Archetypes and Truth: Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris

Jordan Peterson is more an anthropologist studying the historical development of consciousness through culture, by examining stories, and the universal archetypes— themes, motifs, symbolism— found throughout.

As a professional, clinical psychologist, this is very useful, especially from a therapeutic perspective.

You cannot discount his analysis, which is hardly his own (Jung, Campbell, Nietzsche and many others laid the foundations of this study), from a scientific research perspective, because there is ample evidence supporting these conclusions.

But his conclusions lead him to believe in a moral superiority of certain belief systems, that appeal to the highest demonstration of their efficacy.

As in, the metaphysical archetypes he identifies as transcending culture, as being universal across time and space throughout the development of mankind and civilization, leads him to conclude that Christianity provides one of the most useful embodiments of these prevailing structures that allow for maximum human flourishing, as forming the basis for a stable psychological disposition which translates into functional social structures.

This poses problems in his analysis of realism, or scientific materialism, which seems to be secondary to his “psychological metaphysics”, for lack of a better word.

Which is why the whole disagreement between Peterson and Sam Harris of “What is true?” appeared to be such a clusterfuck.

The archetypes Peterson (Jung and Campbell and others) are referencing are metaphysical structures governing the collective unconscious, i.e. they structure our conscious experience in a meaningful way, that allows us to act and make sense of the world and our relation to it and other “minds”.

Because they are universal in all mankind (based on textual analysis of stories throughout history and cultures) they provide a basis of truth, in Peterson’s claim, because they operate a priori as mediating our experience with the world.

According to Peterson, if I’m not mistaken, there are systems (cultural stories and the worldview they create) that are better than others at leveraging these archetypes, which allow for better engagement with the world, leading to our self preservation as individuals and society, which refers to his “Darwinian” framework.

I really appreciate Sam Harris’s criticisms, and I think he’s right to challenge Peterson on some of these points, such as, what is grounding this analysis, which seems much like a hermeneutic exercise of interpretation, which leaves the door open to some… baseless or imaginative conclusions

I think Peterson’s appeal to archetypes “as truth” resides in the fact that these archetypes are so enduring…. they are constantly relevant, and map onto the human experience regardless of time and place. But this notion of truth has less basis in realism, which appeals to an objective reality outside ourselves, and more basis in wisdom, which appeals to the subjective reality within ourselves.

So there’s some endurance to archetypes, some persistence to these structures, that would seem to indicates their necessity as inescapable “truths” which govern man’s conscious experience— as it relates to man’s experience with himself, others, and the “world” or “chaos” outside him.

Archetypes are metaphysical because they exist a priori, as apart of our subjective consciousness which we bring to the world, but they don’t exist in the world concretely.

Archetypes are just descriptions of relationships between man, himself, others and the world. These archetypes are not paradigms; they are more fundamental.

Good and evil, order vs chaos, protagonist vs antagonist, sacrifice vs gain— I believe these are more representative of archetypes.

Archetypes are elements constituting the unconscious experience, as “primitive mental images” representing experience.

Archetypes are unconscious: they manifest themselves through our actions. They are like an imperative governing our unconscious behaviors.

Basically, across time and culture and history, man has acted… he has developed and he has explained his experience through stories…that explain and justify his life and experience. Bible. Gilgamesh. Koran. Vedas.

What emerges are themes and patterns in these stories… no one was conscious of these themes and patterns, yet they emerge throughout mankind regardless of geography and culture and time.

These are archetypes, and they are not something easily dismissed, because they appear to be so universal and enduring.

Man is mostly unconscious. We do things we are not aware of all the time: why we are attracted to certain things, why we feel certain things, etc.

These are a primitive response. Fundamental to our makeup.

Through reflection we can gain insight into our unconscious drives.

But the point is, they are fundamental to the human experience, and apart of the “collective unconscious” experience of mankind

Imagine you are studying tribes. These primitive people have stories, common narratives they retain and exchange. The content of these stories of disparate tribes in Africa and South America and Australia are all different.

But when you examine these stories, common patterns emerge, universal forms that shape these stories in a common way.

The relationships within these stories overlap.

These tribesman are totally unaware of why they have these stories. It’s simply their experience.

What Peterson and Jung and Campbell and Nietzsche (and many others etc) look at is what is significant about these enduring patterns?

These patterns are archetypes. Studying history and stories gives the researcher awareness of these archetypes, which can get extremely useful in our own life (hence the therapeutic value from a psychological perspective).

Have you ever been to psychotherapist? You tell them your life. Your tell them stories. As you objectify these life experiences, and tell your stories, you become aware of things you never considered. You realize why you have certain feelings. Trauma or pain or certain associations imprinted on the mind while you’re developing lead to unconscious behaviors that operate throughout your life, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively.

In order to gain self mastery, or self awareness, you need to make yourself aware of these unconscious behaviors.

These unconscious behaviors have universal roots in the human experience… these are archetypes. Apart of the universal human condition.

We find these relationships throughout history in every culture and all literature.

There are common patterns of engaging and reacting with the world and others and ourselves.

Peterson and others are attempting or are building a case that grounds this neuroscience. That’s their aim.

Archetypes manifest themselves, and only retroactively do we gain awareness of these patterns, mostly because we’re embedded within them.

Primitive man, the unreflective “man” is not aware. He acts out of instinct. You can observe his actions. You can examine his culture and society. And patterns emerge— Archetypes.

Whether man is aware of them or not has no bearing on how they manifest.

It’s only when you can step outside of yourself, outside of your culture, outside of time, and examine all these actions and patterns within a historical perspective that archetypes become obvious.

Why are they so consistent and enduring? There is something to them, some evolutionary component, which aids in our survival as a species.

I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I’m sympathetic to Peterson, even though I think he has some fundamental errors when reconciling “truth”, which he seems to use interchangeably with moral evaluations, rather than strictly material realism representations.

This seems precarious, because, as Sam Harris noted in the first podcast, there is nothing anchoring experience if your “truth” is simply this relative moral construct that “aids in self-preservation”, because we will never know the “truth” value until we die and go extinct, which would mean truth is unknowable until the very end, which makes it impossible to justify anything, or build any case in any meaningful direction, because it’s all relative to whatever works in the end, rather than anchoring in a common material reality which remains constant, regardless of our interpretation or its utility.

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