The Philosophy of Psychedelics: Exploring Frameworks for Exceptional Experience

“Psychedelic phenomenology [the study of the psychedelic experience] can be an experience of inhuman aesthetic heights which embraces the sublime and the beautiful, and can transcend to dimensions still further. Psychedelics’ hazard to our health is minimal; the history of their prohibition and condemnation not grounded in wisdom but in politics. 

Of all the academic disciplines, philosophy has foregone the most by abnegating psychedelic phenomenology.” – Dr. Peter Sjӧstedt-H in Noumenautics (Psychedelic Press, 2015) 

The tapestry woven by trails of psychedelic thinking in 2020 is seismically expanding, with ergot-bloomed seeds sown across an undulating landscape of academic fields. It is entirely appropriate that the world’s first conference on psychedelics and philosophy is about to take place — setting sail from the shores of consciousness, at Exeter University, on 16-19 April — and that the Noumenaut, philosopher of mind and Research Fellow Dr. Peter Sjӧstedt-H will be at its helm. 

The conference’s premise is “exploring frameworks for exceptional experience,” which holds a lure far beyond the political and medical paradigms in which they are most commonly, or at least loudly, discussed in mainstream media discourse. Sjӧstedt-H anticipates an emphasis on “practical applications of theory” — a particular highlight in this regard being conference supervisor Prof. Christine Hauskeller’s presentation elucidating the practical applications for theoretical principles in relation to the holistic legalisation and medicalisation of psychedelics. 

Mindful of all the phenomenological delights chartered just beyond the visible horizon, I found out more from Sjӧstedt-H about the conference by way of a framework which is very traditionally applied within psychedelic practice — Timothy Leary’s psychedelic triangle of “set, setting and dose.” 

The set: 12 internationally renowned speakers 

The Philosophy of Psychedelics, held in association with the Center for Process Studies and Breaking Convention, will bring together 12 academics from across the cosmos, including Whiteheadean scholar Dr. Matthew T. Segall of the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, narturalist Dr. Ole Martin Moen of the University of Oslo and East-West comparative philosopher Prof. Steve Odin from the University of Hawai’i. Sjӧstedt-H is delighted by the “diversity of thinking” among them, noting that they are however “united by a flair for the polemical,” which runs through all the presentation topics. 

Fulfilling the paradigm-shattering potential of psychedelics, the programme promises fresh takes on the psychedelic experience, including Sjӧsedt-H’s own presentation, which will explore the unifying nature of the 5-meo-DMT experience and the bright potentiality of its relation to Benedict de Spinoza’s amor Dei intellectualis — the intellectual love of god and the conceptualisation of god as nature. 

Many of the presentations welcome psychedelic phenomenology as a prism for re-exploring established modes of thinking in politics and society. Psychiatrist Prof. Torsten Passie, author of The Science of Microdosing Psychedelics (2019), of Hannover Medical School, will be discussing psychedelics’ potential for changing attitudinal styles and conceptual knowledge. Dr. Michel Weber of the University of Brussels will investigate the heightened richness of data coming from internal and external senses during the psychedelic experience, and its incumbent potential to redefine our engagement with philosophy itself. 

The preset: Exceptional Human Experience and Holotropic Breathwork™ 

Co-piloting the conference with Hauskeller and Sjӧsedt-H are Dr. Lenny and Elizabeth Gibson and Alice Dommert of the Dreamshadow Group, Inc, and Dr. Andrew Schwartz and Dr. John Buchanan of the Center for Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology in California. Notwithstanding the great variety of directions in which the speakers plan to take us, the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead is a connecting thread that runs through many of their research specialisms; harmonizing with the Center for Process Studies’ blossoming Whitehead Research Project

The sailing of this particular paper ship across the pond is especially apt, given that the Center for Process Studies hosted the 2019 conference on Exceptional Human Experience, where Sjӧsedt-H spoke about his journeys with Whitehead. This auspicious occasion yielded his spore of inspiration for the upcoming Philosophy of Psychedelics conference, as well as funding that has facilitated its fruiting in reality this April. 

Accordingly — in celebration of the upcoming conference’s origin story and also of the nature of altered states — the earlier conference bequeaths the term “Exceptional Experience” to its name. Ripening the climate for cross-pollination between philosophy and psychedelics even further, there will be a pre-conference workshop on Holotropic Breathwork™ facilitated by the Gibsons and the Dreamshadow Group, who are trained in the practice by the pioneering psychedelic psychiatrist Stanislav Grof. 

Setting: Exeter University’s Reed Hall 

Sjӧstedt-H describes Friedrich Nietzche as “the Antichrist Psychonaut” in his discussions of the relationship between his little-known use of psychoactives and its fruitful interplay with his emergent philosophies. Nietzche came to philosophy from a background in Classics, and the setting of The Philosophy of Psychedelics  — which will take place in a town replete with Roman ruins — is a fitting tribute to these roots. 

In his first publication, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzche introduces the importance of counterbalancing circumspection and rationalism — our Appolonian tendencies — with a healthy appetite for chaos, entropy and the thrall of the unknown: our Dionysian streak. The dichotomous dynamic between these elements of human nature, necessary in Nietzche’s eyes to the creation of great art, is a pertinent illustration of the forthcoming congress at Exeter University between the spheres of philosophy, ripe for disruption by the music of psychedelics. 

The beautiful Italian Reed Hall has further credentials as a Classical crucible suited to the conference’s Nietzschean threads: a plaque of Dionysus presides over the auditorium where modes of thought will mesh mysteriously. An ideal backdrop to the opportunity Sjӧsedt-H intends to provide; “for the psychonauts to explore philosophy, and for philosophers to encounter psychedelia.”

The dose: 20-minute talks, group discussions and a forthcoming book

Making overt the Classical undertones of the conference, short presentations will serve as the inspirational basis for round-table discussions; reminiscent of the philosophical symposia of ancient Greece. The organising team have devoted an immense focus to crafting an atmosphere conducive to the sharing of ideas, by everybody who attends. 

The co-mingling of cortexes will be facilitated by a vibrant vortex of voices, including parapsychologist and Breaking Convention co-director Dr. David Luke, historian Dr. Robert Dickins of Psychedelic Press, Kyle Buller and Joe Moore of the inspirational Psychedelics Today podcast, social entrepreneur Andrew Schwartz of the Center for Process Studies, and Tolkien specialist Becca Tarnas. 

The 20-minute presentations from speakers will be previews of their forthcoming book chapters. A volume will be the dried goods (the original meaning of the word “drug,” from the French, drogue) issuing from this ground-breaking happening, enabling all future newcomers to philosophy and psychedelics to access the experience.

The afterglow: phenomenological phoenixes rise from shattered paradigms

“This is a conversation that needs to be had,” says Sjӧsedt-H when asked about the timing and anticipated impacts of the conference. While — as the twelve speakers and the many and various interests and backgrounds of the speakers and attendees illustrate— contemporary psychedelia is a tapestry spun from many different spools of thought, “current discussion of the legal status of psychedelics tends to focus almost exclusively on the medicinal applications” of these much-maligned molecules. “There is so much to be gained from exploring the light which psychedelic phenomenology can cast beyond,” he explains; particularly on our society, our processes of law-making and our ethics.

Befitting the potential of psychedelic contemplation to result in ‘exceptional experience,’ Sjӧsedt-H forecasts the weekend’s discussions harbouring a “theoretical analysis of current movement of legality in a critical manner.” This conference is “crossing far beyond the traditional line of thought that ‘psychedelics are good because they heal people and prohibition is bad.’”

Sjӧstedt-H looks forward to this conference as the first chapter in an expanding series of discussions which illuminate “the underlying power motives,” that may inform their contemporary reception in political, medical and commercial contexts. This timely fusion of philosophy and psychedelics within the academic arena looks set to be a powerful crucible for the synthesis of new nuances to flavour this increasingly intense limelight. 

Tickets: £120 (including food). Registration and tickets here

Rosalind Stone

Rosalind is the publicist for the Psychedelic Press, a features writer for The Third Wave and and co-directs drugsand.me, a platform which offers students accessible, unbiased and scientific information about drugs via its website and workshops. Coming to drugs from an English literature background, she is fascinated by fictional representations of psychedelics and their (often equally or more fictive!) portrayals in the mainstream media. Previously Communications Officer at the Beckley Foundation, she has words in The Guardian, Kaltblut Magazine, VolteFace, Psymposia, and Talking Drugs.

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