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.

Contributed by Patrick Webb 

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