Autobiography, Christianity

What I’ve Learned from Jordan Peterson

I’ve come to appreciate Jordan Peterson. It’s rare for me to find a recent scholar from whom I learn more than one or two important things. Peterson is an exception. 

Edit: Everything I’ve said below remains true, but as I read Peterson’s books and listened to some of his podcasts, I realized that there were things going on with his worldview and poltical aims that were unsavory to say the least. I’ll leave the post up in the interests of showing that you can learn from people with whom you radically disagree.

Here are some of the main lessons I’ve learned from him: 

Practically Speaking

  1. A key practice for good teaching is getting students to envision their future selves and the steps necessary to get there.
  2. Try to think of five good reasons to make any decision you make. I tried to do the opposite as well, try to find several good reasons reject an idea or not do something. As an aside, offering as many good arguments as possible is not good rhetoric.
  3. Remember that you’re a loaded gun, especially around children. This makes you circumspect about your words and actions. Somebody who knows that “I’m the sort of creature who might shake a baby unless I take steps to not do that” is less likely to shake a baby.
  4. In conflict with a partner (romantic, co-worker, etc), agree to say what you think the other person is saying to their satisfaction before you respond. This forces everybody to be clear and ensures everybody is on roughly the same page (this is actually from Carl Rogers, but Peterson reminded me of it).

Academically/Philosophically

  1. His paper on goal setting interventions helped me clarify the process I use to get my students to take ownership of their educations. I used to have them do a ‘diligence audit.’ I would ask them to look at their habits as though they were a third person advisor and describe where they will take them if they continue on the path they’re on. Then I would ask them to imagine who they would like to be by the end of a semester and to write the habits that would help them get there. Finally, I would have them write what they should do to gain those habits. Peterson’s paper showed me that this practice really has helped people and his self-authoring exercise helped me aim my questions more effectively. 
  2. Peterson, in some places, hits the Cain and Abel story exactly correctly, which is rare. Peterson regularly utilizes that story to remind people of the importance of cleaning their rooms and organizing their habits around the good instead of around their immediate desires, but even that way of saying things fits with the idea that Cain and Abel are archetypes at the bottom of the whole Biblical narrative. Jewish writers like Yoram Hazony have made this point for years, as did Philo of Alexandria two thousand years ago. 
  3. Peterson helped revive Jung for me, particularly the idea of the archetypes. This was significant because I needed to understand the relationships between the symbolic overlay that human beings use to interpret the world and the innate nature of the world itself. A combination of Jung, Husserl, and Aristotle helped me see that. But if it weren’t for a footnote where Dallas Willard mentioned Jung, I would have never listened to Peterson after I found that paper of his, because I was prejudiced against Jung. 
  4. In Eric Johnson’s Foundations for Soul Care: A Proposal for Christian Psychology, there’s a throwaway line about the value of evo-psych for Christian counselors because of the information they provide about mating patterns. I didn’t dispute that and even read a lot of evo-psych over the last decade, but Peterson helped me see how the Biblical material intersects with those claims. Whether his model of concordance is ultimately accurate is a question to consider, but it is definitely pragmatically accurate. 

Peterson is Wrong About:

  1. Peterson defines truth as “that which leads to survival.” Now, almost any atheist-evolutionist is kind of stuck here. But most will just be inconsistent and accept a correspondence theory of truth “truth is what you believe when your beliefs match the world outside of your mind.” Of course, there is also “provisional truth” or beliefs that are useful enough to aim you at truth, goodness, and beauty despite not being strictly or literally accurate. I’ve read some who call such truths “metaphorical truths.” But Peterson seems to collapse all truth claims into “metaphorical truth.”
  2. Peterson thinks that group-identity of any sort is wrong. But this is silly. We’re genetically predisposed to treat family like our in-group, we sort ourselves by geography, ideology, preferences, family, and so-on. Peterson himself thinks that biological sex determines one’s personal identity, and while male/female isn’t a group in the same way that family, nation, church, or club are, it is still a describable group into which one fits and among whom one can seek excellence. 
  3. Peterson is wrong to think that radical individualism is a viewpoint that can mediate between the insurmountable differences between the mass of Islamic migrants and the anemic atheistic post-Christianity of Europe. It won’t work, but he’s nevertheless worked on the UN report, “Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing.” It counsels, among other things, achieving equality of outcome (a process Peterson usually claims to oppose) and moving people to plant-based diets (citing false datapoints about water usage in animal farming). Peterson, btw, now eats carnivorously, so perhaps he no longer agrees with other elements of the report.

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