Review and Reflection: Maps of Meaning

Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning is a challenging read. Peterson is perhaps best known for his 12 Rules for Life (affiliate link), a mixture of self-help, pop psychology (but from a real expert), and classic wisdom.

Maps of Meaning (affiliate link) eschews some of the self-help elements of 12 Rules for Life, but is deeply embedded in psychology, myth, and storytelling.

I don’t think it’s blasphemous to call Peterson a modern(er) Carl Jung, and I have a certain respect for Jung so I don’t take that statement lightly. While Peterson perhaps has moved his work in a more philosophical direction than Jung did (not that Jung’s work was strictly free of philosophical musing), the two share many similarities. There’s a common thread of worrying about the practical effects of every action.

Jung’s work resulted in the maturation of depth psychology, and his work gave us notions like archetypes and complexes that, even if not truly accurate in an empirical sense, reflect a revolution in our understanding of the mind.

Peterson takes that work and blends it with modern neuroscience and therapeutic practice.

Now, that’s not to say that Maps of Meaning necessarily is going to prepare someone for the whole field of psychology.

If I had to pick one criticism of the book, it would be that it is eclectic to a fault. At times autobiographical (albeit without seeming self-absorbed), at times a study of myth, and at times concerned with chemistry that a layperson can hardly absorb, much less meaningfully contemplate, it is something of an overwhelming read, and I don’t even know how long it has been since I started trying to delve into it. At least several months.

During that time I have expanded my knowledge of many of Peterson’s primary texts (especially Jung), and I found it to be quite helpful in actually managing to stay focused on Peterson’s ideas. Approaching Maps of Meaning became a project for me, an effort in preparing myself for the effort ahead.

I’m not complaining. The audiobook, narrated by Peterson, was deeply fulfilling to me, albeit at the cost of making Jordan Peterson’s voice more familiar to me than that of some of my friends (the whole recording is 30 hours long). Most of what I learned is of academic interest, but I think it’s good to take in knowledge for the sake of knowledge, barring any practical application.

And that is not to say that there is no practical application to Peterson’s work. Understanding why people believe things and how we can find meaning in the universe is important; Peterson echoes many of the greatest minds of the twentieth century and turns their voices towards a common purpose; Victor Frankl, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Carl Jung, and dozens of others. In doing so he also draws upon ancient texts, philosophies, and religions to point out how the psyche functions.

I’m not sure that I’m entirely confident in explaining the concepts within Maps of Meaning. It’s like a whole series of lectures, but with the intensity that a longer format can allow; a single concept that might be the topic of a lecture can be explored in what seems to approach an infinite amount of depth.

Picking out a single point for an example would be difficult; Peterson’s use of Solzhenitsyn’s work to illustrate the potential cruelty of a person who has lost all meaning (“man’s inhumanity to man”, to borrow a cliche) or ancient cosmogonic myths turns abstract concepts into a concrete reality, and helps to point out that while much of Peterson’s work is theoretical and philosophical rather than empirical, it is nonetheless a practical tool for trying to understand how people work.

Trying to pick out individual lessons I learned from Maps of Meaning is likewise difficult, and perhaps confounded by my prior reading of 12 Rules for Life. I almost feel like the purpose of Maps of Meaning was as the initial conceptualization process for the rules (which were written later); if viewed in the inverse it answers the question of “why?”

In that sense, Maps of Meaning is powerful because it helps to provide a framework for other ideas. By taking the causes and purposes that lead into human motives and tearing them down to their basic components, Peterson leads one toward almost a path of self-discovery, albeit without any direct call to action.

It is like seeing a pocketwatch disassembled.

We are familiar with the function of a pocketwatch, but not necessarily its functioning. We are familiar with its qualities, but we do not perhaps consider all of them.

A pocketwatch has quite a few qualities, after all: its size, its shape, its composition of certain materials rather than others, the shape chosen for the representations of the hours and the hands that point to them, the mechanical and/or electrical elements that drive it forward. It is these qualities, but of our belief structures, that Peterson attempts to break down.

To us, it is usually sufficient that the pocketwatch tells time. We know that it does this by moving hands around in a clockwise rotation, so that they point at the appropriate spot and we do not become too late or early for our appointments.

For our beliefs, likewise, we have a tendency to accept without contemplation. They are succor to us, and provide us with meaning, which is perhaps the greatest shield of all, even against the horrors that the twentieth century revealed await us in the darkness of the human spirit. These beliefs that so frequently escape evaluation can be formed in error, or may fail us in our moment of need, if we do not understand why they exist. This was Frankl’s great revelation in the horrors of the Nazi death camps: people whose beliefs were sufficient for fair weather could have them fail entirely under stress.

If there is one merit above all in Peterson’s work, it comes in the ability to understand how a belief forms, and therefore provide a starting point for working practically with the very nature of belief itself.

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