A Lecture on Jordan Peterson, Featured at Parallax
On “Situating Love as a Key to Truth and Meaningful Revelation” by Dr. Cadell Last
We think what we love, and we love what we think
On November 3, 2021, Dr. Cadell Last presented a lecture on Jordan Peterson, which I thought was magnificent, balanced, thorough, and enlightening. For those who haven’t seen it yet, please visit the Parallax YouTube Channel and search for Dr. Cadell Last. I would suggest watching everything you find. Additionally, Dr. Last is soon hosting a workshop on Hegel at Philosophy Portal, which everyone should attend:
“What does Peterson say about our particular historic moment?” is a framing Dr. Last opens the presentation with, which made me think about a Hegelian framing from “Absolute Knowing” by O.G. Rose: “How is Peterson ‘for’ consciousness gaining higher self-consciousness?” “What is consciousness learning ‘about itself’ thanks to Peterson?” Instead of deciding right out the gate if we “like” Peterson or not, asking this Hegelian question presents Peterson as an opportunity for us to reflect on ourselves. Doctors will ask patients to “listen to their bodies” and ask, “What is your body telling you?” Similarly, focused on “mental health,” per se, we can ask, “What is our collective consciousness trying to tell us in focusing on Peterson?” (Please note that we are all part of “the collective consciousness,” so to ask about it is to also ask, “What is our consciousness trying to tell us?”) Possibly, our consciousness is warning us that we are out of balance, that we seek “The Truth” but not “The Absolute” (as will be explained), and that this has made us a problem.
Dr. Last points out that Peterson became famous for opposing “Cultural Marxism,” which though arguably “not really a thing” (it’s questionable if “Cultural Marxism” exists), the phrase still managed to resonate with thousands of people who felt there was something to what Peterson opposed. People have turned to Peterson in hopes of pursuing “higher education” outside an academic setting, and Peterson has certainly garnered a large following. Whether we think this is good or not, I want to stress, there is still value in sticking to the Hegelian inquiry: “How is Peterson ‘for’ consciousness?”
Peterson suggests that knowledge isn’t useful alone, only to the extent it proves existential. In other words, if I possess at my fingertips every fact in the universe, I won’t care if these facts have nothing to do with me. In the discussion on Absolute Knowing, a distinction between The Truth and The Absolute arose, with The Truth being “everything that is the case” (Wittgenstein), while The Absolute is “everything that is the case plus us” (Hegel). The Absolute is tricky, because that means it must include our interaction with “facts” and our interpretations of them, which in turn change us as subjects, which changes our interactions and interpretations — on and on. We can say a lot more on the topic, but the main point I’d like to make is that Peterson focuses on The Absolute more than just The Truth (though of course The Truth is included in The Absolute, just not the other way around). Dr. Last wants us to realize that Peterson is interested in how knowledge occupies an existential and phenomenological space: for us, knowledge is never not subjective, no matter how much we may want to believe otherwise. In other words, if “the ontic” is the realm that exists independent of subjectivity, then “the ontic” is never what we’re talking about when we discuss “the ontic.” It’s always “for” us, and thus not itself.
Now, this isn’t to say science is bad or some silly notion like that, for The Absolute consists of The Truth: without science, our Absolute would be very limited. Rather, the point is that we must always keep in mind the role of the subject in the under-standing of The Truth: failing to do so is likely contributing to “The Meaning Crisis” which Vervaeke discusses. This point is elaborated on throughout O.G. Rose, but here it should be noted that Peterson is deeply concerned about the ideological and psychological conditions which arose to the era of WWII, and it is possible that a factor in the development of that atmosphere was the disregard of the subject and Absolute in favor of the material and True. If the privileging of “non-existential knowledge” somehow contributes to totalitarianism, that may not bode well for us (I’m afraid to say). Additionally, if “non-existential knowledge” doesn’t really exist, but rather we only think it does, then that means for us to seek “non-existential knowledge” (The Truth without The Absolute) is for us to seek our effacement (for if things become “pure ideas,” things go away). Far from “filing in the gaps of our knowledge” with drawings, our search for “the answers” can now instead be a gradual process of erasing away whatever images history passed down. We seek a blank sheet of paper, but not so that we can open new possibilities, but because we believe papers “ought” to be blank (it’s “The Truth,” after all).
Dr. Last describes a necessary balance between “evolution death reality” and “too perfect belief system,” which I found to be yet another excellent description of our modern predicament. (For more on the dangers of “too perfect belief systems,” which for me result from “unbound rationality,” please see “On Conspiracies and Pandora’s Rationality,” as well as “The Conflict of Mind,” both by O.G. Rose.) Generally, we find ourselves in this predicament because of the loss of “transcendent values,” which is indeed a loss that orientates us toward “bad nihilism” (though this doesn’t necessarily have to follow, even if it tends to follow). This brings to mind a distinction from “The Philosophy of Lack 2” discussion between “explanation” and “address”: to put the point very generally, to be “explained” is to be told how we got here, while being “addressed” is to find out why we’re here. Yes, the categories can overlap, and the distinction is elaborated on much more in the paper “Explained and Addressed,” but I think that description is enough to drive home the point. Basically, I just waned to say that it is very hard for us today to “strike a balance” between explanation and address, which would be for us to seek The Absolute versus only The Truth. If we’re “too explained,” we’re too much toward an “evolutionary death reality,” but if we’re “too addressed” (say in a religious community that ignores science), we end up in a “too perfect belief system.” We must stay in the tension, which is what our brains naturally dislike.
I absolutely loved the example Cadell made of the spider with its web-making-mechanism removed: nevertheless, the spider can’t help but keep trying to make a web. Similarly, perhaps we, if we cease being allowed to focus on “the subject” and existential concerns, will nevertheless still find ourselves unable to stop focusing on them (and consequently we’ll be starved for someone like Peterson). We simply can’t stop seeking The Absolute versus just The Truth, but we may nevertheless have our capacities to seek The Absolute neutered by the social order. The language of The Absolute might be made off limits (which brings Orwell to mind), the concerns of religion might be mocked, the artistic might be humiliated — and eventually we’ll be trained like shocked mice in an experiment to “never touch the cheese” we want to eat. But we can’t help but keep wanting it: the drive is embedded incredibly deep into our psyches. Repressed, we might break, and what might happen then?
Cadell noted that the spider might hint at how humans are with art: if we’re told we’re not allowed to be artists, we can’t help but still create. This point brought to mind Chesterton’s description of “the caveman as artist” toward the start of The Everlasting Man, a point which I also discussed in “Philosophy & Art,” inspired by a Voicecraft Freeform Session:
G.K. Chesterton [notes] that ‘people have been interested in everything about the caveman expect what he did in the cave.’¹ And what do we see in the cave? A lot of cave drawings. Primitive man was an artist. We are told a lot about the violence of the caveman and brutishness, but Chesterton suggests the common depiction is ‘simply a myth.’² ‘Art is the signature of man,’ Chesterton says […]³ This is important for philosophy because philosophers have had a long of history of using “state of natures” as foundations for their philosophical systems (Hobbes and Rousseau come to mind). But none of the great philosophers viewed primitive humanity as an artist […]
(This point also has implications for Plato, but I’ll leave that for another time.)
For the subject, Dr. Last points out that the future is often more real and pressing than the present, while the scientist acts like the present is more real than the future. Humans mainly live “toward” potential, so describing and exploring that potential will be critically important for human development. And yet, under hard scientific materialism, “potential” is treated as “less real” than “actuality” (potential realized into materiality), which is to say that what humans care about most and are most “toward” is that which “doesn’t matter” (because it’s not “matter” yet, per se). Our cares, hopes, and dreams are often “in the future”: if potential is disregarded, then we end up feeling “explained away.” This existentially destabilizes us, which I fear “Belonging Again” argues makes us more likely to fall into totalitarianism (but that is another idea that must be discussed at another time).
That said, though “potential” matters, it’s also important for us to move from potential into actualization. This is the movement from “the child” into “the adult,” but what should be noted here is that the role of potential is always at play, and hence why the tendency to disregard potential is problematic. Through development, new potentials open for adults that aren’t available to children (negations are additions, per se), but do note “the child” and so one “who loves/needs potential” is still present. Every layer of psychological development is in us all the time: the psychological state that we held as teenagers, for example, never goes away, but is instead built atop and on. In one sense, this means it is “covered up” and “hidden,” but in another way this means earlier psychological states are “foundational.” To build on something is to conceal it, which seems to disregard it, but this is actually an act which makes it “foundational” (at least in the psyche). In “hard materialism” disregarding the potential and psychological, the world today can disregard and attack some of the “foundations” holding us up. If they crumble, we’ll crumble too.
What are we to do about all this? How do we seek The Absolute rightly and maintain a balance between explanation and address? Dr. Last provides us a critical guide: We need to keep our abstract knowledge in a constant loop and tension with our existential pain. I loved how Dr. Last put this, and I cannot overstress my agreement. What does it look like to live this way? Well, that’s an extension conversation which Last covers throughout his work; please, go and see.
I'm an anthropologist (M.Sc.) and philosopher (Ph.D.) with an interest in: biocultural evolution, mind-matter relation…
¹Chesterton, G.K. The Everlasting Man. San Francisco, CA. Ignatius Press, 1993: 28.
²Chesterton, G.K. The Everlasting Man. San Francisco, CA. Ignatius Press, 1993: 30.
³Chesterton, G.K. The Everlasting Man. San Francisco, CA. Ignatius Press, 1993: 34.
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