Monthly Archives: June 2021

Peterson: time or times?

Jordan Peterson cannot make up his mind if time is singular or plural. Or, perhaps better put, he cannot make up his mind about which of two singular times is more basic than the other. True to his sometimes commitment to Gutenbergian perspective,1 truth and reality must conflate at some point. So in this mode, Peterson’s usual but not exclusive one, his consideration of anything must come down to the question of — which singularity? Which one?

The passages below are from a single paper,2 but the views it expresses on time are plainly at odds with each other. Moreover, the same ambiguity about time appears in all his work. 

Over and over again he references our need for a “broader evolutionary/historical perspective”:

  • The most cherished presumptions of the West remain castles in the air, historically and philosophically speaking. This perceived weakness of foundation makes societies grounded on conceptions of natural right vulnerable to criticism and attack in the most dangerous of manners. The adoption of a much broader evolutionary/historical perspective with regards to the development of human individuality and society allows for the generation of a deep solution to this problem.3
  • What we have in our culture is much more profound and solid and deep than any mere rational construction. We have a form of [association]4, an equilibrated state, which is an emergent consequence of an ancient process. The process undergirding the development of this [associational]5 form stems much farther back even than the Egyptians, even than the Mesopotamians — stems back to behavioral ritual and oral tradition. (…) Our political presuppositions — our notion of “natural rights” — rest on a cultural foundation that is unbelievably archaic. That foundation, in turn, rests on something even more fundamental. Chimpanzees, ever so closely related to human beings, live in dominance hierarchies, like their human cousins.6
  • These unbelievably archaic ideas (…) first acted out, first embodied in ritual, first dramatized, then told as stories, developing more and more coherence over stretches of time of thousands of years — they serve to ground our self-evident notions in something that is much more than mere opinion, [and than] mere arbitrary supposition.7

But just as frequently he reverts to an ‘eternal’ drama underlying human experience involving three figures/principles/orders/archetypes/gods:

  • The old king never dies, the villain never dies, and the hero never dies. This is because there is always “the old king” (…) there is always “the villain,” and [and there is always] “the hero.” These entities are transcendent, transpersonal, because they represent aspects of experience that never change.7
  • Imagine that the human environment might be better considered “what is and has always been common to all domains of human experience, regardless of spatial locale or temporal frame.” The environment, construed in such a manner, consists not of objects, but of phenomenological constants (although it still contains objects).9

At its base, the problem at stake in this ambiguity is Peterson’s inability to let go of his heroic persona. Absent this persona and its typical demand for foundational singularity, he might be exposed to the possibility that time is plural and that its central riddle is not, ‘which of historical time and eternity and history is more real?’, but instead, ‘how are equally real time and eternity knotted together?’.10   

The hero comes to experience with a predetermined11 notion of the form of reality and truth — including his own reality and truth. In order to consider the full range of possibilities that such predetermination might take, the hero must of course jettison the one already in effect, the one shaping his experience and identity, and therefore abdicate that identity — for identity must be allowed to result from the range of such predetermination, cannot be allowed to dictate to it. 

All the misfortunes of humans (and of all the creatures so unhappily subject to us) are the consequence of the insistence to judge reality and truth rather than being judged by them. Now Peterson would heroically address our misfortunes and attempt to heal them. This is a great thing. But his heroism only reinforces our misfortune and certainly cannot administer to it.

  1. That Peterson has multiple takes on time and many other matters, like a cubist, is already a deviation from Gutenbergian perspective. He seems to be fighting against himself as if to say, I know that time is plural, but I just can’t bring myself to consider its plurality as fundamental. To do that I would also have to recognize the abysmal gap between plural times as fundamental as well. But rather that pursue the labyrinthine path his own work indicates in this way, Peterson silently accepts what he explicitly seems to reject: “The most cherished presumptions of the West remain castles in the air, historically and philosophically speaking.” With this resigned acceptance he stands in for the contemporary consternation of the world which is lost in the cul-de-sac of fake news — and fake everything else per Nietzsche’s “History of an Error”.
  2. Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience’, Archive for the Psychology of Religion, v28, 2006.
  3. ‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights’.
  4. Peterson: “of government”. Peterson is correct, of course, that the term ‘government’ can be used to cover many different types of association and these are not limited to political forms. Ideas or delusions or DNA can ‘govern’. But ‘association’ is a less committed term and has been substituted here as better conveying Peterson’s notion of “an equilibrated state”.
  5. Peterson: “governmental”
  6. ‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights’.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid. The quotation marks in this passage are Peterson’s. Are they are meant to signify an unidentified reference? Or perhaps some special status for the suggestion?
  10. This question is at least 2500 years old and is doubtless much much older than that. Dynamics were Aristotle’s attempt to explicate the forms of his great teacher and friend, Plato. According to this notion, eternal forms dynamically express themselves in time. Chemistry was born when it at last became clear that elements express themselves in just this way. To the great misfortune of the world, the humanities and social sciences have been unable to submit themselves to such wondrous predetermination — for in this case the gapped range of possibilities or elements does not predetermine material things, it predetermines us. Now McLuhan never stopped questioning how and why this fixation against explication and investigation of ourselves arises. He thought it was the key to our survival. But he never figured it out, so deep is this “numb”. (For ‘wondrous’, see the next note.)
  11. It must be wondered (in Aristotle’s sense of wonder as giving birth to philosophy) just when and where and how this ‘pre-determination’ occurs.

Peterson and the fabled ‘thing in itself’

I desire that your conjectures should be limited by what is thinkable. Could you think a god? But this is what the will to truth should mean to you: that everything be changed into what is thinkable for man, visible for man, feelable by man. (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

Nietzsche would reduce everything to “what is thinkable for man” and then show that “what is thinkable for man” — self-destructs, falls through itself, utterly collapses like a black hole into….nothing. Hence nihilism and through nihilism and only through nihilism: INCIPIT ZARATHUSTRA!1

Supposing there were no self-identical “A”, such as is presupposed by every proposition of logic (and of mathematics), and the “A” were already mere appearance, then logic would have a merely apparent world as its condition. In fact, we believe in this proposition under the influence of ceaseless experience which seems continually to confirm it. The “thing”— that is the real substratum of “A”; our belief in things is the precondition of our belief in logic. The “A” of logic is, like the atom, a reconstruction of the thing — If we do not grasp this, but make of logic a criterion of true being, we are on the way to positing as realities all those hypostases: substance, attribute, object, subject, action, etc.; that is, to conceiving a metaphysical world, that is, a “real world” — this, however, is the apparent world2 once more… (Nietzsche, Will to Power)

In his 2013 essay, ‘Three Forms of Meaning and the Management of Complexity’3, Jordan Peterson repeatedly registers his attachment to the fabled ‘thing in itself’ and does so through what Nietzsche calls “our belief in things”. But Peterson begins his essay by setting out a preliminary overview of perception4 which would seem to rule out any such access:

Most psychological models (…) are based on the assumption that the world is made of objects, existing independently and given — or, more abstractly, of stimuli. That assumption is incorrect: the boundaries between objects or stimuli are largely situation-dependent and subjectively-determined. Half our brain is devoted to vision. This indicates that we do not simply see what is there. The “frame problem”5 (…) looms over all other current psychological concerns. We live in a sea of complexity. The boundaries of the objects we manipulate are not simply given by those objects. Every object or situation can be perceived, in an infinite number of ways, and each action or event has an infinite number of potential consequences.6

  • The boundaries between objects or stimuli7 are (…) subjectively-determined
  • we do not simply see what is there
  • objects (…) are not simply given
  • Every object or situation can be perceived in an infinite number of ways

Still, Peterson is somehow able to stipulate how things are with the thing-in-itself, indeed with “all things-in-themselves”: 

Intelligible arrays have been identified at many levels of resolution: from that of the quark, 1/10,0002 as large as an atom, to the supra-galactic, at 1025 meters. All things-in-themselves exist simultaneously at all those levels, and partake in multiple arrays, at each level. A perceptible object is thus an array segregated, arbitrarily and for subjective purposeful reasons, from its participation in endless other arrays. However, some aspect of the original array [the original array!] must be retained. Otherwise, the object cannot be said to truly exist, and must be regarded as fantasy. (…) The perceived object is simpler than the thing-in-itself (a prerequisite to comprehension) -– while remaining importantly related8 to the actual thing.9 (…) The perceived object is thus a low-resolution image of the thing-in-itself.10

Compare Nietzsche (from a late note included in the posthumously assembled Will to Power):

Radical nihilism is (…) the realization that we lack the least right to posit a beyond or an in-itself of things.

Nietzsche agreed with Peterson that absent certain presuppositions (aka, needs) “the object cannot be said to truly exist”. But exactly contrary to Peterson, Nietzsche denied those presuppositions and even those needs. All was indeed a “fantasy” — except that, absent subject and object, “fantasy”, too, must be dispensed with as self-cancelling => fantasy.

A footnote in Peterson’s essay continues his stipulation that the thing-in-itself is available for our manipulation:11

What is axiomatic about the object is that it is a representation of the thing-in-itself, sufficient for some delimited purpose.12

Given this stipulated axiom, as Peterson claims in the same place, “the object is less than the thing-in-itself and (…) can [yet] still be empirically ‘real’.”13 The enabling assumptions here are that the thing-in-itself and reality are coterminous and that the thing-in-itself can somehow lend that reality to a representation of it in and as a perceived object. Hence, the thing-in-itself is real and its object, while at an unaccountable psychological remove from it, is also ‘real’. 

Now Nietzsche took the same view as Peterson that the thing-in-itself and reality are coterminous. But he concluded, since we lack any access to the thing-in-itself, that we must do also without that “esteemed commodity”14 of “reality”. He set out the history of the dissolution of our access to reality in a famous aphorism from Twilight of the Idols:

How The “True World” Finally Became A Fable: The History of an Error

1. The true world — attainable for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man; he lives in it, he is it.  (The oldest form of the idea, relatively sensible, simple, and persuasive. A circumlocution for the sentence, “I, Plato, am the truth.”)
2. The true world — unattainable for now, but promised for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man (“for the sinner who repents”).  (Progress of the idea: it becomes more subtle, insidious, incomprehensible — it becomes female, it becomes Christian. )
3. The true world — unattainable, indemonstrable, unpromisable; but the very thought of it — a consolation, an obligation, an imperative.
(At bottom, the old sun, but seen through mist and skepticism. The idea has become elusive, pale, Nordic, Königsbergian [ie, Kantian].)
4. The true world — unattainable? At any rate, unattained. And being unattained, also unknown. Consequently, not consoling, redeeming, or obligating: how could something unknown obligate us?  (Gray morning. The first yawn of reason. The cockcrow of positivism.)
5. The “true” world — an idea which is no longer good for anything, not even obligating — an idea which has become useless and superfluous — consequently, a refuted idea: let us abolish it! (Bright day; breakfast; return of bon sens and cheerfulness; Plato’s embarrassed blush; pandemonium of all free spirits.)
 6. The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one. (Noon; moment of the briefest shadow; end of the longest error; high point of humanity; INCIPIT ZARATHUSTRA.)

Peterson has written and lectured on Nietzsche a great deal, including on Zarathustra. But his heroic reading has not taken that step beyond “the thing-in-itself”, “beyond good and evil” (another of Nietzsche’s books often discussed by Peterson), where Zarathustra — starts!

Point #6 is of critical importance for Peterson. For not only is it not the case that we have some sort of inexplicable access to the thing-in-itself, we also have no access to the apparent world — exactly because we lack of access to the thing-in-itself. The apparent world, including our apparent selves, is, unfortunately, sadly enough, along with the real world and our real selves — missing.

Stipulation of any access to the real or even the apparent world is dependent on some ground (hence Peterson’s various appeals to the thing-in-itself, or to brain materialism15, or to the hero’s penetration to “the constituent elements of experience”16 and, throughout his work, to uralt mythology17). But none of these stipulations can succeed, for reasons that Nietzsche already made clear 150 years ago, since all remain, in Peterson’s words, “mere arbitrary supposition”.18 

What has happened is that Peterson has made the human, all-too-human error of mistaking the strange threshold of the way we need to go — for an endpoint. It is, he thinks, a problem to be solved through the stipulation of some ground. Or waved at as an eternally ventured and eternally indistinct heroic quest. In any case, he has refused in various ways the labyrinthine path to Zarathustra’s incipit

The central demand at this threshold is that “the constituent elements of experience” be identified — as indeed Peterson knows.19 But the hero cannot knowthe constituent elements of experience” absent the possibility of doing so. That is, before he can know “the constituent elements of experience” the hero must have visited “the constituent elements of experience” and activated or “put on” (as McLuhan would say) that one of them, or that one combination of them perhaps, through which knowledge of “the constituent elements of experience” is first of all possible. Unfortunately the hero cannot accomplish this somersault in time without losing himself in the process. Only the ‘nobody’ can follow Zarathustra into that ‘convalescence‘ which is so desperately needed by the world.

 

 

  1. See ‘The History of an Error’ below.
  2.  For “the apparent world”, see ‘The History of an Error’ below.
  3. In K. Markman, T. Proulx & M. Lindberg (eds), The Psychology of Meaning, 1-23.
  4. “Overview of perception”: is this a subjective or an objective genitive?
  5. Peterson does not reference Erving Goffman’s classic Frame Analysis and may not be aware of it. This is all the more astonishing since Goffman is one of the big 3 of Alberta-born scholars (along with McLuhan and Peterson) and, again like McLuhan and Peterson, but less so, was associated with the University of Toronto as a grad student.
  6. ‘Three Forms of Meaning’, 2.
  7. Note that Peterson does not say “the boundaries between objects AND stimuli”! The implication of “objects OR stimuli” is that “stimuli” swallow “objects”.
  8. “Importantly related” — for what and for whom?
  9. “The actual thing”!
  10. ‘Three Forms of Meaning’, 3.
  11. Beyond the critiques of perception (objective genitive!) of Nietzsche and Beckett, Peterson’s “available for our manipulation” is also subject to Heidegger’s critique of the notion of the world as a kind of standing reserve to be mined “sufficient for some delimited purpose” of ours.
  12. ‘Three Forms of Meaning’, 3n5.
  13. ‘Three Forms of Meaning’, 3.
  14. Samuel Beckett in Three Dialogues: “There is more than a difference of degree between being short –- short of the world, short of self -– and being without these esteemed commodities. The one is a predicament, the other not.”
  15. See the attempt to specify a “mechanistic explanation” in the brain for the varieties of experience in Hirsh, Mar, & Peterson, ‘Psychological Entropy: A Framework for Understanding Uncertainty-Related Anxiety’, Psychological Review, 119(2), 304-20, 2012.
  16.  ‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience’, Archive for the Psychology of Religion, v28, 2006.
  17. “These unbelievably archaic ideas (…) serve to ground our self-evident notions in something that is much more than mere opinion, mere arbitrary supposition” (‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience’).
  18. Ibid.
  19. See note 16 above. But he also says that “only functionally relevant objects ‘exist’ at any given moment — constituting figure, so to speak, instead of ground” (‘Awareness May Be Existence’, BBS, 2000). Note the doubling of constituent/constituting. The “constituent elements of experience” must be grounds, however, not figures — exactly aselements“.

Nietzsche on the emotion of multitude

Tremendous self-examination: becoming conscious of oneself, not as individuals but as mankind. Let us reflect, let us think back; let us follow the highways and byways! (Will to Power, Book 3)

“Becoming conscious of oneself, not as individuals but as mankind” was reverted to again and again by McLuhan in terms of Yeats’ ’emotion of multitude’. He (McLuhan) thought of it as the unconscious range of possibility out of which actual experience emerges through a process we do not understand — but which we urgently need to understand as a matter of survival. It was a question of bringing to light the synchronic aspect of experience: “Let us reflect, let us think back; let us follow the highways and byways!”1

Here is Yeats’ 1903 note:

Emotion of Multitude

I [WBY] have been thinking a good deal about plays lately, and I have been wondering why I dislike the clear and logical construction which seems necessary it one is to succeed on the modern stage. It came into my head the other day that this construction, which all the world has learnt from France, has everything of high literature except the emotion of multitude. The Greek drama has got the emotion of the multitude from its chorus, which called up famous sorrows, even all the gods and all heroes, to witness as it were, some well-ordered fable, some action separated but for this from all but itself. The French play delights in the well-ordered fable, but by leaving out the chorus, it has created an art where poetry and imagination, always the children of far-off multitudinous things, must of necessity grow less important than the mere will. This is why, I said to myself, French dramatic poetry is so often a little rhetorical, for rhetoric is the will trying to do the work of the imagination. The Shakespearian drama gets the emotion of multitude out of the sub-plot which copies the main plot, much as a shadow upon the wall copies one’s body in the firelight. We think of KING LEAR less as the history of one man and his sorrows than as the history of a whole evil time. Lear’s shadow is in Gloucester, who also has ungrateful children and the mind goes on imagining other shadows, shadow beyond shadow, till it has pictured the world. In Hamlet, one hardly notices, so subtly is the web woven, that the murder of Hamlet’s father and the sorrow of Hamlet are shadowed in the lives of Fortinbras and Ophelia and Laertes, whose fathers, too, have been killed. It is so in all the plays, or in all but all, and very commonly the subplot is the main plot working itself out in more ordinary men and women and so doubly calling up before us the image of multitude. Ibsen and Maeterlinck have on the other hand created a new form, for they get multitude from the Wild Duck in the Attic, or from the Crown at the bottom of the Fountain, vague symbols that set the mind wandering from idea to idea, emotion to emotion. Indeed all the great masters have understood that there cannot be great art without the little limited life of the fable, which is always the better the simpler it is, and the rich far-wandering many imaged life of the half-seen world beyond it. There are some who understand that the simple unmysterious things living as in a clear noonlight are of the nature of the sun, and that vague, many-imaged things have in them the strength of the moon. Did not the Egyptian carve it on emerald that all living things have the sun for father and the moon for mother, and has it not been said that a man of genius takes the most after his mother?

  1. “Let us think back” is a matter of retracing vertically, so to speak, what has come to be horizontally. To designate this re-versal McLuhan used a series of ‘repetition’ verbs: ‘recur’, ‘retrace’, ‘recognize’, ‘retrieve’, ‘recollect’, ‘remember’, ‘replay’, ‘reflect’, etc.

Zarathustra: Listen to me even with your eyes!

Up, abysmal thought, out of my depth! I am your cock and dawn, sleepy worm. Up! Up! My voice shall yet crow you awake! Unfasten the fetters of your ears: listen! For I want to hear you. Up! Up! Here is thunder enough to make even tombs learn to listen. And wipe sleep and all that is purblind and blind out of your eyes! Listen to me even with your eyes: my voice cures even those born blind. (Zarathustra, Part 3)

This is  Zarathustra calling up his most “abysmal thought” immediately before he had to go down into the death experience (experience?) required for ‘the convalescent‘:

No sooner had Zarathustra spoken these words than he fell down as one dead and long remained as one dead. (Zarathustra, Part 3)

Jordan Peterson on the hero

However, in scientific endeavour, as elsewhere, the willingness to risk Is everything.1

Passages on the hero are given below from two of Jordan Peterson’s papers. Of course, a great many more could  be culled from his many other papers and from his books, but the passages cited here may be taken as representative of his position.

The epigraph above is the last line of his 1991 PhD thesis and sums up not only his take on the hero but also his own credo. Indeed, Peterson plainly identifies with the hero-savior which is an excellent thing in terms of his deeply felt need to answer the cries of the contemporary world in its manifold individual and social dangers; but it is also limiting as an effective remedy. Commentary in the footnotes attempts to show how and why this is so.2 The great point to be kept in mind was put in short form by one of Peterson’s great heroes, Nietzsche:

instead of the deification of man, his un-deification, the digging of the deepest chasm, which only a miracle, only prostration in deepest self-contempt can bridge…3

No man believes now in this absurd self-inflation: and we have sifted our wisdom through a sieve of contempt.4

***

Maps Of Meaning: The Architecture Of Belief (Precis), 19995

  • It is not clear that either the categories “given” to us by our senses, or those abstracted out for us by the processes of scientific investigation, constitute the most “real” or even the most “useful” modes of apprehending the fundamental nature of being or experience.6 It appears, instead, that the categories offered by traditional myths and religious systems might play that role, despite the initial unpalatability of such a suggestion.7 Such systems of apprehension present the world as a place of constant moral striving, conducted against a background of interplay between the “divine forces” of order and chaos.8 “Order” constitutes the natural category of all those phenomena whose manifestations and transformations are currently predictable. “Chaos” constitutes the natural category of “potential” -– the potential that emerges whenever an error in prediction occurs. The capacity for creative exploration –- embodied in mythology in the form of the “ever-resurrecting hero” -– serves as the eternal mediator between these fundamental constituent elements of experience.
  • the hero/king who establishes, embodies and updates the social world is also the same force that establishes, embodies and updates the intrapsychic world, the personality — and the one act of update cannot (…) be distinguished from the other. In “improving” the world, the hero improves himself; in improving himself, he sets an example for the world.9
  • The Sumerians, ancient Egyptians and Old Testament Hebrews settled by all accounts on a world-story that made of existence and experience the eternal battleground of order and chaos, mediated by the heroic aspect of consciousness –- the Logos, the Word, truth, light, enlightenment, illumination.10
  • Human beings, “made in the image of God”11, construct their familiar territory, their cosmos, out of chaos -– the unknown -– and then strive to maintain the dynamic equilibrium of what they have constructed and now inhabit.12 The capacity to engage in such activity is “incarnation of the divine Logos”, embodiment of the creative, exploratory “Word”, whose activity finds eternal dramatic representation in the figure of the hero, the dragon-slaying savior.13

Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience, 200614

  • What the hero actually encounters, at the most inclusive level of analysis, are the constituent elements of experience.15 
  • the hero also restructures what is known, widening the purview of culture or challenging and reconceptualizing its most fundamental axioms. Finally, no hero remains unchanged, as a consequence of such activity. He necessarily meets himself as an individual (…) broadened and extended as a consequence of the information so garnered and conceptualized. 
  • The story of the hero is the most basic of plots, therefore, because it deals with the most basic of encounters.16 
  • The hero states, “What we are all doing right now, thinking right now, presuming right now, is no longer working!”17
  • Out of the unknown, through exploration, springs reality: it is in this manner, through “incestuous” union with the hero, that the dragon of chaos gives birth to the world. (…) Thus the exploratory hero makes the world as a consequence of his encounter with the generative unknown.18
  • It is necessary to remain unconfused by the interchangeability of the Great Father and the Hero, with regards to the Mother of All Things, or the Dragon of Chaos. All three elements of experience are regarded by the mythological imagination as primary, in some sense, and any (…) pair of them can engender being. So the original creation might be the impregnation of nature by culture, or by the hero. The two element creation, however, remains partial and incomplete.19

 

  1. This is the final sentence of Peterson’s 1991 PhD thesis, Potential Psychological Markers for the Predisposition to Alcoholism. There is little connection between it and the rest of Peterson’s thesis. It functions as if to say, ‘OK, all that above was what I had to do for my degree, but here is what I’m really interested in….’
  2. Since some of the commentary is long and sometimes rather complicated, it may be best to read through Peterson’s texts before looking at the footnotes to them.
  3. Will to Power, Book 2.
  4. Will to Power, Book 2.
  5. Psycoloquy 10, 1999.
  6. Peterson speaks here of “being or experience” and later in this same paper of “existence and experience”. Now the equation of being/existence with human experience eventuates in nihilism and is the cul-de-sac in which the contemporary world is fixed and lost. See Peterson and the fabled ‘thing in itself’But that Peterson is serious about this equation is baldly stipulated in his note on ‘Awareness may be existence as well as (higher-order) thought’ in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 23:2, 2000: “Consciousness plays a fundamental unrecognized ontological role (…) conferring the status of ‘discriminable object’ on select aspects of otherwise indeterminate ‘being’. (…) Only functionally relevant objects ‘exist’ at any given moment — constituting figure, so to speak, instead of ground. So the very fact of discriminable things appears as something dependent upon consciousness.” Since “only functionally relevant objects ‘exist’ at any given moment”, and since heroic identity and its consciousness are such existing things, these two exist merely through the medium of self-stipulation — which collapses as soon as the ground of that stipulation is questioned. Here identity and its consciousness stipulate themselves — like Münchhausen extricating himself and his horse from a bog by pulling up on his own pigtail. The two great figures to be encountered at this critical juncture are Nietzsche and Beckett. Peterson’s hero needs to ‘under-go’ the utter dissolution of itself which would result if it followed them into the maelstrom — where the first thing to be lost is the stipulator. It, the maelstrom, is the great power, not the hero who is thrown about in it and utterly subject to its overwhelming might.
  7. The “unpalatability” of this suggestion derives not only from its ‘primitive’ source; it derives as well from the overwhelming plurality and complexity of the worlds of myth. Now Peterson argues, or at least stipulates, that this plurality may be reduced to a single story, that of the hero: “The story of the hero is the most basic of plots”, he claims. But this is a ‘risky’ and ‘heroic’ stipulation in regard to which Peterson’s words in his ‘Religion, Sovereignty, Natural Rights’ essay are entirely fitting: “it is impossible to make justifiable claim to a set of beliefs unless there is a rock-solid foundation under those beliefs”.  But Peterson makes little attempt to provide the necessary foundation for this heroic stipulation, especially given his lack of engagement with those great thinkers, foremost among them Lévi-Strauss, who have grappled with the question of how mythology is to be approached in the first place.
  8. It is imperative to note the two times at work in Peterson’s passage here: on the one hand, “moral striving” which is goal-oriented and operates chronologically; on the other, “a background of interplay” which Peterson terms “the eternal battleground of order and chaos” and which may be dynamic but is not goal-oriented or chronological — it is always at work as “eternal”. Indeed even the hero’s “moral striving” is said to be “constant”. Hence the hero is described in this same place as “the eternal mediator between these fundamental constituent elements of experience” of order and chaos. It may be concluded that Peterson’s work implicates a knot of times and that this plurality and interplay of times is the great question posed to his work — by his work! See Peterson: time or times?
  9. The great problem exposed by Peterson here is that the nature and direction of “improving” is dependent on “the intrapsychic world, the personality” of the hero. It’s representations “cannot (…) be distinguished” from the the world at large — and vice versa. In this way, “the hero/king” is trapped in a flybottle of his own making, which is exactly the ‘story’ of Eliot’s Waste Land, the central topic of Wittgenstein’s Investigations and the plot of Nietzsche’s “History of an Error“.
  10. A fundamental confusion may be seen here between (a) “existence” and “being” <=> “consciousness” — as something we accomplish in historical time, especially in the work of the hero, and (b) something that is done before us, apriori, in a “world-story” that is “eternal”. Now that “world-story” may well implicate an “heroic aspect” that mediates between its other “eternal” archetypes. Peterson would sometimes like to think that these two sorts of heroic actions and their respective space-times can be identified, but he is equally clear at other times that they cannot. In fact, the relationship is a knotted figure/ground riddle and is nothing less than the little door Peterson’s work needs to go through to reach his goals.
  11. “Made in the image of God” is another way of putting the figure/ground riddle: how are image and original fundamentally different? How ‘at the same time’ are they related?
  12. There is, of course, no human being who is not born into an existing family and society of some sort. No one ever “construct(ed) their familiar territory” on their own — as the word ‘familiar’ itself says. Indeed, the human infant cannot survive on its own, let alone go about heroic world-building “out of chaos”. What Peterson describes here, perhaps unconsciously, is not some action in historical time, but a synchronic activity that characterizes humans at every moment, always and everywhere. We are ‘always’ at work on world-building — that is what the human animal is — but not in diachronic time.  For the phenomenology of human being, it is therefore imperative to keep its times of world-building (ground) and and world-maintenance (figure) separate but related.
  13. The fundamental communication bridging the principles of human being, like order and chaos, cannot be constructed or even found by individual action, even when this action is undertaken by a divine actor — and especially not when it is undertaken by an historical one. No such hero can understand its task or carry it out absent the possibility of doing so. This possibility necessarily precedes and predates heroic activity and it is this preceding communication which is “the divine Logos” or “Word” — or “the medium (that) is the message”.
  14. Archive for the Psychology of Religion, v28, 2006.
  15. No, this is not the case and cannot be the case for reasons that Peterson himself sets out. The hero’s “consciousness plays a fundamental unrecognized (…) role (…) conferring the status of ‘discriminable object’ on select aspects of otherwise indeterminate ‘being’ (…) constituting figure (…) instead of ground.” (Full passage from Awareness may be existence’ in note 3 above.) The experience of the hero qua hero remains at the level of figure and cannot penetrate to ground exactly because the objects of his experience are his. They are “functionally relevant” — to him! They are what they are as a result of him “conferring the status of ‘discriminable object’ on (them as) select aspects of otherwise indeterminate ‘being’ (…) constituting figure, so to speak, instead of ground.” Now it is all important to note here — against what might seem to be our solipsistic prison — that humans do come to recognize “constituent elements” (although our recognition is never definitive). All of the sciences testify to this (both to the finding and to its never-ending need for refinement). But elements are exactly not purely constructed, they are found to be before us (in different senses of ‘before’). It is therefore exactly not “heroic” action that successfully isolates “constituent elements”, but a kind of ‘giving way’ before them. Letting them be. Just how this action of ‘giving way’ and ‘letting be’ might be exercised in regard to the “constituent elements of experience” is exactly THE great question of psychology and THE only answer to the world’s plight.
  16. This “most basic of encounters” is that of the infant with its new environment. But its most salient feature is not that the infant heroically reaches out to probe that environment, but that this reaching out succeeds. Communicative ground is what enables this success — a ground that is qualitatively beyond what the figure of the infant-hero can ever achieve on its own.
  17. This statement cannot be made, of course, in reference to an eternal background; it must be made in regard to historical time which alone has a “no longer”. This is an indication of Peterson’s repeated elision between figure and ground, between diachrony and synchrony, which is not necessarily wrong — but which cannot feature the same hero in both and cannot lead to coherent theory in this form.
  18. No, the world is always already there via the “eternal battleground of order and chaos”. What the historical hero has to do, somehow, is locate this eternality through a process that necessarily implicates his utter dissolution. The archetypal hero, on the other hand, while qualitatively different from the historical one, may indeed be said to be active in the “birth of the world” — but not through interaction with “the unknown” in the usual sense. Instead, in the eternal time of the dynamic interactions of first principles, the hero knows the “dragon of chaos” forever and “makes the world” in union with it, not as we make a hot dog, but as a generativity that precedes everything.
  19. Peterson puts his finger here on a central law of ontology. Namely, at the level of the most real, ‘two’ must always give way before ‘one’ or before ‘three or more’. Where there are ‘two’ first principles, either they must collapse into ‘one’ over the eternity of time; or, if they ‘hold out’ as two, there must be at least one another principle, a ‘third’, through which their eternal co-existence is possible. This is the medium that is the message. The explanatory power of this law is massive, but goes unacknowledged in the night of the world’s sleep of doom.

Jordan Peterson and Marshall McLuhan

It has not escaped notice that Jordan Peterson has recapitulated in the first decades of twenty-first century what Marshall McLuhan achieved in the mid-twentieth. Namely, these two longtime University of Toronto humanities professors became world famous through the then new electronic networks of television (McLuhan) and social media (Peterson). To the consternation and envy of their academic colleagues, especially at UT, both became in the process not only enormously influential in the extra-academic world, but also — horror of horrors — relatively wealthy. 

The talent of both was sharp insight into what might be called the surprisingly obvious. They could see against the tide and could and did trace individual and social problems to the utter obliviousness in which those individuals and whole societies went about their unhappy and dangerous business: “Distracted from distraction by distraction.”1 The surprise they elicited in making an observation partly came from the consternation people had in wondering how they had not seen it before; but there was also a vague sense of the catastrophic effect that would result in their lives if the observation were allowed its potential to decenter them. Their observations were made from and of a depth that was at once obvious and unseen — and powerful.

There are, however, many other parallels between the two men suggesting a kind of commonality of vocation that calls for thoughtful consideration:

  • both born in Alberta (McLuhan in 1911, Peterson in 1962 — almost 50 years apart)
  • both grew up as Protestants, but in their teens became alienated from it
  • both obtained their BA degrees from western Canadian universities (McLuhan from the University of Manitoba, Peterson from the University of Alberta)
  • both obtained their PhD degrees away from western Canada (McLuhan from Cambridge, Peterson from McGill)
  • both began their teaching careers in the US (McLuhan at St Louis University, Peterson at Harvard)
  • both returned to Canada to teach at the University of Toronto (McLuhan in 1946, age 35, Peterson in 1998, age 36 — almost 50 years apart)
  • both stressed the importance of Carl Jung2
  • both suffered near fatal health problems — almost 50 years apart — that disabled them for years in the middle of their careers (McLuhan had a large brain tumor removed in 1967, age 56, Peterson suffered a series of excruciating health issues culminating in 2019, age 56)
  • both developed akathisia as a result of their health problems3 
  • both studied ‘the meaning of meaning’ and suggested that the essence of it was to be found in the different configurations that relationship can take in (better: as) human experience
  • both therefore insisted that human identity was fluid and fundamentally plural — and that investigation of it had to be fluid and plural — exploratory — in turn
  • both therefore stressed that border crossing was essential to human being (vertically between actual and possible forms of experience, horizontally between different actual forms over time)
  • both employed a cross-disciple approach to their work in which literature was used to illuminate contemporary individual, social and political problems
  • both insisted that mythology and other forms of narrative (especially in religion) provided unique access to the range of human existence
  • both insisted that illumination comes to humans, or can come to them, and is not something that might be ‘made up’ by them
  • both insisted that tradition was not a properly discarded irrelevance but an active source providing the key to an understanding of the present
  • both turned to Gestalt psychology and to its signature appeal to figure and ground as critical to their investigations of human experience
  • both appealed to the left and right hemispheres of the brain in their explication of experience
  • both were led fundamentally astray by the demands of colleagues to supply a measurable ‘scientific basis’ for their work 
  • last but not least, both maintained their marriage and family life in the face of constant attempts to seduce them away from them4

Of course, the two also had fundamental differences. As Bob Dobbs has nicely articulated, McLuhan was a literary figure who put on tribalism, while Peterson was a tribal figure who put on literary values. These mixed messages were an important aspect of the success of each of them. But the great question in both cases was and is: what is the medium of these mixtures?

As will be detailed in later posts, Peterson would put the answer to this question in terms of the masculine hero who penetrates a feminine chaos. In doing so, the hero becomes illuminated by new possibilities through which both individual and social regeneration may be prompted.

Now while McLuhan saw a roughly similar need to go “through the vanishing point”, he knew that the hero could not do so and remain the hero. The hero would necessarily become a “nobody” in the process — in extreme opposition to Peterson’s hero who “as a consequence of such activity (…) necessarily meets himself (…) broadened and extended“.5

For McLuhan, it was only as the hero was utterly dispossessed that the search for meaning could take on the sort of hopelessness through which alone a new sort of identity might be found for our individual and social lives.

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate (Dante Inferno, iii:9)6

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing;
– T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets (East Coker)7

A world of multiple individual and collective identities could not be organized through a heroically maintained focus without distortion and even violence.8 The need was therefore to learn “how not to have a point of view9 and the requisite trial by fire was to go through the dissolution of the hero into the nobody. Only the nobody could come upon new ground that would not be heroically stipulated — and therefore not be only ‘figure’.10

Put differently, Peterson’s hero would need to undergo complete immersion in Nietzsche’s nihilism and Beckett’s solipsism11 in order to turn away from misleading pathways like brain materialism12 and the postulation of a “thing in itself”13. Both of these typically Gutenbergian attempts at anchoring would uselessly attempt to provide “a rock-solid foundation”14 for the understanding of human experience via a physical (“neural underpinnings”) or conceptual (“the perceived object is thus a low-resolution image of the thing-in-itself”) reduction of an irreducibly ‘gapped’ plurality to a merely stipulated ‘basis’ in singularity.

 

  1. T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets (Burnt Norton).
  2. McLuhan to his Jesuit friends, Walter Ong and Clement McNaspy, December 23, 1944: “Increasingly, I feel that Catholics must master C.G. Jung. The little self-conscious (…) area in which we live today has nothing to do with the problems of our faith. Modern anthropology and psychology are more important for the Church than St. Thomas today.” (Letters 166)
  3. In regard to McLuhan, see Judith Fitzgerald, Marshall McLuhan: Wise Guy: “In a note attached to the Report (on Understanding New Media, 1960), McLuhan reveals his health has broken under the stress of prolonged overwork on the project. (…) When McLuhan returns to teaching (…), however, he cavalierly pretends he never suffered a stroke. But his family and close friends can clearly see the toll it’s taken: the man who was a robust and animated specimen has turned into an old man overnight. His nervous intensity’s more pronounced. He’s incapable of relaxing for more than five minutes at a stretch.”
  4. Throughout this post the past tense has often been used referring to McLuhan and Peterson — although Jordan Peterson is very much with us. Readers should see in this past tense a kind of ‘also present’ as in ‘was/is’, ‘had/has’.
  5.  Peterson, ‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience’, 2006.
  6. A few lines before this:
    Per me si va ne la città dolente,
    per me si va ne l’etterno dolore,
    per me si va tra la perduta gente.
    “Lasciate ogne speranza” is a technical requirement to the understanding of the enormous range of human experience. Whereas Peterson sees in mythology and literature “
    imaginative roadmaps to being” (‘Three Forms of Meaning and the Management of Complexity’, 2013), McLuhan was clear that we must find in them ‘roadmaps from being’! Between ‘to’ and ‘from’ is a gap — the appreciation of whose significance lies on the other side of all heroism.
  7. Compare Little Gidding: And what you thought you came for / Is only a shell, a husk of meaning / From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled / If at all. Either you had no purpose / Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured / And is altered in fulfilment.”
  8. The problem, of course, is that such heroic focus is part of the class it purports to organize. But whence its privilege?
  9. Often called by McLuhan ‘the technique of the suspended judgement’.
  10. For extended discussion of this point, see the further Peterson posts in this blog.
  11. Nietzsche and Beckett were well aware that neither nihilism nor solipsism could withstand their own disintegrative force. They should therefore be understood as nihilism and solipsism , where the strikethroughs indicate that these strange conditions are nothing conceptual; they are black holes falling though themselves into the unknown and unknowable. Hence Beckett’s great closing text to his trilogy, The Unnamable.
  12. See Hirsh, J. B., Mar, R. A., & Peterson, J.B., ‘Psychological Entropy: A Framework for Understanding Uncertainty-Related Anxiety’, Psychological Review 119:2, 2012: “the need for an integrative theoretical framework to establish its psychological significance and provide a context for its neural underpinnings and behavioral consequences has become increasingly apparent”; “the probability of any given action or perceptual frame being employed p(x) is a function of the weighted neural input for its deployment, as influenced by the combination of sensory input, strength of memory representations, and goal-related attentional processes.” Imagine what Dostoevsky’s underground man would have made of this!
  13. See Peterson’s ‘Three Forms of Meaning and the Management of Complexity’ in K. Markman, T. Proulx & M. Lindberg (eds), The Psychology of Meaning, 2013: “Intelligible arrays have been identified at many levels of resolution: from that of the quark, 1/10,0002 as large as an atom, to the supra-galactic, at 1025 meters. All things-in-themselves exist simultaneously at all those levels, and partake in multiple arrays, at each level. A perceptible object is thus an array segregated, arbitrarily and for subjective purposeful reasons, from its participation in endless other arrays. However, some aspect of the original array must be retained. Otherwise, the object cannot be said to truly exist, and must be regarded as fantasy. (…) The perceived object is simpler than the thing-in-itself (a prerequisite to comprehension) -– while remaining importantly related to the actual thing. (…) The perceived object is thus a low-resolution image of the thing-in-itself.” Compare Nietzsche (who certainly agreed that “the object cannot be said to truly exist”): “Radical nihilism is (…) the realization that we lack the least right to posit a beyond or an in-itself of things.”
  14. Peterson, ‘Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience’, Archive for the Psychology of Religion, v28, 2006.