This Is a Philosopher on Drugs
Justin E. H. Smith
There is something strange in the disinterest philosophers show for experimentation with mind-altering drugs—or at least for talking about their experimentation publicly. At the margins of philosophical writing, we have Walter Benjamin’s record of his dabblings in hashish and Michel Foucault’s casual admission in interviews that he would rather be dropping acid in the Mojave Desert than sipping wine in Paris. Even further out we have philosophy-curious writers like Thomas de Quincey (also a biographer of Immanuel Kant) recounting his own experience of opium addiction. And then we have probabilities and speculation. The natural philosopher Johannes Kepler likely tried some fly agaric before writing his 1608 treatise of lunar astronomy, the Somnium (read it and you’ll see what I mean). The third-century Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus might have availed himself of some herbal or fungal supplements to help him achieve his many out-of-body experiences, which he liked to call henosis, or “ecstatic union with the One.”
I’m probably missing a few notable cases. But still, for the most part, 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.
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.
But wait a minute. Even in the mid-20th century, perhaps especially in the mid-20th century, years before the postwar generation was turning on, tuning in, and dropping out en masse, perfectly sober grown-up philosophers understood full well that the reports our senses give us of the physical world hardly settle the matter of what reality in itself is like. The problem is ancient but was sharpened in the early work of Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore, who together articulated a cluster of problems around the concept of “sense-data.”
As Russell would put the point in the 1940s, when we are looking at a table as we walk away from it, what we see shrinks continually; but the table does not shrink; therefore, what we see simply cannot be the table itself. What we see, rather, is only what is given to sense, and the full account will have to involve the physics of light and the physiology of the brain and of the organs of sense as much as it involves the properties, to the extent that these can be known, of any external object. But if we have to take account of what the perceiver brings to the instance of perception in order to make any sense at all of what perception is, then it would seem to follow that perception should also be of interest to philosophers when there is no external object at all—or at most a hallucination of one.
Of course, philosophers are interested in hallucination, even if they prefer to draw their examples from case studies of schizophrenia or Oliver Sacks–style pathologies, or from more mild varieties of optical illusion that happen even to the mentally sane (heat wave “oases,” straight sticks emerging from water as if bent). But they are generally interested in it only as a challenge, as an obstacle standing between them and what they would ultimately like to establish: that, namely, there is a real and all-important difference between the perception that is anchored in how the external world actually is and the perception that would seem to come from inside of us. There is a difference between waking and dreaming, in other words, and waking for them is incontestably the superior state to dwell in and the only one that is worthy of a philosopher. For philosophers seek the truth, which is something that can be furnished only to a mind not currently subject to the chimeras of psychosis, of dreaming, or of drugs.
But again, the problem is ancient, which is a pretty reliable sign that it is also intractable. 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. Here 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.