Is Cannabis a Useful Tool for Philosophers?

Cannabis has been enjoyed through the ages by a wide variety of writers, musicians, and other creatives. Common wisdom has been backed up by research and studies, and we now know that cannabis use can make non-creative people more creative (temporarily) and increase users’ capacity for divergent thinking. This type of thinking is closely related to brainstorming, and describes the thought process of coming up with many potential solutions to a given problem rather than finding a single, perfect solution.

Many users find that ideas flow freely under the influence of cannabis, and that they are able to make associations that they normally wouldn’t. Cannabis sets the user’s train of thought free from its rails, and allows the user to explore new ideas. Of course, not all of those ideas are winners – I sometimes keep a notebook in my pocket during smoke sessions, and occasionally I’ll read back through it to find that among the legitimately good ideas I’ve come up with, there is also a fair amount of totally incomprehensible weirdness. That’s not to say that nonsensical thoughts aren’t worth thinking, but that’s a topic for another day. The point is that cannabis can enhance (or at least alter) certain mental processes, allowing users to see problems and thoughts from new perspectives. Something like that certainly seems like it could be useful in a field like philosophy. What history does the drug have with the discipline?

Philosophers and Drug Use

According to one survey, philosophy students are more likely to use drugs than other majors. 87% of philosophy majors stated that they had taken drugs of some kind, while only 57% of medical students said the same. 68% of the polled philosophy students said that they had used cannabis. But how should we interpret these statistics? They could be incidental – maybe those students smoked cannabis and set off on grand metaphysical journeys of thought, bent on solving their philosophical question… or maybe they watched cartoons and ate seven pounds of junk food. There’s no way to know, so perhaps it would be more telling if we were to look into the drug regimes of history’s great philosophers.

That’s exactly what I did when researching this article, and unfortunately, I have found little evidence of significant cannabis use among well-known philosophers. This isn’t to say that none of them used it – obviously nobody knows that for a fact – but if history is any indication, most philosophers tend to prefer stronger psychedelics

Jean-Paul Sartre is the obvious example. You may have heard his story before: he injected a large dose of mescaline into his arm, and saw a horde of imaginary crabs following him wherever he went for months afterward. William James took peyote, nitrous oxide, ether, chloral hydrate, and alkyl nitrites. Foucault took LSD, and claimed to have taken just about everything else (excluding heroin). Nietzsche took opium, but that was to relieve the pain of his migraines, and likely did not influence his work to a significant extent.

Walter Benjamin is the only well-known philosopher I found that was known to use cannabis – or, more accurately, hashish, a drug made from cannabis resin. He used it on several occasions, and wrote an unfinished book titled On Hashish. He tried it (along with several other drugs) hoping that it would help him gain a greater understanding of the questions he kept asking and attempting to answer. 

Unfortunately, he was let down by the experience. When the drugs’ effects wore off, so did the sense of “having suddenly penetrated, with their help, that most hidden, generally most inaccessible world of surfaces.” He gained no lasting insights; when he came down from his highs, the only thing he brought down with him was a stack of disjointed, often nonsensical notes. 

Are “High Thoughts” Worthless, Then?

Dale Jacquette, editor of Cannabis & Philosophy: What Were We Just Talking About? writes that “if we ask what cannabis can do for philosophy… I think that the disappointing answer is – not very much. It is a well-worn cliché that the halo of brilliance surrounding our thinking when we are high does not generally stand the test of critical evaluation in the sober aftermath.” Of course, Dale Jacquette is just one voice among many. There are other extremely reputable thinkers who have held beliefs that are not directly opposite Jacquette’s view, but are certainly not in agreement with it. 

One of these notable others is Carl Sagan, the renowned astronomer and science writer. During his lifetime, he kept his regular use of cannabis a secret. It was both unaccepted and illegal during his time, and it have been detrimental to his career if employers and colleagues were to find out about it. However, he used the pseudonym “Mr. X” to advocate for cannabis, and contributed a fantastic essay to Marihuana Reconsidered, published in 1971. 

In this essay, Sagan writes that “there is a myth about [cannabis] highs: the user has an illusion of great insight, but it does not survive scrutiny in the morning. I am convinced that this is an error, and that the devastating insights achieved while high are real insights; the main problem is putting these insights in a form acceptable to the quite different self that we are when we’re down the next day.” Sagan used essays that he conceived of and composed while high in public lectures, university commencement speeches, and book. Based on the reactions he got from the public at large and from experts, the ideas in those essays certainly seem to be valid.

Can Cannabis Be Useful in Philosophy?

Getting high allows us to make connections that we normally wouldn’t. In a field of study that is all about considering the fundamental questions of our human existence, I think this could be useful. I think, like Sagan did, that the ideas that come to us while high – whether they relate to philosophy or to any other field – are often valid ideas at their core; it’s just difficult to translate them into things that make sense to the sober mind.

It’s difficult, and sometimes impossible… but as many creative and scientific minds alike can attest, some of those ideas are extremely valuable. However, it’s important to remember that cannabis is just a tool – it might be useful, but it won’t do your thinking for you. Sober revision and analysis are key parts of the equation. That said, if the tools are available, go ahead and give them a try!

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