Petey the Phenomenologist

The following post first appeared as a comment at the forum.

J, I’ve seen you refer to Peterson as having Kantian stylings. This is true in the most general sense, meaning that his basic fundamentals, analyzed through the Plato-Aristotle-Kant metaphysical/epistemological division, are Kantian.

What Peterson’s approach ultimately is though, more specifically, is something called phenomenology, a philosophic method created by the psychologist/philosopher Edmund Husserl. His influence has been profound on all ‘Continental’ philosophy, in primis on the ‘Existentialist’ school of philosophy, and on the ‘Gestalt’ school of psychology.

I am surprised nobody else seems to have picked this up, but I am in the position of having studied phenomenology first hand at the University of Milan, so the recognition has been fairly obvious to me after having listened to this panel.

Phenomenology is first and foremost a metaphysical/epistemological method as developed by Husserl, and he himself never really labored to discover its ethical applications. However, Heidegger first and Sartre second have used the method to reach ethical conclusions.

I hear echoes of primarily the Existentialism of Sartre in Peterson, which in turn echo the proto-Existentialism of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. The primary objects in questions I see are what we would call ‘the nature of Man’, ‘the nature of existence’, and ‘the nature of knowledge’.

I will now sketch a brief picture of what that means, but keep in mind I will be simplifying the material into broad essentials. I will try keeping to Kantian and Aristotelian terminology, when possible, in order to make it intelligible, which I assume most of us here are acquainted to.

First of all, the phenomenological method can be thought of as an investigation into the a-priori structures of consciousness.
What is found is an axiom familiar to us, namely that consciousness is always consciousness-of ‘something’. Reality is thus always given to us in this form of a something-for.

What this brings us to is the concept of ‘transcendental phenomenology’, namely how reality ‘takes form’ in its manifestation to our consciousness. This fundamental assumption gives rise to the erroneous view that it is consciousness that ‘gives form’ to reality, and not the other way around.

You can think of it this way. The phenomenologist/existentialist can come to recognize that existence exists and that consciousness exists, but what he lacks is the brilliant realization from Rand that existence is identity and consciousness is identification.

For the phenomenologist/existentialist existence is an unknowable indefinite or, as Peterson might call it, a ‘chaos’ to be ordered. Thus consciousness creates its very own ‘ontological niche’ (or metaphysical backyard) based both on its a-priori structures and its structural ‘freedom’ or ‘will’.

For the Aristotelian/Objectivist, existents possess form which consciousness identifies, hence consciousness is identification. On the other hand, for the Kantian/Phenomenologist, consciousness by recognizing reality gives it form which in-itself it does not possess, hence consciousness is a ‘form-giver’.

Peterson almost ad litteram fuses Husserl and Sartre when he speaks of a ‘landscape of possibility’ which manifests itself in front of consciousness. A something-for filled with possibilities-for, and when the for-itself (consciousness) acts, Peterson says: “the action of our soul determines the actuality of existence”. This is to be taken both as an ethical and metaphysical statement, the two are intertwined within this framework.

Later on he again uses phenomenological terminology when he speaks of existence ‘revealing’ itself. He says: “the set of facts that reveal themselves to you, are dependent on your values”. Again, this is both a metaphysical and ethical statement. Think of it this way: ‘form is given to chaos according to my values’.

Another object of relevant discussion is Peterson’s view of the ‘narratives’ driving the subconscious, and the metaphysical ‘superficiality’ of consciousness as opposed to it. He says, echoing Nietzsche in this case, that consciousness is a ‘thin layer’, and that what lies underneath it is fundamentally unknowable. I’ll leave this topic for another time.


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