Episode 6: Dr. Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes - The Philosophy of Psychedelics

Dr Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes explains why we need a new philosophy of psychedelics, and looks back on the legacy of his influential essay Neo-Nihilism: The Philosophy of Power

This month’s episode was a conversation with Dr. Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes, author, philosopher and lecturer at the University of Exeter.

Listen to Episode 6

This month’s newsletter is EPIC in length so without further ado, let’s get into his recommendations.

The philosophy of psychedelics: Reading recommendations from Dr. Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes

Peter was such an incredible guest, dropping book titles and names of intellectuals, philosophers and researchers at a machine-gun pace throughout our talk. I’ve done my best to round them all up here, but let me know in the comments if I have missed something you were looking for.

To see a little more of his work before diving into this post, you could watch his excellent TED Talk: Consciousness and Psychedelics. We began by discussing his work with the Philosophy of Psychedelics Research Group (PPRG) at Exeter University, and their recent conference. All of this work proceeds from the foundations laid down in his book for Psychedelic Press, ‘Noumenautics: Metaphysics, meta-ethics and psychedelics’.

We discussed the opinion, widely shared, that psychiatric settings are the worst place for psychedelic therapies - Dr Christine Hauskeller lectured on this topic for the PPRG at their inaugural conference. Later, Peter also mentions author and occultist Julian Vayne’s book ‘Getting Higher: The Manual of Pyschedelic Ceremony’ as an exploration of and guide to both the tribal and religious, ritual use of psychedelics, and the ‘set and setting’ approach developed in the 1960s by Timothy Leary and others.

The first LSD trials were run by Sandoz, the pharmaceutical company where the chemist who invented the compound, Albert Hofmann, once worked. These and other early trials are nicely summarised in ‘Therapeutic Use of LSD in Psychiatry: A Systematic Review of Randomized-Controlled Clinical Trials’ by Juan José Fuentes, Francina Fonseca, Matilde Elices, Magí Farré and Marta Torrens.

Hofmann himself is a fascinating figure, if you want to learn more about his life you could start with the 2012 documentary ‘Hofmann’s Potion’ (or the higher-budget but harder to find ‘The Substance’).

The Psychedelic Library is a treasure trove of texts on psychedelics, and holds a copy of Hofmann’s own book on the creation of acid, ‘LSD - My problem child’. Check out the rest of the site for titles by Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts and others.

Peter briefly mentions Timothy Leary again, the great godhead of the 1960s psychedelic consciousness movement. WIRED has a great 2013 piece on the Timothy Leary archives, and this well-written 2006 New Yorker profile avoids the hagiography you’ll read elsewhere online when it comes to this controversial ‘guru’ of the counterculture and psychedelic research pioneer.

D.T. Suzuki was instrumental in popularising Zen Buddhism in the West, and we talked a little about the appropriation of Eastern philosophy and ideas by Western ‘wellness’ cults. I encountered Suzuki’s book ‘An Introduction to Zen Buddhism’ in a public library at age 15, and I can’t recommend it highly enough for anyone unfamiliar with Zen, and Buddhism more generally.

The marvellously named Steve Odin discussed D.T. Suzuki and Aldous Huxley at the recent conference held at Exeter University by the Philosophy of Psychedelics Research Group. A book featuring material discussed and presented at the conference is forthcoming, and of course we will let you know as soon as it’s published. Those who haven’t, should definitely read Huxley’s seminal writing on mescaline experiences, ‘The Doors of Perception’.

Alan Watts is mentioned in reference to both psychedelics and Zen Buddhism. His book ‘The Way of Zen’ was one of the texts that brought Buddhist ideas into mainstream consciousness, while his ‘Psychotherapy East and West’ attempts a synthesis of Zen and Freudian psychoanalysis (among other techniques). In these texts we can perhaps see some of the roots of the ‘wellness economy’ that has developed in the decades since. Watts remains a powerfully influential figure to this day, perhaps one of the most lucid voices associated with the 1960s counter-culture and its attempt to revolutionise ‘consciousness’ in a generation of idealistic youth movements. Go and watch some of his videos on YouTube.

Peter mentioned ‘logical behaviourism’ as an example of a philosophy that rejects many of the aspects of consciousness that he would later go on to study in his work on psychedelics, and which neuroscience was for a long time afraid to explore. This relates to the so-called ‘hard problem of consciousness’ (explained very well in this 2019 paper by Mark Solms).

This is the question of how experiences, and consciousness, emerge as a property of matter, and its one many scientists and philosophers alike have considered unsolvable (although Daniel C. Dennet disagrees). Peter argues convincingly that psychedelic experiences or ‘noumenal’ states have a lot to tell us about consciousness in general, and the notional limits we set on what we believe is ‘real’, and what is not. He has spent a considerable portion of his recent research on this problem, looking at various theories of how ‘mind’ emerges from ‘matter’ (including nondualism, the theory we explored in Episode 1 with the help of Peter Sas).

Professor David Nutt is, famously, the man fired from his chairmanship of the UK government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs by the then Labour Home Secretary, Alan Johnson.

Nutt’s recommendations for decriminalisation and declassification of drugs like cannabis and ecstasy based on the harm they cause was seen as controversial at the time, and would still probably get him fired from the ACMD today. But as states and countries around the world approach not just the lucrative legalised trade in cannabis, but the evidence for a harm-reduction based approach to drug use through tolerance or legalisation, Nutt’s 2008 recommendations look increasingly sane and (ironically) sober in the face of the failed ‘war on drugs’.

Nutt still writes and researches the topic, and was a guest at Peter’s recent conference. You can follow him on Twitter, and find out about his work for Drug Science. Peter appeared on Nutt’s Drug Science podcast last year, talking about the philosophy of psychedelics. All of Nutt’s pieces for The Guardian are also worth a read, start with this one about the benefits of psilocybin for the treatment of PTSD.

Back to the mind / matter problem, here we began to discuss the work of Baruch Spinoza, the revered 17th century philosopher who developed the work of Renes Descartes into his theory of ‘panpsychism’. In brief, his panpsychism was the belief that mind and matter were part of the same ‘essence’ that he identified as God itself. Peter goes on to explain that Spinoza’s God was an indifferent (and incomprehensible) God, oblivious to humankind and its suffering.

Here’s Peter lecturing on ‘Spinoza and psychedelics’, on Spinoza and ‘the problems of mind’, and again on ‘panpsychism and psychedelic sentience’. All three of these are brilliant, queue them up and have a listen.

This led us towards Peter’s earlier work, which explored the ideas of, among others, the mathematician and metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead, and of course, the subject of his seminal essay on nihilism, Friedrich Nietszche. The second half of our conversation would explore nihilism, and Nietzsche, in depth.

Neo-Nihilism: The Philosophy of Power

I first encountered Peter’s work through his 2012 essay ‘Neo-Nihilism: The Philosophy of Power’ (published in the aforementioned ‘Noumenautics’, and available as both an ebook and audiobook). The ideas of this seminal essay are also explored in depth in this video from YouTube channel The Stoa.

Encountering this work was very personal for me, for reasons we discuss in our conversation. Not only did I understand the writing of Nietzsche better after reading the essay, it also showed me how his ideas could be applied in a contemporary setting. More than anything, Peter’s essay shifted my understanding of power, and what it means to seek it. It deepened my sense of morality as a power play, an idea I had first begun to be convinced by when reading John Gray’s ‘Straw Dogs’ in my early twenties.

I’ll leave any exploration of Nietzsche, contemporary nihilism, and the ideas put forth in Peter’s influential early work to you, but perhaps it’s nice to quote something here from the introductory paragraphs of ‘Neo-nihilism’:

“It is most often the case that setting faith in the ethics of one’s culture serves one’s interests. Therefore this text will not be of service to that majority; the information herein is too potent for that character. If such a conformer sets his sight upon the light offered he will only be capable of reaction rather than assimilation, as is purpose - the same sun can be both enlightening and carcinogenic.”

It’s a lyrical, beautiful piece of writing, strident and uncompromising, but also deeply human. As Peter explains, it is written in a declamatory, didactic style that echoes both Nietszche and Ragnar Redbeard. It’s strong medicine, and he does an excellent job of using theoretical constructs like Hume’s guillotine (or the is-ought gap) and the ideas of Whitehead, C.L. Stevenson and Schopenhauer to demolish any and all arguments for contemporary prescriptive morality. It’s the finest contemporary analysis of Nietzsche’s metaphysics of the ‘will to power’ that you could possibly hope for. Ultimately, he reclaims nihilism as a powerful philosophical tool to effectively resist control.

The discussion of ‘active’ versus ‘passive’ nihilism gets to the root of the semantic abuse suffered by the word ‘nihilism’ itself; often invoked as a nebulous spectre in opposition to normative ideology or values.

I gave the example of Boris Johnson, who is often described in the press as a ‘nihilist’ - the Washington Post, in 2019 referred to Boris Johnson as “a power-hungry nihilist”; his ballot box dispatches have been described as “20 minutes of verbal nihilism” (by John Crace, in the Guardian, 2019), and his ‘People’s Questions’ initiative as “a 15-minute piece of nihilistic narcissistic indulgence that serves no discernible democratic function.” (Crace again, in the Guardian, 2020). Even aesthetically, Johnson has been called a nihilist: “His gift is for rhetoric, not detail. His trademark is moneyed nihilism.” (Aditya Chakrabortty, Guardian, 2019).

Johnson is a dyed-in-the wool ideological piranha, steeped in the vicious codes of public school and the elite. There is no nihilism about this figure, he is a perfect product of Britain’s highest institutions. It is precisely this which makes him a villain. He is utterly, terrifyingly ‘normal’.

Freddie Hayward, talking about the overuse and subsequent dilution in meaning of the term ‘fascism’, offers a reading that could equally apply to the semantic abuse suffered by nihilism:

“It has become common for some on the left to respond to the rise of the far right by labelling individual politicians and their movements “fascist”. The whiff of authoritarianism and xenophobia is enough to yield condemnations that often conflate distinct political ideologies. Some treat the far right as a homogenous bloc that can be both explained and dismissed with this single term […] The neglect of precision in the discourse surrounding the far right weakens political analysis and may be counterproductive in combating the various ideologies within it.” 

- Freddie Hayward, New Statesman, 2020

The positive case for political nihilism, which might look a lot like the philosophical positions outlined in Peter’s early work, follows the same lines. The invocation of the nihilist spectre has its own whiff, that of concealed or unacknowledged ideological bias. Treating nihilism as a homogeneous bloc also allows it to be both ‘explained’ (‘They are against us, they are nihilists’) and dismissed (‘You can’t argue or negotiate with someone who believes nothing’).

The overuse and misidentification of nihilism, and the contradictions that arise as a result, conceal its usefulness and its precise function. Like the McCarthy hearings, which managed to substitute the symbolic meaning of the word ‘Communist’ to mean ‘enemy’, the commentariat who carelessly invoke nihilism are engaged in a sublimated campaign of propaganda and linguistic warfare, often portraying as nihilism the ideologies that are most fervently adhered to by their followers.

This is a topic I have a great deal of interest in, and Peter references Gilles Deleuze’s discussion of nihilism (summarised here in a paper by Ashley Woodward) as a starting point for understanding the tension between its active and passive expressions. Perhaps this is something I’ll return and explore in greater detail in a future episode.

And with that, we’ve run out of space! I didn’t even know Substack had a word limit. We didn’t even make it to Arne Næss and ‘deep ecology’, or the vanishing number of readers engaging with theoretical philosophy and critical theory.

I hope you enjoyed this episode, and the accompanying blog. Let us know what you think in the comments.

Coming up:
Zoe Venditozzi - Witches of Scotland

Author, teacher and podcaster Zoe Venditozzi joins us next time to discuss her work with the Witches of Scotland project, a campaign to obtain a legal pardon for all women prosecuted for witchcraft in Scotland through the ages, along with an official apology from the Scottish Government, and a public memorial to the dead.

We’ll discuss contemporary persecution of alleged ‘witches’ and the legacy of misogyny and bigotry left over from the historical persecution of women; the forensic approach of their podcast, and the ramifications of their legal campaign, fronted by QC Claire Mitchell.

Look out for Episode 7 later this month.

Take care of each other.

- Bram E Gieben, Glasgow, June 2021