Jordan Peterson vs. Iain McGilchrist

Andrew Sweeny
5 min readFeb 21, 2018

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Two of the best books I’ve read in the past 5 years are ‘The Master and his Emissary’ by Iain McGilchrist, and ‘Map’s of Meaning’ by Jordan Peterson. I was therefore thrilled that a dialogue, however short and sweet, has taken place between these two titans. These are men who — to use the pop-culture term — have ‘red-pilled’ a lot of people, taken us down a deep rabbit hole of illumination, inversion, great beauty and sometimes sheer terror.

To my mind, both Peterson and McGilChrist have done something monumental. They have brought together warring worlds: in other words, they have made the bridge from the hard sciences to the arts; they have united phenomenology and psychology, religion and empiricism, poetry and objectivity. In an age of specialization it is rare to make a grand, multidisciplinary gestures, but both have the empirical rigor to match their depth and vision. Through deep feeling and hard thinking, they have succeeded in restoring relationship between the It (the objective world of tools and concepts) with the Thou (the living world of subjective mystery) to use Martin Buber’s terms.

Peterson’s mission is to bring ‘habitable order’ and coherent meaning to the chaos of the world (in other words, clean up your room, bucko!) McGilchrist, on the other hand, criticises the modern mania for too much control and arbitrary order. While he acknowledging the necessity of logic and the scientific method, he pushes us towards the living mystery of the right hemisphere. Peterson asks us to make form out of chaos, which seems at least on the surface to be the function of the left brain — this is seemingly the opposite approach of McGilchrist. But is there necessarily a contradiction between these two views? Peterson also shows that the archetypal hero has to experience the underworld of chaos and disorder to bring his gifts to civilization.

McGilchrist tells us that civilizations reach their zenith when both hemispheres (metaphorically speaking again) exist in proper relationship, when the right brain — based on depth, the body, and intuition — is sovereign. The right brain ‘master’ should rule over the more instrumental, mapping, and technocratic left-brain ‘servant’. Peterson, on the other hand, talks about how mythological and traditional boundaries provide the proper framework to orient ourselves in a world of suffering and malevolence; how logos, or articulated truth-speech, creates order from chaos and frees us from ideological possession.

McGilchrist argues for fluidity and metaphor (perhaps the feminine in symbolic terms), whereas Peterson calls for order and boundaries (a more masculine approach). However, it is not true that McGilchrist is against reason, only that he distinguishes it from mere rationality. The left brain ‘rations’ or reduces things into ‘bits’. Reason, as opposed to rationality, brings us a more holistic perspectives, which includes the metaphysical and the religious. Mere rationality cuts us off from the right hemisphere and leads to extreme scientific reductionism and cultural fragmentation. But reason, balanced with intuition, connected us to the whole, complex being.

Peterson is not as conservative and order obsessed (or left hemisphere oriented) as all that however. He speaks of a need for a balance between order and chaos, conservatism and liberalism, the masculine and the feminine. Perhaps the difference between the two, is that McGilchrist privileges the right brain as the ‘master’. I wonder if Peterson would agree with his thesis?

I sensed some friendly tensions in their preliminary discussion when Peterson suggested that it was unusual for McGilchrist to privilege the right hemisphere. Traditionally, the left brain rules the ‘right hand’ functions of tool-making, language, and generally making manageable order of chaos. McGilchrist, to counter this, suggested Peterson has leaned too much towards order rather than the richness of the right hemisphere. This may be a legitimate critique of some of Peterson’s ‘low resolution’ ideas, which can, at times, be overly reductive in the service of polemical statements.

This tension may also have to do with the differences in personalities of the two men. McGilchrist appears almost camera shy—he has admitted to a tendency towards melancholy — he is very connected to the bittersweetness of the heart, to put it poetically. McGilchrist appears to be an introvert and doesn’t seem to cherish the public eye; whereas Peterson is an obvious a combative extrovert and has taken to the public stage with a certain relish.

Perhaps we could say Peterson has an excess of charisma and McGilchrist an excess of sadness. This is not a critique — we need more excess in this conformist society: ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’, as William Blake has said. Certainly, Peterson has used left brained ‘anger’ to cut through the superficialities of the culture — but with deep ‘right brain’ depth and feeling for the issues at hand. McGilchrist, on the other hand, has combined his ‘right brained’ oriented depth — for music and painting for instance — with the empirical ‘left-brained’ sphere of brain science and philosophy. It should also be added that both men have considerable clinical experience, and offer very practical, rather than merely intellectual observations.

I consider Peterson and McGilchrist to be heroes of a sort, because they moved from left brain abstraction to unity and integration, where the master is no longer a slave to his tools, but uses them wisely. Their task has been bring the shadow puppet to life — to move from the dead matter of mere conceptuality, to the living world of the spirit.We are lucky to have great integrative thinkers around, which we need at this moment to heal the wounds of extreme fragmentation and polarization.

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A series of articles that compare Jordan Peterson to different thinkers and public figures:

Camille Paglia

Ken Wilber:

Slavov Zizek:

Russel Brand:



Andrew Sweeny

Compressed scraps of angel melody, stories, essays, rants against reductionism, commands from the deep.