Jordan Peterson and Marshall McLuhan

You can imagine some of the local yokel heartburn and nausea at the calamity of my “fame”. Wish you were here to  enjoy the show. (McLuhan to John Wain, March 26, 1966)1

It has not escaped notice that Jordan Peterson has recapitulated in the first decades of twenty-first century what Marshall McLuhan achieved sixty years ago in the mid-twentieth. Namely, these two longtime University of Toronto humanities professors became world famous through the new electronic networks of television (McLuhan) and social media (Peterson). To the consternation and envy of their academic colleagues, especially at UT, both became in the process not only enormously influential in the extra-academic world, but also — horror of horrors — relatively wealthy. 

The talent of both was sharp insight into what might be called the surprisingly obvious. They could see against the tide and could and did trace individual and social problems to the utter obliviousness in which those individuals and whole societies went about their unhappy and dangerous business: “Distracted from distraction by distraction.”2 The surprise they elicited in making their observations came partly from the consternation people had in wondering how they had not seen it before; but there was also a vague sense of the catastrophic effect that would result in their lives if the observations were allowed their potential to decenter. Their observations were made from a depth, and of a depth, that was at once obvious and unseen — and thereby powerful on multiple levels.

There are, however, many other parallels between the two men suggesting a kind of commonality of vocation that calls for thoughtful consideration:

  • both born in Alberta (McLuhan in 1911, Peterson in 1962 — just about 50 years apart)
  • both grew up as Protestants, but in their teens became alienated from it
  • both obtained their BA degrees from western Canadian universities (McLuhan from the University of Manitoba, Peterson from the University of Alberta)
  • both obtained their PhD degrees away from western Canada (McLuhan from Cambridge, Peterson from McGill)
  • both began their teaching careers in the US (McLuhan at St Louis University, Peterson at Harvard)
  • both returned to Canada to teach at the University of Toronto (McLuhan in 1946, age 35, Peterson in 1998, age 36 — almost 50 years apart)
  • both stressed the importance of Carl Jung3
  • both suffered near fatal health problems — almost 50 years apart — that disabled them for years in the middle of their careers (McLuhan had a large brain tumor removed in 1967, age 56, Peterson suffered a series of excruciating health issues culminating in 2019, age 56)
  • both developed akathisia as a result of their health problems4 
  • both studied ‘the meaning of meaning’ and suggested that the essence of it was to be found in the different configurations that relationship can take in (better: as) human experience
  • both therefore insisted that human identity was fluid and fundamentally plural — and that investigation of it had to be fluid and plural — exploratory — in turn
  • both therefore stressed that border crossing was essential to human being (vertically between actual and possible forms of experience, horizontally between different actual forms over time)
  • both employed a cross-disciple approach to their work in which literature was used to illuminate contemporary individual, social and political problems
  • both insisted that mythology and other forms of narrative (especially in religion) provided unique access to the range of human existence
  • both insisted that illumination comes to humans, or can come to them, and is not something that can be ‘made up’
  • both insisted that tradition was not a properly discarded irrelevance but an active source providing the key to an understanding of the present
  • both turned to Gestalt psychology and to its signature appeal to figure and ground as critical to their investigations of human experience
  • both appealed to the left and right hemispheres of the brain in their explication of experience
  • both saw that identity loss was a near universal effect of modernity and that there was a close relationship between identity loss and violence
  • both therefore saw that identity loss was a central problem to be solved if the survival of civilization was to be addressed
  • both saw that another reaction to identity loss was a ‘Peter Pan’ syndrome (explicitly named as such by each of them) in which an extended childhood came to characterize an ever-increasing part of the population and of its cultural life
  • both were led fundamentally astray at times by the demands of colleagues to supply a measurable ‘scientific basis’ for their work 
  • last but not least, both maintained their marriage and family life in the face of constant attempts to seduce them away from them5


  1. In John Wain, ‘The Incidental Thoughts of Marshall McLuhan’, in Dear Shadows: Portraits from Memory, 1986.
  2. T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets (Burnt Norton).
  3. McLuhan to his Jesuit friends, Walter Ong and Clement McNaspy, December 23, 1944: “Increasingly, I feel that Catholics must master C.G. Jung. The little self-conscious (…) area in which we live today has nothing to do with the problems of our faith. Modern anthropology and psychology are more important for the Church than St. Thomas today.” (Letters 166)
  4. In regard to McLuhan, see Judith Fitzgerald, Marshall McLuhan: Wise Guy: “In a note attached to the Report (on Understanding New Media, 1960), McLuhan reveals his health has broken under the stress of prolonged overwork on the project. (…) When McLuhan returns to teaching (…), however, he cavalierly pretends he never suffered a stroke. But his family and close friends can clearly see the toll it’s taken: the man who was a robust and animated specimen has turned into an old man overnight. His nervous intensity’s more pronounced. He’s incapable of relaxing for more than five minutes at a stretch.”
  5. Throughout this post the past tense has often been used referring to McLuhan and Peterson — although Jordan Peterson is very much with us. Readers should see in this past tense a kind of ‘also present’ as in ‘was/is’, ‘had/has’.