Psychoactive plants as teachers to humankind: assessing an argument in philosophical anthropology
(University of Sydney)
Paper short abstract:
The western re-encounter with psychoactive ‘Teacher Plants’ in the last decades has produced a reassessment of human history and human culture. In this paper, which draws on fieldwork in Australia and the Amazon, I sketch out this argument and consider its implications for philosophical anthropology.
Paper long abstract:
In the Peruvian mestizo shamanistic tradition, psychoactive plants are often referred to as 'Plantas Maestras', 'Teacher Plants'. This term has been taken up by many contemporary western users of the plants, and neatly encapsulates a series of propositions at the centre of a revisionist understanding of history hotly discussed in these circles. The most common form of the argument has several components: a) that psychoactive plants (and to a lesser degree animals), reliably produce noetic and spiritual experiences of great power; b) that in the depths of prehistory these experiences probably facilitated the divergence of homo sapiens from the other hominids; c) that we are heirs to a long and often embattled history (whether shamanic, mystical, pagan or esoteric), of the use of these psychoactives in numerous cultures; d) that today, as the techno-capitalist form of global culture decimates the planet, it is only in learning from these plant teachers, and/or their modern synthetic cousins, that humans can collectively tear themselves away from ecocide. In this paper, which is informed by fieldwork in Australia and the Peruvian Amazon, I trace the shape of this argument as it has emerged in the contemporary western psychedelic milieu. I conclude that the 'Teacher Plants' do indeed open a phenomenologically distinct realm of experience often replete with subjective presences ('spirits', 'entities'). This realm is now beginning to receive sober scientific investigation; the price of this investigation, however, is almost certainly the transformation of the dominant secular scientific understanding of human history, culture and 'social science' itself.
Moral highground? Magic, witchcraft and spiritual encounters