“To learn healing knowledge”: Philosophy, psychedelic studies and transformation
David A. Pittaway
South African Journal of Philosophy, 2018, 37, 4, 438-451
DOI : 10.1080/02580136.2018.1532186
“Philosophical learning” may be summarised in Sobiecki’s fitting catchphrase “to learn healing knowledge”. This catchphrase is taken from an article on the use of psychoactive plants among southern African diviners. In the spirit of this link, I aim to challenge contemporary negative attitudes to the topic of psychedelics, and argue that there are good reasons for philosophers to pay attention to the role that the psychedelic experience can play in promoting philosophical perception. I argue first that the results of some contemporary studies affirm the benefits of psychedelic use in an “orchestrated guided experience”. Secondly, I argue that the aims of such “orchestrated guided experiences” are consonant with the nature of philosophical learning. Philosophy, understood as a learning practice, has a strong historical precedent and ties to contemporary indigenous cultural practices. Here I cite research into the use of psychedelics and the Eleusinian Mysteries at the origin of Western philosophy. Numerous cultures, ancient and contemporary, venerate psychoactive substances as agents of learning, healing, and transformation. Thus, contemporary mainstream philosophy may have opportunities to learn, or relearn, from southern African indigenous cultural practices. Considering the positive light in which the topic of psychedelics will be painted, I will conclude by suggesting that psychedelics have the potential to play an important role in fostering the deeply transformative “philosophical learning” that is the condition for positive social change. This makes the topic of psychedelics worthy of philosophical reflection.
All psychedelics are illegal.1 In most countries, penalties for possession of these substances are severe and a person may spend many years in jail if convicted for a drug offence. In this context of illegality, it is unsurprising that the topic of psychedelics is often taboo. However, as pointed out in The Lancet (2006), the taboo status of psychedelics is based on social and legal concerns that do not correspond to scientific evidence :
Exaggerated risks of harm have contributed to the demonisation of psychedelic drugs as a social evil. But although this dangerous reputation – generated and perpetuated by the often disproportionately stiff penalties for their use – is helpful for law enforcement, it does not correspond to the evidence. Rather, the social prescription against psychedelic drugs that hinders properly controlled research into their effects and side effects is largely based on social and legal, as opposed to scientific, concerns.
“The new science of psychedelics” – which is a phrase used by the renowned author Michael Pollan in the title of his 2018 book, How to Change Your Mind : What the New Science of Psychedelics unambiguously that psychedelics have a bright side, so to speak. In the discussion to follow, I will show that orchestrated psychedelic experiences are being used in therapeutic contexts to promote psychological healing. This has bearing on questions of identity and social cohesion. Further, the purpose of the experiences orchestrated via the psychoactive plant-medicines used by various indigenous cultures for centuries is to “to learn healing knowledge” (Sobiecki 2012, 219). Philosophy as practised by ancient philosophers also shares a conspicuously similar intent. This is unsurprising considering the strong arguments for the centrality of a highly venerated ancient Greek ritual (the Eleusinian Mysteries) that induced either a literal psychedelic experience, or an experience fully coterminous with it. It is therefore possible to conceptualise psychedelic consciousness and philosophical consciousness alongside each other, and to emphasise that psychedelic studies are relevant to contemporary scientific endeavours, philosophy, and indigenous cultural practices. The study of psychedelics can therefore be investigated for its possible transdisciplinary and cross-cultural contributions to the promotion of healing knowledge.
The new science of psychedelics
For most of this section, the results of various scientific studies should “speak for themselves”. Methodologically, this initial approach is important because the themes and information in this section will serve as the foundation from which links will be made to resonant themes concerning philosophy and indigenous cultural practice. The studies are often funded by credible institutions (such as Johns Hopkins University, UCLA, and NYU) using credible methodologies (usually the randomised double blind approach), which is important to remember when considering what may seem to be the “incredible” descriptions of the orchestrated psychedelic experience and the results attained from the careful use of psychedelic substances combined with psychotherapy. Towards the end of this section, I will collate several more generalised observations made by psychedelic researchers about the psychedelic experience.