Jordan Peterson's Murky Maps of Meaning
Peterson's book is weak as anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and politics.
Posted March 12, 2018 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
Long before Jordan Peterson became a best-selling author and YouTube star, he wrote a book called Maps of Meaning. The ideas in this book are the basis for his popular online lectures and recent book, 12 Rules for Life, which I critiqued in an earlier post. Published in 1999, Maps of Meaning is a long and ambitious synthesis of ideas on mythology, morality, and totalitarian atrocities. How well does it stand up to critical evaluation?
Scrutiny shows that Peterson’s Maps of Meaning is defective as a work of anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and politics. Its emphasis on religious myth and heroic individuals provides a poor blueprint for understanding the origins of totalitarianism, and an even poorer guide to overcoming its evils.
The meanings of the word “murky” include both “dark and gloomy” and “not fully explained or understood.” Peterson’s book is murky in the first sense, with frequent emphasis on suffering rather than on the joys of love, work, and play. The book is also murky in the second sense, although it is less meandering and disjointed than his videotaped lectures.
Nevertheless, I think there is a central line of argument that can be extracted from the book, along the following lines:
- Myths are culturally universal.
- Myths are the psychological origin of morality.
- Myths are the philosophical basis for morality.
- Myth-based morality grounds political judgments about totalitarian states.
I will provide quotes from Maps of Meaning that justify the attribution of these claims to Peterson, followed by evidence and arguments that each claim is false.
Here are quotes that show that Peterson follows Carl Jung in supposing that archetypal myths are universal across cultures.
- “We also presently possess inaccessible and complete form the traditional wisdom of a large part of the human race—possess an accurate description of the myths and rituals that contain and condition the implicit and explicit values of almost everyone who has ever lived.”
- “The world as a forum for action is composed, essentially, of three constituent elements, which tend to manifest themselves in typical patterns of metaphoric representation. First is unexplored territory—the Great Mother, nature, creative and destructive, source and final resting place of all determinate things. Second is explored territory—the Great Father, culture, protective and tyrannical, cumulative ancestral wisdom. Third is the process that mediates between unexplored and explored territory—the Divine Son, the archetypal individual, creative exploratory Word, and vengeful adversary.”
The assumption of the cultural universality of myths is important for Peterson because he wants mythology to provide the basis for the psychological, philosophical, and political understanding of morality. But his evidence for the generality of such myths is limited to the tradition that runs from Mesopotamia through Judaism to Christianity, with occasional references to Buddhism.
Counterexamples to cultural universality are abundant, such as the Pirahã people of Brazil who have no creation myths or interest in beliefs that go beyond personal experience (Everett 2008). The Iroquois people of North America do have myths about creation and other aspects of the world, but they do not follow the Father/Mother/Son motif that Peterson thinks is universal (Smith 1883). Chinese mythology includes many gods, but no indication of the heroic son that Peterson overgeneralizes from Christianity.
Therefore, of the thousands of cultures in the world, Peterson has tapped into only one line of thinking, so his maps of meaning give a skewed picture of traditional thought. They provide poor evidence that Jung’s archetypes are real.
Even if the myths described by Peterson were culturally universal, it would still be debatable whether they are the psychological and philosophical basis for morality. Peterson assumes that myths are the psychological origins of morality:
- P. 12: “These myths are centrally and properly concerned with the nature of successful human existence. Careful comparative analysis of this great body of religious philosophy might allow us to provisionally determine the nature of essential human motivation and morality—if we were willing to admit our ignorance and take the risk. Accurate specification of underlying mythological commonalities might comprise the first developmental stage in the conscious evolution of a truly universal system of morality.”
- P. 13: “Meaning means implication for behavioral output; logically, therefore, myth presents information relevant to the most fundamental of moral problems.”
As a historical and sociological observation, it may be true that most people have taken their morality from religion, for example from the 10 commandments of Judaism and Christianity. But there are many exceptions, including:
- The system of social morality developed by Confucius more than 2500 years ago, which is still influential in China. It emphasizes family and social harmony rather than spiritual values.
- The personal moral systems of around a billion people who have no religious affiliation or beliefs.
- The moral views of many atheist philosophers, from David Hume to Daniel Dennett, who have found secular bases for ethics.
These exceptions show that moral psychology can function without an underpinning in mythology or religion. Whether such functioning is desirable is a philosophical question.
Psychology concerns how people do think and act, but philosophy focuses on how people ought to think and act, on the normative rather than the descriptive. Peterson clearly makes more than the descriptive claim that people’s morality is often connected to myth. He normatively assumes that religious mythology is the right way to approach moral thinking and acting:
- P. 14: “Myth portrays what is known, and performs a function that if limited to that, might be regarded as paramount in importance. But myth also presents information that is far more profound—almost unutterably so, once (I would argue) properly understood. We all produce models of what is and what should be, and how to transform one into the other. We change our behavior when the consequences of that behavior are not what we would like. But sometimes mere alteration in behavior is insufficient. We must change not only what we do, but what we think is important. This means a reconsideration of the nature of the motivational significance of the present, and reconsideration of the ideal nature of the future.”
- P. 390: “Mythic truth is information, derived from past experience—derived from past observation of behavior—relevant from the perspective of fundamental motivation and effect.”
These are philosophical claims that mythology is the best guide to moral significance. The only philosopher mentioned by Peterson in Maps of Meaning is Friedrich Nietzsche, an odd choice given that Nietzsche was highly critical of Christian morality. Peterson ignores many important philosophers who have proposed secular grounds for morality, including (in addition to Confucius):
- David Hume and Adam Smith based morality on sympathy and other moral sentiments, independent of religion.
- Immanuel Kant was religious, but his moral theory was based on rights and duties that he thought could be established by reason alone.
- Ethical utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill viewed moral judgments as based on evaluating the consequences of actions with respect to their general effect on human happiness.
- Various thinkers, from early socialists to David Wiggins and myself, have based ethical judgments on human vital needs, which differ from wants in that they are factors such as food and relationships that are required for human life.
All four of these approaches provide a sounder basis for moral judgments than Peterson’s Christian mythology. Peterson claims (p. 264) that “Western morality and behavior, for example, are predicated on the assumption that every individual is sacred.” This strong connection of morality with religion has become increasingly dubious since the eighteenth century.
Peterson is simply wrong (p. 480) that “all of Western ethics, including those explicitly formalized in Western law, are predicated upon a mythological worldview, which specifically attributes divine status to the individual.” None of the philosophers in my list view human individuals as god-like, and only Kant sees them as transcendent of material reality. Plato and Aristotle originated Western ethics 2500 years ago with a stark divorce between philosophy and religion. Hence normative judgments about right and wrong do not depend at all on myth or religion.
Peterson’s metaphysical assumptions are as dubious as his ethical ones. He thinks that myth has a special kind of truth:
- P. 472-3: “Mythological renditions of history, like those in the Bible, are just as “true” as the standard Western empirical renditions, just as literally true, but how they are true is different. Western historians describe (or think they describe) “what” happened. The traditions of mythology and religion describe the significance of what happened."
Peterson adopts the pragmatist view that truth is what works, so that if myth works to provide people with a sense of meaning, then it is true. The problem with the pragmatist view of truth is that it cannot explain why some beliefs work more than others, for example why antibiotics are much better at curing infections than prayers. Science works with a correspondence theory of truth: a belief is true if it describes the world accurately. Meaningful lives based on love, work, and play are compatible with scientific theories about how human minds, brains, bodies, and societies actually operate in the world.
In his books and lectures, Peterson motivates his investigations of maps of meaning as an attempt to understand the horrible atrocities of totalitarian regimes in the twentieth century. Why did Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and other tyrants kill tens of millions of people? How can future atrocities be prevented? These are pressing questions that Peterson thinks can be answered using his myth-based perspective on morality, but better answers are available.
Here are some quotes that display Peterson’s contention about the relevance of mythology and religion to politics:
- P. 316: “The devil is the spirit who underlies the development of totalitarianism; the spirit who is characterized by rigid ideological belief (by the “predominance of the rational mind”), by reliance on the lie as a model of adaptation (by refusal to admit to the existence of error, or to appreciate the necessity of deviance), and by the inevitable development of hatred for the self and world.”
- P. 321: “The presumption of absolute knowledge, which is the cardinal sin of the rational spirit, is, therefore, prima facie equivalent to the rejection of the hero—to the rejection of Christ, of the Word of God, of the (divine) process that mediates between order and chaos. The arrogance of the totalitarian stance is ineradicably opposed to the “humility” of creative exploration.”
- P. 353: “The Rwandan massacres, the killing fields in Cambodia, the tens of millions dead (by Solzhenitsyn’s estimate) as a consequence of internal repression in the Soviet Union, the untold legions butchered during China’s Cultural Revolution [the Great Leap Forward (!), another black joke, accompanied upon occasion, in the particular, by devouring of the victim], the planned humiliation and rape of hundreds of Muslim women in Yugoslavia, the holocaust of the Nazis, the carnage perpetrated by the Japanese in mainland China— such events are not attributable to human kinship with the animal, the innocent animal, or even by the desire to protect territory, interpersonal and intrapsychic, but by a deep-rooted spiritual sickness.”
Peterson thinks that the solution to totalitarian horrors and spiritual sickness is the heroic individual:
- P. 313: “The hero rejects identification with the group as the ideal of life, preferring to follow the dictates of his conscience and his heart. His identification with meaning—and his refusal to sacrifice meaning for security—renders existence acceptable, despite its tragedy.”
- P. 483: “A society predicated upon belief in the paramount divinity of the individual allows personal interest to flourish and to serve as the power that opposes the tyranny of culture and the terror of nature.”
Peterson makes two central contentions that require evaluation. The first is that totalitarianism is a spiritual problem, the result of neglecting the moral tradition rooted in Christianity. The second is that the best way to resolve this problem is spiritual, based on the “divinity” of the individual. For Peterson, the solution to totalitarianism is a combination of religion and individualism.
Peterson does not provide detailed maps of the ideologies of Nazism and Stalinism that produced the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century. In contrast, current psychological theories of thought and emotion show how to diagram ideologies using “cognitive-affective maps” (Homer-Dixon et al. 2013, Thagard 2015). These maps provide a way of appreciating the structure and appeal of ideologies such as fascism and communism, generating a much deeper psychological explanation of totalitarianism than “spiritual sickness”.
Another crucial aspect of the totalitarian regimes in the presence of psychopathic leaders such as Hitler and Stalin who have no sympathy for their victims. Such evil can be explained psychologically, without invoking the devil or other religious categories, as I describe in my post “Why is there evil?” Explanation of the value systems of ideologies and the roots of psychopathy are only parts of the understanding of totalitarianism, but they point in the direction of secular rather than a mythological understanding of atrocities.
Similarly, there are better ways to counter totalitarianism than religious individualism. One response to the horrors of the Second World War was the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It establishes rights and freedoms that apply to people “without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or another opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or another status.” These rights include life, liberty, personal security, equality before the law, and freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.
Although the Universal Declaration guarantees freedom of religion, it is not in the least religious and does not depend on mythologies of any kind. Nor is it narrowly individualist, because it recognizes important social dimensions such as the right to equal pay for equal work and the right to form and join trade unions.
The ideas expressed in the Universal Declaration are very different from the narrow individualism expounded by Peterson in his writings and videos. He describes himself as a “classic liberal," an ideology that emphasizes personal liberty over equality and social welfare, in keeping with his assumption of the divinity of individuals.
In contrast, the Universal Declaration expresses the alternative value system of social democracy, which insists that the state has an important role to play in enabling all individuals regardless of wealth to flourish as human beings. Social democracy is not the same as socialism, for it appreciates the freedoms and economic growth that capitalist economies allow.
This system of values is behind efforts in countries such as Sweden, Denmark, and Canada to ensure that people generally are able to satisfy their fundamental needs. Such countries are regularly rated by sources (from the United Nations Human Development Index to the U.S. News and World Report as among the best in the world to live in.
In contrast, basing politics on religious individualism tends to be conservative, ensuring that rich people can maintain freedoms while others suffer. Peterson writes as if religious individualism is the best alternative to totalitarianism, but social democracy provides a morally superior way of challenging oppression. Peterson uses ideas about “dominance hierarchies” to downgrade equality as a social goal, and attacks extension of rights to cover gender identity and expression, as required by Canada’s recent Bill C-16.
Peterson’s attacks on Bill C-16 claim that concerns about gender identity are motivated by postmodernists and neo-Marxists. This bill passed both the Canadian Senate and the House of Commons with huge majorities. Neither of these institutions has a single postmodernist or neo-Marxist among its members. Rather the public officials recognized that human rights should not be limited by gender identity, any more than by sex, race, and other kinds acknowledged in the U.N. declaration. This recognition is in keeping with the social democratic values that have given Canada universal health care since 1984, legal same-sex marriage since 2005, and gun limitations that help to provide a murder rate one-third that of the USA.
Social democratic values recognize the importance of individual freedoms but appreciate that these freedoms must be constrained by measures such as taxes, gun control, and prohibitions of hate propaganda.
Peterson’s ideas are a mishmash of banal self-help, amateur philosophy, superfluous Christian mythology, evidence-free Jungian psychology, and toxic individualistic politics. Seek enlightenment elsewhere.
Everett, D. (2008). Don't sleep, there are snakes: Life and language in the Amazonian jungle. New York: Vintage.
Homer-Dixon, T., Leader Maynard, J., Mildenberger, M., Milkoreit, M., Mock, S. J., Quilley, S., Schröder, T., and Thagard, P. (2013). A complex systems approach to the study of ideology: Cognitive-affective structures and the dynamics of belief systems. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 1, 337-364. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.5964/jspp.v1i1.36.
Smith, E. A. (1883). Myths of the Iroquois. Retrieved from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/46140/46140-h/46140-h.htm.
Thagard, P. (2015). The cognitive-affective structure of political ideologies. In B. Martinovski (Ed.), Emotion in group decision and negotiation (pp. 51-71). Berlin: Springer.
Thagard, P. (forthcoming). Mind-society: From brains to social sciences and professions. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Fall, 2018.