Witches!

by Henry on May 18, 2018

This New York Times profile of Jordan Peterson is a masterful exercise in giving the subject sufficient hemp to twine into rope and then loop around his neck. This bit provides a nice excuse to talk about one of my favorite books in the social sciences.

Mr. Peterson illustrates his arguments with copious references to ancient myths — bringing up stories of witches, biblical allegories and ancient traditions. I ask why these old stories should guide us today.

“It makes sense that a witch lives in a swamp. Yeah,” he says. “Why?”

It’s a hard one.

“Right. That’s right. You don’t know. It’s because those things hang together at a very deep level. Right. Yeah. And it makes sense that an old king lives in a desiccated tower.”

But witches don’t exist, and they don’t live in swamps, I say.

“Yeah, they do. They do exist. They just don’t exist the way you think they exist. They certainly exist. You may say well dragons don’t exist. It’s, like, yes they do — the category predator and the category dragon are the same category. It absolutely exists. It’s a superordinate category. It exists absolutely more than anything else. In fact, it really exists. What exists is not obvious. You say, ‘Well, there’s no such thing as witches.’ Yeah, I know what you mean, but that isn’t what you think when you go see a movie about them. You can’t help but fall into these categories. There’s no escape from them.”

Peterson is some class of a Jungian, committed to the belief that our minds are organized by fundamental archetypes. Chaos is, always, inevitably, feminine, while order is masculine. We are not the makers of “superordinate” categories such as witches and dragons. Instead, we are made by them.

While this kind of theory can make for superb fantasy novels, it’s not notably convincing to anyone except male adolescents with a particular sensibility (Peterson is not the first to discover this line of philosophizing; in many ways he is the early 21st century’s answer to Colin Wilson).

It’s notable that many of the social sciences are organized around a claim that is weaker than Peterson’s, but still not plausible when one gives even a moment’s thought to it. This is the claim that categories such as witches or dragons, even if they are not superordinate (they do not themselves create our mental orders) are nonetheless unproblematically shared. In other words, when I think of “a witch” and when you think of “a witch,” we are thinking of the same thing, some abstract category of “witch” that we both share so that it is identical across us, and perhaps even exists independent of us. When anthropologists or many sociologists or political scientists talk about “culture,” or when economists or other kinds of sociologists or political scientists talk about “shared beliefs,” or “institutions” they are making just this kind of assumption. An institution is a rule that everyone understands about what to do under a given set of circumstances. A shared belief is something that everyone believes in, in just the same way, and so on.

One of my favourite books, Dan Sperber’s Explaining Culture, uses the example of witches to show how this claim (or, for its more sophisticated users, convenient shorthand) is not only wrong but may well be radically misleading.

Similarity across people makes it possible to abstract from individual differences and to describe ‘the language of’ or ‘the culture’ of a community, the ‘meaning’ of a public representation, or to talk, say, of the belief’ that witches ride on broomsticks as a single representation, independent of its public expressions or mental instantiations. … Such an abstraction may be useful in many ways … Mistake this abstraction for an object ‘of this world,’ however, and you had better heed Geertz’s advice and ignore its ontological status.

From a materialist point of view, then, there are only mental representations, which are born, live and die within individual skulls, and public representations, which are plain material phenomena – sound waves, light patterns and so forth – in the environment of individuals. Take a particular representation – witches on broomsticks – at an abstract level: what it corresponds to at a concrete level is millions of mental representations and millions of public representations the meanings of which (intrinsic meanings in the case of mental representations, attributed meanings in the case of public ones) are similar to that of the statement: ‘witches ride on broomsticks’. These millions of mental and public representations, being material objects, can and do enter into cause-effect relationships. They may therefore play a role as both explanans and explanandum in causal relations. The materialist bet is that no other causal explanation is needed. (p.81)

What Peterson is doing, most plausibly, is to mistake an abstraction (the belief about witches) as an object of this world along the lines that Sperber identifies. Perhaps he thinks he has some actual material causal explanation lurking in the debatable intellectual hinterlands between his favored arguments about lobster physiology and archetype generation; if so, I would bet large amounts of money that this explanation is either unarticulated or inarticulate.

But many of the basic assumptions of the social sciences rest on claims that are only somewhat more intellectually solid. If Sperber is right, then to make claims about cultures or collective beliefs as if they were independently real is to commit a category mistake. We can still use such claims as intellectual conveniences, or informal summary statistics for more complex and variegated phenomena. But to truly understand these phenomena, we have to pay attention to their material manifestations. Specifically, we need to understand how representations are transmitted from individual to individual, and how they change in the process of transmission (the process of transmission inevitably and invariably being a lossy one). Bits and pieces of anthropology do this (e.g. the work of Boyd and Richerson). There isn’t much sustained attention in political science or sociology or economics (exception here) that I am aware of, but there really ought to be.

[The ideas behind this post owe a lot not only to Dan Sperber but to joint ongoing work with Cosma Shalizi. Since he hasn’t been consulted on the writing of it, blame all stupidities and errors on me]

{ 96 comments }

1

justme 05.18.18 at 6:18 pm

Maybe a useless tangent, but I’m curious what distinctions or similarities this line of thought in the social sciences has to similar issues long discussed in the philosophy of mathematics. (e.g. instead of witches and dragons, the number 2, infinite sets, continuous nowhere differentiable curves, etc)

2

peterv 05.18.18 at 6:42 pm

For comparison, you might consider pure mathematics, which exists, if indeed it does exist, only as shared mental abstractions in the minds of mathematicians. It is typically transmitted most effectively through one on one conversation around an externalized representation, such as on a blackboard. The shared mental representations may be approximated by descriptions in a formal language on paper, but, as William Thurston argued, such written reports may not reflect well how mathematicians actually think.

3

John Quiggin 05.18.18 at 6:47 pm

I’m struggling a bit to work this out. How does the analysis work with, say, “smart watch” or “Saddam’s WMD”?

Does the meaning of these terms change, in a fundamental way, depending on whether they exist, or are thought to exist, at a particular point in time? Or can we separate the description from the factual question of they exist and match our mental image of what they may be like.

4

Patrick 05.18.18 at 6:58 pm

I think this is still overthinking things.

Jordan Peterson is just doing the same thing that feminist or other forms of critical literary theorists have been doing for ages, but from a conservative perspective. And we should reject it because it was dumb the first time around and its still dumb now.

1. Take a metaphor that can be, and is, interpreted a thousand different ways.

2. Search out the interpretation that fits your needs.

3. Insist that this is THE interpretation that our society collectively holds, and anyone who says otherwise is ignorant or lying.

4. Insist that the metaphor influences people in the way that might be expected if they interpreted under THE interpretation you’ve attributed to it, even if people are denying that they interpreted the metaphor that way or were influenced by it in the fashion you describe.

5. The more people insist that they didn’t interpret the metaphor the way you claim they consciously or subconsciously must have, the more you use their stridence to insist that they’re flawed people who are hiding from the truth.

5

John Quiggin 05.18.18 at 7:10 pm

@2 There are lots of mathematical Platonists who say that numbers (at least the “natural” numbers) and other mathematical concepts exist independently of any human mind. Mathematicians who don’t worry about such questions are mostly Platonists by default.

6

WLGR 05.18.18 at 7:13 pm

It’d be nice to see either Peterson or Sperber liven their perspective on the existence of witches with a reading of Silvia Federici… too bad their baseline revulsion toward Marxist-feminist social theory is probably roughly on par with Cotton Mather’s toward witchcraft.

7

BruceJ 05.18.18 at 7:15 pm

I think you’re trying too hard to assemble meaning from meaningless drivel.

Just because it’s a word salad with a PhD-level vocabulary where some of the words have meaning specific to your field….doesn’t mean it’s not word salad.

It’s all nothing more than post hoc rationalization ‘authentic academic gibberish’ rolled out to a naive interviewer in service of his fundamental patriarchal supremacist belief system.

“If you cannot dazzle ’em with your brilliance, baffle ’em with your bullshit”

8

justme 05.18.18 at 7:18 pm

@5 The traditional characterization of “mathematicians who don’t worry about such questions” (which I don’t consider perjorative) is that they operate as Platonists when *doing* mathematics, but when pressed to defend their Platonism will often retreat to Formalism (“it’s all just symbol manipulation”).

Obviously, neither pure unadulterated Platonism nor Formalism hold up very well to much sustained inquiry, particularly by people with fairly deep mathematical knowledge. But this is all very well trodden ground…

9

Jeff Young 05.18.18 at 7:22 pm

Pirsig early in ZAMM writes something similar regarding so-called ghosts. What he realizes and you don’t apparently (at least you don’t mention it above) is cultural lensing. European witches are different from Salem witches are different from Rowling witches are different from Aboriginal witches. Etc.

10

M Ledley 05.18.18 at 7:33 pm

“From a materialist point of view, then, there are only mental representations. . .”

Seems to me Sperber gets stuck on his very first sentence. Or rather he packs entire books into that sentence and then leaves the books unopened on the table while he breezes past with his hands in his pockets, whistling. You can’t just talk about “mental representations” from “a materialist point of view” unless you’re prepared first to wade in to a heckuva lot of contested issues in cognitive science and philosophy. So I agree Patrick’s approach is better. It gets to the nub of the problem with Peterson’s method without committing yourself to providing a solution for the most difficult problems in epistemology.

11

MFH 05.18.18 at 7:43 pm

@5: I’d qualify that slightly. Most of the mathematicians I know have worried about such questions on occasion, but basically “don’t worry about such questions”. If pressed, most would not default to actual Platonism; it’s more that adopting a Platonist attitude (i.e. talking about mathematical objects as though they existed independently of one’s mind) as a sort of in-the-trenches convenience is helpful for thinking about maths (in the same way that, say, drawing heuristic cartoons is helpful for thinking about maths). This is different from actually taking the position that the objects in question have an independent existence. I’m not sure the latter is actually that common. In my experience, a vague default formalist attitude is more common than a vague default Platonist one, in terms of what mathematicians actually *believe*. But yes, vague Platonism is common as a mode of engagement with mathematics (which is different).

(This is even true in the parts of pure mathematics that seem especially amenable to a Platonist attitude, i.e. geometry/topology, in which I work. There’s perhaps a stronger temptation in this field than in others to assign tangibility to the abstract objects of study — check out the amazing pictures drawn by Bill Thurston, mentioned upthread — but even most geometers/topologists I know aren’t Platonists on the ArXiv, just at the blackboard.)

I’m not sure mathematical ideas really differ that much from other socially constructed abstractions in this respect. The act of treating them as concrete seems more special and weird than it might in other abstract contexts just because the process by which they are constructed is unusual.

12

bianca steele 05.18.18 at 7:52 pm

Or, to translate out of white supremacist: Jung said “our” culture has these archetypes, and “we” share them. ***Some*** people think those are optional. We live in a society being undermined by “feminists,” therefore it’s become “forbidden” to say that Jung had it right. Nevertheless, it’s more plausible that Jung had it right than that Sperber, Shalizi, and some blogger do. Also, it’s more plausible that some random guy with the “guts to stand up against political correctness” knows all the details of “our” culture than those guys do, so those gutsy guys don’t have to read books.

13

casmilus 05.18.18 at 7:55 pm

If this site had “upvotes” then 1000 upvotes for @10

The question is wider than Sperber considers, it is the question of the status of *concepts* as such – like Frege’s “the concept ‘horse'”.

I think Ruth Garrett Millikan talks the most sense on this topic. And she does end up rejecting “meaning rationalism”, which may be attractive to Derrideans, although I don’t think any of them have tried to engage with her work (there have been papers linking Derrida to Davidson and Dennett).

14

dilbert dogbert 05.18.18 at 9:11 pm

Bruce J @7 Wins!!!

15

PatinIowa 05.18.18 at 9:12 pm

“the category predator and the category dragon are the same category”

No wonder so many of our ancestors got eaten by leopards. They don’t breathe fire, they aren’t scaly and they’re small enough to hang out in trees. Nothing to be worried about there, eh?

16

Scott P. 05.18.18 at 9:34 pm

If Sperber is right, then to make claims about cultures or collective beliefs as if they were independently real is to commit a category mistake.

So Margaret “There is no such thing as society” Thatcher was just ahead of her time?

17

Ray Vinmad 05.18.18 at 10:13 pm

The link to Sperber sent me to something else.

18

Cian 05.18.18 at 10:21 pm

Engaging with Jordan Peterson’s work is like wading in quicksand. His writing is gibberish.

But many of the basic assumptions of the social sciences rest on claims that are only somewhat more intellectually solid.

This isn’t true for Sociology and Cultural Anthropology. Not only do they understand this problem, but they’ve been engaging with it practically and theoretically since the 60s.

19

Mario 05.18.18 at 11:02 pm

That New York Times “profile” of Jordan Peterson is clearly a hit piece.

20

Ray Vinmad 05.18.18 at 11:06 pm

@4 I don’t get your point.

Peterson doesn’t seem to be merely discussing cultural beliefs.

If he did that, he might be engaged in the same conceptual genealogy project many philosophers have engaged in–including feminists, or cultural anthropology.

That’s not what he’s doing. He’s relying on an idea of universal archetypes. It’s psychology.

A feminist would never claim what Peterson claims. (It rare to find something all feminists would agree on). Feminism as an intellectual and political project would be pointless if categories were inalterable in the way he describes. That may be why the idea of fixed archetypes is so attractive to Peterson.

21

J-D 05.19.18 at 12:09 am

“I am a very serious person,” he often says.

Well, that should be the bloody giveaway, shouldn’t it?

Mario

That New York Times “profile” of Jordan Peterson is clearly a hit piece.

Newspaper and magazine profiles of charlatans and mountebanks should all be hit pieces.

22

bob mcmanus 05.19.18 at 12:16 am

Oh, searched the Understanding Society blog for posts containing “social facts”. I visit Little, learned about Roy Bhaskar there, mostly over my head.

Little: “Here is how [Brian Epstein] puts the idea in “Ontological Individualism Reconsidered”: “Ontological individualism is the thesis that facts about individuals exhaustively determine social facts” (link). He believes this ontological concept is false; he disputes the idea that the social world supervenes upon facts about individuals; and he argues that there are some social facts or circumstances that cannot be parsed in terms of facts about combinations of individuals.”

This is difficult stuff, and just as difficult in the Marxian or Lacanian versions, and I am not so confidant or motivated enough to deconstruct an Internet huckster’s new neoplatonic personal growth scam.

23

Faustusnotes 05.19.18 at 12:18 am

I think Peterson needs to read the d&d monster manual. Dragons are beasts, while predators are animals, and witches are a character class. No wonder he can’t do philosophy !

24

LFC 05.19.18 at 12:29 am

There may be old tales and legends of witches in swamps, but by the time one arrives at Macbeth, it’s:

“Where shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”

Nothing about swamps. Thunder, lightning, and rain can occur anywhere, and there is a subsequent ref. to a heath (which isn’t a swamp).

http://www.folgerdigitaltexts.org/html/Mac.html

25

DrSteveCruel 05.19.18 at 2:36 am

I’ve been wondering about why Jordan Peterson gets so much negative attention. While I disagree with just about everything he espouses, he’s nowhere near the most toxic individual bloviating in the media today. That being said, Peterson rubs me the wrong way too! Is the real problem with Peterson not his ideas (which are awful, yes–but not an outlier these days) but that his conclusions are so damn boring?

Because if we want some enfant terrible’s tome-length revelation on the workings of the mind (he wrote “Maps of Meaning” in his 20’s! Such brilliance!) then why not stick with “Godel, Escher, Bach”, which at least has talking tortoises and fun pictures. If we want some questionable world-anthropology from someone way out of their field, we have “Chaos, Gaia, Eros” and other works by mathematician Ralph Abraham. And if we want guidance from someone with no business telling us how to live our middle-class lives then why not just stop at Terence McKenna?

That, I think, is what makes Jordan Peterson so objectionable to me. Not just his politics and beliefs (which, again, are awful. I offer no defense of them) but that he seems to take all of human civilization, misinterprets it (as so many do), and comes up with something along the lines of “your boss is probably right, your wife is probably wrong, and keep your head down”. What a waste.

26

AnthonyB 05.19.18 at 2:36 am

Paging Alexius Meinong…

27

LFC 05.19.18 at 3:18 am

@b mcmanus

I think the issue you’re discussing is different from, though related to, the one raised in the OP. (Though it’s too late in the evening to try to disentangle all of this now.)

Anyway, the argument that “there are some social facts…that cannot be parsed in terms of facts about combinations of individuals” is, when stated in that general way, not a difficult idea to grasp; it’s basically just recycled Durkheim. That doesn’t mean it’s correct, of course, but it is one well-known position in the debates about “ontological individualism” or “methodological individualism,” etc.

28

Faustusnotes 05.19.18 at 4:03 am

My mistake, dragons are monsters and predators are beasts. Unless he means The Predator, which is merely a humanoid.

Also if you want to do this cultural symbols thing properly you need to do better than conflating dragon and predators. Calling a dragon a predator is like calling the death Star a satellite. Predators can be defended against with a camp fire, a sharp stick and a watch rota. Dragons lay waste to cities. F were going to return to these ancient valued we have to get the symbols right. Can Peterson not even understand the basic images he is using?

29

Heshel 05.19.18 at 4:34 am

I believe John Levi Martin’s (2014) Thinking Through Theory engages with this issue of reification in some sociological social theory. Not sure how widely read or influential it is in among sociology faculty and grad students.

30

Robespierre 05.19.18 at 5:52 am

“Right. That’s right. You don’t know. It’s because those things hang together at a very deep level. Right. Yeah. And it makes sense that an old king lives in a desiccated tower.”

Is he _always_ this shit at explaining himself?

31

casmilus 05.19.18 at 6:51 am

@24

“Peterson” is a Scandinavian surname, isn’t it? Maybe Jordan is referring to a detail of witches in Norse and related mythologies, which doesn’t generalise even to other European cultures.

With regard to Mario: a “hit job” is supposed to diminish a target in the eyes of his followers, and there’s nothing here that would do that. I don’t think anything would, at this stage.

32

Hidari 05.19.18 at 8:46 am

Paging Corey Robin….

‘So he was radicalized, he says, because the “radical left” wants to eliminate hierarchies, which he says are the natural order of the world. In his book he illustrates this idea with the social behavior of lobsters. He chose lobsters because they have hierarchies and are a very ancient species, and are also invertebrates with serotonin. This lobster hierarchy has become a rallying cry for his fans; they put images of the crustacean on T-shirts and mugs.’

It’s nice to see someone state it so clearly, without us having to pretend that Peterson’s* radical right wing thinking is in any way compatible with left wing or liberal political thought, as we have known it since about 1945.

*or those of his many right wing mates, most of whom peddle essentially identical snake oil to lonely white male unemployed and unemployable masturbators who spend too much time in their parents’ basement on the internet.

33

SusanC 05.19.18 at 8:48 am

Ronald Huton’s The Witch suggests that the notion of witchcraft wasn’t even shared between England and Scotland, and this led to a difference in witchcraft trials in the early modern era.

Taking events from further away cultures, such as Africa or South America, and amalgamating them all as “witchcraft” is even more problematic. (You might take the view, for example, that a witchcraft trial is something that happens under a certain kind of legal system … and the relevant grouping to make is with other abuses of legal process – whether or not witches are mentioned – rather than other events in which some kind of maleficium is alleged.

So it’s a really good example of the more general anthropological principle that categories aren’t necessarily culturally universal.

34

SusanC 05.19.18 at 8:54 am

As a meta-comment on this thread: troubling-making internet groups have a common behavior where someone who has high status within the community picks on an outsider and says things to the effect of “look at that guy! Isn’t he an idiot!”

In terms of social dynamic, CT is is some pretty bad company here.

35

bianca steele 05.19.18 at 11:24 am

Ray Vimmad @20 is right. The OP misses the point.

Shifting Peterson’s discourse to a “materialist” one where the focus is on how people acquire beliefs just shifts the discussion to a focus on how some Americans don’t acquire the right beliefs, and leaves his culture war attack in place. “Culture is a conglomeration of human actions” is compatible with “the white majority gets to determine what culture minorities have to subordinate themselves to” and “the best cultures have evolved so that men dominate women.”

36

Ebenezer Scrooge 05.19.18 at 11:47 am

I am not a sociologist, but I do think that there may be several pretty clean social facts, all of which share a few things in common. I am thinking of: money, electoral results, traffic lights. These are all purely symbolic constructs, created by nothing but authenticated symbols. They evoke common responses in all, and only work because they evoke common responses in all. There may be some psychological room for variation, but absolutely no behavioral room for variation.
Money and traffic lights are the no-brainer cases. Money has a pretty extensive sociological literature: Simmel being the leading name.
Electoral results clarify the issue. Donald Trump is the president of the United State because the votes were properly authenticated. Bush v. Gore did not create a sociological fact because election officials aren’t very good at authentication, compared to banks. The election of Abraham Lincoln was the most divisive in history, but nobody argued that he wasn’t president.
Marriage is an interesting liminal case. The social significance of marriage is idiosyncratic and contestable. But the fact of marriage (common law marriage to the side) is not. Why? Marriage is an executed license: full stop. Authenticated symbols, all the way down.
Oh, and by the way, I fully agree with SusanC@34. Kicking down is ugly. This is a scholarly blog with a penchant for political commentary. As a scholar, Peterson is pretty near omega-dog status, whatever his followers may think. And he’s not politically all that significant, either.

37

Barry 05.19.18 at 12:51 pm

” Kicking down is ugly. This is a scholarly blog with a penchant for political commentary. As a scholar, Peterson is pretty near omega-dog status, whatever his followers may think. And he’s not politically all that significant, either.”

This is actually a varied blog, Peterson’s *scholarly status* is not very relevant.
As for political significance, please set your google for ‘political history of the USA, first quarter of the 21st century’.

38

Whirrlaway 05.19.18 at 2:07 pm

bianca steele: … shifts the discussion to a focus on how some Americans don’t acquire the right beliefs, and leaves his culture war attack in place.

Adopting a materialist framework merely puts the problem in meatspace, where there is the possibility to solve it. Many seem to feel that an attempt to understand how a thing arose, is tantamount to a justification/excuse/pardon for it. If we understood better how “people acquire beliefs” we would be better positioned to help people acquire better ones, which will need to be done in childhood. Why people rarely evolve morally as adults is typical of those questions we seriously need an answer to that goes well beyond the present political swamp.

“Culture is a conglomeration of human actions” is ca theory that is ompatible with a vast range of social structures, diabolical or divine. Concentration camps to … well, we’ve never been there. Yet.

… Ebenezer Scrooge has a peculiar sense of the determinism of traffic lights in practice … ie, we do need to always look both ways.

39

bianca steele 05.19.18 at 3:00 pm

Barry:

I kind of agreed with you at first. Peterson doesn’t seem like the right case for a “let’s not kick this guy who doesn’t matter and is already down” argument. But I think what looks like the opposite, treating him as very important and very tied to academic or intellectual culture, sometimes just to be able to criticize academic opponents without having to mention them by name, isn’t in the end so different.

Whirrlaway:

Many people think you can argue against someone who says “universal morals say X” by saying “there’s no metaphysical justification for universal morals.” This is because religion traditionally insisted there was a metaphysical justification for morals, and opposed any deviation from its traditional position. Many people think they can point to the fact that there are structural similarities across cultures, and trigger “aha!” moments in which people recognize that traditional morality is true. Many people believe they can rely on materialist explanations of society and culture as a political defense of liberalism and liberal social morals.

In fact, “culture relies on transmission mechanisms, etc.,” to someone on Peterson’s side, means, “if you don’t agree with me, there is something wrong with you, you should be ashamed, and you need therapy, because your parents bought into liberalism and messed you up as a result.”

40

Kiwanda 05.19.18 at 3:00 pm

Hidari:

…most of whom peddle essentially identical snake oil to lonely white male unemployed and unemployable masturbators who spend too much time in their parents’ basement on the internet.

I thought it was conclusively proven just awhile ago that mocking people for their sexual misery wasn’t something progressives do. (Well, OK, the claim was “no more than anybody else”. But still. “masturbators”? Really?)

41

Faustusnotes 05.19.18 at 4:04 pm

Wtf kicking down? The guy’s a professor!

42

Sean M 05.19.18 at 4:09 pm

Ebenezer Scrooge: Peterson is a tenured professor at the University of Toronto in his capacity as a psychologist. As a sign of academic status, that is pretty high. (His writing on all the other topics he is sure he is an expert on falls apart under expert critique, but he got rich using it to appeal to the public- he is in the cultural position of a commentator in several major newspapers and magazines 20 years ago). When someone has tenure at a major university, and earns six figures a month peddling political lectures to the masses, I don’t think we can call an analytic blog post “kicking down.”

43

Jim Harrison 05.19.18 at 5:08 pm

V is different than 5, but they mean the same thing, which is why I’m pretty dubious about assuming that there as many concepts of witches as there are individual mental or neurological representations of them. Isn’t the suggestion a category mistake? Unicorns aren’t patterns of electrical activity or collections of qualia. They’re white horse-like animals with a single horn in their foreheads. The patterns of electrical activity (or whatever) exist in time and space. The unicorns don’t, which is no obstacle to thinking about ’em.

Now it would be perfectly possible to claim that there are as many concepts of witch as there are people. After all, its one of the great unappreciated metaphysical facts that possibilities are infinitely more numerous than realities. It could be that witches are defined for person n by the possession of one hairy wart on the end of their noses and defined for person n + 1 by the possession of two hairy warts, etc. Since we aren’t menaced by the prospect of peak integer, that means there can be different witches for everybody. That probably isn’t the case, but at least it would make sense. I expect that Peterson and others vastly understate the number of concepts of witch in the world’s cultures. That’s an empirical, sociological claim, however, not a philosophical one.

44

MisterMr 05.19.18 at 7:14 pm

1) I can literally think of no instance of a witch living in a swamp. WTF?
On the other hand, having read Propp, I have a clear idea of witches living in huts that rotate on chicken legs, and as I recently reread the Golden Ass, I have this idea of witches being innkeepers with superpowers who piss on their enemies, or rich houseladies with weird hobbies. I think I’ve a rather open idea of witches, but swamps, i never heard of it. Can someone give me an example of where this comes from?

2) The only interpretation I know of the princess-eating dragon is that of an ancient cult where one girl was offered as human sacrifice to a teriomorphic deity, but then as the religion faded away this theme became “a princess eaten by a monster”, and then “an hero resecues a princess from being eaten by a monster” (this is from Propp). There are various writers who give this interpretation of being eaten and then being cought out by “a monster” as a form of initiation ritual. The idea that the dragonn represents a predator is just stupid.

3) Jung said some interesting things in his youth, but later he became a believer in parapsychology and clearly a nut. Nevertheless, a lot of people still take Jung seriously (I’m reading a book about storywriting, “The writher’s journey” by Vogler, and he takes Jung seriously). Why? And the same people would say that Freud is not scientific (true) but still pretend that Jung somehow is (false).

45

Chip Daniels 05.19.18 at 8:03 pm

@36
“Kicking down is ugly… As a scholar, Peterson is pretty near omega-dog status…”

But you see, that is precisely why he must be kicked.
As we can see from the natural world of crustaceans and dogs, the vibrancy and health of the pack can only be maintained by reinforcing the natural dominance of the alphas, in this case, SJWs.

Nature is a harsh, but fair, mistress.

46

F. Foundling 05.19.18 at 8:16 pm

‘Hierarchy is good and natural because of ancient and eternal archetypes. Hierarchy is good and natural because of ancient and eternal lobsters. And while you may be low in the hierarchy, your problem isn’t the hierarchy, your problem is that the evil egalitarians have upset the hierarchy in which you otherwise would have been on top.’

That sounds so familiar… Anyway – no, actually, your audience wouldn’t be on top, most of them would be at or near the bottom, just like they were before the evil egalitarians became involved, and you know that. We are humans; change, improvement and expanding free choices is how we roll – *that’s* what our ‘ordering’ of the world really means, and *that’s* how we ‘clean our room’. As for the ancient and eternal, mutually cannibalising lobsters that you look up to (more like ‘down to’) as role models – we left those guys behind on the seabed, out there in Chaos if you will, and if you want to be one of them, you are always free to rejoin them there; *our* project is different.

47

Colin Danby 05.19.18 at 9:08 pm

Faustusnotes and Sean M are right: https://scholar.google.com/citations?hl=en&user=wL1F22UAAAAJ&view_op=list_works&sortby=pubdate
Peterson is not a minor scholar.

On the OP: Yes, we need to be clear on the ontic status of myth, lore, language, culture and how transmission works. It’s easy to point to cases in which they are too readily given an independent existence — this can be an even bigger problem in efforts to trade ideas over time. One beef with Foucault is that he sometimes defaults to a transhistorical, undifferentiated “we” that’s a kind of Long European Mind.

But. Baseball, royal weddings, religions etc. clearly exist, and exist independently of any effort I might make to change them. We experience these cultural phenomena as real. Sometimes real enough to get you killed.

The bit about “how they change in the process of transmission (the process of transmission inevitably and invariably being a lossy one)” too uncritically borrows from cybernetics: language and culture in general have enormous amounts of redundancy and opportunities to check assumptions and understandings. Ideas exist in structures of other ideas. Moreover we converse and exchange, so the question is not just what’s in my skull but what signs I’m making and circulating on an ongoing basis and how they work. I would start with the sphere of the social, rather than trying to work this out from an individualist analysis. This is what cultural anthro does right: start with the shared conversations, ceremonies, kin systems, political structures in which people have to interact.

I hold zero brief for Peterson or Jung. Peterson alarmingly exhibits the reactionary capacities of Jungian theory. But it’s still a richer place to start if you’re doing cultural analysis than what the OP outlines!

Jeet Heer’s twitter feed has had some smart things re Jung and Peterson in the last day or so.

48

Rob Barrett 05.19.18 at 10:21 pm

@44 MisterMr, Lloyd Alexander’s three witches (Orddu, Orwen and Orgoch) live in a swamp (the Marshes of Morva).

49

J-D 05.20.18 at 1:25 am

SusanC

Just because there are multiple cases in which a group derides the expressed views of an individual as rubbish, it does not follow that all these cases should be evaluated in the same way. In some of these cases the expressed views being derided are in fact rubbish. It makes a difference.

50

Collin Street 05.20.18 at 1:57 am

Witches… the stories you tell have the geography and geology of the area the traditions draw from. The real people that cultural traditions of fictional “witches” draw from are pretty socially marginalised, and a swamp is a nice place to be if you’re socially marginalised and there’s one nearby: decent food supplies for hunter-gathering and not much transit traffic.

… our default cultural tradition of “witch” is northern european, isn’t it? Scotland or north england or highland germany-area. Not much in the way of swamps there, but fen hags are a thing, and voodoo practitioners are traditionally found in swamps if they aren’t urban, and Yoda lives in a swamp, &c.

In east asia the swamps were drained centuries ago; japanese witch-figures usually live in the mountains or in beach huts. But Zeniba from spirited away lives in a swamp, and in Seirei no Moribito — based on much older models — the [indigenous!] witch-figure Torogai lives in a swamp.

On that basis you’d expect modern-day witch figures to live on park benches or in squat housing.

51

LFC 05.20.18 at 2:40 am

For the ‘default’ case of European witch lore, one could check Peterson’s remarks against e.g. Carlo Ginzburg’s work.

52

Leo Casey 05.20.18 at 3:54 am

There is an interesting piece of intellectual history here that Peterson appears to be blithely unaware of, but provides some interesting context to his musings. When 0ne studies the origins of the terms Leviathan and Behemoth which grace the title of two of Hobbes’ texts, it is clear that the biblical Leviathan is drawn from lotan, a mythical dragon in a Ugaritic Baal epic. It is a creation myth, with the world being established by order defeating chaos. A kindred spirit to Peterson, the Nazi political theorist Carl Schmitt, was aware of some of this history, and shared Peterson’s obsession with dragons. He wrote a tendentious anti-Semitic account of the leviathan image which covered some of this ground, The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes.

53

floopmeister 05.20.18 at 5:12 am

I think Peterson needs to read the d&d monster manual. Dragons are beasts, while predators are animals, and witches are a character class. No wonder he can’t do philosophy !

Is there a D&D character class called ‘witches’ I remember wizards, warlocks, necromancers, illusionists and sorcerors – isn’t witch merely the gendered version or wizard?

BTW, Peterson sounds like he’s only an interview or bad review away from blathering on about paladins and +5 Vorpal Swords…

54

bad Jim 05.20.18 at 5:53 am

Be kind to your web-footed friends
for a duck may be somebody’s mother
she lives by the edge of a swamp
where the weather is very very damp.

And then there’s Baba Yaga, celebrated by Mussorgsky, living in the forest in a hut, atop birds’ legs, riding a mortar and wielding a pestle.

55

bad Jim 05.20.18 at 6:26 am

A brief guide to epistemology:

Mathematics is the same in any universe
Physics is the same throughout our universe
Chemistry seems to be likewise solid
Biology may well be limited to conditions on our planet and is still struggling to characterize its diversity.

Facts are fundamental, but also ephemeral. Unrecorded, they’re lost. This is hardly a problem for astronomers or physicists, who can always repeat an experiment or an observation, but a huge problem for biologists, for whom a subject can go extinct or whose ancient remains may have vanished.

56

Jim Buck 05.20.18 at 7:06 am

” I can literally think of no instance of a witch living in a swamp.”

Drain the swamp and where will Hilary the witch operate? Maybe that is a question that lurks in Professor Petersen’s mind?

57

Faustusnotes 05.20.18 at 7:49 am

Floopmeister yes they’re a gendered wizard. I think it was a possible title for amagic user back in the originals.

A cursory search of the mallificus malificeram (sp?) shows no hits for marsh, big or swamp. I guess we may have to conclude against all expectations that Peterson is full of shit.

58

Collin Street 05.20.18 at 7:50 am

Is there a D&D character class called ‘witches’ I remember wizards, warlocks, necromancers, illusionists and sorcerors – isn’t witch merely the gendered version or wizard?

Apparently not! A fair number of people have run up homebrew classes [why would a person run up a homebrew class? I don’t understand the utility] but nothing official from WotC or any other major publisher as near as I can figure.

BTW, Peterson sounds like he’s only an interview or bad review away from blathering on about paladins and +5 Vorpal Sword.

But this is true of basically everyone on the hard right. They’re all huge “nerds”, in the bad way, socially-maladept obsessives with a huge thing for fitting things into rigid categories.

59

SusanC 05.20.18 at 9:05 am

This thread is almost a reverse Alan Sokal. As the principal opponent of postmodernism in academia, we present Petersen, who writes sone really flakey stuff about witches and chaos dragons.

From a quick scan of Petersen’s publications, it looks like the refereed journals don’t let him get away with this stuff, but as soon as he’s off the leash and talking to journalists, or writting a popular book, he’s away.

60

SusanC 05.20.18 at 9:11 am

@jim: social construction of mathematics. From a formalist (not Platonist) viewpoint, its just a game of manipulating symbols, and you can choose any rules you like as long as the person you’re communicating with understands which game you’re playing. Other cultures are free to choose different rules if tbe kind of problens they’re interested in solving warrant it….

61

Hidari 05.20.18 at 10:47 am

@47
No, he absolutely is a minor scholar.
But a wealthy minor scholar.

62

Hidari 05.20.18 at 11:43 am

Unemployed White Guy: I can’t get a job

Jordan Peterson: Grow up! It’s your problem! You and only you are responsible for your situation!

Unemployed White Guy: I can’t get laid

Jordan Peterson: Totally not your fault dude

Unemployed White Guy: Cool (gets gun)

63

Royton De'Ath 05.20.18 at 11:55 am

Go on. I’ll bite. What exactly is the question ‘Colin Wilson’ poses that Peterson is an answer too? (And let’s not give way to Tynan’s bile here). CW was undoubtedly an “unsoffistikated finker’ (for people of a ‘particular sensibility’) but, by hooky, he was interesting – far more than Peterson appears to be; maundering seems to be JP’s MO.

And. The lazy lob at “some” adolescents? Really necessary was it?

64

LFC 05.20.18 at 12:07 pm

Leo Casey @52
Thanks for the interesting note on Leviathan.

65

J-D 05.20.18 at 12:07 pm

It turns out there actually are several Jordan Petersens, although if you search for one of them on the Web Google begins by assuming you mean Jordan Peterson; and then even if you assure it that you mean Jordan Petersen, it still keeps showing you Jordan Peterson.

You get sensitised to this sort of thing when you have a surname that people don’t recognise and you watch them write it down incorrectly even as you dictate it letter by letter. At least, I did.

Oh, and, Faustusnotes, I think you mean the Malleus Maleficarum.

66

Sean M 05.20.18 at 12:35 pm

In 3rd edition the name Adept replaced the witch doctors and shamans of earlier editions, I don’t know what the latest editions call them.

Is there a good pop book on Jung and Campbell, the way that they conquered American pop culture (especially the film industry) and why scholars of literature and myth gave them up generations ago? It would spell out that Campbell feels truthy to film fans because most American films are modelled on “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” or on films modelled on it. (Turning back to the OP, I am not sure that Chinese dragons are symbolic predators and hostes omnium hominum).

67

MisterMr 05.20.18 at 12:44 pm

@Rob Barrett 48
Thanks. Actually after I wrote my previous comment I tought of the witches in the movie “The Black Cauldron”, who mlive in a swamp. But it seems that “The Black Cauldron” was itself based on Lloyd Alexander (that I never read):
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Black_Cauldron_(film)
So now I suspect that Peterson just watched the Black cauldron in is youth (or real Lloyd Alexander) and since he matches witches with swamps he assumes that this is a cultural (perhaps natural) archetype.
The fun thing is that, if he just said “witches are an archetype”, he would have been much more believable since witch-like charachters are very common in many cultures.

@Collin Street 50
If Peterson was really defaulting to a northern european view of witches, he should have tought of witches as a sect of women who venerate (and occasionally have sex with) the Devil, generally in a forest: this is the way witches were portrayed during the witch hunt period, not as solitary individuals (hence the charachter of the witch hunts).
If we default to fairy tales, we have a witch living in a marzipan house in a forest, or Snowwhite stepmother and the witch of Sleeping beauty, neither of them living in a swamp. I call foul on the swamp-witch connection.

@LFC 51
Now you made me curious: where can I find those remarks?

68

anonymousse 05.20.18 at 1:27 pm

How could any of you-who essentially trade in the discussion of ideas-argue that ideas (in this case, ‘witches’) don’t exist? Peterson clearly isn’t saying withes exist in the world-he’s saying ideas exist and shape our world. Or, again, what every academic is professionally and intellectually committed to.

“All men are created equal.”

Yet not all men (in fact, no two men that have ever existed) were created equal.

Ergo, philosophy, morality, and politics don’t exist.

Take that, Jordan Peterson!

anon

69

Z 05.20.18 at 2:09 pm

Henry If Sperber is right, then to make claims about cultures or collective beliefs as if they were independently real is to commit a category mistake. […] But to truly understand these phenomena, we have to pay attention to their material manifestations. Specifically, we need to understand how representations are transmitted from individual to individual, and how they change in the process of transmission (the process of transmission inevitably and invariably being a lossy one)

Hum. Like John Quiggin, I admit I have a hard time ascribing a specific operative meaning to theses sentences. Take the word “and”. People understand it. Generally, they seem to agree on its meaning, or at least it’s very hard to hear someone say “hold on a minute, now, what did you mean exactly by “and” in your last sentence?”. Certainly it is transmitted, in the obvious sense that infants don’t know what it means, but equally certainly it is not taught in any reasonable sense. So it must reflect some general inner organization of the human thought.

Now, what have I just done, according to Sperber? Have I made a category mistake (in thinking that “and” has just about the same meaning from an individual to an another) or have I done precisely what he’s calling for (that is to say, reasoning about the transmission properties of an abstract object)?

Incidentally, and in the context of this thread and the Dark web centrism one, I recently listened to this talk, in which Chomsky discusses moral relativism , post-modernism and something akin to the question of the independent existence of cultures or collective beliefs. Quite interesting, as usual.

70

Phil 05.20.18 at 3:56 pm

Coming back to the OP, a materialist account of culture as a set of processes embedded in the life of a society was certainly what Raymond Williams thought he was up to when he originally developed “cultural materialism”. Williams didn’t really have a school, though. The aftershocks of cultural materialism were variously felt in historicist corners of Eng Lit, in the invention of Cultural Studies and in critical realism, the third of which – although apparently the furthest of the three from Williams’s own concerns and language – is closest to being a development of his work.

71

LFC 05.20.18 at 4:30 pm

Mr Mister
I just meant Peterson’s remarks as quoted in the OP.

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MisterMr 05.20.18 at 6:27 pm

@anonymousse 68
“How could any of you-who essentially trade in the discussion of ideas-argue that ideas (in this case, ‘witches’) don’t exist?”

From someone who doesn’t trade in ideas and is just a low level white collar: no he isn’t speaking of “ideas”, he speaks of “superordinate categories” and that dragons “absolutely more than anything else”.
This is, as others above noted, probably a reference to the concept of “archetypes”, meaning pre-logical and possibly innate proto-ideas that we then use to structure our more mundane ideas.
For example, dragons exist “more than anything else” in the sense that presumably we have ancestral instincts about predators, and according to peterson apparently dragons are just a projection of these instincts (something that I doubt is true). Said proto-idea of predator is supposedly an archetype, a sort of innate proto-idea.

My point is that, even assuming that archetypes exists (which is very dubious), Peterson is using a very peculiar example (witches in the swamps) and treating it as if it was an innate proto-idea, even if in folk literature it is actually extremely uncommon for what I can understand.

73

Suzanne 05.20.18 at 6:55 pm

@68: No doubt Peterson intended to say something like that, but he was strangely inarticulate. You would think that he would be able to explain fairly easily the concept of archetypes and how such ideas take root in our consciousness for the benefit of Times readers, but guess again.

74

Chris "merian" W. 05.20.18 at 7:08 pm

Also back to the OP, even though I respect and appreciate the argument, I don’t ultimately agree that the main problem with Peterson’s ramblings is the category error.

I too like to talk about some shared abstract-but-public representation in terms that attributes them existence. If pushed, it’s possible to retreat to calling it a stylistic choice, but it’s really a smidgen more. My original background is in physics, and I started out on the theoretical side (a long time back), so this was something I ran into for years: Photons are real. You can count them, even individually with a sufficiently sensitive detector, and you can use individual photons to help discover other things, or in some electronic applications. But are light waves real? They are merely patterns of electric and magnetic fields that vary according to a simple law. Yet light is only completely described by both its particle and its wave aspect — they’re really just one thing. It makes not much sense to call one way of looking at it real, and the other not. A similar problem arises the deeper you get into particle physics. So in my experience, when you get used to manipulating these things all day, they acquire a level of reality that’s nonetheless attached only lightly to macroscopic things like tables and bridges. In the end they’re mathematical expressions, yet they also are the foundational blocks of our material world. (And what about mathematics? Are numbers real, and not just integers? I know exactly how to build real [technical sense] numbers from integers, but they aren’t any less real to me for being a secondary construct. What about time? Oh, boy.)

From there it’s merely a small step to social or inter-personal concept. And I end up as someone who would like to answer the question “is god real?” with “yes” (because deities are real enough for the people who believe in them) and “do you believe in god?” with “no” (because I don’t). For consistency’s sake, I usually go with “no” for both, but it’s a bit of a crude way of looking at the world IMHO. Cruder than physics, which it shouldn’t be.

Bottom line, it’s not that I disagree with Peterson that “there are witches” can be a useful and sensible thing to say. I disagree with the attributes he attaches to witches, the sexist and degrading image of women that HIS witches convey. And ultimately this kinds of objects-from-abstract-concepts-that-you-might-call-real will always be measurable at, well, the other things we call real, and with more solid grounding (sociology! anthropology! biology!). His witches really fall short there. (While other witches from feminist lore of the 70s may hold up better, even beyond their use in inspirational literature, ie, to give people new ideas to explore independently.)

These last things I hear from Peterson, including the remarks to do with the school shooting in Texas, sound like a mis-use of sociology to me rather than a mis-use of ontology.

As for the swamps, dunno. I was thinking that in the northern European fairy tale tradition witches often live in forests, and forest are frequently coniferous boreal forests, which can be a type of swampy forested wetland. Maybe that’s a reason it’s important for travellers in these forests to know where the trails are. Toads are associated with witches and toads live in or close to bogs. Where I’m from, witches assemble on hill tops. Not sure where they spend the rest of their time.

75

PatinIowa 05.20.18 at 9:50 pm

Just because I have to get it off my chest:

If you read 16th/17th century English execution pamphlets and broadside ballads you’ll see that male witches abound. “Witches” was the word used. Many more women were hanged or burned, but the number of men sent to the scaffold for being witches was non-zero.

While the category was heavily gendered, the feeling I get when I read that stuff is that it wasn’t as heavily gendered as it is now and that the male/female hierarchy was constructed on slightly different lines. (And even now(ish), bear in mind that the Nazgul are called “witch-kings” in more than one place in LOTR.

That’s the trouble with “archetypes.” Maybe a family resemblance will serve to unite the disparate images, but sooner or later you get to the point where the archetype is supposed to underlie mutally exclusive categories.

By the way, there are lakes in New Zealand where there are three kinds of a particular slug: males that mate with females, females that mate with males and “females” that reproduce asexually.

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/01/160121130706.htm

If I were Jordan Petersen, I’d take this as evidence that animals are hardwired for lesbian separatism.

76

floopmeister 05.21.18 at 12:24 am

But this is true of basically everyone on the hard right. They’re all huge “nerds”, in the bad way, socially-maladept obsessives with a huge thing for fitting things into rigid categories.

Yeah, there’s a piece hidden in here somewhere that I want to write at some point: the intersection between role playing and the alt-right. People have touched on the medieval connection:
https://surfingedges.com/2017/08/18/the-alt-right-is-hijacking-the-middle-ages-medievalists-arent-going-to-let-them/

But the D&D influence is still to be explored. What is the whole schtick around the racial characteristics of the D&D races (Dwarves get +2 strength, Elves get bonuses to dexterity and Intelligence, etc) if not “fitting things into rigid categories.”

People freak out about the conflation of Nazi and confederate flags at Charlottesaville – I am more interested in this picture:

https://twitter.com/medievalpoc/status/897122421353918464/photo/1?tfw_site=cbc&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw&ref_url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.cbc.ca%2Fradio%2Fday6%2Fepisode-357-little-rock-nine-historians-vs-neo-nazis-tabatha-southey-fired-robots-yuval-harari-and-more-1.4309188%2Fmedieval-history-scholars-are-suddenly-on-the-front-lines-in-the-fight-against-white-supremacists-1.4309219

They looked like nothing if not a weird collection of disparate LARPers

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Live_action_role-playing_game

77

Gabriel 05.21.18 at 1:18 am

“When anthropologists or many sociologists or political scientists talk about “culture,” or when economists or other kinds of sociologists or political scientists talk about “shared beliefs,” or “institutions” they are making just this kind of assumption.”

The worst thing about Peterson and his ilk is their tendency to disregard entire fields of scholarship, of which they do not have expertise and to which they do not belong, in favor of some overly-simplistic embarrassing pap. Which, oddly enough, is the worst thing about this post.

78

Helen 05.21.18 at 1:32 am

Hidari 05.19.18 at 8:46 am

‘So he was radicalized, he says, because the “radical left” wants to eliminate hierarchies, which he says are the natural order of the world. In his book he illustrates this idea with the social behavior of lobsters. He chose lobsters because they have hierarchies and are a very ancient species, and are also invertebrates with serotonin. This lobster hierarchy has become a rallying cry for his fans; they put images of the crustacean on T-shirts and mugs.’

Oh, delicious. The image of a lobster beautifully invokes the word-salad-iness of Peterson’s opus.
“‘Tis the voice of the Lobster: I heard him declare
‘You have baked me too brown, I must sugar my hair.’
As a duck with its eyelids, so he with his nose
Trims his belt and his buttons, and turns out his toes.”

http://markandrewholmes.com/lobstervoice.html

79

Alex SL 05.21.18 at 11:44 am

When people hear “XYZ exists” or “XYZ is real” they generally do not understand “a lot of other people believe in XYZ” or “XYZ is part of old folk tales”. The commonly understood meaning is that you can somehow poke XYZ and feel a resistance. Yes, that all breaks down at scales beyond our everyday experience, like particle physics, but that doesn’t mean “dragons exist” isn’t either trickery through wordplay or demonstrably false, as far as the implicit rules of everyday communication are concerned.

80

F. Foundling 05.21.18 at 1:05 pm

Everybody here is in denial: deep down inside, under all the layers of postmodern Neo-Marxist brainwashing, you all *know* that witches live in swamps. On the odd chance that somebody really can’t find that a priori knowledge in the innermost kernel of their soul, I regret to inform them that they are probably transhuman or alien. And I would guess that the ‘archetypical’ lobster treatment of such species traitors is to be burnt at a stake before they lay amniote eggs or some other abomination.

Joke aside, Peterson isn’t just saying that ideas are in some sense real. I haven’t been enough of a masochist, or had enough sparetime, to read his opus systematically, but from what exposure I’ve had to his output and even from the quotes in this NYT piece, it’s clear that his is an unholy marriage of mystical-sounding Jungianism and hard-sciency-sounding evopsych. That’s a tasty and seductive recipe with maximally wide appeal for non-inoculated (and, well, Godwin knows who else found it effective to combine mysticism and ‘hard’ pseudoscience like this). Logically, however, it seems clear that the evopsych component, with talk of predators, lobsters and all, runs deeper and its natural function is to cause and explain the archetype component. That’s the reason why he asserts that not partaking of his system of archetypes means not belonging to the human species. My equally non-relativist answer is that he and his ilk are the ones trying to push humanity back and down into a condition of being less conscious, less free, and less human.

81

cervantes 05.21.18 at 2:56 pm

Sorry I’m so late here, but:

“Specifically, we need to understand how representations are transmitted from individual to individual, and how they change in the process of transmission (the process of transmission inevitably and invariably being a lossy one). Bits and pieces of anthropology do this (e.g. the work of Boyd and Richerson). There isn’t much sustained attention in political science or sociology or economics (exception here) that I am aware of, but there really ought to be.”

This is the life’s work of Jurgen Habermas

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bianca steele 05.21.18 at 3:00 pm

Phil @ 70

It’s interesting to me how intellectual fissures can form after someone prominent says something like, “we should do this new thing X instead of some traditional thing Y.” Sometimes a group comes a long and claims to be doing X, and the first person or group responds by (a) illustrating that they didn’t really mean it, but we’re being ironic in some way, or essentially trolling, or didn’t really think of what it would mean to do X instead of Y and actually preferred Y in practice, or (b) turning instead to explaining what X really means (which some other groups think amounts to something equivalent to Y), or (c) revealing that they believe X always had a bunch of necessarily correlariea and refusing to accept what other people are doing as really X. This is probably the normal way things should work, but it means lots of people are wrong at any given point in time.

83

Whirrlaway 05.21.18 at 3:55 pm

The root of the Universal Human Grammar is NP. that is, a Predicate is attributed to a Noun. Humans undoubtedly do have specialized wetware to process such rudiments, so Truth aside, it is likely that human thought is impossible without treating abstracts as if concrete.

As to Truth, cultural norms are indeed objective reality *for the individual*, which is no more than to say that actions have understandable consequences in the social realm same way as in the physical, not less for being fuzzy, local, and hard to discern. And generally not understood by those deploying them. Which suggests they are not “thought-forms”, exactly.

84

Chris "merian" W. 05.21.18 at 4:18 pm

On a side note, Twitter is telling me that the swamp witches reference has been located. Witches live in swamps in Minecraft.

85

rjk 05.21.18 at 5:55 pm

Collin @58:

They’re all huge “nerds”, in the bad way, socially-maladept obsessives with a huge thing for fitting things into rigid categories.

This sounds awfully like stigmatising OCD or perhaps autism-spectrum disorder. It’s also a categorisation, and I venture to say that it might be a rigid one!

One could just as easily make the same claim of “social justice warriors” – endless identity categories that must be rigidly defined and defended, with those categories often used to justify deviation from social norms. The reason the two groups fight so bitterly is that they have different categories for things, but trying to find fault with obsessiveness (aren’t we all obsessive about something?) and categorisation (it has its place) is not helpful.

A person who obsessively categorises ethnic groups based on stereotypes isn’t a “nerd, in the bad way”, they’re just (arguably) a nerd who is (definitely) right-wing. The objectionable thing is the right-wingness, not the nerdiness.

86

F. Foundling 05.21.18 at 7:15 pm

@floopmeister 05.21.18 at 12:24 am
>Yeah, there’s a piece hidden in here somewhere that I want to write at some point: the intersection between role playing and the alt-right. People have touched on the medieval connection…

Yes, this applies to the history of bygone times and also to mythology. I was once attracted to these areas because of their obvious – to me – outlandishness, absurdity, picturesqueness, primitiveness and seeming irrelevance, coupled with the odd thing that remains positive or at least relevant in a very subtle, non-obvious or abstract and symbolic way; however, I would have never dreamt of seriously identifying with, embracing and emulating the bulk of what they describe, or expected anybody else to do so. Now, increasingly, I find myself feeling a profound ideological and ethical aversion to many of the people who share my interest in them, because they seem to be motivated not by a desire to study and understand the given phenomenon, but by a desire to *be* the phenomenon; an attraction to the pervasive traditionalism, authoritarianism and irrationalism of the past, and essentially fascist tastes and tendencies. I mean, imagine a biologist who likes studying the life of crustaceans and then discovers to his horror that most other people with the same interest actually identify as and aspire to be giant lobsters … Oh. Never mind.

I’m not sure that ‘rigid categories’ per se are the issue here; I suspect that it’s a feature that moderates tend to see in all radicals, and the left-right divide should not be conflated with the distinction between moderates and radicals.

87

floopmeister 05.22.18 at 1:47 am

PatInIowa: good points – is intersectional identity just an application of the Fuzzy Set concept to social categories?

…bear in mind that the Nazgul are called “witch-kings” in more than one place in LOTR

Actually isn’t it the leader of the Nazgul who is the Witch-king of Angmar?

:)

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Neville Morley 05.22.18 at 6:19 am

‘Tis the voice of the lobster; I heard him proclaim
“Male violence is natural; feminism’s to blame.
Stand up straight! Tell the truth! Be precise in your speech!
For the Dragon of Chaos has so much to teach.”

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casmilus 05.22.18 at 10:45 am

On behalf of modern analytic philosophy I think someone should speak up for Simon Blackburn and his “quasi-realism” at this point; also Mackie’s Error Theory runs off the idea that moral claims purport to be objective yet are just wrong. And, less often cited, there was Grice’s “The Conception Of Value”, which tried to steer a course somewhere between all this.

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bob mcmanus 05.22.18 at 2:15 pm

Male violence is natural; feminism’s to blame.

Patience, analogizing. And just thinking, not proclaiming or asserting.

Seeing Capital as the “bad guys” and (wage) labour as the “good guys” is reformism, and has a lot to say for itself. Recognizing the class struggle as guiding paradigm can lead to increased power and compensation for workers. But class struggle necessarily sustains, maintains, and reproduces capitalism. Is the elimination of wage labour a worthy goal, especially for a post-scarcity society? This will require a different ontology and praxis than class struggle.

The flag of the patriarchy has two equal panels, both signifying bodies and social interaction, both demonstrating power and status, each creating the other in a dialectic, perhaps even the same dialectic, as capital and labour.

In one panel is a hairy fist smashing a face. In the other panel is a woman nursing a baby.

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PatinIowa 05.22.18 at 3:59 pm

floopmeister at 87:
I defer to your superior knowledge of LOTR. Thanks!

(This is not ironic. The fact that I feel compelled to say that says something about CT, no?)

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floopmeister 05.22.18 at 11:58 pm

PatInIowa: The fact that I feel compelled to say that says something about CT, no?

Or it says something about me: that is, I am a hopeless geek who needs to get a life!

:)

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F. Foundling 05.23.18 at 12:53 pm

@Neville Morley 05.22.18 at 6:19 am
>“Male violence is natural; feminism’s to blame.

Personally, as an economic and political egalitarian, I’ve been more concerned with the Grand Lobster’s defence of hierarchy and inequality in general. However, it *is* undeniable that his views specifically on gender issues as expressed in the NYT interview are simply beautiful, too. His basic idea is that women, when given freedom and choice (by lax sexual mores, the morning-after pill etc.), only make themselves unhappy: allegedly, they restrict themselves to unsatisfying promiscuous or temporary relationships with high-status men and do not accept satisfying monogamous relationships with average-status men. Apparently, women are just too stupid to choose what would make them happy; too stupid to be free, in other words. Instead, they need to be forced into what makes them happy – namely, ‘enforced monogamy’; seemingly to be implemented only by stigmatisation and slut-shaming to begin with, although I think it’s obvious that one will soon find it necessary to resort to slightly stronger traditional stimuli such as reduced access to contraception and abortion, economic dependence, and why not just a little bit of gentle Abrahamic stoning? Now, in my opinion, human happiness actually requires freedom, both directly and indirectly; but you know what, Jordan – even assuming that I really had to choose between the two (for myself or for any other human), I’d still bloody well choose freedom, rather than let you or any other arthropod play God with me or with anybody else.

Now, of course, the empirical claim about the behaviour of women is itself false: it is perfectly possible for most men to find partners if they really want to and make an effort to do so, and they don’t need to be particularly high-status for that. The involuntary celibates, whatever the cause of their plight, are a small minority and thus their existence does not represent an argument for the picture of extreme erotic inequality that Peterson is painting, or for the retrograde authoritarian ‘cure’ that he is proposing. It is sort of telling that he is more inclined to ascribe the incel phenomenon to women *in general* being behaviourally inadequate than to the *small minority* of incel men being behaviourally inadequate. Then again, what else besides inadequacy can he expect from the creatures of Chaos?

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Peter Erwin 05.23.18 at 1:43 pm

Is there a D&D character class called ‘witches’

Not in the traditional/core set of classes, but the name has been used for additional classes over the years; I’m fairly certain I can remember a “Witch” class being offered in an old issue of Dragon magazine in the 1980s, for example.

Pathfinder, which is probably the most popular version of D&D that’s not technically D&D (sometimes described as a continuation of 3rd Edition D&D), does in fact have a Witch class. There are probably several examples to be found in video-game RPGs, as well.

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Peter Erwin 05.23.18 at 2:00 pm

@ PatinIowa:
If you read 16th/17th century English execution pamphlets and broadside ballads you’ll see that male witches abound. “Witches” was the word used. Many more women were hanged or burned, but the number of men sent to the scaffold for being witches was non-zero.

Per Robin Briggs (Witches and Neighbors), about 25% of the victims during the European witch-craze were men, though this varied from place to place: e.g., 50% of those accused in France were men, and 90% of those in Iceland.

… (And even now(ish), bear in mind that the Nazgul are called “witch-kings” in more than one place in LOTR.

As floopmeister pointed out, this was specifically the title of the head Nazgul (“Witch-king of Angmar”).

Of course, now we’re talking about Tolkien, who was a scholar (and fan) of Old English, where the antecedent of “witch” had both male (wicca) and female (wicce) forms, so using “witch-king” to refer to a male character made perfect sense to him.

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Lee A. Arnold 05.23.18 at 2:40 pm

Henry: “Perhaps he thinks he has some actual material causal explanation… between his favored arguments about lobster physiology and archetype generation; if so, I would bet large amounts of money that this explanation is either unarticulated or inarticulate.”

Or perhaps inarticulable. As a psychedelic relic and modern meta-mystic, I see a few different problems here. Peterson is reinventing fragments of the mystical path without giving his audience the whole program. On the “material causation” side of things, scientific critique is waylaid because he has adopted a Jungian distinction which is non-materialist.

1. Peterson is undoubtedly helping some people to straighten up and to become good producers and consumers. But he risks harming some others because he reinvents a few steps of the mystical path, and then cuts it short and brings things to conclusion when he falls back upon clinical psychology and the language of self-improvement. This could, for some, amount to bad advice. For example he discusses Jung’s interpretation of the call to “more consciousness” beyond pleasure and pain that is implied the story of Job (see the nice video conversation with Russell Brand) but he doesn’t emphasize and perhaps doesn’t know the primary, and finally stand-alone, necessity of the practice of wordless contemplation that leads to more consciousness (and to which the Bible alludes in about a thousand ways). And finally this contemplation discards all structure. The full path has been trod many times to this destination and there is clarity to be gained from the best expositions in full, some of them quite short, by writers such as Patanjali, Buddhaghosa, Shankara, Ibn Arabi, John of the Cross, Shunru Suzuki.

Peterson’s discussion of story, archetypes and hierarchy is standard introductory mystical preparation. Between the wordy baloney of daily life and the moment of ineffable change, there is the mid-level work of ideoplastic unification to be performed. (The above mystic writers describe it as only one stage of the path.) This work is performed both emotionally and intellectually. Intellectually it looks like archetypes when ascending, and it looks like the necessity of hierarchy when descending. Archetype & hierarchy are opposite directions on the same transformative ladder. However, taking hierarchy for the natural order of the world (or chancing to make it a partial excuse of the economic system) is a common and typical reification error of mystical seekers, and mistakes psychology for physics.

2. Peterson the clinician adopts Jung’s therapeutic separation of the cosmos into pleroma and creatura (although I am not sure that Peterson ever uses these words). This avoids or at least puts aside any question of material causation of the living potentiality in the creatura as relatively unimportant — puts it aside partly to program the therapeutic results, and partly because there may not be an answer.

3. The scientific question of the nature of archetypes and their cultural transmission encompasses biological and social sciences from embryo ontogeny up to anthropology. You have to find someone who has attempted to study it all, and the first and perhaps still the only scientist who attempted it and indeed addressed rather directly the connection between lobster physiology and archetype generation is Gregory Bateson. (He used crabs.) Bateson found himself developing a new set of scientific fundamentals to cover the empirical observations, a sort of new science for creatura aside from pleroma. As a good scientist he was careful and perhaps hesitant about taking this direction. It places him outside the contemporary academy, yet everyone who now tries to think synthetically about these questions appears to reinvent his wheels. Bateson went further and started to assemble the vehicle. His observations of the formal similarities of the “two great stochastic processes” of learning and evolution, and of the hierarchy of calibration and feedback that is immanent in all forms of explanation and interaction, are relevant to the questions about transmission above. These are chapters in his book, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity.

4. Peterson also puts himself at self-developmental risk, because he has acquired an audience. This is always a social phenomenon, insofar as there is always a portion of the population that is in the same boat, i.e. is looking for a change in life. He starts with assertiveness training so you can find a good job and a good mate. He goes further to reinvent fragments of the mystic path while zinging his audience in the thrash of ideas. Thus he is collecting an audience while collecting his own thoughts. But such transmissions to other individuals are unreliably received at best, spurring more questions and more extrapolations. An unremarked lost virtue of the old established religions was that the archetypes came prepackaged in story structures that were tested and elaborated by very long empirical experience, and also there were preachers and counselors TRAINED in the tradition. Far, far from perfect, and most of us wouldn’t want to go back in time, but this more or less kept things on an inclusive path that was tailored to many different individual circumstances. What we have now, at best, are clinical psychologists who themselves are without full experience (and/or mistake the results from statistical psychology to be steps toward complete knowledge). And at worst we have individual proprietors who self-invent or reinvent the archetypes and practices in a smorgasbord of ideas. Given the social need, the thrashing spiritual entrepreneur of the smorgasbord can gain an audience and even big box office at Ticketmaster. This might appear to that entrepreneur to be truth validation. But spiritual guidance from someone who is not Self-realized, i.e. who has not left all the words behind, is far more dangerous than guidance from an old religion, however much it is now scientized with lobster dramas etc. Peterson runs the grave risk of finally misleading himself and others in an epidemic of explosive logorrhea.

Peterson should get out of the lecture racket. The best route forward at this point in time is to study a short manual of mystical practice such as the Yoga Sutras or The Cloud of Unknowing, followed by a few stiff doses of psychedelic therapy with an experienced guide (do NOT do this by yourself!) in proper set and setting, followed by lifelong Zen meditation. And it has to be lifelong: people think they know something, but then they lose it again, in fact can be unaware of the loss. Then maybe come back and lecture in about 5 years.

Asked why he stopped writing, Aquinas is reputed to have said, “Everything that I have written seems like straw to me compared to those things that I have seen and have been revealed to me.”

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