The Harris-Peterson Podcast

Sam Harris does a two hour podcast with Jordan Peterson after getting a flood of requests for such a show from his listeners.  In fact, Harris tells us

“I’d received more listener requests for him than for Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Edward Snowden—or, indeed, any other person on earth.”

This is understandable.  Peterson has become something of a rock star because he is a very intelligent man who firmly stands his ground in his disputes with the PC police.  I would imagine that many of Sam’s listeners thought it would be great to hear Harris and Peterson tag team on this whole issue of political correctness, an issue that is always in the news.  Maybe the two them together, swapping war stories, will come up with some really stinging criticisms.

But what did they get?  Harris begins the talk by making it clear he is not all that interested in talking about the PC issues.  He claims they would be in agreement so there would not be much to say.  Are you kidding me? The thing that has people excited about Peterson makes Sam yawn?   I am under the impression that most of Harris’s podcasts that interview people involve lots and lots of agreements between Sam and his guest.  Why is this so different?  After letting Peterson do most of the talking in the first 10 minutes about the PC issues, Sam wants to talk about areas of disagreement.  And from there, they spend a whole hour and fifty minutes debating……….the meaning of truth from a pragmatist vs. realist perspective.


You interview Peterson, whose YouTube videos about PC get over a million views, and instead of talking about the issues that have jettisoned him to prominence, the issues that probably got him recognized by most of Harris’ listeners, you decide to wander off into the weeds and get bogged down in esoteric talk about “truth?” What’s going on?

Let me play arm chair psychologist.  I think something was bubbling below the surface.  My guess is that since Peterson is on the ascendency and Harris is past his peak of popularity, Harris was experiencing some old fashioned jealousy.  Lots of Harris’s fans wanted to hear Peterson (more than Dawkins or Pinker!!), a man whose opposition to the PC culture is eclipsing Sam.  In fact, given that some of Sam’s income is wrapped up in the meditation culture, Harris has to be somewhat tight-lipped with this topic, as I would imagine the meditation crowd overlaps significantly with the Regressive Left crowd.  So Harris thought it was time to show his listeners he was still the Alpha Dog.  He was going to show his fans this up and coming newbie, who had sympathies for religion, wasn’t as deserving of all this newfound respect he was getting.  Sam was still the Man.  And if he had to stick with this topic of truth for one hour and fifty minutes to get this new face to submit to Harris Logic, well then, that’s what those listeners were going to get.  And if he failed, well then, it was just another failed “experiment.”

Look at it this way.  If Peterson decides to write a book about these PC issues in culture and academia, he probably has a best seller waiting for him.  Harris, on the other hand, has pretty much said all he has to say. And I think that goes a long way explaining why that podcast was such a train wreck.

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11 Responses to The Harris-Peterson Podcast

  1. Tim'L says:

    How was their talk? Did Harris show him up? Or did Peterson handle it well? I can’t imagine Peterson struggling. He’s regularly, unexpectedly confronted by offended students ready to blast him. While Harris has spent the bulk of his career ‘bravely facing the applause’ (to steal that quote from M.Shea) when he delivers his views.

  2. FZM says:

    I was listening to the podcast; I found the first 15 minutes where Peterson talks about the situation in Canada really interesting and will probably look for his other videos. I got through about half an hour of the next bit…

  3. Allallt says:

    I’ve got a few thoughts, as is often the case with me:

    (1) I wonder whether you do the same thing I do: get a backlog of posts and schedule them to drip through over a few weeks. (Mine are scheduled to June 14th.)

    I say this because that podcast is nearly 3 months old, there has already been an autopsy done on the podcast by Harris and Peterson. And they’ve had a second podcast, where they did discuss other things: particularly Peterson’s idea of what a religion is. (It’s a teaser trailer and not a spoiler to say that Peterson’s view is similar to that of Joseph Campbell.)

    I imagine a basic schedule of conversation is agreed between Harris and his guests beforehand (although, as Harris and Tyson’s discussion on identity politics and race shows, Harris sometimes goes against his guests wishes). The autopsies of the first podcast revealed that religion was what people wanted them to discuss.

    I mention this nearly-3-months of subsequent context because you have, several times, described yourself to me as a journalist. And this seems to be very at odds with this.

    (2) I find it interesting that you’d spend so much time trying to guess the motivations of Harris, and almost no time mentioning that their differing conceptions of truth were interesting. Peterson, in particular, had quite a novel conception of truth (to me, at least) which may be called pragmatism, but it is tangential to classic pragmatism: the Ultimate Truth of a claim rests on its Darwinian value; Peterson has to gerrymander the boundaries of a topic to include distantly related questions to evaluate the ‘truth’ of a claim, independent of the level the claim maps to reality.

    Don’t get me wrong, I see value in his approach. I’m not trying to belittle it. But, that you would offer the full force of your intellect to trying to guess Harris’ motivations at making a trainwreck of a discussion, while ignoring the value of the question being discussed (and thus begging the question on whether the discussion was a trainwreck) is an interesting and obvious bias to me.

    (3) Harris had concerns about how Peterson could use his Darwinian-pragmatic definition of truth to label all religions as true. Even incompatible ones. Harris had concerns that the exact same ‘facts’ could be true or not true depending on who knows those facts. Harris was concerned that at any point Peterson could pull that lever and speculate that anything is true.

    To an extent, I agree that they should have moved on and simply let Peterson either embarrass himself, or not, by claiming a thing is true regardless of whether it is a fact.

    (4) In the three subsequent months, Peterson has also admitted fault in the way he came at the discussion. And yet you focus on Harris, and your perception of his motives.

    Related articles:
    Peterson’s open letter to Harris, after Podcast 1
    Harris’ autopsy of Podcast 1
    The second round of the Podcast (YouTube)

  4. Dhay says:

    Allallt > … you have, several times, described yourself to me as a journalist.

    This is intriguing information, it’s a claim contrary to my memory of posts and responses here on S2L, and a site search doesn’t pull up anything that fits.*

    On your own blog, perhaps? Would you please link to Michael’s self-description as a journalist.

  5. Allallt says:

    Dhay – Oh damn, really? You want me to search all the comments in all the threads I’ve ever been a part of for any time he said he writes about the news or is a journalist? Are you saying Michael doesn’t consider this his current affairs atheist-watch? (Which, would make him the journalist.)

    And is that the point you’re focused on?

    You know what, it’s not important enough to my point and I don’t want to detract from the meatier content of what I said — so it’s not worth looking through the 150 results your link brought back. I’ll retract the statement.

  6. Dhay says:

    Allallt — By my reckoning it makes Michael a blogger. I’ve always assumed journalists are in it for the income. With so few responses to each post and a much slower posting rate compared to, say Friendly Atheist — which also has far more intrusive and extensive advertising — I don’t think Michael can be blogging for the income.

    Though if you assess yourself as being a journalist because you are a blogger who writes about what’s in the news, I guess by that same standard you could assess Michael likewise.

    There is indeed meatier content (which Michael will have to respond to) and your giving an overview of the philosophical background is useful and appreciated.

  7. Allallt says:

    The definition Google brings back is this:

    the activity or profession of writing for newspapers, magazines, or news websites or preparing news to be broadcast

    So the idea you need to be paid is compatible with, but not exhaustive of journalism. What Michael does here — reporting on events, and normally much more up-to-date than this — would count as journalism.

    Although, that’s not the point, because my claim was that he described himself as a journalist. That’s a claim I may well be wrong about; it’s not important enough to me for me to go back and look it up.

    What I do is not journalism. I write discursive pieces (or heuristics or polemics), not informative ones about current events. Two on the initial podcast, which I can link if your interested.

  8. Tim'L says:

    I thought you were done with the issue of whether or not he said he was a journalist…. being more concerned about the “meatier” contents of your comment?

  9. TFBW says:

    @Allallt: you seem to operate in “ready, fire, aim” order rather a lot. Digging back through the posts to the last one where you left a comment, I find that you had to issue a couple of retractions there as well. Retracting is better than doubling down on a falsehood, but sacrificing a little haste in the name of fact-checking is better, I think.

  10. Michael says:

    I’ve got a few thoughts, as is often the case with me:
    (1) I wonder whether you do the same thing I do: get a backlog of posts and schedule them to drip through over a few weeks. (Mine are scheduled to June 14th.)

    Sort of. I have a constant backlog in my head. But since I am not an unemployed activist, I don’t have much free time, meaning a good chunk of the backlog never gets posted.

    Okay, let’s deal with the truth. The truth is that I learned about Jordan Peterson only a few days ago thanks to the SJWs attacking his free speech at McMaster University. So I’ve been checking out some of his videos when I have the time. I ran into the podcast on Tues and listened to it in the car. I posted what I thought was most interesting later that night in the previous blog entry. Also, when I was listening to the podcast, the basic idea contained in this blog post came to me. I decided to share that last night before I moved on – there is an excellent interview of Peterson that contains two very disturbing points to discuss. So, I’ll try to get to that next week.

    No, I did not find their discussion about truth all that interesting. I’m not criticizing it. It just wasn’t my cup of tea. I can think of two ways such a discussion would have been more interesting and maybe post about that over the weekend. What sparked my curiosity was the way Harris yawned about the very issues that have made Peterson so popular. I would have thought they would have been natural allies in the culture wars. So I think my pop psychology holds.

    It is simply not true that I have ever described myself as a journalist to you.

    Nor is it true that I spent so much time trying to guess the motivations of Harris. My hunch came to me as I listened to the podcast (with a private chuckle, I might add) and it took me about 10 minutes to write the blog entry before heading off to bed.

    Nor is it true that I used the full force of my intellect to analyze Harris motivations. It’s a guess offered up publicly as an afterthought as I was viewing the podcast from my rearview mirror. But like I said above, I’ll stop the car to explain how it could have been more interesting before moving on. Right now, I have to go to bed.

    Yes, I am biased. We all are. Never said otherwise.

  11. TFBW says:

    Having now listened to an hour of the podcast in question, and also several hours of Peterson in general, I’m prepared to offer my two cents worth on the armchair psychology in this post.

    While I’m sympathetic to the idea that Harris would be cautious about getting into a straight-out disagreement with Peterson, who is staggeringly well-read on his material, I don’t see that anything actually panned out that way. Around 25 minutes into the podcast, Harris opens it up to various subjects, and Peterson chooses to challenge him on, “not being enough of a Darwinian.” Unfortunately, what takes place from then on is a failure to communicate: Harris has some prior experience with pragmatism, and that shapes his understanding of what Peterson is saying. This creates a misconception: he would have been much better positioned if he’d understood it as being an Existentialist position, rather than a Pragmatist one — i.e. if he’d listened to one of Peterson’s lectures on Existentialism, as I did before listening to the podcast, then he’d recognise the general gist of the argument. Harris also has a rigid, modern conception of “truth”, and failed to appreciate that the very concept was being challenged.

    I don’t know where the discussion went after that, but I think that the conversation just naturally went up a blind alley, rather than Harris guiding it there. So while it’s possible that the armchair psychology has an element of truth to it, I have no need for its hypothesis, and it could just as well be projection.

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