Primitive Peacemakers, pt 1: The Fall of Jordan Peterson

This is the beginning of a 5-part series, whose alternate titles might run: “Metarationality & the Frame Problem,” “Function/Form/Fluidity,” and “Cultural Relativism for Rationalists.” It aims to trace a throughline in taoist, pragmatist, and postmodern thinking, and to introduce a certain meta-systematic school of blogosphere philosophy which has crystallized around the frame problem in microsociology, game theory, artificial intelligence, and cognitive science (1, 2, 3).

Working table of contents:

  1. The Fall of Jordan Peterson
  2. Polytheism & An Ecology of Practice
  3. Water Metaphors
  4. Bargaining Across Frames
  5. A Ship’s Distributed Intelligence
  6. Time Past, Time Present

In 2006 Jordan Peterson publishes “Peacemaking Among Higher-Order Primates,” a short, strange philosophical treatise about the importance of foregoing “local” victories in favor of “global” ones. As he defines these terms, local victory comprises a partial and temporary peace maintained through the domination of one coalition by another. As such, local victories can only perpetuate cycles of conflict, that samsaric loop in which each passing hegemony is in due time overthrown (perhaps quite violently!) and dominated in turn. Global victory, by contrast, brings a “transcendent” and lasting peace by striking a new symbiotic accord between previously warring parties. Local victories are thetical and antithetical, global victories more like a synthesis.

These conflicts and victories aren’t merely matters of politics or subculture or religion. Most fundamentally they are over and between participants’ differing worldviews, frameworks, and even facts. For facts—as so many thinkers of the 20th century (James, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Austin, Schelling, Lewis, Bourdieu, Goffman, Schutz) came to realize—are not just products of an ongoing, iterated social coordination game. They are also fundamentally pragmatic1; that is, they emerge downstream of goals and agendas, which cause us to choose, out of the infinite possible “real” and worldly patterns, those which are useful and relevant to our aims. For that reason, facts are value-laden to their core; to state or privilege a fact is also to make a value judgment about what is important.

[^1:] Peterson on the pragmatic basis of facts and frameworks:
  • 2006, “Maps of Meaning” lecture: “What if the facts would not come into alignment, between antagonists, until they wanted the same thing?”
  • 2013, “Three Forms of Meaning and the Management of Complexity”: “The objects and categories we use are neither things nor labels for things. Instead, ‘objects’ are entities bounded by their affective relationship to a goal. We perceive meaningful phenomena, not the objective world. The intuitions that guide us are pragmatic and embodied (Gibson, 1979; Lakoff, 1987).”

Together, this integrated system of pragmatic patterns and coordinating contracts adds up to a framework (or “worldview,” or “habitus”) which claims to be the world—a map which claims to be the territory—and which, by extension, claims a mutual exclusivity with all other frameworks. Individuals will of course hold, and be able to toggle between, many different situation-specific frames, readily switch modes between work and the family, or religion and law; and it was this rapid, fluent toggling that so fascinated Goffman. But conditional on a given sub-field of activity, people appear to most usually host just one master stance; it is rare that an individual entertains as complementarily and compatibly true, rather than as mutually exclusive, several metaphysics, or several religious affiliations, or several legal doctrines. Instead, schisms of world-interpretation drive sociological schism, and vice-versa. Different ecologies of sense-making approach the production and dissemination of their own, parochial world-interpretations with a demonstrated tacit belief in their game’s fixed-sum payout. And having, in the process, developed unique languages—unique symbolic understandings and associative networks—they struggle to understand each other even when they try.

How can the facts themselves differ, when it is one world that we all inhabit? But the facts do differ, because the world is complex beyond the scope of any one interpretation. For this reason, there can be disagreement about first principles, as well as their derivatives. This means that the job of the peacemaker is to establish an accord that allows the facts themselves to become a matter of agreement.

“Peacemaking Among Higher-Order Primates”

The result is a landscape of conflicting interpretations and prescriptions, with the hosts of different frameworks warring for recognition, turf, and influence. Each has a partial and partially legitimate claim on “truth”; each is blind and ignorant to an extreme. Each alternative world-interpretation, meanwhile, is seen by ideological hosts as posing an existential threat to their favored tenant. It cannot be made coherent within their framework’s local system of “rationality,” whose borders and logic are defined analytically through the language they speak, and so there is no possibility of acknowledging an alternative’s legitimacy without also refactoring the conceptual and contractual terms a partisan calls “home.”

Many explanatory and rhetorical tactics are marshaled in the war-effort to explain away opposing frames. Those who hold & host them must be ignorant, or undereducated, or cognitively inferior, or be engaged in wishful thinking, or carry hate in their hearts, or be possessed by the devil. Combatants who moderate their partisanship, and acknowledge the merits of opponent views, are labeled “lone voices of reason” by rivals but “turncoats” by apparent allies (a dynamic driving many ideological conversions). And voluntary converts, employing the conceptual language of enlightenment, are upheld as the highest form of testimony to the righteousness of their newly adopted worldview.

This is the logic of local victory: mutual exclusivity and territory dispute; a kind of self-perpetuating blood feud; consensus not through reconciliation but coercion. To keep alive the possibility of a global victory, the partisan who aspires to be a peacemaker must first renounce the pursuit and pleasures of local conquest. He must eschew loyalty to either warring side, and reject all temptation of ingroup. He must forfeit the false sense of certainty which ideological allegiance provides, and dedicate himself to mediation, open-mindedness, and humility. He must become cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world, and overcome the ego’s inclination to self-satisfice, and develop an empathy for opposites, and be a participant in many different sociolinguistic games, and refuse the countless bribes and temptations that each side will inevitably proffer to sway him to their cause. His home can only ever be “no man’s land,” which is why it is so often our cultural hybrids, our “freaks”—our hyphenations, our third-culture kids, our children of cultural divorce—who take up the role. He must learn to speak all sides’ tongues, and understand all sides’ motivations, so that he may locate common interest, and broker Pareto-efficient outcomes, and be trusted by all sides as arbitrator. He must propose an exchange rate between the otherwise incompatible ontologies; he must carve a Rosetta Stone which translates between frameworks.

The patriot who mediates between two antagonists merely brings a third antagonist to the table… The peacemaker must therefore be the man without a country… No man’s land is the unknown, terra incognita. The morality of the previously established is merely a matter of tradition, agreed upon by all. When traditions clash, however, the facts themselves are no longer self-evident. Under such conditions, it is only the individual who has traveled strange lands who can build a bridge… To travel strange lands is to see the broader territory, the no man’s land surrounding all conditional moralities, and to learn how to negotiate a path there – but also to lose all belief that there is one way, or one set of facts.

“Peacemaking Among Higher-Order Primates”

Finally, he must renounce the local prizes of local victories, which include social recognition, “status, dominion, material possession,” fame, and success in the sexual marketplace. He is assisted in this renunciation by his budding recognition of the trapped & temporary nature of such local victories, which now appear trite in comparison to a lasting symbiosis.

Most importantly, one who renounces local victory to keep alive the chance for global victory must adopt a reverberating epistemic modesty toward the unknown. While pride “signals victory… in the local,” it can only signal defeat in the transcendent. Curiosity, rather than esteem, is the global victor’s guide: he must endlessly “sift through the facts offered by all… in the hope that even what was previously rejected might now be of value.” He must pursue those branches of philosophical history whose growth—their resources slowly dwindling and re-allocated to other branches—has stagnated. His curiosity is in fact inextricable from humility: “The man who is curious is no longer certain that he is right. Certainty is therefore the enemy of peace. Certainty is the consequence of local victory, and the victorious want to maintain their victory, not to establish peace.” Thus: “Rationality, axiom predicated in the local”—in our language, that integrated system of ideologically contingent facts we call a framework—”must give way to something less conditional.”

Impatience is a virtue in the local environment. When the facts are not in dispute, good and evil are defined sharply and crisply. Figure is figure and ground is ground. There is no value in standing about, when the good beckons clearly. It is time, instead, to make progress – to lead, to follow, or to get out of the way. When the facts themselves are in dispute, however, there is nothing left but patience.

“Peacemaking Among Higher-Order Primates”

(Note here the connection—a shared patience, open-mindedness, and emphasis on process and stable equilibria—between Peterson’s global victory concept and that zoomed-out, long-termist perspective which prefers exploration to exploiting.)

All this to say: there can be no question. The 44-year-old Peterson believed—or at least paid regular lip service to—the idea that partisanship ought be eschewed in favor of peace-making; that the “truth” of facts and frames and worldviews were culturally relative; that combat in ideological conflict can only perpetuate conflict.

Somewhere between ages 44 and 54, Peterson seems to have forgotten this insight, or possibly changed his mind. His public mask in the late 2010s showed little interest in understanding the left’s positions, or in brokering a peace between sides in the great American culture war. He could no longer speak the language of progressive causes or academic social science. Rather than working as a mediator between positions, he became so untouchable to academics and the left that no message could now get through. He became another partisan, another soldier. He fell from cosmopolitanism and become provincial.  

Next time on Pt. 2, Polytheism & an Ecology of Practice:

Negotiating with those who share your frame is straightforward. The potential for agreement—for reaching a new coordinative equilibrium—is built into the shared frame and in some sense pre-arranged. To agree to a frame, or definition of a situation, is to have already preemptively struck a deal. It is when frames are contested, and differ, that we are left struggling towards a solution—arguing over categories and conceptualizations in order to reach a consensus ought.

7 responses to “Primitive Peacemakers, pt 1: The Fall of Jordan Peterson”

  1. I wonder if Peterson went through the same transition I did, from a relativism that seeks peace between frames, to realizing that it is OK to advocate for a particular frame because you personally prefer it, while understanding that it carries no ultimate justification.

    This would be similar to Richard Rorty’s stance toward liberal bourgeois values: there is no ground to stand on in preferring it as a universal set of values, except that we, the reader, likes those values more than others, and needs no justification greater than preference as a basis for advocacy.

    Peterson’s “peacemaking” phase may reflect realizing no ultimate justification for advocating one stance over another, and his later “Make your bed” phase may reflect realizing that he needs no justification to advocate one stance over another; his personal preference alone is sufficient ‘reason’.


    1. I think this is a pretty reasonable take, but I have my reasons for doubt.

      Crucially, I think Peterson doesn’t just claim that relativism is “correct” in some absolute sense, and that any given ideology is unjustifiable. He goes further than that and claims the defense of ideology is destructive and prolongs ideological conflict, whereas bridge-building, diplomatic peacemaking requires renouncing ideology. More speculatively, I think there may be a link between his abandonment of peacemaker agendas, and the catastrophe—personally and intellectually—of the last half-decade for Peterson. If you know of somewhere he’s recently defended or argued for the benefit of partisanship, I’d be very curious to contend with that—but otherwise, audience capture feels like a more compelling explanation for the shift than considered intentionality. Open to being proven wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I like to be notified when your part 3 (and the rest of this series, if more) is published
    How do I do that?
    I already checked the notify me when new posts but was hoping for a more targeted notify rule


  3. […] short post to accompany the Primitive Peacemakers series, with some quotes from Middlemarch that otherwise wouldn’t make it […]


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