Sunday, June 10, 2018

Stages of Maturity

This essay is about the potential for maturity of human consciousness or at least one way of thinking about it. In my view it is an hierarchical development; one cannot progress to the next stage of development until maturation of the underlying stage at which point former stages are retained, integrated and continue in coexistence.

If Mama Ain't Happy...

Sistine Madonna, Raphael
We are all conceived and subsequently born into the Matriarchy. This can be thought of with a very personal, human example. In the womb we were wholly dependent to the point of near total physical inseparability from mother. It takes some time for things to change after birth. Infants remain completely dependent upon the mother or a caretaker in her place. A lack of attendance of mere seconds can mean death for the newly born. The infant likewise totally identifies with the mother; separation means pain. Even a small measure of independence is hard won and takes years of development. Toddlers making the first forays into social contact with other children will typically run underneath and physically wrap themselves around the mother at the slightest surprise or discomfort.

In a greater, universal sense we can think of the Matriarchy as Mother Nature. She is always with us and positively determines most of our existence. Limitations and constraints are imposed on us by nature "out there": gravity, weather, pathology, sources of nourishment e.g. Likewise from within there is unquestionably an underlying biological imperative that largely determines how we will grow and age physically and over which, often to our chagrin, we can consciously exercise at best a limited influence. None of this is what an independent minded person wants to hear, yet it gets worse; our mind is not capable of as much independence or rationality as we might like to think. Our fears, desires, attractions and revulsions certainly motivate us, sometimes drag us by the nose, and will even possess us. Much of the justification and reasoning for our actions comes after the fact, it's the caboose at the end of a train that we're not conducting. Nevertheless, it seems obvious that we're not 100% determined by the Matriarchy; we may not be a complete blank slate but it may very well be that we're the blankest slate out there.

Father Knows Best

Jupiter and Thetis, Jean Auguste Dominique
In the course of growing up we learn to speak, play games, adopt familial and local customs, align our behaviour in accordance with social norms or the laws of the state and perhaps even take on a religious belief. This process of enculturation allows us a measure of independence and a sense of  group identity as we learn, integrate and replicate the behavioural patterns of our society. This is the Patriarchy, Jupiter in charge that is to say Zeus Pater, the pattern-bringer, the Great Father. This of course is the literal meaning of my own given name, 'Patrick' and I sometimes have viewed myself as at least a vessel for the transmission of culture. I've always had an inherent propensity for quickly learning and interanalising ordered systems: languages (human and computational), arithmetic and geometry, logic, dogma and philosophy. When I was younger I thought this ability to learn and repeat was evidence of perhaps my intelligence, certainly my independence; after all, I understood and could do things many other people could not. Yet, I came to eventually understand that I hardly had an original thought of my own. I was essentially a receptive avatar of ideas that I had not generated.

Human beings distinguish themselves from other social animals by the extreme preoccupation we have and the steps we'll take to mitigate the harshness of Mother Nature. Our clothing, medicinal and agricultural traditions all arose as a means to order or pattern the world physically so as to temper the aforementioned often devastating effects of weather, disease and famine. Music, art, drama, myth, religion, poetry, religion, law and philosophy are among the articulated efforts taken by civilisation to order the world at a psychological level whereas craft, architecture and science are examples of disciplines undertaken to order the world physically and to make sense of it psychologically simultaneously. It is incorrect to think of the Patriarchy as 'rule by men'. Whether you are male or female, if you participate in the transmission of culture, if you pass on anything that could be considered uniquely human, you are an active participant in the Patriarchy much the same as the mere fact of being alive and led in part by your unconscious desires indicate you are under the sway of the Matriarchy. The Matriarchy and Patriarchy can thus be seen as archetypal states of development that both men and women typically fully participate in; furthermore, they are a precondition for further maturation towards greater autonomy.

I Can Do It Myself!

The last couple of centuries have witnessed the rise of mass production and industrialisation of the necessities of life: food, clothes, shelter and medicine. Although this arose first in England and other liberal democracies, the same processes were implemented through a variety of political systems including dictatorships and various iterations of socialism and communism. Today almost anywhere on the globe individuals have been made wholly passive and dependent on either the state or corporate entities. Despite persisting disagreement of political viewpoint there has been almost complete standarisation of the global marketplace and its goods. The idea of the individual, small community or even sovereign nation being able to provide the physical necessities of existence for themselves at this point in time seems unrealistic, if not outright absurd or even suspect.

I'm of the opinion that cutting off the possibility of Autarky, physical self-sufficiency and independence, from the individual or small community is a catastrophic mistake. The infrastructure of civilisation has been reduced to massive integrated systems of politics, economy, education and production that are too big to succeed. They lack the adaptability that only exists at the level of the individual. Humans generate solutions by acting in the world physically, reinforcing those actions with rational justifications in retrospect. As such, when independent autonomy of action becomes severely constrained or bureaucratically forbidden there remains no physical path to step outside; we're at critical risk of suffocating the adaptive mechanism of free will that generates culture to begin with.

The mask of Greek drama was the false face,
the persona worn by the actors
for, 'per' the sound, 'sona'.

Presently there still remains the possibility to think and feel for oneself even as one's autonomy of action for greater independence and self reliance is severely restricted. For example, we don't have to remain creatures of instinct, rather we can reflect on our actions, examine our motivations, acknowledge and accept ourselves as we manifest both physically and emotionally. Essentially, we can be honest first and foremost with ourselves. Additionally, we also have the capacity to step outside  and reflect upon aspects of our culture whether it be our language group, religion, ethnicity, education, political affiliation etc. This is more than simply switching from identification with one ideology to another but truly separating, if but temporarily and partially, from the preformed, ready to acquire ideologies that we might use to define us to ourselves and others. This process of maturation towards individuality can be daunting, frightening and even psychologically destabilising, deadly in fact for the self image we have generated for ourselves or present to others. All of the assumptions and axioms by which we navigate life can be upended in a moment. It is little wonder many if not most persons shrink back from this stage of development.

Back to Life, Back to Reality

Although progress towards individuality is necessary for significant maturation, it need not end there. After all, we're not separate from nature, it's not something 'out there', rather it is 'in here', we are nature as it were. Neither is culture something that we want to permanently withdraw from. We are social creatures and despite the fact that many cultural institutions are corrupt, oppress us and attempt to conscript us as avatars of various ideologies, they often provide a measure of safety, support and space for development of the individual.

The Wheel of Dharma
The ultimate stage for the mature individual is transcendence, the voluntary acceptance of life with all of its pain and suffering. It also includes reintegration into the culture but as an individual operating at a higher level of conscious awareness willing to voluntarily take on the responsibility to update, redeem and transform society for the benefit of others.

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Contributed by Patrick Webb

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Religion and States of Consciousness

Egyptian Khnum throwing man
on the potter's wheel
After many years of comparative analysis of the predominant religious traditions, I'm starting to conclude that they just might distinguish themselves most fundamentally as anthropomorphic projections of various states of human consciousness. Not that the transcendent that religions point towards is just a projection, or that it is even a projection. Rather religious projections might very well indicate there is this infinite, underlying reality, perceived as somewhat like a shadowy reflection of what we're yet to fully comprehend.

What we've produced in religion among other cultural traditions could be referred to as thumbnails, memes, snapshots, or frames in modern parlance, low resolution images of an underlying reality at the edge of our conscious awareness. That makes religious perspectives incredibly interesting to me. I'm absolutely fascinated with how man has in image and ritual manifested these states of awareness by means of religion. This seems to permeate to some extent, particularly aesthetically, into the respective cultural traditions of music, drama, art, craft and architecture.

The Waking State

Personally, I was raised squarely in the Judeo-Christian tradition (Islam is situated here as well for the purposes of this comparison). All three share the view of the transcendent as the Master Potter. The divine is a being of focused attention, completely omniscient and of total awareness. We are made or crafted in the Potter's image. That image is a rational one, self-conscious reason being our mark of divinity, the separating principle from mere animals e.g.

The Dream State

The Hindu tradition places everyone and everything within the Dream of Brahma. All that is are manifestations of the divine operating in a subconscious state. With great effort and discipline a moment of ecstasy can be achieved akin to a lucid dream where the state of subconsciousness thins toward divine awakening.

Brahma taking a nap
The Organic State

Jainism, Buddhism and Taoism purport that the Universe itself is the Living embodiment of the transcendent. Just as we grow ourselves, the universe grows itself in a manner it knows not, yet knows perfectly. The deep unconscious running all of our bodily systems and manifesting itself in desires and motivations often to our complete surprise.

However, there has been an abandonment of these religious traditions globally over the past few hundred years in favour of the following:

The Abstract State

Sign, symbol, notation, quanta and other systems of notation are instrumentally useful, another quite unique reduced resolution image that allows us to grasp something otherwise overwhelming. However, categorisation and quantification, labeling and measuring has become the privileged subset of focused attention exponentially gaining ground and more to the point exclusive dominance.

Every effort may be made to systematise a given phenomenon; however, if the phenomenon defies measurement, reduction to a norm, it does not rise to a level worthy of further consideration. It must be discarded to maintain the integrity of the abstraction. I would argue that any system of notation (lingual, mathematical, etc.) taken for reality is necessarily a reduction and generalisation of what there is so that the lack of correspondence between abstraction and the fullness and incommensurability of reality lead to irresolvable absurdity. The commitment to the abstraction is powerful, stronger it would appear than any other religious sentiment as it is the most instrumentally useful, that is to say it gets work done.

But what is the transcendent but that which cannot be reduced within a system of abstraction?

The Steady State

These are just some preliminary thoughts; however, I think there is a way of reconciling what at first appear to be disparate or even opposing perspectives within a nested hierarchy. What I've described as the Abstract State matured in the West at the time of the Enlightenment. It sprung from a long period of mental discipline most notably in the monasteries of Europe where earlier individualistic concepts of the logos, hero and redeemer began to consolidate into the image of the awakened, enlightened individual, a reflected image of the highest conceivable idea, God. The Waking State has made possible logic, arithmetic and collectively what we would call Western philosophy; whereas further abstraction opened up modern science, engineering and medicine.

Despite the fact that the aspects of ourselves that we can predict or the things that attract us are often difficult to articulate we continue to act in the world. We take decisions, we love, we build, we're social or less so, we reproduce. We feel ourselves actors, not so much acted upon and yet none of it seems to require explanation. Our own motivations are somewhat mysterious to us; nevertheless, they feel of our own, not of anyone else. Most of our actions are semi-conscious at best and stem from murky deeper motivations operating at a subconscious level...akin to a dream. The rationalisation always come after, it's derivative. From the Dream State pour forth music, craft, language, drama, myth, and religion; each convention successively moving to greater states of articulation and self-awareness.

All of our rationalisations, determined action, hidden motivations in turn spring from something entirely obscured from view. We grow ourselves. No one else does it for us. How or why do we do it? Obviously we know how, we're here after all. The unconscious represents that which we know but don't know that we know. Nature is representative of this, utterly unconscious yet undeniably active, described in the Taoist tradition as Ziran, "of itself so", what we might translate as "spontaneity". To act in accord with nature is not to act at all, at least consciously which is a bit of a trick if you try, since to try is to act consciously. Nevertheless, as many artists, musicians and craftsmen come to realise, such a state of Mushin or "no mind" is achievable and in fact necessary to master one's art. I have some further thoughts about that here: Craftsmen of the Tao

Thinking of our capacity for abstraction as a distillation of a more fundamental capacity for conscious attention, itself nested in a motivational structure akin to a dream, all of which is grounded is something like a biological imperative seeking higher levels of complexity through repeated iterations. What generates such a hierarchy? What is the first cause, the prime mover behind our capacity for an abstracted point of view springing from an awakened, enlightened mind rooted in obscure motivations made possible by a generative unconscious?

This is where my ink runs dry...

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Contributed by Patrick Webb

Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Academy of Classical Design

Courtesy of the The Academy of Classical Design
For years I've worked as a traditional craftsman, primarily in various aspects of plastering but also dabbling in masonry and stone carving. I've attempted over the course of many years a very disciplined study of my craft, mastering to the best of my abilities the accepted means and methods, material science, the technical design and stylistic conventions associated with traditional plastering. However, finding training in the more artistic aspects of my craft has been hard to come by and blazing my own trail has been a glacially slow, arduous and oft times costly affair.

In 2013 the Academy of Classical Design had a gallery showing in Charleston, South Carolina entitled "Pure Ornament". This was the first time I'd heard of the Academy, was quite impressed with the work but only went as far as making a mental note of it. Fortunately, the following year I was invited by the founder and director of the Academy of Classical Design, Jeffrey Mims, to give a lecture on the "History of Ornamental Plaster". That changed everything. I witnessed on that visit a disciplined, rigorous, traditional program of artistic study in a monastic setting that was wholly applicable to my craft. I knew at that moment that if the opportunity were to present itself I would find a way to join Jeffrey at the Academy.

Last year that opportunity arose so my wife and I jointly took the decision to move from the historic downtown of Charleston to the small country town of Southern Pines in the Sandhills of North Carolina where the Academy is situated. It's horse country up here and we've quite literally put ourselves out to pasture living in a barn, in a loft above longtime residents "Midnight" and "Lightning". Angela has quickly adjusted, teaching a number of courses at the culinary program of our local community college. For me this move has been more dramatic, being not just a change of location but more importantly a significant transition in vocation as I've been invited this year on the board of the Classical Design Foundation, the non-profit entity that oversees the Academy which realises the educational mission of the Foundation. I'm also quite involved in assisting the Academy in developing a third school dedicated to the historical, technical and artistic instruction of Architectural Ornamentation. Additionally, the Foundation has established the Mural Guild as a vocational initiative intended to draw upon the drawing, painting and ornamental design instruction to offer advanced students the opportunity to participate in realising grand narrative murals in civic spaces available for public enjoyment.

Allow me to briefly share how the Academy is organised structurally and it's approach to the education of the artist.

Two Schools, a Program and a Guild

The Drawing School

This is the foundational school of the Academy. It's a rigorous study that aims to coordinate the hand and the eye, aiding the student to perceive what is seen accurately, with precision and to translate that to paper. Beginners start out with two dimensional plates that are copied at full scale followed by a series of plaster casts, introducing various challenges of perception and presentation in incremental stages.

Courtesy of the Academy of Classical Design

The Painting School

Upon successful completion of the Drawing School, students may continue studies in painting. Working with colour initially begins with a very restrictive palette so as to exhaust the impressionistic possibilities of the hard/soft, warm/cool chiaroscuro techniques that were employed by masters of the Renaissance period and adapted by the Ecole de Beaux Arts. Advanced students may pursue anatomical studies and working from live models.

Courtesy of the Academy of Classical Design

The Ornament Program

Architectural ornamentation has always been an important aspect of the curriculum, integrated into the Drawing and Painting Schools from their inception. However, this year for the first time, the study of architectural ornament is being offered as a dedicated and separate short course for students and professionals of architecture, furniture and theatre design, historic preservation, arts and crafts. The study of the history of ornament, technical layout and artistic convention is a pragmatic yet extensive undertaking that we're looking to develop into the third school of the Academy.

Courtesy of the Academy of Classical Design

The Mural Guild

The mural guild initiative aims to work with mature students, who've achieved a high level of technical mastery in drawing, painting and ornament to combine those skills in the composition, symbolic and dramatic narrative of grand scale mural projects accessible to the general public. The education of the Academy looks to support the Guild by providing a comprehensive program of education combined with the highest standards of excellence commensurate with that which produced the very best American examples such as the work of Edwin Blashfield at the Library of Congress or John Singer Sargent at the Boston Public Library.

Courtesy of the Academy of Classical Design

The Education of the Artist

Having personally studied briefly at the Drawing School (about 5 months total), I have been favourably impressed with the learning environment as a personal experience and overwhelmed with the results it produces so would like to share a few observations of approaches that I feel cultivate such an environment.

Time to Grow

The studio itself is open from morning until late into the evening six days a week to accommodate a variety of personal schedules. The program of study may be rigorous; however, there are no deadlines placed on students. A student is given as much time as they need to master a skill; they are never rushed. In fact, if anything students are encouraged to take on non-artistic work part time so that they can extend their education over a longer period of time.

A Drawn Out Education

There is a real faith in the capacity of the students, that they already hold the necessary potential to acquire the skills necessary for mastery. The role of the instructors is to lead with limited example, share and reinforce the few technical points that can be articulated and give the student time and room to put in the work and teach themselves through repetitious practise. In addition to the Director, advanced students share in the teaching, an activity which aids them in becoming better artists themselves and helps to foster a collective approach and shared methodology necessary for larger mural projects.

The Basis for Critique

There are an infinite points of view of any object that is to be represented. One can view it from close or far away, from a variety of angles or under a variety of lighting conditions. However, as we share nearly identical sensory capacity, if we assume the same distance and viewing angle under the same lighting condition we can count on seeing the same thing. In a studio environment there are practical constraints that can be placed on the aforementioned that make it easier on the student during the learning process.

A Critique may sound like a judgement and in a way it is. However, it is a corrective judgement putting faith in the students potential to improve rather than a condemnatory judgement of their person. In short, the critique method could be described as encouragement.

Narrative, not just Realism

Although useful technical ability is developed to be able to represent what you see, it does not end there. Great art is dramatic, it motivates, it has something to convey about e.g. the tragedy and beauty of life or the nobility of the human being. Weekly lectures and guest speakers help to put the day to day work in the studio in a greater historical and traditional context.

Patronage of a Classical Ideal

The Academy of Classical Design (the educational branch of The Classical Design Foundation, a 501 (C) (3) nonprofit organization) is truly a unique institution. It teaches artistic realism in the service of higher purpose, meaningful narrative for the benefit of society at large, a Classical ideal. It is also embarking on an ambitious project: the rebuilding of a formal educational infrastructure for the teaching of architectural ornamentation and grand narrative mural work; something that was tragically lost several generations ago and is completely necessary if we are to once again rejoin art with architecture in creating great places, pinnacles of human capacity that uplift and inspire ourselves and generations to come as we have been uplifted by those who came before us.

As Henry Hope Reed shared with us in his book The Golden City:

"Such an ideal in classical terms is beauty, and to achieve beauty in art is to imitate nature. This does not mean indulging in simple realism, rather it means accepting as model the best that nature offers the world, such as the human form, and it includes the best of the past in art. Man, to attain beauty, has to develop skills by accepting as model the best that nature offers the world, such as the human form, and it includes the best of the past in art. Man, to attain beauty, has to develop skills by accepting the ancient models, those tested by time, by drawing on nature with a trained eye, by standing by certain basic premises. One such premise is the absolute necessity of ornament in art."

The Academy teaches the redemptive power of beauty and the enrichment of one's life that the pursuit of art, craft and ornament imparts to the individual participant and to the culture we all share. Without question, we are quite willing to contribute the best of ourselves to that pursuit yet recognise we cannot achieve goals of such ambition alone. We need and very much welcome your participation. If you are interested in supporting such education through patronage, as a student or just finding out more about our activities please visit our contact page or reach out to me directly at the email below:

Interested in more content on a Philosophy of Craft?
Please visit my YouTube channel: A Craftsman's Philosophy

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Gypsum: A Naturally Occurring Stone

The Gypsum Cycle
Originally posted July 2016 on Traditional Building Magazine Online

Gypsum is a naturally occurring stone, a metallic salt of calcium. It commonly forms as an evaporite from the dissolution of limestone by exposure to sulphuric acid from volcanic activity. Under certain conditions, continual cycles of dissolution and evaporation will agglomerate into a “primary” deposit of gypsum.

Mineral gypsum so formed is interspersed among other minerals. Primary deposit gypsums are characterized by a loose crystalline structure and high solubility in water. Over geologic time gypsum from primary deposits is often carried away in solution, forming a “secondary” deposit of a much purer gypsum. These secondary deposits or “massifs” can be tens of feet thick, forming extended beds. Massifs are the primary source exploited as raw material for gypsum plaster.

Chemistry & Manufacture

Selenite: crystallized form of gypsum
The most common form of naturally occurring gypsum has the chemical formula: calcium sulphate dihydrate or CaSO4·2H2O. This “hydrous” or watery gypsum binds water to calcium sulphate molecules in a dry, crystalline state. As we'll see this imbues gypsum plasters with some amazing properties. If water held “frozen” at ambient room temperature doesn’t already sound incredible, the alchemy of burning stone to convert it into a plaster or mortar, to be subsequently reconstituted into stone in a place and shape of our choosing is downright magical!

Unlike clay, mineral gypsum must be baked in preparation for its use as a plaster. Fortunately, this occurs at a relatively low temperature so is not an energy intensive process. Gypsum rock can be efficiently baked at temperatures as low as 300° F. At this temperature gypsum quickly loses 75% of its water content, off-gassing steam. The resulting material has the chemical formula calcium sulphate hemi-hydrate or CaSO4·½H2O. Commonly known as Plaster of Paris, this is the most prevalent form of gypsum used for plasters.

In the 19th century it was discovered that gypsum baked under increased atmospheric pressure in a barometric chamber would result in dense plasters, having less water demand. These “gypsum cements” require less water to mix and manifest a distinct crystallization pattern that produces dense, hard sets very useful in casting work. Anhydrous gypsum is another form of gypsum stone that occurs naturally or can be manufactured by continuing to bake the hydrous form over a temperature of 800° F, producing calcium sulphate or CaSO4. This anhydrous or “dead burnt” gypsum, sometimes with a small addition of alum, is characterized by a slower set and dense crystallization useful for floor, exterior and other specialty applications such as scagliola.

Properties & Specifications

 Modeling and casting ornament with gypsum
There are several characteristics that are inherent to all gypsum plasters. Notable among them is that gypsum plaster is self-binding. Aggregates may be added as an inexpensive filler or for decorative effect; however, unlike clay or lime they are not necessary for the plaster to hold together. A closely related quality is that gypsum plasters do not shrink as they set. As gypsum plaster incorporates most of the added water into its crystalline matrix it actually expands slightly as is sets. Plaster of Paris and the gypsum cements in particular are fast setting materials that permit work to be conducted expeditiously. Gypsum plasters have excellent adhesion to most any solid, fibrous or lath substrate and provide a permeable, breathable coating. Furthermore, the combination of these unique characteristics of self-binding and rapidity of set result in gypsum being the perfect binder for molding and ornamental applications. Both Plaster of Paris and gypsum “cements” can be mixed to a light cream consistency, capturing the finest of details.

Historically gypsum plasters have been used primarily for interiors. Although all natural plasters are incombustible, gypsum is practically miraculous in its inherent capacity to actively retard fire. This is due to its hydrous chemistry. Should a fire occur in one room, gypsum will continue to off-gas steam, thus suppressing the temperature on the other side of the wall well below the temperature needed for spontaneous combustion. This arrests the ability of the fire to spread, starving it of needed oxygen.

Although Plaster of Paris produces a plaster far too porous and soluble for exteriors and gypsum cements are simply not practical to use as a wall plaster, there is a long history of exterior stuccoes in Europe based on anhydrous gypsum. Similar to earthen renders, reasonable precautions need to be taken with overhangs and other flashing details to ensure protection from streaming water as well as establishing water tables to prevent capillary water rise.

  Running in situ, courtesy of Plâtres Vieujot

Nevertheless, the self-binding nature of the material itself allows a great range of technical and aesthetic freedom. Gypsum stuccoes are very manageable to work as a wall plaster and can be applied up to an inch or more in a single coat. They have a rapid set that permits working in almost any season so long as there is a brief window of good weather. Furthermore, molding profiles can be run in situ, ornamentation can be cast and affixed and a practically unlimited variety of aggregates can be added for simply decorative effect.

In our next essay we’ll begin taking a closer examination of the family of lime binders, materials intimately associated with civilization itself.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Architectural Word of the Day; 241 - 250


The east end of an abbey or cathedral distinguished by radiating chapels protruding from the apse.



An early Gothic adaptation for rose windows, plate tracery gives the appearance of perforations through a thin stone slab in an otherwise solid wall.

The West front of Chartres Cathedral provides an amazing example, exceeding 12 metres across.


The horizontal projection of a voussoir that rests upon an adjacent stone.


A Chinese tradition of timber framing, consisting of a complex system of interlocking, corbeled joined bracketing allowing the rafters and eaves to be cantilevered well beyond the supporting columns.


Embellishment with ornament, well...just because.


A narrow pointed arch typically utilized for open, blind or glazed windows. The lancet can be arranged in an infinite possibility of widths that facilitates a rhythmic composition.


The linear pattern of two or more interlacing bands that create a series of circular openings. A prominent feature of COSMATESQUE work, an intricate style of marble, glass and stone inlay dominated by the Cosmati family of 12th and 13th century Italy.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Friday, January 5, 2018

Book Review: Maps of Meaning - The Architecture of Belief

I encountered Jordan Peterson quite coincidentally while researching underlying symbolic meaning in architectural ornamentation. As it turned out this book (and his accompanying online lecture series) considers subject matter of a far more philosophical and psychological nature; nevertheless, it arrested my attention as it spoke very clearly to another interest of mine: why do human beings believe and act as they do?

It became immediately self-evident he was someone well read in the profound thinking of Neumann, Jung, Freud and Nietzsche. These thinkers have been often characterised as "New Age"; however, I don't agree with the implications of that designation inasmuch as what they proposed was not new as much as additive to the philosophical edifice that had been erected before them. They were true scholars who knew that edifice well, had absorbed like sponges the intellectual contributions to Western culture (Schopenhauer, Kant, Hume, Christianity, Greek philosophy etc.) That is precisely what empowered them to make a contribution of their own that was actually meaningful.

As much as I can tell academia has relegated these thinkers, the entirety of Western culture for that matter, to the history department aka dustbin. But Jordan Peterson isn't a historian; fixating on once famous but since obsolete old philosophers isn't a fetish for him. He is a clinical psychologist and academic researcher taking their work seriously, more importantly he takes their approach seriously and it would appear to me that he is blowing off the dust of their projects, largely abandoned by academia and actually carrying them forward.

If you've read or attempted to read any of the aforementioned authors, you know they can be tough. Some of the difficulty might be attributable to the content, the style of the authors or the subtle changes in language in the time that has passed since they were written. For the contemporary reader, Peterson's treatment remains rigorous but ultimately accessible. Here are a few themes which don't align with chapter headings yet struck me as permeating the book.

Transcending Dichotomies

Empiricist David Hume
Royal Mile, Edinburgh
The first dichotomy to be addressed is a metaphysical one: what constitutes reality? Science largely pursues an empirical approach, that reality is"out there", having an independent existence in the objective world to be observed and measured. The skeptical counter-arguments have dogged science from the beginning. All we can observe are the perceptions in our heads so to speak; those subjective perceptions are the only reality we'll ever know and even these are not altogether reliable. However, it seems likely that only with the interaction of subject and object that meaning can be generated. Such a transcendent perspective might consider the world not as isolated things, rather as fields of potential information and actualised experience.

The second dichotomy is of an epistemological nature: what can be known? Thinkers secular and religious have for millennia pursued knowledge, bedrock truths that are absolute and universally applicable. Nothing seems to withstand the test of time and further experience. One cultural response has been to willfully reject new experience, to cut oneself off from the unknown. Totalitarianism assumes that all that is known is all there is to know and worth knowing or otherwise constraining any search for truth within very restrictive parameters. Other thinkers have responded to the aforementioned difficulties of absolute truth by denying the possibility of true knowledge at all, discrediting any value in its pursuit or more commonly adhering to a philosophy of relative truth that accords with a subjective metaphysics; there at best can be your truth or my truth but there exists no basis for our truth, a shared truth between us. Decadence is the description of cultures whose view of the possibility of true knowledge has eroded in this way. They become undisciplined, antisocial and nihilist...all appears arbitrary, nothing seems to matter. Totalitarianism and decadence are two modes of suppression of knowledge either by cutting oneself off from experience or by denying its very possibility and value in the first place. The result in either case is a loss of capacity for adaptation. Peterson seems to favour a pragmatic approach. It is patently obvious that human beings are not omniscient, we can never have total knowledge. The unknown will always be out there for us. However, we can and do act in the world on the basis of sufficient knowledge which is contingent on further experience, continued conversion of the unknown into the known and adapting accordingly.

The architecture of belief would seem to be primarily a moral, ethical one: we're less concerned about "what is" than what we ought to do about "what is". A pattern typifying human behaviour is the positing of an ideal state of being (or conversely something calling us to such a state) and subsequently taking actions towards that end. In the context of a goal, objects in the world and our own psychological states can be evaluated for meaning and motivation that might enable or inhibit progress towards it or even determine a restructuring of the goal itself. An ever changing field of experience calls for a dynamic morality, continuous adaptation in light of more information.

Development towards Individuation

In the course of human development we start off in total dependence, in normal circumstances upon our mother. Even prior to that we physiologically are the mother, we grow from her. This state of complete dependence is the metaphorical "matriarchy". After birth, infants identify totally with the mother and continue to strongly depend upon and identify with her for years thereafter. There is little to no conscious awareness of a self separate from mother for infants and young children.

During later childhood into adolescence identity with the mother gives way to absorption of culture and formation of an identity. In this process of socialisation, the child learns how to speak a language, identifies with being of a place such as a town or city, belonging or not to a particular faith. Through accent, dress, behaviour etc. the youth embodies and acts out (even in rebellion) complex narratives that he did not generate and could never articulate. This is what metaphorically is referred to as the "patriarchy", culture as re-presentation of a creative past that is absorbed and imitated by a youth as a step towards independence through identification with a group collectively holding a larger field of experience. For many maturity ebbs here at near total identification with a subset of their culture.

Ryerson University, Student Protest - courtesy of Jonathan Castellino

Collectivist theories which posited that group identity (with the state or one's economic class) constitutes the individual, played out politically in the 20th century. Derivative theories continue to dominate the Humanities departments of academia today, claiming what we call the mature individual is the outcome of a process determined by identification with a matrix of a person's race, class, political ideology, sexual orientation etc. However, Peterson stakes out and articulates an earlier and contrary position, that the mature individual is not an outcome but is what constitutes the society. It is a hopeful claim because it implies that change at the level of the individual can change the world. What he describes is transcendence of identification with the known by identifying instead with very process of continual incorporation of the unknown. For example, who could we become if we pursued the highest ideal that we could envision? What might the world look like if each and every one of us embraced as much responsibility as we could muster and fulfilled our potential?

Archetypes and the Mythical Perspective

When you look up "myth" in your average dictionary you're likely to see a definition such as "a belief, idea or story that isn't true." I wonder who the hell writes these definitions. Did they entirely miss their childhood? Of course myths are not an historically accurate chronicling of events as they objectively happened. If so, we certainly wouldn't be interested in them. Yet, unless you have a rationalised preconceived bias against them, myths remain undeniably appealing.

During the 18th and 19th century, as myths from around the world were being documented, scholars began to notice common narratives. At first this was reasonably theorised to be the result of unrecorded contacts between such ancient peoples. However, evidence continued to amass that origin, flood and other archetypal stories had underwent parallel developments in isolation. Superficial details aside, there was a marked correlation of themes that have led some thinkers to postulate the mythical as a distinct mode of knowing the world.


The Ouboros
In the beginning there was chaos, the void, undifferentiation, an abyss akin to the water pitched in deep darkness.Yet, chaos is never described as nothing, rather the personification of the unknown which holds the same significance to us today: it could be anything. A most widespread symbol the precosmogonical chaos is a dragon, particularly the ouboros who eats his own tail, forming a circle.

The Great Mother

Mother of Death
Nature. Realm of the unknown. The Id, the unconscious from which hidden motivation billow forth. Peruse the worlds traditions as you like, you'll never here the expressions "father nature" or "father earth." The bringing forth of new life and all that nurtures and sustains existing life is the domain of the Nurturing Mother. Her womb is the very earth. Her creative works occur in darkness. Her generative forces a sacred mystery. Yet, her domain is also that of the Devouring Mother. She is both the drought and the flood, the famine, the plague. She is the ultimate force of destruction that each and every life will eventually be consumed by.

 The Great Father

Social Order. Realm of past captured knowledge, retained and represented in culture. The Protective Father is a symbolic wall. He is the sky, light and the domain of knowledge, understanding and the accumulation of wisdom. However, the security and order he provides can stifle and oppress. The Tyrannical Father is old and blind. He limits human potential and blocks the maturity of the individual who would venture into the unknown and expand the domain of knowledge.

The Hostile Brothers

Cain and Abel

Pietro Novelli
Hero and Adversary. Abel and Cain. The brothers are the aspect of myth that gets personal, what path will you choose as an individual?

The Hero absorbs his culture completely, recognises its insufficiency and explores the unknown so as to update and redeem it. The Adversary shrinks from the unknown, either totally identifying with the current social order or denying the very possibility of meaning itself. Often the adversary adopts ideologies, still compelling as partial but incomplete mythical narratives but too impoverished to fulfill human potential or sufficiently adapt to a dynamic reality.

Former prisoner of the Soviet Gulag Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes: "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"

Alchemy, Demystification of the Mystics

The book concludes with a discussion of medieval alchemy, a mode of being that shared many characteristics of the mythical and whose development paved the way for an empirically based natural science. Alchemical matter defined its elements as information contained not in subject or object, rather at the nexus of meaning, the transaction point between them. Classification of phenomena (objective or psychic) was based on a representation of how one ought to act in its presence. Such behaviour was conditional, subject to change upon additional information garnered from experience.

One of alchemy's most important axioms was that subject and object both have the same ontological status, they're both "real". If you perfect yourself you can perfect the world. This generated an imperative to identify with and act out the redeemer, rather than worshiping the former act of redemption itself. There is much more to be said about alchemy, archetypes, and experiencing life by paying attention to our motivations. Jordan Peterson does an admirable job in this book of laying out a map of where the individual can embark on the path of a life rich with meaning.

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Contributed by Patrick Webb