Philosophy and Psychedelics

Dr Peter Sjöstedt-H is an Anglo-Scandinavian philosopher of mind who specializes in the thought of Whitehead and Nietzsche, and in fields pertaining to panpsychism and altered states of sentience. In the words of futurist, philosopher and pop star Alexander Bard: ‘One of our favourite contemporary philosophers, Peter Sjöstedt-H…think a psychedelic Nietzsche’.

Peter Sjöstedt-H

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Peter Sjöstedt-H: I was born to a Swedish mother and an English father from London – but I was mostly raised in Cornwall. Like the philosopher R. G. Collingwood, both my parents were artists and I imagine my somewhat displaced, unusual, upbringing led me to philosophy as cultural norms were often questioned by default at home. My late father was a heavy-drinking, chain-smoking English eccentric painter; whereas my mother is a calmer yet quirky original character, the most positive person I know. She was keen to flee the Scandinavian bourgeois milieu of her parents – I however always appreciated my grandparents’ lifestyle, perhaps if only for its contrast to regular British disorder.

I moved from home to study a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, then a Master’s in Continental Philosophy (with a dissertation on Kant and Schelling in relation to ‘intellectual intuition’). Thereafter I taught A-level Philosophy for several years at a college in South Kensington, London. From my research into Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bergson, and finally Whitehead, I saw a clear line of thought conducing to panpsychism (that sentience is ubiquitous rather than emergent) which I sought to set out as clearly as possible in my doctoral thesis at the University of Exeter (panpsychism as a genuine psycho-physical identity theory).[i] I now work there as a research fellow and associate lecturer. 

RB: What is the underlying focus of your work?

PS-H: I consider myself first and foremost a philosopher of mind so my fundamental focus is on the nature of sentience, part of which includes focus itself. But the two chief aspects of mind that interest me are: (1) the relation between ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ – whether it is it one of identity, emergence, duality, idealism, etc. I have argued that the reason as to why all responses to this relation are problematic is in part because we have mistaken abstractions (extracts) for ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ to be complete concrete actualities. If one looks, for instance, at the history of the concept ‘matter’ (or, the ‘physical’), one sees how it constantly changes. It would be premature to believe that we now, at this point in history, know what matter is; and it is this premature cognizance that sires our mystery of the mind-matter relation. It’s a metaphysical, and partly historical, issue that needs to be addressed before anyone can hope to find answers in the contemporary special sciences. Mind is a metaphysical matter that is as such antecedent to biology, and a fortiori neuroscience – though these studies can certainly aid our understanding. But it is not merely matter of which we are ignorant, it is mind too, which brings us to (2). I am also focussed on what mind, or ‘sentience’, can be. Studies on the mind are turned to prosaic human states of consciousness – basic emotions, will, intentionality, the subconscious, the senses, reasoning, conceiving, perceiving, memory, attention, association, and so on. Having experienced orders of magnitude beyond these through chemical means, I now see the need to map this non-prosaic realm and relate it back to the mind-matter mystery – and to the revaluation of Nature.

Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your philosophical practice and, specifically, to your interest in psychedelics relating to philosophy?

PS-H: I suppose the two main influences on my thought are Alfred North Whitehead and Friedrich Nietzsche, figures ostensibly at polar ends of the philosophic range – yet there is evidence that the former sympathized with the latter, and, at the core level, I say that these two are congruent (in analogy to mind and matter). Generally speaking I combine the classic continental thinkers (Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Schopenhauer, et al.) with more modern analytic philosophic approaches (such as those from Herbert Feigl, Bertrand Russell, Jaegwon Kim, et al.), without any allegiance in the tiresome continental/analytic philosophy divide. Whitehead straddles this divide, being an outsider due to his untimely originality which is only now being felt in Europe. William James’ work also surpasses easy classification and it was his writings that first brought me to realize the value of psychedelics for philosophy, moreover for the greater comprehension of reality. James was a physician, psychologist, and philosopher – though psychology in the nineteenth century included many issues that we would today section off into the philosophy of mind. He wrote two large volumes on The Principles of Psychology in 1890, and he was novel yet detailed in his analysis of mental states. James’ psychological studies moved into mystical experiences, for which he tried various psychoactive substances, extoling the phantastic phenomenology they yielded. Not only were such substances useful for understanding the mystics, they were also useful for understanding certain philosophies: James said that he only understood Hegel under the influence of nitrous oxide (much like ‘chemical philosopher’ Sir Humphry Davy a century before him, who took 200 pints of the gas only to exclaim his belief in idealism). Though these are comic anecdotes, they were not meant as such by the philosophers – and it is this path that I have been pursuing for almost a decade now, leading to my book Noumenautics[ii] and its imminent sequel, my TEDx Talk on consciousness and psychedelics,[iii] and the coming Philosophy of Psychedelics conference at Exeter (see below). That is the literary narrative; the more practical narrative related thereto is that James’ writings pushed me to experiment personally with, at first, psilocybin mushrooms. The sublime, mind-blasting phenomenology of such events (and one should at least refer to them as events) cannot fail to alter the course of a mind researcher.

RB: How can the knowledge gained from psychedelic use be applied in rational, philosophical thought?

PS-H: Nietzsche wrote that ‘rational thought is interpretation according to a scheme which we cannot escape’, but psychedelic intake can certainly lead one to escape such schemes. Philosophy’s prerogative is in part to question schemes of thought and thus is there a vast range of applications of psychedelics to philosophy. At the basic level, they reveal the aesthetic and sublime powers of the mind, powers that would be considered impossible without intake. They make a mockery of philosophic positions that deny consciousness, such as logical behaviourism and eliminativism. They provide a spotlight to investigate questions in the philosophy of mind such as the duration and oscillation of the ‘specious present’ (the ‘present’ can protract and contract under the influence). They offer evidence that intentionality (that a mental state must be about something) is not a necessity for mentality. They show us that our perception of time and space is not as a priori, absolute, and as distinct as Kant and his heirs would have us believe – in fact more than this (as I show in my forthcoming book) even the notion that space must, in our mind’s eye, be Euclidean and three dimensional can be destroyed by psychedelic intake, thereby complementing Riemann’s mathematics with an actual ‘Riemannian phenomenology’: the activation of the visualization of non-Euclidean n-dimensional space. Furthermore, the question of whether ‘qualia’ (in C. I. Lewis’ sense of unconceptualized sensations) can exist can be answered (in the affirmative). Taxonomies of sentience can be extended (it’s interesting for example to highlight the differences between imagination, hypnagogia, dreaming, and psychedelic states – though the latter especially is not one unified state but the term for a plethora of alien experiences). Questions concerning real empathy can be tested by phenomenal: i.e. the question as to whether empathy can transcend mere conceptual emotional reflection. There are far more psychedelic applications than these in the philosophy of mind alone, and if we widen to philosophy generally we will see that there is much to be debated in relation to ethics and valuation. What is the ethical justification, if any, of the state to prohibit the safe self-exploration of citizens’ minds? Could psychedelics foster a greater empathy with the natural world, which in our ecological anxiety would be considered an ethical imperative, with prohibition a deadly vice? What moral concerns does the increasing commodification of psychoactive drugs raise in terms of economic politics? Should such mind-expanding chemicals be named and categorized as ‘drugs’, considering their dramatic differentiation and the derogatory connotations of the latter term? Could the focus on the medicalization of psychedelics be a hazard to their greater metaphysical value? What is the relation between psychedelics and nihilism, considering that psychedelics can cultivate a meta-cultural perspective? One can also apply psychedelic insights to specific philosophic systems. For instance, in what ways, if any, do psychedelically-induced perfect forms of beauty relate to Plato’s eternal Forms, or Universals more generally? Can psychedelic experience offer a glimpse of Kant’s world behind appearances, a glimpse of noumena? If space and time are mere projections of our common human mind, can the experienced sense of timeless unity relate to Schopenhauer’s ‘Eternal Now’ and foster the moral sense of togetherness that lies at the basis of his ethical system? How could such a widely-reported ‘cosmic consciousness’ relate to Spinoza’s mysterious and debated amor dei intellectualis, the Intellectual Love of God? More widely, do psychedelic states tend to push people towards any particular metaphysical system? Should psychedelic sentience be interpreted under a pre-existing scheme, or should (and could) the scheme be determined by the experience? What is the extent of cultural inculcation on the experience? Do certain psychedelics emancipate one further from such cultural indoctrination than others? And so on, and so forth. There is much work to do: think, take, think again, awake (and repeat).

Alfred North Whitehead, Friedrich Nietzsche

RB: Is there a hidden psychedelic history of philosophy?

PS-H: I have made the argument, though partly in jest, that psychedelics started the western tradition of philosophy. Whitehead famously said that the ‘safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato’, and Plato’s philosophy of dualism and Forms conceivably originated from his experiences at the annual Eleusinian Mysteries (see his Phaedo, Phaedrus, and Symposium, for instance). In the inner temples of this popular Mystery festival, just over ten miles from Athens, it is believed that the specifically-dosed potion (kykeon) – that fasted-initiates drank in the dark inner chambers of the temple – contained a psychoactive compound that initiated their subsequent visions. If these visions of extrabodily travel to realms of beauty inspired Plato’s arguments, then perhaps they indirectly inspired western philosophy and thus our science and culture. Perhaps – it is conjecture. The Mysteries were later closed down by the newly-empowered Christians, under emperor Theodosius I, in the fourth century – though they were probably continued covertly, as conveyed by the last neo-Platonist, Proclus. With the fall of the power of the Church we see philosophers experiment with altered states again, figures such as the aforementioned Humphry Davy, as well as Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, Thomas de Quincey, Nietzsche, James, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Ernst Jünger (who coined the lovely term ‘psychonaut’), H. H. Price, John R. Smythies, Gerald Heard, Octavio Paz, Herbert Marcuse, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Patrick Lundborg, and others (as detailed in my forthcoming book). There is a hidden psychedelic history of philosophy, let’s hope the future of it escapes from the cave into the light. 

RB: How does the study of psychedelics relate to panpsychism?

PS-H: Panpsychism – the philosophic rather than religious view that basic forms of mind (not consciousness) exist in all units of matter, from animals to plants, fungi, bacteria, viruses, molecules, and below – relates to psychedelicism in fascinating ways. One of the reasons for rejecting panpsychism is based on what the Whiteheadian philosopher Charles Hartshorne calls the ‘prosaic fallacy’: it is excessively difficult for people to imagine or conceptualize the existence of modes of mind distinct from their human every-day, prosaic consciousness – so they deny it exists, ‘supposing’, Hartshorne writes, ‘the world to be as tame as our sluggish convention-ridden imaginations imply’. Now, psychedelics are a corrective medication for this fallacy. As mentioned, these substances can immediately disclose to one the undeniable reality of realms of mind that smash asunder the otherwise-enclosed doors of consciousness. Even a single such session can thus immediately open a subject up to the possibility that subhuman sentiences exist in the natural world – it smashes the anthropocentrism from which we are still emancipating ourselves (thanks especially to Descartes and the mechanists, not a band I’d recommend). In fact, the allegation that panpsychism anthropomorphizes Nature can easily be neutralized by the counter-allegation that non-panpsychism anthropocentrizes Nature, thinking mind to be exclusive to man, maybe mammal, and little more. Thus in this way psychedelics, at the very least, can allow a person a greater sympathy to the possibility of panpsychism. Note that James, initially dismissive of panpsychism, eventually endorsed it after his psychoactive experiments.

My variety of panpsychism, which I call pansentient monism, is closely related to the panexperientialism of A. N. Whitehead. Whitehead argues that beyond the traditional senses of sight, sound, scent, etc., there is a primal sense shared by all beings that is a perception of the emotional intensity of others (and one’s past) that is the actual absorption of that other intensity into oneself – so here perception and causation are one. We directly (not merely reflectively) experience the value-laden environment. (This incidentally challenges Hume’s doctrine that we do not directly experience causation and thus makes Kant’s awakening from dogmatic slumber redundant.) Now, because humans have a highly developed presentational set-up of senses, we often are, as it were, deaf and blind to this primal sense (viz. ‘perception in the mode of causal efficacy’) – yet certain poets were perhaps more sensitive to it (Whitehead singles out Wordsworth, especially his Prelude). With regard to psychedelic sentience, it seems that this primal sense mode can be amplified, thereby explaining the commonly felt overwhelming appreciation of natural objects, of Nature Herself. In other words, this ubiquitous primal sense is rendered prominent and explicit by certain psychedelics, affording us a veridical rather than hallucinatory feel for the natural world (the concept of ‘hallucination’ is relative to one’s metaphysical view of what is real). It is this fusion of panpsychism and psychedelics for revaluating Nature that I plan to develop, though with the omission of any mawkishness.

RB: Can you say something about the ‘Philosophy of Psychedelics’ conference you are organising at Exeter University for April 2020?

PS-H: In recent years a resurgence of studies into psychedelic states of consciousness has arisen in the cognitive sciences to such an extent as to gain the moniker, ‘The Psychedelic Renaissance’. The focus of these scientific studies has been upon the immediate medicinal value that psychedelics may bestow; but the value that the study of such exceptional experiences may bestow upon the philosophy of mind, phenomenology, and academic metaphysics is a field yet to be mapped.

The neuropsychopharmacologist, Prof. David Nutt claimed that ‘if you want to understand consciousness, you’ve got to study psychedelics’ – that the philosophies of mind have neglected such study is the omission that this conference seeks to redress.

This international conference will bring together a dozen key philosophers in addition to other academics to offer various analyses of exceptional states of experience – with a slight tendency towards the also-resurgent process philosophies orbiting the thought of Alfred North Whitehead. This University of Exeter conference will be held in association with the Centre for Process Studies and Breaking Convention, and will be located in the splendid Italianate mansion Reed Hall which stands within the main university campus. Debate will feature prominently at this event, the first philosophy of psychedelics conference. To book a place, take a look at our website: I’ll be giving a talk there on the aforementioned Revaluation of Nature, and I very much look forward to the ensuing debate, and the publication that will issue from this gathering. The whole thing promises to be a phantastic trip.

[i] For an Abstract and Contents page of this doctoral thesis, see here:




Get the Full Experience
Read the rest of this article, and view all articles in full from just £10 for 3 months.

Subscribe Today

, , , ,

No comments yet.

You must be a subscriber and logged in to leave a comment. Users of a Site License are unable to comment.

Log in Now | Subscribe Today