Philosophy and Psychedelics. Frameworks for Exceptional Experiences - Christine Hauskeller and Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes (eds.)
Philosophy and Psychedelics. Frameworks for Exceptional Experiences - Christine Hauskeller and Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes (eds.)
Review by Richard Saville-Smith
Imagine a box of chocolates with an invitation to choose which of the rich objects of delight to eat first. Begin with the packaging on the box, the pinks, whites, blues of inarticulate meanings, invoking a hallucinatory cosmic flux, soothing not jarring, overlaid by the bold white temptation: ‘Philosophy and Psychedelics’, where there are no bad choices besides eating too much at once. The words of the title sound so different when mouthed, the first soft and rolling, like a conversation on a long road to somewhere, the second harder, more self-aware, a class of drugs, when the war on drugs is not over and the contemporary chat about a psychedelic renaissance may be the provocation which ensures its continuation or its conclusion in a peace without justice. The small pink lettering of the subtitle: ‘Frameworks for Exceptional Experience’ provides the key, this is not an attempt to snuff out questions under the tarmac of ready answers. This bouquet of essays provides new ways of reading the late flowering of philosophy. Instead of old answers we’re offered new ways of asking old questions in the light of radical experiences of psychedelics – drugs which make the soul shine. As the editors, Christine Hauskeller and Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes, propose in their introduction, this is a conjugation of philosophy and psychedelics. Each essay is a novel account of an explosive experimental encounter of words and experience, the dynamic is novel, the energy insane. The idea of a series of conjugal visit between philosophy and psychedelics is already more striking than my metaphors of chocolates or flowers. Sex, flowers and chocolates is an excessive combination rarely found in a library, but at £85 a copy it is in the library where this excess will take place.
Writing a review of any collection of essays presents an invidious problem, a little of everything or a deeper engagement with a few? As the contributor details and the introduction, with an overview of each contribution, is available on Amazon, I’ve chosen the latter approach. Christine Hauskeller’s contribution ‘Individualization and Alienation in Psychedelic Psychotherapy’ is the most potent exploration of the intersection between psychiatry/psychotherapy, psychedelics and madness and in a review for the Psychiatry and Philosophy website demands consideration. After that, I could choose a few other papers, but my discovery that four of the fifteen essays are substantially devoted to the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) raises questions. The editors organise the material according to author surname on the charming conceit that the volume has no cluster of themes. But this prevalence of interest in Whitehead suggests otherwise and the idea of process philosophy piques my interest in both psychedelics and madness. So, the second part of this review will be devoted to understanding how and why an early 20th century philosopher speaks to the experience of psychedelics today.
Part 1. ‘Individualization and Alienation in Psychedelic Psychotherapy’
Christine Hauskeller’s analysis invokes critical theorists (Horkheimer, Adorno, Foucault, Habermas) in her exploration of contemporary paradoxes in the medicalisation of psychedelics which, in her phrase, sees psychiatrists “inducing madness to cure madness”. I will get to the particular challenges of this loose use of the term ‘mad’ shortly, but I don’t want to obscure her penetrating analysis of the contemporary tangle of the historical context, which I broadly summarise:
Against a background in which psychiatry addresses mental abnormality as a dysfunction of the individual, within the social machinery of post-enlightenment capitalism, the political prohibition of psychedelics is being undone by an appeal to their therapeutic benefits. The demonstration of efficacy paradoxically invokes the scientific method which conforms individuals to pre-existing psychiatric classifications, thereby standardising them as patients and eradicating their individuality. Hauskeller explicitly distinguishes traditional psychiatric pharmacology (e.g. lithium & phenothiazines) from the unpredictable individual experience of psychedelics, which might readily be characterised as an internal philosophical encounter, rather an external attempt to remedy putative chemical imbalances in an object group. In this analysis, the strategy (e.g. pursued by Rick Doblin’s Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies [MAPS]) in which the dance of the phased trials scientific method is endured to unlock a next stage leading towards the qualified social acceptance through medicalised approval/regulation/control. In this context, the ultimate aspiration for non-medical usage, can be seen as hopelessly naïve. The neoliberal interests of the medico-industrialised complex depend on the control of the use, rather than the control of the supply, as psychedelics are cheaply and easily manufactured. The absence of a route to psychedelic use outside of a medicalised context will restrict access to individuals who have already been processed as being mentally dysfunctional, who need to be repaired to return them to being normal functionaries within the capitalist system. That this ‘science’ of psychedelics is predicated on recourse to archaic concepts of ‘mysticism’ is a bizarre twist in this continuing dance of science, money and social control. I have some sympathy for this argument even if, in its condensation, it presents a scenario fitting of a Huxley novel (see Chapter 4: Power and the Sublime in Aldous Huxley’s Drug Aesthetic).
The primary paradox Hauskeller opens with, and repeats several times, is the idea of “psychiatry inducing madness to cure madness” which attributes custodianship of psychedelics to psychiatrists. I struggle with this formulation. It may have been the case back in first generation psychedelic research, but the esprit in second generation is not being led by mainstream psychiatrists. There may be individuals like Roland Griffiths and David Nutt who trained as psychiatrists, but in the same way psychology was spun out of philosophy in America, psychedelic research has become a distinct specialisation, a separate bubble which has become more closely aligned with psychotherapy than psychiatry. This replicates the traditional pattern of dysfunction which allows main-stream psychiatry to continue avoiding the psychosocial by looking the other way. Whilst this bifurcation may be fuzzy in university research and the regulatory institutions which overarch the public/private, psychiatry/psychotherapy distinctions, the current divergence represents an additional twist in Hauskeller’s complex tale about the relationships between money, power and psychedelics. Rosalind Watts’ recourse to the private sector to provide online integration services for £150 a month per client, may not fit Hauskeller’s model of rapacious businesses, but it is in this soft power of therapy, not the drugs, where profits lie and the future history of psychedelics cannot be separated from the known history of ethical entropy - as less scrupulous practitioners seek to cash in. Right now, MAPS is under pressure for instances of abuse in America and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation recently reported a psychedelic-assisted therapist advocating their role as “one of the most popular and, I guess, sexy professions around at the moment” whilst another posts about “that moment when you realise you’ve been taking peeps psychedelic virginity since your teens; and now you get paid for it”. The power asymmetries are obvious, and the alarm bells are already ringing. Traditional oppositions to psychiatry, which takes Foucault’s anachronistic world of institutional oppression as contemporary practice can be revised in the context of a wider discussion of his ideas about biopower which goes far beyond psychiatry.
Even when it isn’t psychiatrists who are “inducing madness to cure madness”, the phrase still requires deconstruction. Firstly, madness does not belong to the pathologizing lexicon of psychiatry – it belongs to the world of experience. Secondly, madness as a singular term, underrepresents diversity. To return the phrase to the psychiatric lexicon, it could read “inducing psychosis to cure psychosis”. This is helpful because it would never happen, psychedelics are not used to treat psychosis. The psychotics amongst us fall at the exclusion criteria of every psychedelic trial I’ve ever read. But there is something of interest here. When the psychiatrist Humphry Osmond introduced the term psychedelics it was to replace to the prevailing term psychotomimetics, the mimicking of psychosis. If psychedelics mimic psychosis (somewhere between family resemblance and analogue), then the idea of using psychosis to treat anxiety/depression/addiction/palliative care/PTSD/OCD is both charming and challenging. The idea of folding the psychiatric classification system on itself, to treat the dysfunctional patters of the mind with the explosion of psychosis (whether psychedelic or not) seems congruent with the idea of the human as their own pharmakon - both poison and cure. This idea spills the discussion beyond a specialist interest in psychedelics into mainstream psychiatry and raises fundamental questions about the inherent pathology of psychosis – as psychiatrised madness - throwing an epistemological spanner into the heart of the psychiatric presupposition that madness is invariably badness.
This argument does nothing to blunt Hauskeller’s critique of the current medicalised models of psychedelics and how, right before our eyes, dysfunctional interests of profit and power risk obstructing the wider use of psychedelics for the betterment of life.
Part 2 – Four faces of Alfred North Whitehead
Essays 2, 6, 12 & 15 in this volume engage with Whitehead’s process philosophy. I treat them in reverse order for the sake of impact and flow.
In Essay 15, ‘Arguments for the Psychedelic Cure of Western Philosophy’, Michel Weber opens with a one-two punch to Western philosophy of mind, targeting two pernicious crutches: Aristotelian Logic; and the reduction of perception to sight. This is an encouragingly bold start which presages the challenge of Whitehead to both contemporary philosophy of mind and neuroscience. Without Aristotelian logic and with sight downgraded to its proper place in the panoply of perception, Whitehead’s proposal for living in this world is already more interesting, more experiential, more visceral, more tactile and more strange, because less certain. Relying on our proprioceptive field provides for “the fundamental organic anchorage of our identity.” (p251) Weber points to a further cognitive field beyond the ‘withness’ of the body, to a process cosmology which re-enchants the world: the tables are tabling, the walls are walling, in a world of events rather than things. Whether this is interoceptive or exteroceptive becomes a muted question, and here, inside and outside commune. This is a world in which psychedelics do not defeat Western philosophy of mind by proving it wrong, but by dazzling it, by showing the potential of life, gloved in Weber’s punchy invitation to make it better.
With that in the bag, it’s already obvious that we’re going places where the veracity of psychedelic experiences is simply the wrong question. In Essay 12 ‘Altered Consciousness after Descartes: Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism as Psychedelic Realism’ Matthew Seagall imaginatively develops the idea of Descartes having a bad trip, in which a demon abolishes his world of certainties which crumble in an apophatic cavalcade of doubt. I have never felt so sympathetic towards Descartes, who is left with his paranoia and his unquestioned presupposition of God as his only certainties. Seagall reminds his readers that Descartes’ project was driven by a radical dependence on the divine. The mind/body, man/nature dualism of modernity and scientific materialism simplistically misrepresents Descartes’ system in which the divine plays a meta-role which reconciles man and nature. But putting God back into dualism is a slogan no one chants today, the corrective may be thinkable, but the damage is done. Instead, Seagall proposes a psychedelic realism which explores psychedelics as entheogens as a way of reimagining the nature of the divine ground, but now in process theological terms.
By starting with Whitehead’s celebration of Descartes’ discovery that ‘subjective experiencing is the primary metaphysical situation which is presented to metaphysics for analysis’ the temptation to dichotomise Descartes and Whitehead is replaced by the need for an experientially grounded account of a less paranoid reality. Whitehead’s solution privileges the aesthetic, feelings become the basis of our cognitive power and he introduces the neologism ‘prehension’ to name his idea of knowing-as-feeling. Prehension bridges the bifurcated categories of mind and nature by subtending both. Rejecting an antagonistic dualism between subjective idealism and objective materialism, Whitehead’s organic realism advocates for interrelated occasions of experience in which we are part of the same reality which we are attempting to know. God is the cosmic poet, beckoning rather than commanding all finite actual occasions of experience toward the most beautiful possible future.
In chapter 6, Michel Halewood returns to the first principles of Humphry Osmond’s neologism ‘psychedelic’ which he translates as ‘Making Your Soul Visible’ (I prefer shiny soul) and reads this through Whitehead’s philosophy. Halewood disarmingly concedes Whitehead didn’t present a theory of the soul, but this plays well for Halewood allowing him a certain freedom to creatively explore the idea of psyche/soul in both psychedelic experience and Whitehead’s texts. In this reading of Whitehead, the soul is beyond fact or value and does not rely on the operations or priority of reason, rationality or even consciousness. Halewood elaborates by reference to Whitehead’s concept of ‘propositions’, a term he juxtaposes to the propositions of analytic philosophy which are decontextualised from the world. In Whitehead’s process philosophy, propositions involve a shift in emphasis from truth and falsehood to the quality of experience, linking thought to excitement. The analytic philosopher’s urge to constrain, define, rationalise and understand involves clipping a moment out of the process of reality, like examining a jar of water taken from a stream (of consciousness). By contrast, for Whitehead, propositions require to be felt, rather than judged as true of false. When we are faced with an actuality, a situation, an event, we do not just calmly and passively assess it - we feel it.
But there is more. In Whitehead’s philosophy, consciousness is also about what things are not, as well as what they are, allowing Halewood to suggest that Whitehead grants conscious experience and hallucinations the same ontological basis and justification. Halewood introduces Whitehead’s concept of ‘entertainment’ as an alternative to the analytic search for truth. A proposition is entertained when it is admitted into feeling. Horror, relief, purpose, are primarily feelings involving the entertainment of propositions. Whitehead is not distracted by the simple and uninteresting distinction between appearance and reality. Reality is process - and the primary mode of realization of a proposition is not by judgment but by entertainment. Consciousness is just one form of experience which Whitehead considers to be discontinuous, its particular capacity is to contrast what is and what might be, to understand what is not and what else a thing might be. Halewood places psychedelics within nature, not as access to a hidden realm, but as an intensification of experience which privileges possibility over veridical truth. The fairies dance and Christ is nailed to the cross and, according to Halewood, the denial of such beliefs is a measure of philosophy’s inadequacy. By entertaining such propositions, it is not consciousness which is primary, but feeling, both the conformal and the more interesting non-conformal, more interesting because it introduces novelty which elides with originality, creativity, life, as opposed to tradition.
And, so we end at the beginning with John Buchanan’s question “What is Real(ity)?” in chapter 2, a first question prior to a first philosophy. In accord with Weber and Seagall (both above) Buchanan frames the problem in the Western philosophical discourse as the dominance of mechanistic materialism. Whilst Whitehead had read Bergson, James and Dewey, Buchanan also reads Whitehead in the light of Wilber and Grof.
Buchanan draws attention to the organic philosophy of Whitehead who in his philosophy of the organism replaces Hume’s notion of an enduring human subject and his derivative concept of perception. These are replaced with moments of subjective experience interconnected by the direct flow of unconscious causal feeling; the mode of access to reality, as a ‘more primary’ mode of perception – ‘prehension’. Feelings of hunger, pain, or sexual arousal are suggested as examples, but by including these ideas, prehension is not reduced to such biological prompts with memory, inspiration and creativity instanced as contributory to the flow of feeling – the really real of Whiteheadian metaphysics comprises occasions of experience – whatever they may be, and nothing can be omitted. Prehension is a direct flow of causal feeling between momentary, mostly unconscious, events providing a unique way of understanding the nature of human experience and its relation to its bodily matrix. In this scheme, the brain’s neural events are in constant interaction with the human-level unifying events that constitute the personal order or ‘soul’ of the human being. Thus, human moments of experience are not the same as the brain matrix of neural events, nor are the mind and brain two aspects of the same underlying stuff. Rather, a new series of far more intricate experiential events arises largely out of its brain activities. This higher-order series of events generates the depth, complexity, and unity of the human psyche. Neuroscience may attempt to read the brain, but it will never read the soul.
Whitehead is a difficult read. These windows of interpretation, and the overlapping points of connection to the Whitehead lexicon, provide reassurances that each author has drunk deeply of the Whitehead brew. These diverse essays not only provide a critique of Western philosophy (dualism, logic, the privileging of sight), they also point to Whitehead as a process focussed philosophy which is fit for purpose in a psychedelic context. By re-reading Whitehead in the light of psychedelics the relevance jumps out, the continual dynamic, the novelty of the unimaginable imaginary, the letting go, the overwhelming immediacy of experience. In Philosophy of Psychedelics (2019) Chris Letheby frames the psychedelic experience terms of epistemic virtue – which is philosophical jargon for his way of seeing. By contrast, Whitehead philosophically advocates letting go but offers philosophy ‘as the self-correction by consciousness of its own initial excess of subjectivity’ offering routes through the downclimb and the reintegration of the shiny soul.
As Whitehead’s philosophy is disproportionately represented in Philosophy and Psychedelics it seems a reasonable question to ask why? Amongst the mundane answers that perhaps the editors are particularly familiar with Whitehead scholars, it is possible to entertain the idea that Whitehead’s process philosophy is particularly well suited to address common experiences which arise in psychedelic accounts. It is less possible (for me) to imagine the psychedelic encounter with the transcendental categories of Kant amidst the dirty beauty of the particular within the peaks and troughs of psychedelic experience. Meanwhile, the rolling unfolding of the Hegelian dialectic has so little to say about the meaning of now and his dialectical process may be better described by Bleuler’s paranoid concept of ambivalence. Meanwhile, Western materialism is always too superficial and life denying, proclaimed by the prophets who profit from their mind-game of money. By incorporating four essays on Whitehead, I’m persuaded that the editors are trying to say something about his relevance to their subject. That each essay provides a bite sized chunk, a different take on his cosmological system, is like repeatedly offering a lure which I have been glad to bite.
There is a final point which naturally arises from the warnings in Hauskeller about the colonial appropriation of the knowledge practices of marginalised people. This concern is given a full treatment in Osiris Sinuhé González Romero’s essay ‘Decolonizing the Philosophy of Psychedelics’, and the questions of cultural appropriation in the Western encounter with Eastern culture is explored in Steve Odin's essay 'The Unconscious in Zen and Psychedelic Experience’. The challenges of contemporary psychedelic tourism and the need to respect indigenous psychedelic practices points to a wider cultural discussion about how Westerners might otherwise culturally contextualise their psychedelic usage. I live on the Isle of Skye literally surrounded by psilocybin mushrooms, but the memory of indigenous Celtic culture and traditions of usage have been erased by Christianity. I keep the four Celtic festivals as placeholders in time, as opportunities for transcendence, but there are no equivalents in the Christian heritage of the west as every festival is packed with commitments to historical human contingency dressed up as theology. And this brings me back to Whitehead as proponent of process philosophy fit for psychedelia, but now reframed and re-presented as Western ancestor and cultural guru.
Although I suggest this with a degree of humour, there is a serious point. The rise of psychedelics in the 60s was intimately tied up with Western alienation from Western culture, with tourism providing popular access to the (presumed) authenticity of indigenous gurus and shamans. The resultant shambles of Westerners trashing indigenous cultures in search of enlightenment will only be mitigated if there are relevant cultural models available to Westerner’s in a post-prohibition world – in their own culture. A dead, white, Westerner from Cambridge and Harvard might be the cultural and philosophical figure which the future of psychedelics needs: – step forward Alfred North Whitehead? But, of course I’m only joking. If the way mysticism has been scientized is anything to go by, Whitehead’s process philosophy would be stripped down and re-modelled to fit within the scientific method without a hint of shame.