Mysticism, nature of

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

2. Defining mysticism

What, then, is mysticism, and what are the identifying characteristics of mystical states? Following the lead of certain mystics themselves, modern commentators often sharply distinguish mystical awareness from sensory experience, discursive thought, the ordinary reflective exercise of mental imagery and concepts, and such extraordinary phenomena as visions, voices and levitations. More controversially, some authors (for example, Ninian Smart 1965) also exclude numinous and prophetic experiences from the ‘mystical’ category, though in fact all of these experiences are hard to disentangle in the lives and testimony of actual mystics. Many would agree with James that mystical experiences seem to their recipients to be states of knowledge or insight, to possess what is variously called a ‘noetic quality’, a ‘sense of objectivity or reality’, or a ‘perception-like’ character. Most importantly, it is often claimed (though seldom in terms equally acceptable to all religious traditions) that those undergoing mystical experiences feel themselves to have attained some supreme goal, and to be in the presence of, or in union with, the Absolute, the Transcendent, the One.

However, as the brief overview in §1 suggests, a deeper philosophical consensus on mysticism’s scope and nature seems unlikely at this point, at least in part because the terminology and focus of the discussion have changed so dramatically over time, and attempts at more precise definitions now appear almost unavoidably tendentious; philosophers are naturally disinclined to count as truly ‘mystical’ anything which does not seem to fit their particular theories. Indeed, some (for example, in Katz 1983) have argued that the whole modern preoccupation with identifying the internal features of these relatively rare and unusual states of consciousness has tended to impede a more comprehensive philosophical understanding of mysticism in all its dimensions and manifestations.

Citing this article:
Payne, Steven. Defining mysticism. 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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