Maxine Sheets-Johnstone (2000) The Psychology of What is and What Should be: an Experiential. Psycoloquy: 11(124) Meaning Belief (2)

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Psycoloquy 11(124): The Psychology of What is and What Should be: an Experiential

Review of Peterson on Meaning-Belief

Maxine Sheets-Johnstone
Department of Philosophy
University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403


Jordan Peterson's "Maps Of Meaning: The Architecture Of Belief" is an original, provocative, complex, and fascinating book, which is also at times conceptually troubling, unduly repetitive, and exasperating in its format. The positive values of the book far outweigh its detractions; the detractions, however, warrant specification, and although detailed, are offered only as spurs to strengthen, deepen, and/or elaborate the timely, fine, and painstaking analysis Peterson presents.


aggression, cybernetics, mythology, natural category, neuropsychology, peace, religion, war
1. Peterson's (1999a,b) basic thesis is that human life unfolds and consistently oscillates between two poles: the known and the unknown. The unknown is fraught with both danger and promise; the known--in the form of culture--is what protects us from contamination with the unknown. But the known also stifles us; our assimilated and ingrained cultural traditions, mores, and so on, pull us away from exploration of the new or anomalous and from creative action. When we encounter the unknown in our everyday lives--when something unexpected happens to us--we find ourselves in a suddenly strange situation, perhaps even lost in wholly alien surrounds, a situation or surrounds in which our traditional knowledge is non-functional. In the best of circumstances we are capable of exploring the unknown and enlarging our field of knowledge, finding some action that is serviceable and salutary; in the worst of circumstances, we are caught in the chaos that defines the unknown.

2. Peterson's identification and account of these basic epistemic dimensions of our human condition are highly illuminating. His book might in fact be taken as a paradigm of his thesis insofar as the book is in the beginning unknown to us; it is "unexplored territory," to use Peterson's terminology. As we navigate through this territory, we find markers recognizable from the world that we know or from one that we can readily relate to: descriptive accounts of experience (real, imagined, or dreamed); narratives and analyses of ancient myths that describe the origin of the world (mainly Mesopotamian, Sumerian, and Indian); quotations from, and references to biblical figures and stories (figures and stories that are treated as real but also as mythical in the sense of offering us blueprints for action); and lengthy citations, especially and most effectively from Nietzsche, Jung, and Solzhenitsyn. In navigating this course, we find Peterson mining a psychoanalytic vein different from Becker's Rankian one in The Denial of Death (1973) and detailing socio-cultural dimensions of meaning that Langer more briefly discusses in her last section ("The Fabric of Meaning") of Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (1942).

3. However various, what all of the markers signify (or spell out concretely) are forms of action in the world that mediate between the known and the unknown and that typify in one way or another the threat or promise of the unknown and the order or tyranny of the known. Myths in particular are a fundamental source of knowledge from this perspective. Though they are the product of "pre-experimental man," as Peterson describes humans before the rise of modern Western science, we cannot--as putatively sophisticated and highly evolved twenty-first/ twenty-second century humans--discount myths as meaningless. On the contrary, what myths teach us is how to act. The world, as Peterson says, is "a forum for action" (p. xxi)--a place to act, not a place to perceive" (p. 9). Peterson's conception of myths is in keeping with one of his central theses, namely, that we act before we comprehend: "action precedes the idea" (p. 415). We are caught up actively in the world prior to our understanding of the world--or ourselves. Our task--as enunciated in the book--is to catch up with our actions: to turn ourselves individually toward self-knowledge to the end that we understand the epistemically-rooted and epistemically- driven basis of our actions, or in other words, how order and chaos--the known and the unknown--are fundamental epistemic dimensions of our lives, and how the degree to which we recognize these dimensions is a measure of our capacity to stop deceiving ourselves about the nature of life, in particular, about the finite nature of our own existence. Self- knowledge leads to understandings of our motivations to act (e.g., the fear, the anger, the grief, the courage, the equanimity that prompts us to act), and the values and beliefs that underlie our actions. We thus come to a realization of both our capacity for courage, for creative exploration of the unknown, and our individual potential--even our individual propensity--for evil, which, as enacted, is a denial of the meaningfulness of life. Evil is: "rejection of and sworn opposition to the process of creative exploration,... proud repudiation of the unknown, and willful failure to understand, transcend and transform the social world,... hatred of the virtuous and courageous, precisely on account of their virtue and courage,... desire to disseminate darkness, for the love of darkness, where there could be light,... [t]he spirit [that] underlies actions that speed along the decrepitude of the world" (p. 310). Maps of meaning--architectures of belief--are in this way maps or architectures of morality.

4. The potential for evil comes from our failure to make our own lives meaningful, specifically through recognition of the "unbearable present" (a theme with variations throughout the book--e.g., p. 19, 135, 277, 415), which at root is latent with "the existential anxiety generated by knowledge of mortality" (p. 465). "[T]he tragedy of existence" (e.g., pp. 433, 465) is the tragedy of death, that is, the tragedy of our knowing in advance that our existence is irrevocably finite. It is the fact of our mortality, our self-knowledge of ourselves as finite beings, that makes our lives tenuous, and that makes us vulnerable to meaninglessness, i.e., to finding life senseless. The fear of the unknown deters us from facing life. As Peterson remarks at one point, we try to make sure "that we never have to face anything unknown, in the revolutionary sense--at least not accidentally" (p. 57).

5. In his quest to understand human motivation for evil, what Peterson attempts to lead us to realize is that "awareness of death... compels us inexorably upwards, toward a consciousness sufficiently heightened to bear the thought of death." The point of this raised consciousness is a consciousness of our capacity to confront our "individual vulnerability" (p. 468), to discover "the moral truth" (p. 466) of our lives, and in so doing discover our capacity for meaning in face of the unknown. We are thus enabled to tolerate "the tragic preconditions of existence" (p. 454). In so doing, our potential for evil is defeated; "our self-deceit, our cowardice, hatred and fear, that pollutes our experience and turns the world into hell" (p. 456) is overcome by our taking responsibility for our lives, by "our capacity to voluntarily bear the terrible weight of our mortality" (p. 454). When we take responsibility, we hazard contact with the unknown and thereby extend "the domain of light" (p. 468), pursuing and discovering meaning and our "infinite capacity for good" p. 456).

6. On the surface, and in view of an at present disproportionately riveted focus on and unwavering allegiance to science and its technological achievements, Peterson's book might seem like an academic diversion; or it might appear to be a religious text, which in many ways it is. However, it would be a mistake to categorize the book precipitously in either way and to dismiss it, and this because the depth of Peterson's inquiry cannot be ignored; or rather, it can be ignored only by way of ignoring the very unknown that Peterson is at pains to describe and to put indelibly on the map or maps that in large measure constitute and/or determine the motivations, practices, and beliefs operant in our everyday human lives. What is epistemically there, but deep down, in all humans is the knowledge of their own individual death, and the ordinarily terrifying affective and motivational valencies of that knowledge are not something commonly discussed or even minimally visible in academia. Neither are they something straightforwardly examined and discussed in religious texts or by religious leaders. They are in fact a muffled part of everyday human existence; death is a future that will inevitably happen to each of us, but a future that is not and never will be personally present. Hence, it is a future that can be muffled relatively easily, perennially put off to a "some day." Peterson's effort is to bring that future into the present, to make it painfully and poignantly real for us, and to show us through both past and present-day cultural histories that, however deep down, that future is a driving force in human conceptions, narratives, and myths of the world; in human religions that provide models to emulate and gods to worship; and in human cultures and individuals bent on evil, that is, on the destruction of life. It is, in short, a driving force in human action and thereby intricately and inescapably linked to human morality.

7. Three conceptually troubling aspects of Peterson's book warrant specification: 1) his choice of brain science as an empirical backup for his thesis; 2) his seeming unawareness of the fact that his thesis is articulated within the very "patriarchal known" (p. 90), "patriarchal system" (p. 228), and "patriarchal kingdom of human culture" (p. 99) that he attempts to elucidate; 3) his conflation of information with meaning. I consider each aspect in paragraphs 8-13, 14-17, and 18 below.

8. What appears to prompt Peterson's foray into the neuropsychology of the brain is the fact that there are two brain hemispheres. His claims on behalf of right and left brain hemispheres are suited analogically to a view of life fundamentally anchored in binary oppositions (known/unknown; male/female; good/evil; hero/adversary; and so on) (see Sheets-Johnstone 1996/2000c). But Peterson's discussion of neuropsychology, especially as it is consistently combined with a putative "phenomenology" (pp. 41-89), is neither credible brain neuropsychology nor bona fide phenomenology (on the latter see, for example, Husserl 1970, 1983, 1989). In fact, ontogeny would have been a better choice than brain science as an empirical backup for his thesis. Brain sciences are (at least presently) largely speculative sciences, as empirical and psychoanalytic studies of infancy and child development are not. The empirical dimension of brain sciences is slim--indeed, even anorexic--given the reductive claims commonly made on its basis. Peterson's thesis, which takes human cultural history as its foundational support, would find far sturdier collateral support and conceptual linkages in human ontogenetical history than in a right hemisphere that "broadly speaking, responds to novelty with caution, and rapid, global hypothesis formation," and in a left hemisphere that "tends to remain in charge when things--that is, explicitly categorized things--are unfolding according to plan" (p. 32).

9. For example, Peterson could have cited the extensive work of Meltzoff and Moore (1977, 1983, 1994, 1995a, 1995b) on the spontaneous imitation by infants of adult mouth and hand gestures. Such citation would provide direct empirical support for his thesis that our capacity for imitation "provides for tremendous expansion of behavior competence" (p. 76), and that, in addition, imitation lays the ground for creative play, i.e., for exploration beyond the known (p. 76). Such citation would furthermore provide indirect empirical support for his thesis that myths and religions give us models to imitate since our capacity to imitate must then be the foundation of the meaningfulness of myths and religions in our lives.

10. Peterson's consultation of Stern's psychiatric and experimental studies of the "emergent" and "core" self and of interpersonal relations in infancy and early childhood ((1981, 1985, 1990) would have dampered hyperboles on the order of "culturally determined rites and biological processes associated with initiation constitute absolute destruction of childhood personality" (p. 222); "we leave the world of childhood irrevocably through initiation rites" (ibid.); "[a]s the childhood 'personality' is destroyed, the adult personality--a manifestation of transmitted culture--is inculcated" (pp. 224-225); etc.

11. Most significantly too, had Peterson taken empirical literature on infant and child development into account, he could not have stated that "The child is born in a state of abject dependence" (p. 221). The statement does not jibe with Stern's psychiatric studies, Meltzoff and Moore's experimental ones, or with the myriad studies of other researchers of infants and young children over the past thirty years (e.g., Butterworth 1983; Bruner 1983; Scaife and Bruner 1975; Bower 1971). Taking our human ontogenetical history into account does not mean casting an adultist eye over our past, for that eye looks back casually on infancy and early childhood and, failing to relinquish its adult theoretical perspective, gives us only an adultist rendition of ontogeny. In phenomenological terms, that eye fails to mute the prejudices, opinions, and preconceptions of an adult natural attitude (Sheets-Johnstone 1999, 2000a).

12. Especially in view of its epistemic concerns, Peterson's thesis would in fact find both deeper and wider empirical support through a study of ontogeny than through a study of brains. This is because, from the very beginning of their entrance into the world, infants are confronted with the unknown. What Peterson broadly calls a child's "apprenticeship" is in truth an ongoing encounter with a vast unknown that an infant is challenged to make known, an initial expanse that begins with learning its own body and learning to move itself (Sheets-Johnstone 1999). These fundamental kinetic learnings in fact constitute its first apprenticeship (Sheets-Johnstone 2000b): infants explore the terra incognita of their own self-movement, on their own initiative, achieving knowledge on their own, receiving no instructions, and conforming to no cultural orderings. Their kinetic explorations constitute the first heroic efforts we all make as humans (see Sheets-Johnstone 1990 for a related evolutionary perspective).

13. Finally, though Jung wrote relatively sparsely on infancy and child development, his essay titled "The Psychology of the Child Archetype" is strikingly pertinent to Peterson's thesis and would have enhanced Peterson's conception of what he terms our childhood "apprenticeship." In his essay, Jung likens the child to a conqueror--a hero--who brings light and whose original darings are recorded in legends. He likens the child to just such conquerors because the child too is an "enlarger of consciousness" (Jung 1990, p. 169). The archetype of the child is in fact connected with three strikingly positive qualities. A child is the harbinger of new beginnings in that "it is the most precious fruit of Mother Nature herself, the most pregnant with the future, signifying a higher stage of self-realization" (p. 168). In this sense, it "paves the way for a future change of personality" (p. 164). The child is invincible in that it is "equipped with all the powers of nature and instinct" (p. 170). In this respect its strength is unequalled. It can do nothing other than realize itself. All of its being is thrown into self-realization. It is begotten "out of living Nature herself," and it is because its origins are what they are that the child is "an incarnation of the inability to do otherwise" (p. 170). The child as a unity of opposites draws on its issuance from male and female, but also, in a related way, from its symbolic wholeness, that is, from its being a unity of both conscious and unconscious psychic aspects of personality. Given Peterson's strong Jungian ties and the cogency of Jung's conception of the infant to Peterson's conception of the "world-creating" hero (p. xxi), his invincible strength, and his ability to mediate between the known and the unknown, it is puzzling that Peterson did not bring Jung's archetype of the infant/child into his analytic.

14. Peterson's Maps of Meaning is on the one hand fascinating because of what it illuminates with respect to the patriarchal system it analyzes; it is on the other hand myopic because of what it fails to account for or even consider with respect to what is suppressed within the patriarchal system (cf. Sheets-Johnstone 1994b). In keeping with themes in mythology, religion, and Jungian psychiatry, the known and the unknown are personified by The Great Father and the Great and Terrible Mother, respectively, and the terrain between the two is mediated by the Hero. It is notable that in this historical/Jungian account, and equally, in Peterson's undistanced, uncritical rendition of it, daughters never enter the scene; there are only sons or the son. It is notable too that there are only heros. Heroines never enter the scene either--although a princess makes a brief appearance on p. 248 as she "waits for the kiss of the hero to wake." It is as if The Great and Terrible Mother never gives birth to females.

15. Females in fact rarely make an appearance within the analysis Peterson offers, or, if they do, it is with marginal attention, as when he writes that "rapid maturation and the naturally dramatic onset of menstruation" explain why "[initiatory] rituals tend to be more complex and far-reaching for males than for females" (p. 222); or when he writes that, following male initiatory rites, "The new environment is the society of men, where women are sexual partners and equals instead of sources of dependent comfort" (p. 224). How females come to be sexual partners in "the society of men" is not perplexing, but how they come to be "equal" in "the society of men" remains perplexing--and a challenge to this day. The question of an easy equality aside, how females make the transition from being "sexual partners and equals" to being "sources of dependent comfort" (i.e., mothers), or vice versa, or encompass the two modes--partner/equal and mother--not transitionally but simultaneously in "the society of men," is nowhere considered. Peterson's oversight is odd given the fact that having a child, for example--at the very least, a first child--is "unexplored territory," not only in the experiences of pregnancy and of giving birth, but in day to day discoveries of new meanings and potentially daily creative engagements with another being. Females are so shortly and breezily accounted for in Peterson's book that they appear to be no more than necessary but ready-made paste-ons in "the society of men"--which, perhaps, is what they are in such a society.

16. It is notable, furthermore, that while there is a Great and Terrible Mother, there is only a Great Father, even though this Great Father is tyrannical in the extreme as well as orderly, i.e., even though he, like Great Mother, has a powerful negative as well as powerful positive side. Why his negative side is not so designated in his label is peculiar--Terrible Father appears only once (p. 379). The lack of balance is particularly striking--and troubling--in light of the fact that men make war, men make concentration camps, men make prison camps, men dismember men, men rape women, and so on, and so on. Although Peterson chronicles the horrors of concentration and prison camps at length, recounting experiences described by Frankl at Auschwitz and by Solzhenitsyn at the Gulag Archipelago; although he specifically states that "Man can torture his brother and dance on his grave," that "Man exults in agony, delights in pain, worships destruction and pathology,... and constantly works to lay waste, to undermine, to destroy, to torment, to abuse and devour," that "Man chooses evil, for the sake of the evil," and that Man tortures and exults and chooses as he does out of "slavish adherence to the forces of socialization" (p. 347); although Peterson chronicles all these horrors and designates "Man" as their author, he does not seem to realize that it is specifically, universally, and virtually only males in "the society of men" who make war, who "torture," "massacre," butcher," "rape," "devour," and so on (p. 347). In short, that Peterson draws our attention to the horrors of "Man," all the while not questioning the patriarchal system itself in which Man's brutalities take place is an astonishing and puzzling omission, all the more so in light of his desire to discover the "human motivation for evil" (p. 460) and the way in which we humans might recognize "our infinite capacity for good" (p. 456); all the more so too in light of the absolute and central binary opposition he draws between male and female throughout.

17. One can legitimately wonder not only what kind of culture(s) would evolve--what kind of myths and religions would be spawned, what kind of stories would be told--but most significantly in terms of Peterson's central concern, to what degree evil would continue to "turn the world into hell" (p. 456), if females were the humans who spoke for society--for humanity--if they created myths of origin and structured cultures; or, if females and males in truth recognized each other as equals, treated each other as equals, and were thereby capable of creating culture together. In other words, if the "patriarchal kingdom of culture" were not patriarchal, and not a kingdom, and if connectedness rather than combative binary oppositions structured culture(s), then commonalities rather than differences might fundamentally motivate and define human action, and in ways that would move us in the direction Peterson tries to move us, i.e., toward "our infinite capacity for good." Taking just such a critical perspective on the "patriarchal system," Peterson might be willing to examine the structure of "the society of men" and determine how it eventuates in the morality it does. After all, if "morality, at its most fundamental level, is an emergent property of social interaction, embodied in individual behavior, implicit in the value attributed to objects and situations, grounded (unconsciously) in procedural knowledge" (p. 391-92), then whatever morality we have is a morality of the society in which we live, and an unfailingly scrupulous examination and critique of "the society of men" in which we live is mandatory. It may be that the kind of order a patriarchal system or patriarchal kingdom of culture produces is not the kind of order conducive to the morality Peterson envisions. The order the Great Father sets up, for example, is in opposition to Nature--in all Her forms, objective and well as culturally elaborated in myth, religion, and a host of other kinds of "narratives." It engenders a "dominant male" morality--and mentality--one which has evolutionary roots (Sheets-Johnstone 1994b), but one that is also unenlightened by insights into the positive moral capacities of humans that Peterson elucidates and personifies in the Hero. The question Peterson might ask himself is whether there is a connection between the opposition and the morality.

18. Peterson's conflation of information and meaning detracts from his epistemic analysis. In the closing section of the book titled "The Divinity of Interest," Peterson says "Meaning is the most profound manifestation of instinct" (p. 468), a manifestation of our attraction to the unknown. When humans abandon their instinct toward meaning, he says, they do not only abandon life: "When meaning is denied, hatred for life and the wish for its destruction inevitably rules" (p. 469). Information can hardly be said to be an instinct and to function in the way meaning does. Yet apart from the end pages of the book as cited above, Peterson appears to use the terms synonymously, and thus to give the impression that what people "pick up" from myths and religions is information about how to live. For example, he writes that "narrative ... contains much more information than it explicitly presents" (p.77), or, speaking of the hero who "quells the threat embedded in chaos and frees what is promising from its grip," Peterson writes that "Incorporation of this freed promise (this "redemptive" information)... transforms the hero (pp. 181-82). He writes later that the hero may return to the community, "treasure in hand, with information whose incorporation would benefit society" (p. 279). Meanings and information alike may be incorporated into the epistemic structure of society, but they are not thereby equivalent. In phenomenological terms, meaning involves going beyond what is actually there, sensuously present in our experience. Thus the object as meant, as Husserl describes it (e.g., 1977, 1983,) is different (epistemologically, not ontologically) from the object that is there before us. Information does not involve our going beyond the object. On the contrary, and as commonly conceived, information is out there, objectively embedded--in the actual features of the object itself. The nature and conception of information explain common usage: people speak of "picking up information" from the world (Gibson 1979)). They do not speak of "picking up" meaning. Peterson's descriptive account of meaning in the closing pages bears out this distinction and belies any notion of equivalence. Indeed, meaning resonates psychologically; it is there only for a subject. Unlike information that is out there in the world, it does not exist apart from that subject.

19. A number of passages throughout the book are repetitive. For example, p. 256 is one of many pages where Peterson repeats how, when expectations are jolted, fear and hope are generated, and how, through exploration, new possibilities emerge; on pp. 281-282 Peterson reiterates once more the relationship between the degree of order or rigidity of a society and the degrees of freedom to explore the unknown; on p. 428, he repeats the tension between the alchemist's quest and the authority of the Christian church. The repetitions distract the reader from the narrative's flow.

20. With respect to an exasperating format which, I am supposing, is due to a reader-unfriendly production editor rather than to the book's author, I note the following detractions:

   (1) At each turn, the reader does not need to be reminded of the
name of the author of the book he/she is reading. A reader-friendly format would have had the particular section title as a running head on one page (not the author's name) and the chapter title as a running head on the other page. This format would have been all the more helpful since there are only five chapters in the 469 pages that comprise the text. Given the complexity as well as the length of the book, section titles would have made excellent running heads. (The use of centered rather than continuously left-margin section and sub- section headings would also have been helpful.)

   (2) The index is poorly done. While there are entries of see also,
there are no sub-headings, only computer-generated strings of numbers following a heading. Many of these strings of numbers, e.g., under the headings death, fear, culture, order, representation, reality, story, tradition, and unconscious, to name only a few, run on for five to eight lines, thus forcing a diligent reader to look up and sort through as many as eighty references. Also, primary headings are missing--e.g., prima materia, way (the way), the latter a term Peterson uses in a recognized Taoist sense. The omissions are especially striking in view of the fact that vortex, for example, somehow warrants inclusion even though it is a single-page entry that is found in parentheses and in quotes in the middle of a long quotation about Moby Dick by Northrop Frye ("The axis image appears in the maelstrom or descending spiral ("vortex") of the last few pages"), as does interloper, even though it too is a single-page entry, found at the beginning of Peterson's re-telling of the story of Guatama Buddha ("The prince's fascinated gaze fell upon the ancient interloper.") It is difficult to imagine Peterson making these choices, but it is difficult too to imagine him unconcerned with the choices made.


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