Ch. 1 - Object and Meaning (Maps of Meaning by Jordan Peterson)

Maps of Meaning - Chapter 1 - Object and Meaning

For my class on the philosophy of science that I am taking this semester I am going to be writing a paper on the philosophical frameworks that must underlie science as a discipline, and its meaning for the existence of non-physical realities. I will be taking the work that I've been highlighting in Ortega y Gasset and connecting it to Jordan Peterson's work, as well as that of John Dewey. Here's a summary of chapter from Peterson's work, Maps of Meaning which I will be referencing in the paper. One quick note, while I am drawing from his work for my paper to show that science cannot operate outside of a philosophic or religious system, I do not necessarily agree with the presumptions that Peterson is starting from. He seems to be treating the reality of myth as an evolutionary phenomenon. While certainly many of them are just that, I believe that Christian revelation is metaphysically real and historically true, not simply a cultural story. There are many reasons for this which are too much to get into here. That being said, Peterson's work is very helpful what will be my overall point for my paper. 

We Inhabit a Story 

Peterson begins by talking about two ways of construing the world, as a place of action or as a place of things. The place of action is a place of value and meaning. It is a place where we form conceptual structures which guide us towards meaning through art, literature, religion, etc. On the other hand, as a place of things, we are able to manipulate and arrange the world in a powerful way as tools. Peterson's point, though, is that we cannot have one without the other. Rather, the direction and end of using science is determined by a more fundamental structure of values. At the same time, to do away with science is to lose a valid and useful way of understanding objective reality. 1

"Pre-Experimental Man"

Looking at something's value, it is not just a value for the individual, but a value which is a reflection of the complex social reality that exists among people. Not only is value tied up with other people, it is tied into our experience of objects themselves in such a way that it's not so easy to pull apart what something is and what it means for me. This is the beginning of the reality of "myth". "The automatic attribution of meaning to things - or the failure to distinguish between them initially- is a characteristic of narrative, of myth, not of scientific thought." 2 Medieval man did not separate these realities, but understood things through their experience of relevance. Thus medieval man used myths by which to understand the world and his place in the world. This is the world of form and teleology. 

"Experimental Man"

Of course there is a worldview shift was man begins to form new scientific theories and Western

Society begins to abandon those religious explanations for more scientific ones, stripped of value. 3 But even as science begins to separate the thing and its meaning, science itself exists within a story, within a myth that propels its work forward. Not only science, but the scientist who is a person and is drawn up into myth every time he experiences the value of something in an intense way. 4 Peterson quotes Nietzsche pointing out that the Western mind is drawn into a paradox. On the one hand he thinks that he has done away with religious myths intellectually, and yet on the other that religious morality does not seem extricable from life. 5 "This means that those rules are so powerful-so necessary, at least-that they maintain their existence (and expand their domain) even in the presence of explicit theories that undermine their validity. That is a mystery." 6 

The Truth of Mythical Ideas

Can the mythical ideas that have sustained civilization for thousands of years into flourishing be called false? Especially as the attempts to arrange societies in the absence of religion miserably failed in the 20th Century. So are these mythic truths false? Peterson claims that they were not just bad attempts at science, rather they were describing realities that may not be material, but are nonetheless real. Here, he seems not to be referring to metaphysical realities, but human or psychological ones and the world in

relation to those human realities. They are realities that require action. 7 Again, how true are these mythical truths? Well, Peterson points out that science cannot provide an analysis or conclusion about what should be but rather only what is. It cannot tell us how to act, how to actualize the future. This is the domain of our experience of value, which science cannot properly wrestle with. "We lack a process of verification, in the moral domain, that is as powerful or as universally acceptable as the experimental (empirical) method in the realm of description." 8 Rather, moral action presupposes value, and value a way of prioritizing those values, and prioritizing a system of prioritization based in something... based in myth, as myth helps make up for our ignorance and gaps in knowledge. 9 In the face of the absence of myth, man has replaced that hole with "rational" ideologies ... only to result in utter catastrophe, such as with the ideologies of the 20th Century. 10

The "Irrational, Transcendent, and Incomprehensible" About Man

Peterson points out though that it doesn't even seem that rational philosophical systems are quite enough to regulate human flourishing. If we rationally provide for ourselves all our bodily needs, there will still be a desire for something that is irrational, for something that is non physical and transcendent which will manifest itself and end up taking down the whole system. 11 Peterson's work, then, doesn't just take into account the rational, or the scientific, or the mythic, but a combination of all those factors in order to get at the question regarding who man is and what man must do. He says that he is aiming at extracting universal truths from different mythologies, along with phenomenological descriptions of value that are common human experience, compiled with modern underlying biological and neurological structures which may give rise to those subjective realities. 12

The Mythic Archetypes

What are some of the universal mythic realities? 

The first universal mythic reality Peterson describes is that of the "goal," "heaven," "utopia," "vision of perfection." This is the desired future which we intuit from the situation of the present. What is the state of meaning right now, and therefore what would we want the future to be? This leads us to the question, then, how should I act in order to bring that desired future about? Here we have hit upon the second mythical reality, "explored territory." 

Explored territory could also be thought of a the "city of God," or that which is "known." It is the shared story or myths which bring the community together on the same page, playing the same game. It makes others understandable to ourselves in that they value and act within the same story that we inhabit. This is familiar, known territory and essential to the social contract of society. Myths are that which provide and describe the reality of this shared known territory and keep a society united together. 

"'Narratives of the known'-patriotic rituals, stories of ancestral heroes, myths and symbols of cultural or racial identity- describe established territory, weaving for us a web of meaning that, shared with others, eliminates the necessity of dispute over meaning. All those who know the rules, and accept them, can play the game - without fighting over the rules of the game. This makes for peace, stability, and potential prosperity- a good game." 13

Thirdly, we hit upon another mythic reality, that of "unexplored territory," "chaos," "the unknown." Myth is not just about what is known, but also is about the unknown, and the potential for radical transformation from the unknown.  14 This process of transformation from the known to the unknown and back again is expressed in words like "way" which imply life as a type of journey, a cycle, a oscillation. 15 This journey can proceed in a proper manner, or it can be taken astray. Thus, it

must be guided by a central idea which is something like the highest answer to the meaning of one's life. This then guides one into the unknown in pursuit of a better future. In this pursuit a whole process of dying and rebirth may take place. Thus myths express these stages as such: (1) "a current or pre-existent stable state" (2) "the emergence of something anomalous, unexpected, threatening, and promising into this initial state" (3) "the dissolution of the pre-existent stable state into chaos..." (4) "the regeneration of stability ... from the chaotic mixture...". 16 Chaos then can be initiated when something from the infinite vastness of reality breaks through man's limited knowledge and challenges his views on things,  17 and requires a total reconstruction. 

The Balance of Chaos and Order

While known territory and mythic stories provide safety and comfort in that we know what to expect from others, order can also stagnate and not provide everything which a person or society needs to thrive. It is there that chaos must be allowed in to an extent. It is in the chaos that potential for growth and learning lies, yet chaos is also the force that can overwhelm and destroy us. In the healthy journey of the way, one must balance these two realities in order to successfully go from where we are now to where we want to be with all the potential and possibilities necessary to actualize life's ultimate meaning. 18


1 - Peterson, J. B. (1999). Maps of meaning: The architecture of belief. New York: Routledge. pg 1

2 - Ibid. pg 2

3- Ibid. pgs 4-5

4 - Ibid. pg 3

5 - Ibid. pg 6

6- Ibid. pg 7

7 - Ibid. pg 8, 9

8 - Ibid. pg 10

9 - Ibid. pg 10

10 - Ibid. pg 11

11 - Ibid. pg 12

12 - Ibid. pg 13

13 - Ibid. Pg 14

14 -Ibid.  pg 14

15 - Ibid. pg 15

16 - Ibid. 16

17 - Ibid. pg 17

18 - Ibid. pg 18