The Nitrous Oxide Philosopher

Do drugs make religious experience possible? They did for James and for other philosopher-mystics of his day. James's experiments with psychoactive drugs raise difficult questions about belief and its conditions

HE has short hair and a long brown beard. He is wearing a three-piece suit. One imagines him slumped over his desk, giggling helplessly. Pushed to one side is an apparatus out of a junior-high science experiment: a beaker containing some ammonium nitrate, a few inches of tubing, a cloth bag. Under one hand is a piece of paper, on which he has written, "That sounds like nonsense but it is pure on sense!" He giggles a little more. The writing trails away. He holds his forehead in both hands. He is stoned. He is William James, the American psychologist and philosopher. And for the first time he feels that he is understanding religious mysticism.

The psychedelia of the 1960s was foreshadowed by events in the waning years of the nineteenth century. This first American psychedelic movement began with an anonymous article published in 1874 in The Atlantic Monthly. The article, which was in fact written by James, reviewed The Anaesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy, a pamphlet arguing that the secrets of religion and philosophy were to be found in the rush of nitrous oxide intoxication. Inspired by this thought, James experimented with the drug, experiencing extraordinary revelations that he immediately committed to paper.

What's mistake but a kind of take?
What's nausea but a kind of -ausea?
Sober, drunk, -unk , astonishment. . . .
Agreement--disagreement!!
Emotion--motion!!! . . .
Reconciliation of opposites; sober, drunk, all the same!
Good and evil reconciled in a laugh!
It escapes, it escapes!
But--
What escapes, WHAT escapes?



This experience, which in James's words involved "the strongest emotion" he had ever had, remained with him throughout his life. In 1882 he first described his experiments with the drug; in 1898 he published an article titled "Consciousness Under Nitrous Oxide" in the Psychological Review ; in 1902 he recounted the experience in his greatest work, The Varieties of Religious Experience ; and in 1910, in the last essay he completed, he implied that nitrous oxide had had an abiding influence on his thinking.

When the drug wore off, James found that his mystical insights had disappeared. What remained were incomprehensible words--"tattered fragments" that seemed like "meaningless drivel." Being a philosophical visionary rather than a garden-variety recreational drug user, however, James was not inclined to let his sober consciousness have the final say. On the contrary, he took his experiences with nitrous oxide as evidence that human life was more richly varied than he had previously (and soberly) imagined. "Some years ago," he wrote in Varieties ,

I myself made some observations on . . . nitrous oxide intoxication, and reported them in print. One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.


For James, these alternate forms of consciousness were accessible only by way of artificial intoxicants. Others, he hypothesized, were able to reach them without the aid of drugs: in his view the great religious mystics, and certain mystical philosophers including Hegel, were "unusually susceptible" to these extraordinary forms of consciousness.

James's experiences with nitrous oxide helped to crystallize some of the major tenets of his philosophy. His writings emphasize, for instance, the notion of pluralism, according to which "to the very last, there are various 'points of view' which the philosopher must distinguish in discussing the world." Nitrous oxide had revealed in the most dramatic way possible the existence of alternate points of view. Which was the "real" William James--the drug-addled visionary who spouted meaningless mystical drivel, or the sober, unmystical psychologist whose researches brought him international fame? James's philosophy was based on the thought that the good life--for society and, by extension, for an individual as well--involves a plurality of perspectives, of which the mystical and the scientific are only two. Equally important to the mature Jamesian outlook was the thought that religious experiences are psychologically real--powerful and palpable events that can have important long-term consequences whether the beliefs to which they give rise are true or not . Drugs helped James to understand what religious belief was like from the inside. When he took nitrous oxide, he was for all intents and purposes a religious mystic. ("Thought deeper than speech!" he wrote while on the drug. "Oh my God, oh God, oh God!") Nitrous oxide was the passport that allowed James to see religion from the believer's perspective, traveling between the worlds of science and faith.

Yet James's experiments with nitrous oxide, when they have been noticed at all, have been variously derided. Even in the nineteenth century, skeptical scientists found his interest in exotic mental phenomena misguided, if not reckless. Religious believers tend to resent the comparison of intoxication to religious inspiration. Veterans of the counterculture, who have all had similar if not more-intense drug revelations, tend to think of James as a dabbler. These criticisms are shortsighted, and slight the fact that James was America's first philosophical genius. Perhaps more than any philosopher before him, he succeeded in combining the skepticism of the empirical scientist, the form of consciousness that "diminishes, discriminates, and says no," with the hyperbole of the mystical visionary, the form of consciousness that "expands, unites, and says yes." If drugs helped him to open the doors of consciousness in this welcoming way, perhaps we should rethink some of our assumptions about drug use and its possible role in human life. For example, can drugs play a role in authentic religious experience? And if so, what should be the legal and moral status of religious drug use?

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