Date of Award
Author Requested Restriction
Open Access (no embargo, no restriction)
Masters Capstone Project
Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies (MAIS)
Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences
Academia offers us many theoretical lenses through which we may find alternative perspectives to prevailing social narratives, but the ones established are not the only ones used outside of academic circles. To the French philosopher Michel Foucault, madness serves as a lens through which we can look at the culture and provide a critique. To society, what more terrifying notion might there be than to entertain the thought that a madman may know something deeper and truer than you; something you are too terrified to even try to know? The psychedelic experience in many ways fits the same template of madness as described by Michel Foucault, but to confirm this possibility I look to the literature of lecturer, author and psychedelic drug advocate, Terence McKenna. The madness Foucault describes is not, for instance, a direct comparison from specific forms of schizophrenia, or other well-known classifications to a state induced by the use of LSD, but rather the state that is understood as one outside the bounds of polite society; the animalistic, the fantastic, prelinguistic and the morbid. Foucault defines madness as folly and goes on to describe its use. “Folly also has its academic pastimes; it is the object of argument, it contends against itself; it is denounced, and defends itself by claiming that it is closer to happiness and truth than reason, that it is closer to reason than reason itself” (p. 29)
Though many scholars are familiar with the psychedelic experience, they have made little to no effort to show its value as a tool of critique in academic discussions. But we know that those who have participated in this experience often name it as one of the most transformative in their lives, providing them with a new perspective. There is no present academic discussion about how the psychedelic experience and Michel Foucault’s description of madness as a tool of critique find common ground, but Foucault’s fascination with the place where ideas meet in the prelinguistic state sit harmoniously with McKenna’s arguments about the psychedelic experience being more meaningful than words can describe. McKenna and Foucault both argue the limitations of language to capture a true taxonomy of natural experience. My research argues that the madness described by Michel Foucault in many ways matches the same mental state of what I have termed managed madness, a state which is temporarily induced by the psychedelic experience. Since Foucault claims that madness serves as a critique of culture, it is an unanswered question whether or not psychedelics do the same. Though Foucault argues that madness serves as a critique of society, only the ‘madman’ can have this perspective, making it difficult to confirm for the non-mad. Because the psychedelic experience is a kind of managed madness, a state that sane people can experience temporarily and return from, it allows us to reflect upon Foucault’s claim by giving us the sense of madness and the ability to return from it and utilize this alternative perspective. This perspective constitutes a new theoretical framework known as the psychedelic lens.
In 2017, an interview between Boom California writer, Heather Dundas and Simeon Wade surfaced which shed new light on an element of Foucault’s life that was previously unknown.. Wade was a close friend of Michel Foucault and in the interview he described his experience of taking LSD with Foucault. From the account of Foucault’s own psychedelic experience by Wade, we know that Foucault was deeply moved, and by this account we understand that Foucault understood things in a new way, a way that was felt, not just intellectualized and indeed a confirmation of many of his suspicions long held about that gap between thought and language. In The Order of Things Foucault (1973) gives a taste of his thoughts on this when he says, “If man’s knowledge is finite, it is because he is trapped, without possibility of liberation, within the positive contents of language, labor, and life; and inversely, if life, labor, and language may be posited in their positivity, it is because knowledge has finite forms” (p. 380).
What a relief and epiphany it must have been for him to have seen the mad state as he so elegantly defined it, finally looking through the madman’s eyes and laughing in the face of death, having “disarmed it”. Finitude, the term Foucault used in much of his literature, was, according to Wade, no longer a part of Foucault’s writing. In this, we see that death was disarmed in Foucault's own mind. Madness and Civilization (1973), perhaps his most noteworthy work, had been lived for a short while through the practice of managed madness.
I argue that the psychedelic experience produces an experience so powerful and out of the ordinary that those who choose to use it as a philosophical tool are actually performing an act that confirms Foucault’s theory of madness as a form critique.
Roberts, Gabriel, "Managed Madness" (2019). MAIS Projects and Theses. 59.