Amsterdam’s psychedelic philosopher

More than 100 years ago, a philosopher and poet living in Amsterdam experimented with mind-altering

More than 100 years ago, a philosopher and poet living in Amsterdam experimented with mind-altering drugs to have mystical experiences. Benjamin Paul Blood had been given nitrous oxide — laughing gas — during a dental operation in 1860.

According to Blood, the gas opened his mind to new ideas. In 1874, Blood published a pamphlet called “The Anesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy.”

The great American philosopher William James reviewed the pamphlet for The Atlantic magazine and James, too, began using nitrous oxide to have mystical experiences, as did a small group of philosophers in America and England. James even visited Blood in Amsterdam.

The empirical James was attracted to Blood’s chemically induced mysticism because it lacked religious content. They called their concept “pluralism,” meaning that mystical experiences could be religious, drug-induced or achieved by other means. You might say that Blood and James, not Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary, started America’s first psychedelic movement.

According to Dmitri Tymoczko in an article in The Atlantic in 1996, Blood would debunk spiritualist lecturers who came to Amsterdam: “On one occasion he demonstrated to an astonished crowd how a visiting spiritualist had produced apparently ghostly occurrences.”

Born in 1832 near Fort Johnson, Blood was the only son of John and Mary Stanton Blood, who owned 700 acres of land on both sides of the Mohawk River. Benjamin Paul Blood grew up in a large brick house on the family farm in the town of Florida on the south shore of the Mohawk River. He was educated at Amsterdam Academy and studied for a time at Union College in Schenectady.

Blood made a living as a farmer but became well known locally for writing poems, letters to the editor and for studying philosophy. Blood’s letters to area newspapers sometimes dealt with local politics or the tricks of spiritualist mediums. He also wrote on the principles of industry, finance and metaphysics. His poetry included titles such as “The Bride of the Iconoclast,” “Justice” and “Optimism.”

He was married to Mary Sayles and, after her death, married Harriet Lefferts. He had a daughter from each marriage and a son.

Blood died on Jan. 15, 1919 at his home at 10 Eagle St. after a two-week illness that was reported as the first serious sickness of his life.

His obituary said Blood was “one of the most striking personalities ever to live in Amsterdam.” A strong man in his youth, the obituary reported, Blood was a “stately, commanding figure” when he walked city streets. He was buried at Green Hill Cemetery.

A Recorder editorial published after Blood died praised him for having a powerful body and mind but added, “So far did he go in philosophic thought in his public writings that most of his readers could not follow him.”

Blood was working on a book at the time of his death. “Pluriverse: An Essay in the Philosophy of Pluralism” was printed posthumously by his literary executor, Horace Kallen. In a foreword, Kallen remarks how it was unusual to find a mystic like Blood living in a “dingy” city such as Amsterdam. Kallen also was editor of William James’ unfinished works and a co-founder of the New School for Social Research. Kallen donated Blood’s papers to Harvard’s Houghton Library in 1955.

Blood’s “Pluriverse” has been digitized as part of Google’s print library project. The book has chapters on fairly inscrutable topics such as duplexity, idealism, cause, plus a chapter on Jesus and free will.

The book ends with a plea for knowledge. “Knowing is the soul’s all,” wrote Blood. He calls for his epitaph to be, “Greeting, if thou hast known.”

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