Mysticism, history of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K050-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 24, 2019, from

1. Methodological issues

Increasingly, scholars debate not only the data but also the proper methodology for studying mysticism’s history. Lack of consensus on a definition of mysticism gives rise to corresponding disagreements over who and what to classify as truly mystical, a problem compounded by the modern tendency to identify mysticism exclusively with certain subjective experiences involving ‘pure undifferentiated consciousness’ or ‘union’. We have no direct access, after all, to the states of consciousness of past mystics, but only to the texts and other artefacts they have left behind, from which it is generally difficult to extract clear ‘phenomenological’ descriptions of the sort modern commentators seek.

Another problem is that if, according to some definitions, mysticism is a fundamental mode of human consciousness present in every era, or even a tacit dimension of all human experience, a comprehensive history of mysticism would have to include all human history and experience, something obviously impossible. Still, we may suppose that for every mystic recognized today, hundreds more have left behind no traces (for example, because they lived in pre-literate communities, or their works were lost, or they felt no urge to record their experiences). Thus any account of the history of mysticism has an essentially modest scope, since it illuminates only a small portion of the totality of human mystical experience, most of which will remain forever inaccessible. At the same time, however, modern scholarship is opening up a wealth of new material that has been forgotten or under-utilized in the tradition. Feminists, for example, are retrieving the testimony of women mystics, noting what is distinctive about their experience. Such research continues to enlarge and modify our understanding of mysticism’s history.

The present entry briefly traces several strands of mysticism according to the religious traditions out of which they emerged. No claim is made that this is the best or most complete approach; mystical experiences may occur to people of no formal religious affiliation. Nevertheless, even the most unorthodox of the great mystics generally have their roots in a specific religious tradition, and cannot be adequately understood apart from it.

Citing this article:
Payne, Steven. Methodological issues. Mysticism, history of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K050-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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