Wednesday 4 July 2018

Jordan Peterson and Meaning

Over the weekend I watched part of an address by Jordan Peterson at the Oxford Union in which he was asked a question about meaning and where it came from if not from God. See here at about 29 minutes in. I respect Professor Peterson in that he is probably the most successful challenger of the current left/liberal orthodoxy, and one of the best revealers of its excesses, but here he did not really answer the question. In fact, I would say he evaded it and gave way to the slight sophistry that will occasionally afflict a very articulate person whose way with words can sometimes obscure the fact that he has not said very much. For, as far as I can see, the answer he gave did not talk about meaning at all. It just talked about the appearance of it.  References to Nietzsche, Freud and Jung show where he was coming from.

I wonder if he thinks mention of God, and I mean serious mention not the idea of him as some kind of Jungian super archetype, would alienate many of his readers and YouTube viewers. It probably would. However, there must come a point when his descriptions of the world and the human psyche are going to fizzle out into intellectual mind games unless they come to terms with the reality of God. He refers to the idea of Christ as a symbol of the Self, and I suppose you could say he is, but that runs the risk of reducing Christ to some kind of psychological principle with no real independent reality. For Christ is not simply a symbol of the Self.  First and foremost, he is Christ. He is Truth and Reality and he is a person. He is not primarily a metaphysical principle such as Peterson is implying hereHis role as symbol comes from his reality as person, and if you don't properly appreciate that then the risk is you end up playing with words and ideas and not opening yourself up to higher truth

It is a truism that spirituality relates to the soul not the mind. The mind may be involved but it is the secondary participant in the endeavour. If it steals the show, as it rather seems to do with Professor Peterson, then you will probably get sidetracked into theory. What is the soul in this sense? I would prefer to answer that question by saying instead how it speaks to us, and that is through imagination, through intuition, through conscience and through faith. It is these things that will give us an entry into the spiritual world, not thinking about it which will leave us remaining on the outside. Perhaps that is Jordan Peterson's weakness. He approaches the metaphysical world through the mind but that world will only really give up its secrets when we step back from rational thought and give priority instead to intelligent openness to intuition. We must cultivate the heart as opposed to the head but that means feeling not feelings in that it is not, as the latter are, based on personal reactions and emotions, that is to say, reactions and emotions springing from and referring to the personal self. Feeling is going beyond the personal, whether emotion or thought, to engage with reality through what can be defined as the intellect of the heart. The person remains, of course, as it must, but is not at the centre of operations. You could say it has to be directed beyond itself to know itself.

Without God there is no meaning. It's no good talking about evolutionary constructions that enable the mind to lock in to reality or something of that nature. If God does not exist to substantiate this, it is not real in any meaningful sense. We need a real absolute to give reality to meaning. If that is not there then there is nothing to underpin it. It's just one more product of mindless, and ultimately meaningless, forces.

This piece might seem to have little relation to the theme of this blog but I include it here to illustrate the difference between partial and complete awakening. The former is merely a halfway house and if it doesn't lead on to the latter then it cannot really be said to be any kind of awakening at all.


Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I agree with your analysis of JP. And I know this from the inside, since JP's views are almost exactly what mine were some 15-30 years ago.

Many Christians seem to suppose that JP is on a path to Christianity - and of course that never can be ruled-out; BUT he is already 56 years old, and has become famous and admired on the basis of Not being a Christian. So that is one reason for him failing to convert.

Another is that this Jungian halfway house is very difficult to escape-from - I was stuck in it for a very long time; and it would be easy Not to escape (especially if you were being rewarded for not escaping). The trouble is that it does solve some of the urgent problems of life, and it is difficult and complex enough that one tends to keep searching elaborating, clarifying to try and find the full answer, without taking the necessary step of bringing-in God.

One feels that The Answer may be just around the next corner, just out of reach - just one more push, try just that bit harder...

The Answer is not there.

In many ways I would be more hopeful of the conversion of a full-on materialist completely-wrong atheist (like AJ Ayer, or Anthony Flew), than of a half-correct 'spiritual' person; because the lost soul may plumb the depths and be confronted with the full horror of their situation (rather like some alcoholics reform after they reach rock bottom, but only if they reach rock bottom).

(I should note that in late life Jung was certainly a theist, who believed in life after death as an objective reality, and he probably was a Christian too. See this interview, preferably the whole thing: )

William Wildblood said...

As you say, Bruce, a half truth can be harder to escape from than a lie because it does correspond to how things are just enough to satisfy someone who is not really seeking from inner pain which is then often the only thing that can cause the person to move on.

Chiu ChunLing said...

We must strengthen our feelings, but only after deciding which feelings should be strengthened. If you let your existing feelings decide which feelings need to be strengthened, you'll always strengthen the wrong feelings, because only the wrong feelings argue in their own favor.

What Jordon Peterson cannot avoid saying is that, ultimately, meaning is something that we have to bring to reality, because it is not and cannot be implicit in reality itself.

We can do that with God to assist us, or we can do it alone. If we do it with God, then we have hope of meanings that reality will not callously betray to destruction. If we do it alone, we have no such hope...for reality does not care about meaning enough to refrain from betraying it. The meaning must be chosen carefully to correspond to how reality will really work.

He illustrates this difficulty rather than stating it plainly, because the plain answer is unpalatable, and, for those not ready to accept God, leads only to existential despair.

Peterson points out that there are meanings that reality has a track record of not callously betraying to destruction. This inductive evidence is not logically absolute, but it is better than nothing. And that 'nothing' (being taught in every public school and university) is the particular evil against which he has chosen to fight.

By the way, JP is not 'on the path to Christianity'. He's a fully committed Christian, and has been for years. What he is not, and not on the path to becoming, is a reverend or minister.

No matter how strong his personal convictions of the spiritual truths which he experiences personally as a committed Christian, he is not going to claim to speak with divine authority until he honestly believes he has received it.

There may be other motives which might impel him to pretend religious authority, but not his personal spiritual experiences with God.

ted said...

Peterson is an enigma when it comes to his religious beliefs. Oddly, while he tells others they need to sort themselves out, he probably still needs to sort his faith out. With that being said, he says in this video he opposes beliefs of the mind that is prevalent in many non-orthodox strands of Christianity, but praises the Orthodox Christians for their ability to existentially distill the faith to the suffering & struggle we bear in life. He misses further the mystical strand in Orthodox Christianity.

William Wildblood said...

I think meaning certainly is implicit in reality. It must be because God is implicit in reality. We may have cut ourselves off from both meaning and God but that is a different thing. Any meaning we bring to reality would be false meaning. It's an objective truth not a subjective impression, even if received subjectively.

And I would still distinguish between feeling and feelings with the former as inner perception, knowing by being, and the latter just what I personally feel which is according to whether I am made personally comfortable or happy or not. But we may be saying the same thing in different ways.

Surely he doesn't have to claim to speak with divine authority just to assert the reality of God? For if God is not real then everything else he is saying is fundamentally a waste of time however dressed up it may be.

I still say he represents a halfway house that should eventually be moved on from. I don't deny he may have a mission but that is to speak to people who have been so damaged by modernity on the one hand and the frankly feeble message put out by the churches on the other that they are not yet ready to go to a more direct form of spiritual understanding.

William Wildblood said...

I think he should be supported because he is rendering sterling service to a confused and spiritually assaulted humanity but the flaws in his approach should not be ignored either.

Chiu ChunLing said...

The flaws of his approach are the flaws of being trained as a secular therapist.

That training is why he has a culturally significant voice at all, and I think he is not wrong to distinguish his authority as a professor of mental health from any credentials to preach religion.

But it is true that I find he generally draws short of saying anything really least to me. It is clear enough that many people in our culture are so far from being rooted in Christianity that the news that Christianity is a mentally healthy way to live is already a revolutionary message.

It does not please me that there should be any controversy about whether Christian belief and practice is compatible with basic sanity. But if there is such a controversy, I will not speak against someone having the right credentials to say "it's not raving insanity to be a Christian."

Bruce Charlton said...

I think CCL has it right; including that I personally find JP to be a rather mediocre, but hyped, individual. 'In a rational world' he would be regarded neither as a Messiah nor as a nasty threat - intellectualy, by true standards, he is bland; and also personally.

And we should not be distracted from the fact that (whatever incidental truths he expresses) JP is Not a Christian and he Is a (libertarian) Leftist; so that he is basically wrong, and on the wrong side.

William Wildblood said...

The left has made such inroads into our culture because it is not afraid to lie. JP is exposing some of those lies which has opened him up to attack by a morally corrupt section of the media and intelligentsia. For this we should be grateful to him.

But his forays into spirituality are quite clumsy as he tends to psychologise it and here we need to point out his shortcomings though as friends who recognise his virtues on the secular front.

ajb said...

I make a similar point about Peterson (I find he has much of value to offer, but it's incomplete) here

William Wildblood said...

Going by that extract you quote it's worse than incomplete, spiritually speaking. It's an intellectualised distortion which voids the the spiritual message of its content by pseudo-explaining it in psychological terms.

ajb said...


Yes, if that's where it ends, I think you're right.

I find his discussion of Old Testament stories to be valuable for their psychological insights (and this is how I first heard of JP). Again, incomplete, and if that's where things end, distortions.

So it depends on whether JP is a bridge. He could be a bridge towards what I would consider a more in-depth Christianity, or a bridge away from it, or a bridge to walk to-and-fro on in perpetuity.