Peter Sjöstedt-H is an Anglo-Scandinavian philosopher who specialises in the thought of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bergson and Whitehead, and within the field of Philosophy of Mind. Noumenautics, his recently published first book, trav
Psychedelic Press: Your chapter in Noumenautics entitled ‘Antichrist Psychonaut’ argues that drug-induced altered states of experience were a formative part of Nietzsche’s philosophical output. Would you briefly describe how this idea of altered experience ties in with his philosophical outlook? And, moreover, do you think without those experiences his philosophy would have been substantially different?
Peter Sjöstedt-H: Nietzsche began and ended his philosophical career extolling the Ancient Greek god of intoxication, Dionysus. In the intervening period Nietzsche had begun self-prescribing and heavily using mind-altering drugs such as opium and chloral hydrate. I put forward the argument in my book that the profound ‘inspiration’ Nietzsche speaks of having (in Ecce Homo) is akin to Socrates’ daemon, today perhaps more commonly described as auditory hallucination. Nietzsche’s daemon was Dionysus, finally identified as the Antichrist – a being with whom Nietzsche himself identified before his fall into cognitive destruction. Without theses drug-induced inspirations, I doubt Nietzsche’s later powerful philosophy would have emerged.
PP: You write in the preface, "I am more than aware that my philosophical interests in metaphysics, nihilism and psychedelic phenomenology are each somewhat rare in the field." As a psychedelic bibliophile, I can certainly add that I know of nothing else with this particular arrangement. My question is two-fold: Do you see Noumenautics as an introductory toe-dipping from which some swimming might later occur? Or, in other words, are you just beginning to skim the surface of a new topic? And, do you think 'psychedelic philosophy' has any meaning outside questions of mind and phenomenology?
PS-H: I do believe that we are in the natal stages of a philosophy of psychedelics, and I do see my book as an attempt to open the eyes of philosophers and other thinkers to such an event. It was a historic misfortune that the first wave of psychedelia in the mid-twentieth century coincided with a barren phase in philosophy where consciousness was commonly reduced to a mere semantic or behavioural analysis. We have mostly escaped from such reductivism today, with exciting new theories of the mind. Thus a re-investigation of psychedelic experience is much needed, and perhaps even essential to the philosophy of mind. Following his recent study revealing brain scans of people on LSD, Professor David Nutt was asked what the prime message of the study was – his answer: “if you want to understand consciousness, you've got to study psychedelics”. A simple statement carrying a potentially revolutionary message to philosophers of mind who have hitherto paid scant notice to these substances.
With regard to your last point, I’d say that a psychedelic philosophy need not only relate to philosophies of mind or phenomenology, but would also encompass disciplines such as metaphysics and (meta-)ethics – consider psychedelic therapy, cognitive enhancement (transhumanism), the erosion of concurrent social values (à la Octavio Paz), etc.
PP: Why did you initially become drawn to eighteenth/nineteenth century German philosophers like Kant, Schopenhauer, and the Nietzsche? And what do you think their relevance is for today's culture? Both psychedelic enthusiasts and wider society…
PS-H: Although I was born in Sweden, I was mostly educated in England wherein one is unwittingly inculcated into a dull cosmology – to the extent that one does not even realize that there are alternative explanations to reality. As George Orwell said, 'as Europeans go, the English are not intellectual. They have a horror of abstract thought, they feel no need for any philosophy or "world-view".' Being introduced to those German philosophers smashed me awake to the awareness of alternate conceptions of reality, ontologies, far more intricate in substantiation than that which I had till then unconsciously assumed. It was this thunder jolt of ontology that attracted me to them at first, and their genius retained the interest. I think Friedrich Nietzsche’s work is particularly relevant to our culture, in its positive destructive tendency – but he only died a century ago, a mere minute in philosophy years, so his influence has yet to take hold. In relation to psychedelic enthusiasts, his utopian Dionysian vision can appeal, connected to his annulment of traditional values – succinctly: his radical atheist spirituality. Kant’s and Schopenhauer’s rejection of the reality of space and time obviously appeal to psychonauts who frequently report perceived distortions in these dimensions, though such talk has become a platitude.
PP: From a literary standpoint, your ‘Myco-Metaphysics’ chapter is my personal favourite, as it brings in philosophical strands into the very business of tripping with mushrooms. Why do you think the psychedelic experience often boils down to a question of 'what is my mind?' And, as was often the case in 1960s discourse, the recognition of power structures? (Something I think might actually be becoming lost now in amongst the anxiety of doctors.)
PS-H: A philosophy professor recently asked me what insights one can gain via psychedelic intake. I replied that, at the very least, it makes one realise the immense power of the mind. To see and interact with sublime alienesque detailed flowing structures and entities under the substance is a phenomenon far transcending that of a common dream or instance of imagination. To the initiate, such experiences naturally evoke the question, “What (the hell) is my mind?”! Of course, it may be more than that, but this question sets one on a path.
Nobel laureate Octavio Paz, a Nietzsche sympathizer, wrote that “[psychedelic] drugs are nihilistic: they undermine all values and radically overturn all our ideas about good and evil, what is just and what is unjust”. One means by which psychedelics broaden one’s beliefs is by making conscious what was before unquestioned. Power structures often operate by employing ostensibly unquestionable moral codes which act in the interests of the dominating structure rather than the whole populace – an obvious example is sin and the power of the Catholic Church. To see sin as itself a sin may require the aid of mind-altering tools for someone within the structure. ‘Sin’ is an easy example, if we replace that word with, say, ‘violence’ we begin to transcend our current cultural climate.
PP: In a recent review of Noumenautics the occultist Julian Vayne commented that he would like to hear more about the relationship between nihilism as a philosophical school and psychedelics. What do you think this might be?
PS-H: As just noted, the notion of psychedelics allowing a direct revaluation of all values entails that these substances can be a practical tool for the nihilist. Most discourse in psychedelia has veered towards the contrary line of using psychedelics to bolster the current moral outlook of the age, especially with regard to the insight into the alleged unity of everything, akin to Schopenhauerian idealism. Nietzsche’s nihilistic response to such idealist ethical claims is devastating, yet it leads to an ultra-optimistic outlook. Nihilism and psychedelics are partners of purity: they can efface entrenched beliefs thereby allowing for a clear cognitive freedom. The elaboration of such a partnership is a task yet to be completed.
PP: Thanks very much Peter.