Jordan Peterson vs. Iain McGilchrist

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Two of the best books I’ve read in the past 5 years are ‘The Master and his Emissary’ by Iain McGilchrist, and ‘Map’s of Meaning’ by Jordan Peterson. I was therefore thrilled that a dialogue, however short and sweet, has taken place between them. These are men who—to use the pop-culture term—have ‘red-pilled’ a lot of people, or taken us down a deep rabbit hole of illumination, inversion, great beauty, and sometimes sheer terror. Both men have done something monumental in my view.

That is to say they are peacemakers. By this I mean they have bridged disparate, warring worlds: for instance, phenomenology and science, religion and empiricism, poetry and objectivity. In other words, they have (metaphorically speaking) combined the right brain view of the world with the left-brain view, in Iain McGilchrist’s formulation. They have showed us how a real renaissance or unification of culture can come into being, by restoring the proper relationship between the It—or the objective world of tools and concepts, and the Thou—or the living world of subjective mystery.

Both McGilchrist and Peterson combine multiple disciplines: they make the the bridge from the hard sciences to to the arts, psychology, and religion. Although their descriptions of the brain hemispheres can’t be elaborated on here without some left-brained reductionism; nevertheless, we can generalise about the left/right, chaos/order, woman/man dichotomy, metaphorically mirrored in the divided, asymmetrical brain. As they say in Zen, a finger pointing to the moon is not the moon itself. Perhaps, to extend the analogy, McGilchrist and Peterson point from different locations but are aiming at the same moon.

To put it broadly, Peterson’s mission is to bring ‘habitable order’ and coherent meaning to the world (in other words, clean up your room, bucko!) McGilchrist, on the other hand, criticises the modern mania for too much control and arbitrary order; while he acknowledging the necessity of reason and the scientific method, he pushes us towards the living mystery of the right hemisphere. Peterson asks us to make form out of chaos, which seems, at least on the surface, to be the function of the left brain—seemingly the opposite approach to McGilchrist. But is there necessarily a contradiction between these two views, or can we hold them both simultaneously?

McGilchrist tells us that civilizations reach their zenith when both hemispheres (metaphorically speaking again) exist in proper relationship; that means the right brain view—based on depth, the body, and intuition—is sovereign. The right brain ‘master’ should rule over the more instrumental, mapping, and technocratic left-brain ‘servant’. Peterson, on the other hand, talks about how mythological and traditional boundaries provide the proper framework for us to orient ourselves in a world of suffering and malevolence; how logos, or articulated truth-speech, creates order from chaos and frees us from ideological possession.

McGilchrist argues for fluidity and metaphor (perhaps the feminine in Jungian terms), whereas Peterson calls for order and boundaries (a more masculine approach). However, it is not true that McGilchrist is against reason, only that he distinguishes it from mere rationality. The left brain ‘rations’ or reduces things into ‘bits’; reason, as opposed to rationality, brings us more holistic perspectives, which included the metaphysical and the religious. Mere rationality cuts us off from the right hemisphere and leads to extreme scientific reductionism and cultural fragmentation. But reason, balanced with intuition, connected us to the whole, complex being.

Peterson is not as conservative and order obsessed(or left hemisphere oriented) as all that however—and writes about the heroes need to fight dragons in the chaotic underworld. Still, we can see why he has attracted people who are looking for meaning and orientation in their lives. Peterson speaks of a need for a balance between order and chaos, conservatism and liberalism, the masculine and the feminine. Perhaps the difference between the two, is that McGilchrist privileges the right brain as the ‘master’. I wonder if Peterson would agree with his thesis?

These differences might explain some of the friendly tensions in their preliminary discussion. Peterson suggested that it was unusual for McGilchrist to privilege the right hemisphere. Traditionally, the left brain rules the ‘right hand’ functions of tool-making, language, and generally making manageable order of chaos. McGilchrist, to counter this, suggested Peterson has leaned too much towards order and might not acknowledge the necessary chaos and the richness of the right hemisphere. This may be a legitimate critique of some of Peterson’s ‘low resolution’ ideas, which can, at times, be overly reductive in the service of polemical statements.

This tension may also have to do with the differences in personalities of the two men. McGilchrist appears almost camera shy; he has a tendency towards melancholy—I would say he is very connected to the bittersweetness of the heart, to put it poetically. He is an introvert and doesn’t appear to cherish the public eye; whereas Peterson is an obvious extrovert, is combative, and seems to have taken to the public stage with a certain relish.

Perhaps we could say Peterson has an excess of charisma and McGilchrist an excess of sadness. This is not a critique—we need more excess in this conformist society: ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’, as William Blake has said. Peterson has used left brained ‘anger’ to cut through the superficialities of the culture—but with deep ‘right brain’ depth and feeling for the issues at hand. McGilchrist, on the other hand, has combined his ‘right brained’ oriented depth—for music and painting for instance—with the empirical ‘left-brained’ sphere of brain science and philosophy.

It should also be added that both men have considerable clinical experience, and offer very practical, rather than merely intellectual observations. They are heroes of a sort; they have moved from the sphere of left brain abstraction to unity and integration, where the master is no longer a slave to his tools, but uses them wisely. Their task has been bring the shadow puppet to life—to move from the dead matter of mere conceptuality, to the living world of the spirit. Both Peterson and McGilchrist are great integrative thinkers, which we need at the moment to heal the wounds of extreme fragmentation and polarisation.

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A series of articles that compare Jordan Peterson to different thinkers and public figures:

Camille Paglia

Ken Wilber:

Slavov Zizek:

Russel Brand: