Psychedelics versus modern philosophy

Anyone who studies philosophy has run into the assumption that psychoactive drugs and philosophy go hand-in-hand. Really, after analytic and continental, and whatever other traditions people come up with, there could be another sect, that of “stoner philosophy,” which is something like Mister Rogers, Alan Watts and Bob Ross thrown into a peaceful blender. This is when you’re sitting around getting high, wondering if aliens exist, instead of sitting in a classroom, wondering if other people’s minds exist.

A historical study of this connection, from East to West, would probably scandalize a lot of “serious” philosophers, and show some regular inebriation, but in general, I think the two are opposed (tragically or not). Particularly, the institutionalization of philosophy, when “natural philosophy” and “moral philosophy” etc all became separated some time after Hobbes, is opposed to what it sees as a lay way of thinking about the world. As my philosophy of science professor told me – you become a philosopher when you have your doctorate.

Professional philosophers and “psychonauts” are in opposition to each other. The analytics and continentals have spent centuries building elaborate systems – developing monstrous levels of specificity, so as to make their work completely incomprehensible to the rest of the world – and earning credentials to close the gates of access. Meanwhile, the casual or professional tripper is able to buy a tab for less than $10 and experience, or imagine they experience, market-price existentialism without reading a page of Camus.

The professional philosopher sneers in bad faith at psychedelic profundity because it makes them seem irrelevant.

On the other hand, the inarticulate tripper is not in such a great place. The psychonaut rests on intuition, and is probably not equipt with the critical thinking and logical itinerary to make sense of the journey on the comedown. A trip promises insight but also promises that neither your epistemic priors nor a rational reconstruction will be enough to establish its validity – by its very nature. (Psychedelic knowledge is “revealed,” not “discovered,” right?) You might get an insight that looks good, but is bad, without you knowing it. (I wrote about this in college. Holy shit my writing was bad.)

What happens when you irrationally, psychonautically attach to an idea that’s immune to logical tinkering? If you believe something for irrational reasons you’ll hang on to it for even longer than something that you believed for rational reasons, because new rational reasons can talk you out of a logogenetic idea, but not an irrationally-formed one. Depending on the centrality of the belief, of course.

The psychonaut claims easy knowledge, but could have trouble organizing it in the other, orderly web of belief of his coldly-discovered priors. However, this kind of knowledge has taken a high prestige today, with help from accredited social figures like Steve Jobs dosing LSD. In a way, the win of casual inebriated profundity is a “people’s victory” over the esoteric, pretentious toils of the professional philosophers. If you can figure out Truth by serotonin-fucking yourself on any day of the week then there’s no need to study Heidegger… and there’s even less reason to get a PhD in phenomenology, making institutional philosophy obsolete.

So, philosophers will be opposed to the psychonauts because it trivializes their hard-earned degrees (bad faith), and trivializes all their carefully crafted logic (slightly less bad faith). Psychonauts will be opposed to the philosophers for their specialized field which must explicitly reject such spontaneous routes to knowledge. The people taking psychedelics find themselves fighting some sort of anti-scientific elitism war, doing Feyerabend’s work. The tension is worse with the professional, modern philosophical class, but still exists in general.

A survey of history would show a lot of intertwining, but ultimately, I think the newer age of philosophy has a lot more overlap with other drugs than psychedelics (specifically Epicurean as opposed to elucidatory drugs, e.g. Adderall, analgesics, cocaine) — which is its own interesting question.

7 thoughts on “Psychedelics versus modern philosophy

  1. I love philosophy.

    I also love psychedelics.

    I see them as orthogonal, not as opposed to each other or aligned with each other.

    I don’t interpret an LSD trip (that’s the psychedelic I have the most experience with) as producing “knowledge” per se. It produces an experience that, in the moment, may at times feel like knowledge (or even “gnosis” in a spiritual/religious sense).

    The part that I carry away after the trip is the feeling that things really do make sense somewhere out beyond the edges of my normal experience/perception, and the feeling that maybe I did understand something during the trip.

    But even if that’s true, I can’t fully bring that understanding back to the non-psychedelically-enhanced world with me. Which makes it not subject to analysis or explanation, and thus not philosophical in nature. It’s not knowledge, it’s a (quite possibly false) memory of having had knowledge. And there’s nothing wrong with that, if it makes you feel better about life, the universe and everything and you don’t mistake it for knowledge.

  2. Thanks for a nice meditation on the tension between psychedelics as a claimed source of knowledge and more conventional sources. It is pretty common in analytic philosophy to see the claim that the authority of sensory experience, memory, intuitions, one’s recognition of logical relations, and so forth, comes down to little more than our inclination to accept them. If so, and if psychedelics also produce such an inclination, then why shouldn’t psychedelics be on all fours with more conventional sources? I’m not saying they should be, only that the question raises deep issues.

    Here is a thought-provoking and amusing excursion into the matter by Scott Alexander: I used the piece at the beginning of my epistemology class this semester as a kickstarter, with pretty good results.

    • That piece is very poetic, thanks for sharing. Enjoyed the first comment even more…

      “Obviously this is an allegoric metaphor, but I don’t fully understand it. Perhaps someone can elaborate on what it means in more literal terms?”

  3. When a well-respected Harvard Psychology professor says “I learned more about my brain and its possibilities and more about psychology in the five hours after taking these mushrooms than I had in the preceding fifteen years of studying and doing research in psychology,” you gotta at least listen. My own experience is that psychedelics really do yield philosophical epiphanies, busting open your sense of reality (subjective and objective), but you can’t express them in “normal” language (or in the language of academic philosophy) until you come down, and then only in part. I definitely have enjoyed both — the psychedelic side (experiential, immediate) of philosophy and the professional side (analytical, mediated, reality viewed from an objective distance).

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