Jordan Peterson: Psychology and Philosophy of Life, Part III

The third part in the series explores Peterson's approach to life.

Posted Aug 07, 2018

I found myself identifying with Jordan Peterson because I have much in common with his professional life. He is a clinician, a professor, and a researcher. His primary area of academic interest is personality theory. He has done high quality empirical research on identity and personality traits. He has read deeply and widely, and, even though I do not share is overall worldview, I consider him theoretically and philosophically sophisticated. He dives deeply into complex thought and has produced an interesting book on human meaning making. He has figured out how to share his work with the public—so much so that one can readily argue that his general influence as a public intellectual is currently second to none. These are all skill sets that I have sought to develop as part of my own identity.

Frankly, there are very few people I know who can encompass all of the above, and so I admire him for that. Part of the reason that it is difficult to be accomplished across the above domains is because the discipline of psychology is remarkably fragmented. Consider, for example, that I am a member of one division of psychology called “Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology” (APA Division 24) and another division called “Psychotherapy” (Division 29) and another called “Clinical Psychology” (Division 12). In general, they are made up of different people who have different philosophical and scientific assumptions, and even different conceptions about what psychology and psychotherapy is or should be. His Canadian status notwithstanding, I could envision Peterson being in all (or none) of these APA divisions given his broad and sophisticated view of the field.  

Two major areas of interest for Jordan Peterson are modern personality trait theory (the so-called Big Five) and Carl Jung’s analytical psychology. Those who are familiar with the field will know that these are fairly divergent approaches to human personality. Yet Peterson is knowledgeable about both and blends them to good effect. To understand Peterson’s approach and larger message, it is helpful to recognize that both approaches are profoundly psychological rather than sociological in nature. That is, they emphasize the structure, nature, and architecture of human psychology that bind us as a species and, at the same time, they include awareness of the character building processes that make us different from one another. And both positions orient us to see society largely as a reflection of our underlying psychological architectures (AKA human nature), rather than the reverse. This is a “psychology first” perspective, and it is antithetical to (or at least in strong tension with) the postmodern and sociological views that tend to see our human psychological make-up emerging largely as a consequence of the socio-cultural-industrial context we find ourselves in. The conflict between the notions that human society constructs human psychology versus the idea that our societies reflect our psychological natures is one of the deepest disputes in the academy.

Carl Jung’s notion of archetypes is a fascinating way to consider the “deep architecture” of the human mind. Archetypes refer to universal themes or prototypes that serve as frames and guides for the human experience. Consider, for example, the hero archetype. This is the image or pattern of a strong courageous individual who faces villains and adversities and ultimately triumphs. Such a “character” is presented over and over again in the stories that organize human societies. Captain America, discussed in the first blog, is an exemplar of a hero archetype. In his lecture on the Disney Movie, The Lion King, Peterson does a fine job providing examples of common archetypes and how they can be used to convey deep seated themes.

The concept of archetypes leads us to a key aspect of Peterson’s message, and a source of a major point of controversy, which refers to the nature and the source of the differences between men and women. The postmodern-sociological view is that humans are very plastic and much of the differences between men and women are the result of social norms and constructed realities.

In contrast, there are evolutionary psychological views that view men and women having different psychosocial architectures that result in different tendencies, abilities, and interests. Peterson believes that the idea that sex/gender differences are wholly constructed by social norms to be ridiculous. He argues that both theory and data point to important differences in a number of key domains. Men are more likely to be aggressive (especially physically), dominant, and interested in things (e.g., tools and engineering projects), whereas women are more likely to be agreeable, nurturing and interested in people. This is not completely fixed (i.e., it is malleable to some extent), but nor is it completely constructed by modern social norms.

This idea is important because it relates to a key point he makes about outcomes. We should NOT expect, according to this view, equal outcomes between men and women in all contexts. For example, we should expect to see more men interested in mechanical engineering and more women interested in early childhood education. And it means that if we see women underrepresented in engineering, we should not automatically conclude that it is a function of a sexist culture (as the famous Damore Google Memo incident makes clear), any more than we should presume that the relative infrequency of men in early childhood education is a consequence of a form of discrimination. In the next blog, we will see how this attitude intersected with some media personalities to contribute to his fame.   

Peterson’s Conception of the Ultimate Reality: The Redemptive Christian Archetype as Central to His Identity

It is important to be aware of the fact that Jordan Peterson is deeply concerned with living a meaningful life, one that conforms to core values and is part of a larger dynamic. Indeed, his primary in-depth work is called Maps of Meaning. It tells the story of how he is striving to connect the dots between our subjective lives and the themes and struggles of the universe at large. In that book, he lays out the view that many humans throughout the eons have represented the mythic nature of the universe through archetypal lenses of the dialectic between feminine/chaos and masculine/order. He also finds compelling the archetypal narratives of suffering, sacrifice and redemption. He loathes what he sees as the ethos that emerges from a truly relativistic postmodern philosophy, which is the idea that reality is what people say it is and really the best ethic is to try not to harm or shame others. Rather, he encourages people to dive into what the great thinkers of the past have said about power, suffering and morality (he loves rich, philosophical-psychological-narrative thinkers like Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky) and to reference their lives accordingly.

Indeed, it is this rather stern fatherly call to traditional values of character, honor, respect, and order that is drawing so many people, but especially young (white) men to him. He shines a light on a bygone age of order and clarity at a time when many are feeling confused and overwhelmed. In short, he is offers himself as the antidote to the chaos of our times.

Links to the Series:

Part I: On the concept of Identity

Part II: Identity Politics and Political Polarization

Part IV: Controversial Sparks and the Emergence of the 100-foot Wave

Part V: What the Peterson Controversy Means for Our Culture

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