Jordan Peterson’s ‘Maps of Meaning’ — no, it’s not legit

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I was told by many of Jordan Peterson’s, erm, excited supporters that my claims about his fraudulence and charlatanism are inconsistent with his having published his first book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. This is the book that is meant to show me how meticulous and legitimate a scholar Peterson is.

Though I don’t think that book is a piece of intellectual fraud, nor do I think it’s in any way academically respectable and worthy of proper critique. Accept this post as a compromise: not a commentary on the book, but an interesting lesson I think we can draw from Peterson’s approach to mythology. I’ll mostly focus on just one section of the book.

Peterson is a committed though not uncritical Jungian. He spends several pages trying to rehabilitate Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious. Jung, he explains, made the mistake of implying that the collective unconscious is a set of memories that are genetically transferred from parents to children. This implied an easily-debunked Lamarckian theory; memory would on this theory be an acquired-yet-inherited trait.

But, Peterson rightly points out, Jung need not have resorted to any such Lamarckianism. The channel by which the collective unconscious is transferred could be cultural: ‘Adults embody the behavioral wisdom of their culture for their children. Children interact with adults, who serve as “cultural emissaries”’(82); ‘The “collective unconscious” that constitutes the basis for shared religious mythology is in fact the behavior, the procedures, that have been generated, transmitted, imitated, and modified by everyone who has ever lived, everywhere’ (83).

Peterson’s theory, I think, is roughly this. We tell each other stories, to which we attach conscious meanings. But the stories have another unconscious meaning. Though we don’t always consciously grasp this meaning, we embody it in our various behavioural practices. When younger generations imitate our behaviours, they preserve this behaviourally-embodied meaning. Peterson’s ‘maps’ are supposed to chart this unconscious meaning, attached to various culturally-important stories and embodied in behavioural practices.

What Peterson does not acknowledge is that this sets him a much stiffer standard of evidence than anything Jung faced. Jung didn’t need to worry if the meanings he found in various myths and rituals were not recognised by the practitioners themselves. To use his own example, the alchemists believed that they were trying to convert base metal into gold: this was the conscious meaning they attached to their lore. But for him the unconscious meaning involved a process in the psyche — the inward taming of the inner forces of chaos, by an inner Redeemer — a little Christ within the mind.

How did Jung know that this unconscious meaning was there? Simply by tapping into the collective unconscious. How could you validate his theory? You too would have to tap into the collective unconscious. If you couldn’t find it, that wouldn’t falsify the theory; it would merely show how strongly you’d repressed the collective unconscious. Jung’s theory was thus miles beyond falsifiability — far more so than Freud’s. And it meant he could happily attach whatever ‘unconscious’ meanings he liked to whatever stories he found; science is easy when you can do it all with the power of your mind.

Peterson’s modified Jungianism, however, is open to verification by public evidence. For him, as I said, the transmission mechanism of the collective unconscious is patterns of behaviour unconsciously imitated by younger generations. To show that an unconscious meaning is attached to a story, you’d have to collect ethnographic data on the practices supposedly embodying that meaning. So far as I can see, this data is not presented by Peterson. He cites several clinical studies of contemporary behaviour in humans and animals. But when he comes to attach meanings to the Enuma Elish or the Book of Genesis, he presents no anthropological data on the rites and practices of the originators of those stories.

Indeed, his study of the religious literature itself is hardly substantive enough to warrant such massive conclusions. There is no evidence even of Peterson having learnt the relevant languages, let alone made any comparative study of the uses of various words and patterns of symbols in general use. I’ll get to one example in a moment. But it’s first worth reflecting on just how much meaning could be unconsciously embodied in a cultural practice.

Suppose there is a village that practices the following ritual: when the sky turns a certain shade, warnings are sent through the village, and the inhabitants relocate to a distant sanctuary for a few days. The ritual originated, let’s suppose, when the ancestors of the current villagers associated a change in the colour of the sky with an impending volcanic eruption. The descendants have no conscious knowledge of this association (perhaps it’s not even very reliable), but we could perhaps say that their ritual practice embodies a belief in it, in some sense.

Or suppose that a certain group has no concept of biological paternity; as René Girard once pointed out (Violence and the Sacred, ch.9), a sufficiently promiscuous society would not have to develop such a concept. Nevertheless, suppose it retains complex rites of marriage and birth, inherited from ancestors who developed these in light of their knowledge of biological paternity. We might perhaps say that the living practice of these rites embodies an old concept of biological paternity not consciously possessed by the extant group.

But ask yourself honestly if you can imagine a practice unconsciously encoding this content (from Peterson):

The unknown is unexplored territory, nature, the unconscious, dionysian force, the id, the Great Mother goddess, the queen, the matrix, the matriarch, the container, the object to be fertilized, the source of all things, the strange, the unconscious, the sensual, the foreigner, the place of return and rest, the maw of the earth, the belly of the beast, the dragon, the evil stepmother, the deep, the fecund, the pregnant, the valley, the cleft, the cave, hell, death, and the grave, the moon (ruler of the night and the mysterious dark), uncontrollable emotion, matter and the earth (89).

This is a description of a Jungian archetype. And the deeply implausible thing about the theory of archetypes is the supposition that every society will unconsciously assign the same meanings to the same icons: the moon, the stepmother, etc. Yet Peterson goes on: ‘Any story that makes allusion to any of these phenomena instantly involves all of them’.

It is one thing to suppose that every culture will develop the same concepts. After all, humans of all cultures face the same exigencies of life. It is highly plausible that every culture will develop some concept of the unknown and hence potentially dangerous. But is it plausible that every culture will associate this with the same icons? And even if this were plausible, is it plausible that such a complex and specific list of associations could be preserved through behavioural practices? We would have to find every culture practicing something like a ritual dance, in which the evil stepmother, the moon, the maw of the earth, etc. all figure in the same role.

Mary Douglas acknowledged the strength of the case that:

A cross-cultural, pan-human pattern of symbols must be an impossibility. For one thing, each symbolic system develops autonomously according to its own rules. For another, cultural environments add their difference. For another, the social structures add a further range of variation. (Natural Symbols, xxxii)

Douglas thought there was an answer to this case in those instances where something like physiology forms the basis of a system of symbols: ‘the organic system provides an analogy of the social system which, other things being equal, is used in the same way and understood in the same way all over the world’ (xxxiii). This is a modest claim, compared to what Peterson proposes, and Douglas marshals significant ethnographic data to support it. It’s hard to imagine any amount of the available data validating Peterson’s enormous claim, that iconic symbols fall into the universal categories of the archetypes. In any case he provides none.

Again, Jung faced no equivalent problem of empirical confirmation. He could ‘prove’ that icons all linked up into one archetype by psychically spelunking into the collective unconscious and digging out the evidence directly. And again, if you couldn’t see the evidence yourself, so much the worse for your psychic health.

Peterson’s attempt to hold his Jungian theory to scientific standards is admirable. But it also kills his case.

Despite the clear inadequacy of his evidential basis, Peterson hopes to mount extraordinary claims about the meanings of various myths and religious stories. To me, many of them don’t even seem plausible prima facie. Every story turns out to be one of a (male) Order emerging from a primordial (female) Chaos, and the two struggling until a Hero emerges to sustain balance between them.

For example, Peterson tells us that ‘In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is the Logos — the word of God — that creates order from chaos’. Peterson bumps up here against something puzzling: the Logos is the Son of God, begotten though not made. Yet very often in Christian iconography the Son, Christ, is depicted in the role of Creator, where we might intuitively expect this to be the Father. But Peterson doesn’t mention any of that. He simply tries to squash his ur-narrative of Order and Chaos onto Christian theology. Yet it fits very badly with the Patristic literature: it is fundamental to that tradition that God creates Heaven and Earth ex nihilo. Milton could write of God shaping the world from a ‘Wide Anarchie of Chaos damp and dark’, but this earned him a deserved reputation as a heretic, shared with a whole line of Neoplatonists who pushed too hard to identify the God of Abraham with the δεμιουργος in the Timaeus.

Finally, let me say something about the Enuma Elish. Peterson happily ascribes a complex psychological meaning to this story, without apparently knowing any Akkadian and without referring to any anthropological data or commentaries besides the one included in the translation he read. Here, in any case, is the meaning of the story according to him:

The mythic tale of the Enuma elish describes the nature of the eternal relationship between the (unknowable) source of all things, the ‘gods’ who rule human life, and the subject or process who constructs determinate experience, through voluntary encounter with the unknown (104).

It seems unlikely that Mesopotamians in the second millennium BC would have had such a strong interest in psychoanalytic theory, but we must remember that this is an unconscious meaning. Peterson can make it fit well enough. Tiamat, the mother of the gods, represents the primordial Chaos, the unknown — the ‘eternal feminine’ as Jung’s gendered archetypography would have it. Apsu, sire of Tiamat’s children,

The “masculine” consort of the “goddess of the unknown” is inevitably’ [inevitably!] ‘the “god of the known”…It is the “known” that serves as protection from the unknown, whether this is understood or not (99).

Apsu is killed by the god Ea, who is thus ‘representative of that part of humanity eternally (and ignorantly) contemptuous of tradition and willing to undermine or destroy the past without understanding its necessity or nature’ (99). In killing the Father of The Known, Ea unleashes the forces of Tiamat: ‘the Great Mother is a terrible force, in the absence of patriarchal protection’. Finally Marduk, the Hero, emerges to kill Tiamat and spread parts of her body across the world. Thus the meaning is summarised in one of Peterson’s many diagrams:

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The mythic tale of Marduk and Tiamat refers to the capacity of the individual to explore, voluntarily, and to bring things into being, as a consequence. The hero cuts the world of the unpredictable — unexplored territory, signified by Tiamat — into its distinguishable elements; weaves a net of determinate meaning, capable of encompassing the vast unknown; embodies the divine “masculine” essence, which has as its most significant feature the capacity to transform chaos into order. The killing of an all-embracing monster, and the construction of the universe from its body parts, is symbolic (metaphorical) representation of the central, adaptive process of heroic encounter with the undifferentiated unknown, and the construction or generation of differentiated order as a consequence (105).

Of course it’s possible that this is what the story (unconsciously) means. But where is the evidence? Again, Peterson would have to show that such a meaning was embodied in the practice of the ancient Mesopotamians.

He could reply that the psychological insight he identifies is so important for the survival of any group that this group also must have embodied it in their practice. But there are many pieces of folk wisdom that any successful culture must embody to survive. Here, simply for purposes of illustration, is an alternative reading of the Enuma Elish, constructed on Peterson’s principles of hermeneutics:

The Enuma Elish is a story of the harmony that must be achieved between Indolence and Work for civilisation to succeed. Tiamat, the Great Mother, represents the primordial Indolence — the Great Repose in which we all exist before we commit ourselves to a task (this is why her first grievance with the gods is that they disturb her repose by jumping inside her belly). Apsu is the force of Work — forming the opposite masculine pole to feminine Indolence. Ea represents Laziness, the subject’s urge to abolish Work and unleash the all-consuming forces of Indolence. Marduk is the power of human enterprise, which tames the forces of Indolence and thus gives birth to Civilisation. His act of carving up Tiamat illustrates how civilisation is based on the orderly apportioning of leisure to specific times. The story teaches us that civilisation rests upon a capacity to tame Indolence and forge a cosmic balance between it and Work: to apportion some times to work and other times to leisure.

You can see, I hope, how almost any piece of sufficiently general folk wisdom could be likewise read into the tale of the Enuma Elish and similar stories. And if you can argue that such wisdom must, to some extent, be embodied in the practices of any successful civilisation, you meet Peterson’s standards of evidence for taking that to be the meaning of the story in question. But there are, of course, indefinitely many bits of folk wisdom that could be read into the story. Thus his standards justify a proliferation of inconsistent interpretations and provide no means of adjudicating among them. They are much too lax for serious scholarship.

Another question is why we should assume the existence of a universal moral to be drawn from every famous narrative in human history. If there were such a moral, it would of course have to be something of very general psychological importance, given that the specific problems cultures face are quite varied. Why assume that cultural knowledge, embodied in stories, is not similarly specific and varied?

Thorkild Jacobsen’s classic reading of the Enuma Elish pursues this sort of interpretation. First, Jacobsen deduces that an earlier version of the story had Enlil of Nippur rather than Marduk in the central role. He argues:

…the role which Marduk plays is not in keeping with the character of the god. Marduk was originally an agricultural or perhaps a solar deity, whereas the central role in Enuma elish is that of a god of the storm such as Enlil was. Indeed, a central feat ascribed to Marduk in the story — the separating of heaven and earth — is the very feat which other mythological material assigns to Enlil, and with right, for it is the wind which, placed between the sky and the earth, holds them apart like the two sides of an inflated leather bag. (Before Philosophy 183–4).

Jacobsen also notes that Tiamat, never described as a Great Mother of the Unknown, is attested to be a goddess of water. He proposes the following interpretation of part of the story:

At the root of the battle between Marduk or Enlil and Ti’amat, between wind and water, there probably lies an age-old interpretation of the spring floods. Every spring the waters flood the Mesopotamian plain and the world reverts to a — or rather to ‘the’ — primeval watery chaos until the winds fight the waters, dry them up, and bring back the dry land. Remnants of this concept may be seen in the detail that the winds carry away Ti’amat’s blood. But such age-old concepts had early become vehicles for cosmological speculation. We have already mentioned the existence of a view that heaven and earth were two great discs deposited by silt in the watery chaos and forced apart by the wind, so that the present universe is a sort of inflated sack surrounded by waters above and below (195).

Giving due deference to Jacobsen’s expertise as an Assyriologist, this doesn’t seem an implausible reading. The cosmological elements in the story might be genuinely cosmological — a real theory of the origins of the world. They might also embody important cultural knowledge concerning the management of floods. Surely this was a more immediate concern of the ancient Mesopotamians than the question of how the psyche negotiates the balance between the Unknown and the Known.

I don’t mean to deny that psychological insights are important to every civilisation. But the one Peterson is obsessed with — the navigation between order and chaos, known and unknown — seems to be one among very many. We also need to learn when to toil and when to rest, how to know what we want, how to cope with love and loss, when to get attached and when to back off, when to fight and when to accept, what to do in the face of engulfing grief, when to strive for perfection and when to accept the merely palatable, and so on almost ad infinitum. I see no reason to suppose that Peterson’s fixation on one among many of the psychological dramas played out in all of our lives was shared by all the framers of the great religious narratives. Even if we grant the gratuitous assumption that the Enuma Elish was about psychology rather than cosmology and flood-management, there is a wide-open question of precisely which psychological insights it reveals.

Furthermore, waving my Girardian banner for a moment, notice that Peterson makes the odd move of expelling the element of violence from the story. Jacobsen reduces the violence to a mere metaphor, but that is because he reads the story as having a cosmological and meteorological rather than a social meaning. Peterson, however, thinks that the story has to do with the imposition of social order upon chaos. This would presumably involve at least the threat of violence. But he does not explain this role — he glosses over the violence in the story rather than analysing it specifically. Girard said about Jung that he expelled violence so completely from psychoanalysis that ‘it becomes, as for Plotinus, nothing more than the mystical contemplation of archetypes.’ (Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde — De la violence à la divinité, p.1125). I feel the same about Peterson.

If the Ennuma Elish is a narrative of the emergence of a social order, there is some reason to think of it as a Girardian scapegoating narrative. As Robert Hamerton-Kelly notes, in The Gospel and the Sacred (64–73), the hero Marduk’s first act in establishing his new social order is to accuse and execute the god Kingu, from whose blood humanity is then formed. This is very much along the lines of the scapegoating narrative Girard finds hiding in all creation stories: the civilised order draws its force from the immolation of a scapegoat, for it is this which channels the violent impulses of the community onto one select victim rather than letting it rage chaotically through the whole group. Kingu’s execution scene reads very much like the speech Girard emphasises in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: ‘Great Rome shall suck reviving blood…’.

Girard, like Peterson, finds an unconscious ur-narrative in a wide range of stories: the narrative of scapegoating as the origin of social order. But he at least has some anthropological evidence to support his ascription. The unconscious meaning is, he can say, embodied in the many blood-sacrifice rituals practiced alongside these narratives. Peterson could not follow Girard, however, because Girard’s reading makes the development of social order something deeply morally troubling. The birth of any culture depends on the sacrifice of an arbitrary victim. Peterson, of course, wants a clear-cut narrative of good versus evil that he can sell to flag-wagging patriots, who want to know they’re on the right side of history. So here again his preconceived ideas restrict his ability to consider possible interpretations.

Now I am not an expert on the Enuma Elish. I don’t know what the story means. I tried to show that there is a wide range of ways it might be read. Peterson simply finds in it the lesson that he wanted to teach anyway.

My theory is that Peterson just wants to teach his folk wisdom. He’s the kind of man who likes giving advice. He got his folk wisdom from the same source we all get it — from life-experience. It’s no mystery why his allegedly scholarly books contain such long digressions into extended autobiography. But why should we listen to him? There are plenty of ‘experienced’ guys going around telling us how to live. To get the edge on them, Peterson needs to create the illusion that he’s distilled his wisdom ‘from the ages’, through a deep encounter with the great mythologies and traditions of the past.

But what he finds in the great traditions is what he’s put there. His hermeneutics, like everything else I’ve noticed about him, is a manifestation of narcissism.

To his fans I say this: If his folk wisdom appeals to you, go ahead and follow it. But stop telling me he’s some amazing scholar. Poor old Joe, in Great Expectations, ‘reads’ books by finding all the J’s and O’s in them. Similarly, Peterson scans the great literature of history until he finds his own thoughts. Anyone can do that.

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Lecturer in Philosophy, University of St. Andrews — personal website:

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