An interview with Peter Sjöstedt-H
Peter Sjöstedt-H is an Anglo-Scandinavian philosopher, based in Cornwall, who specialises in the thought of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Alfred North Whitehead. He’s particularly interested in applying the insights of such figures to the experiences unveiled by psychedelics, and the philosophical implications of panpsychism (the belief that mind is in some way a property of all matter). His book Noumenautics contains his essay ‘Neo-Nihilism’, which helped inspire Warren Ellis’ recent take on the Marvel superhero, Karnak. His essay ‘The Great God Pan is Not Dead‘ is an excellent overview of the psychedelic potentials in the notoriously oblique ideas of Alfred North Whitehead. The following interview was conducted via email.
Gyrus: Psychedelics and philosophy seem to be quite natural companions, but are there particular aspects to your pre-psychedelic philosophical life that pointed towards this conjunction? And once psychedelics arrived, what was their immediate impact?
Peter: A few years after the turn of the millennium I was teaching philosophy in London. Part of that remit included teaching the philosophy of religion — which at the time I enjoyed more for its historic content than for its truth value (as I was a classic atheist). I taught the traditional arguments for God, for example — the ontological, cosmological, teleological, etc. — most of which seemed to have logical flaws. But there was one reason for believing in the deity which was arational: the purported direct experience of God in the mystical experience. As it was arational (not irrational) one could not use reason against it as easily as the others. This piqued my curiosity and I soon got involved with William James’ classic tome, The Varieties of Religious Experience, a book which, in part, sought to analyse these types of experience. James begins his exposition of these states with the inclusion of initiation through substances such as alcohol, ether and nitrous oxide. Reading this was probably the chief cause of my later excursions into mind-altering chemicals in relation to philosophy. I was soon to realize that the chemicals’ scope transcended their relation to theology, bearing direct relevance to a number of questions in the philosophy of mind and metaphysics generally.
Apart from this purely intellectual impact, this realization of specific potential, psychedelics also provided a sense of optimism in that they broke my belief in what I had hitherto assumed were the limits of human mentality. The extreme modes of aesthetic joy, of deepest sublime terror, of the shattering of ‘the self’, of emotions never before contemplated let alone experienced — all of these forms of sentience change a person.
Gyrus: Academic culture is still very averse to the ‘argument by experience’. Matthew Day, a Darwinian professor of religious studies, once said that ‘one of the bedevilling problems about dealing with gods is that … they are never really there.’ After many decades of psychedelic research, this seems almost wilfully naive. Does your combined experience of academia and psychedelics indicate that we’re in the position described by Kuhn’s idea of paradigm shifts (waiting for older adherents of the status quo to die), or are there more fundamental obstacles?
Peter: I do not see such a paradigm shift on the horizon, even though in the humanities generally the subjective experience of reality seems to be taking a more important role. In the sciences however, as technology progresses, there appears to be a move away from experience, or experiment, in favour of computer modelling. In philosophy – which can be seen as a bridge between the humanities and the sciences — the question of the veridicality (objective existence) of one’s experience remains a disputed issue. Unless one is a solipsist, one assumes that the experience of the outer world is (in part at least) caused by the existence of the outer world. But by the same principle, argue figures such as Bertrand Russell and Kurt Gödel, one should posit the veridicality of mathematical and logical intuitions — such as equations and modus ponens — as the cause of our experience of them. They are discovered rather than invented, just as the outer world is discovered. If one advances with this modern Platonism, then certain common objects provided by certain psychedelic experiences can take on a new ontological status.
So introspection, if one includes the psychedelic experience therein, can conceivably provide objective knowledge. However, as you intimate, the last century rejected (or did not consider) this, and psychology and philosophy fell into a dead behaviourism, where knowledge was derived chiefly from the experience of spatiotemporal motion in abstraction. This is probably partly due to an excess in our natural propensity to consider touch the arbiter of existence — as Russell claimed, ‘it is our sense of touch that gives our sense of “reality”‘. Although the paradoxes and contradictions that emerged from such behaviourism have dealt it a near-death blow, I don’t think that academia as a whole has fully recovered and thus it is not in a position to accept the ontic suggestions psychedelics can yield. It’s just too much.
Gyrus: We’ve quickly hit the stickiest, slipperiest, and most tedious philosophical issue! What is really real? My feeling for this, and many other thorny issues, is that the most interesting approach is psychological. What does is mean, psychologically, to say this or that is what’s really real? Outside philosophy, ‘materialism’ and ‘idealism’ don’t amount to much apart from the baggage attached to each notion, and the different psychological purchase on the world the baggage (for us, usually Christian) gives you. ‘Matter’ is perhaps dull, stolid, but easy to grab and manipulate – and of course there are interesting feminine etymological depths there. ‘Ideas’ are elevated but wispy, mutable, hard to pin down. And in terms of gods and spirits, I think of the pragmatism of animists, who are more concerned with living relationships (‘what does this spirit want?’) than with metaphysical certainty (‘is this spirit really real?’). Modern science is often promisingly pragmatic, but its materialism retains strong metaphysical investments.
Peter: What is really real? As this is a question that constitutes the subject of ontology, I can but point to responses.
We believe in mind as it is that with which we are acquainted other than by inference. We believe in matter as we infer its existence as the chief cause of our perceptions. You can reduce mind to matter or matter to mind in various ways. Personally I think that matter is an abstraction from a concrete actuality that involves mind, but not in terms of idealism, dualism, or materialism — more in terms of a Whiteheadian panexperientialism but with tones of Nietzschean will to power as a fundamental, mostly-unconscious base of all. Furthermore, as mentioned previously, I should add the reality (but not actuality) of an aspatiotemporal dimension that provides the common objects of our cognitions (colours, emotions, mathematical objects, etc.). These are neither matter nor mind, but the objects of mind. As well as those common objects, there lies an infinitude of possibilities uncommon: this realm mostly alien to humans is, I have conjectured, made available to a limited degree through psychedelic intake — perhaps psychedelics can unwittingly allow one to know what it is like to be a bat. Psychedelics have much to offer as a second phase of the philosophy of mind — William James, Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead can be viewed as the seeds of such a Psychedelic Philosophy.
Those are three realms of existence (the spatiotemporal, temporal, and aspatiotemporal). One can hold suspicions about whether still others exist, an infinity thereof as Spinoza had it — as a cuttlefish may suspect there is more to the universe than that which lies below the ocean surface. We have at least a few blunt tools for the investigation: empirical observation, logic, and perhaps certain intoxication (all are prone to error).
Gyrus: That’s an admirably concise summary, but I was angling less for the philosophical take on the question of reality, and more for the implications of this question in psychological life. Do you tend to stick strictly to the classic remit of philosophy, abstract thought and logic? Two of your key inspirations — James and Nietzsche — were to an extent psychologists as well as philosophers. How do you relate to the interplay between these fields — both professionally as a philosopher, and personally as someone trying to find fruitful perspectives across the boundaries of disciplines?
Peter: Nietzsche had a powerful influence upon my life — he undercut most of my assumptions by simply making me conscious of them. He rips you out of your society and forces you to look back into it with shock. With regard to his relation to analytic philosophy, he makes you question the underlying motives that ultimately drive your logic, and moreover he enfeebles the power of logic itself. Trying to bring to consciousness the motives driving one’s reasoning can at-times be an irritating form of self-consciousness – yet without these suspicions the results of any reasoning seem immature and incomplete.
So Nietzsche certainly complements thought that is merely abstract and logical — I personally try not to limit myself to any mode here.
The initial shock and emancipation that Nietzsche can impart is akin to the power that psychedelics can proffer. Normality is dealt a thunderstrike, the possibilities of the mind are exposed, a new world awakens. William James also spoke of this new world, but Nietzsche’s power prose hits and drives a person directly. In this sense, Nietzsche and psychedelics are both a surging Rubicon.
Gyrus: Nietzsche’s famously misunderstood. The bit that struck me the most reading him was his preference for Mediterranean light-hearted joy over Teutonic grimness — it was so at odds with the image of being ‘Nietzschean’ in the occult world and other sub-cultures. What have you made of his distorted legacy? His final collapse at the sight of a horse being flogged suggests curious contrasts to and conflicts with his more domineering ideas.
Peter: Nietzsche lends himself to various interpretations not only because his own views changed over the decades, and because he promoted an epistemic ‘perspectivism’, but also, I believe, because some of his mature work had not crystallised before his cognitive collapse — this is especially the case as regards his notion of the will to power. From my perspective, the most distorted interpretation of his views are not those from the so-called left or right, but from a late twentieth century attempt to render Nietzsche a mechanist, especially by viewing the will to power as being without an intrinsic aspect. It’s my view that Nietzsche’s analysis of the will to power was incomplete, though completion was emerging on the lost horizon. I should also say that I have the idiosyncrasy of believing that Nietzsche’s prolific drug use played a role in the development of his philosophy. But whatever Nietzsche himself might have believed or meant at a particular time is academic. There was, non-paradoxically, a truth that underlay his perspectivism which others can discover regardless of what the man himself beheld – as he decreed in Ecce Homo: ‘I bid you lose me and find yourselves…’
Gyrus: Could you summarise your take on his incomplete philosophy of the ‘will to power’? Where do you think he might have taken it if he’d been able to? And what have psychedelics brought to the idea for you, which perhaps enabled you to ‘lose’ Nietzsche?
Peter: If you look at Nietzsche’s later notebooks the notion of the will to power was being developed in ways that were never fully committed to his published work. He had, however, planned to call his new work ‘The Will to Power’ (see his Genealogy, 3T§27) — a work distinct from the posthumous collection of notes published under the same name. That collection was organised by his sister and others. The definitive English edition of the collection was edited by Walter Kaufmann, who provided various notes to certain sections. In section 635 (from 1888) Nietzsche writes, ‘The will to power not a being, not a becoming, but a pathos — the most elemental fact from which a becoming and effecting first emerge.’ To the word ‘pathos’ here Kaufmann comments, ‘Occasion, event, passion, suffering, destiny are among the meanings of this Greek word. A comparison of the sections in this part with Whitehead’s philosophy of occasions and events would be fruitful.’ It is this broader comparison, and development, which I am striving towards. The possibilities to which Nietzsche himself would have taken the will to power tenet will remain eternally unknown. The process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead actually had a copy of Nietzsche’s Will to Power (the 1924 English edition) in which he made numerous markings — I have made this copy available to the public, a copy I drop into to develop (or, discover) what could be called a power process panpsychism. Very basically, Whitehead’s ‘actual occasions’, or ‘drops of experience’ are instances of the general pathos that Nietzsche militarizes as the will to power – all mechanism is but the skin of such workings. The ‘subjective aim’ of such actual occasions will correspond to the striving element for development in Nietzsche’s fundamental principle. There is much that is incompatible in the two thinkers (e.g. universal realism and theism), yet I aim to conceive a hybrid, a new breed.
Psychedelics did not make me lose Nietzsche but rather placed him in a pantheon of thinkers whose powers can be called upon when required. Psychedelic modes of perception did perhaps provide me direct intuitions of what in Whitehead are intellectualisations — thereby solidifying the importance of Whitehead’s philosophy for me. For instance, for Whitehead nature is intrinsically value-laden as all sentience is valuation, and all of nature is sentient (as he is a panexperientialist). One can seemingly intuit this wondrous concrete reality in psychedelic modes whereas such natural value is abstracted away in our common, evolved modes of perception (perhaps in some people more than others). So psychedelics can support the augmentation of Whitehead’s philosophy to Nietzsche’s.
Psychedelics may also be of great value in relation to the development of Nietzsche’s ideal of the Übermensch: the Overman or Superman. Alfred Richard Orage, an early English disciple of Nietzsche, suggested that the ‘Superman is strictly indefinable. … [Yet it] is probable, indeed, that new faculties, new modes of consciousness, will be needed, as the mystics have always declared; and that the differencing element of man and Superman will be the possession of these.’ So, perhaps we must all prepare for the Psychedelic Superman! We should not forget that Nietzsche declared himself to be a disciple of the philosopher Dionysus, the god of intoxication. Thus my planned power process panpsychism will contain elements of such a psychedelic transhumanism.
Gyrus: You’ve said you try to remain apolitical. I’m assuming that just means avoiding party politics, since an apolitical theory of power seems like an oxymoron.
Peter: I do try to distance myself from party politics — though I have struggled recently during the ‘Brexit’ debacle due to my background and family (English, Swedish, German, with mild Cornish sympathies). My general reason for wanting to remain apolitical, beyond the pettiness of most party politics, is my meta-ethical view that no moral position can ultimately be substantiated in an objective manner and thus can no political position. So I acknowledge that any political stance is subjective. Further, this means that any normative, prescriptive political stance is never a matter of reason (unless one reasons the means to the same political ends) but of preference — and that preference, following Nietzsche, Stevenson, et al., comes down to a matter of power (of person, group, identity). So an apolitical theory of power would be an oxymoron if it were prescriptive (i.e. if it issued imperatives, duties, oughts). But as I maintain it as descriptive the contradiction is avoided.
Of course, being apolitical is not the same as being apathetic. I take an interest in world politics and sometimes act politically in terms of my subjective ideals. Nevertheless, politics for me is not as interesting as metaphysics; I try to concern myself with matters eternal rather than temporal (though this can be difficult with two young children).
Gyrus: What would you highlight as the ‘neo’ part of your ‘Neo-Nihilism’? And given the idea’s notorious past, what misunderstandings of it would cause you most disquiet, either as a philosopher or a human?
Peter: The prefix of the term Neo-Nihilism is placed to make the position distinct from nihilism as the doctrine of the non-existence of values or of the non-existence of truths. Obviously the latter would be self-defeating, so the emphasis is against the first distinction: the nihilistic tradition that claims that life is without meaning as there are no values at all. This is not the position I advanced, as I submit that all living is evaluating and that these subjective values give meaning to a being’s life. Following Nietzsche and Bergson, I’d argue that perceiving itself is valuing that upon which one could act. Going further, following Whitehead, perception (or prehension) is causality (which mechanical causation is but the abstraction) — and thus we return to the value laden nature of which we spoke previously.
Although Whitehead was prima facie moralistic, one can glean his ultimately (neo-)nihilistic nature in metaphysical utterances such as this: ‘The terms morality, logic, religion, art, have each of them been claimed as exhausting the whole meaning of importance. Each of them denotes a subordinate species. But the genus stretches beyond any finite group of species.’ The universe is embedded with subjective values, this is the flow of actuality we prehend, but this implies no absolute universal normative laws of morality. Even Whitehead’s deity can be viewed as amoral, an idea represented by his designation of God as Atë, the Greek goddess of mischief and destruction.
It might cause me light disquiet if the fundamental logic regarding hypothetical imperatives and the is-ought gap in Neo-Nihilism were misrepresented, miswritten — but I am generally interested in how it might inspire others creatively, such as the way in which it in part inspired the recreation of a Marvel superhero and the show of a Scottish slam champion.
But you are driving at the political repercussions of such a doctrine. The doctrine essentially leans to no political stance, though aspects could be used in opposing positions (akin to how Nietzsche’s philosophy has been employed by both anarchists and fascists). Of course claiming that any particular use of neo-nihilism is immoral is analogous to claiming that atheism is sinful.
Gyrus: I often see modernity in terms of, not just a reaction against tradition, but an over-reaction. In his book Cosmopolis, Stephen Toulmin argues that modernity is characterised by a ‘Quest for Certainty’ which originated against the background of the Thirty Years War, and which was an attempt to counter the horrific sectarian religious violence with indubitable foundations of knowledge. He contrasts this ultimately futile search to the abandoned humanist tolerance for uncertainty of Montaigne. Nietzsche was an admirer of Montaigne, but I wonder if his over-reaction against Christian morality led him into the opposite trap to the Quest for Certainty — a metaphysical despair of certainties that opens up an abyss. Must we be polarised between dogma and abyss, neither of which seems to work with the messy realities of human life?
Peter: I don’t think that that polarity need exist as such. Even whilst rejecting moral certainties, I do think it’s more plausible at the very least to accept that there are certainties in mathematics even where we have not discovered them (e.g. the certainty that Goldbach’s Conjecture is either true or false). Interestingly that conjecture cannot be resolved by induction, despite all the results in favour of its truth. This problem of induction from Hume applies more potently to science, and here I would say, as is common, that any proposed certainties are generally mere currently working hypotheses. However, it seems that we still live in an age where scientists form the new priesthood. So the dogma from the religious sects of the Thirty Years’ War has only shifted field rather than abated. Nietzsche actually defends Platonism from such scientism (in BGE§14) saying that, ‘even physics is only a way of interpreting or arranging the world … [from] the rabble of the senses, as Plato called it’.
Kant wanted to base normative morality on reason rather that the undulating whims of religious intuition responsible in part for The Thirty Years’ War — so to quell such violence by offering an objective normative ideal all could follow. Schopenhauer highlighted the logical flaws in this, and Nietzsche emphasised the unwitting Christian cultural legacy underpinning Kant’s project. Although both of those criticisms of Kant open up a moral abyss, they both are dependent upon the holding of certain proposed truths such as, respectively, the axioms of logic and the will to power that underlies all. So one can reject normative moral facts without thereby rejecting the existence of general facts — the moral abyss is not a total abyss.
But was even this moral abyss an over-reaction? That could only be answered if one believed in the existence of a standard by which one could judge it to be such, so it depends on rejecting an epistemic abyss. So yes, it gets impractical and messy, and perhaps hazardous to health: ‘if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.’
Gyrus: Didn’t Nietzsche see nihilism not only as a truth, but a grave risk to be overcome?
Peter: Nietzsche used the word ‘nihilism’ in a number of senses, and accordingly he was both a nihilist and an anti-nihilist. Firstly he considers what he calls ‘slave values’ (of which Christian morals are the epitome) a type of nihilism in that they are anti-natural. Secondly, if one accepts that the death of God leads to the death of the ground of these slave values, and if one takes these slave values to be the sole moral values, then the gloom of ‘passive nihilism’ is evoked. Something he saw, for instance in Schopenhauer. This is the nihilism to be overcome. How? ‘Active Nihilism’ is the optimism that springs from open possibilities of systems of value that the destruction of these slave values, this dogmatism, makes possible. Such a joy in the creation of values anew he calls Dionysian — and the contradistinction between Christ and Dionysus is the leitmotif of his later, mature work. This is why A. R. Orage wrote that ‘Blake is Nietzsche in English’, as Blake famously wrote, ‘I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s’.
Gyrus: I always found Zarathustra’s plea to ‘remain true to the earth‘ deeply resonant. It was made as a rejection of otherworldly beliefs such as Christianity, but it’s hard for me to not follow its paganism through to modern environmentalism. Among other things, I wonder what Nietzsche might have made of the science of ecology. Putting aside the fact of the logical argument for the relativity of all values, might diversity be the least relative value we can hope for, if life is our concern? What thoughts on ecology have your own psychedelic experiences and emerging philosophical synthesis provoked?
Peter: Nietzsche’s relation to ecology is a fascinating question, and I think you are right to connect Nietzsche’s love of the earthly to such a doctrine. Of his list of eleven affirmative emotions, the last is ‘Gratitude to the earth and to life’ (and thus plausibly diversity as you say). And apart from his writings, the beautiful locations in which he chose to live, wander and wonder show his deep aesthetic appreciation of the natural world — Sils Maria in the Swiss Alps comes prominently to mind. However, an argument could be made that certain directions of the ecological movement inherit the Christian apocalyptic vision, a slavish submission to group-think, and an ultimate concern for comfort over the positively harsh conditions an ecological catastrophe might provide for the emergence of the Übermensch. After all, this was Zarathustra’s prime directive. So there is opportunity for scholarly research to determine which side Nietzsche might lend sympathy to today. Again, though, this is academic and for one’s own views to be determined by the outcome of such research would itself be slavish and thus, ironically, un-Nietzschean.
I’d say that my psychedelic episodes have brought me closer to an appreciation of the value of nature; perhaps they unwittingly brought me to the study of panpsychism. For example, I recall the ineffable reverence of the fierce beauty of an intricately-veined leaf under psilocybin — a magnitude above the general appreciation I had of the wonders of common verdure. I live in the wild west of Cornwall, with the Atlantic ocean before me and the untouched moors behind. My experiences have only fortified my respect and adoration of this sublimity — but they have also heightened my valuation for independent thought and living, so again I choose to join no movements as much as is possible.
Gyrus: Your independence is presumably as limited as most people’s, in terms of infrastructure, and the benefits you reap from long and costly social struggles in the past. Is a philosophy which places radical independence at its core able to retain any integrity in the face of such clear interdependence? After all, our pre-civilised ‘state of nature’, so often the poorly thought-through grounding for modern philosophies of rugged independence, was actually profoundly social.
Peter: I would question whether anyone has attained (or could attain) certainty on whether our pre-civilised state of nature was a single homogeneous phenomenon to which one could ascribe profound sociability. I would incline to believe a heterogeneous state of affairs thus with multiple forms of social systems and modes of living — as attested by ancient explorers and historians such as Pytheas and Diodorus.
Regardless, the interdependence of all events is core to Whitehead’s process philosophy and (dare I say) to Nietzsche’s metaphysics. So I am not promoting a philosophy of independence, let alone calling independence a core principle. However, with Whitehead and Nietzsche, if not the body of philosophers, I value (subjectively) cognitive autonomy, whilst being cognizant of the historic social struggles that have partly conditioned its possibility. An independence of thought is perfectly consonant with an interdependence of actual events.
Social struggles have been to cognitive independence both beneficial and detrimental. For the latter take the old social struggles of many religious groups or the new social struggles of the identitarians. To be determined in one’s cognition by the whims and desires of various movements of history would be cognitive imprisonment. People died for the vote but people also died for Catholicism. Neither implies that one should today vote or be a Catholic: their desires were not of necessity yours.
So though interdependent life is absolute, interdependent thought is not. Of course one is determined in one’s thought by one’s culture, language and history to a large extent — but it is the philosopher’s remit to transcend these limitations as far as possible. But not only philosophers: the current social struggle for ‘cognitive liberty’ driven by psychonauts is certainly a complementary drive for independent thought.
Gyrus: Terence McKenna said that he started out as a kind of Platonist, but then re-tooled himself with phenomenology. This transition struck me as typifying the involvement of psychedelics — the very etymology of which suggests a transition from noumenal to phenomenal form. Has McKenna played any role in your conjunction of Whitehead (who furnished McKenna with many of his key notions) and psychedelics? His main contribution seemed to be a demonstration that a certain playfulness is necessary when you approach this territory with words.
Peter: McKenna did not play a role in my Whiteheadian interpretations of psychedelic phenomenology. The only slight possibility is that my readings of McKenna’s work created a dormant vague memory of a comparison unwittingly activated when my knowledge of Whitehead and psychedelic phenomenology came to the fore. But I doubt this. To be charitable I’d say McKenna had an interesting interpretation of Whitehead; to be truthful I’d say he completely misunderstood Whitehead. For instance, in his article ‘Timewave Zero and Language‘ McKenna speaks of Whitehead’s technical term ‘concrescence’ as a sort of Aristotelian prime mover exerting a final cause upon reality. In McKenna’s own words, ‘[a] concrescence exerts a kind of attraction, which can be thought of as the temporal equivalent of gravity except all objects in the universe are drawn toward it through time, not space.’ But Whitehead uses the term in a completely different way to mean the process that constitutes an actual entity, which exists at the micro-scale in terms of time, space and experience.
So though I admire McKenna’s adventure of ideas (the name of one of Whitehead’s later books), I do not think he served justice upon the tantalizing comparison to be made between Whiteheadian process philosophy and psychedelic phenomenology. I have attempted to make a start in this comparison, but so much more remains to be discovered.
Gyrus: What are your near-future plans, fears, and hopes?
Peter: The immediate primary plan is to complete my doctorate, thereafter to gain tenure. This in parallel to the publication of a new book on some of the topics discussed above, and potential documentaries. These are in fact my plans, hopes and — were they to fail — my fears. Alongside this run hopes for my children, family, and broader hopes for the establishment of an academic field of psychedelic phenomenology, hopes for a general science that shifts up to involve mind as a core, rather than rare, phenomenon — and hopes for the progression of humankind to heights not yet envisioned. A pipe dream perhaps, but not all dreams go up in smoke.
Find more on Peter's work at his website.
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