Jordan Peterson is a Canadian psychologist and writer of several books, including Maps of Meaning and his more famous 12 Rules for Life. Today his next book, Beyond Order released, and I’ve started reading it.
I will not address the foreword. It is tremendous, but the contents are both difficult to condense and personal enough to Peterson that I do not feel a third-party’s attempt to render them would be useful.
I’ve also been revisiting my old series on the 12 Rules for Life as I read through Beyond Order (Amazon affiliate link), which promises to help put some of Peterson’s philosophy and focus into perspective.
If you’re familiar with that, it’s worth stating what the purpose of this is. This is a deep dive. I’m taking my thoughts as I read and put them into something like an organized and put-together structure.
I’m also blending it with my own thoughts, so what you’re getting isn’t really Peterson’s work but my reaction to it, barring the quotations. It’s also important to note that I’ve cherry-picked quotations and they may not appear in the order they occur in the text.
Rule 1: Do not carelessly denigrate social institutions or creative achievement.
Peterson begins this chapter by contrasting Freud and Jung’s views of the individual as essentially the psyche in its entirety versus his belief that there is something essential to the psyche that requires interactions with others.
He distinguishes Freud and Jung, with Freud as the more egregious example, though I’m not sure Jung deserves quite as much of the weight as Peterson puts on him. Some concepts like the anima/animus are presented in a way that lacks Jung’s nuance and overlooks the fact that the contrasexual element of the psyche posited by Jung is also a schema for understanding others. However, I think that at the length of the text given to the summary of the depth psychologists’ thoughts, this omission of detail is not such a great flaw, and Peterson’s understanding of Jung is probably greater than mine by any account.
He illustrates this with a case study of a patient who had severe issues with social interactions, but wound up engaging with communities and revealing both his creative side and his own inner strength.
He was the best personal and practical exemplar of something I had come to realize over my more than twenty years of psychological practice: people depend on constant communication with others to keep their minds organized.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
He explains that much of what we might view as psychological health depends on interactions with others. I agree with him when he posits that it is interactions with others that create a foundation for us to understand our own behavior.
A point that I thought was strong, and one which I would never consider, is the relationship between pointing and language development in children. Children point, according to Peterson, to draw attention to something, and they recognize when they move others’ attention when they point.
The natural evolution of this, as they grow older, is to use language rather than gestures and achieve greater nuance to the same effect.
The Role of Others
If you are not communicating about anything that engages other people, then the value of your communication—even the value of your very presence—risks falling to zero.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
One thing that stands out to me in Peterson’s approach to hierarchies is that he classifies good hierarchies as those voluntary and essential to life.
Through the chapter he breaks down the role of others during three main stages in life. I’m going to simplify his message to a degree.
- The Apprentice
- The Peer
- The Authority
Starting at the Bottom
I disagree somewhat with Peterson’s categorization of the first category as the Fool, which he does by drawing upon the Jungian archetypal figures.
The point of disagreement I have is that Peterson makes the case that the Fool metamorphoses into the Redeemer, which is not incorrect in the example that he cites, but is perhaps a simplification.
In the archetypal approach, the Fool can be a novice, but they can also be an expert. Those who learn the extent of their limitation embody the (heroic) Fool archetype, but the extent of human limitation is essentially unbounded.
With that said, my complaint is with the terminology and not the methodology Peterson applies. He illustrates how the role of those entering the social arena as low-status members is improved by accepting their limitations (but not arbitrary authority). They do this through seeking to orient themselves both with a positive attitude toward their own potential growth and establishing relationships with authorities who respect their potential.
Peterson views the role of the novice not as a destination but as a starting point, and illustrates this through the example of an employee he had met at a restaurant.
When the employee had started, he had been cynical and resentful of the fact that his potential was not being realized. One point Peterson doesn’t address is one that strikes me as I write. This actually stems from a part of the proper way of viewing the world, since potential is self-actualizing under the right conditions. The problem here was resentment.
The distinction between confidence and hubris: confidence shows its worth, hubris feels it shouldn’t have to.
After the employee realized that the proper approach was not resentment but pursuing opportunity, he worked his way up several promotions because taking this attitude was more beneficial than focusing on the problems at the bottom.
Take-away: View the world as a place for learning. You will be a fool or a Fool, so pick wisely.
Equal Among Equals
The second stage is that of equal among equals. This doesn’t need to come at the end of an apprenticeship. Peterson uses the example of Piaget’s developmental stages, which are natural in child development and not taught per se except by social interaction, to serve as a reminder that there are always some roles for peers regardless of status.
The role of equals is more complicated than the role of learners, in part because it’s not possible to turn to models and authorities when playing the equal. This doesn’t mean that you can’t find models, of course (think of the one friend everyone wants to be with, or the coworker everyone wants to work alongside), but you need to develop these skills for yourself.
Peers distribute both the burdens and joys of life.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
I found this section interesting, but because I was already familiar with Piaget and most of his examples would be more difficult to communicate and convey than this space permits I shall leave it largely as a mystery to the readers.
Take-away: Don’t be so focused on looking up or down that you don’t look around.
One criticism often leveled toward Peterson is that he supports hierarchies and hierarchies are bad.
While this is true of hierarchies in a political sense, it represents a poor understanding of Peterson’s views. Rather than try to replicate them, I think Peterson says his own views best.
It is a good thing to be an authority. People are fragile. Because of that, life is difficult and suffering common. Ameliorating that suffering—ensuring that everyone has food, clean water, sanitary facilities, and a place to take shelter, for starters—takes initiative, effort, and ability.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
The purpose of an authority, in Peterson’s hierarchies (which are not necessarily political so much as social, a distinction his critics are quick to ignore), is to serve as a beacon of excellence.
Because he focuses on psychology and the orientation of individuals in the world, this is a very different approach to how people concerned with ballot boxes and police forces think about hierarchies.
When I think of the top of Peterson’s hierarchies, I think of the bosses that I’ve had throughout my career that have built people up and been pivotal to the function of organizations.
Of course, Peterson concedes, it is possible for people to rise to the top through foul play, but they will inherently fail to demonstrate leadership qualities.
One point he makes is that it is the aspect of the Fool in an authority figure that makes them versatile and sympathetic, and that hubris impedes this.
This ties into his general approach to ambition in general. Ambition, as goal-orientation, is good. Ambition, as struggle for power, is bad.
Take-away: Proper authority is given, not taken.
The chapter moves toward its conclusion with two big ideas.
- The Value of Tradition
- The Value of Creativity
Tradition is a preference for known, tested, and familiar strategies. Peterson views it as associated with the political right, which is theoretically true (and certainly a better communication of the left/right distinction than most people who parrot the dichotomy blindly), but it’s clear that Peterson is not really political and doesn’t really use this to build any cogent point.
I think we could sum tradition up as people thinking along the following lines:
It is worth considering more deeply just how necessity limits the universe of viable solutions and implementable plans.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
Tradition seems better understood as the belief that there are only certain viable options if we want to mesh it into Peterson’s other statements.
The value of tradition is that it’s cheap, but that’s a shallow way of looking at it.
Peterson raises the point that action needs to be certain. You can’t act until you know what you will do in that act. Otherwise you are flailing or guessing. He uses the example of a client who was consumed by anxiety over the environment and the human condition but couldn’t live her life because of it as an example of the consequences of lacking tradition.
Tradition is the belief that having the answers of past generations guide the actions of the current generation will be sufficient.
Take-away: You need to know how to act, and tradition can provide that.
Creativity is the opposite axiom from tradition.
Creativity is the exploration of the unknown and the attempt to bring about new things.
… the ideal personality cannot remain an unquestioning reflection of the current social state.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
Peterson points out that not all that presents itself as novel is truly creative; it can be corruption, confusion, or deception. However, I’m not fully satisfied by the way he approaches it.
Peterson paints the anarchist and the revolutionary as examples of dysfunctional creativity, but this strikes me as wrong. Barring the fact that it’s not a nuanced view of those anarchists who reject the state but not tradition (e.g. Tolstoyans) or hierarchy (e.g. Rothbardians), which shows the degree to which he’s not really familiar with the tradition of political thought, in the latter case it strikes me that there would be an easy rebuttal that the revolutionaries are not so much creatives as wolves in sheep’s clothing.
He is more correct, however, when he points to the creative as someone who breaks boundaries. It would be interesting to see him apply some of Jung’s notion of the Fool here, though he uses Biblical illustrations from the life of Christ as an example of positive creativity that breaks through boundaries and Christ is one of Jung’s archetypal Fool figures (which is probably where the Fool to Redeemer notion comes from; I’m not sure where exactly in Jung’s work Peterson is looking).
Take-away: Creativity is how all things came about, but don’t be a sucker for things that seem new.
Peterson’s ultimate point?
Balance is key. Don’t reject the novel for being novel, but remember that there is a price to pay for reinventing the wheel. This applies more to societies than individuals, at least in terms of the points he makes, but it is still a valid nexus for the analysis of an individual.
Going too far in either direction can be a dysfunction. It may not always lead to disaster, but it will contribute to it.
I have to say that the foreword for Beyond Order was all it took for me to be fully re-engaged with Peterson’s work. This first chapter started off differently than I expected, given the topic, but by the time it rolled around to the end it was very clear that Peterson is back with a performance that rivals 12 Rules for Life.
However, there were a couple places where cracks showed. Peterson wrote Beyond Order at a tough time of his life, and while it would be hard to tell if you didn’t know that about his biography, when you know what you’re looking for it’s clear that some of the editing is not where it could be.
Peterson has it down where it counts, though. This was a long chapter, so long that my thoughts on it cannot do it real justice.
One thing that separates an expert mind for communication and details from an average writer is how their points can build using seemingly disparate elements. I wouldn’t say that Peterson ever seems to go on a tangent, but there are often places where the flow of the text seems to be heading away from the thesis before he makes a grand revelation.
At first I thought that Beyond Order was an easier text than 12 Rules for Life, but I suspect that it’s more likely that I have accustomed myself to more difficult readings during the time between my engagement with the two books.