Mysticism, nature of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K051-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 25, 2019, from

1. Background

Like ‘mystery’ (Greek mysterion), the adjective ‘mystical’ (Greek mystikos) is derived from the Greek verb myein (‘to close’, especially the eyes and lips), suggesting something secret or concealed. The term was used by Christian authors of the patristic era to refer to the ‘mystical sense’ of Scripture, the hidden presence of Christ in the biblical text and, by extension, in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. Only in the late medieval and modern periods did the use of the term begin to shift to reflect a growing interest in the ‘private’ experiences of those alleged to have encountered the divine. The noun ‘mysticism’, as Michel de Certeau (1992) has shown, is itself a seventeenth-century French creation (la mystique), marking a turn ‘away from the liturgical and scriptural context of patristic and medieval Christianity to a situation in which private illumination and unusual psychosomatic experiences became the criteria’ (McGinn 1991: 312).

The academic study of mysticism developed in the late nineteenth century, with William James’ classic The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) offering one of the most influential early contributions to the field (which also included important works by William Ralph Inge, Friedrich von Hügel, Joseph Maréchal, Rudolf Otto, Evelyn Underhill and others). James devotes considerable attention to mysticism, offers numerous examples of mystical reports, and identifies ‘four marks which, when an experience has them, may justify us in calling it mystical’: ineffability, noetic quality, transiency and passivity. Of these, the ‘noetic quality’, or the recipient’s impression that these are ‘states of knowledge’, is particularly important, and James argues that ‘mystical states, when well developed, usually are, and have the right to be, absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come’, though not to those who stand outside the experience (James [1902] 1936: 414) (see James, W. §4).

Comparativist R.C. Zaehner’s famous work Mysticism: Sacred and Profane (1961) draws upon cross-cultural differences in the descriptions of various mystical states to support a typology of three fundamentally distinct kinds of mysticism: panenhenic (associated with ‘nature mysticism’), monistic (or ‘soul’ mysticism) and theistic (allegedly the highest form). Despite his greater familiarity with the primary texts, Zaehner’s typology has often been criticized as a form of special pleading on theism’s behalf, and for improbably lumping together, under the heading of ‘soul mysticism’, traditions with such radically divergent views on the soul as Sāṅkhya-Yoga, Advaita Vedānta and Buddhist mysticism.

More influential in shaping contemporary Anglo-American philosophical discussions of mysticism has been Walter T. Stace’s Mysticism and Philosophy (1960a). Stace first identifies two main types of mystical consciousness: ‘extrovertive’, involving an apprehension of the oneness of all things, and ‘introvertive’, involving ‘Unitary Consciousness, from which all the multiplicity of sensuous or conceptual or other empirical content has been excluded, so that there remains only a void and empty unity’. He goes on to argue, however, that these states are related as ‘two species of one genus’, and share a ‘universal core’ of common characteristics, including ‘the apprehension of an ultimate nonsensuous unity in all things’ (though realized differently in extrovertive and introvertive states), blessedness, paradoxicality, alleged ineffability, and a sense of objectivity (Stace 1960a: 110, 131–2; 1960b: 14). Most importantly and controversially, Stace explains apparent conflicts among mystical reports from different religious traditions as the result of later interpretations superimposed on what are essentially the same experiences. He is particularly critical of Zaehner for failing to grasp the implications of the experience/interpretation distinction, and for simply concluding that Christian and Indian mysticism are different ‘from the mere fact that the beliefs which Christian mystics based upon their experiences are different from the beliefs which the Indians based on theirs’ (Stace 1960a: 35–6).

Stace’s own views on the relation between experience and interpretation have since been strongly criticized, especially by some of the authors represented in Steven Katz’s anthologies Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis (1978) and Mysticism and Religious Traditions (1983), who insist that the mystics’ religious backgrounds and prior beliefs play a much greater role in actually shaping the specific character of the experience. More recently, the contributors to Robert Forman’s collection The Problem of Pure Consciousness (1990) have criticized in turn this ‘constructivist’ position, defending the possibility of ‘pure consciousness events’ experientially indistinguishable across different religious traditions. Meanwhile, Peter Moore (Katz 1978), Nelson Pike (1992) and others have pointed out that many mystics themselves describe not a single mystical state, but successive degrees of mystical union, and that the ordered pattern of these distinct stages may itself have epistemic significance. At the same time, Bernard McGinn (1991) has argued that ‘presence’ is a far more useful category for the understanding of certain mystical traditions than that of ‘union’, despite the latter’s prominence in philosophical analyses (though it is not yet clear whether McGinn is simply replacing what is arguably too narrow a category with one too broad).

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