It was a debate not of this century but the last.
The meeting of Slavoj Žižek and Jordan Peterson was meant to be the philosophical debate of the century. The title, ‘Happiness: Capitalism –vs– Marxism’, was mostly sidelined, however, as both men quickly came to agree that Marxism wasn’t particularly effective at creating the conditions for human happiness, and then slowly came to agree that Capitalism wasn’t particularly good either. If they disagreed at all it was about the nature of ‘Happiness’ itself, but even this might be considered more of a shift in emphasis than any meaningful disagreement.¹
Žižek summarised their common ground during the debate when he said: “Happiness as the goal of our lives is a very problematic notion [and] we humans are very creative in sabotaging our pursuit of happiness.” Žižek and Peterson are essentially two policemen of philosophy who advise extreme caution when you find yourself engaged in the pursuit of happiness. Dr. Peterson, wearing his smartest suit, is the good cop, urging you to do what you can and strive for the light without being too optimistic. Žižek, wearing his scruffiest shirt, is the bad cop, reminding you that the light at the end of the tunnel is in any case a train, so don’t be afraid of being too pessimistic. They both agree, in other words, that between human beings and happiness is the tyrant of reality, (Reality, with a capital ‘R’, if you are Peterson; and ‘reality’, in inverted commas, if you are Žižek). But who is this tyrant of reality? This tyrant of reality is someone who goes by the name of, and can be explained by, The Third Policeman…
The Third Policeman is a dark and comic novel that goes a long way to explain the philosophies of Žižek and Peterson. If this debate can be called the debate of the century, it is not because of what these two thinkers think because what they think is remarkably similar. If this debate can be called the debate of the century, it’s because it can be reframed along methodological lines: how these thinkers think. To think like Marxist or like Capitalist is certainly not the distinction of the 21st century. To think like a postmodernist or like a rationalist might seem more apt in the 21st century, but this is not the distinction here either, because Žižek does not accept that all knowledge is power, and Peterson tends to become teary-eyed when it comes to religion. What The Third Policeman does is recast this debate as a debate between two thinkers who can be said to represent two modes of philosophical enquiry: analytical philosophy and continental philosophy.
What are these? Analytical philosophy is the making of propositions which are necessarily true because their denial involves a contradiction. Continental philosophy is more interested in metaphysics and normative statements than it is in problems of epistemology. These are hasty definitions that must be hastily retreated from, however, because their separation is certainly not as easy as all that, and any reason for their separation is almost always controversial. But the relationship is one characterised by tension – and it should be thought significant that the only thing guaranteed to make people bridle more than attempts at their separation, is when there is no attempt to separate them. There is much to be confused about here, especially when analytical philosophy is in a sense both the parent and the child of continental philosophy, having labeled something which proceeded it by hundreds of years while also having been born by it.
Žižek and Peterson exemplify this confusingly intimate relationship. Broadly speaking, the analytical thinker seeks to partition nature into segments for ever-closer painstaking examination, and this process of examination is something that Peterson engages in – for example, when, at the end of his opening remarks in the debate, he delved into “a few free market stats”. The continental thinker is not so rigorous as this, and this is nicely personified by Žižek, someone who has a wide-range of interconnected interests and a romantic affiliation with infinite regressions (“so on, and so on, and so on…”). Why these two thinkers can be squashed into analytical and continental boxes can put more simply though. Analytical philosophy is popular and in vogue. As is Peterson. Continental philosophy is genially appreciated but not easily read. As is Žižek.
The Third Policeman is a novel which reveals the ‘Marxist-vs-Capitalist’ paradigm to be one which distracts from the real differences in these respective modes of thinking. Firstly, The Third Policeman offers a critique of those who, like Žižek, drop the pursuit of happiness down a lift-shaft of infinite regression.
Let’s look at one example.
One scene in The Third Policeman explains why it is always possible to aim for approximate truths (eg. what will make you happy) even though there are no reliable sources of authority lurking in the background. Picture this scene. The narrator/protagonist of The Third Policeman stands inside a police station. The first policeman, a man by the name of Sergeant MacCruiskeen, stands in front of him, and takes from his dresser a magnificent brown chest which he puts on a table in front of our narrator/protagonist. The chest is said to be so well made that the only thing worth being stored inside it is an identical but smaller chest. MacCruiskeen opens that chest next. Inside it is another identical chest, and inside that one is another identical chest, and so on and so on… until MacCruiskeen moves past a chest that is but “a tiny piece of dirt” and arrives at a place where, to use his words: “nobody has ever seen the last five I made because no glass is strong enough to make them big enough to be regarded truly as the smallest things ever made.” An infinite regression is identified. Later in the novel, the second policeman, a man named Sergeant Gilhaney, knocks over the table on which one of these invisible chests has been placed. MacCruiskeen explodes. He takes his gun and threatens to shoot Gilhaney and the narrator/protagonist if they do not find his chest, and so the two men scramble around on the floor looking for the “tiny thing that probably does not exist at all.” After a short while, and with a wink to the protagonist, Gilhaney pretends to have found the chest and makes a show of placing it back on the table. This is said to satisfy MacCruiskeen, but while us readers are encouraged to think that MacCruiskeen has been hoodwinked, it is actually us, the readers, who have been hoodwinked, as MacCruiskeen later says that, by rare chance, Gilhaney had actually closed his hand around the chest and placed it on the table all without knowing and by accident. Or had he? The novel should have left us in a state of appropriate skepticism by now, and it is precisely this state of severe skepticism which will allow us to move forwards (eg. move towards happiness). So, whatever the metaphysical claim for imaginary transcendence is that Žižek makes, there never can be a final source of authority. The Third Policeman tells us that you can never know, just as Jorden Peterson advised the audience in the debate to “assume you’re probably wrong.” It is only through falsification that you can arrive at something approximating truth. Žižek might see happiness in the fact that people in poor Eastern countries enjoyed being reminded of what their lives could have been, and as such the nature of happiness is “corruptive”, but he should not be allowed to stop there, for this “necessary byproduct” is not serviceable when this byproduct is nothing but a byproduct, of a byproduct, of a byproduct…
Secondly, though, The Third Policeman offers a critique of Peterson and his philosophical puddle.
In The Third Policeman, de Selby is said to be a crazy philosopher with crazy theories. For example, he thinks it is possible to travel from Bath to Folkstone by locking yourself in your room and studying postcards of all the areas that you would have to have traversed to make such a journey. “Like most of de Selby’s theories, the ultimate outcome is inconclusive,” remarks the narrator/protagonist. This suggests that de Selby has much in common with the postmodern types Peterson hates, but this very same accusation could be leveled at Peterson too. It is said of de Selby that: “It is a curious enigma that so great a mind would question the most obvious realities and object even to things scientifically demonstrated (such as the sequence of day and night) while believing absolutely in his own fantastic explanations of the same phenomena.” Peterson’s theories and sort-yourself-out advice are likewise inattentive to obvious realities. Firstly, and as the Zeno Paradox makes clear, if you follow Peterson’s advice and tidy half your room, and then half your room again, and then again… you will never actually finish tidying your room. It’s more platitudinous than it is philosophical to say that you should ignore this fact and just tidy up as much as you can anyway – it’s the kind of advice that could be given by… well, anyone… (although this isn’t to say it’s a bad thing that Peterson uses his platform to give it). Secondly, though, and as Žižek pointed out in the debate, the uselessness of tidying up your room is made clear and obvious when placed in the context of North Korea. (It is also worth noting that North Korea reveals something of Žižek’s philosophical fortitude – just how much does he like the idea of deprivation, or is it just that he doesn’t know it?). Context matters and for an analytical thinker to neglect context is to suggest that they are not immune to the conceptual confusions one finds in continental philosophers, and that their way of coping with these conceptual confusions seems to be to just ignore them.²
When a veteran listener listens to Peterson repeat his happiness maxim, which tells him/her how hard it is to be happy, and which tells him/her how much he/she is going to have to sacrifice to be happy, this veteran listener is probably not doing the very things Peterson needs them to do to be happy. It might be the case that whatever you think about happiness is less important than the way – or the how – you think about happiness.
Whether or not you should turn to analytical or continental philosophy is not a question I feel I can answer, but I do think that too much methodological certainty in either might be a problem. Although it is true that just because you are probably wrong does not mean you cannot be approximately right, it is still the case, as Žižek would put it, that “whenever you act you err.” Unceasing attempts to make yourself happy, much like unceasing attempts to tidy your bedroom, are doomed to failure. When at its best, Peterson’s ‘Rules for Life’ offers a placebo to its readers as a solution. By contrast, Žižek does not pretend to offer a solution, but through this does he offer us a (somewhat snotty) helping hand. Žižek seems to understand that sometimes thinking itself is exactly where people go wrong. It is a consequence of the human condition that thinking too much about ourselves can be the worst thing a human can do. Sociological studies show this to be the case, and tell us that choosing ‘not to think’ should not be confused with choosing ‘to be ignorant’. Instincts can lead to better personal outcomes than rational thought.
When we talk about what we should do to be happy, we should not take our cognitive faculties too seriously. The Third Policeman is concerned with the overwhelming strangeness of our existence, and while the novel can be read as a colonial text, (telling us that the reality from which we take comfort is in fact a strange distortion imposed on us by an English-sounding-Empire), a more interesting reading of the novel drops the imperialism, because what the novel tells us is that these strange distortions would be imposed upon our lives anyway. For anyone that has read The Third Policeman, simply relive the trauma of discovering the true nature of the common bicycle; for anyone that hasn’t, simply relive the trauma of trying to understand quantum mechanics. I hope you have my meaning – our world is strange enough as it is. In The Third Policeman, the eponymous character of Policeman Fox – always on the beat and playful with his truncheon – is a representation of the strange distortions in our world, and the only way to beat the tyrant of reality at his own game is to accept that we are playing a game with loaded dice, and sometimes all we can do is laugh.
Humans cannot always think their way to being happy. It’s known as the ‘Paradox of Hedonism’, and it’s pragmatic, easily intuited, and accepted by anyone who pushes the boat out beyond Socrates. It’s something which Žižek seems to have a firmer grasp of than Peterson. As Žižek said during this debate: “Happiness – if you focus on it you are lost.” More to the point, though, was when he said to Peterson: “I want to solicit from you to tell a joke, don’t you see this?” I’m not sure Peterson did.
¹ Žižek’s problem with human happiness resides more in the ‘happiness’, whereas Peterson’s problem with human happiness resides more in the ‘human’. For Žižek, transcendence is based on deprivation, and yet through deprivation one can reach some kind of transcendence. Happiness is an illusion. For Peterson, transcendence is achieved through sacrifice rather than deprivation. Happiness is basically an illusion then.
² Is Peterson really an analytic thinker? His main strength seems to be a wealth of historical and textual references, and so, in so far as Peterson can be said to philosophise, it might be said that he has less in common with analytical philosophy than he does with traditionalist philosophy. Peterson is first and foremost a reinterpreter. He reinterprets thinkers like Nietzsche and Jung, and seems so determined in this that he might in part see these thinkers as worthwhile precisely because they are Nietzsche and Jung. And an atavistic Peterson explains his tiresome use of religion, and all their meta-truths.