Maps of Meaning, discussion – the preface

I have decided to listen to Jordan B Peterson’s Maps of Meaning as an audiobook and give a brief summary and discussion of what I pick up. Peterson fans will probably notice that I don’t pick all of the book up, and I may miss parts. That’s not intentional, be patient with me. But, I am either listening while running or while walking with my rescue dog and 12 week old daughter. Combine that with the fact that, so far, the language has been dense, some nuance will be lost. I appreciate that ahead of time, but if I’m going to get through a 30 hour audiobook (570ish pages) that I don’t think I’ll enjoy, then I’ll do it on my own terms.

I actually listen to audiobooks a lot, and nonfiction in particular. So, I shouldn’t struggle too much with the involved listening. And, Peterson is also the reader of Maps of Meaning, which is often preferable. The author knows where to put little intonations which add content.

The stated goal of Maps of Meaning is to explore one side of two-map representation of reality. The less discussed map is that of science: what things materially are and how they act and involve; the stuff of the physical sciences (and, to an extent, the social sciences as well, although both this book and the last one I listened to ― Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan ― suggest treating the social sciences like mathematicised hard sciences is an error). The map it focussed on is culture and mythology.

The idea, in summary, is that culture and mythology aren’t believed because they are literally true. Instead, they are meant to teach us something about meaning, the reasons we act, what we value. They simplify the chaos of the universe into bitesized bits that we can repeat over and over. They are the metaphors that shape the stories we tell ourselves about what is important, where we are in hierarchies, and what we should do.

I will obviously have criticisms as I go through this. As time of writing this introduction, I am only half way through chapter 2. But Peterson is yet to make the case that it is good to have these myths. Despite being sympathetic to the basic idea that stories can be true, in some way (1, 2), I don’t readily accept that these myths are good.

My plan is to sit down and write about where I’ve gotten up to whenever I get the time to sit down and just write. There won’t be any real structure to where I am in the book between updates. But I am going to split it up this first time. I have listened to the preface, all of chapter 1 and part of chapter 2. The next few paragraphs will be about the preface. I won’t find much comment-worthy, as it’s autobiographical in nature.

Peterson left Christianity at an early age, for much the same reason many people do: no one could answer his perfectly fair questions. (I’m sure the book will come back round to say that he was asking questions as if the stories were literally true, whereas he should have been looking at it as if it were mythologically true ― distinction above ― but as of yet he has not.) He left socialism at university because he found he did not respect the socialists he was hanging out with and started to believe that socialism was a politics of envy; not loving the poor, but resenting the rich. Ultimately, though, he decided any politics that sought to change someone else before it changed the politician had some similar sort of fault.

Vivid and terrifying dreams used to haunt Peterson. I was on a 5km run when the book took a colourful and descriptive turn into the darkness of Peterson’s nightmares (and I got my 5km personal record ― so I already have something to credit him with). These were based in anxieties of the time: the cold war and nuclear annihilation. He was politically interested, but political models were all based on people being rational actors. Perhaps this conflict was part of what haunted him. He picked up books by Carl Jung (I didn’t quite catch if he sought it out or stumbled across it) and Jung’s engagement with the realness of dreams seemed to ease Peterson’s nightmares.

He’s now a psychologist. This explains his focus: Peterson is less interested in the reality as it is, but in how one understands and navigates it. And that is the focus of the second map: the map of meaning.

1 thought on “Maps of Meaning, discussion – the preface”

  1. I think myths are like traditions, a way to preserve things. The “traditional way” of doing something probably worked quite well, which is why it got preserved as a tradition. Of course, when a better way came along the “tradition became a barrier to progress, but served as a test. If the “new way” could be shown to be better than “the old way” then it wasn’t as good. Of course also, there were tradition bound people who would never adopt a new way of doing or thinking.

    So, myths, because they were less pragmatic, were harder to frame as a testable statement. This is also why people defend religious scripture fiercely as they have no back-up, no way of adopting the “new better ideas” . . . which is strange because all of the religions were at one time the “new, better ideas.”

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