By Jonathan Rowson
It is a pleasure to share the video below, which features an extraordinary conversation between Iain McGilchrist and Jordan Peterson. Through various twists of fate, support from the RSA and Peterson’s agents, Perspectiva managed to create the opportunity for Iain and Jordan to speak with each other after the RSA event and just before Peterson caught a flight to Amsterdam. Both thinkers share the rare capacity to connect scientific training with deep philosophical questions and there is clearly mutual admiration. They had met very briefly over lunch but Jordan had attended a lecture Iain had given in Toronto and Iain was broadly familiar with Peterson’s work. I considered chairing the discussion, but felt I would just get in the way, so instead I asked them to follow the spirit of conversation outlined on page 254 of 12 Rules for Life.
“The people involved in such a conversation must be discussing ideas they genuinely use to structure their perceptions and guide their actions and words. They must be existentially involved with their philosophy: that is, they must be living it, not merely believing or understanding it. They must also have inverted, at least temporarily, the typical human preference for order over chaos…Other conversational types – except for the listening type – all attempt to buttress some existing order. The conversation of mutual exploration, by contrast, requires people who have decided that the unknown makes a better friend than the known.”
And with that, I had no idea what would follow. What I found most striking was how the listening process quickly and eagerly led to new perspectives on absolutely fundamental questions.
For those who don’t know the fuller context, Iain McGilchrist is a Psychiatrist and author of The Master and his Emissary. As indicated previously, that magisterial book is ostensibly about neuroscience and cultural history but really it’s about attention. A proper inquiry into how the hemispheres are (left focussing narrowly and seeking to use; right considering broadly and vigilantly, seeking to understand) reveals that we attend to the world in two completely different ways, and that our unified consciousness is a kind of illusion. This illusion serves us well when the hemispheres are in balance, but we need to understand that illusion better when they are not, as is the case today. (I once tried to figure what some of the social and political implications of this perspective might be here, but it’s crucial to grasp that the distinction is absolutely not about what the hemispheres do as such; it’s not for instance about left doing language and right doing creativity).
Jordan Peterson is a Professor of Psychology and Clinical Psychologist who is currently travelling the world and promoting his new book 12 Rules of Life. He has a huge digital footprint and was described in the New York Times as the most influential public intellectual in the West at the present moment. A defining theme of his new book is the relationship between chaos and order, which does not map on to Iain’s hemispheric distinction precisely, but there is a curious overlap, as indicated in the discussion.
The interview begins with an overview of Iain’s book, moves towards Peterson considering how the orienting reflex might relate to Jung’s interpretation of dreams. And then they move into chaos and order, God, Jewish myths, and much more. My favourite line from Peterson is “Things are patterns that people have made into tools.”
At around 8 minutes Iain notes that Peterson appears to think our role is to impose order on chaos, while Iain’s inclination is that chaos and order need each other and the challenge is to keep them in balance. It was an observation and open-ended question with a range of implications, and it was noteworthy that Peterson responded:
“That’s as deep a question as you could possibly ask.”