When Michel Foucault Tripped on Acid in Death Valley and Called It “The Greatest Experience of My Life” (1975)

Image by Nemomain, via Wikimedia Commons

French theorist Michel Foucault rose to international prominence with his critical histories—or “archaeologies”—of scientific knowledge and technocratic power. His first book, Madness and Civilization, described the Enlightenment-era creation of insanity as a category set apart from reason, which enabled those labeled mad to be subjected to painful, invasive treatments and lose their freedom and agency during a period he called “the Great Confinement.”

A follow-up, The Birth of the Clinic, appeared in 1963, introducing the notion of the “medical gaze,” a cold, probing ideological instrument that dehumanizes patients and allows people to be made into objects of experimentation. Foucault tended to view the world through a particularly grim, claustrophobic, even paranoid lens, though one arguably warranted by the well-documented histories he unearthed and the contemporary technocratic police states they gave rise to.

But Foucault also insisted that in all relations of power, “there is necessarily the possibility of resistance.” His own forms of resistance tended toward political activism, adventurous sexual exploits, Zen meditation, and drugs. He grew pot on his balcony in Paris, did cocaine, smoked opium, and “deanatomized the localization of pleasure,” as he put it, with LSD. The experimentation constituted what he called a “limit experience” that transgressed the boundaries of a socially-imposed identity.

But in a strange irony, the first time Foucault dropped acid, he himself became the subject of an experiment conducted on him by one of his followers, Simeon Wade, an assistant professor of history at Claremont Graduate School. In 1975 Foucault gave a seminar at UC Berkeley, where he would later finish his career in the years before his death in 1984. While in California, he accepted an invitation from Wade and his partner Michael Stoneman to take a road trip to Death Valley. “I was performing an experiment,” Wade remembered in a recent interview on Boom California. “I wanted to see [how] one of the greatest minds in history would be affected by an experience he had never had before.”

We went to Zabriskie Point to see Venus appear. Michael placed speakers all around us, as no one else was there, and we listened to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sing Richard Strauss’s, Four Last Songs. I saw tears in Foucault’s eyes. We went into one of the hollows and laid on our backs, like James Turrell’s volcano, and watched Venus come forth and the stars come out later. We stayed at Zabriskie Point for about ten hours.

The desert acid trip, Wade says, changed Foucault permanently, for the better. “Everything after this experience in 1975,” he says, “is the new Foucault, neo-Foucault…. Foucault from 1975 to 1984 was a new being.” The evidence seems clear enough. Foucault wrote Wade and Stoneman a few months later to tell them “it was the greatest experience of his life, and that it profoundly changed his life and his work…. He wrote us that he had thrown volumes two and three of his History of Sexuality into the fire and that he had to start over again.”

Foucault had succumbed to despair prior to his Death Valley trip, Wade says, contemplating in his 1966 The Order of Things “the death of humanity…. To the point of saying that the face of man has been effaced.” Afterward, he was “immediately” seized by a new energy and focus. The titles of those last two, rewritten, books “are emblematic of the impact this experience had on him: The Uses of Pleasure and The Care of the Self, with no mention of finitude.” Foucault biographer James Miller tells us in the documentary above (at 27:30) —Michel Foucault Beyond Good and Evil— that everyone he spoke to about Foucault had heard about Death Valley, since Foucault told anyone who would listen that it was “the most transformative experience in his life.”

There were some people, notes interviewer Heather Dundas, who believed that Wade’s experiment was unethical, that he had been “reckless with Foucault’s welfare.” To this challenge Wade replies, “Foucault was well aware of what was involved, and we were with him the entire time.” Asked whether he thought of the repercussions to his own career, however, he replies, “in retrospect, I should have.” Two years later, he left Claremont and could not find another full-time academic position. After obtaining a nursing license, he made a career as a nurse at the Los Angeles County Psychiatric Hospital and Ventura County Hospital, exactly the sort of institutions Foucault had found so threatening in his earlier work.

Wade also authored a 121-page account of the Death Valley trip, and in 1978 published Chez Foucault, a mimeographed fanzine introduction to the philosopher's work, including an unpublished interview with Foucault. For his part, Foucault threw himself vigorously into the final phase of his career, in which he developed his concept of biopower, an ethical theory of self-care and a critical take on classical philosophical and religious themes about the nature of truth and subjectivity. He spent the last 9 years of his life pursuing the new pathways of thought that opened to him during those extraordinary ten hours under the hot sun and cool stars of the Death Valley desert.

You can read the complete interview with Wade at BoomCalifornia.com.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

An Animated Introduction to Rene Descartes & His Philosophy of Radical Doubt

Early Enlightenment French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes invented a new genre of philosophy, we might say, one that would dominate the century to come. Before Locke, Leibniz, or Kant, Descartes stood out as a "theist rationalist.” Rather than trusting in revelation, he leaned solely on logic and reason, creating a set of “rules for the direction of the mind,” the title of one of his books. He believed we might think our way—solely unaided by unreliable external sources—to belief in God and “all the knowledge that we may need for the conduct of life.”

Descartes’ proofs of God may not sound so convincing to modern ears, slipping as they do into the language of faith when convenient. But in other respects, he seems distinctly contemporary, or at least like a contemporary of Ludwig Wittgenstein. He believed that philosophy suffered from improper definitions and lacked clarity of thought. And like the early 20th-century logical positivists, he put tremendous store in logic and mathematics as analytic tools for acquiring knowledge about the world. These, along with the scientific method Descartes championed, were indeed the sole means of acquiring such knowledge.

Descartes, then, has become known for introducing the radical “method of doubt,” which supposedly strips away all prejudice and preconception, every article of belief, to get at the most fundamentally ascertainable core of knowledge. Upon doing this in his 1637 Discourse on Method, the French philosopher famously found that the only thing he could say for certain was that he must exist because he could see himself doubting his existence—cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am.” The process involved casting aside all authority and tradition, which made Descartes a hero to French Revolutionists. His freethinking also made him very much the enemy of many in the Catholic church.

Describing in Discourse on Method how he had abandoned all reliance on other texts and resolved to derive the answers to his questions from experience and reason, he seemed to dismiss the authority not only of church hierarchy and dogma but of scripture itself. Rather than fixing God at the center of the universe, Descartes used the “Archimedean point” of his own certain existence to anchor “an epistemologically unsteady world.” Nonetheless, he was committed to keeping faith intact, even as he seemingly demolished the foundations of its existence, including—for Catholics—the cherished idea that priests could turn bread into flesh.

It might have been an attempt at self-preservation or appeasement, but it seems more to reflect sincere belief: in the Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes sought to prove the existence of God in much the same way as he had proved his own existence, through circular reasoning and arguments that split mind and matter into two distinct camps. Descartes created a dualist view of the world that became a major problem in his philosophy. At the time, many of his critics were less concerned with this ontological puzzle than they were with the possibility of his heretical thought interfering in world affairs.

Descartes’ radical doubt threatened not only church doctrine but also church politics. One scholar claims to have found evidence that a Catholic priest—fearing the French freethinker would jeopardize the conversion of Sweden’s Queen Christina to Catholicism—murdered Descartes with an arsenic-laced communion wafer. If so, it would have been a cruelly ironic death, perhaps by design, for the man who dared to write in the Meditations that transubstantiation—one of the Church’s central supernatural teachings—should be “rejected by theologians as irrational, incomprehensible and hazardous for the faith,” and to hope for a time when “my theory will be accepted in its place as certain and indubitable.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Is Freedom? Watch Four Philosophy Animations on Freedom & Free Will Narrated by Harry Shearer

Growing up in America, I heard nearly every behavior, no matter how unpleasant, justified with the same phrase: "It's a free country." In her recent book Notes on a Foreign Country, the Istanbul-based American reporter Suzy Hansen remembers singing "God Bless the USA" on the school bus during the first Iraq war: "And I’m proud to be an AmericanWhere at least I know I’m free." That "at least," she adds, is funny: "We were free – at the very least we were that. Everyone else was a chump, because they didn’t even have that obvious thing. Whatever it meant, it was the thing that we had, and no one else did. It was our God-given gift, our superpower."

But how many of us can explain what freedom is? These videos from BBC Radio 4 and the Open University's animated History of Ideas series approach that question from four different angles. "Freedom is good, but security is better," says narrator Harry Shearer, summing up the view of seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who imagined life without government, laws, or society as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." The solution, he proposed, came in the form of a social contract "to put a strong leader, a sovereign or perhaps a government, over them to keep the peace" — an escape from "the war of all against all."

But that escape comes hand in hand with the unpalatable prospect of living under "a frighteningly powerful state." The nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill, who wrote a great deal about the state's proper limitations, based his concept of freedom in something called the "harm principle," which holds that "the state, my neighbors, and everyone else should let me get on with my life, as long as I don't harm anyone in the process." As "the seedbed of genius" and "the basis of enduring happiness for ordinary people," this individual freedom needs protection, especially when it comes to speech: "Merely causing offense, he thinks, is no grounds for intervention, because, in his view, that is not a harm."

That proposition remains debated more heatedly now, in the 21st century, than Mill probably could have imagined. But then as now, and as in any time of human history, we live in more or less the same world, "a world festering with moral evil, a world of wars, torture, rape, murder, and other acts of meaningless violence," not to mention "natural evil" like disease, famine, floods, and earthquakes. This gives rise to perhaps the oldest problem in the philosophical book, the problem of evil: "How could a good god allow anyone to do such horrific things?" Some have taken the fact that the wars, murders, floods, and earthquakes continue as evidence that no such god exists.

But had that god created "human beings that always did the right thing, never harmed anyone else, never went astray," we'd all have ended up "automata, preprogrammed robots." Better, in this view, "to have free will with the genuine risk that some people will end up evil than to live in a world without choice." Even so, the mere mention of free will, a concept no more easily defined than that of freedom itself, opens up a whole other can of worms, especially in light of research like neuroscientist Benjamin Libet's.

Libet, who "wired up subjects to an EEG machine, measuring brain activity via electrodes on our scalps," found that brain activity initiating a movement actually happened before the subjects thought they'd decided to make that movement. Does that disprove free will? Does evil disprove the existence of a good god? Does offense cause the same kind of harm as physical violence? Should we give up more security for freedom, or more freedom for security? These questions remain unanswered, and quite possibly unanswerable, but that doesn't make considering the very nature of freedom any less necessary as human societies — those in "free countries" and otherwise — find their way forward.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

An Animated Introduction to Ludwig Wittgenstein & His Philosophical Insights on the Problems of Human Communication

In the recorded history of philosophy, there may be no sharper a mind than Ludwig Wittgenstein. A bête noire, enfant terrible, and all other such phrases used to describe affronts to order and decorum, Wittgenstein also represented an anarchic force that disturbed the staid discipline. His teacher Bertrand Russell recognized the existential threat Wittgenstein posed to his profession (though not right away). When Wittgenstein handed Russell the compact, cryptic Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, he admitted his student had gone beyond his own analytic insights in the pursuit of absolute clarity. Wittgenstein’s longtime mentor and friend, famed logician and mathematician Gottlob Frege, expressed criticism. Some have suggested he did so in part because he saw that Wittgenstein had rendered much of his work irrelevant.

Alain de Botton gives a brief but fascinating sketch of Wittgenstein's ideas and incredibly odd biography in the School of Life video above. The eccentric Austrian savant, he asserts, “can help us with our communication problems” through his penetrating, though often impenetrable, claims about language. That may be so. But we may need to redefine what we mean by “communication.” According to Wittgenstein in the Tractatus, an overwhelming percentage of what we obsess about on a daily basis—political and religious abstractions, for example—is so totally incoherent and muddled that it means nothing at all. He revised this opinion dramatically in his later thought.

Though he published nothing after the Tractatus and soon became a near-recluse after his startling entry into analytic philosophy, notes from his students were collected and published as well as a posthumous book called Philosophical Investigations. This version of Wittgenstein’s approach to the problems of communication involves a development of the “ostensive”—or demonstrative—role of language. Wittgenstein made an argument that language can only serve a social, rather than a personal, subjective, function. To make the point, he introduced his “Beetle in a Box” analogy, which you can see explained above in an animated BBC video written by Nigel Warburton and narrated by Aidan Turner.

The analogy uses the idea of each of us claiming to have a beetle in a box as a stand in for our individual, private experiences. We all claim to have them (we can even observe brain states), but no one can ever see inside the theater of our minds to verify. We simply have to take each other's word for it. We play “language games,” which only have meaning in respect to their context. That such games can be mutually intelligible among individuals who are otherwise  opaque to each other has to do with our shared environment, abilities, and limitations. Should we, however, meet a lion who could speak—in perfectly intelligible English—we would not, Wittgenstein asserted, be able to understand a single word. The vastly different experiences of human versus lion would not translate through any medium.

Just above, we have an explanation of this thought experiment from an unlikely source, Ricky Gervais, in an attempted explanation to his comic foil Karl Pilkington, who takes things in his own peculiar direction. Though Wittgenstein used the idea for a different purpose, his observation about the unbridgeable chasm between humans and lions anticipates Thomas Nagel’s provocative claims in the 1974 essay “What is it like to be a bat?” We cannot inhabit the subjective states of beings so different from us, and therefore cannot say much of anything about their consciousness. Maybe it isn’t like anything to be a bat. Luckily for humans, we do have the ability to imagine each other’s experiences, in indirect, imperfect, roundabout, ways, and we all have enough shared context that we can, at least theoretically, use language to produce more clarity of thought and greater social harmony.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

On the Power of Teaching Philosophy in Prisons

Philosophy is often seen as an arcane academic discipline, in competition with the hard sciences or laden with abstruse concepts and language inaccessible to ordinary people. Such a perception may be warranted. This is not to damn academic philosophy but to highlight what has been lost through professionalization: classical notions of ethics as “the art of living” or what Michel Foucault called “the care of the self”; the ancient Greek idea of parrhesia—bold, honest speech unclouded by proprietary jargon; philosophy as a practice like meditation or yoga, a technique for self-knowledge, self-control, and wise, just, and considerate relationships with others.

From Socrates to Aristotle to Epicurus and the Stoics, ancient Western thinkers believed philosophy to be intimately relevant to everyday life. This was very much the case in ancient Eastern thought as well, in the Jainist sages, the Buddha, or Lao-Tzu, to name a few. We will find some form of popular philosophy on every continent and every historical age. And while plenty of modern teachers still believe in philosophy for everyone, they operate in a consumer culture that often deems them irrelevant, at best. Still, many educators persist outside the academy, endeavoring to reach not only ordinary citizens but a class of disempowered people also deemed irrelevant, at best: the imprisoned, many of whom have had few educational resources and little to no exposure to philosophical thinking.

We have many examples of influential thinkers writing from prison, whether Boethius’ early Christian Consolations of Philosophy, Antonio Gramsci’s passionate Marxist prison letters, Oscar Wilde's De Profundis, or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s essential “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” These have maybe provided readers who have never been jailed with tragic, yet romantic notions of doing philosophy while doing time. But the philosophers who enter prisons to work with people convicted—justly or otherwise—of all manner of crimes cannot afford to have romantic ideas. Philosopher Alan Smith found this to be especially so after teaching in UK prisons for 14 years, and writing boldly and candidly about the experience in his Guardian column “Philosophy for Prisoners.”

Finally retiring in 2013, Smith confessed, “If I carried on in prison, I would have to do it differently; I would have to admit that it was prison.” He may have felt burned out at the end of his sojourn, but he hadn't lost his sense of ethical purpose:

When we don't know about history and art and society we are adrift. Most of you reading this will never have had that experience, but many of the men I taught were ignorant of just about everything, and as grown men felt this keenly. Education was a relief, a route to self-respect.

Those who do this work report on how so many inmates hunger for routes to self-knowledge, reflection, and rigorous intellectual exercise. Several educators at The Philosophy Foundation, for example, have written about their experiences teaching philosophy in various UK prisons. Conditions are different, and often much bleaker, in the US—a country with 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners—but here, too, philosophers have helped inmates discover new truths about themselves and their society. In the very short TED talk up top, Damon Horowitz, who teaches at San Quentin through the Prison University Project, gives a passionate, rapid-fire accounting of his mission behind bars: “Everyone's got an opinion. We are here for knowledge. Our enemy is thoughtlessness.” A chorus of venerable ancients would assuredly agree.

Further down, you can see participants in Princeton's Prison Teaching Initiative talk about the virtues and rewards of their accredited program. That includes teachers and students alike.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Bertrand Russell Reveals the 4 Human Desires That Make Our World: Acquisitiveness, Rivalry, Vanity & Love of Power

Contrary to Aristotle, the eminent logician, philosopher, and activist Bertrand Russell believed that virtue and morality play little part in political life. Rather, what most drives us to action, he argued, is selfish desire. Russell's political philosophy could seem almost Machiavellian, most notably in his Nobel Prize speech 1950, in which he proclaims that “all human activity is prompted by desire.” (Hear Russell read an excerpt above.)

There is a wholly fallacious theory advanced by some earnest moralists to the effect that it is possible to resist desire in the interests of duty and moral principle. I say this is fallacious, not because no man ever acts from a sense of duty, but because duty has no hold on him unless he desires to be dutiful. If you wish to know what men will do, you must know not only, or principally, their material circumstances, but rather the whole system of their desires with their relative strengths.

Russell’s argument about desire admits “there is no limit to the efforts that men will make, or to the violence that they will display” in the face of perceived scarcity, and his observations recall not only the realpolitik of Machiavelli, but the insights of that most prominent theorist of desire, Sigmund Freud.

Man differs from other animals in one very important respect, and that is that he has some desires which are, so to speak, infinite, which can never be fully gratified, and which would keep him restless even in Paradise. The boa constrictor, when he has had an adequate meal, goes to sleep, and does not wake until he needs another meal. Human beings, for the most part, are not like this. 

Rather than libidinous instincts, however, Russell names four main political desires that cannot be satisfied: Acquisitiveness (“the wish to possess as much as possible), Rivalry (“a much stronger motive”), Vanity (“a motive of immense potency”), and Love of Power (“which outweighs them all”). We may note the tremendous degree to which all four desires seem actively at work in shaping our current world. All four of these qualities greet us every morning on our smartphones and never let up, day after day. But it has always been so to one degree or another, Russell argues. The important thing is to be clearsighted on the matter. Although selfish political desires can and largely are destructive, they need not always be so.

Political desires like the love of power may “have other sides which are more desirable.” Scholarly and scientific endeavors may be “mainly actuated by a love of power..... In politics, also, a reformer may have just as strong a love of power as a despot. It would be a complete mistake to decry love of power altogether as a motive.” “Russell,” writes Maria Popova, is “a thinker of exceptional sensitivity to nuance and to the dualities of which life is woven.” He cautions that we cannot simply dismiss our most powerful motive as "a wholesale negative driver."

The real problem, as Russell sees it, lies in “circumstances in which populations will fall below selfishness, if selfishness is interpreted as enlightened self-interest.” The phenomenon we observe of people “voting against their interests” is for Russell an occasion "on which they are convinced that they are acting from idealistic motives.”

Much that passes as idealism is disguised hatred or disguised love of power. When you see large masses of men swayed by what appear to be noble motives, it is as well to look below the surface and ask yourself what it is that makes these motives effective. It is partly because it is so easy to be taken in by a facade of nobility that a psychological inquiry, such as I have been attempting, is worth making.

Rather than virtue or morality, politics most requires “intelligence,” Russell concludes, “a thing that can be fostered by known methods of education.” These are not the forms of education we generally receive: “Schools are out to teach patriotism,” he says, “newspapers are out to stir up excitement; and politicians are out to get re-elected. None of the three, therefore, can do anything towards saving the human race from reciprocal suicide.”

The Cold War threat of nuclear annihilation hangs heavy over Russell’s speech. As long as humans are gripped by hatred and fear of others and held in thrall to political delusions, he suggests, the possibility of mutually assured destruction remains. On the other hand, if we were honest about our desires, and "if men were actuated by self-interest,” Russell writes, “which they are not.... if men desired their own happiness as ardently as they desired the misery of their neighbors.... the whole human race would cooperate.” Read the full text of Russell's Nobel speech here.

via BrainPickings

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

James Franco Hosts Philosophy Time, a New Videos Series Created to Help Philosophy Reach a Wider Audience

How do you get ordinary people interested in philosophy? If we are to believe the accounts of Plato, this wasn’t so difficult in ancient Athens. One simply lounged around the Acropolis harassing passersby, a tactic sure to fail in most city centers, town squares, and strip malls today. Podcasts and YouTube videos grab their share of eyes and ears, though many in their audiences also sing in the choir. Former Python John Cleese has done his part to popularize philosophical thinking. As someone who has moved between the worlds of academia and popular culture, Cleese has both credibility and visibility on his side. Some younger audiences (I write with apologies to Cleese) may be inclined to tune him out.

How about another actor with both fame and higher ed cred? Someone “very appealing to a younger demographic”? Someone like... James Franco—currently a doctoral student at Yale, and formerly a lecturer and/or student/graduate of UCLA, Columbia, NYU, Brooklyn College, Warren Wilson College, and the Rhode Island School of Design? This might seem like the resume either of an academic dilettante, or of a lifelong student and lover of knowledge.

Given Franco’s commitment to teaching, writing, and developing and starring in literary films like As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, The Broken Tower, and Howl, we might give him the benefit of the doubt. Not everyone’s a fan, but he does bring a good deal of academic enthusiasm to the role of philosophy popularizer.

Franco also brings along an actual philosopher, Eliot Michaelson, of King’s College, a former teacher of his. He proposed the idea of their project, “Philosophy Time,” while the two were at UCLA together, Michaelson as a grad student and Franco as an undergrad finishing his English degree after taking a hiatus from college to become a star. “We had somehow ended up becoming friends,” writes Michaelson, “In part, probably because I had no idea who he was.” Their long-gestating idea—an attempt to widen philosophy’s audience—has finally come to fruition. In the short episodes here, you can see the two in conversation with Rutgers University’s Andy Egan, at the top (on beauty), Princeton’s Liz Harmon, further up (on the fraught topic of abortion), and Rutgers’ Liz Camp, above and below (on imagination and metaphor).

Michaelson is a moderating influence. Franco’s laid back presentation will remind you of his performances in stoner comedy Pineapple Express, the 83rd Academy Awards ceremony, and the 2008 High Times Stoner of the Year event (though he swears he doesn’t touch the stuff anymore). Squiggly, animated word and thought bubbles add another comic touch. But whether or not viewers are charmed by his persona, they’ll find that he lets his guests do most of the talking, and they each make it plain that philosophy can be fascinating and imminently relevant to our ordinary modern lives. The kinds of questions Socrates needled hapless Athenians with—about beauty, ethics, and language—are just as pressing now as they were 2400 years ago.

You can find the emerging trove of "Philosophy Time" videos on YouTube here.

via Leiter Reports

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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