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.