Jordan Peterson’s Maps Of Meaning

A little over a year ago, Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology and clinical psychologist, emerged from relative obscurity thanks to a video he posted on his personal YouTube channel, contesting the adoption of Bill C-16 in Canada, which was ostensibly designed to extend human rights protections to transgendered people, but which, Peterson contended, went radically further than any previous bill by not merely restricting what could be said (as previous anti-hate speech legislation has done, for example), but by compelling speech (in this case, the use of “preferred pronouns”). The bill passed into law in June of this year, but Peterson’s oppositional stance became a focal point for critics and supporters alike in a larger cultural war. The result, from his detractors, has been an unbroken barrage of bile and character assassination, including successful attempts to “no-platform” him on college campuses and unsuccessful attempts to have him fired. His outspokenness has also earned him countless supporters: his YouTube channel, for example, had a mere ten thousand subscribers when I first joined it, and is now set to break the half-million mark before the year’s end. His interviews – on television programs, the Joe Rogan podcast, and the Waking Up podcast with Sam Harris – have totalled several million views. His support on Patreon, a crowdfunding website, now exceeds $50,000 Canadian per month, and his Biblical lecture series – funded by that very Patreon support, and available for free on YouTube – has packed theatres in Toronto. This kind of fame, bestowed on a mild-mannered, middle-aged professor, demands an explanation, and Maps of Meaning, composed over a period of 15 years before its initial publication in 1999, offers a major insight into the source of his popularity.

The book is an attempt to rescue mythology – including religious mythology – from its present, lower status as prescientific cosmogony or mere curiosity, by analyzing it through a psychological lens. We make a grave mistake, Peterson argues, when we assume that the mythologies of the prehistoric civilizations were concocted primarily to explain the physical world. Here are the book’s opening paragraphs:

The world can be validly construed as forum for action, or as place of things.

The former manner of interpretation – more primordial, and less clearly understood – finds its expression in the arts or humanities, in ritual, drama, literature and mythology. The world as forum for action is a place of value, a place where all things have meaning. This meaning, which is shaped as a consequence of social interaction, is implication for action, or – at a higher level of analysis – implication for the configuration of the interpretive schema that produces or guides action.

Science, as Peterson will go on to argue, though a valuable tool for understanding the objective world, cannot instruct us how to act in the world, for the scientific method – by design – strips everything it studies of its subjective value, the better to analyze it objectively, and action requires a value system: you have to prefer one outcome over another, one direction over another, one choice over another. You might use facts to inform yourself on your journey through life, but even here your value system comes into play, because there are an infinite number of facts, and only a small percentage of these will be valuable to you in pursuit of your goals. Mythology, in Peterson’s understanding, acts as a kind of instructional manual for how to act in the world:

Science might be considered “description of the world with regard to those aspects that are consensually apprehensible” or “specification of the most effective mode of reaching an end (given a defined end).” Narrative – myth, most fundamentally – can be more accurately regarded as description of the world as it signifies (for action). The mythic universe is a place to act, not a place to perceive. Myth therefore describes things in terms of their unique or shared affective valence, their value, their motivational significance.

This being the case, it is unsurprising that myths share a common substructure, for there are only so many ways to act in the world that produce stable, lasting societies (a necessary precondition for any myth to be passed down through time). Beginning with the oldest creation myths, the Enuma Elish of Babylon and the Egyptian story of Osiris and Set, and ending in analyses of Daoism, Buddhism and Christianity, Peterson charts the similarities between these stories and explains the psychological significance of their shared elements.

The foundational framework of these myths is the division between chaos and order, or what Peterson calls the unknown and the known. This is a division with intense psychological significance to all living creatures. For example, in one of his course lectures, Peterson describes the behavior of a cat upon being placed in a new and unfamiliar setting: the cat will walk cautiously along the periphery of that territory, sniffing out potential threats, before it will allow itself to be at ease in its new context. He also describes a similar experiment done with rats, in which foreign objects are introduced into their cages. At first, they will be timid, even fearful, in the presence of the new object, before they will gradually approach and investigate the nature of the new object: is it a threat? is it food? can I mate with it? This illustrates an important point about the phenomenological significance of the unknown: it might contain a threat, and therefore it is threatening, but it might likewise contain an opportunity, and therefore contains great promise.

Appreciation of the nature of the unknown as a category developed as a consequence of observation of our inherent response to what we did not expect, manifested as predictable pattern of affect and behavior: fear and curiosity, terror and hope, inhibition of ongoing activity and cautious exploration, “habituation” and generation of novel and situation-specific appropriate behavioural strategies.

We enter the “unknown” or the unexplored, or chaos, when we lose our interpretive schema for orienting ourselves in the world:

The unknown or unexpected or novel appears when plans go wrong: when behavioral adaptation or interpretive schema fails to produce what is desired or to predict what occurs. The appearance of the unexpected or unpredictable inhibits ongoing goal-directed activity in the absence of conscious volition.

From a psychological perspective, few things are more threatening than to be so disoriented, to taken by surprise, that our entire framework for understanding the world and our place in it is called into question, but this is precisely what “the unknown” represents, and from an evolutionary perspective, the absence of an effective paradigm for making sense of the world inevitably awakens in us fears of death and destruction. Faced with the unknown, then, we have two options: we might shrink from it, in deference to the obvious threat it represents, or we might voluntarily confront it, master it, and take from it what is useful to our lives. The hero myths describe the voluntary choice to confront disorder, but that precise attitude of voluntary exploration is vital:

The probability that the meaning of unexplored territory will be threat, however, appears to be a function of the interpretive context within which it makes its appearance. If the unknown is approached voluntarily (which is to say, “as if” it is beneficial), then its promising aspect is more likely to appear salient.

Peterson quotes from Matthew 7:7-8, to make this exact point: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.”

Predictably, then, the standard creation myth involves a hero or god (or god-like hero) confronting the unknown and carving order out of chaos, laying the foundations for a future society or culture’s happiness. Variants on this theme involve a hero confronting a stagnant or corrupt social order, first by descending into the unknown (where valuable, redemptive information lies), and then by incorporating this new information into his being and using it to slay whatever force (tyrant, or dragon, or other mythological creature) has corrupted society. Mythologies represent this journey through images, rather than explicitly through language, because they are only understood thematically. It is Peterson’s contention that this mythological development reached its apex under Christianity, which cast the human individual as the hero, offering every man and woman their opportunity to confront the chaos within their own person, and tasking them, first and foremost, with the perfection of their own souls. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, one of Peterson’s idols and intellectual influences, famously proclaimed that “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts,” and so it’s easy to see Peterson’s attachment to Christianity, but contained within that commitment to the individual is a radical idea: that society’s best chance for redemption is for every individual member of that society to prioritize their own development, their own battle against chaos and disorder.

Which brings me, full circle, to Peterson’s remarkable popularity. His mostly young, mostly male audience have grown up in an unprecedented time in the history of Western culture, when the protective auspices of culture have been stripped away – in the name of progress, no less! – and the vast majority of these men have floundered. Addiction, unemployment, and the nihilism attendant on a life whose greatest hobbies consist of fantasy sports and video games have left many men today with no “map of meaning,” no conviction that there is any higher goal worth struggling towards. The Millennial flight from responsibility has created a generation of men sympathetic to – if not identical to – Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, whom Peterson quotes:

Destroy my desires, eradicate my ideals, show me something better, and I will follow you. You may say I’m not worth bothering with; in that case, I can say exactly the same to you. We are talking seriously. And if you do not deign to give me your attention, I will not bow before you. I have my underground.

Having witnessed all of the cultural structures that gave men meaning and purpose within Western society abolished or diminished, the modern man has reciprocated society’s indifference, retreating into an underground of his own making. Why is Peterson so loved by exactly these men? Because he takes their concerns seriously, meets them on their own terms, and offers them the possibility of redemption. He offers them meaning.