On Jordan Peterson being a Rorschach test

My post on Pankaj Mishra’s critique of Jordan Peterson aroused some interesting and thoughtful responses. As I said, I did not know anything about Peterson or his works and some tried to clue me in and provide perspective. As recommended by some, I went online to see some videos by and of Peterson and it turns out that there are a lot! I picked some based on whether their titles promised topics of interest to me, not a very effective strategy with YouTube, I know, but the only option I had if I did not want to devote the rest of my life to watching a ton of his videos. I have watched a few and plan to watch a few more and will post my comments on them after I have had time to digest them.

But at this time, I want to focus on one small aspect to make a more general point, and that is the odd feature that different people seem to arrive at widely different ideas about what Peterson stands for and that this seems to be the cause of the controversies surrounding his views. Daniel Schealler, in his thoughtful comment tried to explain why that might be the case. I want to highlight Daniel’s opening passage.

I’ve been following Peterson for a while. In my experience, he’s something of a Rorschach test.

The people on the radical right think he’s one of them. The people on the radical left agree. The people in the center (me) think he’s a centrist who has been criticizing the radical left, and this has confused both hyper-tribal ends of the left/right spectrum into thinking that he is much further to the right than he actually is.

Then Silentbob posted a link to a long article by Nathan J. Robinson who also tried to make sense of this matter and he too used the same metaphor.

[H]aving examined Peterson’s work closely, I think the “misinterpretation” of Peterson is only partially a result of leftists reading him through an ideological prism. A more important reason why Peterson is “misinterpreted” is that he is so consistently vague and vacillating that it’s impossible to tell what he is “actually saying.” People can have such angry arguments about Peterson, seeing him as everything from a fascist apologist to an Enlightenment liberal, because his vacuous words are a kind of Rorschach test onto which countless interpretations can be projected.

The essence of the Rorschach images used in those tests is, as I understand it, to be inherently ambiguous. The creator of the image is not trying to convey as clearly as possible a particular message but instead seeks to allow the viewer to project onto it their own meaning, thus providing a means of understanding their inner world. But if as an intellectual, you find yourself being described as a Rorschach test, then you have a problem, unless you are a writer of fiction in which you are deliberately seeking to create a sense of ambiguity. For writers of non-fiction, especially those seeking to drive home a message, ambiguity should not be the goal.

I am well aware that it is very difficult to convey precisely with mere words the rich ideas that occupy one’s mind, especially on complex topics, and that it is inevitable that some degree of ambiguity will exist. As Karl Popper said, “It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood.” But there is a big difference between subtle ambiguities and shades of meaning that different observers take away and need to wrestle with, and people having directly contradictory reactions. When Daniel says that both the radical right and the radical left see Peterson as one of their own, and when Robinson writes that people see him as either a fascist apologist or an Enlightenment liberal, then Peterson has clearly failed in conveying whatever he is trying to say.

The problem may be, as Marcus Ranum wrote in another comment, that Peterson depends too heavily on undefined labels that are themselves subject to a wide range of interpretations.

There have been several time I’ve thought about trying to do some analysis of his ideas but every time I think about where to start digging in, all I come up with is my Argument Clinic episode on labels. Labelling is his method: he calls things “post modernist” because ‘everybody knows’ that post modernism is bad. And “cultural marxism” – another vacuous label which, I suspect, is interchangeable for “political correctness” in his world.

I didn’t see anything worth arguing about. When I encounter someone who throws up a screen of labels, I assume I am dealing with a charlatan or an ignoramus. The videos I watched did not include definitions of any of the terms he was using – and nobody asked him to define what “cultural marxism” means.

The goal of an intellectual who is trying to deliver a message should be clarity. In the words attributed to Albert Einstein (though there seems to be no actual record of him having said or written it), “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”. It is not a good sign when the reader is left unsure about exactly what you are trying to say but your words are ambiguous enough to project their own meaning onto them.

George Orwell, in his widely read 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, said that this kind of ambiguity is sometimes used to avoid taking ownership of ideas that would be unpalatable if stated clearly. He gave an example of how the writer of the biblical book Ecclesiastes conveys clearly an idea and then parodies how those same ideas might be expressed today.

I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page. Still, if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence than to the one from Ecclesiastes.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism., question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.

The goal of non-fiction writing (and speaking) should be to be as clear and direct and simple as possible. If one finds oneself being described as a Rorschach test, then that is a sign that one needs to work on this.


  1. says

    If one finds oneself being described as a Rorschach test, then that is a sign that one needs to work on this.

    Public intellectuals ought not to be likened to discredited pop psychology methods, either. There is no indication that Rorschach blots say anything about a patient that a patient is not already thinking about themselves -- i.e.: the patient chooses to say what they see. So, the whole process can be substituted for “ask the patient what they really think.”

    Although Andy Warhol did some pretty cool stuff with Rorschach blots.

  2. Mark Dowd says

    Since Peterson doesn’t sound like much of an intellectual, comparison to discredited pop-psych theories sounds quite appropriate, actually.

  3. paxoll says

    I agree, I have said the same things in many of his videos. Fans of him are overly apologetic, saying he literally didn’t mean what he said because he contradicts himself two minutes later. What this boils down to me, my personal opinion, is that he is a clinical psychologist, a very experienced and tenured professor who has been thinking and talking about these subjects for years. To me that means that when he contradicts himself, when he says something that is patently false, he is doing it purposefully with FULL INTENT to bait, confuse, and gaslight his audience. I have seen him literally talk about how Hitler gained control of Germany while doing the exact same things to his audience in that talk. To me this makes him vile and disgusting.

  4. KG says

    When Daniel says that both the radical right and the radical left see Peterson as one of their own

    No, according to your own quote, both radical right and radical left see him as part of the radical right. They are correct, and Daniel Schealler is simply being fooled by Peterson’s deliberate ambiguity, which he uses in order to appeal to the radical right (i.e., racists, misogynists, bigots of all kinds) while retaining a figleaf of plausible deniability.

  5. Mano Singham says


    You’re right, that was sloppy reading on my part. I took the sentence “The people on the radical left agree” to mean that they agree with the last part of the previous sentence that “he’s one of them”.

    I have deleted that part of the sentence.

  6. jrkrideau says

    he is a clinical psychologist
    Most psychologists tend to look on clinicals as a bit flakey ’til proven otherwise. Peterson even seems to make serious references to Freudian concepts in some of his classes. Prima facie suggestive of flackiness.

    I had hoped the Freudians had all died out but there seem to be a few of the fools still kicking around.

  7. paxoll says

    @Jrkrideau The important part of him being a clinical psychologist is he has significant experience communicating with non-academics and influencing them.

  8. deepak shetty says

    The people on the radical right think he’s one of them. The people on the radical left agree. The people in the center (me)….

    Offtopic , but in present day , If Trump and Co are the radical right , and we are closer to the “radical left” (not sure who is meant here but Im guessing I will identify with them) who falls in the center ? Paul Ryan/Mitch McConnell? -- not a good place to be I guess

  9. Ron Stitt says

    The progressive left increasingly slap the label “fascist” on any view that falls outside their increasingly narrowly defined “correct thinking” boundaries. Enough intellectuals consider Peterson to be serious that it is safe to dismiss critics who characterize him as “lightweight” or “idiot” out of hand. Many of the published critiques are more interesting for the comment threads, where commenters are frequently substantially more informed than the writers of the actual articles.

  10. says

    An alternative to seeing him as a rorschach is to delve into the interviews and podcasts and lectures and his first book and see that he’s actually a complex character and a serious intellectual. It’s possible to do a quick read of his popular book and get the gist of his recommendations as a psychologist for people who want help. It’s not possible, however, to grasp the psychology and science and thinking behind it that easily. I have delved into his work. I just now listened to the interview posted on the Psychology Podcast hosted by Scott Barry Kaufman. That gives you a little glimpse into how Peterson thinks and works as a psychologist. But there is a lot more. It just doesn’t do to carve off a tiny piece, take a look, and say that you don’t understand the project. That’s not even a rorschach. It’s more like a confirmation of whatever preconception you had. I’m afraid that this sounds contentious, but it takes some work to get the layers in Peterson and understand what he is not saying as well as what he is saying. The superficial treatments by Mishra and Robinson don’t even scratch the surface.

  11. Mano Singham says

    Nathan @#10,

    I don’t know that Robinson’s and Mishra’s critiques can be considered superficial. They, and Robinson particularly, seem to have read his major works carefully.

  12. KG says

    I see the lobsters have descended on us. Peterson is a “serious intellectual” like Jeffrey Archer is a “serious novelist”. I notice neither of the lobsters @9,10, tell us what they think Peterson has to say that’s worth listening to. Nor does Ron Stitt actually name any of the “intellectuals” who consider Peterson to be serious. I recommend this resource for those dealing with lobster invasions (although admittedly, the sources listed vary in quality).

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