Experiences of William James
James not only studied mystical experiences and their
role in religious experience, but also dabbled in induced
visions himself. Here he writes of the change in consciousness
brought on by breathing nitrious oxide. At the peak of
this experience, James sees all opposites (i.e. good and
evil, subject and object) merge into a unifying whole.
The emergence into and out of this monistic wholeness
James equates to the thinking of German philosopher Hegel.
(1842 - 1910)
Effects of Nitrous Oxide by William James
observations of the effects of nitrous oxide gas-intoxication
which I was prompted to make by reading the pamphlet
called "The anaesthetic revelation and the gist
of philosophy" (Blood, 1874), have made me understand
better than ever before both the strength and the weakness
of Hegel's philosophy. I strongly urge others to repeat
the experiment, which with pure gas is short and harmless
effects will of course vary with the individual, just
as they vary in the same individual from time to time;
but it is probable that in the former case, as in the
latter, a generic resemblance will obtain. With me,
as with every other person of whom I have heard, the
keynote of the experience is the tremendously exiting
sense of an intense metaphysical illumination. Truth
lies open to the view in depth beneath depth of almost
blinding evidence. The mind sees all logical relations
of being with an
apparant subtlety and instantaniety to which its normal
consciousness offers no parallel; only as sobriety returns,
the feeling of insight fades, and one is left staring
vacantly at a few disjointed words and phrases, as one
stares at a cadaverous-looking snowpeak from which sunset
glow has just fled, or at a black cinder left by an
immense emotional sense of reconciliation which characterizes
the "maudlin" stage of alcoholic drunkenness
-- a stage which seems silly to lookers-on, but the
subjective rapture of which probably constitutes a chief
part of the temptation to the vice -- is well known.
The centre and periphery of things seem to come together.
The ego and its objects, the meum and tuum, are one.
Now this, only a housandfold enhanced, was the effect
upon me of the gas: and its first result was to make
peal through me with unutterable power the conviction
that Hegelism was true after all, and that the deepest
convictions of my intellect hitherto were wrong.
the idea of representation occurred to the mind was
seized by the same logical forceps, and served to illustrate
the same truth; and that truth was that every opposition,
among whatsoever things, vanishes in a higher unity
in which it is based; that all contradictions, so-called,
are of a common kind; that unbroken continuity is of
the essence of being; and that we are literally in the
midst of an infinite, to perceive the existence of which
is the utmost we can attain. Without the same as a basis,
how could strife occur? Strife presupposes something
to be striven about; and in this common topic, the same
for both parties, the differences merge. From the hardest
contradiction to the tenderest diversity of verbiage
differences evaporate; yes and no agree at least in
being assertions; a denial of a statement is but another
mode of stating the same, contradictions can only occur
of the same thing -- all opinions are thus synonyms,
are synonymous, are the same. But the same phrase by
different emphasis is two; and here again diffence and
no-difference merge in one.
is impossible to convey an idea of the torrential character
of the identification of opposites as it streams through
the mind in this experience. I have sheet after sheet
of phrases dictated or written during the intoxication,
which to the sober reader seem meaningless drivel, but
which at the moment of transcribing were fused in the
fire of infinite rationality. God and devil, good and
evil, life and death, I and thou, sober and drunk, matter
and form, black and white, quality and quantity, shiver
of ecstasy and shudder of horror, vomiting and swallowing,
inspiration and expiration, fate and reason, great and
small, extent and intent, joke and earnest, tragic and
comic, and fifty other contrasts figure in these pages
in the same monotonous way. The mind saw how each term
belonged to its contrast through a knife-edge moment
of transition which it effected, and which, perennial
and eternal, was the nunc stans of life. The thought
of mutual implication of the parts in the bare form
of a judgement of opposition as "nothing -- but,"
"no more -- than," "Only -- if,"
etc. produced a perfect delirium of theoretic rapture.
And at last, when defininte ideas to work
on came slowly, the mind went through the mere form
of recognizing sameness in identity by contrasting the
same word with itself, differently emphasized, or shorn
of its initial letter. Let me transcribe a few sentences:
mistake but a kind of take?
What's nausea but a kind of nausea?
Sober, drunk, drunk, astonishment.
Everything can become the subject of criticism --
how criticize without something to criticize?
Agreement -- disagreement!!
Emotion -- motion!!!
By God, how that hurts! By God, how it doesn't hurt!
Reconciliation of two extremes.
By George, nothing but nothing!
That sounds like nonsense, but it's pure nonsense!
Thought much deeper than speech...!
Medical school; divinity school, school! SCHOOL! Oh
my God, oh God; oh God!
most coherent and articulate sentence which came was
this: There are no differences but differences of degree
between different degrees of difference and no difference.
now comes the reverse of the medal. What is the principle
of unity in all this monotonous rain of instances? Although
I did not see it at first, I soon found that it was
in each case nothing but the abstract genus of which
the conflicting terms were opposite species. In other
words, although the flood of ontologic emotion was Hegelian
through and through, the ground for it was nothing but
the world-old principle that things are the same only
so far and no farther than they are the same, or partake
of a common nature -- the principle that Hegel most
tramples under foot. At the same time the rapture of
beholding a process that was infinite,
changed (as the nature of the infinitude was realized
by the mind) into the sense of a dreadful and ineluctable
fate, with whose magnitude every finite effort is incommensurable
and in the light of which whatever happens is indifferent.
This instantaneous revulsion of mood from rapture to
horror is, perhaps, the strongest emotion I have ever
experienced. I got it repeatedly when the inhalation
was continued long enough to produce incipient nausea;
and I cannot but regard it as the normal and inevitable
outcome of the intoxication, if sufficiently prolonged.
A pessimistic fatalism, depth within depth of impotence
and indifference, reason and
silliness united, not in a higher synthesia, but in
the fact that whichever you choose it is all one --
this is the upshot of a revelation that began so rosy
when the process stops short of this ultimatum, the
reader will have noticed from the phrases quoted how
often it ends by losing the clue. Something "fades,"
"escapes;" and the feeling of insight is changed
into an intense one of bewilderment, puzzle, confusion,
astonishment: I know no more singular sensation than
this intense bewilderment, with nothing particular left
to be bewildered at save the bewilderment itself. It
seems, indeed, a causa sui, or "spirit become its
conclusion is that the togetherness of things in a common
world, the law of sharing, of which I have said so much,
may, when perceived, engender a very powerful emotion;
that Hegel was so unusually succeptible to this emotion;
throughout his life that its gratification became his
supreme end, and made him tolerably unscrupulous as
to the means he employed; that indifferentism is the
true outcome of every view of the world which makes
infinity and continuity to be its essence, and that
pessimistic or optimistic attitudes pertain to the more
accidental subjectivity of the moment; finally, that
the identification of contradictories, so far from being
the self-developing process which Hegel supposes, is
really a self-consuming process, passed from the less
to the more abstract, and terminating either in a laugh
at the ultimate nothingness, or in a mood of vertiginous
amazement at a meaningless infinity.
appeared in Mind, Vol. 7, 1882
from R.M. Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness, pp.180
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