Posted by: gcarkner | July 15, 2018

Summer Retrospective on Peterson

Executive Hotel Vancouver Airport,

7311 Westminster Highway,

Richmond, B.C.

August 5 @ 4:00 p.m.

 Recovering Moral Agency in Jordan Peterson in Dialogue with Charles Taylor

JP Recovery of Moral Agency 

Transcendent Turn to Agape Love  PP 2.0 Meaning & Suffering

Faith is not the childish belief in magic. That is ignorance or even willful blindness. It is instead the realization that the tragic irrationalities of life must be counterbalanced by an equally irrational commitment to the essential goodness of Being. It is simultaneously the will to dare to set your sights on the unachievable and to sacrifice everything, including (and most importantly) your life. You realize that you have, literally, nothing better to do.  ~Jordan Peterson


Jordan Peterson is perhaps one of the most admired and controversial psychologists alive today. Ironically, the more people attack him, the more popular he becomes.

The Peterson phenomenon reveals not only a deep political polarization within society, but also a serious existential crisis in the West.

Given these intense feelings around Peterson’s stance, the International Network on Personal Meaning (INPM) has decided to offer a dispassionate, measured and critical review of Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos as a part of their Biennial Meaning Conference.

Dr. Paul T. P. Wong and Dr. Gordon E. Carkner will answer questions such as: Why is Peterson’s book a runaway bestseller? How can these 12 rules transform a life and improve society? In an age of accelerated change and uncertainty, why are Dr. Peterson’s views a promising and hopeful way to build resilience amidst life’s inevitable challenges?

Dr. Gordon Carkner will elucidate Peterson’s claim that spiritual truth, rooted in enduring ancient myths and wisdom literature, is just as important for wellbeing as scientific truth. Dr. Carkner will explain why a spiritual worldview is critical to grappling with Peterson’s project.

Dr. Paul Wong will explain the 12 rules and introduce psychological exercises based on these rules. He will also examine Peterson’s radical view that one cannot flourish without embracing the reality of suffering and aiming high towards a better future.

Brief Biographies

Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C.Psych., is Professor Emeritus of Trent University and Adjunct Professor at Saybrook University. He is a Fellow of the APA and the CPA, and President of the International Network on Personal Meaning and the Meaning-Centered Counselling Institute Inc. Editor of the InternationalJournal of Existential Psychology and Psychotherapy, he has also edited two influential volumes on The Human Quest for Meaning. A prolific writer, he is one of the most cited existential and positive psychologists. The originator of Meaning Therapy and International Meaning Conferences, he has been invited to give keynotes and meaning therapy workshops worldwide. He is the recent recipient of Carl Rogers Award from Div.32 of the APA and a member of a research group on Virtue, Meaning, and Happiness funded by the Templeton Foundation.

Gordon E. Carkner holds a Ph.D. in philosophy of culture (University of Wales, 2006). Dr. Carkner works at the University of British Columbia as a meta-educator and campus chaplain, where he seeks to both complement and engage the regular discourse among graduate students and faculty. Gordon is a visionary, passionate about dialogue on salient questions of meaning and identity, faith and culture.  His project extends to his role as team leader in the interdisciplinary UBC Graduate and Faculty Christian Forum Lecture Series—a dialogue on faith and academic concerns. His recent publication, The Great Escape from Nihilism (2016), thematically parallels Peterson’s book, offering a critique of Western culture amidst the search for identity in late modernity. His research and writing interests lie in questions concerning freedom, identity and the good, secularity, worldviews, and philosophical anthropology.

Jordan Peterson: A Five Part Blog Series from Psychology Today; The Concept of Identity (Part I)

Identity Politics and Polarization (Part II)

Peterson’s Psychology and Philosophy of Life (Part III)

The Controversial Sparks and the Emergence of the 100 Foot Wave (IV)

What the Peterson Controversy Means for Our Culture (V)

Peterson raises the Big Life Questions that are often missing or trivialized in our educational and friendship experience. He is unafraid to go where others fear to tread. His genius is the understanding that suffering and tragedy are at the nexus of it all, that we ignore the religious questions to our peril, that science is great but not sufficient for human wellbeing, that we humans are more complex and mysterious than we can imagine. Ancient wisdom is a precious thing in his estimation; we need great epics, great stories to inspire us, to bring our feet back to terra firma, and make sense of our lives, shape our passion, develop a vision. The Bible is the foundational story of Western civilization, so worth finding out how it can help us understand ourselves; it is a key part of our narrative, like a wise parent or grandparent, full of sage advice. But fundamentally, he is calling us to authenticity: to embrace, invest in, speak and live the truth in our post-truth age, to aim for the good, and even the greater good, the common good. He has faith in the goodness of Being. This produces alignment and coherence through all aspects of our lives, over time. He invites us into a sacrificial, heroic quest to live robustly, abundantly, fruitfully, to make our contribution. Like Russian author Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, whom he much admires, he believes that we are not in this world to pursue happiness, to be entertained, but for moral growth , to grow in the virtues, to become attentive and take responsibility for our part in the human big picture. This offers a more hermeneutical outlook or social imaginary, one which authenticates human subjectivity and the quest for purpose and meaning. We discuss this in more detail below. Philosopher Bernard Lonergan has parallel concerns in his Principles of Self-Transcendence.

  • Be Attentive: pay attention to what is happening around you
  • Be Intelligent: examine your assumptions, reflect, self-criticise
  • Be Reasonable: speak carefully and listen to others
  • Be Responsible: own your part in the greater scheme

Important Questions that Peterson Raises

How do we fight nihilism, scientism and totalitarianism? How do we re-enchant the world after the death of God in Western culture?

How do we get rid of our false/less noble self and embrace/move towards our ideal/best self?

Where do we find the metaphors, symbols and human models to inspire us and give us hope?

Why is sacrifice and delayed gratification important to our wellbeing and that of others?

How do we revive the human story of meaning and drama, purposeful and effective action, the battle between good and evil (inside and outside ourselves), as a key part of our current understanding of the cosmos?

How are consciousness and the material order linked, genuinely unified?

How can we tell the truth, listen to our conscience, and why is it often so difficult to do so? What are the consequences of living by the lie, by expedience?

Where do find the moral courage to do what we know is right, speak the truth, no matter the cost?

Why is religion important to our deepest self-understanding and our most noble pursuits?

How can we face the dark side of our character, our personhood, without hating self, becoming depressed or devastated? What can be done with this knowledge constructively?

How can articulate speech change the world? Why is freedom of speech something worth protecting?

Has Christianity given believers a pass on ethics (cheap grace), based on a false view of justification by faith?

Tale of Two Cities: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Thoughtful interaction with the work of Peterson by a scholarly PhD

Hermeneutical Keys to Peterson: a. Existentialism, a mixture of the atheistic and theistic kind (James Sire, The Universe Next Door, chapter 6.); b. Jungian myths and archetypes: Bible as mythopoetic stories filled with helpful archetypes, not as history or genuine facticity; c. Suffering and tragedy as a marker: a unifying and universal human experience. Meaning comes in reducing suffering; d. A binary relationship between Good and Evil: He encourages us to choose the Good, aim at the Good, recognize evil in ourselves and others, but don’t be undone by it; e. Stoic Virtues can work in one’s own life, even in the face of the absurdity of the world; f. War against nihilism (moral relativism) and totalitarianism–he studied effects of fascism and communism in immensely destructive behaviour. We must find the balance between Chaos and Order; g. Consciousness, Being Awake and Alert to what is happening around you,  is vital for human wellbeing. What kind of games are people playing?

Two Ways of Seeing/Reading/Understanding the World 

a. The Epistemological Way of Seeing:

The set of priority relations within this picture often tends towards a closed world position (CWS) within the immanent frame (Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 2007, chapter 15). Its assumptions include proponents like Descartes, Locke, and Hume. Taylor calls this the modern buffered self. We find this approach rooted in Anglo-American philosophy. The connection between self and world is an I-It relationship.

  • Knowledge of self and its status comes before knowledge of the world (things) and others (cogito ergo sum).
  • Knowledge of reality is a neutral fact before the individual self attributes value to it.
  • Knowledge of things of the natural order comes before any theoretical invocations or any transcendence. Transcendence is often problematized, doubted or repressed—for example, in reductive materialism. This approach tends to write dimensions of transcendence out of the equation as a danger to wellbeing (superstition). Science morphs into scientism.
  • Human meaning is much harder to capture in this frame of reference—leading to disenchantment. It can cause alienation and lead to skepticism, or promote disengagment from a cold, mechanistic, materialistic cosmos.
  • Language is the Designative type (Hobbes, Locke, Condillac)—instrumental, pointing at an object, manipulating objects, and often in turn manipulating people as objects. It is a flattened form of language, which does not allow us to Name things in their depth of context, their embeddedness. Poetry, symbol, myth are missing. Scientific rationalism is dominant: evidence and justified belief.
  • Power and violence hides under the cloak of knowledge and techne: colonization, imperialism, war, environmental exploitation, Global North versus Global South. Hubris is an endemic problem.
  • Ethics is left to the private sphere of individual values, because of the fact-value split or dualism—moral subjectivism results. This often leads to loss of moral agency and nihilism, partly due to the loss of narrative and the communal dimension of ethics.
  • Human flourishing is a central concern within this immanent frame: reduction of suffering and increase of happiness/wellbeing. Health, lifespan, safety, entertainment, economic opportunity, consumer choice are key cultural drivers. This results in a thinself, focused on rights, entitlements, opportunities to advance one’s own personal interests.

b. The Hermeneutical Way of Seeing:

The working assumptions of this approach includes proponents like Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Gadamer, the later Wittgenstein, Charles Taylor and Jens Zimmermann. We find this approach rooted more in Continental philosophy. The connection between the self and the world is an I-Thou relationship.

  • Self is not the first priority: the world, society and the game/drama of life come first. We only have knowledge as agents coping with the world, and it makes no sense to doubt that world in its fullness. Taken at face value, this world is shot through with meaning and discovery.
  • There is no priority of a neutral grasp of things over and above their value. It comes to us as a whole experience of facts and valuations all at once, interwoven with each other.
  • Our primordial identity is as a new player inducted into an old game. We learn the game and begin to interpret experience for ourselves within a larger communal context. Identity, morality and spirituality are interwoven within us. We sort through our conversations, dialogue with interlocutors, looking for a robust and practical picture of reality.
  • Transcendence or the divine horizon is a possible larger context of this game. Radical skepticism is not as strong here as in the epistemological approach. There is a smaller likelihood of a closed world system (CWS—closed to transcendence as a spin on reality) view in the hermeneutical approach. In a sense, it is more humble, nuanced, embodied and socially situated.
  • Language use is the Expressive-Constitutive type (Herder, Hamann, Humboldt, Gadamer) The mythic, poetic, aesthetic, and liturgical returns. Language is rich and expressive, open, creative, appealing to the depths of the human soul. Language is a sign.
  • Moral agency is revived within a community (oneself as another) with a strong narrative identity, in a relationship to the good, within a hierarchy of moral goods and practical virtuous habits that are mutually enriching and nurturing. One is more patient with the Other, the stranger: hospitality dominates over hostility.
  • The focus of human flourishing is on how we can live well, within our social location—a whole geography of relationships that shape our identity, and which we in turn shape as well. This is a thick version of the self, open to strong transcendence, within a meaningful whole.

Peterson’s phenomenological approach (attention to actual human experience) seems to fit better the hermeneutical way of seeing, as he attempts to recover meaning and purpose, to re-enchant the world, to authenticate human subjectivity, drama, moral agency, purpose, consciousness and concientiousness (the deep things of the soul). He is trying like a collosus to span the two ways (respects neuroscience and evolutionary psychology as a limited discipline), but to recover meaning and moral agency, he leans towards the hermeneutical. Science is necessary but not sufficient for our psychological understanding; he pricks the bubble of scientism, the ideology. Culture scholar Jens Zimmermann (Hermeneutics: a very short introduction, OUP, 2015) opens our minds to the history, complexity, richness and breadth of the interpretive taskHe also shows that hermeneutics is operating in both the sciences and the humanities—they are not incommensurable.

One can also find some good interface with Peterson’s ideas of the good in the blog series Qualities of the Will, and Musings about Agape Love

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