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The evasiveness of conversation as educational research

Bojesen’s description of conversation as educational research captures the way I had begun to think about the empirical aspect of my thesis. However, having just assessed thirty of my own students’ small-scale pedagogic research projects, I confess to occasionally feeling discomfited by their loose, non-scientific approaches to research. Why? References to postmodern and poststructuralist theory were in abundance, and I don’t doubt the creative, ultra-interpretivist methods they used were aligned with their epistemology. But when one is in assessment mode, faced with a range of grade band descriptors, it becomes apparent that it is difficult to fail with these methods (or anti-methods, if you like). One of the bonuses of taking a poststructuralist stance is that no-one can tell you you’re doing it wrong; in rejecting structure one also evades structures of measurement. During these assessments, I found myself irked by this evasiveness, while simultaneously impressed with their cunning.

Bojesen’s case for conversation as research is clear but contentious, relying as it does on an alternative definition of research as ‘movement of thought’. Such a definition does not presume stable conceptions of the subject, knowledge and the human, and the developmental focus is on thought itself rather than on the individual subject(s). I find Bojesen’s turn to be of interest as I had begun to consider the obvious outcome of this thesis project to be my own self-development. As the course leader of a professional qualification course for university teachers, I could see a clear case for the practical productivity and institutional usefulness of me having deep conversations with people with very different experiences of the university and perspectives on its purpose. But Bojesen maintains that his article describes ‘the experience of educational research that is not intended to produce knowledge or form a subject’. Is there sufficient intellectual ammunition here to support going beyond such instrumental reasoning for my methodology and return to the less explicable hunch behind the project; that conversation, like education, is an end in itself? Indeed, Bojesen points out (as does Duke Maskell in his 2002 analysis of Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship in Pride and Prejudice), that conversation is education. I had a sense, in the planning stage, of the research conversations as developmental events; not necessarily for myself, and not necessarily for those I was in conversation with, rather as events within a universal, transpersonal movement of thought. It is notable that Bojesen refers to the experience of research in this instance – rather than, say, an approach to it. I believe in doing so he is implying that a conversation is only conceptualizable as research in this way from within the realm of subjective experience. Beyond that realm – for example in naturalistic conversation analysis – one falls back into scientific processes of observation and interpretation.

There is a difficulty in applying Bojesen’s perspective to a doctoral thesis. In treating conversation as research that will meet the criteria for the award of a doctorate; in explicitly showing that new knowledge has been produced, it would seem one has to resort to some extent to scientific means of documentation and analysis. Bojesen notes that the ‘findings’ of such research may seem banal or insignificant. Banal or insignificant findings are surely insufficient for the award of a doctorate, or indeed for publication. I think I know what Bojesen would say here; that there is still room for his conception of conversation could not and should not replace dominant conceptions of educational research, it merely serves to ‘unsettle their foundations’ and liberate other possibilities. I wonder, though, how unsettled or unsettling a successful doctoral thesis can logically be, as an initiation into the practice and discipline of research?

Bojesen has also written about the education of consciousness, with reference to Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Here, his commitment to ‘a philosophy of education that is descriptive rather than prescriptive’ is made explicit. His claim is that new educational knowledge can take the form of reflections on what happens, rather than normative conclusions:

“[Woolf’s] exposition of the education of consciousness can itself be a resource for educators, and her insight into the complex relation between dispositions, consciousness and the external world, allows her readers access to incidences of experience ordinarily hidden from them. To learn about the education of consciousness in The Waves might be to become better equipped for understanding our own education, and the task of teaching those for whom this education is also occurring.”

Through this article, Bojesen argues that education has less of a shaping effect than philosophers of education would believe. Such a belief would correspond with his preference for description over prescription.

On reading Bojesen’s paper on conversation as educational research, I wasn’t completely convinced by what I perceived as an argument that the value of conversation lies in its uselessness. Granted, I had indeed conceived my own research conversations as part of a wider movement of thought, but I felt that they had, and had to have, a clear directional purpose that aligned with, for example, Gadamer’s call for world peace and Zeldin’s discovery of the ‘hidden pleasures of life’. In an exchange on twitter, Bojesen said: ‘I don’t think this prohibits constructive/productive engagement (broadly conceived) with conversation, as a mode of relation unconcerned with reaching consensus or developing an individual or argument.’ Does this water down his own argument? In a descriptive rather than prescriptive context, it stands that an argument would not be as strong in the philosophical sense, as description does not necessarily have to push back against anything. As Etienne Wenger did with his apprenticeship model of learning, Bojesen is merely describing something that we do. Interestingly, Bojesen does claim to be pushing back against something in this article; the stifling of educational experience and research possibilities by ‘the relentless imposition of scientific method’. At the same time, he claims that his work does not prohibit such methods. I feel that Standish and Biesta push back more persuasively against the imposition of scientific method. In arguing against the need for consensus, it is the idea of persuasiveness that Bojesen is pushing against as well. On that basis, his argument seems to evade attack. All I can attack it for is its evasiveness!

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Nietzsche and Spinoza on Humanity and Education

The central concern of my doctoral thesis is the role of universities in supporting our vision of humanity – of how we should live. I’m interested in what both Nietzsche and Spinoza have to say about human perfectibility, and I see their ideas as having a great deal of relevance for the idea of the university.

The very word ‘should’ infers a norm beyond oneself; a frame of acceptability to aspire to. Its use implies the self as existing outside that frame of acceptability, hence why psychotherapists tend to challenge patients who tend to use the word about themselves. Both Spinoza and Nietzsche were of the view that there are no absolute morals; that good and evil do not exist, and subsequently that there is no teleology, no master plan, no obligations, no external judgement of right or wrong. As the earlier of the two philosophers, Spinoza’s proposition for the immanence of human existence was considered highly controversial (he was far ahead of Dawkins and the social Darwinists in proposing self-interest as the basis for life and our ethical progress). For Spinoza, this meant that the divine – the Nature-God – is within us rather than without us, a notion that preserves a sense of cosmic meaningfulness, order and permanence formerly provided by religion. Spinoza felt that the gaining of knowledge was inherently joyful, lending as it does to one a sensation of enhanced power. Nietzsche took this drive in a less obviously joyful direction, explaining that our quest for knowledge – critical enlightenment – liberates us, but also necessarily disillusions us. A measure of a person’s power is how much truth they can bear. Nietzsche’s Übermensch, in not allowing herself to be hampered by moral norms, is able to conquer despair and transform these painful realisations into Dionysian joy; a process of self-overcoming. This unselfconscious Dionysian ideal – what becomes in the absence of moral norms – will seem to others to be dangerously chaotic, residing beyond the borders of the known and civilised. The Übermensch is someone ‘for whom there is no longer anything that is forbidden – unless it be weakness’. She attains freedom through joyous and trusting fatalism.

If there are no transcendent moral laws, what drives us? Both Spinoza and Nietzsche stand by a strict naturalist monism; a belief in a single natural principle of existence that underlies all our emotions, desires and behaviour. Spinoza’s self-preservation drive – conatus – incorporates our common desires in combination with a drive for rational knowledge. The degree of knowledge reached, along with our personal psychology and the specifics of the context, informs the way we think and behave, whether that is with aggression, empathy, or so on. Nietzsche claims that self-preservation is merely an indirect outcome of the will to power, albeit one of its most frequent effects (BGE 13), and disproves Spinoza’s thesis by pointing out the frequency of cases where one risks one’s life in order to expand oneself. There is no sense of God or divine reason in Nietzsche’s will to power. For Nietzsche, the will does not explain life or justify death. Fate is an inescapable burden, and its acceptance acknowledges a dissonance between the individual and the world.

Spinoza argues from the opposite direction, considering the drive to enhance one’s power as subservient to self-preservation. While this corresponds with much of the discourse around a current interest of mine – psychedelic therapy – it seems to me that, overall, Nietzsche has the edge on this argument. The single natural principle of the will to power resolves questions about human motivation that are not addressed by Spinoza’s self-preservation thesis.

Spinoza was denigrated as an atheist, Nietzsche as a nihilist. Both were criticised for being socially subversive and antimoral, while in fact they were both reaching for a superior explanation of self-development. They have both been described as esoteric, an description that – despite there being several definitions of the word – I find mysterious, and perhaps applies more to their style of communication than their ideas. Can we say that both Spinoza and Nietzsche were promoting an enchanted worldview in the face of increasing disenchantment? Perhaps in some ways they were. They were certainly both promoting a view that was not widely accepted by the authorities of the day.

Spinoza held on to the idea of a nature-God, which I see as corresponding fairly smoothly with Nietzsche’s natural will to power. Nietzsche probably wouldn’t agree with me on that; why would he? That would mean his idea wasn’t new.

Nietzsche appears to be left puzzled by how will to power takes degenerate forms as well as healthy ones, while Spinoza’s theory of passive into active affect seems to provide a better explanation. In education, we would wish perhaps to transform one into the other.

I feel that it is the ethical concept of self-overcoming, key to both philosophers’ perspectives, that is the most important for a philosophy of higher education in the world we find ourselves in today, a world that is increasingly globalised with diverse values, faiths and cultures, but not yet comfortable in its diversity. Diversity has always existed; it is when diversity encounters itself, when diverse perspectives are responded to with outrage and conflict, that polarisation results. Groups close ranks for reassurance and security, validating and reinforcing their particular worldview.

The immanent ethics of Spinoza and Nietzsche offer a solution for life to reshape itself, rather than being constrained by superior principles such as Kantian reason or Christian morality. This is why both philosophers avoid speaking of ‘spirit’ or ‘spirituality’, whose connotations are strongly bound to such principles. But we could reclaim the word to denote life itself and its dynamic process of self-overcoming.

Yovel (2018) argues that ‘philosophy, as a mode of life and an attitude toward it, must have an individual focus or goal. To philosophise means that a certain individual takes a stand toward life, imparts meaning to it, affirms or negates it, and thereby gives it shape.’ (p551). Philosophy is a process that is not merely intellectual; but also affective/instinctual, driven by the will to power. Life is the process of self-interpretation – the generator and the value-giver, as well as the subject matter. Karl Jaspers described ‘man as his own creator’ in the state of ‘self-being without God’.

Jaspers’ self-creative attitude to life seems to correspond with a range of other perspectives I have covered recently, from Carl Rogers’ idea of creativity as self-fulfilment, to Gadamer’s view of all understanding as self-understanding (and all education as self-education), to Sartre’s existentialism. Gadamer’s hermeneutics is implicated in Yovel’s identified need ‘to interpret oneself in order to overcome oneself’ (p551).

While Spinoza was essentially a natural philosopher who believed very much in science as a means of finding truth, Nietzsche saw himself as an artist. He felt the ideal of philosophy as a science was ‘a decadent perspective that serves the self-image, and the life preferences of an unhealthy and world-weary culture’ (Yovel p551). This ‘intellectual ascetism’ is, I think, what disenchantment means to me; a worldview that privileges self-image, values control and dominion, and sets human being apart from other beings. Nietzsche cites Spinoza: ‘not to laugh, not to lament, nor to detest, but to understand’, and contends that we can’t not experience or even bracket affect, and somehow come to understanding without it. Understanding comes from affect. Understanding reconciles our instincts. Spinoza does not of course kill the emotions, he merely tries to suspend them, to make them active through the apparatus of science. 

Jarymowicz (2016) describes the critical ability to see both sides of a situation as ‘evaluative heterogeneity’. Primary affect is a one-sided ‘gut response’ that bypasses the will, influencing cognition, evaluation, motivation etc. it is often based on implicit, tacit premises and associated with high subjective certainty. Critical or deliberative thinking can moderate our affective responses through the application of new, reasoned evaluative criteria. The resulting ‘secondary affect’ is a more nuanced appraisal of the situation; that’s the modern scientific view, in any case. But Nietzsche points out that all such mechanisms assume that there are enduring, equal ‘things’, that there is free will, that what is good for us is good in itself… etc. These assumptions are erroneous, but they build themselves into our sense-perception; biological, psychological and existential images that serve our needs. The world may be transient and indeterminate but we crave permanence and order and look for patterns in things. Only the ‘more discerning philosophers, the skeptics and critics of rational illusion, incur suffering and anxiety for themselves’. Were Nietzsche’s psychonautic explorations fundamental to his ontology, or the other way around? Hence Nietzsche criticises logic. Causality is a manmade projection, as is teleology. Gellner agrees with him on this; we make sense of the world by looking for patterns and order. Does this mean my parents’ influence on me is no more or less significant than the alignment of the stars and planets…?

So, Nietzsche believed neither in free will, nor in determinism. For Nietzsche, philosophy isn’t about how we should live, but about reevaluating the whole experience of existence. The values he proposes are not moral values but a new psychological response; a love of transience and uncertainty etc. Now, that’s a philosophy for modern life…

N.B. Yovel (p564) makes an interesting point about Spinoza believing the state could not penetrate the mind of the individual. That’s exactly what Edwin Bernays was working on; initially in war propaganda, and later on in fuelling the consumer revolution and the expectations of individual freedom. The so-called ‘free press’ has since become protected by profiteers whose business model depends on a symbiotic relationship with the holders of political power. The media are penetrating individuals’ minds on a daily basis. Do we have political stability? Well, kind of. The new ability of governments to use big data to direct their campaign resources exactly where they are needed means that voting margins are narrowing. That doesn’t necessarily mean the current government are on their way out; rather, I think it means they are becoming more efficient at campaigning; resources are no longer squandered on canvassing in safe seats. Election results are increasingly close. Subsequently, there is a great deal of resentment and a feeling that the electorate has not given their consent, but is this resentment really justified? How free are our voting decisions, really?

Yovel, Y. 2018. Nietzsche and Spinoza, Enemy-Brothers. In Della Rocca, M. (Ed) The Oxford Handbook of Spinoza. Oxford University Press. pp. 540–570

Jarymowicz, M. 2016. Affect and Intellect in Judgments: Factors Which Determine Level of Evaluative Heterogeneity. Frontiers in Psychology 7: pp. 569. Doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00569

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Psychedelics as a technology: Tool or weapon?

A friend put the view to me recently of psychedelics as a technology that has been advantageous for human evolution, but has also been exploited by some groups to further their own ends at others’ expense.

The idea of psychedelics being advantageous to our evolution is an interesting one. Can we really say whether things are, have ever been, or will ever be, ‘better’ than they would have been had they not existed, or been discovered? Here’s a Tao parable of the man with the horses (via Cameron Adams and Danny Nemu):

There was a farmer whose horse ran away. That evening the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was such bad luck. He said, “May be.” The next day the horse returned, but brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came exclaiming at his good fortune. He said, “May be.” And then, the following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the wild horses, was thrown, and broke his leg.

Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy for the misfortune. He said, “May be.” The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to seize young men for the army, but because of the broken leg the farmer’s son was rejected. When the neighbors came in to say how fortunately everything had turned out, he said, “May be.”

Tao: The Watercourse Way – Alan Watts

Weaponry is another example of a technology that has greatly influenced our evolution. Weapons allowed us to increase the distance between us and our prey, conferring a definite advantage on us in terms of the power relationship between the hunter and the hunted. We could also use them to maintain hostilities with other groups, thereby – according to Kant (Palmquist 2004) – promoting the dispersal of the species across the earth. Primitive societies appeared to recognise their weapon-making abilities as a gift from the gods that gave them tremendous power over other species. They responded by offering up part of each kill as thanks to the gods, alongside other sacrificial practices. In my spiritually numb youth, studying ancient Greek and Roman culture, I thought sacrifice sounded dumb. Now, I can see the sense in it as a means of acknowledging our privilege and keeping ourselves in check.

We might ask what would have happened if we’d rejected from the beginning the notion of killing other animals for food and become uber-gatherers instead. Chimps, our closest evolutionary relative, are omnivores. As well as plants they also eat insects, eggs and hunt other small animals (including monkeys). Still, we could have turned away from it. Did we have to weaponise our gathering to the extent that we have today, with our agrarian machinery, factories and freight? This all adds distance, insulating us from the means of production, its dangers and its devastation.

Looking at the big picture, it is clear that Nietzsche was right; the fundamental human drive is the will to power. This is universally shared across all cultures, although some see it as power over, some as power with. Indigenous people use weapons to hunt; some even use psychedelic plants to tune into their environment, to sharpen their attention on their prey. A key difference is that such people see themselves as part of the ecosystem rather than separate from it, and therefore reject the technological approach:

“The entire project of conquering nature appears more and more of a mirage… technical progress becomes a way of stalling faster and faster because of the basic illusion that man and nature, the organism and the environment, the controller and the controlled are quite different things.”

Watts, 1966 (p51)

The film Arrival tells a story of aliens who come to visit the earth. The lead character, a linguist called Louise, asks why the aliens have come, and they answer – in their circular, graphic language – ‘offer weapon’. The Chinese translate this as ‘use weapon’, causing them to cease their communication efforts and prepare for war. Louise argues that the symbol interpreted as ‘weapon’ could just as well mean ‘tool’, and that China’s translation results from the competitive nature of their interaction.

Louise learns that it is the alien language itself that is the tool/weapon on offer; those who understand it are able to perceive both the future and the past as parts of the same whole. Watts refers to this phenomenon in his writing on noticing and notation; we attend to the things that we have notation for and vice versa. One of the limitations of any language is that it signifies a world that is ‘an assemblage of separate things that have somehow come together’ (p35) rather than ‘the tones and inflections… of a single singing voice.’

The Enlightenment, secularisation, scientific progress and specialisation have enabled an escalation in our domination over nature. Tools provide us with an advantage; a leg up in the system. If we fail to check that advantage and as it distances us from its effects, it may be that the system will eventually collapse, but what is arguably worse is that the ‘game’ becomes tedious and mechanical. Watts uses many examples to illustrate this, including universities, where ‘the paperwork, recording what has been done, seems to become more important than what it records’ (p42). Narby (1998) presents the common view of psychedelics as a tool for disordering the mind (some, like Claude Levi-Strauss, claimed the opposite, but they appear to be in the minority). If the current order of the mind is harming or hindering us, for example if we are stuck in depressive thought patterns, or we need to quiet our human concerns in order to attend to and hunt down our quarry, disordering can be just what we need. But the distinction between tool and weapon is only a matter of perspective. Here is one of the epiphanic fragments from the autoethnography I spoke about at Breaking Convention:

August 2015. I am at a music festival watching the headline act. I want to do something purposeful with my altered brain state, so I ruminate a while on the political situation in the UK. It is quite a struggle to do so; I find it hard to see any connection between this euphoric experience with the beautiful colours and the heavenly music, and the frowning, tired people in suits sniping and jeering across the despatch box. But I persist; there is nothing else to do, after all, and time is going rather slowly. I recall something I read in the first year of my EdD that described popular culture as a form of anaesthetic*, and it occurs to me that the government should be delighted that we are anaesthetising ourselves in a secure open space far from London, rather than waving banners outside Parliament, asking difficult questions. But, then… who is having the better time? Us, whose sensory equalisers are hitting the red at every frequency? Or the likes of Theresa May, who have presumably never and will never experience anything like this? I decide it is a moot point, as if you don’t know what you’re missing, you don’t miss it.

Frank Barron apparently described the psychedelic ‘movement’ as the ‘commitment to fight for personal freedom and to oppose everywhere the war mentality and the tyranny of dogmatic beliefs… [to stand for] equal rights for race and gender and for ecological Earth-respecting ways of thinking and acting’. That is one view of the psychedelic ‘movement’, but there are many. Taking the view that they are a tool for disordering the mind doesn’t contradict Frank’s vision. It also promotes a healthy caution and skepticism, and commits us to sober ethical debate.



*Held, D. 2004. Introduction to Critical Theory. London: Hutchinson

Narby, J. 1988. The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the origins of knowledge. Orion Books.

Palmquist, S. 2004. Kant’s Ideal of the University as a Model for World Peace. In: International Conference on Two Hundred Years after Kant. 20-22 November, Tehran, Iran: Allame Tabataba’i University. [Online]. [Accessed 4 June 2015]. Available from:

Watts, A. 1966. The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. Souvenir Press.

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The Future of Human Nature?

Jurgen Habermas’ The Future of Human Nature (2003) explores what it means to change ourselves.

For reasons that will become clear, while reading I found myself reflecting on the differences between genetic intervention (by parents, into the genetic makeup of their offspring), and another form of human enhancement, psychedelic therapy.

I feel that the ethical implications Habermas outlines to counter gene therapy actually support the case for psychedelic therapy. Genetic intervention is decided by the current generation but acts on future generations. The autonomy of the (future) person whose genetic makeup is affected is not and cannot be taken into account. Another major issue with gene therapy is that genotype will always remain exactly that; it may determine the phenotype of the individual in some cases (gender, for example), but by no means all. Genes express themselves differently in accordance with a complex range of factors, both internal and environmental.

In contrast, psychedelic therapy is by its nature personalized to the individual undergoing treatment. It is autonomy-enhancing in that it increases the capacity of individuals to recognise their issues and overcome influences that limit their autonomy, such as trauma, guilt, shame or fear. The common metaphor for its mode of action is a ‘journey’ or ‘path’ (hence the experience itself is described as a ‘trip’). High-dose psychedelic experience is rarely wholly pleasant. It can be quite an ordeal, and hence requires determination and courage from the subject; a clear engagement of their autonomy, and the enactment of their desire to live their best life and to be themselves.

I was reading Habermas on my travels to and from a retreat in the Netherlands, which included a (fully legal) psilocybin ceremony. In terms of personal growth, it must surely be the most profound thing I’ve ever done. It was also, for a few hours at least, one of the most desperately unpleasant, but – unlike when I had my wisdom teeth out – what followed more than made up for it. The experience has cemented in my mind the notion that it is insufficient simply for the law to turn a blind eye to those who wish to grow and use these substances for themselves for personal development. I know many people who self-medicate with similarly high doses of psilocybin, preparing with care and following clinical protocol as far as possible, and they get a lot out of it, but this legal retreat was a very different experience. The careful preparation and integration, the particular benefits of learning in and from a group and the supplementary activities (breath and bodywork, meditation, intention-setting) meant that we all came away with a lot more than glowing cheeks and a few insights. This is powerful therapeutic education.

In philosophising about gene therapy, Habermas observes that, of course, parents also have a strong environmental influence on their offspring, but he never concedes that this too may be ethically questionable. On the terms he has outlined, it certainly is. Parents often restrict their children’s autonomy in ways that are 1) obvious to the child, 2) cause them pain and distress, 3) prevent them from feeling able to ‘be themselves’, and 4) have a knock-on or even a cumulative effect on future generations. The difference, for Habermas, is that such environmental interventions are, to an extent, reversible (through ‘analysis’), but I would challenge this. I think he is vastly overestimating the power of psychiatry. I could also suggest, given that Habermas is imagining a time when we have the technology to accurately tweak genotypes, they could presumably be reverse-tweaked for the next generation. I don’t wish to sound flippant, I just find it odd that the possibility doesn’t feature in his arguments.

Another major point that Habermas leaves out about genetic intervention is that it would entail parents’ hopes and desires being made explicit and addressed from the start. Conflicting desires between parents would be surfaced early, and unrealistic or unfair expectations could be moderated or challenged. I am not suggesting this would justify saving genetic intervention from the ethical garbage heap. What I am arguing is that it is somewhat short-sighted for us to condemn genetic intervention on one hand, while condoning authoritarian discipline on the other, particularly as the latter often manifests with conflict between parents, and confusion from hopes and fears that are not openly discussed or, worse, presented inauthentically. To do so is to tip the balance of opinion firmly towards nature over nurture, when we know that it is not an ‘or’ but an ‘and’.

Essentially, I find it strange that today’s moral philosophers continue to debate eugenics and technology-brain interfaces when they could be discussing psychedelic therapy. It may not be as philosophically tortuous, but that’s because it’s not an imaginary technology. It’s a real-life practice that is becoming well-established in the clinical and self-development arenas, and it needs to be talked about.

N.B. The retreat I attended was run by the Psychedelic Society, which organises regular legal experiences in the Netherlands. You can find out more and apply here.

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Human enhancement and the acceptance paradox – a personal take

On one level at least, I think people do want to be the best version of themselves, but what does that mean?

I think it can mean so many different things. To fulfill one’s potential, to have a positive impact on the world, etc, etc.. But where does such a drive come from? I suspect mine is partly founded on a dissatisfaction – a feeling that I will never be good enough – but this won’t be the case for everyone. There are some people who are satisfied with themselves, and are still motivated to enact positive change on themselves and in the world. Another factor for me is the belief that I do have something specific to offer; a blend of core values, tendencies and preferences that motivates me to learn to understand others and to mediate understanding between people.

I am a determinist – I do not believe in libertarian free will. I’ve always insisted I am not a fatalist – given my desire for change, fatalism would entail a high degree of internal conflict! But there is a lingering fatalism in the way I think about character. I want to believe that Schopenhauer is wrong; that leopards can change their spots. I want to believe that there are interventions – meditation and psychedelic therapy for example – that really help us to become the better people we want to be. But do I believe it?

What does it mean to be better? Many have tried to explain this in words, and I will continue to do so elsewhere. We can feel in our bodies when we are being a better version of ourselves. What I feel, when I tune in, is a conflict between my desire to accept myself and others the way they are, and my desire to criticise, deconstruct and improve. I feel it very keenly in my heart, in my face, and up through my limbs.

Acceptance of any kind is replete with paradox. Rogers highlights the paradox of self-development; that in order to change, we must accept ourselves. But another paradox precedes this; learning to accept oneself is in itself a profound change in one’s mode of being. Acceptance is, therefore, an incredibly difficult achievement that demands an ongoing cycle of mind gaming.

I believe my academic interest in universities and morality stems from my personal interest in self-improvement. I recognise how tightly I cling to the possibility of such improvement, and I wonder how much it relies on a lack of acceptance of myself and others, and/or is hindered by it. The mystery is made more complex by my line of work; running CPD programmes for teachers. My professional existence is underlined by an imperative to be better.

A pearl of wisdom came to me recently while in a deep meditative state: ‘Stop fighting. Listen.’ I guess the main reason I find listening difficult is because I have a naive impulse to show the world how much I know, and an assumption that I can’t do that by staying silent. But this impulse isn’t constant or insurmountable; often I can and do listen. What does listening feel like? It feels like I don’t have anything to prove. It feels Erotic (in the Greek sense); an enrapture, a delight in what the other person is saying. If that isn’t there, then I am probably not really listening.

Hence the resonance I feel when I read Newman on the Idea of the University, and Gadamer on philosophical hermeneutics. There may not be such a thing as human nature, but I feel like this is my ‘better’ nature; to listen, to be enraptured, and to try to understand. When I’m doing it, I feel it, and it feels right. That’s what it means for me to be the best version of myself.

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Learning about listening

I’ve been working on my methodology chapter while, appropriately, learning about listening. Well, I guess I’ve been learning about this throughout my doctorate, really. And I’m very conscious of the two-steps-forward-one-step-back mode, because I’ve had previous epiphanies; moments of realisation when the wisdom of others dawns on me, and the value in just shutting up and letting it in. I always find it incredible looking back through my blog, or my notebooks, or my emails, and realising I’ve been here before. How many times do we (I) have to be confronted with something before we internalise it? I guess it’s an ongoing thing. I still find it so much easier, effort-wise, to be the teller rather than the asker, although I struggle to accept that about myself.

I’m not veering towards epistemological or moral relativism. I’m not saying that everyone else is right about everything. What I’m saying it that, when other people speak, they’re speaking their truth, and there is truth in what they say. It might not be the point they think they’re making, but there will be truth in there, and one needs to stop fighting in order to see and hear that truth. We could all listen a bit more. This is an interesting idea to be hit around the head (repeatedly) with while I’m writing a doctoral thesis; i.e. making a claim and preparing to ‘defend’ it. How do we reconcile defence with listening? I’ll come back to that.

I found Monica Vilhauer’s book on Gadamer’s Ethics of Play really excellent. It’s a relatively short and highly readable book on Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, the theoretical framework that underpins my thesis. It arrived in my hands at a perfect time, just as I’d finished John Callender’s book on free will and responsibility, although the connection between the two might not be immediately obvious. I was intending to spend November drafting my methodology chapter and felt a little guilty for reading John’s book instead; I worried that it was too tangential. But I’d attended the conference on psychedelics John organised for the Royal College of Psychiatrists in October, and we’d got talking about the promise of psychedelic therapy for emotional healing and moral development (which I would argue are deeply connected). He suggested I read his book, so I did. And then we met up and talked about it over olives and curry. It just blows me away, the wisdom of other people. I think it must take a very wise person to listen to an idiot child-adult like me and find something of value in there. John’s a psychiatrist, so that’s his area of expertise, but, still.

John’s book draws together a lot of threads I’ve been following. The central concern of my thesis is the role of universities in society, which Blessinger (not the most exciting of writers on HE, I find) summarises very simply as ‘creating an educated citizenry’. This of course raises loads of other questions: What does it mean to be educated? What is the value in having an educated citizenry? By ‘citizenry’, do we mean everyone, or are we just talking about a proportion of society? Why? There are lots of assumptions that are tied up in this about conflict, consensus, equality, efficiency, progress, and the place of human beings on earth. What kind of world do we want to live in? Is it possible for all our desires to be accommodated? One immediate problem clear from John’s book is that we struggle to accommodate our own desires even as individuals. We are in perpetual conflict between what we want, and what we want to want (and even, perhaps, what we want to want to want… etc). John presents psychotherapy as a process that helps individuals to become less conflicted. In focusing on their own second order desires, therapy accommodates the autonomy of the patient or client, rather than dictating what they should want and how they should be. Such autonomous moral development does not, however, present a solution to the disproportionate amount of violent crime and reoffending by individuals whose behaviour is ‘unconstrained by pity or common humanity’ (p244). Huxley (1962) had an answer for this in his novel/utopian blueprint ‘Island’; to identify early on in life those with an innate desire to dominate others, put extra effort into teaching them the rules of compassion, and send them to work felling trees. The more philosophy I read, the more Huxley’s vision makes sense.

We often focus on the conflict between individuals and groups, and I’ve been wondering whether this is putting the cart before the horse; whether we need to work in the first instance on our internal conflicts. Alan Watts (1966) says we don’t even need to work on these; we just need to accept that ‘the real goodness of human nature is its peculiar balance of love and selfishness, reason and passion, spirituality and sensuality, mysticism and materialism, in which the positive pole has always a slight edge over the negative’ (p134). According to Watts, there is no problem to solve anyway, other than perhaps the needless suffering that accompanies the fantasy of the self, and he points out that even those who do manage to become internally angelic evoke ‘hordes of devils to keep the balance’ (p135). White needs black in order to exist, and vice versa. To live well, and to be a ‘civilised, sensitive and intelligent member of the cosmos’, requires that we purge the self-contradictory rules from life.

There’s a lot of overlap between Gadamer and Watts. I don’t know why that surprises me; they’ve always been the two philosophers whose views resonated with my own more than anyone else’s. Both describe life as play. Both emphasise the need for difference, and the futility of trying to win others over to your perspective. Watts gets more fundamental about why it is futile – on a quantum level – while for Gadamer one gets a sense of a Third Way-style paradox; it is only through listening without the intention to persuade, that we have a chance of persuading! Vilhauer’s book opens with a quote from Plato: ‘could you really persuade… if we don’t listen?’

Vilhauer also acknowledges her family as her dialogue partners. This is something close to my heart at the moment, as my mother and I have recently been engaged in a hermeneutic exchange after she sent me her memoirs. They were long, and it wasn’t easy reading. The third and final part ran from 1984 (when I was five years old) to the present, and catalogued a lot of stuff I’d buried and run away from. But I thought about it, talked about it, re-engaged my therapist, and penned a response back to my mother that clarified a few things she was sketchy on and gave a taste of how I remembered a couple of key events. I was careful to avoid any accusations and to highlight the things I appreciated and was grateful for. And she wrote back, and I wrote back, and she wrote back again. Each time shorter, as there was less to disagree about. For Gadamer, through conversation we always come to some sort of agreement, even if it is on what exactly it is that we differ.

So… my thesis is about conversation, and perhaps it would help to look at it as a conversation. Or, at least, a snapshot of what I’m hearing from all this listening.



Callender, J. S. 2010. Free will and responsibility. Oxford University Press.

Vilhauer, M. 2010. Gadamer’s Ethics of Play: Hermeneutics and the Other. Lexington Books.

Watts, A. 1966. The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. London: Souvenir Press.

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The problem(s) with psychedelic moral enhancement

Over the last few weeks I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about psychedelics and moral enhancement. I met up with Jules Evans a few days ago to talk about psychedelic enquiry, while he was finishing off this piece on whether psychedelics make you a better person. I think his piece is excellent; it cuts through the romantic notions that usually surround the issue, and doesn’t bother with the tentative preparation of the reader that many philosophers employ when raising it.

Thomas Douglas (2008) raises a Kantian objection to moral enhancement; that the moral goodness of our desired motives is wholly determined by the earlier motives for bringing them about. I think this is interesting and I’d like to explore it. Let’s say I would like to be a better person (I do). I would like to be more caring, friendlier, and more empathetic. Why? Maybe because I want to improve other people’s life experience. I feel that being that way in my interactions with others will help them to feel better about themselves and the world. But…why? Why is it important to me that others have a positive experience of life? Is this to do with power? Do I feel that being this way will increase my power, in that others will look more favourably on me? Or maybe I feel that in extending care and compassion to my peers I increase our collective power? Nietzsche describes these two positions as master and slave morality.

I wonder whether power really is our supraordinate motive. I consider what I value in life, and I come up with things like love (giving and receiving), knowledge, freedom, sunshine, sleep, sex and nature. What is the relationship between these and power? For most of them, the connection is obvious. Not so much for love, and I think there is something very interesting here.

What if my desire to be more caring and more compassionate arises from a will to love, rather than a will to power? I gave up on reading Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. Fortunately my psychedelic philosophy buddy Peter Sjösted-H has internalised the entire thing, and he tells me that Nietzsche does state that actions for love have a strength that makes them transcend any moral laws of one’s culture: ‘That which is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.’ (BGE 153)

But… I don’t believe the will is free in the libertarian sense. Say I am able to reason myself out of acting for individual reward, and opt to act for the wider good. It’s difficult to be compassionate and empathetic when your nature is screaming at you ‘what about me, what about what I want’. I might do it out of love (rather than some long-term selfish sensibility), but if my capacity for loving action is determined, how can we call that a moral decision? I could take a step back and consider my desire to increase my capacity for love, but if this too is determined then the same applies. It’s like when people say ‘oh, you’re so good’ when they see me drinking green smoothies and going for lunchtime runs. It’s easy for me. They may think they’re commenting on my superior morality, but really they’re just acknowledging a relative mismatch between their own first and second order desires, and expressing their envy that mine are more aligned (only in this regard, I imagine).

Under the umbrella of slave morality, Nietzsche claims that compassion and care are modes of action used by the weak to boost their collective power. But Peter tells me that it’s not as simple as that; Nietzsche also says compassion can be a sign of strength. It depends on the motives and the circumstances. Is Nietzsche equating love-motivated action with strength?

It’s a popular view. Here’s that bit from the Bible:

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have absolute faith so as to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

1 Corinthians 13:2

Skye Cleary (2017) points out how romantic love descends into power games, citing Nietzsche’s description of lovers as ‘behaving like selfish dragons defending their golden hoard’. Is there even such a thing as pure, unselfish love? Cleary presents Stirner’s view that love is merely an egoistic satisfaction of our desires; we don’t actually love the other person, rather we love ourselves loving them. De Beauvoir claims that we can work our way out of the power games; that we can love on the basis of friendship, respecting one another’s freedom, supporting one another’s flourishing, and working towards common goals; a truly symbiotic relationship rather than a mutually parasitic one.

So, on a philosophical level, if psychedelic experience increases our capacity to love and be loved – without power games – then it has moral value, right? But… does it do this?

Both Jules (Evans 2017) and Devenot (2016) write about the romanticization of the indigenous use of psychoactive plants, contrasting the Western view of ayahuasca as a benevolent agent of healing with the narratives of the mestizo Indians of the Upper Amazon. Jules draws on his own experience visiting the Temple of the Way of Light in Peru, and writers such as Stephan Beyer, to articulate how envy, sorcery and revenge are fundamental aspects of mestizo culture. Mestizo Indians believe that ayahuasca makes you more powerful – not more moral. They also acknowledge that humans have innate urges to harm others (a view that Westerners tend to deny), and so an apprentice shaman needs to be very strong in order to control these urges and use his powers for good.

Contrast this with the West where, from the present day right back to the Eleusian Mysteries, psychedelic experience is presented as a physical-emotional journey that teaches certain moral attitudes. Jules riffs off Aristotle, Jung and Plutarch in generating an impressive list: ‘concentration, self-acceptance, compassion, courage, self-awareness, humility, surrender, awe and love’, but concludes ‘there is nothing essential in psychedelics that necessarily leads to these things.’ It’s all about the intention. 

I wish to return to my original question – why do we want to be better? – and bring in Persson and Savulescu’s (2017) call for urgent enhancement of the moral character of humanity. It seems likely to me that the current concern around our moral character has been bolstered by the election of certain individuals to positions of political power. There is a concern among liberals that these powerful individuals are further influencing the moral character of the masses, for example by validating and encouraging distrust of minority groups and foreigners, the election result itself being an indicator of widespread moral decline. A related concern is that moral viewpoints have become more polarised, with a breakdown in communication between the poles. I recently came across a book by William Desmond (2011) on ancient philosopher-kings. I was taken by the account of Xenophon’s imaginary conversation between the poet Simonides and Hiero the tyrant of Syracuse, in which the former tries to persuade the latter that ‘no tyrant can be happy and that only virtue can bring happiness and increase the city’s power’ (p46). In another book – a biography of Cyrus the Great – Xenophon lists the philosopher-king’s practical virtues: ‘hard-working, hardy, brave, prudent, lawful, munificent, righteous, kind, humane.’

Why would someone want to become a philosopher-king? Out of a desire for power? Or out of love? Why does Trump want to be President? If it is out of love, is his ‘love’ for America a desire to possess it? Or it it that he loves himself loving America? In conversation with psychedelic dinosaur and conspiracy theorist Robert Forte a few months back, we discussed persuading those in power to try psychedelic therapy in the hope that it would open their minds in compassionate directions. But, in the absence of a genuine desire to become more compassionate, humble, self-aware, loving, etc, it seems the chance of achieving this kind of enhancement with psychedelics is slim. It is widely agreed across the moral enhancement literature, and in psychiatry (Callender 2010), that in order to be ethical, moral therapies must privilege the autonomy of the subject. 

I have been thinking about whether psychedelics could (or should?!) be categorised as a technology. Jules’ argument tips the answer towards the affirmative, if it wasn’t there already. An opposing view is that psychedelic plant medicines are a gateway to a deeper wisdom beyond ourselves; perhaps even that the discarnate entities encountered under their influence have some sort of plan for us. Watts (1966) points out that the more we interfere (with ‘nature’?), the more we have to analyse the results of that interference. This is a case of ‘goeswith’ (Watts’ own term) rather than causation; categorising psychedelic enquiry as a technological intervention entails the evaluation of that intervention. In discussing this with Peter the other day (10 December), he told me his view that we are a part of nature, so are our creations, and nature itself is a creation reciprocal of its creatures. I find most of Peter’s aphorisms useful and enlightening, although this one is not particularly conducive to a philosophical discussion of psychedelics as a tool for bioenhancement. In fact, most of the conversations I’ve had with both Peter and Richard recently have left me thinking there is actually nothing to debate. Maybe that is the point of philosophy, to deconstruct until all that matters disappears. Or maybe that means it didn’t matter.

Maybe it’s time to stop thinking and watch a stupid film or something.



Callender, J. S. 2010. Free will and responsibility. Oxford University Press.

Cleary, S. 2017. Existentialists in Love. Interview by Richard Marshall in 3:am magazine. 16 December.

Desmond, W. 2011. Philosopher-Kings of Antiquity. London: Continuum

Devenot, N. 2016. Psychedelic Drugs. In Hoogland, R. C. (Ed). Gender: Macmillan Interdisciplinary Handbooks. Macmillan Reference USA.

Douglas, T. 2008. Moral Enhancement. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 25 (3).

Evans, J. 2017. Can psychedelics make you a better person? [Online]. Philosophy for Life. 15 December.

Persson, I. & Savulascu, J. 2017. The Duty to be Morally Enhanced. Topoi.

Watts, A. 1966. The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. London: Souvenir Press.


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‘Knowledge does not keep any better than fish’: A.N. Whitehead and the aims of education

Whitehead, A.N. 1929. The Aims of Education and other essays. The Free Press: New York.

Whitehead presents the aim of education as producing ‘[people] who possess both culture and expert knowledge… their expert knowledge will give them the ground to start from, and their culture will lead them as deep as philosophy and as high as art’ (p1). He also says that ‘in training a child to activity of thought…we must beware of…ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilised, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations.’ He argues that education with inert ideas is not only useless but harmful.

Whitehead’s views on education stem from his particular ontology, which is well-developed in his seminal book Process and Reality, but not so well-established in my own mind yet. The crucial aspect of his ontology as I see it is that mind and matter are one; things ‘in’ our minds exist on the same basis as things ‘outside’ our minds. So, when we observe the stars, the starlight exists in our minds. We’re not just made of stardust, we’re also made of starlight. It’s kind of beautiful; it means things exist by way of our perceiving them. As I listened to a talk on Whitehead’s ontology, I was looking out of my patio doors and regarding the wooden trellis separating my yard from the common beyond. The brown of the trellis exists in its perception. Brownness is an eternal object.

Considering this, I was reminded of the scene in Bruce Parry’s new documentary Tawai: Voice of the Forest, where Bruce is talking to the monks by the Ganges. One of the monks is describing conscious selves as like bowls of water. There are many different bowls, but the same sun is reflected in each of them. There might be a loose connection here with Whitehead’s ontology or it might be the essence of it. I guess I’m thinking that if the sun exists in the bowls like consciousness exists in our minds, i.e. with an external referent; a star 93 million miles away, or a collective consciousness, say, this is the same idea as brownness existing in our minds in reference to things that are brown. I’ll carry on thinking about that.

I think Whitehead’s observation that the mind is not an inert receptacle is crucial, and rarely foregrounded when claims are made about ‘what works’ in education. Students are not inert and neither are their teachers; they are living, breathing, complex organisms with histories and tendencies and interpretive capacities. Students react to our teaching in unpredictable ways. If we were to place an unknown metal into an unknown clear liquid, it might fizz, explode, turn green, or slowly rust. Our students’ reactions affect and change us too, and we should attend to this. If we see learners as black holes into which our teaching vanishes, we don’t recognise the part of them that becomes part of us.

Curricula and methods should therefore be adaptable by institutions, teachers and students according to their various needs and talents. This imperative is perhaps more relevant to compulsory schooling than to higher education, but Whitehead comes onto that later.

The second chapter of Whitehead’s Aims of Education presents a Rhythm of Education. I am skeptical of any model of learning that claims linearity. For example, the different ‘stages’ of grief are sometimes presented as reeling (e.g. denial), feeling (e.g. anger, guilt), dealing (seeking guidance) and healing (acceptance). In reality, especially when the grieving process is delayed (e.g. in the case of suppressed childhood trauma), one tends to oscillate between all the stages in a seemingly chaotic fashion. I believe one’s academic education proceeds likewise (Ray Land’s paper on the semiotics of learning attempts to chart the chaos). In practice, Whitehead’s proposed three stages of Romance, Precision and Generalisation are scrambled. The interconnected, interdisciplinary nature of knowledge means that we are encountering new romantic possibilities all the time (cf. the paper John White presented at PESGB on love in education, and the ensuing discussion I had with David about love triangles and ‘monogamous’ learning). There are always new insights to be gained that threaten to blow our generalisations out of the water. I think this is what Whitehead is acknowledging when he describes the rhythm as ‘an interweaving of cycles, the whole process being dominated by a greater cycle of the same general character as its minor eddies.’ (p27), and he does conclude the chapter with a recognition that the three stages are present throughout; it is their dominance that alternates.

I skipped to Chapter 7 to discover what Whitehead had to say on university education in particular. I felt skeptical towards his claim that the spirit or stage of generalisation is dominant here, but around 100 years ago when Whitehead was writing this, America was beginning to follow the German model of incorporating research into its activities. I believe it is this to which Whitehead is referring when he says that the US had taken a forward step which ‘may prove to be one of the most fortunate’ for civilisation. In praising university research per se, Whitehead may have been referring to the more benign technological developments and the likes of the Frankfurt School, rather than the intensive research and development of weaponry (at this point the nuclear bomb and the smartphone were mere twinkles of evil). It was shortly after this address (1930 to be precise) that Maynard Keynes predicted technology and automation would mean – within a couple of generations (he specified his own grandchildren) – we would be enjoying a 2 day working week and a five day weekend. We all know that this didn’t happen. Keynes was (ironically) working too hard to produce any offspring of his own, but two years ago David Kestenbaum interviewed his sister’s grandchildren, with darkly comic results.

Whitehead identifies the formation of business schools as a turning point in the purpose of a university education. I felt that I detected a subtext running under his arguments – particularly through pages 94-95 – that scholars of business are directing their considerable imagination and intellect towards the corruption and manufacture of desire, rather than the salvation of humanity. It is understandable that Whitehead would keep such a view veiled, as I believe this chapter was an address he made at the opening of the Harvard Business School in 1928. He compares the modern world with simpler times, when business transactions were ‘based on the immediate contact of man with man and on immediate confrontation with all relevant material circumstances.’ An example of this might be that you are hungry, you see a woman selling mangoes, and you buy a mango. In contrast, a multinational food corporation requires ‘an imaginative grasp of the psychologies of populations engaged in differing modes of occupation.’ (p94). Consumers become mere data points. The sustenance of the business is the end, reliable sales become the means, and the actual sustenance of the consumer is forgotten. It is possible that I am reading more into Whitehead’s words than he intended, but I don’t think I am; I think he was simply being very clever in the words he used at Harvard. In any case, a hundred years have passed, and they have gained in significance.

For Whitehead, ‘the justification for a university is that it preserves the connection between knowledge and the zest for life.’ (p93). I read this as a concise explanation of the value of humanity in a world of artificial intelligence. For a computer, a fact is a bare fact. Without imaginative consideration, a fact cannot be ‘invested with all its possibilities’. A computer cannot become excited. And, as Whitehead states in the first paragraph of the book: ‘A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth.’ (p1)

The one thing I would question about Whitehead’s view of universities is his use of the word discipline. He believes the task of a university is ‘to weld together imagination and experience’, and talks of the ‘discipline of imagination’. Discipline is a funny word in education. It has one meaning in the context of compulsory schooling and another beyond that, but both have the same root, which is one of constraint. Can we therefore speak of a ‘discipline of imagination’? To me, everything that Whitehead says on the matter of imagination and learning describes a state of playfulness rather than one of discipline; ‘some leisure, freedom from restraint, freedom from harassing worry, some variety of experiences, and the stimulation of other minds.’ (p97). Both philosophy and art (returning to the opening sentence of this post) are very obviously playful in nature, and it is easy to see how other ‘disciplines’ may also be framed as such. I believe this is actually what Whitehead is arguing for. If he does have Puritan sympathies (as alluded to at the close of Chapter 7), this might explain his reluctance to admit it.


N.B. The quote ‘knowledge does not keep any better than fish’ appears on p98.

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Psychedelics, spiritual experience and character education

Next week I’m going to a launch of a new Impact pamphlet that defends character education in schools. Randall Curren is the author, and he will present his case with responses from four panelists.

Wikipedia tells me that ‘Character education is an umbrella term loosely used to describe the teaching of children in a manner that will help them develop variously as moral, civic, good, mannered, behaved, non-bullying, healthy, critical, successful, traditional, compliant or socially acceptable beings.’

The Impact pamphlet is still under wraps, but in his new book Living Well Now and in the Future, Randall Curren argues that we need to teach (albeit not in a coercive way) moral norms and attitudes that are supportive of sustainability; living well together in a way that does not diminish the opportunity for future generations to live well. It appears that in the Impact pamphlet (and in Wednesday’s talk) he will set out firmly that traits like perseverance and resilience are not virtues in themselves but simply means to ends. The ends Randall supports are the ‘fundamental British values’ of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance.

I’m guessing Judith Suissa will presumably argue against character education on autonomy grounds – as she did in my session on psychedelics in education at the PESGB conference. I imagine Michael Hand may argue for character education on patriotism terms. I would have thought that Toby Young might argue for the inculcation of resilience and perseverance, but then again he believes that character is inherited so maybe he’d say we shouldn’t bother teaching it. I don’t know Patrick Roach.

I’m all for character education. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with teaching pro-social behaviour. It’s just that – and maybe this is one thing I have in common with Toby – I’m skeptical about how effective that teaching would be. I would like society to think much more radically about how we might collectively develop greater empathy, forgiveness, gratitude and sense of unity. I appreciate the autonomy argument, but I think believe these are values we can all get behind.

The discussion paper I gave at this year’s PESGB conference was on Aldous Huxley’s philosophy of education, as presented in his final novel Island (1962). Huxley’s utopian vision incorporates the ritual use of a naturally occurring entheogen similar to mescaline or psilocybin – the ‘moksha medicine’, and a school curriculum that prepares children for their first entheogenic experience.

A research team at Johns Hopkins university have been publishing interesting findings for a good few years now on spiritual experience as a crucial factor in the therapeutic effects of psilocybin, which comprise positive changes in psychological functioning and trait measures of prosocial attitudes and behaviours. The personality or character changes observed in these studies are unprecedented; no other interventions are known to enact enduring changes in any of the so-called Big Five personality traits.

Their most recent paper (Griffiths et al. 2017) builds on what they already know about the importance of the spiritual or mystical-type experience, and seeing whether this can be maximised by combining the standard psilocybin therapy with a course of support in meditation and other spiritual-type practices. The results suggest that the addition of more intensive support for spiritual practices into the therapeutic protocol boosted the effects of the therapy. But both groups – the high dose, high support group and the high dose, low support group, did significantly better than the low dose group. In short, the standard psilocybin therapy was pretty effective by itself, but guided spiritual practice boosted its effectiveness further. Enduring changes in attitudes and behaviours were assessed by means of longitudinal measures of the following:

  • Interpersonal closeness
  • Gratitude
  • Life meaning/purpose
  • Forgiveness
  • Death transcendence
  • Daily spiritual experiences
  • Religious faith and coping
  • Community observer ratings (i.e how subjects’ friends and family think they’ve changed).

So… even if replacing GCSEs with a Huxleyesque entheogenic initiation rite may be off the table (for now!), there is something important we can take from this; that guided and integrated spiritual/mystical experience may be key to educating for the kinds of prosocial attitudes and behaviours (e.g. empathy, forgiveness and gratitude) that we can all agree on.

Then, of course, the challenge becomes about the nature of spiritual experience and how to facilitate it in the absence of the sacred plant medicines that are currently prohibited in this country. There are ways, but personally I think entheogenic initiation deserves its place on the table.

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