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Jordan Peterson, Martin Heidegger, and the Inescapability of Stories

“But Heidegger and Peterson differ when it comes to the origin of our stories, the meaning of nihilism, and the limits to the stories we can tell. To begin, it is useful to explore the question of the origins of our stories. In both Peterson and Heidegger, there is talk of something coming from nothing.”

Many people sense that something has gone off the rails in the West, as well as that the culture war is a manifestation that something is deeply wrong. These are claims made by Jordan Peterson in a recent appearance in Nashville, Tennessee for his We Who Wrestle with God tour. Peterson thinks we know the culture war is more than a mere kerfuffle because the debates are over bedrock principles such as free speech. Peterson’s diagnosis is that such battles are happening because the West is slowly realizing that Enlightenment thought contains an erroneous assumption.

The error is the belief that we perceive the world as a manifold of facts. The problem with this commonsense view is that the number of possible facts is infinite, which means that perceiving the world that way would be impossibly complex. During podcast episodes, including with British neuroscientist Karl Friston and another with Angus Fletcher, and in public appearances, Peterson has been developing an alternative model of perception, which is that we perceive the world as a story.

This theory suggests that science is a derivative mode of being, given that our aims, emotions, and values underwrite the scientific enterprise. From the perspective of science, emotions and values are irrelevant considerations, even hindrances. Nevertheless, Peterson holds that we must pick out what is important and useful if we hope to achieve anything. Perception forces us to discriminate among objects, so values are needed to determine what the proper object of our focus should be. Thus, the world is not a matter of fact but of value.

These values are ordered hierarchically in story form where a person’s aim is his highest value, the summum bonum. Stories show us how to navigate simple situations and also how to be heroic, deal with tragedy, and confront horror. At a simple level, they might model strategies for survival. Great stories are archetypal structures that speak to something within us that is millions of years old. The existence of strikingly similar mythological stories across time and place (the flood myth, for instance) suggests that some values have cross-cultural validity. They are part of human nature.

The hypothesis that we perceive the world as a story seems like a postmodern view, since one of the core beliefs of postmodernist thinkers is that there is no fundamental difference between literature and other supposedly objective endeavors. Peterson, who is critical of postmodernism, has been wrestling for some time with the postmodern flavor of his own thought. Nevertheless, he concedes in his Nashville appearance that the postmodernists were right to conclude that we see the world as a story. The problem for Peterson, to which we will return, is that Peterson wishes to preserve the West’s grand narrative against the very postmodernist theory he endorses, which is corrosive to the belief that there is anything special about the story of the West.

That story, as interpreted by Peterson, is that the individual participates in the divine by bringing Order to Chaos through truthful speech. The best record of it is the Bible. The fundamental concept in the West’s story is the logos, a difficult-to-translate ancient Greek term meaning word, concept, message, or speech. The logos is central to Christianity. John 1:1 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This old story is in doubt, and Peterson warns that alternative stories about sex (Freud, Darwin) and power (Marxism) have been used to try to supplant the West’s grand narrative.

In other words, Peterson sees what is ailing the West as a mistake in Enlightenment epistemology, not as a defect in the story of the West. In this view, the grand narrative of the West needs to be maintained as the best story while at the same time accommodating his own view, which implies that the West’s worldview is just another story among many, rather than indicative of some objective truth.

In his 1927 book Being and Time, Martin Heidegger developed a similar theory that the scientific worldview is a derivative mode of being. A comparison of the thought of Peterson and Heidegger, whose theories of perception diverge from the Enlightenment position in a similar way, is interesting, especially where the two disagree. But first, how do they agree? Like Peterson, Heidegger suggested that a pre-scientific mode of being is a condition of the possibility of science. The world cannot be a collection of objective facts because we perceive objects according to our everyday aims. The concepts of mind and matter, the subject, and the objective attitude of the scientist are later accretions by philosophers on top of fundamental structures of being that have been forgotten.

In Being and Time, Heidegger criticized the Cartesian notion that mind as subject rules over separate matter. Heidegger used the term Dasein (German for “being there”) to indicate that the starting point of an analysis of human beings is to acknowledge that prior to any dichotomy between mind and matter, we find ourselves “there” in a world. He calls the condition of always already having a world “being-in-the-world.” Being-in-the-world means that there are things that Dasein cares about before any rational analysis. What Dasein cares about depends on the past, present, and the future. What that means, first, is that the present ensnares Dasein in the issues of the day. There is a tendency to “fall in” with what others are thinking and doing. At the same time, Dasein is aware that it has a future with possibilities yet to be realized. In addition, Dasein comes to every situation in one mood or another and interprets things “as” certain kinds of things. The analysis of Dasein wants to show that our primary dealings with the world are not in the mode of objectivity but, rather, are rooted in a certain given position and context.

Heidegger called the scientific perspective that coldly studies things the “present-at-hand” mode. Needless to say, he did not think that the detached attitude of the scientist is the primary or most important manner of being-in-the-world. The more original and, thus, more important mode of being is called ready-to-hand. Ready-to-hand is our everyday dealing with useful things that we find in certain contexts.

But Heidegger and Peterson differ when it comes to the origin of our stories, the meaning of nihilism, and the limits to the stories we can tell. To begin, it is useful to explore the question of the origins of our stories. In both Peterson and Heidegger, there is talk of something coming from nothing. Peterson argues essentially that stories arise from human nature, which needs Order and is capable of bringing it into being through hierarchies. In his Nashville appearance, Peterson interprets the “beginning” in Genesis 1 not as the chronological beginning but, instead, as a beginning that happens whenever Order emerges from Chaos. The beginning occurs when truthful speech brings form to nothingness. Logos describes the process of extracting possibility and form (Order) out of nothing (Chaos). The need to make Order out of Chaos is always there because Order is fragile and Chaos is the default state.

We can generate order using stories with embedded-value hierarchies because, first, we must perceive in terms of value hierarchies and, second, the roots of social hierarchies are deeply embedded in our biology. Hierarchy is a human universal and not a special characteristic of the West. Given these constraints, the best story would generate the most stable and fair order. Stories originate from human nature, and one interpretation of Peterson’s argument is that he seems to think that the Western story brings the optimal Order out of Chaos. Consequently, we have a duty to restore and renew the decayed concepts at the heart of the West, which include rationality, hierarchy, and truth.

In Heidegger, there is talk of the Nothing, an analog for Chaos. However, Heidegger believed that the meta-narratives we tell are generated by great poets and philosophers who use words powerfully enough to establish new relations to Being. These meta-narratives are not more or less in line with human nature. Heidegger would not say that myths reveal some fundamental human nature that is prior to what we say about Being. Rather, what we say about Being makes our nature.

This has implications for the response to nihilism. In a post-Nietzsche world in which the West has lost faith in its values, much ink has been spilled about what nihilism is and how we should regard it. Peterson appears to see nihilism as a threatening consequence of the Western story being forgotten and unappreciated. Chaos is at the door. To meet the challenge, we need to articulate the basic concepts, like why free speech is good and why truth matters. In contrast, Heidegger interpreted nihilism as an opportunity for change and not a sign that we need to renew old concepts. For that reason, he sought to dismantle the basic concepts of Western philosophy so that we could start again.

It follows that the two differ on the limits of the stories we can tell. Peterson interprets the admonition not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden as the lesson that human beings may not define morality for themselves. It is the epitome of hubris to assume that we can make moral laws. In contrast, in Heidegger, the best thinkers are like vessels for Being to work through. It is incumbent upon special people to re-awaken Being. That process begins when they realize that they are groundless, that the ground that they stand on is non-existent. When it dawns on them that there is no truth “out there,” they are made free to create. In other words, Heidegger disagrees that there are constraints on the stories we can tell, either by human nature or by some proscription on giving ourselves moral laws, and he would likely disregard the retort that the effort to do so is another attempt to make oneself a God while ignoring our common humanity.

In summary, among those who criticize the Enlightenment, there are some who believe that the West still has value and vitality, as well as that we need to hearken to our roots and recover what we have lost. There are others who think the rot goes much deeper. Heidegger is paradigmatic of those who thought that the tradition has exhausted itself and has nothing more to offer. All legacies fade away, and radical new beginnings will always need to be made. But how much can we re-imagine ourselves?

The answer to that question is determined by whether human nature is real and whether it is limited by something like the divine. While Heidegger and Peterson agree that human beings’ primary mode of engagement with the world is interpretation, they disagree about the extent to which we can interpret ourselves. Stepping back, this is also the debate playing out in the broader culture. The great debate today is not between postmodernists and modernists or between conservatives and liberals. The great dividing line is whether man has an essence or not. If he does not, then technology can proceed apace without any constraints on what we may do to ourselves. Politics can take whatever form most suits us at any particular moment. However, if man does have an essence—if the sacred exists—then there are certain things we are prohibited from doing and there are timeless political truths.

Those who like Peterson would like to defend tradition while also accepting some postmodern premises have a difficult task. They must explain how to square the postmodern view that we perceive reality as a story with the assertion that our story is the best one. Why does this particular meta-narrative unite all of our diverse personal stories? This is the central conundrum, and, to meet it, Peterson must assert that the story of the West is in harmony somehow with human nature. To be acceptable to the modern Western citizen, the meta-narrative by which we live seems to need to have cross-cultural validity, otherwise, each person retreats into their own personal narrative. That seems to be what is happening today because there is no agreement on the status of human nature and what meta-narrative best suits it. And when grand narratives collapse, the easiest one to fall back on is that all values are meaningless, and that power is the only reality. In the end, beliefs about human nature are decisive for the question of whether the story of the West is the best one ever told.

J. Michael Yarros is an American writer who covers philosophy and political theory. 

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