Wednesday, November 10, 2021

More about the Peterson Principle

Not surprisingly, some people took vigorous exception to yesterday’s post about Jordan Peterson. I trust that everyone noticed, but, for your edification, the post’s title, The Peterson Principle, referred to an ancient theory called, the Peter principle. Its author, Laurence Peter, suggested that people in the corporate world rise to the level of their own incompetence.

Anyway, I am thrilled beyond reason to see people come out to defend Carl Jung, of all people, and to accuse me of using ad hominem arguments. I will point out, for those who do not navigate the psycho world, that Jungian analysis is basically dead. It does not and has never worked, so no one practices it.

Heck, even Freudian psycho analysis is pretty much dead in America. No one really undergoes psycho analytic treatment any more. I draw your attention to the post I wrote a few days ago about Aaron Beck, one of the most prominent detractors of Freudian analysis. He did not detract from Jungian analysis because no one takes it seriously, except for Jordan Peterson and his merry band of acolytes.

As for the charge of going all ad hominem, it is fatuous, of course. It reeks fatuity. But consider this, when news of Martin Heidegger’s Nazi sympathies became more a matter of public record in 1987 with the Victor Farias book, Heidegger and Nazism, the academic world was awash in speculation about how it could have happened that the progenitor of a practice called deconstruction could have been a true believing Nazi during the Third Reich and how he had used his position as rector of the University of Freiberg to militate for Hitler’s policies.

Heidegger’s defenders explained that we should not judge him by his actions, because his philosophy was a completely different story. And yet, if he did not understand his own philosophy, what makes them think that they did? Do his public actions count as part of his philosophy, and, if they do, should we expect that deconstruction will lead people to become unhinged radicals. After all, as I have occasionally noted, deconstruction is a fancy philosophical term for pogrom. Heidegger was a great supporter of the Nazi Storm Troopers, leaders of many pogroms.

In truth, the discussion of Heidegger’s Nazi practice is more a way of studying his thought than an ad hominem dismissal of same. It does not involve the man’s personal habits, his private life or his affair with Hannah Arendt. We do not pry into personal life, but we have no reason to ignore public behavior.

I would point out that Peterson’s behavior during his wife’s illness is public record. It is public record because he and his daughter made it public record. If he did not want his followers and detractors to judge it, he should have kept it private. The same applies to his willingness to invite a New York Times reporter to look at his bedroom. 

For those who want us to follow Peterson's serious thinking, the sad truth is that it is not serious thinking. It is a complete muddle. Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings.

And then there is one Karen Myers, who wrote a thoughtful, though wrong headed response to yesterday's post. One understands that she is a fabulator, someone who believes that we can understand human behavior by telling stories about it. In that she is apparently a Jungian or else a Peterson acolyte, so we will take a little time to clarify her points.

So, she begins with a dubious assertion, one that contains partial truths that lead to distortions.

A human is a story-telling animal. All of our perceptions are based upon narratives that are shortcuts to understanding reality, in order to better survive it.

Obviously, she is not very strong in the matter of theory formation. She presents the first sentence as an axiomatic truth. It is true, as far as it goes. It would have been better to say that human beings are social animals who occasionally tell stories. 

Humans are social animals because they obey certain codes of conduct. They observe social rituals, they use proper table manners, they follow dress codes, they speak a language, they salute the flag-- we could go on. Human survival depends far more on social cohesion than on storytelling.

And yet, when you fulfill your duties as a human being, when you hand in an assignment on time, when you show up for dinner on time, when you return a favor or engage in a social exchange-- you do not have to tell a story about why you failed. It is only when you fail to show up, when you are late, when you do not do what you said you would do, that you need to offer up a narrative explaining why you failed.

As for Peterson’s personal failings, he has advertised them. I will make clear the fact that people in social groups do the right thing, not because they follow what Myers calls their inner toolkit-- that is, their instincts-- but because they follow rules. You can find such rules in the first books of the Bible. Evidently, the Peterson and Jung approaches prefer following instinct to following rules. Where did that lead central Europe in the last century?

As for how people learn to follow rules, they emulate people who are following them. You do not learn table manners because someone told you a story about table manners. You do not learn language because someone told you a story about learning language. You do not make your way through the woods because someone told you about the goddess of the underbrush. Obviously enough.

And yet, when Peterson holds up his own behavior as a moral exemplar, he is not showing himself to be responsible or heroic. His conduct during his wife’s illness, especially his addiction to prescription drugs, showed him to be weak and passive, seeking attention and even seeking pity. Obviously, his slack jawed followers were happy to afford lots of it, but still, when you are preaching the gospel of personal responsibility, why trot out a story that shows you to have failed on that score.

One emphasizes that the Peterson approach to therapy involves discovering why people fail to do the right thing.  It ignores the social cohesion produced, not by believing in stories, but by observing rituals and customs and norms. 

As for why human beings are afraid of tigers, the reason lies in human instinct, not in story telling. Even newly hatched chickens are instinctively afraid of forms that look like chicken hawks, and try to run away from them. They do not gain this fear because they concoct a hokey narrative. And they do not go on to form nations because of their instincts or archetypes. They simply avoid the danger.

Myers has followed Jung and Peterson in concocting a new narrative of how human beings behaved when they were living in the bush. As for the silliness about tigers, we recall that Peterson, at one point, was touting the virtue of the all-meat diet. We assume that he imagined that it would turn him into Tony the Tiger. In truth, it made him more like a frosted flake.

Anyway, Myers mistakes instincts for Jungian archetypes and then continues to trash rational analysis.

How could it be otherwise? We are the descendants of people who, when they saw something move in the bush ahead of them, ran away because they feared the possible tiger, not the people who paused to construct a rational analysis of the scene (and were sometimes mistaken). Speed and pre-judgments matter to us. Rational analysis is an afterthought for when we are safe, not when we are in danger.

In truth, we form social groups in order to ensure our survival as humans. Besides, when you are making your way through the bush or have gotten lost in the wilderness, you might be attuned to danger, which feels normal and instinctive, but you will also probably want a map or a compass to guide you. To imagine, as Peterson does, that stories are maps seems to be a basic and fundamental error. And of course, if rationality is of such little use how and why did people ever get the idea to create maps. Is it because they had lost touch with their primal instincts-- the ones that made them into genocidal maniacs.

The general contempt for rational thought also underpins certain fascist and Nazi philosophies. Didn’t their proponents propose that we all follow human instinct and liberate our aggressive impulses from our tendencies to behavior rationally and respectfully. And how did they decide that certain groups of people were as dangerous as tigers-- because they followed rules and laws-- and needed to be exterminated. 

Myers continues, leading us out of our lives and into our minds. She thereby represents the flawed Jungian and other psycho analytic treatments. It gets you out of your life and into your mind. It dispenses with rules of good behavior and even role models, in favor of storytelling. You might recall that I myself called Freudian treatment overpriced storytelling-- in my book, The Last Psychoanalyst.

When we arrive in a social scene we might at some level stereotype people, but we also want to know the nature of the game, the rules of the game, the players, their roles and their duties. Game, of course, are not narratives-- because we do not know the outcome in advance. All of which good Jungians ignore:

Our first reaction to any sort of social scene is to immediately assign acquaintances to internal representations of what we know about them, and strangers to various archetypes as placeholders. It is those stand-ins for real people that we are constantly manipulating in our heads as we navigate social situations.

Again, this is a narrative. It is not a very persuasive narrative, since no serious people today really believe it. And it fails, rather dramatically, in not seeing human beings as social beings, as members of groups. Fair enough, group membership is necessary for survival, but there is far more to human existence than mere survival.

And, more importantly, the rules that determine group membership were not concocted out of narratives. Some stories have been used by various religions to set up role models for good or bad conduct, but the rules themselves, the laws themselves, were not embedded in our toolsets-- whatever that means. Perhaps they are in some cases-- for people who are tools.

Again, Myers seems to have a problem with rationality, and also with free will. One recalls that free will has its origin in the book of Genesis and that it is one of the most important moral bases for Western civilization. Evidently, certain political movements abhorred the concept and wanted to eliminate it.

Unfortunately, Myers misunderstands it:

If you think humans can embrace rationality and ignore the older and more fundamental toolset, then you probably believe that humans can change their behavior at will. We can all be thin, and fit, and attentive, etc., just by knowing what the rational behaviors should be (for historically contingent values of "should"). Since that demonstrably doesn't work any better for adults than children, what makes you think this is how humans can actually function?

Actually, most people-- Jungians excepted-- have an inner moral sense that can guide their actions-- if they know the rules. There is no archetype that dictates good table manners and the proper dress code. Most people, upon learning the difference between right and wrong, tailor their behavior accordingly. Most people learn from the past and plan for the future. They do not allow themselves to be carried away by impulse and instinct, on the grounds that hostility and genocidal mania is the natural human condition.

As for free will, it does not mean and does not pretend that we can change behavior at will. Then again, if we cannot change behavior, whatever are therapists doing? Free will means that you are responsible for your behavior, no matter how much you were tempted by whatever serpent. In other words, it is about personal responsibility, not about blaming the archetypes or concocting a narrative that excuses and absolves you of all responsibility.


markedup2 said...

To be fair, there is a bit of ad hominem in here. For example, "slack-jawed supporters". _I_ don't mind, but it is there.

I like your point about philosophers and behavior. It's the same as my statement that no one actually believes the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. If they did, the demonstration is simple: Commit quantum suicide. If Many Worlds is true, you will always live (because in the world where you die, you're dead and not experiencing it). The person may die to the OBSERVERS in one world, but from that person's subjective experience, he will always live. No one has ever done this.

Sam L. said...

I won't say that you lost me, but I did get completely lost. I'm in "no comprende" mode.

Karen Myers said...

Since there is a limit to the number of characters per comment, I need to reply in my defense in multiple parts.

Part 1.

Oh, boy – I get to rebut the straw man argument. Always fun…

Hi, Stuart! I realize you can only respond to my comment on yesterday’s article which I expanded into a longer blog post on my own site, and here that is: ]

Since you still like ad hominem arguments against intellectual theories (Jung is a bad man, Peterson is a bad man) I feel that I should arm you appropriately in my case so that I can be a “bad woman”. So… I’m an old Yalie from when they first started accepting women, with a degree in (basically) dead languages & mythology. My background is genuinely in ancient cultures & (oral formulaic and written) literatures (Indo-European & Western Asia), universalities of human story-telling and language, and so forth. I’ve read Stith Thompson and Aarne and Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm and all the antecedent philologists/collectors/analyzers of just the sort of archetypes that Jung drew from. Alas, I didn’t attempt to make an academic career out of my interests -- I instead spent my career building and running tech companies (since one can’t earn a living too well as an academic). Enough ammo for you?

I couldn’t care less about the contingent lives of Jung, Peterson, or anyone else. What I’m interested in is their actual work and their ideas – their intellectual theories.

Straw Man #1: I said that humans are story-telling animals. You immediately cast a little insult across the path and then said “It would have been better to say that human beings are social animals who occasionally tell stories. But [ahem] that’s not what I said. That’s you creating Straw Man #1. You then spend the next 2 paragraphs pushing your straw man and then pivot onto yet another ad hominem attack on Peterson (“As for Peterson’s failings…”), and then begin discussing morality (“do the right thing”). But I’m talking about story-telling, not about morality. Nowhere have I said that the stories people tell themselves in moments of danger guide their morality. I claim that those stories guide their actions, that the rational analysis and morality are imposed afterwards, when the danger is past and there is time to reflect.

Straw Man #2: “how people learn to follow rules.” I am talking about story-telling. You are claiming I am talking about learning to follow rules, such as table manners, or learning language, or learning woodcraft. Story-telling, as a survival skill, is about imagination, about what immediate decision making should be applied to a crisis situation where, if I get it wrong, I might die. It’s not as important as a social situation where I may have time to consider how not to be embarrassed, or what would be the better rational or moral choice. My whole point is about evolved human mental toolkits. If a behavior helps you survive, then it has an impact on evolution. If it just helps you avoid social embarrassment, well, … not so much. (Though I must say, potential loss of social status does seem to be motivating an awful lot of people lately.)

And…we’re back to ad hominem for poor Peterson (“Peterson holds up his own behavior…”) You’re free to rant on this at will, of course, but it has nothing to do with my remarks.

[Continued in Part 2]

Karen Myers said...

Part 2

Straw Man #3. This one is the notion that human instinct is involved not story-telling. Well, I never mentioned “instinct” – I find that an inadequately defined concept. The reason I use “story-telling” instead is the very distinction of “running from a tiger” (by instinct, if you insist), vs “running from movement in a bush” which might be a tiger – that one requires imagination which is bolstered by stories you have heard. Chickens deal in instinct, not stories – that’s why we can fool them by holding the hatchet behind our backs when we give them their final meal.

The next couple paragraphs deal with Straw Man #3 (instinct).

Then things get a bit incoherent. There’s a repeat of the misread of possible dangers in the wilderness, trying to mold that into a moral guide, followed by an out-of-left-field claim that primal human instincts make humans into genocidal maniacs. (Think about that claim for a moment – that humans have an evolved tendency (“instinct”) that makes them want to exterminate humans. Does that sound like the way evolution works?)

Straw Man #4 – Contempt for rational thought. All I said was that our actions in crisis come ahead of our rational thought. What your body does when it flails in pain or flees in terror is not (easily) under your rational control – surely this is not an unusual concept. I made a claim of evolutionary involvement – those who run away live to breed – not a claim of moral or even rational inferiority. From here, Schneiderman wanders off into fascists and Nazis. Which leads us to…

Straw Man #5 – The claim that I represent the Jungian etc. psycho-analytic treatments. I said nothing of the sort. I have no positions on psychiatric treatment (opinions, yes, but certainly not favorable ones) that I would defend intellectually. I’m skeptical of all of them, frankly. Certainly I have not defended Jungian “practice”. What I am defending is the intellectual utility of the archetype concept for how humans act in crisis by basing action on the stories we tell ourselves when we don’t have enough information or enough time to sort out more developed rational/moral responses.

Straw Man #6 – “Again, this is narrative”. This is the claim that I think the only way to think of other people is a as members of groups. No, what I said was, in social situations where there is insufficient information and time, we do peg people however we can, on a provisional basis. We walk into a room and see an old man, a young man with a beard, an elderly woman, a drunk, etc. Yes, these are stereotypes. They are also first impressions. I never claimed they were anything but first impressions. When I meet a large drunk in a social situation, I have time to reserve my judgment about what he’s really like, but when I meet a large drunk by myself in a dark alley, I may take different action based on that first impression. To claim that humans never see other humans as members of groups on first impression is not, I think, defensible. Part of rational and moral behavior is to override that first impression and see them as individuals. Still, in moments of survival crisis, first impressions are all you get. Happily, we don’t have many such crises anymore, but the response is part of our toolkit or we wouldn’t be here.

[Continued in Part 3]

Karen Myers said...

Part 3 (final)

Straw Man #7 – my problem with rationality & free will. Sigh… All I have said is that we react first, in emergencies, based on imagination which is fueled by stories. I’m fine with rationality and free will. It’s just that they are not the very first thing that comes to hand in a crisis. Perhaps “Straw Man #7” misunderstands it, but “Myers” doesn’t.

Now. Schneiderman does properly represent me, not a straw man (ignoring the Jungian slur) in my remarks on the malleability of human behavior at the behest of the will. FINALLY – AN ACTUAL INTELLECTUAL ARGUMENT to talk about, not a straw man. Now, he only addresses part of it (right and wrong) and I agree that people can learn that. But he concedes that behavior is not easily changed just by will (which is very much my point). Alas, he reduces that to “blaming archetypes” which is NOT what I said. I said that story-telling is more fundamental than rationality & morality in guiding actions when in crisis. That’s all. That doesn’t mean “concocting a narrative that excuses and absolves you of all responsibility.” So I guess we’re back to Straw Man #8 after all.

Anonymous said...
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IamDevo said...

Has anybody considered that Dr. Peterson is at once the perpetrator and victim of his own sudden appearance on the world's stage? Prior to his now famous interaction with the British female media person, in which he not only trounced her repeatedly, but did so in a manner that any well educated and genteel person would be proud to emulate, he was an unknown professor at an obscure Canadian institution of higher learning. He suddenly became a lightening rod of attention from people who supported his ideas and those opposed to them. He became a totem of all things to all people. After that, his every utterance was elevated into either holy writ or heresy. If he had stopped there, none of what happened later would have come to the attention of anyone save his immediate family and academic circle. Would he have needed Valium, then just as badly needed to get off the drug? I don't know, but in either case few people would have known or cared. Instead, he hopped on board the train and rode it to his now current state of affairs. It seems to me he is a decent fellow who has some good, and some very poorly thought out opinions. I try to separate his wheat (be responsible, people!) from his chaff (all things Jungian) and let the rest alone.

Anonymous said...

Re the "human condition"...

The TRUE "human condition" is about 2 pink elephants in the room and has never been on clearer display than with the deliberate global Covid Scam atrocity — study (NOT briefly scan) “The 2 Married Pink Elephants In The Historical Room –The Holocaustal Covid-19 Coronavirus Madness: A Sociological Perspective & Historical Assessment Of The Covid “Phenomenon”” at w w w d o t CovidTruthBeKnown d o t c o m

“Between stimulus and response is your humanity.” -- James Corbett, writer and analyst