Events vs. States

Rule 3 in Jordan Peterson’s Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life reads, “Do not hide unwanted things in the fog,” and it is about neglecting apparently small problems, the risks of living with and tolerating these problems for too long, and cumulative effect of doing so over time. A useful distinction here is between one’s general state and particular events one faces. Small, repetitive problems might not themselves count as significant events, but they change one’s general state, which means they make us vulnerable to other negative events. When we react to a significant life event, like losing our job or losing a loved one, our reaction and the event may not tell the whole story. Part of the story is the background of the event. Our reaction has as much to do with our general states as it has to do with the “significant” event. So the point is to take care of the general state, to take measures that improve the background against which particular events occur.

Causation vs. Catalysis

There is point here (relevant, not only for everyday life, but also for psychological research) that I want to highlight, with an example. Imagine that I go to the bakery to buy some bread and I find that there is an unusually long line at the counter. After waiting for a couple of minutes, I get angry and decide to quit the line and leave the bakery. A superficial description of this scenario would give a causal image of the sequence of events: long queue –> angry exit. Here the queue is identified as the cause of my anger. A more appropriate description includes also the background and my general state. Here the line is not the cause but the catalyst. Jaan Valsiner and colleagues, have criticized the emphasis in psychological research on causality and the neglect of catalysis and “causal fields” in which chains of events appear to take place (but the chain of events depends on the the entire causal field) (see, e.g., Cabell & Valsiner, 2013; Hibberd, 2010).

Peterson includes several examples in this chapter, most having to do with marriage. He talks about how, for instance, one person in a marriage might have an irritating habit that over time destroys the marriage. It is a small, harmless habit, but its effect builds up over time. The other person tries to keep calm, but eventually snaps! One’s own insecurity can also build up over time, if it is not appropriately communicated. In many ways, this chapter is about communication and the trust and good will that are necessary for communication. Trust and good form the general background of communication.

I like the metaphor of the fog as the general space of ambiguity in our lives. Most of us, at least with regard to some areas of life, accept our ignorance, our uncertainties, and limited ability. In that sense we all have that foggy space, but we should be careful not to push things mindlessly into that zone, not to let the foggy area become oversized.

Criticism

Peterson’s language is, again, excessively serious. The theological language of good and evil, heaven and hell, is excessive in most everyday situations. I don’t need to bring God and the angels into the discussion if I am simply annoyed at how my friend is eating his soup. We need less extreme, more playful, categories for thinking about everyday situations. Serious thinking, critical thinking, being mindful and reflective don’t have to be equated with Peterson’s theological metaphors of hell, the devil, the fall, and so forth.

Another point is that the notion of self or personal identity discussed in this chapter is quite fixed and inflexible. Based on Peterson’s scenarios, two people might be married but they each remain in their separate, individual world. Peterson’s style seem to presuppose an irredeemable isolation and loneliness for each person. In my understanding, people’s identities are formed in a marriage or even in friendships. A “we” is developed as a result of living with someone, which is distinct from “you” and “I”. That kind of “we” or “collective identity”, even the collective identity of a family doesn’t come into play in Peterson’s description of marriage problems. Perhaps it will come up in future chapters. And I will turn to those in future posts.

Reference:

Cabell, K. R., & Valsiner, J. (Eds.). (2013). The catalyzing mind: Beyond models of causality. Springer.

Hibberd, F. J. (2010). Situational realism, critical realism, causation and the charge of positivism. History of the Human Sciences23(4), 37-51.