Maps of Meaning with Jordan Peterson: Week 4, Myth and Meaning

Last week we discussed how Peterson makes a contrast between seeing the world as "a place of things" versus a "forum of action." In the opening paragraphs of Chapter 1 Peterson goes on to describe how this happens from the perspectives of developmental and cognitive psychology: 

The empirical object might be regarded as those sensory properties "intrinsic" to the object. The status of the object, by contrast, consists of its meaning--consists of its implication for behavior. Everything a child encounters has this dual nature, experienced by the child as a part of a unified totality. Everything is something, and means something...

Peterson goes on to note that the meaning of an object is something that we tend to miss as we navigate the world, but the meanings of things are exerting a constant push and pull upon our behavior. As Peterson continues:

For people operating naturally, like a child, what something signifies is more or less inextricably part of the thing, part of its magic. The magic is of course due to apprehension of the specific cultural and intrapsychic significance of the thing, and not to its objectively determinable sensory qualities. 

Basically, we are born into a matrix of meaning--a sort of psycho-social-behavioral magnetic field--that is generally unseen and unnoticed, but which enables us to act in the world. Peterson then goes on to make the point that this matrix of meaning, our forum of action, has been, historically, captured by cultural narratives and myths:

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...The "natural," pre-experimental, or mythical mind is in fact primarily concerned with meaning--which is essentially implication for action--and not with "objective" nature...[T]o know what something is still means to know two things about it: its motivational relevance, and the specific nature of its sensory qualities...Those sensory properties--of prime import to the experimentalist or empiricist--are meaningful only insofar as they serve as cues for determining specific affective relevance or behavioral significance. We need to know what things are not to know what they are but to keep track of what they mean--to understand what they signify for our behavior. 

Here we arrive at a critical feature of Peterson's thought. Myths are not fairy-tales. Myths map meaning. Science, by contrast, doesn't, and cannot, map meaning. Further, by mapping meaning, by keeping track of "what things mean," their behavioral and motivational significance, myths give us guidance in how to act, how to navigate life. 

In short, if you want to know how to live, don't look to science. Look to myth. Consult the map of meaning.

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