Jordan Peterson (2) You Can’t Get There from Here

Less than a week ago Paul Matthews pointed out to his fellow clisceppers the video of the RSA interview with Jordan Peterson, and Ian Woolley wrote it up in an article here,  resulting in a long, interesting and continuing discussion, taking us very far from the discussion of climate.

Paul’s tip related to the unsuccessful attempt of the interviewer/moderator Jonathan Rowson to bring climate change into the debate, challenging Peterson’s individual-centred psychology on the grounds that political activism was urgent in many fields, and couldn’t wait for the kind of self-improvement which Peterson was recommending. Peterson dismisses it with a couple of off-hand remarks, and the subject disappeared from the discussion.

During the week Peterson has received a quite extraordinary amount of publicity, with favourable reviews in the Spectator, and, more surprisingly, in the Guardian, and an internet flame war around the interview by Newman on Channel Four which has attracted 2 million views, and the attention of PC Plod of the Thought Constabulary. In the course of this useful media storm, the nature of Peterson’s thought has got a bit lost. I’d like to come back to that, via a consideration of Peterson’s first book, Maps of Meaning which is available at his site.

Peterson’s fame is based on the success of his on-line Youtube lectures. His intellectual reputation is based on just two books, both of which took him about fifteen years to write. Those two facts establish him as a very odd kind of intellectual. And his first book does nothing to dispel this impression.

The maps of the title are a mapping of mythic thinking using the techniques of current clinical psychology (or possibly vice versa). The psychology is described at a level of abstraction which makes my brain hurt. Luckily there are examples, stories which reduce the abstractions to the most mundane levels of hope and fear, success and failure, expressed in terms of someone wanting a better job, more love and money etc. Quotes from Nietzsche and Jung alternate with exhortations to imagine how you feel in an important business meeting. This is not the kind of book that wins you Nobel Prizes.

The book opens with a highly personal account of the author’s adolescent quest for meaning. He rejects the Christianity of his parents, takes up left wing activism, is disappointed by the nature of his fellow-activists, and, on reading the similar disillusionment of Orwell in “the Road to Wigan Pier,” he rejects ideology and his legal studies and takes up psychology.

Obsessed by the crimes perpetrated in the name of ideology and the mutual assured destruction of the cold war, he experiences some kind of existential crisis, doubts the sincerity of his own beliefs and utterances, becomes aware of his own violent fantasies, and starts having intense frightening dreams. He reads Freud, and then Jung, who awakens an interest in mythology, and he comes to terms with his dreams and violent thoughts.

I read Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, and found it useful. Freud at least took the topic seriously – but I could not regard my nightmares as wish-fulfillments. Furthermore, they seemed more religious than sexual in nature. I knew, vaguely, that Jung had developed specialized knowledge of myth and religion, so I started through his writings.

After this courageous act of self revelation, he lays out his current beliefs:

I have become convinced that the world-that-is-belief is orderly: that there are universal moral absolutes… I believe that individuals and societies who flout these absolutes – in ignorance or in willful opposition – are doomed to misery and eventual dissolution. I learned that the meanings of the most profound substrata of belief systems can be rendered explicitly comprehensible, even to the skeptical rational thinker – and that, so rendered, can be experienced as fascinating, profound and necessary. I learned why people wage war … and what might be done to ameliorate this tendency, despite its universality. I learned, finally, that the terrible aspect of life might actually be a necessary precondition for the existence of life – and that it is possible to regard that precondition, in consequence, as comprehensible and acceptable. I hope that I can bring those who read this book to the same conclusions…

The book proper begins with a series of introductory paragraphs in italics which head each chapter and subchapter, and which he recommends his readers to read first.

Read as a unit, they comprise a complete but compressed “picture” of the book. These should be read first, after this preface. In this manner, the whole of the argument I am offering might come quickly to aid comprehension of the parts.

Bad idea. The first paragraph reads:

The world can be validly construed as a forum for action, as well as a place of things. We describe the world as a place of things, using the formal methods of science. The techniques of narrative, however – myth, literature, and drama – portray the world as a forum for action. The two forms of representation have been unnecessarily set at odds, because we have not yet formed a clear picture of their respective domains. The domain of the former is the “objective world” – what is, from the perspective of intersubjective perception. The domain of the latter is “the world of value” – what is and what should be, from the perspective of emotion and action.

Fine so far. He is delineating the world of facts, of science (in his case, the science of clinical psychology) and that of action which he is happy to leave to myth, literature, and drama. Perhaps we should add politics, history and social science to the latter category, since otherwise there seems no place for what people actually do, as opposed to what they imagine doing in myth, literature, and drama. With that proviso, we can accept his rough and ready division of our conceptual world.

Second italicised paragraph:

The world as forum for action is “composed,” essentially, of three constituent elements, which tend to manifest themselves in typical patterns of metaphoric representation. First is unexplored territory – the Great Mother, nature, creative and destructive, source and final resting place of all determinate things. Second is explored territory – the Great Father, culture, protective and tyrannical, cumulative ancestral wisdom. Third is the process that mediates between unexplored and explored territory – the Divine Son, the archetypal individual, creative exploratory “Word” and vengeful adversary. We are adapted to this “world of divine characters,” much as the “objective world.” The fact of this adaptation implies that the environment is in “reality” a forum for action, as well as a place of things.

Oh dear. Great Mother. Great Father. Divine Son.

We are adapted to this “world of divine characters,” much as [to] the “objective world.”

Oh, no, we’re, not. Peterson has jumped to his conclusion here, gathered from a reading of world myth drawn essentially from Jung and Eliade. (And it’s odd that Freud, who revolutionised our view of the psyche precisely by insisting on the importance of the father / mother / child relationship, although cited more than a dozen times in the text, doesn’t get a mention in the bibliography.)

The book alternates the rather dry and abstract findings of clinical psychology with the rather more fun stuff from mythology, to support a fascinating theory of the human psyche – the way we necessarily are – which is badly served by a number of disastrously pathetic diagrams. (Remember those computer graphic applications circa 1999? Trying to rewrite Homer, Kant and Wittgenstein with arrows and ellipses was another bad idea.)

There’s plenty to admire in this book. It’s the kind of text I used to seek out when I was the kind of weirdo adolescent Looking For Answers who apparently form his Youtube fan base. Indeed, some of the books I found in my own quest figure in his bibliography. But it’s not the Answer to Everything he seems to think it is. Which doesn’t stop him from digging up stuff that we at Cliscep can be grateful for – for example, his description of the take of St. Luke, Isaiah and Milton on the 97% consensus.

On p250 he quotes Northrop Frye on Milton:

In the New Testament (Luke 10:18) Jesus speaks of Satan as falling from heaven, hence Satan’s traditional identification with Isaiah’s Lucifer and his growth in legend into the great adversary of God, once the prince of the angels, and, before being displaced, the firstborn son of God. The superhuman demonic force behind the heathen kingdoms is called in Christianity the Antichrist, the earthly ruler demanding divine honors.”

and Peterson comments:

It is not that easy to understand why the act of presuming omniscience is reasonably construed as precisely opposite to the act of creative exploration (as the adversary is opposite to the hero). What “knowing everything” means, however – at least in practice – is that the unknown no longer exists, and that further exploration has therefore been rendered superfluous – has been rendered unnecessary, by definition (even treacherous). This means that absolute identification with the “known” necessarily comes to replace all opportunity for identification with the process that comes to know. The presumption of absolute knowledge, which is the cardinal sin of the rational spirit, is therefore prima facie equivalent to rejection of the hero – to rejection of Christ, of the Word of God, of the (divine) process that mediates between order and chaos. The arrogance of the totalitarian stance is ineradicably opposed to the “humility” of creative exploration.

Identifying Lewandowsky with the Anti-Christ is a step I’ve never dared take. But I‘d not read Northrop Frye on Milton.

So I recommend the book to anyone who wants to enlarge their intellectual horizons, including me, (since of course I haven’t read it all.) But perhaps not to Ms Newman and her friends. There’s much that they might find upsetting, for example:

The Great Mother, in her negative guise, is the force that induces the child to cry in the absence of her parents. She is the branches that claw at the night traveler, in the depths of the forest. She is the terrible force that motivates the commission of atrocity – planned rape and painful slaughter – during the waging of war. She is aggression, without the inhibition of fear and guilt; sexuality in the absence of responsibility, dominance without compassion, greed without empathy. She is the Freudian id, unconsciousness contaminated with the unknown and mortal terror, and the flies in the corpse of a kitten. She is everything that jumps in the night, that scratches and bites, that screeches and howls; she is paralyzing dismay, horror, and the screams that accompany insanity. The Great Mother aborts children, and is the dead fetus; breeds pestilence, and is the plague; she makes of the skull something gruesomely compelling, and is all skulls herself.

Peterson is speaking as a mythographer here, not as a scientist. Still, It would be fun to see his response if Ms Newman pulled this quote on him. So you’re equating feminism with the flies in the corpse of a kitten, Professor Peterson?”

For all Peterson’s erudition, for all the quotes from Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky, this book, and so many like it which claim to explain the Big Questions, like the Shoah, or the madness of crowds, or our inability to manage our world rationally, fails, as it must. It makes me think of the old Irish joke “You can’t get there from here.” However interesting a plunge into ancient myth may be, it can’t answer anything. Ever. It can only make us a little more aware of the complexity of ourselves and of the problems we face.

The same joke comes to my mind continually in the climate debate, in two quite distinct contexts. First that the climate catastrophists can’t get from a statement of the banal phenomenon of slow centennial global warming to a demonstration of likely catastrophe; and secondly, that climate sceptics are quite incapable of getting their voices heard, for reasons which are too tiresome to explain.

There’s no way you can get the from the scientific evidence for man-made global warming as laid out in the IPCC Working Group One to the social implications laid out in WG2 or the policy recommendations in WG3. I’m not saying it’s logically impossible, just that they can’t do it. It’s an impossible task.

Suppose AGW was a meteorite likely to hit the earth in fifty years time. Then WG2 would tell you what the likely results would be, and WG3 would tell you what to do about it. Except that, in that case, no-one would bother writing WG2&3, would they? They’d just get straight on doing something – anything. Which is why there’s a massive effort to tell us that AGW is like a meteorite hurtling towards the earth. Except it’s not. It’s not even like a hot something passing near enough to the planet to warm it by a few degrees. It’s a list of various possible things which might happen as a result of our almost inevitable economic development. And because the precise nature of that development, and the precise nature of the changes induced, and the precise nature of the results of those changes, are impossible to predict even ten or twenty years out, the recommendations are by their very nature pointless. Unless you think that, just because Venice and Manhattan have survived ten thousand years, they must necessarily be preserved for another ten thousand years into the future.

(Does the idea that Venice might not still be there in a thousand years’ time make you feel uncomfortable? Now why would that be? Reading Peterson’s book might at least make you ask the question.)

The second context in which the observation that “you can’t get there from here” seems relevant is when one considers the possible ways that AGW hysteria might be stopped in its tracks. It’s logically possible of course that a half a dozen political leader might follow Trump’s lead and just drop the subject; or that the engineers responsible for the energy sector might face up to their political masters and explain that they can’t keep the factories running on wind and sun power. Or that voters might revolt against high energy policies and vote in climate sceptic parties (which in Europe means parties of the far right). In democracies, where action inevitably breeds reaction and the media and other actors exercise all kinds of inertial influence, the result would inevitably be a horrible mess, economically and politically.

Does the Peterson phenomenon show us a way out of the mess? I don’t mean: Will the Hero Professor go on YouTube to denounce global warming hysteria and lead people to a psychological understanding of their mistaken beliefs and motivations? (Though that would be nice.) But rather: Does the success of a certain kind of alternative thinking, using new media, unorthodox methods, and appealing unexpectedly to unlikely audiences, herald a new way of getting a difficult message across? Does it suggest that the apparently rigid structures of societal control over the ways we think and reason, or rather, the ways our thinking and reasoning are channelled into preordained paths, can be circumvented?

 Let’s hope so.


  1. “the way we necessarily are”

    A big step in trying to fathom such things is believing there is no “we”; rather there’s an “I” and a “you” and “you” is almost certainly more different than I can imagine, since I can imagine only based on my experiences. As I gain more experience my ability to imagine you is enhanced.

    As described or quoted by you I sense some of the incomprehensible writings of St. Thomas that made perfect sense to him but not to me and I sense that to achieve comprehension I would have to redefine a great many words.

    I find Jung’s concept of archetypes compelling, to the limited degree I still remember such things. Your archetypes are not my archetypes BUT the total number of them is limited. In a sense it is vaguely similar to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator as these types are hugely different yet fairly well compartmented; that is to say, the realm is not smoothly homogenous but clumps around attractors of some kind.


  2. Geoff. You wrote “Does the success of a certain kind of alternative thinking, using new media, unorthodox methods, and appealing unexpectedly to unlikely audiences, herald a new way of getting a difficult message across? ” Clearly your thoughts were on Peterson, but my mind immediately flipped to Trump recognizing that you could have been writing about him and his political success. Was this at all intentional?


  3. If we’re talking Jung, I’m not altogether certain that Peterson hasn’t mixed into his list of negative aspects of the Great Mother certain facets which should more reasonably be attributable to the repressed Animus in women, the Anima in men and the tyrannical aspect of the Great Father.


  4. “The world as forum for action is “composed,” essentially, of three constituent elements, which tend to manifest themselves in typical patterns of metaphoric representation. First is unexplored territory – the Great Mother, nature, creative and destructive, source and final resting place of all determinate things. Second is explored territory – the Great Father, culture, protective and tyrannical, cumulative ancestral wisdom. Third is the process that mediates between unexplored and explored territory – the Divine Son, the archetypal individual, creative exploratory “Word” and vengeful adversary. We are adapted to this “world of divine characters,” much as the “objective world.” The fact of this adaptation implies that the environment is in “reality” a forum for action, as well as a place of things.”

    It’s difficult to know what Peterson is getting at here, without reading the book, which I shall endeavour to do. Is he talking about the “world” as composed of the outer, objective world of ‘things’ and human society and the inner, archetypal, subjective realm of the Great Mother? I think possibly not as he identifies nature as part of this supposed ‘unexplored territory’, which is most definitely real and tangible and, contrary to Peterson’s claim, rather well explored by the rational sciences. But then scientific discovery is merely nature made manifest. ‘Nature’, in the mind of the ‘primitive’, is in large measure unmanifest and unexplained, emergent only in the realm of the senses, but consisting also of a vast substrata of formless, subconscious ‘beginnings’, including the origin of consciousness and Man himself.

    I think I agree with Peterson that we are adapted to nature and to the inner realm of archetypes. Earth religions, worship of the fertile, abundant, life-giving and, in some guises, the dark, terrible, angry, life-taking female Mother Goddess, were in existence long before the current patriarchal structures emerged. As such, they are not unexplored, merely dormant, half-forgotten, which does not imply that we are not adapted to them. If anything, I think we are increasingly less well adapted to the ‘world of things’, to modern society, to technology, to ‘progress’ in all its wondrous, life-affirming, but sometimes malign and even fatal manifestations. That’s what humans have the most problems with, in large part because they have cut themselves off from the vital insights and perspectives to be gained from contemplation of the inner, archetypal life, the realm of nature unbound and Jung’s Collective Unconscious. Is this because what Peterson defines as the intermediary between these two realms, the Divine Son, the creative exploratory “Word”, has become shriveled and atrophied in the modern mind and in modern society? Perhaps.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks Geoff. I like the faint praise “There’s plenty to admire in this book. It’s the kind of text I used to seek out when I was the kind of weirdo adolescent Looking For Answers who apparently form his Youtube fan base.”

    It’s still a mystery why his philosophical and psychological ramblings about Jung and Nietzsche have made him a hero with a cult following of young men, as is apparently the case.

    He also has some videos on Maps of Meaning. Part 1 is two and a half hours long. It’s quite impressive that he just talks for that long without any notes or slides (oh, no, I’m wrong, a slide comes up on the screen after 1 hour 40min – one of those diagrams Geoff doesn’t like) , but it doesn’t help answer my mystery – he’s not a captivating speaker. It starts off with the cold war, winning and losing at monopoly, and goes on to belief systems, the meaning of life and existentialism. That’s followed by Maps of Meaning 2: Marionettes & Individuals.


  6. Part of the reason may lie in the fact Gen X and generations prior (like Paul, Ben, Jaime …) were not subjected to a stifling totalitarian thought regime in our formative years, as the millennials seem to be. It is thus harder (for us) to imagine the fervent devotion that a Peterson or a Yiannopoulous elicits. Like many have noted, Peterson brings a preacher ethos to his rhetorical game, something Nietzsche alludes to repeatedly (‘the power of lungs’). Having read Nietzsche to the point of excess, I can imagine the appeal of someone who packages and channels him.


    I cant’t call this a book review, since I haven’t read the book in its entirety! I’m dipping in and out and disciplining myself to treat every paragraph as worthy of serious attention, even when my reactions are much like Paul’s below.
    No, I certainly wasn’t thinking of Trump, though the comparison might be enlightening. We’ve come to assume that social media are only suitable for Trump-like tweets. But what might happen if material like this got popular? Thousands of people commenting as they do on his Youtube lectures could radically change the way we think about serious subjects.
    Isolated quotes are particularly unfair for a writer like Peterson. He formulates his basic categories several times, and is well aware of the contradictions between different definitions. His insistence on the importance of context for establishing meaning can sound a bit post-modern, which he definitely isn’t. If you know some Jung and appreciate his thought, you have a head start on the rest of us. Peterson baulks at Jung’s idea of a collective unconscious, with its implication of inherited memories. Though aren’t there recent experiments feeding the brains of beasts to other beasts suggesting that memories, or learned behaviour, can be acquired chemically?
    You’re right about the temporal priority of the Mother Goddess, though I’m not sure that matters to his argument, since he’s not concerned with chronology, and doesn’t seem to consider the vast area of myth interpretation other than Eliade and Jung. Atemporal, self contradictory, based on the father/mother/child triad – his view of myth sits well with the Freudian view of the unconscious, but he surprisingly gives very little credit to Freud.
    There are many errors in the text (“appollinian,” Sir James Frazier..)which suggests it’s a draft of the eventual book.


  8. Geoff, as I understand it, Jung’s Collective Unconconscious was not so much a collection of inherited memories, more inherited tendencies, which he called Archetypes, residing in a layer of unconsciousness deeper even than where we find personal unconscious material (which Freudian psychology mainly concerns itself with). These ‘tendencies’ impress themselves upon conscious expression; thus the remarkable universality of certain symbols and myths, across cultures which can have had no direct interaction. Whether or not there is any scientific evidence for the inheritance of these tendencies, whether such archetypes can be genetically encoded somehow, I’ve no idea. Until such evidence emerges of course, the collective unconscious remains a largely metaphysical concept.


  9. I don’t suppose that you’ll be surprised that I never went through that phase where I was ‘the kind of weirdo adolescent Looking For Answers’ where his book would have appealed. It’s too tangential for me. I rather think that his own opinons are far more logical than those that impressed him like Jung’s and Nietzsche’s. It has to be his spoken words that have attracted an audience rather than his written ones unless his later works are more digestible. I get the impression that he’s still exploring a lot of ideas.


  10. There’s now an article about Peterson and in his lobsters at the Conversation.

    As the first comment points out, it’s not the smear that you might expect (there’s no mention of alt-right). Nevertheless, a lot of Peterson fans have piled into the comment section.


  11. @TINYC02, You say –

    “I never went through that phase where I was ‘the kind of weirdo adolescent Looking For Answers’”

    not sure what the age range for “adolescent” is today, but at 60 “Looking For Answers” has applied all my life.

    so I am surprised 🙂


  12. I have just watched this….

    ‘Align your soul with the structure of being.’
    ‘Tell the truth and that will work.’
    ‘Do what is meaningful and not what’s expected.’

    Not aphorisms but contemplation imbedded in
    painful personal history and deep references to
    Socrates and the Open Society and its Enemies.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. dfhunter “where his book would have appealed”, is the last part of the sentence. If I went through a phase of finding myself and needing books tracking the self discovery of others to help, I don’t remember it. I think my Mum would have said that I got passed that before I could read.

    That’s not the same as learning new things. I love learning new things, I’m just not influenced much by what others think about those new things. In the same way, I don’t need climate experts to do my opinion forming for me.


  14. Thanks BETHTHSERF for the link to the video. Only the first 30 minutes of this nearly two hour interview is about Newman. Peterson was obviously genuinely upset by the confrontation. At several points I felt that his reactions are much like our reactions to, say, the two Lewandowsky papers, or even more to the Mann/ Lewandowsky Nature piece linking our anger to the white powder sent to Mann and the email accusing Lew of being a “Nazi kike.” The Mann/ Cook/ Lewandowsky ploy is pure Newman, except that instead of a face to face “What you’re saying is..” they use a peer-reviewed “What they’re saying is…” tactic, And any denial we make has to be peer reviewed too, or it doesn’t count.

    We suffer from two further drawbacks. We don’t have Peterson’s talent for analysing what’d going on, and we have nothing we could put on Youtube, no clear evidence of the nature of our confrontation that could be viewed by millions of people.

    Should there be? Should we give up on the endless articles arguing our case, like the endless piles of written affidavits amassed by some mad obsessed litigant in some endless case of no interest to anyone outside the legal profession, and take to Youtube? Just asking.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Geoff, as Peterson says, I don’t think we should give up arguing
    our case. But what we’re up against has become a tactical machine
    that’s like war propaganda. Here are the tactics that can be exploited
    if you are a post modernist who believes only in power or someone who
    thinks their ends justify the means.
    Don’t know how to deal with this but we hafta’ try. I’m working on a blog post
    on the open society now. Just a drop in the ocean … but free speech while
    we can, keep the Alexandria Library open.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. 13a in Beththeserf’s last comment, for those who don’t click every link, is Goebbels’ advice:

    13. Propaganda must be carefully timed. (a) The communication must reach the audience ahead of competing propaganda.

    Beth, your article will surely be welcome at cliscep when you’re finished. And here’s hoping the Alexandrian Library stays open, despite the spending cuts by the Thatcherite President Sissi.

    Seriously, I’m reading a late Greek poet now, Nonnos of Panopolis, who was heavily reliant on what remained c.500AD of the Alexandrine poets, after the fire. We all need to remember that everything might be wiped tomorrow by a presidential edict, or a commercial decision by a multi billionaire worried about his share price. So back up everything. That’s what Nonnos did, on papyrus.

    Liked by 1 person

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