Canada has long been an incubator of ‘public intellectuals’ achieving international acclaim, from Marshall McLuhan to Malcolm Gladwell. Lately, two academic psychologists have cast nearly all rivals for public attention into the shade: Steven Pinker, evolutionary psychologist, language theorist, and popularizer of science-based humanism, and Jordan Peterson, psychoanalytical analyst of of individual abnormality and political pathology.
Both have Montreal connections. Pinker was born here (1954), and studied at Dawson College and McGill, before parting for several American Ivy League appointments and settling into a Harvard professorship, Peterson, eight years younger, after growing up and beginning his college life in Alberta, took his Ph.D. at McGill, He spent some years of his own at Harvard, but returned to Canada to teach at the U. of Toronto. Both show some stigmata of their age cohort. Pinker is a baby boomer from the classic boomer years, those entering late adolescence in the great upheaval decade of 1965-75, while Peterson is from the tail end of the boom, he and others in this age group entering their university years as the radical fevers of the late 1960s, while still burning, were being accompanied by second thoughts and multiple disillusions.
Ever since the 1920s, psychologists and psychoanalysts have made a great noise in the U.S. as a secular or quasi-secular new clergy. Most of the older generation were e’migre’ Europeans, Freudian or near-Freudian. Throughout the century, bookstores, newsstand magazines, and even mass circulation newspapers featured regular pontifications from Erich Fromm, Abraham Maslow, Bruno Bettelheim, Viktor Frankl, and Erik Erikson, all born around 1900. Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ invaded business courses in marketing; Bettekheim and Frankl drew on personal experience in Nazi concentration camps in theorizing about victims and their victimizers. Erikson entranced some readers and exasperated others by providing ingenious but highly speculative interpretations of Martin Luther and Gandhi. Pinker and Peterson have probably outdone them all in at least immediate impact, however, able to reach a much wider audience through far more TV appearances and YouTube videos, Peterson having become an astonishing phenomenon on the latter.
(Pinker is by far the more prolific author. Peterson has published a hundred relatively obscure articles, and only two books, Maps of Meaning and 12 Rules for Life, although this latter is a self-help book that not only outsells rivals of this genre, but probably all of the complete works of Pinker put together. Pinker, however, has published over a dozen books and scores of articles, ranging widely over evolutionary psychology, experimental and theoretical studies of language, and general popularization. While defending some research results sharply at odds with politically correct pieties, he has been garlanded with academic honours and seals of approval.
Peterson’s very level of popular success – he has an international audience of millions of viewers on YouTube – and his combination of bleak and stoic personal advice with contemptuous dismissal of campus radicalism and fashionable identity politics, have guaranteed sniffy disapproval from prim and obscure university professionals and Guardian reviewers, but he is unconcerned. He not only visibly enjoys being a gadfly popularizer, but is too forceful and capable in verbal exposition and argument to be easily dismissed, and is engaged in something close to an all-out war on contemporary universities, charging them with abandoning their historical functions in teaching the young how to think, and instead feeding them great dollops of leftist rubbish. He has sometimes clashed with his own U. of T. department, with the Social Science Research Council granting agency, and with the Ontario government, for its attempt, in Bill-16, to compel him and other Ontarians to adopt bizarre pronoun neologisms as a concession to LGBTQ activists. He has also proved a holy terror to facile media interviewers.
Still, in some aspects of their views on human nature, Pinker and Peterson are not that far apart. Both insist on the important empirical evidence of genetically-transmitted ‘nature’ in the eternal ‘nature/nurture’ dispute. Both hold that differences between the sexes are real and permanent, affecting thought and behaviour in ways that cannot be eliminated or completely transformed by politically-imposed changes in culture and language use. Both appeal to ‘reason’, not just in academic practice, but in striving for the good individual life and the good society. Both also have a common weakness: while clearly widely read in areas outside their discipline, their more general arguments show they are not very familiar with history, even the history of education and the universities they teach in. For example, neither seems to realize how far the many things both would agree are wrong with contemporary academia can be traced back to the late 19thcentury introduction of undergraduate instruction in the natural sciences, unleashing unlimited emulating professionalization and specialization.
Their fundamental difference, however, is temperamental and ‘political-religious’, even though both describe themselves as ‘liberal’, in a largely 19th century sense of that term. While Steven Pinker might not like being labelled a ‘progressive’, he has been, particularly in his latest book, Enlightenment Now!, an ardent opponent of what he calls ‘progressophobia’. He is an optimist, an atheist, an advocate of humanism informed by science; in many ways an updated version of C. P. Snow.. Peterson, although not a conventional religious believer, has been avowedly far more influenced by the tragic vision of the mid-century literary antagonists of Marxism and soulless materialism: Koestler, Orwell, and Solzhenitsyn, and their overtly spiritual ancestor, Dostoevsky. He has also found their bleak message verified in his own study of both individual psychiatric patients and of the ills of present society. He follows these writers as well in seeing the advance of leftist destructiveness as not only dependent on delusional appeal, but on the unresisting acquiescence of modern liberal society, a society that has lost any confident foundations in tradition, history, stable institutions, or moral assurance, It is therefore blindly subservient to purely technological improvement, while embracing mental and moral degradation.
However much they have learned from their formal psychological work, their own accounts of their personal backgrounds and influences suggest that both men would have come to much the same overall conclusions had they chosen different studies. Pinker is at his least persuasive in using volumes of statistical evidence to try to show that human ‘flourishing’ has been steadily getting better, despite world wars and other catastrophes, since the 18th c. Enlightenment, and will continue to do so, if humankind continues the kind of rational improvements the latter launched. He lacks much awareness that real as these improvements have been, they have advanced in tandem with constant annihilation of individual purpose and meaning, of communication between generations, of craftsmanship and human-sized enterprise.. These eliminations don’t just lead to cosy atheism and scientism, but often to angry nihilism, and urges to kill and destroy, although a tenured Harvard professorship at may make this easy to overlook. Given what daily experience is more like for millions of people, young men especially, it is understandable why so many take more interest in watching Jordan Peterson demolish trendy nincompoops. Pinter is sufficiently intelligent to proclaim more effectively than the routine cheery bores of TED talks, but not very much. The present world has been waiting for Jordan Peterson, and lots of us look forward to watching his influence spread.
(Neil Cameron is a Montreal historian and Discourse Online contributor. The article above was first published by the Prince Arthur Herald)