American History22 Oct 2008 10:42 am
William James (January 11, 1842 – August 26, 1910) was a pioneering American psychologist and philosopher famous for advancing the philosophy of pragmatism. Pragmatists consider practical consequences or real effects to be vital components of both meaning and truth. James’s asserted that the value of a truth depends upon its use to the individual, and that scientific empiricism is inherently limited in its ability to accurately account for the breadth of diverse and subjective individual experiences. In order to account for the inevitable variations in subjective experience, James developed the doctrine of “radical empiricism.” Radical empiricism differs from everyday scientific empiricism, in that it presumes that nature and experience can never be isolated for absolutely objective analysis, and that the mind of the observer will affect the outcome of any empirical approach to truth since, empirically, the mind and nature are inextricably linked in the individual.
James was also fascinated with the study of “mystical experience,” and as such, experimented with various mind-altering substances available at the time, including chloral hydrate (1870), amyl nitrite (1875), nitrous oxide (1882), and even peyote (1896). He was especially fond of the consciousness-expanding powers of nitrous oxide, (commonly known today as “laughing gas”) claiming the effects of the giggle-inducing vapor allowed him to finally understand Hegel (not surprising, in light of the oft-repeated criticism that Hegel’s writings are the most obscure of the major philosophers). However, people were not aware at the time that inhaling Nitrous oxide (N2O) in conjunction with amyl nitrite (otherwise known as “poppers” is an extremely dangerous Central Nervous System (CNS) depressant (and kills an alarming number of brain cells). While inhaling “poppers” creates a pleasurable dissociative sensation and causes analgesia, depersonalization, derealization, dizziness, euphoria, and some sound distortion, it acts as a central nervous system (CNS) depressant that, combined with the drop in blood pressure (characteristic of nitrite inhalant use), may cause hypotension, unconsciousness, or, in the case of extreme overdose, death.
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