Chapter 1 – Maps of Experience; Object and Meaning
I have been making a slow but steady progress to Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief – a book, I believe, is fundamental to understanding Peterson’s take on morality, ethics, and other cultural concerns.
Peterson is greatly influenced by Carl Jung and Fredrich Nietzsche. My interest in Peterson is twofold. One, he is a subject of my dissertation (purely intellectual pursuit). Second, as a cultural icon and a popular voice on a range of issues he belongs to a different theoretical universe then mine, and as such I want to understand if there is a theoretical convergence, but also divergence between our two distinct theoretical frameworks.
Peterson is a cultural superstar, He rose to fame, becoming a cultural icon, after his interview with Cathy Newman on Channel 4 News. His book 12 Rules For Life has become a bestseller in Australia, US, UK and Canada, and across Europe. But long before Peterson rose to fame, he wrote Maps of Meaning. It’s a substantial book and foundational to understanding his other work, including the 12 Rules For Life.
In this post I will offer a summary of Chapter 1: Maps of Experience
Imagine that a toddler, out of sheer curiosity and accident, touches a fragile glass sculpture. She observes its material characteristics; it’s colour and shine and how it feels to her touch, etc. All this is her primary experience of the sculpture.
But, then, her mother interferes. She grasps her hand, telling her never to touch the object. Through this experience the child has learned two things about the sculpture.
- Her primary experience informed the child of the objective sensory properties of the sculpture.
- Her secondary experience includes her mother’s intervention leading the child to discover that the sculpture is regarded more expensive, even special, in its current unaltered configuration.
In the sculpture, the toddler has encountered (1) an empirical object and (2) its sociocultural status. The status of the object is determined by what meaning it has for the mother. The meaning could be personal or social. Whatever the case be, the meaning of the object has an implication for behaviour – the toddler is not allowed to touch the object. She is told how to behave around the object, to touch or not to touch it.
The sculpture has dual nature:
- sociocultural significance/meaning or emotional, even motivational relevance
The dual nature of the sculpture is experienced as a unified totality. The objective is also subjective and vice versa. Human subjectivity or human behavior – to touch or not – is an intrinsic part of the sculpture (of the objective reality of the sculpture).
On this basis, Peterson maintains that everything is something (objectively). Secondly, everything means something (subjectively). The meaning or significance is not external to the object, rather assimilated to the object itself. This automatic attribution of meaning to object is a characteristic of mythology, not scientific thoughts.
Peterson divides the word into two categories: pre-experimental or mythical and experimental or scientific.
One finds its expression in the methods of scientific theories and the other in ritual, drama, stories, and mythology.
As per JP, we need both categories to develop a complete understanding of our world. In setting one category at odds with another, we risk discrimination based on how those categories are perceived or interpreted by us. For example, a biblical literalist might regard the creation narrative as an indistinguishable from empirical facts, discounting that the creation myth was formulated long before the notion of empiricism or objective reality emerged.
Similarly, the modern scientific mind which claims to be rational is in fact not too far from irrational behaviors. Human emotions – anger, frustration, lust, aggression – teaches us how we fail to distinguish our feelings from an object or a person that ends up being the object cause of our desire. The scientific mind is far from objectivity because the object itself falls under the spell of desire. Things – books; phones; cross; tree; table; clothing brand; building – means something for us. Object have emotional and motivational relevance for us.
The attribution of meaning to object is a characteristic of mythology, not scientific thoughts.
How does this happen?
Peterson claims that to know something is to know its motivational relevance and its sensory qualities (sensory quality is determined by scientific methods).
These two modes of knowing are distinct in their disposition.
An object, for example, must capture our gaze and motivate us before we can to explore the object based on its sensory qualities by utilizing scientific methods.
Secondly, the sensory properties are meaningful only if they guide us to understand the affectiveness of the object in motivating behavior. What this means is that to understand what things are, it requires that we not only understand what the object is for its own sake empirically, but what that object means in terms of what behavior it will invoke out of us. In this sense, our behavior determines what meaning we give to a thing or an object. How do we behave when we see a politician, a sports superstar, a movie actor, an intellectual idol, the Pope, even a superior at our workplace?
Peterson argues that the affect generated by experience, although subjective in nature, are Real.
The mythical mind understood affect of things as a matter of course. But a modern mind, as it seems, has removed affect from things. Due to this, Peterson claims, that the modern mind does not know what to do when faced with an incomprehensible affect generated by the Thing. For Peterson, we live in a state of loss. For before the arrival of the modern mind man lived in a world saturated with meaning and imbued with purpose. The nature of the purpose was revealed in stories people told each other about cosmos.
In contrast to the mythical mind, the modern mind is plagued with rational doubt and moral uncertainties. The modern mind does not believe its own stories. No longer believe that ancient stories served us well in the past.
It seems that the mythological perspective has been overthrown by the empirical. And if it is true, if the mythical perspective has truly been abolished, then we could conclude that the morality predicated upon such perspective is also dethroned.
But is that the case? Peterson quotes Nietzsche:
When one gives up Christian belief [for example] one thereby deprives
oneself of the right to Christian morality…. Christianity is a system,
a consistently thought out and complete view of things. If one breaks out of
it a fundamental idea, the belief in God, one thereby breaks the whole
thing to pieces: one has nothing of any consequence left in one’s hands.
Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know what is
good for him and what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows.
Christian morality is a command: its origin is transcendental; it is beyond
all criticism, all right to criticize; it possesses truth only if God is truth—it
stands or falls with the belief in God. If [modern Westerners] really do
believe they know, of their own accord, “intuitively,” what is good and
evil; if they consequently think they no longer have need of Christianity
as a guarantee of morality; that is merely the consequence of the
ascendancy of Christian evaluation and an expression of the strength and
depth of this ascendancy: so that the origin of [modern] morality has been
forgotten, so that the highly conditional nature of its right to exist is no
According to Nietzsche, if the presupposition of a theory has been invalidated then the whole theoretical edifice has been invalidated. But in this case, Peterson argues, the theory survives. The fundamental tenants of Christian morality, predicated upon Judeo-Christian myth, persist. It continues to govern individual behavior and Western values.
To quote Peterson:
The fundamental tenets of the Judeo-Christian moral tradition continue to govern every aspect of the actual individual behavior and basic values of the typical Westerner—even if he is atheistic and well-educated, even if his abstract notions and utterances appear iconoclastic. He neither kills nor steals (or if he does, he hides his actions, even from his own awareness), and he tends, in theory, to treat his neighbor as himself. The principles that govern his society (and, increasingly, all others15) remain predicated on mythic notions of individual value—intrinsic right and responsibility—despite scientific evidence of causality and determinism in human motivation. Finally, in his mind—even when sporadically criminal—the victim of a crime still cries out to heaven for “justice,” and the conscious lawbreaker still deserves punishment for his or her actions.
For Peterson, we believe God is dead, and for that matter, myth is dead, but we still act out the precept of our forebearers. The same mythic rules shape our behaviors. There is a disjunction between what we believe and how we live. Our actions do not live up to our beliefs. It’s not that we claim to believe in God but fail to live as we believe. Quite the opposite, we claim not to believe in God, but still, we live as if we do believe in God.
For Peterson, God is synonymous with the mythic universe. And our lives are governed by the same mythic rules – thou shall not kill, thou shall not covet – that guided our ancestors for thousands of years before the arrival of empirical thought. Accordingly, Peterson sees no sense in abolishing myth or prioritizing scientific mind over mythical mind.
Peterson asks: “How is it that complex and admirable civilizations could have developed and flourished, initially, if they were predicated upon nonsense?”
Is fault lies with us the modern wanderers who have failed to make sense of how it could be the case that traditional notions are right, despite the appearance of extreme irrationality?
Is this the case of modern philosophical ignorance or ancestral philosophical errors, asks Peterson?
At the heart of the chapter is a plea to return to the foundational myths of our civilization. As Peterson would say if it made sense then why would it not make sense now?