In The Superhumanities: Historical Precedents, Moral Objections, New Realities, Jeffrey J. Kripal forwards a bold challenge to rethink the humanities as intimately connected to the superhuman and to “decolonize reality itself.” In this reflection below, he talks about some of what led him to write the book.
This is a book about some of the past, present, and possible futures of the humanities. I wrote it out of two basic contexts: a life of scholarship and thinking around things like the mystical experiences of scholars of comparative mystical literature and the “impossible” experiences of ordinary people (in truth, no one is ordinary, no one); but also three years working in a Dean’s Office at a major research university, in this case, Rice University, where I have helped oversee hiring practices, promotion and tenure processes, and the recruitment and teaching of M.A. and Ph.D. students . . . and, oh yeah, in a pandemic.
I love humanist intellectuals as they are. I mean that. I love what they do. I love who they are, how they abide in the world, how they object to that world, and how they write, think, and teach against and around that world. I myself have been hounded and harassed for my critical theory and public thinking about male sexual orientation and ecstatic religious experience. I know intimately what humanist intellectuals sometimes fear and know all too well, what they rage against in their hearts and on their pages. I love all of that and them.
But I also am convinced that all human beings, including all humanist intellectuals, sometimes experience fantastic states of consciousness and embodiment—states of imagination and knowledge that simply do not fit into our critical social theories, at all. We have learned to ignore these impossible phenomena, to not talk about them, partly, I assume, to make our present forms of social knowledge seem complete and adequate. They are not. That’s part of why the humanities are being increasingly ignored today. We are actively neglecting and intentionally ignoring immense dimensions of the human, which also happens to be some of the most fascinating and mind-bending stuff. We could say so much, but we will only say critical or deconstructive things (all achingly true and fiercely necessary). Few will go on to say positive, constructive, even ecstatic, things that can make some sense of people’s impossible experiences, which often also speak of their unjust marginality and traumatic suffering. Why not?
I’ll talk about almost anything. I was trained to talk about male sexual orientation, misogyny, and the male production of sanctity in different religious systems. But I’ll also talk about ghosts, dead loved ones, and near-death experiences (talk about trauma). Or precognitive dreams (usually about personal or social disasters). Or UFOs and ecological collapse. I always get the same question when I give a public lecture or appear on a podcast about the latter matters. It comes down to this: “How do you deal with all the pushback?” I always answer back: “What pushback?”
Oh, I know there is pushback. I know some of my readers and colleagues are very critical of what they perceive to be my naivete or my assumed belief (in fact, I do not believe beliefs). But, mostly, I experience institutional support and collegial encouragement, if usually after a drink or two (and in private). I once heard a second-hand joke at such a public lecture: “That guy can make UFOs sound Ivy league.” I thought to myself, “Okay, that’s funny, but it is also the project: how do we think and talk about such things in rigorously precise and productive ways?”
Because of countless moments like this, it is my own conviction that many intellectuals (including many scientists) are “in the closet” on these same matters. That is, they know all of these things happen, are “real” in some still unknown sense, but they don’t know how to talk about them without sounding like the tabloids. They are also, frankly, confused by them, since such phenomena do not play by the rules of their disciplines (they are right about that—these phenomena are confusing and probably intend as much). So, I walk into their university or college and just start talking about them, not like the tabloids, but like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Foucault, Derrida, and Anzaldúa, or like contemporary historians of science and philosophers of mind might (if only they would). I say outrageous things, but I say outrageous things in nuanced ways about things that actually happen all the time, things that almost certainly happened to them, or to their mothers, brothers, sisters, or children. They know it. They just don’t know how to think and talk about it. I try to show them.
And I am hardly the first to do this. Did you know that Schopenhauer thought that “magic” was perfectly real, had his own precognitive dreams, thought that his idealism implied and explained such phenomena, and that he called people who denied such patently common things ignoramuses? (Hey, it’s his word, not mine.) Did you know that Nietzsche, who had his own precognitive dreams and waking premonitions, considered his famous genealogical method and nay-saying to be mere warm-ups for his immeasurably more important yea-saying, that is, his ecstatic evolutionary vision of a new super-species, the coming superhumans, and his related teaching of the eternal recurrence of the same? Did you know that the latter teaching involved a kind of retrocausation of meaning-making, that is, the idea that superhumans can will backwards in time? Did you know that William James took numerous psychedelics to think new thoughts? Or that he wrote extensively of the superhuman toward the end of his life, and thought that there may be only one ultimate form of consciousness in the cosmos? Did you know that the Chicana queer theorist Gloria Anzaldúa denied any cultural or ethnic identity-essence but affirmed the importance of possession and kundalini phenomena in her body and the empirical truths of out-of-body experiences? Did you know that she looked forward to the evolution of a new mixed or mestiza consciousness? Did you know that the contemporary writer Amitav Ghosh writes about ghosts, precognition, and other uncanny phenomena in his fictional and non-fictional works? Or that the clinical taking of psilocybin in university settings, which is happening these very days, can result in an encounter with a beneficent God or the ultimate ground of being?
And on and one we could go. I do in this book, anyway.
How do I make sense of all of this? How do I make the impossible possible? Well, I don’t, and that’s kind of the point—we are not there, nor should we pretend to be. But neither should we pretend to possess some kind of adequate knowledge that is anything but. I provide only beginning or tentative answers, then. For example, I personally work with a dual aspect monism, which posits the human dualistic “splitting” of reality in cognition and sensory experience but also a fundamental monistic ground before and beyond the human that is neither mental nor material, a ground which you are free to translate “up here” as “every form of mind will have a body, and every body will have a form of mind.” Such a metaphysics helps me appreciate all those countless moments in history that are neither strictly mental nor material but are somehow impossibly both (like dreaming the future, in detail). These irruptions have “split” from the monistic ground where words like “mental,” “material,” “subjective,” and “objective” are meaningless.
Just how historical do you want to get? Maybe not this historical. Too many historians are perfectly fine with history, until, of course, that history offends or violates their puny conceptions of what is possible. They then say, “It didn’t happen.”
But it did.
You don’t have to accept my dual-aspect monism. There are other metaphysical options on the table, from contemporary block cosmology, through cosmopsychism and idealism, to panpsychism and animism. I am really not attached to the particular model or metaphysics, as long as—and this is a big “as long as”— it allows us to put more things on our academic table, not less. This is what I finally mean by “decolonizing reality.” We cannot claim to think and act on diversity and then shove everyone in human history into our secular materialist categories and flatland social categories as if only modern secular materialists know what reality is.
Again, just how historical are you willing to get? The historical truth is that the species has never been simply human. We have always been superhuman, too, as far as we can see back and around the planet. It’s not an either-or. It’s a both-and. That’s real history. –Jeffrey J. Kripal
Jeffrey J. Kripal holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University, where he is the Associate Dean of the Faculty and Graduate Programs in the School of Humanities. He is the author of several books, including The Flip: Who You Really Are and Why It Matters.