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Peterson (Jung) and Marx
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Dialectical Materialism
Jung was a depth psychologist best known for two concepts: the ‘collective unconscious’ and ‘archetypes.’ Peterson, perhaps best known for his dapper looks and intellectual gesturing, has made much use of Jung in his work. Hence here we might as well speak of Jung instead, while keeping in mind the admirable extensions and integrations Peterson has made in line with more recent work—for which he is rarely given due credit, as his Maps of Meaning entails a truly excellent basic philosophy.1 Of course, that is enough about Peterson; now we must turn to Peterson (Jung).
Jung’s concepts of the collective unconscious and archetypes are properly considered aspects of a single whole, as it is in the collective unconscious that these archetypes inhere and whereof they emanate. There are concrete instances of the archetypes—as, for instance, Peterson details in various films (Peter Pan, Pinnochio, etc.)—and then there are the archetypes themselves, which inhere in the collective unconscious. These may be analysed across a variety of concrete cases and compared between cultures so as to derive to legible patterns in the totality of human experience. The premier example of this, of course, to which Peterson refers, is Joseph Campbell’s monomyth of the hero’s journey.
And yet the collective unconscious is not these patterns but rather the well from which all such symbols draw their meaning. We cannot capture this in our reflections upon it, as then it would not be unconscious; hence it would be something else. That it takes the form of mythological narrative is because this is, in part, a prereflective process; it proceeds indirectly by way of imagery and symbolism rather than attempting to grasp knowledge by more literal means. The idea, moreover, is that it must take this form because its wealth exceeds the bounds of literal knowledge; thus the symbol directs our understanding to the inexpressible, say, whereas the definition entails only by a way of a triangulation between points.
This view of the collective unconscious might be characterised as follows. The collective unconscious is a well, and three women here take from this well and all the while chanting the law they pour from the well onto the base of a great tree. This tree is the world itself; it is that which supports every instant and point, its growth is the continuity of all in time. The past is drawn up from the well and deposited at its roots, thereby elements recur as if bubbling from a hidden wellspring. This is the collective unconscious; it is the subtle structure of history beyond the merely material—it is, in other words, the ideal.
Peterson’s psychology takes an evolutionary approach; he looks to the ways in which psychology has been influenced by material conditions. Thus he speculates as to the character of symbols, explains how they might have come to be—as for instance the symbolism of serpents and eagles, the neurology of monkeys, etc. All this is quite the show and here Peterson demonstrates the breadth of his knowledge. Yet we are not so interested in the specifics of this as the notion it implies; namely, that the collective unconscious is structured in a reciprocal relation with materiality. This is not some eternal Platonic realm, in other words, but is rather formed of man and men in their activity and relations across various environments.
Here we are brought finally to Marx, for whom this was precisely the process by which idealism comes to emerge out of the material; it is that patterns of activity coalesce and are crystallised by way of symbols, and that these symbols recur as meaningful insofar as they are coherent with the circumstances in which they emerged—or may even be repurposed, so long as their form entails this possibility. Some deities have been left behind entirely, others have been fashioned to suit our more secular needs; for instance, Chronos has found himself enfolded within the modern concept of chronological time. The point, however, was that Chronos reflected the regularity of the harvest; it was the hora as season, whereby we derive our hour, which first gave rise to the specific sense—albeit in primitive form—of the regular procession of time that we now term chronological.
Of course, in this we are pushing Marx’s method beyond the bounds which he had set in its exercise; as for him the essential element was production—indeed, that he defined production as constitutive of society. We may also, however, read his line more broadly, as does Ilyenkov. There is in the basic form of Marx’s arguments an insight the sense of which can be fruitfully juxtaposed with Jung. We have already outlined the basic aspect of this, that material activity across historical generations gives rise to a collective unconscious:
Ilyenkov insisted that Marx had in mind not the bodily organ of an individual Homo sapiens, growing out of his neck at the mercy of Mother Nature, but precisely the human head—a tool of culture, not nature.
We encounter this structure, moreover, as something which confronts us as external. Hence though we know that in some sense it is ‘all in our heads’—yet we nevertheless experience it as something that stands opposed to us, even as an imposition upon us. Ideality is experienced, in other words, as an objective structure. This is so because it inheres in the structure of material relations, in the patterns of activity that characterise the world into which we are born: “Rising to conscious life within society, the individual finds a pre-existing ‘spiritual environment,’ objectively implemented spiritual culture.” This is the collective unconscious conceived as the totality of human relations, and it is this which we enter into by way of a dialectic of assimilation and accommodation as much as the material world; as it “structures from the very outset the developing consciousness and will of the individual, moulding him in its own image.” We learn to deal with things, yes, but also ideas and to navigate moral structures; and we learn to deal with the bounds of these structures, as symbolised by Tiamat. All of this is equally a part of the ‘human essence,’ which Marx defines as the total ensemble of social relations. Thus we may see the archetypes as reflecting grand patterns in human nature; and the collective unconscious is itself nothing but human nature conceived as a ground of symbolic understandings.
Of all the living psychologists I have encountered, Peterson alone has truly impressed me. Oliver Sacks was a hack pushing trivia in comparison to Peterson’s more serious work. Students in philosophy of mind would be better advised to borrow from Peterson than the anachronistic nonsense peddled by their inert professors. Of course, here I’ve digress slightly so as to make more or less a single point: that Peterson is often judged on the basis of his politics, but all this is far less important than his popularising a serious intellectual challenge to the naive assumptions of traditional philosophy. We can fairly say that Peterson has done more to bring questions of fundamental philosophy and metaphysics into the mainstream, if only partially and as obscured by all the noise surrounding his politics—still he has done more than any other living thinker to do this in a serious way. You should watch his debate with Sam Harris; it is essentially a (large) roomful of people listening to a debate on ~metaphysics. This is certainly a great achievement!