Thursday, 16 July 2020

The Doors of Perception

Photograph by Chris Lord

In 1954, Aldous Huxley wrote an essay, in which he elaborated on his psychadelic experience under the influence of mescaline. Now, the work has gathered strong reactions for its evaluation of psychadelic drugs as facilitators of mystical insight with great potential benefits for science and philosophy.

For a general summary, Wisecrack has a great short take on the work:

We won't stress over any of that here. Rather, I want to take a closer look at the analogy itself, perception as a kind of door - what kind of door and where does it lead to? Why a door in the first place? What's up with the wall?

The glorious San Pedro Cactus, which
continued to give excellent highs to
divine men in South America since over
3,000 years ago.

What is perception? Huxley finds himself in agreement with a quote by C. D. Broad, who contends that:
"The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful."
 As Huxley puts it:
"To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this Particular planet."

The Mind at Large that is mentioned here, is the unrestrained flow of consciousness, one not tied by our immediate biological needs, one not reduced to a certain ordinary being-situated-in-the-world, as Heidegger would have put it.

For Heidegger, the world around us is not made out of already defined things, such as "table", "chair", "hammer", but rather out of vague entities that are only given a defined practical significance with regards to our situation in the world. If I'll want to hang up a picture, the hammer - which was always just a vague insignificant impression at the periphery of my vision - now comes to life as the thing-which-i'll-use-to-nail-this-shit-up.

Van Gogh's Chair as an exemplar
of a pure seeing of a thing.
Our relation to the world is one of practical and situational significances of the objects around us. To break free of those significances and see the objects in their pure form (as they really are, if you will), not one of practical relations, would be the seeing of the Mind at Large, a "peak behind the curtains of the world around us."

A peak through the wall. A seeing, not through a door, the ordinary tunnel-vision of men, but an unselective, total seeing of the world as it is. That's at least where the analogy seemed to be going.

But apparently Huxley had a different idea:
"Most men and women lead lives at the worst so painful, at the best so monotonous, poor and limited that the urge to escape, the longing to transcend themselves if only for a few moments, is and has always been one of the principal appetites of the soul. Art and religion, carnivals and saturnalia, dancing and listening to oratory - all these have served, in H. G. Wells's phrase, as Doors in the Wall. And for private, far everyday use there have always been chemical intoxicants."
And that's where we really get to the juice of the essay, one that resonates with Huxley's ideas in Brave New World and Island:
"The universal and ever-present urge to selftranscendence is not to be abolished by slamming the currently popular [alcohol, religion, etc.] Doors in the Wall. The only reasonable policy is to open other, better doors in the hope of inducing men and women to exchange their old bad habits for new and less harmful ones. Some of these other, better doors will be social and technological in nature, others religious or psychological, others dietetic, educational, athletic. But the need for frequent chemical vacations from intolerable selfhood and repulsive surroundings will undoubtedly remain. What is needed is a new drug which will relieve and console our suffering species."
Our lives are shit. Humans will always strive to transcend themselves and their suffering. They'll resort to whatever drug-like Door they'll have access to: religion, power, alcohol, cocaine, cigarettes, ... The job of the policy makers is to find a drug that will satisfy the people's needs, yet not cause any serious side-effects.
"Although obviously superior to cocaine, opium, alcohol and tobacco, mescalin is not yet the ideal drug /.../ If the psychologists and sociologists will define the ideal, the neurologists and pharmacologists can be relied upon to discover the means whereby that ideal can be realized or at least (for perhaps this kind of ideal can never, in the very nature of things, be fully realized) more nearly approached than in the wine-bibbing past, the whiskydrinking, marijuana-smoking and barbiturate-swallowing present."
At this point it seems that for Huxley, the point seems to be a rather existential, or even therapeutic one. Mind-altering drugs are Doors that take us into a different reality, one of transcendence, one that satisfies our deepest needs as human beings. It makes us aware of the particular being-situated-in-the-world, of our particular perspective on the world. And once you stop mistaking your perspective as total seeing, you can break free of your ordinary emotional constrains in life.

It's an "escape from the central reality into a false, or at least imperfect and partial Nirvanas of beauty and mere knowledge."

As of the epistemic point that Huxley had to make, mescaline is not necessary but helpful, especially so for the intellectual, who can become the victim of words and symbols. As Goethe wrote in middle life:
"We talk far too much. We should talk less and draw more. I personally should like to renounce speech altogether and, like organic Nature, communicate everything I have to say in sketches. That fig tree, this little snake, the cocoon on my window sill quietly awaiting its future - all these are momentous signatures. A person able to decipher their meaning properly would soon be able to dispense with the written or the spoken word altogether. The more I think of it, there is something futile, mediocre, even (I am tempted to say) foppish about speech. By contrast, how the gravity of Nature and her silence startle you, when you stand face to face with her, undistracted, before a barren ridge or in the desolation of the ancient hills."
To this, Huxley adds: 
"We can never dispense with language and the other symbol systems; for it is by means of them, and only by their means, that we have raised ourselves above the brutes, to the level of human beings. But we can easily become the victims as well as the beneficiaries of these systems. We must learn how to handle words effectively; but at the same time we must preserve and, if necessary, intensify our ability to look at the world directly and not through that half opaque medium of concepts, which distorts every given fact into the all too familiar likeness of some generic label or explanatory abstraction."
As Hegel has put it in his brilliant essay titled Who thinks Abstractly?:
"Who thinks abstractly? The uneducated, not the educated /.../ A murderer is led to the place of execution. For the common populace he is nothing but a murderer. Ladies perhaps remark that he is a strong, handsome, interesting man. The populace finds this remark terrible: What? A murderer handsome? How can one think so wickedly and call a murderer handsome; no doubt, you yourselves are something not much better! /.../ This is abstract thinking: to see nothing in the murderer except the abstract fact that he is a murderer, and to annul all other human essence in him with this simple quality."
The job of philosophy, on the other hand, is to disperse this abstraction. As Goethe's poetic sensibilities would have it, the "ability to stay open and without prejudice in front of phenomena, demands a certain style of talking and writing, in which the language gets creatively deformed." Or, in the words of Merleau-Ponty, it's a process, in which the stereotepical language transforms into a fruitful one, so that it can properly "sing the world."

When it borrows from the sedimented and stagnated meanings of the ordinary language, the poet formulates creative and metaphorical ways fo talking, which put us in connection with the phenomena. The poet gives us a "new epistemic organ," which render the previously invisible visible. With reference to philosophy of language we could contend that every scientific breakthrough, to the extend that it informs us about the phenomena, has a character of poetry.

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