The link below is to an article that represents the sum total of my knowledge of Jordan Peterson’s view of postmodernism. Everything I have to say about his criticisms of postmodernism is a response to these comments.
Postmodernism: definition and critique (with a few comments on its relationship with Marxism)
Jordan Peterson isn’t exactly wrong about postmodernism, but his account of it is oversimplified and exaggerated.
The version of postmodernism that Peterson has in his sights is what’s sometimes called “social constructivism.” As he presents it, the postmodern thesis is that there is an infinite number of ways the world can be perceived and interpreted, and all of them are equally valid (or invalid).
The idea, although Peterson doesn’t put it this way, is that when it comes to knowledge of what the world is like there is no fact of the matter. Instead, what counts as a fact is determined as such by an interpretation of the world. An implication is that something can be a fact for persons who share one interpretation of the world, and the opposite can be a fact for persons who share a different interpretation of the world.
For example, in the middle ages it was true that witches floated when thrown into the water. Nowadays, it’s true there is no such thing as witchcraft. For postmodernism, there’s no question of fact; these are merely two different interpretations.
According to Peterson’s version of postmodernism, when people argue that one interpretation is better than another, they are engaged in a struggle for power. Different interpretations benefit different groups because what count as facts relative to them will give an advantage to one group over another.
Peterson’s main criticism seems to be that, contrary to postmodernism, interpretations are not all equally valid. However, he doesn’t argue that some interpretations account for the facts better than others – at least not explicitly. Invoking Peirce and James, he says that a valid interpretation is one that achieves a “desired outcome.”
This is where he begins to go wrong.
First, Peterson’s pragmatic theory of validity is ambiguous. On one account of pragmatism, achieving the desired outcome is a causal explanation of why we hold or endorse an interpretation. On this view, we tend to believe those things that enable us to act effectively to get what we want because they get us what we want. But this account doesn’t deny the relationship between an interpretation’s being valid in the sense of being true to the facts, and its enabling us to achieve a desired outcome. It could be that the interpretation enables us to achieve a desired outcome because it’s true – that getting the facts right makes it more likely that we’ll achieve a desired outcome.
On another account of pragmatism, achieving a desired outcome is all there is to interpretation. The interpretation that achieves the desired outcome is the valid interpretation, and facts don’t enter into it. There just is no fact of the matter, except perhaps a fact about what works. (That “except” leads to some serious problems for this account of pragmatism.)
Because Peterson doesn’t distinguish between these two accounts, his criticism of postmodernism misses the mark. A postmodernist could accept Peterson’s criterion for distinguishing valid and invalid interpretations and add that the basic human motive is power or domination. Although no interpretation is better than any other so far as facts are concerned (there are no facts apart from those an interpretation designates as such), some interpretations are better than others for certain groups because they enable them either to exercise power over others or to resist the exercise of power over them by others. A postmodernist would happily concede that some interpretations are more “valid” than others on this concept of validity; it’s just another way of stating the postmodernist thesis that the differences among interpretations that matter concern their usefulness for power, not their fidelity to the facts.
We could leave it there. But it seems pretty clear that the version of pragmatism that Peterson actually has in mind is the first one I identified, not the postmodernist-friendly second one. He wants to say that the fact that we endorse interpretations that yield desired outcomes is best explained by the fact that these interpretations are valid. The burden of proof, I think he wants to say, is on the postmodernist to show that our favoring one interpretation over another is explained solely by its enhancement of our power, and not at all by the fact that the favored interpretation is valid (i.e., true to the facts) – even though our interest in it may be dictated primarily by its usefulness to us. We wouldn’t be interested in it if it weren’t useful, but it wouldn’t be useful if it weren’t true.
Construed this way, Peterson’s criticisms are basically right. There are a great many other considerations, arguments, and counter-arguments to take into account but postmodernist arguments that all facts are socially constructed, that there are no natural kinds, etc., don’t withstand scrutiny. Peterson is right about that.
As for Peterson’s thesis that postmodernism is a successor ideology to Marxism, there’s some truth in that too. He’s right to say that the theory that claims to knowledge and expertise are elements in the exercise of power was appealing to many who wanted to be critics of society but who couldn’t stomach Marxism. Once it became clear that the Marxist theory of exploitation couldn’t be sustained, abandoning economics for power and domination looked to many like the right move to make. (It certainly looked that way to me.)
But the history of how this came to pass is much more complicated than he seems to understand. The main force in establishing the academic left in its current form was feminism, which led to the establishment of programs in women’s studies. Many of them hewed to a quasi-Marxistical triad of “race, class, and gender,” and many of these, perhaps most, were (and are) quite hostile to postmodernism. Things began to change when queer theory came into the mix – that’s what brought in figures such as Lacan, Foucault, and Derrida – and as people interested in various “identity issues” began to find them attractive and began to build what became “identity politics.” A lot of these people have one thing in common: they want to denounce the status quo. But their theoretical and methodological commitments can be deeply at odds with one another.
For a history of the very beginnings of this in the 1980s, see John Diggins’s The Rise and Fall of the American Left, in particular the last part on the “academic left.”
Peterson is also right that postmodernists have a problem with normative commitments. An implication of the doctrine that there are no facts, only interpretations, is that there are no moral facts. Yet the postmodernists claim the right to denounce the exercise of power over some groups by others as if dominating people is unjust. Peterson is right to point out the incoherence of this view.
As for an alternative to postmodernism in Peterson’s sense, I suppose I’d favor some version of realism about facts. Some things are socially constructed, but not everything is. Indeed, there’s an important sense in which society itself is not socially constructed: human beings are social by nature, as the universality of language indicates. Relatedly, the metaphor of “construction” is misleading. Social relationships are for the most part not planned or built, they emerge, and they involve shared understandings, not just materials and forces.
In the wider sense of postmodernism as criticism of the Enlightenment’s belief in reason, universality, and cosmopolitanism, I’d have to side with the Enlightenment. That reason may become overly technical, and that “power/knowledge” may assume the form of hospitals and day care centers, do not, in the first part of the 21st century, seem like the central problems of the age. On the whole, we could use more rather than less reason.
Going back to Chomsky’s debate with Foucault on Dutch TV: what became clear to me at the time: if you’re looking for “justice” you need to have a grounding in rationalism: principles and logic not always subject to social conditions of power. When King was in the Birmingham jail, he wrote his letter out of a sense of justice that transcended power. I wonder if Foucault got that. Like the other Parisian masters of those times, he wanted to shock the middle classes. But when he wanted to instruct them on a new way, he had nothing to say. I think Chomsky saw that clearly enough. The problem with Chomsky: he couldn’t see what was really promising, exportable, and redeemable about American ideals. He went in search of failures and always found them.
i think peterson is a great thinker, but i don’t think he thought out very well about structuralism and such. clearly all philosophical models have limits to which it makes sense for them to be applied, peterson, and chomsky before him, seem to fail to understand that these models are just the non-plus-ultra of the investigation of human nature and role in the universe of this era. models like these are just part of the long march through conscious and cultural evolution to get where they believe we already are, here and now, by applying faith and ideology (theirs). i think it is important not to reject these tools and understand their role in history. they are in a sense ineluctable. morover, any universal normative theory can be stressed by linguistic and logical exploits thus resulting weak to support, but one must question himself before doing this if it is appropriate or not, on the basis of the pros and cons to the human consortium. peterson seems to me to maybe have thought out the grater good in the whole picture, and he’s simply balancing the progressive left, who seems to have forgotten that these models are just tools, not the whole reality. regarding chomsky, he seems to me clearly overcome by ideology, but he’s useful to testify essential human will to establish a future with actually objective reality interpretations, whatever this could mean, he’s only wrong about the “how”.