Mysticism, nature of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K051-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 20, 2019, from

Article Summary

Mysticism continues to elude easy definition, and its nature and significance remain the subject of intense debate. The terms ‘mystic’, ‘mystical’ and ‘mysticism’ have been used in an astonishing variety of ways by different authors in different eras.

Nevertheless, modern philosophical discussions have tended to focus on so-called ‘mystical experiences’, understood as certain states or modes of awareness, allegedly found within (and even outside) virtually all faith-traditions, and variously characterized as ‘consciousness without content’, ‘the experience of absolute oneness’, ‘union with the transcendent’, ‘immediate consciousness of the presence of God’, and so on. Philosophers are particularly interested in whether such experiences constitute a ‘way of knowing’, and whether they provide any support for either traditional religious beliefs or unusual metaphysical claims made by certain mystics (for example, that time is illusory). Some authors argue affirmatively, on the basis of an alleged ‘universal consensus among mystics’, for example, or the parallels between mystical consciousness and other modes of experience accepted as cognitive. Others, however, challenge these views, noting that mystics often appear to disagree precisely along the lines of their prior religious convictions, that mystical awareness seems capable of explanation in terms of natural causes, that mystical claims (like claims about one’s private feelings) do not admit of ordinary testing, or that the alleged ‘ineffability’ of mystical states frustrates any attempt at rational analysis.

These concerns, then, tend to shape the kinds of questions typically addressed in contemporary philosophical discussions of mysticism, such as: What is mysticism? What are the identifying characteristics of mystical experience? Is mysticism ‘everywhere the same’, and if so, in what sense? Are there different types of mystical experience? What is the relationship between mystical awareness and its interpretation? Are mystical experiences a ‘way of knowing’? Do they involve some form of union or contact with God? Are mystical experiences ‘ineffable’ or ‘nonlogical’, and in what sense? Can drugs or other natural stimuli induce mystical experiences, and would that affect their cognitive value?

Finally, in light of the increasingly technical nature of much of the philosophical debate, in which the primary mystical sources themselves often play a relatively minor role (except as mined for brief ‘proof texts’), there have been calls for renewed attention to the larger historical, cultural and religious contexts from which mysticism and mystical literature emerge, and within which they must be interpreted.

    Citing this article:
    Payne, Steven. Mysticism, nature of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K051-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
    Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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