YouTube video: Preface – Descensus Ad Inferos
Welcome to Lecture 1 analyzing psychologist turned philosopher Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. In this first episode we will be exploring the preface of Maps of Meaning entitled “Descensus Ad Inferos” which is structured around introducing the reader to Jordan Peterson’s journey from his rural upbringing in a Christian home struggling with metaphysical questions, to his self-realization as a secular psychologist interested in the unconscious foundation of human belief systems that morally structure the order of civilization.
Jordan Peterson, as should be well known at this point, is a psychologist at the University of Toronto. Although he has long been a well-respected professor with an impressive publication record and popular lecture series based on this book, Maps of Meaning, he has only recently experienced a meteoric rise to fame due to his engagement with many psychological, social and political issues that overdetermine contemporary post-modern society. To be specific, Peterson has been a vocal critic of humanities departments which he views as chambers of ideological indoctrination into activist disciplines; as opposed to places of self-transformation through the logos. In this criticism of the humanities he specifically problematizes the philosophies of deconstruction and the ontology of social power, claiming that they do not understand the underlying unconscious symbolic structure of their deconstruction or the complex nature of individuation.
In contrast to a deconstructive philosophy and an ontology of social power, Peterson himself tends towards a psychoanalytic philosophy and an ontology of the power of logos or true speech. This philosophy is strongly informed by Friedrich Nietzsche from whom he derives a considerable emphasis on the modern crisis of meaning and nihilism; and Carl Jung from whom he derives a considerable emphasis on the unconscious structure of symbolic belief systems. For Peterson, by combining Nietzsche’s emphasis on the individual’s self-responsibility for generating meaning, and Jung’s emphasis on transcendental unconscious ground of individuation, he seeks to re-interpret Christianity and the fundamental nature of Western civilization in the 21st century.
One may first ask why bother with a lecture series focused on Maps of Meaning. The first reason is that this may be a useful exercise for the future of philosophy. As mentioned, dominant philosophies in the past few decades have emphasized deconstruction of rational order and critique of social power regimes, which has in turn inspired a new generation of social activists who aim to undermine the contemporary structure of sexual-gender relations, ethnic-racial relations, and social-economic relations. Thus the main critiques of Peterson’s work suggest that he is too conservative for interpreting the radical core of Nietzsche and Jung as justifying contemporary sexual, social, and economic orders. However, if the only academic engagement with Peterson comes in the form of deconstruction and critique then we may miss an opportunity to reinvent academic discourse considering that his work, largely inspired from Maps of Meaning, has been broadly appealing to many demographics in the contemporary Western public.
Indeed, Peterson’s work has struck a nerve in the current cultural moment, and he has seemingly come to represent an intellectual figure head of our time. This fact has led to extreme polarization, or at least has played into the extreme polarization which has called forth this figure to the world stage. The claim here is that this polarization is not primarily conscious and rational, but primarily unconscious and emotional. This means that this polarization may be driven by belief systems of which we are not fully aware. Thus, in this sense, by offering a highly self-conscious and rational meditation on Peterson’s own work, by giving oneself to the power of the logos and true speech, without regressing into a primarily deconstructive or critical analysis, but instead a constructive reflective analysis, we may gain a new perspective on the appeal of Peterson to a broad audience, and also be able to integrate this work into the narrative of academic philosophy. This constructive and reflective philosophical methodology, it is argued here, is preferable when the alternative is to leave this job to popular media analysis, which seems to only exacerbate polarization and lead to the formation of echo chambers.
Finally, we here get to analyze Peterson as philosopher. Maps of Meaning is Peterson’s first major book and his only major works that articulates his understanding of a range of subjects, from metaphysics to psychoanalysis to historical ontology. In that sense we get to see the emergence here of not just Peterson the academic psychologist, but Peterson the philosopher. Indeed, it could be the case that philosophy today can benefit from a deeper engagement with ideas from psychology, and specifically psychoanalysis. This I would claim is in line with my general interest and effort of working towards a more psychologically or psychoanalytically informed philosophy.
The quote Peterson uses to start the book is derived from the Bible, which gives one a sense already that Peterson is strongly influenced by theology and metaphysics (1):
“I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 13:35)
In terms of psychoanalysis one could frame this statement formally and precisely as a relation between the symbolic and the real. In the psychoanalytic triad of the imaginary-symbolic-real the symbolic and the real are located directly in relation to each other in an antagonistic relation. Thus, the symbolic is often (or in its very nature) unconscious of its own foundation at the ground of world order (its madness is preceded by a vanishing mediator). In contrast, the Real is both the very primordial ground of the symbolic and, paradoxically, its retroactive effect. In this way, the best way for the transcendental to hide the secrets of being is in plain sight, in the very unconscious structure of our symbolic order. When Peterson infers that he will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world, he is inferring that he has developed an understanding of the very meta-level structure of the symbolic order, which holds the world itself in an intelligible structure. Of course, thinking in this way, that the symbolic and the real hold such an intimate relation, may be constitutive of well-informed religious subjectivity, but it is not very common in scientific practice. In scientific practice the foundation of the world, the foundation of reality, has nothing to do with the symbolic, and thus may upon first reflection deter scientifically minded modern people from a work that starts with such a bold and theologically infused statement.
However, we should get used to religious symbolism since it is a constitutive feature of Peterson’s thought in this book. Indeed, the Preface itself possesses a title of direct religious meaning. The title Descensus Ad Inferos can be translated into either “descent into hell” or “harrowing hell”. This is an apt title for an intro structured around an archetypal situation for the post-modern subject, which can be grounded in a young and naive rejection of institutional religion in favour of the secular scientific modern world, only to find that a truly moral self-becoming in the real of chaos requires a much more sophisticated metaphysics then offered by secular science. Indeed, throughout the narrative of the preface Peterson finds himself battling with the meaning of existence and history despite becoming a well-read intellectual with an understanding of modern science. This leads him into the depths of his own unconscious mind and the symbolic texture of history itself in order to attempt to read in our present the direction of Western civilization caught between two worlds, a negation of the pre-modern and a tentative affirmation of some otherness to come.
The main lesson of this preface includes a meditation on the subjective temporal structure of crucifixion and resurrection; with the individual confronting his location on the metaphorical cross of finitude and mortality, and finally the “rose in the cross”, the self-posited rise from the depths of hell into a full meaningful and true participation in the becoming of the infinite and immortal Absolute. Thus, a secondary lesson from this preface includes a meditation on the paradoxes of suffering and pain, which should be read in opposition to theological traditions which seek to minimize the experience of suffering and pain individuation. For Peterson, it is the very fall into the depths of suffering and pain which lead to the self-realization of a true subject. Here can we not make a connection between Peterson and the fundamental nature of the Freudian field which seeks to identify a “beyond” of the pleasure principle?
In this chapter we see an opening set of quotes from Carl Jung, who is clearly located as the main intellectual influence of Peterson’s transformation from crucifixion to resurrection (2):
“Something we cannot see protects us from something we do not understand. The things we cannot see is culture, in its intrapsychic or internal manifestation. The thing we do not understand is the chaos that gave rise to culture. If the structure of culture is disrupted, unwittingly, chaos returns. We will do anything-anything-to defend ourselves against that return.
The very fact that a general problem has gripped and assimilated the whole of a person is a guarantee that the speaker has really experienced it, and perhaps gained something from his sufferings. He will then reflect the problem for us in his personal life and thereby show us a truth.”
Here we will analyze both of these quotes in turn as they are relevant to the fundamental foundations of Peterson’s thought.
Let us consider a representation of the first quote. This representation attempts to capture Peterson’s metaphysical view of the world, which will be familiar to anyone who has listened to his lectures or speeches. On the one side we have the existence of an invisible order, what in psychoanalysis we may refer to as the symbolic order, or simply, culture. This invisible order is invisible precisely because it is suprasensible (beyond sensation), the conceptual scaffolding of our mental geometry that provides for us a map for navigating the world. Consider the real of meeting any other human whatsoever. When one meets any other human whatsoever one is not just encountering a flesh and blood body but also a mind holding a symbolic order of conceptualization that is extraordinarily rich and complex. However, we never see this mind, we never see this symbolic order, as it is from the inside, as it is in its reality. It is suprasensible, it is invisible.
Now this order is not fully transparent to us for a few reasons. First, we do not know how the symbolic order emerges within an evolutionary context. We do not have a total evolutionary account or theory to describe how a realm of biological apes could develop a sophisticated socio-symbolic matrix of transcendental desire and meaning. Moreover, there is the further mystery of attempting to understand why our species, unique in nature, was able to develop this socio-symbolic matrix and what it means (if anything) for the rest of nature. Second, the level of richness and diversity of the symbolic order is of such a bewildering complexity that we can never hope to have a full understanding of its total structure. We by necessity have to reduce and simplify our maps in order to pragmatically engage in the world, and in this process we can never be totally sure if we will reduce and simplify in a way that prevents us from paying attention to extremely relevant information or even worse, as is a theme for Peterson, in a way that allows for the formation of ideological constructs that control the way we think and the way we engage with others.
Second, this invisible order is something that protects us from something we do not understand. This something we do not understand is the vast unknown or the vast otherness that is the rest of nature and the rest of potentiality or possibility internal to our system and our interaction with nature. We have no idea what otherness exists outside of our invisible symbolic orders. Of course, the best mechanisms we have for understanding the otherness of nature is science, which has made considerable progress in previous centuries into understanding the structure of physics, chemistry, biology and so forth. However, we do not necessarily have any good mechanism for understanding the unknown of our own potentiality or the consequences of our own interaction with nature. This is crucial for Peterson because he views everything in terms of historically embedded action. Thus in Peterson’s view we can never detach ontology from ethics of action.
This relation between the invisible and the unknown is incredibly important to understand for this book because his whole worldview revolves around the interaction of an invisible culture attempting to simultaneously defend itself against the monstrous unknown, and also an invisible culture attempting to explore and bravely venture into this unknown without self-destruction. The function of defence against the unknown and exploration in the unknown, is the function of the subject, or in Peterson’s metaphysics the Divine Son.
Now let us consider a representation the captures the second quote by Jung. In this second quote we are asked to reflect on the idea that we can only trust whether a person has “gripped and assimilated” a genuine problem when that person has directly experienced this problem. Throughout the preface Peterson attempts to convince the reader that he has truly been gripped in the totality of his being by the problems that confronts our age, and that this problem is a problem of meaning and nihilism in relation to the disaster of 20th century secular politics. The basic formula represented here is thus that of the objective problem of first the death of God which opens up the secular space for political utopia, and as we all know, this secular space of political utopia was grabbed by both the extreme right of Nazi fascism and the extreme left of Soviet communism. We could also add that the space of political utopia was successfully conquered by Western capitalism which also forms its own utopian notion of an inclusive abundant capital without any marginalized external outside.
Throughout the Preface Peterson introduces us to the way in which he has personally internalized this problem and from this experience, how he seeks to play his role or play his part, in rectifying the situation by helping us to understand the unconscious metaphysical structure of human civilization. In understanding this metaphysical structure of human civilization we will perhaps have a deeper understanding of what went wrong in the 20th century so that we do not fall for the same mistakes in the future and can make a more balanced and reasonable navigation of the chaotic unknown with the invisible order of our suprasensible maps of meaning. Indeed, we will learn that one of the precise lessons from the preface is not to too quickly close and complete a total understanding of the meaning of history, for this obfuscates the reality of the chaotic unknown, of which we can never have a complete knowledge.
In the opening pages of the Preface of Maps of Meaning we are introduced to Peterson’s upbringing in rural Canada where he tells us about the crumbling religious architecture of his larger socio-symbolic matrix. Indeed, in this crumbing religious architecture his own inquiring mind is complicit in its foundational deconstruction and critique. He notes, as will be well-known to anyone who follows his lectures, that he found it interesting the way in which the metaphysical structure of Christianity functions on the level of action, structuring morals and beliefs that were essential for the family and for the larger community substance. However, what is clear is that what undermines this metaphysical structure is the empirical critique, specifically in relation to modern science and the way in which modern science offers creation stories and explanations of reality that not only differ from the religious creation stories, but which directly contradict them.
Indeed, in that sense Peterson’s narrative depicts a situation common to many postmodern subjects of the West. That is the experience of coming to see the holes and gaps in the structure of religion, and specifically, the holes and gaps in the structure of Christianity. Of course, the main doctrines of modern science, that being the cosmic structure provided by general relativity, introducing us to strange curvature of spatiotemporal reality; and the evolutionary structural logic provided by Darwinian natural selection, become too overwhelming for reason in-itself to deny their truth and their validity. Thus, an irreversible process opens up for reason, an irreversible process where it can no longer bare the contradiction between religion and science, where reason can no longer bare the fact that religious stories of creation and nature no longer make sense in light of empirical inquiry. I myself can relate to this process of becoming disinterested in religion due to deep engagement with the structural logical of scientific naturalism.
One of the main reasons why Peterson claims his reason could no longer hold religious metaphysics is related to the impossibilities of immortal resurrection and virgin both. Of course, both claims of religion, that of the possibility that someone could rise from the dead, and that someone could be born without sexual intercourse, are something that make the modern mind constituted by secular reason and physical naturalism, absolutely recoil. How can one hold a worldview based on these impossibilities of physics and nature? In order to believe in such things one would have to sacrifice reason and naturalism, which have allowed us to construct the modern world and explain where we are in the cosmos. Thus, if one is to make this leap of faith, one has to do so without any evidence, and simply believe due to the historical weight of the movement of Christianity itself. Logically, Peterson found this situation untenable, but what follows was not a correlation with natural order, but instead a radical engagement with secular politics and the social becoming of history.
Indeed Peterson starts to account for how he jumped from his religious upbringing and into the modern world which was riddled with its own seemingly much more central secular empirical problems. The world had been divided in the 20th century between the extreme left and the extreme right. The formation of an extreme right had led towards a World War and then the extreme left led to a more prolonged Cold War. Both ideologies were grounded in a totality that was purely secular and empirical, devoid of religion and God, devoid of impossibilities like virgin births and immortal resurrection, devoid of naturalist contradictions with science; however, both led to humanist devastation. The first was founded in the belief in a divine racial identity, and the second was founded in the belief in an economic egalitarianism. Peterson himself, it may shock some people to know, found himself leaning strongly to the Left.
Indeed, Peterson admits that he was quickly attracted to leftist politics on university campuses and even joined the NDP, a leftist party in Canada, to help fight for social justice and economic equality. He states explicitly in the preface that he believed that socialist ideology was the key to political utopia and that the core issues in society could be reconciled with economic equality. If everyone merely had their material foundations provided, then utopia would follow as a logical consequence. To quote Peterson himself on his retroactive perception of this stage of his individuation (3):
“I am amazed at how stereotypical my actions — reactions — really were. I could not rationally accept the premises of religion as I understood them. I turned, in consequence, to dreams of political utopia, and personal power. The same ideological trap caught millions of others, in recent centuries.”
In this sense it is true that Peterson’s own motion was a microcosm of the larger social forces of our age. In the same way many before him had rejected religious metaphysics and then had fallen for the ideologies of secular politics, he also had fallen for this same game. Thus, we should personally reflect deeply when we seek to get involved in political games on the extreme ideological spectrum, and we should seek to investigate the structure of history, first and foremost, so that we do not fall for the same ideological traps that captured previous generations.
From this experience Peterson entered deeper reflection and consideration of some oppositional ideas, which lead him to reconsider his stance on political utopia through socialism (4):
“I read George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier. This book finally undermined me — not only my socialist ideology, but my faith in ideological stances themselves. In the famous essay concluding the book […] Orwell described the great flaw of socialism, and the reason for its frequent failure to attract and maintain democratic power […]. Orwell said, essentially, that socialists did not really like the poor. They merely hated the rich.”
“Sometimes I look at a Socialist — the intellectual, tract-writing type of Socialist, with his pullover, his fuzzy hair, and his Marxian quotation — and wonder what the devil his motive really is. It is often difficult to believe that it is a love of anybody, especially of the working class, from whom he is of all people the furthest removed.”
The fact that such an idea attracted Peterson should come as no surprise to the man who has now become a household name for denouncing the Leftist belief in political utopia through socioeconomic reorganization of society along Marxist lines. Indeed, to this day he maintains the same criticism of the Left, namely that it attracts people who make a life out of transforming themselves into victims who spend their entire life complaining about the horrible social and economic injustices of the world without reflecting on the way in which they themselves are a part of the system, or without really engaging in any productive action to make the world a better place. In contrast, Peterson notes that many of the conservative professionals he met in university seemed to be the opposite of these self-victimizing activists. Thus a paradoxical structure emerges in Peterson’s mind between the genuine caring people of the Left and the genuinely hard working people on the Right. This balance of the two views leads him to become distrustful of any extreme ideology as detracting humans from the real problem of self-development related to caring and knowing.
Indeed, after reading Wigan Pier, Peterson claims that he first became disoriented because he had lost faith in all ideological systems, whether they were religious or political. This led to first immense confusion on how to tell right from wrong, good and bad, and what to fight for and how to structure one’s life. This was perhaps Peterson’s first encounter with the true difficulties and problems of individuation. It was easy to say that you wanted to think for yourself and be a moral person, but it was much harder to do so without a ready-made ideological blanket that will give you all of the answers to all of the problems, erasing the fundamental unknowability of the future and of human history and of personal action. As Peterson himself states: “I was cast adrift; I did not know what to do or what to think.” (6). In order to resolve this issue of thought and action his first principle became to focus on changing the self instead of focusing on changing others. This is of course a principle of action that he carries today, and will be common to anyone who listens to his lectures. Indeed, it may be translated today into the comical meme of “cleaning up one’s own room” before pretending that one has the answers to global social and economic policy.
Peterson thus left the NDP and political activism. His mind slowly drifted from socialist politics to the psychology of ideology. He details the fact that upon his return to university his focus had become much more centred and concentrated on the mind and on the nature of morality, which he no longer saw as economically determined within either Marxist or Behavioural theories of human action. Thus he could no longer justify the hypothesis that social redistribution of wealth would bring us closer to political utopia. In this quest his mind drifted to the real of human experience and action, which he saw as presenting us with irreducible metaphysical questions about the moral nature of good and evil. From these premises the moral nature of the ideologically driven Cold War took center stage in his mind, and he spent most of his time wondering how the world could put the very existence of humanity into question through the development of atomic warfare. (“What could possibly justify the threat of total destruction?”) (7). In order to answer these questions he, instead of turning to the macro-picture of international relations, turned to the micro-picture of the workings of the human mind and the most disturbing dimensions of our action.
This leads us to an uncomfortable reality, and another central premise of Peterson’s philosophy, namely that the best defense against ideology is to realize that society is not divided between good and evil; but rather that every individual is divided between good and evil. For the Nazis good and evil ran along racial lines; for the communist good and evil ran along economics lines. But if good and evil runs along the line of the unconscious heart, then we are dealing first and foremost with the nature of human psychology itself. In this way, when one studies history, from the Communist Gulags to the Nazi Holocaust, one is to understand that you are engaging in the highest possible self-analysis, because that could have been you in the Gulags or in the Camps. The mantra that “All Monsters are Human” or perhaps that “the monstrously inhuman is within” could capture this sentiment, both within Peterson’s philosophy and within general psychoanalytic understanding. Now this brings us to a series of crucial events in Peterson’s history which he details with total openness and honesty, but which are difficult to read. In that sense I warn you in advance that the following passages are difficult, but I think necessary to cover in order to understand the psychology of Peterson’s own development. They have to do with his radical subjective internalization of the nature of evil and how it manifests in the human psyche (8):
“I returned to university and began to study psychology. I visited a maximum security prison on the outskirts of Edmonton[.] […] The psychologist told me that the harmless-appearing little man who had escorted me out of the gym had murdered two policemen after he had forced them to dig their own graves. One of the policemen had little children and had begged for his life on their behalf while he was digging[.] This really shocked me. I had read about this sort of event, of course — but it had never been made real for me. […] How could the man I had talked to […] have done such an awful thing?”
A paragraph later he goes on to explain that when he returned to his courses he started to play with this darkness he had heard about at the prisons (9):
“Some of the courses I was attending at this time were taught in large lecture theatres, where the students were seated in descending rows, row after row. In one of these courses — Introduction to Clinical Psychology, appropriately enough — I experienced a recurrent compulsion. I would take my seat behind some unwitting individual and listen to the professor speak. At some point during the lecture, I would unfailingly feel the urge to stab the point of my pen into the neck of the person in front of me. This impulse was not overwhelming — luckily — but it was powerful enough to disturb me. What sort of terrible person would have an impulse like that?”
“I went back to the prison, a month or so after my first visit. During my absence, two prisoners had attacked a third, a suspected informer. They held or tied him down and pulverized one of his legs with a lead pipe. I was taken aback, once again, but this time I tried something different. I tried to imagine, really imagine, what I would have to be like to do such a thing. I concentrated on this task for days and days — and experienced a frightening revelation. The truly appalling aspect of such atrocity did not lie in its impossibility or remoteness, as I had naively assumed, but in its ease. I was not much different from the violent prisoners — not qualitatively different. I could do what they could do (although I hadn’t).”
Thus we see here an elementary dimension of Peterson’s self-becoming, which is his radical internalization of the nature of his own capacity for evil. He had not just read about evil, but had exposed his own heart to evil, and this goes on to shape the core of his philosophy. This is because he knew that he could have been the one who forced the prison guard to dig his own grave, or he could have been the one who pulverized the prison guards legs, or he could have been the one who ran the Communist Gulag or the Nazi Camp.
After these experiences, involving a radical self-exposure to the nature of evil, Peterson goes on to explain that something new started to happen to him: he started to distrust his own speech. Now he has already accounted for the fact that he had lost all stability in the world due to a collapse of his ideological thought structures. This first happened with religion and God, and then secondarily happened with politics and socialism. However, it was now happening with the very elementary coordinates of daily speech. The foundations of his worldview had been shaken so fundamentally that he identified the holes and the gaps internal to his very identity structure. There was no more ideology there to hold his speech. This is in psychoanalytic terms often expressed in the first stage as alienation in the Other, and secondarily separation in the Other. Alienation in the Other is when you realize that the Other is lacking, that it is inconsistent and incoherent; separation is when you distance yourself from the Other and start to develop your own identity independent from the Other. This mode is then followed by an even deeper feeling of loss since one is left without the elementary ability to even formulate one’s speech. To quote Peterson on his encounter with his own conscience in these moments: “The voice employed a standard refrain, delivered in a somewhat bored and matter-of-fact tone: “You don’t believe that. That isn’t true.”” (11) (p. xvi).
From this experience Peterson runs the test of seeing if he could discover whether “he” or “the voice” was “more true”. In other words, he was testing his own unconscious versus the ideological superstructures that had determined his existence.
In this exercise he comes to regard the intellectual dimension of his persona to be a total sham, a ‘bric-a-brac’ of ideological nonsense. All of the arguments and ideas that he had read were not really him, but rather constructs of the symbolic order which ‘spoke him’. In history one can think of individuals from a psychoanalytic perspective as puppets of the Other, as being orchestrated by the invisible mechanisms of the symbolic order as ideological masks. Thus the amalgam of Biblical metaphysical claims, Communist economic doctrines, or scientific hypotheses about physics and evolution, were not really him, not really what he understood and not really his true voice. Instead they were just discourses of the Other that were being used to navigate social system power games. In other words, the unconscious voice that Peterson could no longer ignore started to win out over his ideological personality, he was being corroded from within by his own unconscious.
Here Peterson reveals that the work that helped him during this time was the work of Carl Jung, and specifically Jung’s work on individuation vis-a-vis the false appearances of the persona. To quote Jung on the persona as a feigned individuality (12):
“When we analyze the persona we strip off the mask, and discover that what seemed to be individual is at bottom collective; in other words, that the persona was only a mask of the collective psyche. Fundamentally the persona is nothing real: it is a compromise between individual and society as to what a man should appear to be. He takes a name, earns a title, exercises a function, he is this or that. In a certain sense all this is real, yet in relation to the essential individuality of the person concerned it is only a secondary reality, a compromise formation, in making which others often have a greater share than he. The persona is a semblance, a two-dimensional reality, to give it a nickname.”
Thus we can see here Jung’s fundamental claims of the psyche that there is a relation between what Freud would have called the ego, superego, and the id. In the first part of the passage Jung articulates the distinctions between the ego and the superego as the persona and the psyche of society, the utilitarian compromise between the individual and the collective. However, in the second part Jung starts to articulate the notion that beneath the surface of the ego or the persona there is the more substantial and more true reality of what Freud would call the id. For Jung this underground of the persona is the more true dimension of the subject, the depths of the subject, to give the jargon of modern depths psychology. Thus we have a clear Jungian distinction here between the appearances of social reality and the truth of the inner psychical reality, or the collective unconscious.
From these experiences, and now firmly entrenched in reading the works of Carl Jung, Peterson started to experience what he calls “absolutely unbearable dreams”. He claims that before this time in his life his imagination was not very vivid and his dreams were not very intense. However, once the ideological structures of his mind had broken down completely, his imagination opened up and his mind was subjected to intense and destructive fantasies and terror that were more real then the secular physical reality. This led him to question fundamental ontology and the nature of the real (13):
“This idiosyncratic, subjective world — which everyone normally treated as illusory — seemed to me at that time to lie somehow behind the world everyone knew and regarded as real. But what did real mean? The closer I looked, the less comprehensible things became. Where was the real? What was at the bottom of it all? I did not feel I could live without knowing.”
Here we have perhaps the last stage of Peterson’s separation from the Other, not even the World here is conceived of as real. From the philosophical perspective this is an essential stage in the becoming of the subject. Consider, for example, that the foundation of modern philosophy itself, starting with Descartes, is founded on a gesture of universal doubt on the nature of the real, and the nature of the world. This movement ends up, for Descartes, culminating in the cogito of self-reflective thought, and eventually a grounding in the absolute reality of God. Now, for Peterson, his own “Cartesian moment” is a paradoxical revival of the metaphysical substructures that he resisted and rebelled against the beginning.
In Peterson’s own Cartesian moment he describes it as emerging in the height of self-disgust. While experiencing intense visions and a disconnection from the world, he had also been exposing himself to university party life and drinking culture. He articulates that after one of his drunken nights he started to express himself in art and what emerged from his mind was a twisted image of the crucified Christ. He notes that it was this moment where he realized how deeply he did not know his own self (14):
“James Joyce said, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” For me, history literally was a nightmare. I wanted above all else at that moment to wake up and make my terrible dreams go away.”
This event is the final straw that leads Peterson to psychoanalysis. He dives into Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams in order to understand the nature of his unconscious and finds Freud’s work helpful in terms of the seriousness of the scholarship. Freud takes the dream world extremely seriously and attempts to elucidate the nature of the dream world. However, Peterson concludes that Freud’s work is insufficient on two fundamental grounds: the first is that he thinks that nightmares cannot be explained as wish-fulfillments; or at least he cannot explain how the visions and dreams he had experienced were unconscious wish fulfillments. The second is that he has trouble with the explanation that the unconscious is fundamentally sexual, and believes instead that the dreams he is experiencing are religious in nature. From these two premises, the fact that he thinks nightmares require an explanation beyond wish-fulfillment and the fact that he believes dream visions are primarily religious or transcendental instead of sexual, leads him to further revisit the foundation of Jungian psychoanalysis over the Freudian school.
In this analysis I will simply say that the premises Peterson uses to justify a transition from the Freudian to the Jungian school can here be interpreted in a different way. The first being that in terms of nightmares as wish-fulfillments we should not assume that we are in any way self-transparent to ourselves. As Peterson demonstrates in this preface, there are autonomous voices in our head that have an intelligible discourse, and it could be that we do not understand our desires in the moments that we experience them, it could even be that we experience our own desires as terrifying. The second being that the Freudian unconscious is sexual, but also intellectual, the unconscious speaks, and this speech is an intelligible speech that is involved in foundational metaphysical questions. In that sense the relation between sexual and the religious is intimately linked in Freud, and Freud was simply emphasizing that it was in fact the sexual that was primordial, and religion the secondary cultural excess. In either case, the debate between the meaning of the Freudian and Jungian unconscious will not be resolved here, of course.
Here to quote another passage from Jung that is cited by Peterson towards the end of the Preface (15):
“The psychological elucidation of… [dream and fantasy] images, which cannot be passed over in silence or blindly ignored, leads logically into the depths of religious phenomenology. The history of religion in its widest sense (including therefore mythology, folklore, and primitive psychology) is a treasure-house of archetypal forms from which the doctor can draw helpful parallels and enlightening comparisons for the purpose of calming and clarifying a consciousness that is all at sea. It is absolutely necessary to supply these fantastic images that rise up so strange and threatening before the mind’s eye with some kind of context so as to make them more intelligible. Experience has shown that the best way to do this is by means of comparative mythological material.”
Thus we see here some of the foundations of Peterson’s views inspired by Jungian psychoanalysis. The first dimension is that Jung approaches the side of the unconscious that clearly has a traumatic and horrific dimension; visions that the subject cannot simply ignore. The second dimension is that Jung approaches the side of the unconscious that appears as the ground of mythology and religion.
We thus have the culmination of Peterson’s journey with his dive into Jungian psychoanalytic mythology. Peterson claims that once he started to gain a deeper grasp of Jungian psychoanalysis he began to study the mythological foundations of our culture based on principles of the collective unconscious and that this activity cured him of his disturbing nightmares and visions. Thus, it was from engaging with the foundational psychological structures of our history that opened the door to the writing of this book: Maps of Meaning. The two premises that he developed from the investigation into the psychological structures of our history involve first the idea that belief systems are world order in a literal sense; and second the idea that there exist universal moral absolutes that determine social success in history. The first idea that belief systems are the foundation of World Order appears at first site to be a simple and intuitive claim that emergent worlds of human civilization are first and foremost stabilized by the fact that people believe in them and that people work extremely hard to ensure that the belief systems they hold ground a consistent and coherent structure for explaining the world around them. Indeed, Peterson’s own journey into the world and into the mind is a demonstration of that fact. The second claim is seemingly more extreme, but predicated on the idea that there is a universal dimension for human social action and that the individuals and societies who discover and develop in accordance with this universal dimension will thrive, while those who do not will fall and dissolve.
Now finally, Peterson ends the Preface with a summary of the central claims of Maps of Meaning. The central claims here represent the core of Peterson’s philosophy, and again, for anyone who follows his lectures, these principles will be familiar. The first central claim involves a distinction between the two cultures divide, the divide between science and the humanities. In Peterson’s ontology the divide between science and the humanities can be expressed in the distinction that scientific representation fundamentally operates on an ontology of things, which can compromise an objective description of the physical world. In contrast, the humanities representations fundamentally operate, or should fundamentally operation, on the an ontology of action, acts which can lead to an objective valuation of the world. According to Peterson it is through understanding the difference in these modes of representation, perhaps in their synthesis, that one can strive to reconcile the two cultures, on the differences between the sciences and the humanities, on physicalist assumptions, and subjective valuation. However, here Peterson clearly privileges the ontology of the humanities, since he sees the nature of scientific representations, on the ontology of things, as nested within an ontology of action, where subjective systems of valuation decide that understanding an objective physical world is a valuable activity in the first place.
The second central claim of Maps of Meaning involves the idea that this forum for action, and the objective valuation of things is structured by a triad of mother-father-son; which of course, is a very Christian ontology of the world. In this structure he describes the Great Mother as unexplored territory, or chaos; he describes the Great Father as explored territory, or order; and he describes the Divine Son as the subjective mediation between unexplored territory and explored territory. This is of course one of the crucial dimensions of the meaning of the title of the book “Maps of Meaning”. We can also recall here the meta-level structure of Peterson’s ontology as structured between the invisible symbolic order and the unknown noumenal chaos. It is from this ontology that Peterson emphasizes the importance of preserving a strong foundation for our cultural tradition since our cultural traditions are valuable precisely because they are “things that worked” over the course of historical time, they are things that helped us to explore what was previously unexplored territory. Of course, however, since the unknown is always larger than the known, and the unexplored is always larger than the explored, the subjective mediation of the two is the most essential dimension, the dimension where a truly individuated and freely thinking subject develops the capability to become the hero of the journey.
What cannot be ignored in this structure, however, is its irreducibly sexual nature (which here again allows us to make the connections with the Freudian unconscious as sexual in nature). Here of course we can perhaps see a metaphysics of sexuality in the very ontology of the subjective mediation between the Mother and the Father. In this metaphysics of sexuality there is a movement of penetration and being penetrated; of activity and passivity. Thus for Peterson the Woman becomes the great unknown chaos and the Man becomes the great structural order of history. This is perhaps one of the most important dimensions where Peterson is explicitly psychoanalytic over deconstructionist; where deconstructionist philosophies would tend away from any metaphysics that reifies sexuality within a fundamental ontology of being.
Finally, Peterson’s third central claim is a basic formula for ideology and individuation. In Peterson’s ontology the formula for ideology is when the invisible symbolic order rejects the reality of the unknown chaos. The reason why this is a formula for ideology is that when the invisible symbolic order rejects the much larger reality of the unknown chaos the invisible symbolic order starts to act with a pretence to absolute knowledge. The invisible symbolic order starts to act as if there is no great unknown which requires an open subjective mediation.
In contrast the formula for individuation is when the invisible symbolic order enters into an acceptance or an embrace of the unknown chaos. The reason why this is a formula for individuation is because when the invisible symbolic order recognizes that it is internally inconsistent and incoherent, that it does not know everything that there is a much larger unknown chaotic reality around it, it is precisely in this space that the individual can be free to explore and grow and discover something new.
Here we come to the end of the introductory lecture of Maps of Meaning. In this lecture I hope you have a good guide to the opening of the book and a good sense for what is to come next. In future lectures we will dive in the core of Maps of Meaning and cover each chapter in as much depth as possible, developing helpful representations and emphasizing crucial passages as necessary for the deepest possible understanding.
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(1) Peterson, J.B. 1999. Preface: Descensus Ad Inferos. In: Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief.
(2) ibid. p. xi.
(3) ibid. p. xii.
(4) ibid. p. xiii.
(5) Peterson, J.B. 1999. Notes. In: Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. p. 485.
(6) Peterson, J.B. 1999. Preface: Descensus Ad Inferos. In: Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. p. xiv.
(8) ibid. p. xiv-xv.
(9) ibid. p. xv.
(10) ibid. p. xv-xvi.
(11) ibid. p. xvi.
(12) ibid. p. xvii.
(13) ibid. p. xix.
(14) ibid. p. xx.
(15) ibid. p. xx-xxi.