Maps of Meaning

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Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief
Maps of Meaning The Architecture of Belief book cover.jpg
AuthorJordan Peterson
SubjectArchetype, Meaning, Behaviorism (Psychology)
Published26th March 1999
Media typePrint
Followed by12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (2018) 

Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief is a 1999 book by Canadian clinical psychologist and psychology professor Jordan Peterson. The book describes a comprehensive theory for how people construct meaning, in a way that is compatible with the modern scientific understanding of how the brain functions.[1] It examines the "structure of systems of belief and the role those systems play in the regulation of emotion",[2] using "multiple academic fields to show that connecting myths and beliefs with science is essential to fully understand how people make meaning".[3]

Background and writing[edit]

Peterson wrote the book for more than 13 years[1] in an attempt to "explain the meaning of history".[4] In it, he briefly reflects on his childhood and on being raised in a Christian family. The responses to his questions about the literal truth of Biblical stories seemed ignorant, causing him to lose interest in attending church. During adolescence and early adulthood he tried finding the answer to "the general social and political insanity and evil of the world" (from Cold War to totalitarianism) and for a short period of time he embraced socialism and political science. Finding himself unsatisfied and falling into a depression, he found inspiration in the ideas of Carl Jung and decided to pursue psychology. He started to write Maps of Meaning in the mid-1980s, and used text from it (then titled as The Gods of War) during his classes when he worked as an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University.[5][6] He intended to use it in an application for tenure at Harvard, but found he wasn't emotionally up to the task and was not "in the position to make the strongest case for myself". He had two children by then so the prospect of steady employment was attractive and he decided to accept the offer from the University of Toronto in 1998.[5]

According to Craig Lambert, writing in Harvard Magazine, the book is influenced by Jung's archetypal view of the collective unconscious and evolutionary psychology. It includes theories of religion and God, natural origin of modern culture, and the bibliography includes Dante Alighieri, Hannah Arendt, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Northrop Frye, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the Brothers Grimm, Stephen Hawking, Laozi, Konrad Lorenz, Alexander Luria, John Milton, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean Piaget, B. F. Skinner, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Voltaire, and Ludwig Wittgenstein among many others.[1][5][6]


The book was published in 1999 by Routledge. The hardcover edition was published in 2002,[7] while the unabridged audiobook edition was released on June 12, 2018, by Penguin Random House Audio.[citation needed] The audiobook debuted on the 4th place of the monthly category Audio Nonfiction by The New York Times Best Seller list in July 2018.[8]


Something we cannot see protects us from something we do not understand. The thing we cannot see is culture, in its intrapsychic or internal manifestation. The thing we do not understand is the chaos that gave rise to culture. If the structure of culture is disrupted, unwittingly, chaos returns. We will do anything – anything – to defend ourselves against that return.

— Jordan Peterson, 1998 (Descensus ad Inferos)[1]

According to Peterson, his main goal was to examine why both individuals and groups participate in social conflict, explore the reasoning and motivation individuals take to support their belief systems (i.e. ideological identification[9]) that eventually results in killing and pathological atrocities like the Gulag, the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide.[1][9][10] He considers that an "analysis of the world's religious ideas might allow us to describe our essential morality and eventually develop a universal system of morality".[10]

According to Peterson, there exists a struggle between chaos (characteristic of the unknown, e.g. nature) and order (characteristic of explored, mapped territory, e.g. culture). Humans with their capability of abstract thinking also make abstract territoriality—the belief systems which "regulate our emotions". A potential threat to an important belief triggers emotional reactions which are potentially followed by pathological attempts to face internal chaos, and "people generally prefer war to be something external, rather than internal ... than re-forming our challenged beliefs". The principle in between is logos (consciousness), and heroic figures are those who develop the culture and society as intermediaries between these two natural forces.[1] In that sense the "myth represents the eternal unknown ... known ... knower", the knower being the hero who "slays the dragon of chaos" like Saint George, resulting in "maturity in the form of individuality".[4] Throughout the book, Peterson attempts to explain how the mind works, while including illustrations with elaborate geometric diagrams (e.g. "The Constituent Elements of Experience as Personality, Territory, and Process").[6]


Harvey Shepard, writing in the religion column of the Montreal Gazette, stated: "To me, the book reflects its author's profound moral sense and vast erudition in areas ranging from clinical psychology to scripture and a good deal of personal soul searching. ...Peterson's vision is both fully informed by current scientific and pragmatic methods, and in important ways deeply conservative and traditional".[11] Sheldon H. White from Harvard University described it as a "brilliant enlargement of our understanding of human motivation ... a beautiful work",[5] while Keith Oatley from University of Toronto as "unique ... a brilliant new synthesis of the meaning of mythologies and our human need to relate in story form the deep structure of our experiences".[12]

Dan Blazer in the American Journal of Psychiatry emphasized that it "is not a book to be abstracted and summarized. Rather, it should be read at leisure (although it is anything but light reading) and employed as a stimulus and reference to expand one’s own maps of meaning".[4] Maxine Sheets-Johnstone in Psycoloquy described it as an "original, provocative, complex, and fascinating book, which is also at times conceptually troubling, unduly repetitive, and exasperating in its format", however the "positive values of the book far outweigh its detractions".[13] The psychologists Ralph W. Hood, Peter C. Hill, and Bernard Spilka, in their book The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach (2009), stated that in regard of the relationship of five factor model to religion, the "dynamic model for the tension between tradition and transformation has been masterfully explored by Peterson (1999) as the personality basis for what he terms the architecture of belief".[14]

In 2017, Camille Paglia commented that there's a link between Maps of Meaning and her Sexual Personae.[5] Although there has been praise for the book, Peterson commented that until 2018 there has been lack of serious critique and he does not "think people had any idea what to make of the book".[5] In 2018, the professor of philosophy Paul Thagard wrote a highly critical review for Psychology Today about the book, describing it as murky and arguing that it is "defective as a work of anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and politics".[15] In a same fashion, Nathan J. Robinson, in his founded magazine Current Affairs article, described it as "an elaborate, unprovable, unfalsifiable, unintelligible theory".[16]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Lambert, Craig (September 1998). "Chaos, Culture, Curiosity". Harvard Magazine.
  2. ^ McCord, Joan. Beyond Empiricism: Institutions and Intentions in the Study of Crime. Transaction Publishers. p. 178. ISBN 978-1-4128-1806-3.
  3. ^ Gregory, Erik M.; Rutledge, Pamela B. (2016), Exploring Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Well-Being, ABC-CLIO, p. 154, ISBN 978-1-61069-940-2
  4. ^ a b c Blazer, Dan (February 1, 2000). "Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief". American Journal of Psychiatry. 157 (157): 299–300. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.157.2.299-a. Retrieved March 4, 2018.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Bartlett, Tom (January 17, 2018). "What's So Dangerous About Jordan Peterson?". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved January 19, 2018.
  6. ^ a b c Sanneh, Kelefa (March 5, 2018). "Jordan Peterson's Gospel of Masculinity". The New Yorker. Retrieved March 3, 2018.
  7. ^ Peterson, Jordan B. (11 September 2002), Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, Routledge, ISBN 1-135-96174-3
  8. ^ "Audio Nonfiction". The New York Times. 1 July 2018. Retrieved 3 August 2018.
  9. ^ a b Krendl, Anne C. (April 26, 1995). "Jordan Peterson: Linking Mythology to Psychology". The Harvard Crimson.
  10. ^ a b "Summary and Guide to Jordan Peterson's Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief", Scribd, pp. 2–3, August 2015, retrieved March 3, 2018
  11. ^ Shepherd, Harvey (November 11, 2003). "Meaning from Myths". Montreal Gazette.
  12. ^ "Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief Paperback". Retrieved March 3, 2018.
  13. ^ Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine (2000). "The psychology of what is and what should be: An experiential and moral psychology of the known and the unknown: Review of Peterson on Meaning-Belief". Psycoloquy. 11 (124). Retrieved March 4, 2018.
  14. ^ Hood, Ralph W.; Hill, Peter C.; Spilka, Bernard (2009). The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach (4 ed.). Guilford Press. pp. 236–237. ISBN 978-1-60623-392-4.
  15. ^ Paul Thagard (12 March 2018). "Jordan Peterson's Murky Maps of Meaning". Retrieved September 22, 2018.
  16. ^ Nathan J. Robinson (14 March 2018). "The Intellectual We Deserve". Retrieved May 19, 2018.

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