Saturday, September 8, 2018

Why Jordan Peterson Lives in the Signifying Present and Sam Harris Lives in the Signified Past

I just watched the first debate of Jordan Peterson with Sam Harris on YouTube. 

I haven't watched debate #2 yet, but I will. From what I saw so far, this debate displayed the following existential conflict: the capacity to order language and ideas across time, which operates and functions at the level of and functions in, though, and as the a priori, distinguishing, demarcating, meaning-creating centers of activity that precede, transcend, update, and unify meanings (displayed by but never explicitly stated by Peterson), vs Harris' capacity to (only) move ideas and meanings around, which relies on acts of distinguishing, demarcating, and meaning-creation which

a) he's unconscious of

b) were done by others in the past,

c) he doesn't understand the nature of,

and d) he will only admit exist with pressure. And he does (they both call them, I think unhelpfully, "intuitions")

Sam's big idea is that meaning is a function of accounts of what is (facts, in other words), but implicit in Peterson's point (as far as I can tell; he struggles to say this explicitly; I sure did too; English is not a language that lends itself to this kind of thinking) is that meaning is a function of activities that

a) ontologically precede accounts of what is, that is, facts (since it's not clear how an account of what is, which is an act that occurs at a given moment, can also give an account of that in what is that transcends said moment and only exists in, through, and as that transcendence, which is, itself, an activity that creates what is in its wake),

b) transcend accounts of what is (for the same reasons),

c) update accounts of what is (since an account of what is can be demonstrated as wrong by certain new accounts of what is, or facts, that become apparent to us, and since this "becoming apparent" is itself an activity that cannot be accounted for as fact, since it exists in, through, and as the act of transcending accounts of what is),

and d) unify accounts of what is (since this level of activity, as what exists in, through, and as the perpetual transcendence of the accounts of what is that occurs across time, is what allows us to posit that two elements of an account of what is can cohere in some meaningful way as the same account).
In other, much shorter words, Harris moves around elements of meaning that have been situated, whereas Peterson operates at the level of what situates meaning, of meaning (the gerund) itself.

This isn't arbitrary

a) because it's not clear how we can have meaning at all, to not succumb to nihilism, without centers of meaning that precede, transcend, update, and unify individual meanings,

b) because in order to allow one word to succeed another over time instead of another, I have to choose it for some generative, meaning-creating reason, to participate in an activity that privileges one value over another and thereby creates one meaning and not another.

c) because people have different such modes of letting words succeed each other in ways we can talk about and discuss.

d) because these centers of generative activity are, put differently, that which privileges one value over another in action (like speech or writing) are, therefore, what exists in and through meaningful action, are, therefore, what exists as the reason I choose that act over another, and are, therefore, the moral intuitions that Peterson and Harris both agree exist and can't be explained away

and e) because these generative centers, as what unifies a chain of signified meanings across time, is by definition *narrative," and we enjoy narrative as a culture.

TL;DR: Harris lives and works in the signified past and Peterson lives and works in the signifying present. Harris sees meaning as a function of facts, of accounts of what is; Peterson sees meaning as a function of the generative centers that precede, transcend, update, and unify accounts of what is, i.e., moral intuitions. Harris operates only using the logic of "meaning" as a noun, where Peterson also operates at the level where he can use "meaning" as a gerund. The former is trapped by what has been signified and can only see what precedes, transcends, updates, and unifies what has been signified as arbitrary nonsense. The latter knows that this preceding, transcending, updating, unifying activity is not nonsense but is a) the condition for any sense, and b) intelligible and something we can discuss.

Btw, I suspect that Peterson hasn't articulated this to himself, but this distinction seems to be at the heart of their disagreement and, more broadly, certain philosophical conflicts in general (like whether or not Heidegger is saying anything but nonsense).

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