Oliver Sacks as a Philosophical Role Model

Commentary by UPR Professor Richard Geldard, Ph.D. -

In the latest issue of “The New York Review of books,” Michael Greenberg reviews Hallucinations (knopf), the latest book by neurologist and physician Oliver Sacks. The review begins with this passage:

Oliver Sacks is the scientist-as-artist, a rare species nowadays but one that flourished in the mid-nineteenth century and that almost single-handedly he has kept alive. His sensibility is Victorian in the best meaning of the word: reformist, literary, historical—empirical of course but speculative as well, in the tradition of the grand theorists of that less specialized time. As a neurologist, Sacks is a clinician above all, an unusually close listener to his patients’ symptoms and stories. He prefers to look through a wide-angle lens rather than a microscope. His impulse is to amplify his observations, to look beyond the minute workings of the brain to the varieties of human experience itself, something he has done much to map out in the medical case histories that comprise the core of his finest writing.

This isn’t to suggest that he doesn’t value the groundbreaking research of neuroscience’s current pioneers, who are in the process of adding, in steady increments, to our understanding of memory and perception, but rather that his particular mission, as I suspect he sees it, is to apply their findings philosophically, to the soul.

Although this introduction appears at first to fall closer to the empiricist and scientific rather than philosophical and esoteric spectrum, I would argue that this description of one of our most important observers of the human condition may well serve as a role model for much of what we teachers and students do at UPR.

The philosophy and psychology we teach and study also moves in a continuum of human knowledge and condition, one which in the broader world moves from the strictly material and empirical through the subjective, speculative, esoteric to mystical nature of what it means to be fully human.

We here are constantly judging and being judged as to where on this continuum we live and work. It should be clear enough that this university, arising from and connected to the Philosophical Research Society, celebrates the esoteric and mystical as it is reflected in the wisdom traditions of world cultures. It is also clear that as such, our identity confronts a historical tendency away from the wisdom traditions in favor of scientific and empirical knowledge, both increasingly reductionist in character.

What Oliver Sacks represents is, I would argue, an effective and accurate measure of how to confront that reductionism. His work holds out the possibility of a sacred, even mystical element that we here regard as both true and necessary if humanity is to survive and be fully human. And what is the salient quality that Sacks displays? It is wonder, that underpinning of all genuine philosophic inquiry, and that quality or temperament that makes us human. But we also have to recognize that this new book is entitled Hallucinations, which are defined as sensory experiences of something that does not exist outside the mind, caused by various physical and mental disorders, or by hallucinogenics, or by what sacred peoples call entheogens, or “being with the god.”

Sacks understands that in these disorders and extreme alterations of what we call “normal,”  there are signs and symbols of experience that are sometimes evocative of the transcendental. Here, for example, is a description from  the writer Elissa Schappell describing her experience of a seizure:

I am suddenly serene … rising. There is the unseen life, the illuminated world, shimmering, flooded with more light than seems possible, rushing into my palms and the soles of my feet, the air liquid with light, so much I should be able to scoop it into my hands like water. It fills the corners of the room, runs down the walls. I am ecstatic. I don’t want it to end. Not now, not yet, just as I’m about to understand something.

As onlookers we are terrified by the sight of a seizure, and yet what are we to make of this description? For Sacks, this is the journey he is celebrating as a physician, and one we too can celebrate. Greenberg ends his review with this paragraph:

This chasm between actual and socially accepted experience is exactly what Sacks, with his gift for listening to his patients, is able to pick up. Throughout his long career, the transcribing of his patients’ experiences has been a kind of necessity, the truest way to comprehend and “come to terms with them emotionally.” This unique attentiveness has not only amplified our understanding of the range of human experience, it has elevated his investigations into the realm of art.

I would argue that the range of human experience here is not just in the realm of art, but also in the realm of philosophy and transformative psychology as well, and that Sacks is a genuine role model for the work of this university because he begins with a respect for the empirical but is drawn by wonder and temperament to a higher plane, one which we also seek to occupy.

by Richard Geldard, Ph.D.

Richard Geldard, Ph.D. (Full-Time)
PhD, Dramatic Literature and Classics, Stanford University

  • Adjunct Professor of Philosophy, Yeshiva University
  • Doctoral Faculty, Pacifica Graduate Institute
  • Author of ten books on Early Greek philosophy and the thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • [www.rgbooks.com]