PZ has another post up on the failures of Jordan Peterson. It points out the irony of skeptics embracing Peterson when Peterson himself does skepticism so damn badly. As a major exemplar, PZ calls out Peterson’s embrace of Freudianism. Among other observations, he expresses surprise that Peterson, a psychologist, would embrace Freud long after he’s been discredited. Others in the comments provide other observations on just how rare it is to teach much Freud in university psychology programs.
I don’t doubt the truth of those observations, but Freud is nonetheless highly relevant today, and his relevance to today very likely explains exactly why Peterson embraces the man’s ideas.
By citing the relevance of Freud, I don’t mean to say that he’s relevant in the scientific study of mind. Of course, his ideas still bounce around the literature at different times and in different ways, but that’s not primarily what I mean here. One could find far more psychologists than Peterson willing to embrace Freud in different ways, but dominance of organized psychology by Freud is far from the truth and assertions that Freud’s ideas dominated psychology were overestimating those influences even one hundred years ago.
The truth is that Freud’s influence has always been far more pronounced in psychiatry than psychology, and there pseudoscientific Freudianism is far from dead.
Just take a gander at the stats for the APsaA: it lists 3000 current dues-paying members. Three-fucking-thousand. Though I can’t find easy stats, my guess is that today’s membership is like past membership: much more skewed toward psychiatrists who study the body for years and then, at the end of an education, jump into a career path focussed on the mind. Psychologists certainly make up some of its membership, though, and It may also include other clinicians like Licensed Clinical Social Workers. Moreover, ideas like transference and countertransference are still useful and taught in any clinical program, and still do a great deal in shaping professional ethics in clinical psychology, psychiatry, social work and related fields. So Freudianism isn’t dead, not at all, and it has had a few lasting successes.
However, what’s really interesting to me is how useful Freud wasn’t in so many areas. He medicalized the process of going to an elder or a priest, to a nun or a monk when things weren’t going well and talking through those things might help, which, I suppose, was certainly an economic boon to a medical profession still searching for respect and only barely beginning to deserve it. But it wasn’t as if he was in any way responsible for creating a science of the mind or of thought.
In english-speaking North America, credit for that goes primarily to William James. His hypotheses about how the mind worked were also largely bullshit. However, his scientific methodology was sufficient to prove his ideas were bullshit, and establishing standards and methods for investigating the mind scientifically has ultimately been of great help. It is because of the influence of William James that we have something called post-structuralism. James put forth functionalism in part as a response to the structuralism of Wilhelm Wundt and the methods to determine scientifically whether or not the hypotheses of structuralism were valid. Ultimately, science told us that structuralism wasn’t valid, and we began to understand a bit about what would ultimately become modern ideas of semiotic contextualism one the one hand and neurological plasticity on the other.
Mendel was the first to frame the concept of dominant and recessive genes but modern genetics would have substantially the same (in fact, likely nearly identical) understandings of mechanisms of inheritance today even without Mendel himself. Likewise, we would almost certainly come to very similar understandings of the mind without William James himself. Unlike James, Freud’s ideas about the mind required Freud. Why? Because he wasn’t studying objective facts about the world that anyone could discover. His questions weren’t framed scientifically and his methods weren’t designed to overcome his assumptions, heuristics, biases, and prejudices. Because of this Freud’s ideas actually held back psychological progress.
And so why, one might ask, would someone like Peterson be attracted to Freud today? It’s not in spite of Freud’s failures. It’s because of them.
Freud’s combined an obvious indifference to methodological questions that make investigations more relevant and more reliable with the facile embrace of the idea that your prejudices, should you happen to share Freud’s prejudices, actually make you smarter and more knowledgeable about others’ lives than those others are themselves. Thus, his framework provided a shortcut to expertise and a rationale for the powerful and educated to dismiss the voices of the marginalized as they articulated the facts and narratives of their lives.
Peterson gives every indication of being a lazy scholar and also of being dismissive of the knowledge of actual experts. In his recent appearance on Bill Maher’s show, he proceeded to lecture a US audience on US politics without ever having given the topic any study. In fact, he cited his outsider status as a reason to listen to his opinion, as a reason to believe that his opinion might be less biased and thus more trustworthy, more worthy of attention.
This is exactly the same sentiment he expresses when he discusses trans* folks, when he discusses women and feminism, and when he discusses quite a number of other topics besides. It also fits perfectly in with the Freudian tendency to assume an expertise over others’ lives unjustified by either lived experience or significant, reliable study.
Peterson doesn’t embrace Freud despite its flaws. No, Peterson’s attraction to Freud is the same as that of influential white men of 100 years ago: Freud tells them that they need not listen to others, that they need not educate themselves, and that their instincts are more valuable, not less, for conforming to popular prejudices. What we today call stereotypes and critique for inaccuracy, Peterson will call archetypes and celebrate as accurate.
As for PZ’s question, “Why is Jordan Peterson popular with atheists again?” the answer is the same as why Freud is attractive to Peterson himself. Look at Peterson’s popularity in atheist communities. It’s not universal. It’s not ubiquitous. It’s skewed toward the same people who think that labeling someone a social justice warrior is an insult. Peterson is this generation’s Freud (in nature, if not in stature). He doesn’t excuse the treatment of prejudice as insight as if it were some failing that is nonetheless understandable. No, he tells his followers that they are particularly wise to do so.
Freud is relevant today for the same reason he was relevant 100 years ago: people with disproportionate and unearned power will always try to justify the maintenance of the system that brought them to power. And yet, they don’t want to have to bother learning anything about those whom they marginalize in order to construct their rationalizations. To some, like George Wallace in 1963, a god will provide the necessary shortcut:
Southerners played a most magnificent part in erecting this great divinely inspired system of freedom . . . and as God is our witnesses, Southerners will save it.
Let us, as Alabamians, grasp the hand of destiny and walk out of the shadow of fear . . . and fill our divine destination. Let us not simply defend . . . but let us assume the leadership of the fight and carry our leadership across this nation. God has placed us here in this crisis . . . let is not fail in this . . . our most historical moment.
But to those others, including atheists, another path must be taken. Freud blazed one such path. Peterson enthusiastically sets himself up as a guide on Freud’s path. Atheist fans of Peterson are exactly those who find such a path useful.
Peterson’s atheist fans revere him because of his Freudianism, not in spite of it.