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Why philosophy students do the most drugs

Epicurus, who knew a thing or two about drugs. Photograph: Montagu Images/Alamy

Epicurus, who knew a thing or two about drugs. Photograph: Montagu Images/Alamy

A n Oxford philosopher this week described their drug experiences in a survey by online student newspaper the Tab. “Having dinner with parents while seeing the world in monochrome and feeling supremely dizzy! I think my speech was barely coherent.”

Yawn. Other drug experiences recounted to the Tab are more entertaining. The Nottingham classicist who ran 4km home in 3D glasses while off their nut on illicit pharmaceuticals. The Oxford maths student who took MDMA, ketamine and laughing gas: “I thought I was Godzilla.”

The Tab’s survey of more than 5,000 students at 21 British universities reveals that 87% of philosophers polled had taken drugs, compared with 57% of medical students. Why this discrepancy? Is it because philosophy is easier than medicine and thus offers more recreational downtime? Really? Is grasping the Kantian noumenon less demanding than dissecting corpses?

The Tab’s editors, sensibly, say the survey should be taken with a pinch of salt since respondents are self-selecting. But if so, why would philosophy students be more likely to self-select than others? Is it – and this is just a theory – that relative employment prospects drive philosophers to seek solace in drugs? If so, why would a higher proportion of business administration students than lawyers claim to be drug users?

Another theory is that philosophy – more than any other intellectual discipline (with the possible exception of a level three plumbing NVQ) – requires one to recalibrate the portals of one’s consciousness in order to get one’s intellectual freak on. In Thomas Nagel’s superb essay What is it Like to be a Bat?, for instance, the great philosopher wrote: “I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task.”

Nagel didn’t think to take drugs to expand those resources, but other philosophers have done. William James took nitrous oxide and found, as he reported in The Varieties of Religious Experience, that it served to “stimulate the mystical consciousness to an extraordinary degree”. It was only then he understood Hegelian philosophy’s notion of god: “[T]o me the living sense of its reality only comes in the artificial mystic states of mind.”

Perhaps James’s drug experimenting is inspiring today’s philosophers: 45% of students polled claimed to have taken laughing gas. Or perhaps not – 68% had taken cannabis. Until a cross-referencing of which types of students favour what kind of drugs, we are lost in a world of diverting speculation.

In ancient Greece and Rome, there was a drug called the tetrapharmakos, consisting of wax, pork fat, pitch and pine resin. Yummy. Hadrian considered it a delicacy and, possibly, commissioned a wall while under its influence. I mention it because Hellenistic philosopher Epicurus used tetrapharmakos to designate the four-part means of leading the happiest possible life. Clearly, too few of today’s philosophers read Epicurus. Forget druggie hedonism, he counselled, the cure for what ails you is intellectual, not mystical: don’t fear God, don’t worry about death, what is good is easy to get, what is terrible is easy to endure.

With this cure, Epicurus recommended, one might achieve ataraxia – freedom from worry and distress. Good point. But if you want to understand Hegel or know what it’s like to be a bat or Godzilla, try laughing gas.

<p><strong>Stuart Jeffries:</strong> Nearly 90% of them have taken drugs, a higher proportion than in any other discipline, according to a poll of 21 UK universities</p>

How has cannabis influenced philosophy?

I can think of a few examples, but I’m hoping to learn more about various philosophers and how cannabis has influenced their philosophy.

Carl Sagan, or “Mr. X” in Dr. Lester Grinspoon book Marijuana Reconsidered wrote:

I find that most of the insights I achieve when high are into social issues… I can remember one occasion, taking a shower with my wife while high, in which I had an idea on the origins and invalidities of racism in terms of Gaussian distribution curves. It was a point obvious in a way, but rarely talked about. I drew the curves in soap on the shower wall, and went to write the idea down. One idea led to another, and at the end of about an hour of extremely hard work, I found I had written 11 short essays on a wide range of social, political, philosophical, and human biological topics… I have used them in university commencement addresses, public lectures and in my books.

Going back further in history, Yoseph Needelman says in an interview about his book Cannabis Chassidis:

A Ba’al Shem/Doktor is someone who picked wild grasses and barks, and made medicines out of them which he would sell, along with advice on how to use [them] properly. He used to smoke from a water pipe to experience an “aliyat neshama,” or ascension of the soul.

His biographer, Rabbi Yakov Yosef of Polonoye, said that he would give his entire portion in this world, and in the world to come, just for a taste of what the Ba’al Shem Tov got from his pipe.

It seems like most people who consume cannabis get an uncontrollable urge to “talk philosophically”. What sort of influence has cannabis had on philosophy?

2 Answers 2

I’m not so sure about cannabis specifically, but psychedelics in general played a role in the early development of many cultures, where shamans went into psychedelic trances to receive “divine inspiration”. Some, like 20th century shaman Terrence McKenna, believe that getting stoned is actually the way we humans seperated ourselves from apes during our early development.

Today, traditional forms of shamanism are still practices by specific cultures on every continent. Examples of psychedelics used in such traditional contexts include peyote, psilocybin mushrooms, uncured tobacco, cannabis, ayahuasca, Salvia divinorum, Tabernanthe iboga, Ipomoea tricolor and Amanita muscaria.

During the 1960s, Timothy Leary popularized the used of psychedelics outside traditional shamanic contexts. Since the bloom of the 1960s counterculture, substances like cannabis, LSD, mescaline and many others have become widely used among philosophers, artists, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs, in spite of their usual illegal status.

For example, Albert Hofmann took LSD together with Ernst Jünger. Neuroscientist John Lilly was an avid LSD user, and he introduced it to Richard Feynman. Steve Jobs took LSD up to 15 times from 1972 to 1974, according to official statements. Aldous Huxley took both mescaline & LSD, and described both experiences in respectively “The Doors of Perception” and “Heaven and Hell”. Microdosing LSD on the job has been common among Silicon Valley software engineers. Among Cambridge researchers, the microdosing of LSD been common as well, according to a 2004 interview with Francis Crick.

Being far less potent than LSD or mescaline, cannabis is used much more widely and it’s use in a recreational context has become about as mainstream as the recreational use of alcohol among millennials in many countries.

What a psychedelic (any psychedelic, including cannabis) does to the mind, is opening it up. It breaks down a person’s preconceived ideas and allows ideas to enter the mind that were inconceivable to that same mind before. For example, it allows a religious person to take a less biased look at Atheism but also allows an Atheist to take a less biased look at religion. Or it allows a racist to see other races without prejudice, but also allows an anti-racist to see a racist without prejudice.

So, psychedelics break down not just the barriers in our own perception, but also the ones that prevent us from looking at each other as equals. How exactly this impacted philosophy, science, engineering or art as a whole, is very hard to estimate. This is particularly difficult since most of these substances are illegal and therefore few people address their use of such substances in public discourse.

Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that they played a significant role in the development of the relativist perspectives on reality like those we find in existentialism and postmodernism. Because, really, if there’s one common theme throughout psychedelic experiences, it’s the notion that literally everything is relative and that the universe is ironic at its very core.

The following text, desribes the core principles of Discordianism, which is a semi-serious semi-parody take on religion, that was clearly fueled by LSD when it was penned down in 1963 and that perfectly illustrates what I mean be the notion that everything is relative and that the universe is ironic :

The Aneristic Principle is that of apparent order; the Eristic Principle is that of apparent disorder. Both order and disorder are man made concepts and are artificial divisions of pure chaos, which is a level deeper than is the level of distinction making.

With our concept-making apparatus called “the brain” we look at reality through the ideas-about-reality which our cultures give us. The ideas-about-reality are mistakenly labeled “reality” and unenlightened people are forever perplexed by the fact that other people, especially other cultures, see “reality” differently.

It is only the ideas-about-reality which differ. Real (capital-T) True reality is a level deeper than is the level of concept. We look at the world through windows on which have been drawn grids (concepts). Different philosophies use different grids. A culture is a group of people with rather similar grids. Through a window we view chaos, and relate it to the points on our grid, and thereby understand it. The order is in the grid. That is the Aneristic Principle.

Western philosophy is traditionally concerned with contrasting one grid with another grid, and amending grids in hopes of finding a perfect one that will account for all reality and will, hence, (say unenlightened westerners) be true. This is illusory; it is what we Erisians call the Aneristic Illusion. Some grids can be more useful than others, some more beautiful than others, some more pleasant than others, etc., but none can be more True than any other.

Disorder is simply unrelated information viewed through some particular grid. But, like “relation”, no-relation is a concept. Male, like female, is an idea about sex. To say that male-ness is “absence of female-ness”, or vice versa, is a matter of definition and metaphysically arbitrary. The artificial concept of no-relation is the Eristic Principle.

The belief that “order is true” and disorder is false or somehow wrong, is the Aneristic Illusion. To say the same of disorder, is the Eristic Illusion.

The point is that (little-t) truth is a matter of definition relative to the grid one is using at the moment, and that (capital-T) Truth, metaphysical reality, is irrelevant to grids entirely. Pick a grid, and through it some chaos appears ordered and some appears disordered. Pick another grid, and the same chaos will appear differently ordered and disordered.

— Malaclypse the Younger, Principia Discordia, pages 00049–00050

The following quote is also a good illustration the kind of mindset one develops from taking psychedelics :

We all must try to understand what is happening. We need to try to understand what is happening, and in my humble opinion ideology is only going to get in your way.

Nobody understands what is happening. Not Buddhists, not Christians, not government scientists. No one understands what is happening.

So, forget ideology. They betray. They limit. They lead astray.

Just deal with the raw data and trust yourself. Nobody is smarter than you are.

And what if they are? What good is their understanding doing you? People walk around saying, “I don’t understand Quantum Physics, but somewhere somebody understands it.” That’s not a very helpful attitude towards preserving the insights of Quantum Physics.

Inform yourself. What does inform yourself mean? It means transcend and mistrust ideology. Go for direct experience.

What do YOU think when YOU face the waterfall? What do YOU think when YOU have sex? What do YOU think when YOU take psilocybin?

Everything else is unconfirmable rumor, useless, probably lies. So, liberate yourself from the illusion of culture. Take responsibility for what you think and what you do.

How has cannabis influenced philosophy? I can think of a few examples, but I’m hoping to learn more about various philosophers and how cannabis has influenced their philosophy. Carl Sagan, or