“A faint rumour left behind”: Fragments from a history of concepts of consciousness
In the history of philosophy, the term conciousness is of relatively recent vintage, dating back to the seventeenth century. Today, the term is widely taken up and preforms critical, and indeed contradictory work in an array of disciplines. In this presentation, I plan to explore these issues, by focussing on aspects of the history of concepts of consciousness in the West, and finally reflect on the effects when unusual experiences come to be conceptualised in terms of modifications and altered states of consciousness.
“Ecstatic wisdom in ancient Greece”
The Greeks perceived mental experiences of exceptional intensity as resulting from divine intervention. To share in the divine knowledge, one had to liberate the soul from the burden of the mortal body by attaining ecstasis, mania, or enthousiasmos, that is, by merging with a superhuman being or possession by a deity. Whatever was perceived or uttered in such states – prophecy, poetry, or mystical insights – was considered inspired by the gods and immeasurably superior to anything perceived or deliberated in normal circumstances.
In classical Greece, divine messages received in sanctuaries either by temple officials or laymen became the most valued channel of communication with the gods. In mystery initiations, alteration of consciousness was a means of attaining revelation leading to the peak experience, defined by the ancients as eudaimonia, blessedness. Alterations of consciousness of several Presocratic thinkers can be assumed quite confidently. Plato’s Socrates alluded to out-of-body experiences, and his prolonged trance-like meditations could only happen in an altered state of consciousness. Plato’s writings suggest that he had undergone mystical experiences himself.
Modern research on altered states of consciousness demonstrates that in many cases these experiences involve the sensation of ineffable revelation of superhuman truth. The cross-cultural propensity to manipulate consciousness is a part of human natural potential. These states are multifarious, can involve various subjective and objective manifestations, and may be induced by many methods. The natural tendency to enjoy alteration of consciousness and trust the accompanying visions is usually limited or suppressed with the transition from traditional to complex societies, but Greece was a rare exception. The reason for this uniqueness is the absence of rigid priestly authority and lack of ability or desire to interfere on the part of political powers. As a consequence, the Greeks made the most of the alterations of consciousness that many of them experienced, and developed social mechanisms that allowed successful exploitation of these phenomena. In the unique historical situation of archaic and classical Greece, notions and practices which in later periods would be defined as esoteric, largely belonged to the mainstream culture. However, some philosophic teachings were transmitted within restricted groups, and to a considerable degree modeled on initiations.
“Early Psychonauts: Albert Hoffmann’s Occultic Network”
This lecture investigates the circle of friends and acquaintances around Albert Hofmann, the famous chemist who invented LSD and was the first one to isolate psilocybin.
From the early 1950s to the 1970s members of this group were engaged in experimenting with drugs and interpreting their experiences in different literary genres. Many of them shared a right-wing Traditionalist background and a radical critical attitude towards modern culture. They supported Eliade-type religionist views, related to romantic Naturphilosophie and sympathized with occult arts such as magic, alchemy or astrology. The lecture analyses the ideas and practices of this group and locates it within the cultural history of psychedelia.