Maps of Meaning, discussion – Part 7a, Concluding Thoughts

Alright, let’s wrap this up. At least one friend and one commenter has pointed out that Maps of Meaning is an academic tome that is quite separate from the content that has made Peterson famous. It’s difficult to articulate whether I fully believe this: I haven’t actually figured out precisely what the remit of the book is, but Peterson is famous broadly for discussions around personal responsibility, liberty and value and their interactions. It is that latter principle―value―that seems to be the remit of Maps of Meaning.

This is an important point: I have put in a couple of dozen hours of listening and digesting this book, and I don’t actually know precisely what question it is aiming to answer. Unlike Peterson’s more famous work, this is not a self-help book. But, I think it’s unclear what it is. It could be a treatment of why certain myths resonate with us, who the characters are and broadly what they represent while paying lip service to some study into how the brain responds to those characters. In this perspective, it is a book about fitting popular narratives into a framework: it has to have fear/chaos, hope/opportunity, oppression/regression and a journey/hero including facing the fear/chaos to overcome the oppression/regression; based on that structure, myths then resonate with us when the interplay of these characters is relevant to us. But, the breadth of possible interpretations mean that any myth could be relevant…

It could be less about us at all, and all about stories in general and how it doesn’t take much ‘forcing’ to make all stories fit the basic structure outlined above. I did this to Moana. But, you can’t see this as being societally relevant, because a myth is directed; the outcome is decided and it doesn’t have to reflect what would really happen at all. For that reason, it can’t really be considered ‘useful’, because it’s not about how societies organise themselves, just how good stories are told.

Peterson’s working definition of a ‘universe’ or ‘reality’ (or, even, ‘truth’) is worth exploring again, if only to help unpick what the point of the book is. Peterson describes reality as a ‘forum for action’, which means we have to understand reality well enough to make our decisions that are relevant to us. Maps of Meaning can then be seen as including a useful tool to assess that understanding: we are forced to understand things in terms of stories simply because reality is otherwise too complex to properly engage with. Inevitably, this means oversimplifying things. But, Maps of Meaning can help identify a ‘complete’ story.

A complete story reflects the complexity in each character. The overarching character is society or rules that define your story. That’s nebulous, so let’s make it real: it’s the policies and guidelines that describe the operation of your business. You might see that as useful or acceptable, but a complete story has to acknowledge the potential that those guidelines can become outdated or, on inspection, otherwise be not fit for purpose. Sticking to those guidelines, then, can be stifling or counterproductive. This is Peterson’s ‘Great Father/Tyrant Father’ character. Equally, there might be a person challenging those guidelines and this unpicking the very structure that defines the organisation (and promotions and hiring and pay etc) and thus threatens plunging the department into an unproductive chaos. However, that threat is coupled with opportunity for progress and investment that wasn’t originally conceivable. (This could be anything, including something as simple as not accepting that BAME diversity goals are met if all new hires are from 2nd/3rd generation Oxbridge graduates…) This challenge is both the Fertile and the Terrible Mother ― the threat of destruction alongside the appeal of new opportunities.

Without that complexity ― seeing a character as all good or all bad ― a story is inadequate in terms of projecting a reality that is comprehensive enough to be a forum for action (or, perhaps more accurately, for decision making). Peterson co-opts the terms ‘ideology’ for the incomplete stories and ‘myth’ for the ones that embrace that complexity.

There are elements of this that can be used to understand things that are changing even in small settings. If, in your group of friends, there is one person that is often the butt of jokes, that norm is (a part of) the Great Father. If that friend then challenges that norm, sets up boundaries for themselves and tries to enforce it, that starts a conflict between the Great Father and The Mother; the friends may well increase their jibes at the friend’s expense ― a Tyrant Father. This must settle into a new norm. The battle between the person’s boundaries and the norm of mockery must end somewhere other than where it started. Peterson characterised that transition as a death of the old, a pre-cosmogonic chaos where no one is really sure how this will play out ― and from that chaos either the friend will be shunned (a victory for the Terrible Mother) or a new, more respectful dynamic will be formed (a victory for the Fertile Mother).

This is, in part, just learning to describe things we sort of already knew ― just in hifalutin language and terms. That can be useful; as I’ve said before, straight-rationality can come across as sterile and unpersuasive. It is actually difficult (but, I’d say, very important) to engage with plain-speak served neat by experts, and so having it in terms of a story is useful. But, I have engaged with these ideas ― problems are soluble, solutions cause problems, those problems are also soluble ― are readily available without having to be embroiled in a conversation that treats myths as ‘true’.

As an aside, the idea that an action creates problems that are solved by well-informed actions, which cause their own problems ad infinitum has a parody parallel running in the UK with Brexit, where an action causes a public-relations problem which can be papered over with a lie, which eventually causes an public-relations problem which can be papered over with a lie ad infinitum. Unlike the Problem-Solution-Problem-Solution cycle, the Problem-Lie-Problem-Lie cycle is unstable as the actual problems ― fisheries not being competitive, core industries relying on seasonal or immigrant labour, financial services being overtaken ― are not being addressed and so are being hidden, not solved, and so it has to crumble eventually.

I came into this book expecting a discussion of religion. That, after all, has been a long-term interest on this blog, and Peterson was sold to me as someone who defends the claim that religion is true. It’s worth saying that Peterson delivers this on his terms, but religious people may be disappointed with what that ends up entailing. I don’t think Peterson takes any issue with pandering to this misinterpretation of his work, having watched an interview between him and Matt Dilahunty. But, Peterson thinks a religion is ‘true’, in that it is useful. But, it’s only useful in that it is a way of talking about making decisions ― and the actual myth is fungible. In fact, Peterson talks about ancient Greek myths more than Christianity. So long as a story fits the schema above it’s useful, and it doesn’t need to be the Christian myth or the Islamic myth or any of the dead myths or folklores.

Any utility Peterson sees in Christianity makes it ‘true’, by Peterson’s definition. But that utility may well be replaced by another myth (or collection of myths) ― old ones could reemerge, new ones could be created. They could entirely replace Christianity, and they would be just as true and for just the same reasons. Peterson accepts that myths are ‘accounts of things that never happened’ (or words to that effect), but bemoans people who see them as nothing more than that. I don’t think Peterson is wrong here, but I think the discussion is more difficult.

I know there are a handful of people who have read all of these as they have come out, and so this may all be pretty repetitive. But, it’s worth saying again. To understand how a myth is useful requires going into it already open to the values it is looking to pass on. There are passages of the Bible that aren’t moral at all, and need excuses. We’ve figured out how to do that, and I don’t think taking Peterson’s thesis would allow us to do that; we would have to take from the myth that there is some good in offering up your daughters to appease an angry mob (as in Lott) or virtue in killing non-combatant boys and in taking non-combatant girls as spoils of war (as in the slaughter of the Midianites).

In short, I’m not sorry I have listened to Maps of Meaning, and there has been stuff to take away from it. But, on the key points I was told were the questions this sets out to answer, I find Peterson unconvincing. It is worth pointing out that I have made it this far without calling on any academic review of the book, because part of me thinks that freely available reviews by academics will run the risk of being virtue-signalling anti-Peterson hot-takes. My wife, however, has looked at reviews and found that it has been very poorly received by the academic reader ― and thus challenged me on why I bothered to read it at all.

But, I thought I should also end with a short list of comments and reviews just to give credibility to these views. Heaven forbid a Geography graduate should suddenly find themselves disagreeing on credible psychology with a PhD in psychology. It is, therefore, quite nice to find that I am not at odds with other PhDs in relevant fields. They are listed below, although it’s worth noting they are quite modern and even though critics now say that where it’s comprehensible or valuable Maps of Meaning unreconstructed Jungian psychology (and therefore unoriginal and wildly out of date), Peterson notes that until 2018 it received little critical response at all. Three notable post-2018 critics, though:

Jordan Peterson’s Murky Maps of Meaning, Paul Thagard PhD (cognitive science)

Jordan Peterson’s ‘Maps of Meaning’ ― no, it’s not legit, Alexander Douglas PhD (philosophy)

The Intellectual We Deserve, Nathan Robinson PhD (Sociology)

1 thought on “Maps of Meaning, discussion – Part 7a, Concluding Thoughts”

  1. I think this is a very fair summary of Peterson’s book. In particular, you write, “Any utility Peterson sees in Christianity makes it ‘true’, by Peterson’s definition.” That’s the gist of the matter. I understand why Peterson favours this approach, and it helps to explain why he often seems very confusing to conflating religious stories with mythology. This cannot help but bung up why anyone who would want to describe the reason for religious belief with distinctions that have no differences. In other words, if it’s mythology, then why claim it’s religious? Conversely, if it’s religious, then why claim mythology?

    It’s my experience that when anyone presents a fairly sophisticated and nuanced explanation to describe a myth, we’re never far away from that person conflating allegory with myth. That’s a signpost to me that the interpretation is off base and I think Peterson’s use of the mother/father motif has gone off the rails in the service of religious apologetics. Myths usefulness as a method of teaching/discovery about one’s self I think have to stand or fall on their own merit. If they cannot do this, they’re not very useful at all. And isn’t that also religious belief to a tee?

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