The Abstraction of Jordan Peterson
Mapping Meaning in the Land of Identity Politics
“We have become trapped by our own capacity for abstraction: it provides us with accurate descriptive information, but serves to undermine our belief in the utility and meaning of existence.” (p. 19)
Jordan Peterson’s book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief contains the word ‘abstract’ and its derivatives 117 times (inexplicably comes up 259 when I search in the Safari PDF window, 117 when I search in Preview — I have no idea which to trust, but I’m erring on the side of caution). It’s a treasure trove of quotes relating to abstraction, and more.
Just to give that some random context, Betrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy contains only 15 such references, Deleuze’s Nietzsche and Philosophy a mere 19. Even in Piaget’s Studies in Reflecting Abstraction, the word only comes up 26 times. I could go on and on… a couple more works with ‘abstraction’ even in the title: Scandals and Abstraction: Financial Fiction of the Long 1980s (17 instances). The Sociology of the Body: Mapping the Abstraction of Embodiment (16).
‘Abstract’ is a fruitful keyword in the above texts as well as countless other works, but clearly Peterson’s abstraction index is unusually high (over 6:1 by this small sampling. 19:1 if 259 references is correct), so I think it warrants special attention. His concept here is essentially abstraction as mapping. Benjamin Bratton is another luminary who has independently articulated it this way, as I have previously noted, and discussed in depth here.
I also subtitled the abstraction white paper “Map of the Problematique.” This trend is an important validation of abstraction in its own right, as a tool to clarify critical thinking and resolve paradoxical social problems. With better abstraction, the map is increasingly becoming the territory. Through this critical cartography I suggest that we can map the moral landscape with more scientific certitude.
Dr. Peterson must be some kind of special expert on abstraction, to invoke it so much. He is indeed, but he is of course known as the now (in)famous psychology professor from the University of Toronto at the center of a gender terminology controversy, which is to say he is in the crossfire between well intentioned but confused liberal factions.
To his earnest followers (and his employer) he is a bonafide intellectual, demonstrated through his lectures, books, and activism, and is aligned with feminist values. To his haters/critics, he’s a borderline traditional sexist, over-intellectualizing and generalizing the discreet realities of non-binary people, standing in the way of real equality. To another category, some from the alt-right, he is claimed for their own perverse agenda, fanning the flames (no pun intended!) of homo/transphobia.
In this polarized political climate, where I situate myself on that spectrum may determine who pays attention to me, and I would like everyone to, so let me offer the seemingly absurd but true position of being in total solidarity with the LGBTQ rights movement globally as well as a staunch defender of Peterson and his so-called sexism. And we’ll leave the alt-right out of it for now.
I contend that there is no real contradiction on this issue, only misunderstanding, and this is even more true in the paradigm of ‘metamodernism.’ In a sense everyone is right and everyone is wrong — and its important we all concede a little. Sex is a biological reality (verified at the level of sex chromosomes and of genitals) and gender is socially constructed and individually determined (obvious at the level of identity). It is BOTH-AND, an important rule of metamodernism.
People are obsessed over language and word choice, and for good reason. Words are the crucibles of ideas, as Orwell taught us, and when abused or restricted they are also the means of thought control. The gender pronoun issue is all about the freedom and identity predicated on such words. If/when you try to squeeze spectral humans into strict dualities, it will be a type of lie and injustice will be carried out against those minorities and outliers. A metamodern paradigm accomodates the anomalies and resolves the tension: there are mostly males and females, based on the genetic differentiation of sex.
There are also anomalous expressions (ie. hermaphrodites), and when uniquely human subjectivity is applied there is also everything in between and outside of the gender binary (ie. homosexual, transexuals). So, legalize being human already. This doesn’t require complex bathroom laws or contrived speech codes, just more education — and unisex bathrooms. Here is the bottom line: Any intelligent progressive person, Peterson especially, is an advocate for blind justice, not an enemy of it— because we know there is an abstract human being behind (within) each person, completely devoid of distinguishing features, sexual, racial, or otherwise, and thus deserving of equal and fair treatment. Call it a homunculus.
Like most critical social scientists, his raison d’etre is to challenge and enlighten, to tell the truth, not to be a sexist stirring up controversy, but not everyone gets it. I encourage anyone offended by Peterson to simply give him more of your attention and time — for most disagreement is a function of ‘vicious abstraction’ (false consciousness rooted in concept distortion or misquotation). Alas, I’ve digressed more than I wanted to, but his little homunculus is a perfect segue into abstraction.
‘Abstract’ is a word that authors use sparingly, for its equivocacy and potential to mystify the broader thesis. After all, what the hell does ‘abstract’ mean anyway but an incredibly vague catch-all for thinking, complexity, and generality? (Follow this blog to find out). As long as readers have a general understanding of a word, they can employ it effectively, no? Getting hung up on semantics means we never get past page one of Genesis (we arguably can’t).
Few writers will waste precious space going down the rabbit hole of abstraction, yet definition is perhaps the most essential of philosophical exercises, so as per the M.O. of TATO (The Abs-Tract Organization), we shall push on with this abstract exigesis. With 117 references, clearly Peterson is on the abstraction train, and we can extrapolate a thick description from his work. For starters, the book is rich with schematic models such as this one, abstractly depicting interactions across layers of complexity:
“Each developmental “stage” — action, imitation, play, ritual, drama, narrative, myth, religion, philosophy, rationality — offers an increasingly abstracted, generalized and detailed representation of the behavioral wisdom embedded in and established during the previous stage. The introduction of semantic representation to the human realm of behavior allowed for continuance and ever-increasing extension of the cognitive process originating in action, imitation, play, and drama. Language turned drama into mythic narrative, narrative into formal religion, and religion into critical philosophy, providing for exponential expansion of adaptive ability.” (p. 72)
Each bidirectional arrow is its own world of abstraction, endlessly scrutable by the human mind. Countless scholars have dedicated their lives to filling in the smallest gaps, and now we have a quite complete picture, when one has the resolve to step back and take it in. On the upper level of the image, Peterson is depicting a continuum from the most basic sensory investigation of our external world to the most internal processes of ideation to cognitively map said world. This chain is also mediated through different types of working memory, depicted on the lower level. The visual aid is a great abstraction and supplement to the text.
From crude observation and imitative behaviour (discovery) to the abstract reflection of the processes behind such behaviour (philosophy), Peterson argues that humans develop ‘meta-skill’; the ability to abstract the logic behind certain actions and patterns of behavior. Alluding to the power of allegory, he writes, “It is the encapsulation of meta-skill in a story that makes that story great.” (p. 69) This meta-learning is actually precisely the conceit of the metamodern art film The Abs-Tract: Core Philosophy, which implores the viewer to “think hard core” to both heuristically hone ripped abs as well as to achieve metanoia (profound change of mind). I guess that makes it a great story! In Maps of Meaning, Peterson threads abstraction throughout his own map of meaning, with cumulative effect:
“Thinking might in many cases be regarded as the abstracted form of exploration — as the capacity to investigate, without the necessity of direct motoric action.” (p. 62)
“Behavior is imitated, then abstracted into play, formalized into drama and story, crystallized into myth and codified religion — and only then criticized in philosophy, and provided, post-hoc, with rational underpinnings.” (p. 71)
“The highest level abstractions therefore allow us to represent the most universally applicable behavioral pattern: that characterizing the hero, who (eternally) turns the unknown into something secure and beneficial; who eternally reconstructs the secure and beneficial, when it has degenerated into tyranny.” (p. 147)
In these three references abstraction is employed variously as; exploration through thought, a transformative process across levels, and the construction of metanarratives (myth, story) and meaning, in turn enabling action. It is a ubiquitous process, abstraction. We do it all the time, whether we know it or not. It is not necessary to go through all 117 expressions to make this point. His frequent usage of the term is a conscious choice but may also just be a consequence of lucidly describing the role of thinking in the framework of evolutionary anthropology, psychology, and sociology. The deeper we go, the clearer the detail on the map appears. According to Peterson;
“the purpose of abstraction is to represent experience, and to manipulate the representations, to further successful adaptation.” (p. 269).
“Procedures may be mapped in episodic memory, and abstracted in essence by the semantic system.” (p. 184)
Fundamentally, abstraction is thinking and learning, giving way to philosophy. And the moral of the story is we need to take it all the way (and back again). Combing the text, we have started to develop a definition of ‘abstraction’ unique to Peterson’s exploratory mapping model. Perhaps more important is not to overstate what it is, but what it does. Under the heading 4.2.3 The Strange Idea and the pages that follow, he highlights some benefits of our capacity for abstraction, which I’ve collated into a list:
“increasing self-understanding (self-consciousness)” (p. 201)
“facilitates communication of morality (instruction in how to behave)” (p. 201)
“to reason and represent, in behavior, imagination and word” (p. 202)
“ease of communication” (p. 208)
“increased adaptive flexibility” (p. 208)
“tremendous heightening of adaptive ability” (p. 208)
“to produce self-models that include the temporal boundaries of existence” (p. 225)
Sounds like a pretty useful tool. His repeated emphasis on abstraction as learning/discovery/mapping underpins the critical pedagogy that I am advocating: that abstraction is a key, if not the key, to critical thinking and learning, and that a root-level intervention in education reform and public policy would avoid many of our common socio-political pathologies. Because ‘abstraction as mapping’ is a self-evident methodology, the map is the proof. The adaptation is the pudding. The map is the sum total of human knowledge. And the ‘Internet is God,’ as Swedish philosopher and Syntheist Alexander Bard puts it. Getting very abstract.
But Peterson also warns of abstraction as a double-edged sword. First of all, our capacity for abstraction is partial and imcomplete. We only have access to part of the puzzle. In another more dangerous sense, it is because new ideas can be threatening and will trigger our physiological and psychosomatic defense mechanisms, potentially in a cascading fashion, that can undermine entire belief systems. He points out that a “new idea is an abstract stranger.” (p. 201).
Humans can also abuse abstraction, as we have the power to deny, both consciously (refusal, out of self-interest) and unconsciously (rejection, out of ignorance). This has macro consequences when we consider the cascading ripple effects of actions motivated by false beliefs, or in reaction to threatening truths. Returning to this ominous sentiment, also expressed in the opening quote of this article, Peterson writes:
“The final emergent process of the developmental chain of abstraction can be applied to undermine the stability of its foundation. The modern and verbally-sophisticated individual is therefore always in danger of sawing off the branch on which he or she sits.” (p. 214)
Hence why he calls it the ‘strange idea.’ Put another way, critical thinking emancipates us right up until it runs up against society’s norms and beliefs, which may or may not be degenerate abstractions. Furthermore, the profound truth that all language is ultimately made up (socially constructed) is both freeing and constricting. We can write and speak with precision, but this does not guarantee we will be understood, or that the meaning will hold over time. Or perhaps the caveat is simply that the more one abstracts, the more complexity one sees and has to process for reduction. We can reach incredible depths through abstraction and academic writing, but then there is a ‘So what?’ factor — people will find ways to disagree, or not care— for various reasons.
This idea that science ‘proves’ things obviously does not carry over easily to the social sciences, where no idea is safe from becoming politicized and bastardized. In our white paper, I also touch on the vulnerabilties of abstraction. Namely, “vicious abstraction” (misrepresentation) and the “reproach of abstraction” (anti-intellectualism and critique of ‘philosophizing’). Yet I can think of no other solution than to boldly commit to abstraction, rather than shy away from it. It holds the heroic promise, that we all aspire to, to learn, and to adapt and survive, not to mention to triumph over evil in our mytho-poetic terms.
We need to continue to develop abstraction as an epistemology; a way of knowing and verifying. The larger point I want to make is if abstraction is mapping, and mapping is an increasingly objective investigative process of revealing the ‘matrix’ we live in, then how come the correct maps are not more equally distributed? — why do people still disagree and conflict? We know how abstraction works and doesn’t work. Peterson’s abstractions work. His diagrams illustrate a complex relationship of concepts in an efficient and neutral way. How is ideology still so pervasive, even among intellectuals in the information age? How can so many people get reality so wrong still?
With godlike AI and AR enroute, we must get ahead of this problem. Benjamin Bratton foretells of an even more precarious abstraction, that will mediate our interaction with reality right down to the level of skin and beyond, via nanotechnology. We are going to have full spectrum dominance over reality, but late capitalism will not equally distribute these superpowers. At what point will we finally share a common map of meaning and stop fighting? Especially, how can we end disagreement over obvious scientific certainties (anthropogenic ecocide)?
Humans have collectively successfully abstracted (mapped) reality as a matter of curiosity and survival, and yet we deny these achievements to the collective at our own expense. The short answer is there are powerful people in powerful systems swinging this double-edged sword with wreckless abandon, spreading misinformation, because it’s profitable in the short term. It’s profitable in the short term because multitudes of consumers are programmed to fail at abstraction, to buy into traps.
More questions: When will people collectively realize that investment in abstraction pays dividends? What are we going to teach AI? And what is it going to teach us? Abstraction is already instrumental in AI, but the real revolution will be when AI is so smart that we can no longer bullshit ourselves as a society. AI will tell us the truth; nay, it will prove it. There is no more rationale for war, only justifications and excuses. And if AI is used for military purposes, we will have Skynet. If AI is used for humanist purposes, we will have world peace and subservient robots.
This is my fundamental concern: If humans are so smart, why is our politics so stupid? To solve the problem, humanity needs to be able to answer these questions at the conversational level, as well as the systemic level of law and institutions. Because if we can’t agree on the present crisis, we’re fucked. The sociology of knowledge has been addressing these question for much of the 20th century — knowledge is under the yoke of power — and few have listened, but Peterson sheds light on our ignorance about the matrix:
“The eternally extant domain of the unknown therefore constitutes the matrix from which all conditional knowledge emerges. Everything presently known to each, everything rendered predictable, was at one time unknown to all, and had to be rendered predictable — beneficial at best, irrelevant at worst — as a consequence of active exploration-driven adaptation. The matrix is of indeterminable breadth: despite our great storehouse of culture, despite the wisdom bequeathed to us by our ancestors, we are still fundamentally ignorant, and will remain so, no matter how much we learn. The domain of the unknown surrounds us, like an ocean surrounds an island. We can increase the area of the island, but we never take away much from the sea.” (p. 49).
The abstraction of Jordan Peterson is his schematic worldview and his explicit use of abstraction, which is certainly more accurate than the average person, perhaps even the average scholar. This is in part evident in his totalizing diagrams, which give due space to chaos and the unknown. His rise to prominence as a public intellectual in an anti-intellectual political climate is of great import. We are going to need honest maps of meaning to navigate the 21st century, and his map is a good place to start, with respect to psychology and psychohistory. But more important than Peterson is abstraction itself. We are not slaves to this process, but rather gods of it. High-level abstraction is seeing the world for what it is, and what it can be. It is a new blueprint for Bildung (education). Point being, abs-tract.
I have written a follow-up post to this article, titled The Detraction of Jordan Peterson, which discusses his overstepping and the critical reaction to him. I argue that although Peterson is an expert in abstraction, he commits vicious abstraction with some concepts.