“To admit to any intention to use chemical substances, whether found in nature or synthesized in laboratories, in the aim of changing one’s apprehension of reality, is to leave the guild of the philosophers behind, with all its constricting norms and shibboleths, and to join the company, over in the deep end of the pool of life, of sundry countercultural weirdos and deviants.”
So writes Justin E. H. Smith (University of Paris 7 – Denis Diderot) in an article in Wired, in which he discusses, in his characteristically erudite manner and enviably delightful prose, his use of psychedelic drugs.He continues:
This shows, I think, just how conservative philosophy remains, in some respects, as an academic discipline. At a cultural moment when psychedelics are getting a second wind, and even someone as upstanding as Michael Pollan has moved from counseling us to eat our roughage to praising the benefits of microdosing, philosophers are conducting themselves as though it were still 1950, when we wore skinny ties to colloquia, got funding from the RAND Corporation to work on decision trees and other such narrow and straitlaced endeavors, and all knew that it is the unaltered and wakeful mind that has exclusive access to the forms and qualities of the external world.
Yet we don’t know any such thing:
For all our efforts, we still are not one step closer to apprehending the things in themselves. It is not that science hasn’t progressed—of course it has—but rather that the problem is conceptual and not empirical. You can’t perceive the thing that lies behind what you are perceiving, since the instant you do perceive it, it no longer lies behind but is front and center. Given what appears to be this logically necessary stalemate between us and the world, it seems inevitable that alternative accounts of the fundamental nature of reality—alternative ontologies, as we say—should keep returning and drawing off at least some philosophers who get fed up with an external world that demands our loyalty yet refuses to show itself.
In at least some of these alternative ontologies, the visions that come to us unbidden, in the liminal states of insobriety, hypnagogia, or theurgic ecstasy, are not to be dismissed out of hand as obstacles to our apprehension of truth, but may in fact be vehicles of truth themselves.
And so we get this professionally- and self-aware “confession” and recommendation:
I am aware I’m pushing up against the limits of respectability dictated by the implicit norms of my discipline, but I’ve gone about as far as I was ever destined to go in the ranks of this guild, and I’ve got nothing, and no one, to be afraid of. So I’m just going to come right out and say it: I am a philosopher who has taken an interest, of late, in psychedelic experimentation, and I find that my experiments have significantly widened the range of accounts of the nature of reality that I am disposed to take seriously. If you think you are in an emotional state to handle it, and in a legal jurisdiction that permits it, and you think you might benefit from being jolted out of your long-held ontological commitments, then I would recommend that you try some psychotropic drugs as well.
What’s to be gained? Perhaps more of that thing philosophy is most certain to produce: uncertainty. Smith says:
I am significantly less cocky now, my cluelessness is more evident to me, a constant that accompanies me in each moment of the day. No one seems more pathetic to me, now, in their own cluelessness, than the self-styled “realists” who prejudicially and without any grounds go on supposing that they have a firm grasp of concepts like “nature,” “matter,” “being,” “thing,” “world,” “self,” that this grasp flows directly from their acceptance of the plain evidence of reason buttressed by empirical discovery, and that the question of how many kinds of being there are, and of the nature of these beings, is one that has been definitively settled over the past few centuries of naturalistic inquiry…
While I remain as uncertain as ever about the ultimate structure of the world, I also have new inclinations, and new sympathies, toward accounts of it that had previously struck me as altogether off the table. That widening is itself a sort of newfound knowledge, even if it contains no new certainties.
Smith shares how some of the insights he has gained or developed while experimenting with drugs. Understanding how far out he might sound to the rest of us—while the article appears in Wired, it does seem like he is writing especially to his fellow philosophers—he voices, and answers, some skeptical questions:
Are any of these lucubrations to be taken at all seriously? Or do they just describe how the world appears to one sorry fellow who’s got a “brain on drugs”? (Readers of a certain age will at this point picture an egg in a frying pan.) Well yes, of course it’s a brain on drugs, but this just returns us to the original problem: Your brain is always on drugs. That is, there is always a neurochemical correlate to any of your conscious perceptions whatsoever. You might be tempted to say that supplementing gets in the way of correct perception, and that the only reliable way of apprehending the world as it is must depend only on the default setting of the mind, with no extras. But again, even this setting delivers us delirious hallucinations for about eight hours out of each 24. Moreover, it is hard to conceive of any valid argument against supplementation…
Read the whole thing here.
Smith is not the only philosopher who has been paying attention to psychedelics lately. Chris Letheby (University of Western Australia) authored Philosophy of Psychedelics, published by Oxford University Press in 2021, as well as a number of articles about psychedelics (for example, he makes points about the possible epistemic benefits of psychedelics in his 2016 “The Epistemic Innocence of Psychedelic States“). Last year saw the publication of Philosophy and Psychedelics: Frameworks for Exceptional Experience (Bloomsbury), a collection edited by Christine Hauskeller and Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes (Exeter). This year, a collection edited by Letheby and Philip Gerrans (Adelaide), Philosophical Perspectives on the Psychedelic Renaissance, is due out from Oxford.