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Tuesday 17 April 2018

Review: Jordan B Peterson, 12 Rules for Life. An Antidote to Chaos

To get to this book, you have first to get past the brand. There is @jordanbpeterson on Twitter; Dr Jordan B Peterson on Facebook; and Jordan PetersonVideos  on YouTube. The book itself is copyrighted to Luminate Psychological Services Ltd, which is not promising.

This book of the brand has been launched in the UK with a front cover endorsement which characterises Peterson as One of the most important thinkers to emerge on the world stage for many years. But since this endorsement comes from a small London-centric magazine, The Spectator, it is not very persuasive. For The Spectator one suspects that the world stage is conveniently located just round the corner. Couldn’t the publisher have come up with something more convincing?

So there is a Brand and I thought of Dale Carnegie and Billy Graham as I read the book; towards the end, the author introduces Charles Atlas and so then I had a trio of names linked to self-help brands, the Charles Atlas link supported by the author’s strong-jawed photograph.

Self-help books are not bad in themselves; but they sometimes get submerged under self-promotion and, of course, under hype and inflation of their claims. At many points, I wanted to give up reading but my rule is that I can only review a book if I get to the end; so I got to the end.

There are strong passages in the book and unusual insights. I was not really troubled by the author’s intelligent and consistent Christian conservatism and I agreed with him almost completely in his critique of post-modernist/post-structuralist university work in the humanities and social sciences, much of which now amounts to nothing much more than badly-written Sunday school piety backed up with an unpleasant morality police. I also thought his Rule 11 “Do Not Bother Children When They Are Skateboarding”  nicely and powerfully persuasive. I think he likes children and that is always a big plus.

But the weakness of the book arises from what I shall call the author’s violations of Occam’s Razor. Applied to the present work, Occam’s Razor would advise you to use only the arguments necessary to establish your conclusions. To get to the conclusion that it is healthy to start the day with a good fry-up breakfast (page 18), you probably don’t need to back it up with Biblical exegesis or a disquisition on Heideggerian Being. But the book is larded with such exegesis and disquisition, much of it repetitive as if the chapters have been written independently and not checked for duplication of material. There are only so many times I want to read the Moral which can be derived from the story of Cain and Abel.

The Rules do interlink and place emphasis on the importance of taking responsibility for oneself, for trying to improve oneself, for being honest with self and others, for accepting the fact that it is a background of order which can convert its opposite, chaos, into meaningful creativity and progress. A theme emerges which is about coming to terms with the limitations which suffering and death impose on us and I think what he says is carefully considered, thought-provoking and helpful. I think it could be pulled out to make a much shorter book on that single theme. I might well read that, but not another 400 rather repetitive pages like those which we have here. And he should get rid of Luminate Psychological Services.

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