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Maps of Meaning; Architecture of Belief - Jordan Peterson 1.0.0

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Customer review from Amazon

First of all, this book is freely available on the author's website and you should by no means pay for it (unless you really want a hard copy). Secondly, a clear outline of the major themes in this book (by Peterson himself) can be found at the following link: http://www.cogsci.ecs.soton.ac.uk/cgi/psyc/newpsy?10.077. To be honest, I highly recommend the link as an alternative to reading this book unless you are dead-set on plowing through 500+ pages of very small text.

This book outlines a grand theory which attempts to connect psychology, mythology, sociology and philosophy in a large interdisciplinary framework. The basic claim is that the spirit of humanity has developed gradually over history in (roughly) the following manner: human brain structures determine behavior, which lead to self-awareness and the gradual emergence of social roles. This brings us to the appearance of dramatic narrative and myth, followed by the development of Law, culminating in the modern era of rationality and science. Each phase serves as a precursor for the next, not in a linear evolution-type manner but more of a "finding new tools in the toolbox" which can give us new perspectives on previous modes of thought. (For example, Peterson presents the example of Jesus's message as one which priviliges individual conscience over Mosaic law.) In summary, the basic template of human behavior is a dynamic tension between Order and Chaos, with the Individual situated in between them and mediating to prevent both stagnation and apocalypse. This template can supposedly be found in every culture's narrative mythlogy.

As far as the writing of the book goes, it is fairly decent. Most of the book is written at a fairly high technical level which takes some effort to get through. This sort of technical verbiage is necessary for the point he makes, but the exposition is flawed in a particular way: Peterson spends an incredible amount of time repeating relatively simple points over and over in increasingly dense and complicated language while at the same time dropping hints of more nuanced ideas and alternative perspectives that, while interesting, remain largely underdeveloped. Additionally, I am not sure if the neuropsychology presented early in the book is still accurate: this book was written in 1999, and we all know how quickly science develops in certain areas.

More seriously, I think the basic problem with this book is that it just doesn't fit into the academic canon in a sensible way. Let me explain: I really agree with most of what Peterson says. He cites thinkers such as Jung, Nietzsche, Campbell and Solzhenitsyn to support his claims, and I agree that their words do support what he's saying. But these figures are part of a larger dialogue in areas such as philosophy, psychology and sociology: for example, Jung was responding to Freud and in turn had his own critics; Nietzsche, of course, has an incredibly prominent place in philosophy and has had countless books, articles and dialogues written in response to his own ideas. Philosophy and more broadly all of the humanities have spent millenia dealing with issues such as the meaning of truth, the nature of being, and why humans behave the way they do; needless to say, there is a huge body of work devoted to fleshing out these core ideas.

Peterson doesn't seem to engage with any of this history of thought in a particularly compelling way. He has a large systematic framework which "feels right" but at the same time is divorced from broader discussion. For example, the order-chaos axis which forms such a crucial part of most of this work is certainly an idea which demands more thought and discussion. But these discussions are already happening in fields such as comparative mythology, literature and sociology. In order to find a more nuanced, thoughtful perspective, we have to leave Maps of Meaning behind and grapple seriously with the academic tradition.

And here, I think, is the fatal flaw in Maps of Meaning: it's just Hegel! We already have in the Phenomenology of Spirit a work which seeks to give a "philosophy of history" similar to what Peterson is trying to do here: that text also gives a theoretical framework which seeks to integrate epistemology, ontology and theology in a systematic way. I feel it would be an understatement to say that all philosophy done today is still grappling with Hegel's ideas: the past 250-odd years has basically been just been one large engagement with his legacy, and his figure still looms large over the entirety of the humanities. So in some sense, Peterson has engaged in a project similar to the Phenomenology but with more of a STEM/hard-sciences approach, which is valuable in its own right (modulo my reservations above as to how fully we should accept his claims in the sections on neuropsychology). On the other hand, if the ideas in MOM "feel right" and you are interested in learning more, why not just read Hegel?

If this book gets scientists to grapple more seriously with subjects such as philosophy, psychoanalysis and theology, then Dr. Peterson has done his job well. On the other hand, this book doesn't have much to offer to those who dwell primarily in the humanities: while this book "wraps up" a lot of thoughts in a nice way, the more serious engagements with these ideas -- and more importantly, the ideas we should have about "the way forward" -- are to be found in the broader academic discourse.

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