The hyperassociative mind : The psychedelic experience and Merleau-Ponty’s “wild being”, Csaba SZUMMER et al., 2017

The hyperassociative mind: The psychedelic experience and Merleau-Ponty’s “wild being”


Journal of Psychedelic Studies, 2017, 1, (2), pp. 55–64

DOI: 10.1556/2054.01.2017.006


Purpose : In contemporary phenomenology, Dieter Lohmar has suggested that the new task of phenomenological research is to analyze the “alternative representational systems” of fantasy. In line with this program, we propose that psychedelic experience could also be suitable subject to this project subsumed under the wider category of fantasy activity. The aim of this paper is to show that psychedelic experiences offer a favorable situation to study the imagination.

Method : The paper applies the conceptual framework of the late Merleau-Ponty, developed in The Visible and the Invisible, using his mescaline analyses which have been elaborated in The Phenomenology of Perception.

Results : We demonstrate that psychedelic visions and emotional states can be discussed within the Merleau-Pontian framework of “wild world.” From the viewpoint of phenomenology, we suggest that psychedelic visions represent an ongoing sense-making and Gestalt-formation process in which the role of the elaborative activity of the subject is crucial. These – often unsettling – visions show the basic volatility and ambiguity of perception and fantasy, which also sheds light to the hidden schemes of perception, thinking, and emotion of normal consciousness.

Conclusions : Freud claimed that dreams are “the royal road” to the unconscious. In an analogous manner, while dreams were the primary psychoscope to the unconscious of psychoanalysis, in contemporary phenomenology psychedelic experiences may show a possible way to an another kind of unconscious, the phenomenological unconscious. This unconscious comprises the hidden schemes and basic affective emotional attitudes of the knowing subject.

Keywords : phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty, “wild world”, psychedelics


“[:::] under mescalin [:::] the tick of a metronome, in darkness, is translated as grey patches, [:::] the size of the patch to the loudness of the tick, and its height to the pitch of the sound.” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p. 253)


In philosophy and psychology, there exists a more than a century-old history of psychedelic self experiments. Both in psychology and philosophy, it was James (1882, 1902/ 2009) who, back in the 1880s, acted as a pioneer when it came to research into psychedelics (see Tymoczko, 1996). His interest lay in how psychedelics could potentially intensify fantasy, especially religious imagination. In the 1920s, psychiatrists and Gestalt psychologists began to examine how mescaline could affect perception. During the 1930s, Benjamin (1927–1934/2006) (see Wolin, 1994) and Bloch (1954–1959/1986) tasted hashish, Sartre (1978) tried mescaline, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty followed his path a decade later. Bergson (1896/1999), Marcuse (1969), and Foucault (1970) also proposed psychedelics as a reasonable means to expand the limits of the mind, albeit Bergson never used them (see Sjöstedt-H, 2015). In The Varieties of Religious Experience, James declares “that our normal waking consciousness [:::] is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different” (James, 1902/2009, p. 349) [“I myself made some observations on [:::] nitrous oxide intoxication, and reported them in print. One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different” (James, 1902/2009, p. 349)]. But what are these “entirely different forms of consciousness”
like? And why do they deserve the attention of psychologists and philosophers? In this paper, we aim to argue that being under the effect of psychedelics, one can reach a state of mind, which may be favorable when it comes to phenomenological research into perception and imagination. What once were dreams to Freud, today might be the psychedelic experience to phenomenologists and psychologists with a taste for phenomenology. In the past one-and-a-half decade, a new wave of psychedelic research has begun in philosophy. There is a handful of researchers analyzing psychedelic experiences using the frameworks of Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau- Ponty (Horváth & Szab´o, 2012; Horváth, Szummer, & Szabo, 2017; Lundborg, 2012; Shanon, 2001, 2002, 2003; Szabo, Horvath, & Szummer, 2014).