- Should Psychedelic Humanities Promote Psychedelic Humanism? - August 3, 2020
Psychedelia is becoming more diverse. Among the new viewpoints mushrooming at conferences and on panels is psychedelic humanism. When German social scientist Henrik Jungaberle first proposed it as a topic for us to discuss at a virtual event of his MIND Foundation, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, I thought he misspoke. He must have meant psychedelic humanities. I had just published an article on how I conceived of the extension of the psychedelic revival from the medical sciences to humanist scholarship (Langlitz, 2019). By “humanist,” I didn’t mean scholarship committed to the ethics of humanism that attaches prime importance to human rather than divine matters but scholarship that belonged to the branch of learning concerned with human culture, especially philosophy, history, literature, and the arts. The misunderstanding was quickly resolved. I learned that Jungaberle himself was working on a book on psychedelic humanism and thus we had found a topic for our conversation, which I also want to raise with Chacruna readers: Should psychedelic humanities promote psychedelic humanism?
Gratitude in the Face of Buchenwald and Nagasaki
In this state of total surrender, one would come to accept being as it is and even feel thankful for having achieved a human birth in the face of the horrors of Buchenwald and Nagasaki
The reason for my confusion was that, to my ears, psychedelic humanism sounded like a contradiction in terms. Despite being an anthropologist interested in human diversity in general and diversity within psychedelic culture in particular, I took it for granted that the term “psychedelic” referred to a family of mystical interpretations of what people experienced after ingesting LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and related substances. Alternative interpretations were usually associated with a different terminology: researchers who believed that these drugs provided access to the unconscious preferred the term “psycholytic”; those who thought that they provoked states resembling schizophrenia spoke of “psychotomimetic” or “psychotogenic” effects, etc. Although originally coined by the psychiatrist Humphry Osmond (1957), nobody informed the still prevalent conception of the psychedelic more than the British writer Aldous Huxley. He interpreted the alleged mind-manifesting effects of psychedelics—for “mind-manifesting” is what psychedelic literally means—as a manifestation of a cosmic or divine Mind in an individual human mind (Huxley, 2009, p. 26). This communion of finite and infinite mind amounted to a unitive experience. It dissolved the ego, reconciled with the world, and opened up a perspective beyond good and evil, Huxley alleged. In this state of total surrender, one would come to accept being as it is and even feel thankful for having achieved a human birth in the face of the horrors of Buchenwald and Nagasaki (Huxley, 2013, p. 221).
This attitude was hardly compatible with the project of humanism. Of course, it would be more precise to speak of humanisms in the plural (Soper, 1986). But what all humanists have in common is the belief that human beings (and only human beings) share certain features, such as agency, choice, responsibility, and morality, even though these capacities can be lost in states of alienation, reification, or inauthenticity. Humanists also share the belief that they must not put their fate into the hands of God (or nature or subjectless structures). It is up to human beings (and only human beings) to make history.
To improve the lives of people who had not even been born yet, their champions would, if necessary, coerce or slaughter those contemporaries who did not agree with their visions for a more human humankind.
As a straight-laced mystic, Huxley (2013, p. 76) chastised humanism as a family of pseudo-religions that included nationalism, fascism, and communism. The common denominator of these warring political ideologies was an intense preoccupation with the future. To improve the lives of people who had not even been born yet, their champions would, if necessary, coerce or slaughter those contemporaries who did not agree with their visions for a more human humankind. Huxley concluded: “The triumph of humanism is the defeat of humanity” (Huxley, 2013, p. 97).
The Failure of Humanism
Of course, humanism has a more peaceful genealogy. Originally, the shift from theocentrism to anthropocentrism had aimed at preventing the recurrence of the atrocities that Europeans had experienced and committed in early modern religious wars. Its prime location was hardly the battlefield but the school. Humanists conceive of the human as a hiding place of the inhuman. In the nineteenth century, they sought to reign in human bestiality by way of alphabetization and literary education, noted philosopher Peter Sloterdijk (2001, p. 194). Studying the classics, especially of their own country but also of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, would turn wild adolescents into good citizens. The goal was to build nations as imagined communities of readers.
If this ethical project has become marginal by the beginning of the twenty-first century, it’s not only because we are amid a media revolution that readers of this blog experience as they scroll through the text. Digitization dramatically transforms our reading practices and pushes books to the sidelines. Some incorrigible humanists worry that coming of age in a filter bubble will not inspire the same general love of humanity as taking a Western Civ course.
In the wake of two world wars, one had to wonder how readers of Goethe could have built concentration camps where they murdered millions of people to breed a higher human race.
But, long before the birth of the Internet, anti-humanists like Aldous Huxley (or Martin Heidegger , for that matter) harbored doubts about the power of humanism to successfully domesticate Homo sapiens and pave the way for a more human future of humankind. In the wake of two world wars, one had to wonder how readers of Goethe could have built concentration camps where they murdered millions of people to breed a higher human race. The response of anti-humanists of Huxley’s ilk was not to embrace such inhumanities but to achieve a more radical domestication of human beings by redirecting their attention from a radiant future of humanity to the eternal present of the divine within. Psychedelics could provide easy access to such experience of timelessness, Huxley contended. By freeing people from a historical consciousness consumed by yesterday’s grievances and the fight for a better tomorrow, they would allow them to look at human affairs in relation to eternity.
Books or Drugs?
In 1965, Timothy Leary expressed hope that psychedelics would put an end to the pedagogic practices of old humanists. Within a generation, he predicted the birth of psychedelic studies—and this new field would effectively end the Gutenberg era: “When students come home for their vacation, Mother and Father will ask not, ‘What book are you reading?’ but ‘What molecules are you using to open up which Library of Congress inside your nervous system?’” (Leary, 1999, p. 114). Of course, Leary published these remarks in book form. Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out informed many a drug experience in the 1960s. Parents should not just have asked about the molecules but also about the well-thumbed paperbacks. It’s the set, stupid!
Today, as self-identified psychedelic humanists come into the legacy of the studia humanitatis, they must reconceive what it means for human beings to be animals under the influence. These drug educators still have to separate influences that domesticate from influences that bestialize (supposedly, there are good pharmacological reasons why nobody propagates alcoholic or cocaine humanism). On psychedelics, humanism appears to outdo itself: It overcomes its anthropocentrism and nurtures a general love of sentient beings, as Andrea Zeuch (2018) explained in a talk on the subject matter. But the magnanimity of psychedelic humanism will do no harm to our exceptional place in the biological world: We will be the one and only animal that cares about all other animals and maybe even plants. A spiritual variant of biotechnology promises to gentle both humans and humanism beyond recognition.
Diversity, Not Humanism
As the successful mainstreaming of psychedelics in science and society introduces a wider spectrum of people to this iridescent class of drugs, new understandings of their effects will compete with the ones established in the second half of the last century.
In my eyes, the job of psychedelic humanities is not necessarily to educate psychedelic humanists in this or any other sense. Instead, the humanities should promote intellectual diversity by casting into relief and examining philosophical alternatives, such as humanist and anti-humanist interpretations of the psychedelic experience. As the successful mainstreaming of psychedelics in science and society introduces a wider spectrum of people to this iridescent class of drugs, new understandings of their effects will compete with the ones established in the second half of the last century. Jungaberle’s forthcoming publication on psychedelic humanism will be a case in point. I hope it won’t take too long for someone, maybe a reader of this blog, to complement or antagonize his book’s psychoactive effects with another book on psychedelic anti-humanism.
Heidegger, M. (2008). Basic writings. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins.
Huxley, A. (2009). The doors of perception and heaven and hell. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins.
Huxley, A. (2013). The divine within: Selected writings on enlightenment. New York City, NY: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
Langlitz, N. (2019). Psychedelic science as cosmic play, psychedelic humanities as perennial polemics? Or why we are still fighting over Max Weber’s Science as a Vocation. Journal of Classical Sociology, 19(3), 275–289. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468795X19851405
Leary, T. (1999). Turn on, tune in, drop out. Oakland, CA: Ronin.
Osmond, H. (1957). A review of the clinical effects of psychotomimetic agents. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 66(3), 418–434. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-6632.1957.tb40738.x
Sloterdijk, P. (2001). Nicht gerettet. Versuche nach Heidegger [Not saved: Experiments after Heidegger]. Frankfurt, Germany: Suhrkamp.
Soper, K. (1986). Humanism and anti-humanism. London, UK: Hutchinson.
Boom Festival Official Page. (2018). Psychedelic humanism: From individual experience to human engagement [Video file]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SkJB1Q5sU-4
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