Jordan B. Peterson is a self-professed proponent of classical liberalism, a Jungian and a clinical psychologist. However, as I will argue here, classical liberalism and psychoanalysis are fundamentally at odds. Peterson’s emphasis on psychoanalysis is most evident in his Jung-inspired lecture series, The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories. This endeavour has been popular—perhaps because it fills the cultural void created by the so-called meaning crisis.
Liberalism and postmodernism are antagonistic ideologies. Psychoanalysis, I will argue, is related to postmodernism—hence it is paradoxical to advocate liberalism and psychoanalysis simultaneously. Ideas from postmodern philosophy, such as those of Michel Foucault, are unapologetically critical of liberal norms. But postmodernism may, in fact, serve Peterson’s aim to bring about a society saturated with meaning, through the teachings of psychoanalysis.
Take Philip K. Dick’s experience of what he called divine interference. Better known for his novels like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and The Man in the High Castle, Dick’s divine interference was a collection of meaningful coincidences, symbolic encounters and vivid hallucinations. Dick referred to this ordeal as 2–3–74, after the date it began. It started with an innocuous interaction with a delivery woman who happened to be wearing the ichthys (the fish symbol Christians wore before the cross became their predominant symbol), which marked the beginning of a series of events and visions. The sight of the necklace acted as a “trigger for gnosis,” whereby Dick received an onslaught of information and hallucinations. These acid trip-like experiences were often related, or similar, to books he had previously written. For example, Dick experienced visions and dreams connected with VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligent System), a satellite which served as a major plot device in his book of the same name. He experienced aural hallucinations in which he received pertinent information directly from the radio, as if it were speaking to him personally. He also imagined that he was exchanging telepathic information with a first-century Christian named Thomas. Some regard these experiences as par for the course for a sci-fi writer with an immense, intricate imagination. Others regard them as evidence of a mental disorder, such as schizophrenia, frontal lobe epilepsy or psychosis. But others feel there is a more complex explanation.
In a passage from Dick’s Exegesis (a published section of his private journal, in which he documents the uncanny events), he states, “The trouble is, sitting here for instance, I do know what each object is. I know its name. I know its purpose, what it does, etc. I can’t unknow this is a typewriter, this here my light, this over here the air conditioner.” Dick became astutely aware of how we endow our perceptions and sociolinguistic constructs with a certain indelibility, as if they existed beyond question. But language and society do not map onto each other perfectly. In the passage above, Dick contemplates the absurdity of the connection between abstract words and material objects. This questioning of the status quo is thoroughly postmodern. Derrida does this by examining language, and Foucault by exposing the role societal structures and power play in the discourses of knowledge acquisition and the creation of societal norms.
Dick’s worldview changed as a result of his hallucinogenic experiences. He began to think of the world as fundamentally constituted of information: “narrative can be entered from any point in mundane time by the correct entry key which in itself tells a story or a part of a story—part of the master narrative (which, as I say, is information out of which reality is generated).” Information is persistent, but the form it takes is inconsequential since there is a higher underlying code, which is actually real. This extravagant metaphysical paradigm is compatible with postmodern thought. It pays less attention to material and economic conditions, and more to the mysterious structures of the human mind that create meaning and transcendence. This is important in psychoanalysis in general—and it is especially relevant to Peterson’s message, which aims to foster a sense of meaning in people’s lives via Jungian ideas, particularly as they relate to story and myth.
The timing of Dick’s visions was no coincidence—they are simultaneous with postmodernism. One year later, in 1975, Foucault published Discipline and Punish, which tackles similar themes. Notably, Foucault outlines how governments, jails, penitentiaries, schools, military, hospitals, etc. (structures of power in liberal societies) contribute to their own perpetuation and tend towards ossification, independently of their truth or non-truth.
For Foucault, liberal norms “give birth to man as an object of knowledge for a discourse with a ‘scientific’ status.” Scientific discourse classifies, compartmentalizes and empirisizes areas of study which, inevitably, result in the formation of a norm (a human norm, for instance, might be comprised of the most common characteristics of a particular population). For Foucault, the trouble is that, “although it is true that prison punishes delinquency, delinquency is for the most part produced in and by an incarceration which, ultimately, prison perpetuates in its turn.” Systems of discipline and punishment extract a norm from a group using empirical methods of study (usually science, in a liberal society), then discipline or punish delinquency in an attempt to coax the population towards this supposed norm—from which, as a result, the population never strays too far. Structures of discipline and punishment therefore continually reinforce their own norms under the guise of science, and thus, self-perpetuate. This process was historically stopped through a series of revolutions (scientific, Protestant and liberal), which overthrew the previous religious structures of discipline and punishment.
Another significant concept in Discipline and Punish is the divide between the body and the soul: specifically, the way in which structures of punishment targeted the body in the Middle Ages and earlier, but now punish the soul. The movement away from public torture and execution was symptomatic of a shift from punishing the human body to taking away life itself—with the least amount of bodily interference. English common law, with its emphasis on liberties, exemplifies this: citizens are endowed with certain inalienable rights and freedoms. Those who break the law are disciplined not through bodily means, but by restricting their liberty. Foucault states that these new structures “deprive the individual of a liberty that is regarded both as a right and as property.” In other words, the notion of liberty is reified as if it were not merely abstract, but an entity (a soul), which can be interacted with. Even when someone is sentenced to death, he is disposed of using medicinal concoctions designed to cause as little harm to the body as possible. Accordingly, a direct assault on freedom is possible.
The concept of the soul is integral to Foucault’s thought, particularly in tandem with the notion of causality. Modern liberal societies emerged as a result of the same Enlightenment thinkers—Locke in particular—who birthed empiricism. Not coincidentally, as liberty and the abstract soul become sacred, so does the notion of causality, which is tacitly accepted in both liberal institutions and scientific endeavours. Liberal institutions of punishment no longer require public torture, execution or horrific bodily harm to sway us from crime. We have linked crime and punishment so tightly that, Foucault claims, we live in a kind of panopticon, wherein the notions of causality and the soul coalesce to make us link crime with punishment directly, which pre-emptively deters us from committing crime.
Foucault describes the soul thus:
This real, noncorporal soul is not a substance; it is the element in which are articulated the effects of a certain type of power and the reference of a certain type of knowledge, the machinery by which the power relations give rise to a possible corpus of knowledge, and knowledge extends and reinforces the effects of this power.
We are so aware of the notion of our soul (liberty), and the liberal systems of power are so efficient at doling out punishment, that we causally link the act of crime to punishment—as if we were constantly being watched, without knowing from where or by whom. This is what it means to live in a panopticon. In much the same way, causality is cemented into liberal institutions. While conducting a scientific study of the natural world, empiricists must also assume causality in order to make predictive statements about the future based on empirical data.
Foucault’s Madness and Civilization provides a scholarly approach to the problems Dick experienced and wrote about first-hand. In it, Foucault claims that madness is defined by the institutions and discourse a society has in place. Hence, the definition of madness changes over time. He demonstrates this using the example of leprosy, “as leprosy vanished, in part because of segregation, a void was created and the moral values attached to the leper had to find another scapegoat. Mental illness and unreason attracted that stigma to themselves.” Initially, we defined ourselves in relation to bodily norms: humans with leprosy and similar diseases were seen as the other. Now, sufferers from mental illness are the other, and humans without mental afflictions are considered normal. Dick’s schizotypal visions may have been considered normal—or even laudable—in the past. Madness’s shift from a violation of a bodily norm to that of a mental norm occurred in parallel with the penal system’s shift from an emphasis on the body to an emphasis on the soul.
Liberal societies have created a discourse that perpetuates this new notion of madness. This discourse involves doctors and psychiatrists and institutions like hospitals, psychiatric wards and universities. These structures act as other liberal structures do: by pitting humans against a norm and ensuring its perpetuation through enforced uniformity. For instance, if a doctor claims I am sick, I must defer to the doctor’s authority because what do I know? She has the medicine I need, the antidote to my alleged ills, medicines and antidotes specifically engineered to bring me closer to the norm she has determined appropriate in the first place. So this norm will persist, since these institutions continually alter humans to make us approximate it more closely. Those within the system do not realize its self-reinforcing nature, as we too often suspend our rational faculties in the face of authority claims that invoke science, despite the ability of such systems of authority and power to be misused, and to gradually veer away from the truth.
According to Foucault, our individuality emerges through our relationship to a societal standard via discourse, which presents an opposition between the norm and the other, whereby the norm is created by structures of power dictated, in part, by their axioms. Currently, liberal discourse makes up our reality and perpetuates itself in turn. Many of you may be thinking that, even if Foucault’s discursive explanation of structures and systems is correct, liberal societies largely utilize empirical study and the scientific method. Therefore, although the structures are self-perpetuating, they really reflect the truth. Let’s examine this idea more closely.
One pivotal axiom of modern liberal societies is causality, since it is the bedrock of empirical measurement and empiricism more generally, and has been adopted by liberal punishment systems. As Hume has demonstrated, causality is merely a habit gained through experience: most things seem to respect causality (cause and effect), so we assume they always will. However, causality cannot be proven to exist in any definitive sense (Spencer Hall has shown how fickle causality is here), despite the fact that scientific laws are predicated on the assumption of it. Causality is predicated upon extrapolating from past experiences to predict future outcomes. But proving that the past will predict the future is not possible, since we must be able to prove that the future will be similar enough to the past to render the predictive statement always true. Obviously, we cannot empirically test whether the future is similar enough to the past, without being in the future ourselves, so this principle must always remain an assumption. This “habit of causality” is an unprovable axiom, which is foundational to all empirical measurement used in future prediction, such as the formation of scientific laws. We therefore have reason to be sceptical of the Newtonian laws of physics and laws of thermodynamics, as these laws are not definitively true—they are only true insofar as the assumption of causality holds.
Foucault has exposed the fact that our current structures of discipline and punishment are predicated on norms created using medicine and science. Therefore, once we cast doubt on the assumptions of empirical study, we begin to realize how perilous these structures—and our own sense experiences—are. Moreover, if we agree that human norms change through evolution, each time a large enough change occurs among the populace, new structures need to be created to perpetuate this new norm. The norm within which we currently exist and to which we compare ourselves is therefore temporary. But, a postmodernist might say, once a set of structures has been established, why would they correct themselves to facilitate the continuation of a new norm and risk losing their influence? Do you think they will relinquish their status in favour of some vague notion of truth? Or would you expect humans to be driven by profit and power? The ossification of such structures guarantees a system and population that are relatively static, unless, of course, the situation becomes so dire (institutional norms become extremely unaligned with the population) that a revolution overthrows the current hegemony. However, as Foucault elucidates, these institutions continually reinforce and perpetuate their own norms—and as a result the population remains relatively uniform and revolutions are rare.
The connection between postmodernism and psychoanalysis is touched on by Foucault. In particular, he illuminates the relationship between madness and psychoanalysis, claiming that psychoanalysis creates a dialogue between madness and truth. Furthermore, Foucault asserts that Freud decoupled the existing doctor–patient structures of hospitals, institutions, wards, etc. so that only the direct doctor–patient relationship (discourse) existed:
Freud went back to madness at the level of its language, reconstituted one of the essential elements of an experience reduced to silence by positivism; he did not make a major addition to the list of psychological treatments for madness; he restored, in medical thought, the possibility of a dialogue with unreason.
This is one of psychoanalysis’ postmodern aspects: it subverts the current liberal structures of power by undermining some of their institutions (those related to mental afflictions). Similarly, much of the postmodern movement aims to expose and deconstruct liberal discourse, in order to reduce the power of the liberal hegemony.
I am not claiming that psychoanalysis was explicitly influenced by postmodern developments, but that psychoanalysis and postmodernism have striking similarities, similarities which set both philosophies in opposition to liberalism, but which ally them with each other.
Like postmodernism, psychoanalysis is sceptical of the scientific paradigm, and, thus, the liberal structures that perpetuate it. Psychoanalytic theories are not always scientific or causally justifiable, but, rather, predicated on dubious conscious influence or alleged acausal influence. As a consequence, it strives to make consciousness and its latent structure—rather than the material world as experienced by the senses—the centre of reality. Comparably, postmodernism exposes and rejects much scientific thought, often claiming that power is more influential than truth. As a result, alternative ways of knowing that are not Eurocentric have been drawn into its wake. Much of the so-called Grievance Studies scholarship—while not always postmodern itself—has been able to exist and thrive due to postmodernism’s influence. Psychoanalysis could follow their example and take advantage of postmodernism, in order to build a new way of knowing—in which unconscious and conscious influences are central.
One of the main foundational claims of psychoanalysis is that humans are not as rational as we once assumed. Psychoanalysis reveals the latent madness within each human mind, a madness capable of producing art if only we can could tap into it. From Freud, we learn that we are beholden to primitive and animalistic desires and follow certain patterns—for example, the Oedipus complex. Ernest Becker reveals that much of what we create and produce merely serves to temper our death anxiety, since we realize that our existence is somewhat meaningless without structures that persist beyond our lifetimes and carry on our legacies. If we only affect a single lifetime, why strive to do anything but achieve momentary pleasure? These systems are the same structures that both Dick and Foucault attempted to expose.
Carl Jung describes the way in which human beings act out archetypal characters and stories, which have been around for at least as long as we have been self-conscious. This is illustrated most thoroughly by Jung’s student Erich Neumann, in his book, The Origins and History of Consciousness. Neumann maps out how, just as stories follow a definite structure and evolve over time, so too does human consciousness. Different stages of consciousness are reflected in the various stages of progression apparent in religious stories and myths:
The developmental changes in the relation between the ego and the unconscious were expressed mythologically in the different archetypal figures uroboros, Great Mother, dragon, etc. in which the unconscious presents itself to the ego, or which the ego constellates out of the unconscious. In taking the archetypal stages to be developmental stages of ego consciousness, we have interpreted the mythological figures of the child, the adolescent, and the hero as stages in the ego’s own transformation.
Story has a specific structure and so does consciousness. Psychoanalysis emphasizes the mind’s ability to tap into existing patterns and provide guides for action, which the human ego follows in the abstract, and the human body imitates—implying, perhaps, that consciousness has access to some code or structure of being to which humans are beholden.
Jung’s Synchronicity highlights the way in which consciousness seems to play a part in bringing about reality, through what he calls an “acausal connecting principle”:
The philosophical principle that underlies our conception of natural law is causality. But if the connection between cause and effect turns out to be only statistically valid and only relatively true, then the causal principle is only of relative use for explaining natural processes and therefore presupposes the existence of one or more other factors which would be necessary for an explanation. This is as much as to say that the connection of events may in certain circumstances be other than causal, and requires another principle of explanation.
According to psychoanalysis, we are not rational beings. Moreover, our minds—or consciousness itself—aid in manifesting the natural world in accordance with a common structure or pattern, in an acausal manner. This suggests that there is more to reality than the material. Jung would say that this is exemplified by the archetypes and symbols within our unconscious (the patterns apparent in movies, books, stories, etc.) and Dick might concur that this is the “information out of which reality is generated.”
If science is as fallible as I have suggested, then the assumption of causality and the truth of sense experience may be no more real than assuming information and patterns of consciousness are at the centre of reality. Consequently, the structures of discipline and punishment which currently exist actually oppress us. Their aim is to perpetuate themselves, in the service of nothing more than themselves. The norms we strive to uphold may be symptoms of our period: a limited epoch within human history. This is precisely why Becker would likely contend that we would not want to introspect enough to have this realization, since that would destroy the verisimilitude of these structures and thereby cast our whole lives into doubt.
Ultimately, psychoanalysis took many postmodern claims for granted, since, although it preceded the postmodern movement, it was already producing theories inimical to liberalism. Specifically, it sought an explanation of reality as something brought about by the mysterious workings of consciousness, going against the grain of science, empiricism, causality and the liberal paradigm to do so. If we take these claims at face value, perhaps Dick and Jung are correct: the world is fundamentally an amalgam of information, not just a material phenomenon. In a talk between Iain McGilchrist and Jordan Peterson, McGilchrist says of reality: “there are no things—oh there are processes yes, and there are patterns.” Peterson concurs, “music, you know, I’ve thought … that music is the most representative of the arts … music describes how those patterns should be arranged … it’s [music and patterns] representing the ultimate reality of the cosmos.”
The societal acceptance of this revelation would be a major step towards Peterson’s goal of engendering meaning in people’s lives, as it would become easier to emphasize the reality of meaning, as not just as a product of material interaction, but as a mental journey, guided by real patterns. Popularizing postmodernism will increasingly undermine liberal structures, which could allow for psychoanalytical strains of thought to take their place. Even without the erosion of the liberal hegemony, Peterson has found a niche audience for his Jungian message. Imagine how much more popular this message could be if the precarity of liberal structures were collectively pointed out, with the aid of postmodern scholarship, and new axioms sympathetic to psychoanalysis drawn up in their place.
The current systems of science and causality will not allow this to be a plausible worldview. Foucault might say that this is another way in which structures predicated on certain assumptions and norms perpetuate themselves: by discarding anything too divergent as heresy—or, as modern liberal societies would put it—as unscientific. Those who obtain meaning from the systems they inhabit will not want to overturn them. Perhaps that is why a full-throated postmodern movement will be necessary before psychoanalytic thought truly becomes mainstream. In the meantime, we can be cognizant of the temporal nature of our lives and embrace a more holistic—albeit less scientific—worldview. I am not advocating throwing science out altogether, but merely becoming aware that there is a transcendent—even divine—aspect to the human mind, which goes far beyond the material: one that strives for meaning and emotion, aligned with certain unconscious commonalities. I’m sure Peterson would agree that this is how we can attempt to saturate our lives with meaning: by enacting these patterns—not merely unconsciously like puppets, but taking control of them for our own good.
If you are committed to the axioms of liberal society, you may think this is merely conspiratorial and irrational thinking, aimed at undermining the current systems of progress and growth. But is this true? Or are you solely guarding your assumptions, which have not been placed under proper scrutiny? Bear in mind, that—despite Peterson’s adherence to liberal society—he is clearly aware of psychoanalysis’ rich understanding of the mind’s mysterious structure and he believes that the world is comprised of patterns. It would be interesting to hear how he can square these seemingly very different philosophies.