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William James in the Borderlands: Psychedelic Science and the "Accidental Fences" of Self

William James in the Borderlands: Psychedelic Science and the "Accidental Fences" of Self

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Published by Žarko Almuli
Volume 16, Number 2, Spring 2008
Special Issue: Psychedelic Science
Volume 16, Number 2, Spring 2008
Special Issue: Psychedelic Science

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Published by: Žarko Almuli on Feb 07, 2011
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William James in the Borderlands: Psychedelic Science and the"Accidental Fences" of Self
Jodie Nicotra
Configurations, Volume 16, Number 2, Spring 2008, pp. 199-213 (Article)
Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press
For additional information about this article
Access Provided by Universiteit van Amsterdam at 02/07/11 11:23AM GMT
1. The term psychedelic—literally, “mind-maniesting”—was coined in 1957 by thepsychiatrist Humphry Osmond, who used LSD to treat patients with addiction andother psychiatric ailments. Osmond considered several other names or these sub-stances, including
, “mind-moving”;
, “mind-ermenting”; and
, “mind bursting orth,” beore nally settling on
, because, as hesaid, it was “clear, euphonious, and uncontaminated by other associations” (Osmond,“A Review o the Clinical Eects o Psychotomimetic Agents,”
 Annals o the New York Academy o Science
66 [1957]: 418). Psychedelics are associated in the popular mindwith hallucination-producing drugs like LSD and psilocybin, not anesthetics like
While William James’s investigations into paranormal phenom-ena, mysticism, and the eects o drugs upon consciousness havebeen typically dismissed or overlooked by scholars, they actuallyprove to be consistent with his more reputable philosophical claimsabout pluralism, radical empiricism, and the role and purpose o sci-ence. James’s sel-experiments with nitrous oxide and other drugschallenged the limits o scientic practice, implemented an alterna-tive rhetorical economy or scientic experiment, and revealed nor-mal waking consciousness to be a habit that conceals the sel’s na-ture as something thoroughly enmeshed with and inseparable romthe world. James argues or the implementation o practices thatmight eect the blockage or closing o o this habitual sel in orderto make way or dierence or transormation—that is, or a moreopen, responsive, and ethical relation to the world.William James is rarely thought o as a pioneer in the eld o psy-chedelic science.
In act, James’s requent incursions into what he
William James in the Borderlands:Psychedelic Science and the“Accidental Fences” of Self 
Jodie NicotraUniversity o Idaho
Confgurations, 2008, 16:199–213 © 2009 by The Johns HopkinsUniversity Press and the Society or Literature and Science.
called “the border-land o human experience”—investigations o drugs’ eects on consciousness, and his studies o automatism, hyp-notism, thought transerence, and mystical experience o all sorts—have been most oten regarded by biographers and scholars as his-torically interesting oddities, distractions rom his more respectableintellectual pursuits in the elds o early psychology and pragmaticphilosophy.
Ralph Barton Perry, or instance, James’s student andthe author o an authoritative early biography, les James’s experi-ments with nitrous oxide under the chapter title “Morbid Traits,”thus indicating how those in James’s day and ater regarded theseexperiments: with discomort and more than a little embarrassment.O James’s comparison o the nitrous oxide revelation with Hege-lism, Perry writes: “Now this incident suggests the child playingwith matches, or irreverently mocking the devout. It was, in act,both o these things. James was incorrigibly and somewhat reck-lessly curious, and he derived enjoyment rom defating the solem-nity o pundits.”
Perry’s scolding tone in this passage paints James as a mischie-vous schoolboy, thumbing his nose at his elders. But despite Perry’sand others’ misgivings, what may appear to be irreverent mockingo the academic establishment actually masks a serious investigationinto the ethical relation between sel and universe, an investigationthat also revealed to James (and his readers) the constraints o nor-mal or habitual consciousness. As the amount o recent scholarshipsuggests, James’s ideas are currently being rediscovered in a number
200 Confgurations
nitrous oxide; however, or the sake o remaining consistent with the title o this spe-cial issue and in keeping with the purposes or which James used nitrous oxide andother drugs, I decided to use
to describe James’s drug experiences. The ap-propriateness o this term in relation to James’s sel-experiments is also suggested byOsmond himsel. In the same article in which he coined
, he says: “The greatWilliam James endured much uncalled-or criticism or suggesting that in some peopleinhalations o nitrous oxide allowed a psychic disposition that is always potentiallypresent to maniest itsel briefy” (ibid
).2. William James, “Circulars o the American Society or Psychical Research (1884–1906),” in
 Essays in Psychical Research
, ed. Frederick Y. Burkhardt (Cambridge, MA: Har-vard University Press, 1986), p. 7.3. Ralph Barton Perry,
The Thought and Character o William James
(Nashville, TN: Van-derbilt University Press, 1948), p. 363. As o late, however, several scholars have con-sidered James’s nitrous oxide use more seriously, including especially Dmitri Tymoczko,“The Nitrous Oxide Philosopher,”
 Atlantic Monthly 
277:5 (1996): 93–101; and G. Wil-liam Barnard,
 Exploring Unseen Worlds: William James and the Philosophy o Mysticism
 (Albany: SUNY Press, 1997). For an interesting use o James’s experiments with nitrousoxide and alternate orms o consciousness, see the Center or Cognitive Liberty andEthics’ “The William James Project,” at http://www.cognitiveliberty.org/wjp/stmnt.htm

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