who want to be taken as an intellectual, especially since television and entertainment have taken up so much of our attention, want to do it on the cheap and to do that, in the present milieu, one of the shortest of short cuts is to adopt the scientism, the materialism and the atheism of the big time intellectuals of the recent past and today.  Once having done that the mid-brow smarty will be entirely ill-equipped to understand any critique made of it or to really think about any consequences arising from which species of such stuff they find emotionally appealing.  I think that is why so many ignorant boys and men have adopted Peterson's crap.  And there are even more ignoble reasons for adopting the fashion for him, even among celebrity priests.  Riding the waves of fashion and the fashionable.

So, the likes of Peterson aren't necessarily the intellectuals we deserve, but they are the intellectuals we should expect because of the degradation of any culture which adopts an ideological position that leads to such decadence as we find ourselves in.  Any ideology which leads us to believe truth is relative and even our capacity to achieve the transcendent level where we can discern it and differentiate it from what is false will generate such intellectuals.   They might do a lot of damage, even kill tens of millions, in their worst cases [Nazis, fascists, Marxists] but they won't last.  I give Peterson maybe five years.  Another false prophet will take his place, as Robinson points out, probably another white male.

*  Feser also did a ten part take-down of Rosenberg's The Atheist's Guide To Reality.   I'm certainly no fan of Edward Feser's politics or even of much of his other thinking but he does do a good job of debunking some of the worst of decadent scientism.   I'd wish that some less conservative philosophers would make those attempts, there is far more reason for someone holding to the traditional American meaning of liberalism, as opposed to the "enlightenment liberal" stuff that is neither liberal nor incompatible with the decadence of materialism or Anglo-American conservatism.  I wonder if such liberal philosophers feel cowed by the academic hegemony of materialistic scientism.   If that's the case, their cowardice is shameful.

Update:  Can someone tell me how to turn off the automatic spelling correction that is screwing up my posts?  I can't even find the feature. 


  1. Never heard of this guy, which at first makes me think I'm too out of touch. Then, reading the first link to the Current Affairs article, I realize those who praise him are the company he keeps: people like Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks and a Guardian columnist and Time Magazine (okay, the last is not a person, my parallelism is broken now! Agh!). What passes, in Anglo-American circles, for intellectualism, IOW.

    Somehow Anglo-Americans never notice the French philosophers who could gather crowds to their lectures (the late Foucault, for one), or travel between France and California (which I guess isn't Anglo-American enough, or at least not U. of Chicago enough; and my reference here is the late Derrida). Our public intellectuals are flyweights like Sam Harris (whatever happened to him?) and the late Hitchens, and, apparently, this guy I've never heard of.

    Reading the article I can understand why Robinson calls Peterson a Jungian, although I'd be more inclined to call him a Campbellian; raising him to the level of Jung seems unwarranted, somehow. And I wouldn't say the language quoted is problematic because it can't be proved, but rather because one sentence is not connected to the next in an attempt to communicate. It's a basic error of composition I see: the paragraph has no topic, really, so the sentences don't have to relate to each other, or even pass on an idea from one sentence to the next until the accumulation is an insight, even a concept. It's just the old distraction of throwing sparks in the air and hoping someone imagines they see a dragon in the randomness. The other long quote, about the nature of the law, puts me on firmer epistemological ground, frankly, and I can tell you it's simply nonsense. He's throwing words in the air, not elucidating concepts. It isn't clear he knows how to do anymore than throw words around.

    Obviously I'm writing this as I read through the article. I yield back my time to Mr. Robinson. You're right; Peterson is the man Camille Paglia wishes she were.

  2. Cathy Newman screwed up that interview six ways from Sunday. That you WANT her to be right doesn't make it so. Jesus, Mary and Joseph he even confronts her on the point that she can't challenge his right to make people "uncomfortable" because her line of questioning is intended to do exactly that! That's something a freshman philosophy student wouldn't walk into. She should have asked for clarity instead of trying to interpret something that is so nebulous.

    1. I listened to it several times, she kept trying to get him to say what he meant and he wouldn't say it, she kept asking if if he meant things BECAUSE HE WOULDN'T SAY WHAT HE MEANT. She did ask for clarity, he wouldn't give it and she had to keep an interview with the jerk going.

      The criticism of her was opportunistic for Peterson and his fan club, I don't have any sympathy for the snake oil salesman. I think he might have one of the biggest psychotherapeutic cults in history, apart from Freud and Jung, since he's a Jungian - really, about as ridiculous a pile of pseudo-science as anyone gets away with in alleged science - it's not that surprising.

      Newman is a good interviewer, she had a dishonest bunco artist on her hands.

    2. Now you're doing it. You sound like those NRA nuts ("They won't say what they REALLY mean!"). I have read some of his writings and he doesn't say women need to fix men. Ay caramba.

      But you can't say an interviewer does a good job if he has to stop and collect himself during the interview due to a point raised by the interviewed. That is a point you refuse to even concede he was correct in asking.

      My cousin is a philosopher and he told me, amusingly, that Socrates asked questions and asked his opponents to think. Little wonder he's not read today - he doesn't call anyone a Nazi. What kind of arguing is that?

    3. What happened during the interview is what is relevant to the discussion of what happened in the interview. Here, from a transcript.

      Peterson: Well, it’s, I’m not saying anything. It’s just an observation, that, that’s the way it is. There’s plenty of women that are watching my lectures and coming to my talks and buying my books. It’s just that the majority of them happen to be men.

      Newman: What’s in it for the women, though?


      Peterson: Well what sort of partner do you want? You want an overgrown child? Or do you want someone to contend with, that’s going to help you?

      Newman: So you’re saying women have some sort of duty to sort of help fix the crisis of masculinity?

      Peterson: It depends on what they want. No, I mean, it’s exactly how I laid it out. Like, women want, deeply, want men who are competent and powerful! And I don’t mean power in that they can exert tyrannical control over others. That’s not power! That’s just corruption.

      Power is competence! And why in the world would you not want a competent partner? Well, I know why actually. You can’t dominate a competent partner. So if you want domination, …

      Newman: So you are saying women want to dominate, is that what you’re saying?

      Peterson: No. I’d say women who have had their relationships with men impaired and who are afraid of such relationships, will settle for a weak partner, because they can dominate them. But it’s a sub-optimal solution.


      Newman: Do you think that’s what a lot of women are doing?

      Peterson: I think there’s a substantial minority of women who do that. And I think it’s very bad for them. They’re very unhappy. It’s very bad for their partners. Although the partners get the advantage of not having to take any responsibility.

      Newman: What gives you the right to say that? I mean, maybe that’s how women want their relationships, those women. I mean, you’re making these vast generalizations.


      All he did was make vast generalizations, it's pretty much all he does do. She was trying to get him to say what he meant, WHICH IS WHY SHE KEPT ASKING HIM WHAT HE MEANT OVER AND OVER AGAIN BECAUSE HE WOULDN'T SAY WHAT HE MEANT.

      A live interview takes place in real time, Plato's puppet Socrates doesn't have any relevance to what happened in that interview. Plato wrote those and considering what a set up job they were, they probably had as little relevance to what happened as the dialogue in a Hollywood bio-pic. They are totally irrelevant to that particular interview.

      Jordan Peterson is a bull shit artist, a snake oil salesman who makes Marshall McLuhan read like Morris Cohen.

    4. "A live interview takes place in real time, Plato's puppet Socrates doesn't have any relevance to what happened in that interview."

      You're worse than Newman with that comment. My cousin's joke was, and is, and will be, that cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals (or, the Socratic method) is vastly preferable to ad hominem attacks and dismissiveness. Hence the joke. Millennial snowflakes reading Plato and asking, "Why doesn't Socrates just call Phaedrus a Nazi or a [blank]phobic bigot?" The idea of reasoned, respectful discourse seems utterly lost on them. He's only 8-9 years old than them but man he can't believe how little critical thinking they do.

      Moving on...

      Newman might be a good interviewer, but you're desperately trying to give her credit for something just because she's a woman and you don't like straight white men.

      Here's an example: Peterson talks about the pay gap, and explains why it exists for myriad reasons, but Newman won't hear of it.

      Peterson: Yes. But there’s multiple reasons for [the pay gap]. One of them is gender, but that’s not the only reason. If you’re a social scientist worth your salt, you never do a univariate analysis. You say women in aggregate are paid less than men. Okay. Well then we break its down by age; we break it down by occupation; we break it down by interest; we break it down by personality.

      Newman: But you’re saying, basically, it doesn’t matter if women aren’t getting to the top, because that’s what is skewing that gender pay gap, isn’t it? You’re saying that’s just a fact of life, women aren’t necessarily going to get to the top.

      Peterson: No, I’m not saying it doesn’t matter, either. I’m saying there are multiple reasons for it.

      Newman: Yeah, but why should women put up with those reasons?

      Peterson: I’m not saying that they should put up with it!

      For God's sake man, you might think him a cult leader, but Newman isn't listening or responding to his statements. It's stunning how she keeps trying to create straw men to knock over. Peterson says, clearly, the pay gap exists, but it isn't just because of ONE hinging factor. He even says, "And there is prejudice. There’s no doubt about that. But it accounts for a much smaller portion of the variance in the pay gap than the radical feminists claim."

      I think you really need to step back and try reading the dialogue without your prejudices. I don't care about Peterson this way or that, but you haven't actually offered one concrete example where he is evading what he REALLY thinks and that’s why Newman comes across so badly.

    5. For fuck sake, a TV interview isn't a Platonic dialogue, it is a short, quick thing which happens in a set time limit, that's especially true when it's a live interview.

      If he doesn't like what happens on TV when he's challenged to clearly say what he means and address the consequences of what he says he doesn't have to appear on it. Instead he and his fan boys whine about what any grown-up author would expect when they write in a controversial way.

      You can make the same claims against men being paid at a set wage or for a set salary, and it used to be. Not all men produce the same value or were assumed to not produce the same value for those who were paying them. I doubt you would like it if your pay was based on some characterization stacked against of how little your boss should be able to get away with paying you.

      I am sure that Jordan Peterson would be the first person on the staff of the U of Toronto if his pay was paid on the basis of the actual worth of his work, psychotherapy being a totally bogus load of horseshit, to start with.

      Peterson is tapping into the same audience as Alex Jones and extending it into more white-collar whiny straight white men by having a university position and whining instead of blustering.

  3. I didn't read the interview, so I can't comment on its value. I did read the link to the critique of Peterson by Robinson, which includes long quotes of Peterson's writings which, presumably, reflect what he means to say. And Robinson is right: it's gobbledygook.

    I've read Foucault, I've read Derrida, I've read Levinas and Heidegger (and Socrates; I often teach at least one of the "last" dialogues, i.e., about the death of Socrates), so I don't really have trouble with people asking questions, or with reading densely written material meant to be as exacting as possible. But the examples Robinson gives of Peterson's words indicate a man trying to blow squid ink in the water. I kept thinking of a fictional character who is a bad con man trying to impress the credulous with his patter, all the while saying absolutely nothing. There's got to be a fictional character who personifies that kind of speech, but the name keeps eluding me.

    Peterson is that character brought to life. Sorry, not trying to argue with anyone in particular, just saying: Peterson is not a "philosopher," he's just what people who don't understand philosophy think philosopher's sound like (Daniel Dennett is another, though Dennett at least tries to make sense).

    Feser, on the other hand, strikes me as too Catholic for his own good. He's still arguing as if the Scholastics had any claim to a voice in the conversation, and as if Aristotle were still The Philosopher. I've a soft spot for medieval Europe, but I don't want to keep arguing as if they were the last word and still the measure of all things.

    1. I'm not anything like a fan of Feser, considering what Pankaj Mishra pointed out about the hostility of Peterson to what I think is the most important and essential value of democracy, equality, a hostility shared by Feser, I would never be anything like a fan of him. I do think he did a fairly good takedown of Rosenberg, though.

      Peterson had a Twitter meltdown over the piece.

    2. "Packaged for people brought up on BuzzFeed listicles, Peterson’s brand of intellectual populism has risen with stunning velocity; and it is boosted, like the political populisms of our time, by predominantly male and frenzied followers, who seem ever-ready to pummel his critics on social media."

      Thanks; this is much better.

    3. But's that the point I was making. Newman should have asked him to clarify, instead of taking what he said and making a crude mutation of his words. There is much to be critical of regarding Peterson's philosophy, but any reasonable, unprejudiced reading of their exchange will leave you shaking your head at her missed opportunity.

      As per Mishra, "Western right-wingers who swear by Solzhenitsyn and tend to imply that belief in egalitarianism leads straight to the guillotine or the Gulag."

      Horse. Shit. To couple this with Peterson, he makes the point that equality of opportunity is the desired goal for a society but that it is dangerous to demand equality of outcome. "Harrison Bergeron" is not a portrait of an ideal society. Though I have encountered a few who seem to think '1984' is just a matter of right politics, wrong party.

      God help us all if that idea spreads.

    4. Oh, for crying out loud. She was asking him questions about what he meant, if he wanted to say what he meant it was up to him to say what he meant.

      She went on to ask him if rational conclusions about what he said were accurate. His answers danced all around what could have been a clear clarification of what he meant.

      There apparently is no such thing as "any reasonable reading" of Jordan Peterson's word salad style of writing. I think my diagnosis that it was a stream of connotations without any definite denotative significance is accurate, so is the defense made of him.

      The interview technique of asking a writer about what they meant, especially the controversial aspects of it is universally used when an author is peddling his or her stuff. What Peterson is doing is the white-male whine technique which for you guys means "they're being mean to me because they won't just say we win".

      Your comment on the demonstration on Saturday is unacceptable for my comment threads. I don't post that kind of thing.

    5. Of course not. Free speech is for people you agree with.

    6. You have the common misperception about free speech that someone is required to publish whatever someone else wants them to publish, that everyone is required to provide you with a place to say whatever you want them to. Well, that's not a requirement of free speech even under the misread Constitution, I'm not required to post your cruel or nasty remarks about some of the finest people before the public today. Emma Gonzalez gave what is certainly one of the finest speeches ever given by someone in the English language. The rest of the speeches were some of the finest and most meaningful as well.

  4. By the way, clicked your link on "celebrity priests."

    Really need some kind of warning before going to stuff like that. I think I'd be more comfortable stumbling into hard-core kiddie porn than reading that stuff. (well, that's a little strong, but still; post a warning, will ya? ;-) )

  5. And this explains why an American Catholic Bishop would like Peterson:

    "It is imperative to ask why and how this obscure Canadian academic, who insists that gender and class hierarchies are ordained by nature and validated by science, has suddenly come to be hailed as the West’s most influential public intellectual."