Maps of Meaning, discussion – Part 1, Meaning and navigation

I am writing now because I can’t sleep, although everyone else in the house is asleep. I have parts of Maps of Meaning echoing around, and I want to get them down before I forget them. I have listened to chapter 1 in its entirety and a part of chapter 2. A good night sleep may help me organise some of these thoughts, so I may edit this before it is published.

“Meaning” is important. But it’s not readily available to the hard sciences to understand it. Peterson argues that meaning is hidden in culture and myths, as they have encrypted some understanding that has been learned through interaction and passed on. That last part ― that has been learned and passed on ― I don’t think Peterson has said yet; he has treated myths and culture like they are handed down to us. Why that’s a problem for me will become evident as we explore chapter 1 and part of chapter 2.

Peterson imagines a story of a small girl playing with an ornate glass sculpture. She takes in its qualities: its weight and balance, its smooth text, its colours and shape. All of a sudden her mother walks in, panics, and takes the sculpture from her daughter and instructs her she must never play with it; it is not a toy. In that moment, the daughter learns something qualitatively different about the sculpture: it has importance, somehow. This is some sort of proto-cultural knowledge. Perhaps it won’t be important enough to become a national cultural point, or last another generation. But, in that moment, knowledge about a value has been created. And it is knowledge that no amount of study of the object would have created.

There is something similar going on with super-celebrities. People are promoted as being more important: musicians, leaders, thinkers. Something about what these people tell us about ourselves ― through political ideology, music or story ― keeps out the chaos of a reality taken simply at face value, so Peterson argues. And, to have security like that ― not just from the person, but from the icon that person has become ― is why many will part large sums of money to have autographs, t-shirts and other relics. Something here is credible: Beetle-mania was not some rational reaction to their music (it was okay), but some cultural phenomenon. No amount of study of their music could tell you why it was so much more highly valued than their contemporaries.

Part of the problem here is that I can’t tell you what myth or story the Beetles were offering. And I don’t mean I can’t articulate some vague notion in my head. I mean that part of the step is a complete blackbox to me. Peterson, though, argues that is okay and perfectly normal; it doesn’t have to speak to any conscious part of you. I hope the book will unpick this later, because at the moment it is just woowoo: there’s a phenomenon ― Beetle-mania ― and the proximate cause and effect that leads to it is just blank, other than “culture” and “avoid chaos through culture”, which doesn’t satisfy my want to an explanation at all.

The listener is introduced a little to religion (and Nietzsche) here as well. As an example, but not explanation, of how a myth might have meaning without any idea that its conveying a nonliteral message, the Sumerian creation myth is discussed: Nammu gives birth to the Sky (An) and the Earth (Ki). The son of Ki and An was Enlil: the atmosphere. Something are said, others aren’t: Peterson says this is a myth of masculinity and femininity, but doesn’t mention this as an early trinity. Indeed, in the Sumerian religion, this isn’t a trinity: Nammu and An also have a child, Enki. I raise the trinity because Peterson kept raising characters in threes, platonifying them as “the Great Mother”, “the Great Father” and “the Divine Son”.

The other thing that is not said is what it might mean for an ocean (Nammu) to be parent to a virgin birth of the Sky (An) and Earth (Ki), even as a cryptic message about meaning. But what is said is the role of the mother, father and son. The mother is nature, creativity, destruction and other “unexplored” (I don’t know) things. The father is culture, wisdom and protection. The son “mediates” (I don’t know) between the two and is an explorer. I presume that means the son turns the Mother into the Father, over time, by exploring; this isn’t discussed.

The implication Peterson draws from this is that reality is the objective world and a forum in which we have to act. And, it is that latter bit which is the world of motivations and therefore meaning. He notices there’s no bright line between the two either; the objective world is explored only insofar as our explorers are motivated to do so and our culture is willing to pay for it.

Then the foreplay was over and Christianity was raised. Hard. Peterson insists that we live in a Judeo-Christian culture, evidenced by the fact the individual does not kill ― or if he does, he takes steps to conceal that fact. And that a person wronged demands justice. Without any hint of scepticism, or even a “or so it seems”, Peterson has accepted the basic moral structure of our culture is Judeo-Christian. I do not know what he thinks human civilisations were doing for the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of years before Judaism. I don’t know what he thinks cultures that broadly reject the Abrahamic religions are doing right now.

Put simply, I think Peterson is completely wrong here. The code of Ur-Nammu and of Hammurabi predate Christianity by between 2,000 and 1,000 years (respectively) and are complete. Those cultures did not need the Christian myth to forbid murder and theft. Perhaps more interestingly, why does humanity need a myth that includes keeping young girls as the spoils of war, and trading is foreign people as slaves, to also not murder each other? A question that leads us to Peterson’s other questionable position.

Using Nietzsche as his guide, Peterson argues that Christianity is a complete bulk thing; you cannot remove part of it without removing the whole. If you “kill God”, as Nietzsche put it, then all of Christianity should go out with it, including the 10 Commandments. That doesn’t just ignore all the easily understood points in the previous two paragraphs, it ignores something more fundamental to the thesis so far: the myths aren’t literally true, so they weren’t literally handed down to us. We wrote them. Whatever inspired us to write them is still, broadly speaking, still there. Having the intellectual maturity to admit a literal tyrannical but protective “Great Father” is farfetched (to say the least) doesn’t mean whatever motivated us to create Him as a cultural symbol of morality is gone too.

I heard a political commentator describe Trump’s phone call with the Georgia Secretary of State of “breaking norms”. That seems somewhat to undersell the gravity of what Trump did, I couldn’t help but think perhaps there is a good argument for moral language and ideas here. In the same way an autograph is worth something (for some reason), and religious codifies its norms such that they define morality, perhaps faith in American democracy should be seen as “sacred” and so, even if not technically illegal, what Trump did is still a sort of heresy. But, I don’t want to do what Peterson does with Christianity: to make a wholesale religion out of values; to say you have to take it all ― in some grand Statism ― to accept something can be important enough to be sacred, or bad enough to be heretical.

Chapter 2 starts to deal with actually moving through the world. Where Peterson somehow decided “the Great Trinity” meant the world was a forum for action, now we are starting to look at it. On reflection, I am not that far through chapter 2, so this may serve as no more than an introduction. However, the task I have set myself is to summarise upto the point I have an opportunity to write, so that’s where I am. I will use the opportunity to create a cliffhanger; let me know if it’s any less impactful when you know it’s coming.

Peterson uses the example of a businessman going from one office block to another for a meeting to start to talk about how we navigate reality. This involves our plans to get from where we are to where we want to be (in space, but also in status and resources and comfort etc), how we react to and learn from the novelties and anomalies along the way, the small setbacks that change our strategy is getting from A to B, and the large catastrophes that change the destination altogether.

Before we follow our Businessman on his journey, I want to add a nuanced point. Peterson talks about acting and making plans as if it is always a case of setting from our current state to some imagined state that is better than the present. It’s only a small point, but in decision making and management, it is important: Peterson assumes the present state is basically static, and so ignores that it might be deteriorating. Whenever we talk about actions to get from A to B, it isn’t always that B is better than A, but that A might be devolving into C which is worse than all of them. Looking at British politics, and trying to understand the actions of the Labour Party, I think requires that nuance. Such nuance may come out later in the book.

Our businessman: he wants to be at a meeting as he thinks it might be an opportunity to propel his career, so he plans his journey and sets off. He carries with him ideas and goals, and they are challenged and even erased on the journey. He has a minor setback, the elevator isn’t coming. His self-image is a little beaten by this: he feels he should have seen that coming. He goes to take the stairs, but the door is locked. Now his image of himself as a clever person is fading, as he imagines the embarrassment at being late, or worse not getting to the meeting at all. He tries another stairwell and ― success ― he’s still smart! He might make this meeting yet. Minor setback, strategy changes from taking the elevator to the stairs. But now he also has to run down the street, being short tempered with people who might be obstacles. Normally he sees himself as a good person, but something more urgent is at play. He gets to the entrance to the new office with time to spare; his opportunity to propel his career is still in sight. And then he hears a distinctive noise that might just be the sound of a large vehicle mounting the curb; he might be about to be transported from his journey to a meeting to ― at best ― witness to an atrocity or ― at worst ― the realisation of his mortality. The meeting doesn’t matter now! Just survive the next few seconds. It turns out it was just a pothole ― everything is fine. Continue to the meeting, propel your career.

After the meeting the businessman has a message to go see his boss. She tells him his performance at the meeting ― reflective of his general performance over the last 5 years ― has been lacking, and so she’s terminating his contract. This is a catastrophe: it completely changes not just the strategy, but the destination. In the following weeks, he loses his appetite, has disrupted sleep and is short tempered. This continues until the businessman learns to tell himself new stories: he never really wanted that job, and this is an opportunity for better things.

Peterson refers to the present you are in and a plan that goes off without any setback as “the known”, and setback as “the unknown” or at least instigators of exploration of the unknown. In chapter 1, the Known is the Father, the Unknown is the mother, and I think that makes the businessman Jesus the explorer, the “Divine Son”. On my next walk, I assume Peterson will bring this together.

3 thoughts on “Maps of Meaning, discussion – Part 1, Meaning and navigation”

  1. Yeah, and sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

    I believe that Professor Peterson doth argue out of both sides of his face. He makes ludicrous assertions in support of his religion-centric world view but these are larded amongst more innocuous or even boring statements that pass anyone’s muster. This technique is at the heart of the big lie approach to reality. If you tell it often enough, sincerely enough, soon it seems true. But just saying it outright with no support will get you nowhere, so instead of providing evidence that applies to the assertion, all kinds of other statements, all ostensibly acceptable are stated, then the Big Lie again. As people are known by the company they keep, so are ideas.

    I have fallen out with Professor Peterson, whose ego outsizes his erudition.

    1. I strongly suspect Peterson uses very dense language to paper over unfounded jumps in his logic. I also think he references people with almost mythical reputations as intellectual heavyweights (Nietzsche, Jung etc) without really engaging with their critics or the nonsense, in the hope the reputations will do the heavy lifting for him.

      I told myself I’d give him a chance, because he’s someone I don’t know much about. But, where he says something credible, it’s trivial. Where he says something consequential, it’s not credible

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