Version: v1, Published online: 1998
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3. Mystical experience and its interpretation
Is mysticism ‘everywhere the same’? This apparently simple question provokes endless philosophical debate, not only because of disagreements about the nature of mysticism, but also in part because of a lack of clarity about the kind of sameness or difference at issue. Presumably any two experiences are the same at least to the extent that they are both experiences, and different at least to the extent that they are distinguishable as two. Presumably even otherwise indistinguishable states of ‘pure consciousness’ or ‘undifferentiated unity’ may differ in intensity, duration, clarity, time of occurrence, and so on.
But what primarily interests philosophers, it seems, is whether mystical states are sufficiently alike across different periods and cultures to offer some prima facie support for belief in their cognitive value (or, correspondingly, to undermine any one tradition’s claim to be the sole possessor of authentic mysticism). The underlying assumption here is that, other things being equal, the greater the consensus, the stronger the case in mysticism’s favour (just as we tend to give greater credence to reports of unusual sightings when there is multiple attestation from independent sources). Of course, this assumption can be challenged; there are certainly cases of mass delusion. None the less, even many otherwise sceptical authors, as well as those inclined to make exclusivist claims for particular mystical traditions, have found the apparent cross-cultural similarities striking, and something that requires explanation.
Yet first impressions can deceive. As James admits, when we examine the broader field of mystical reports more closely, ‘we find that the supposed unanimity largely disappears…[Mysticism] is dualistic in Sankhya, and monistic in Vedanta philosophy’ ( 1936: 416). Christian mystical literature speaks of union with God; Theravāda Buddhism does not. In short, mystics of different backgrounds describe their experiences in radically different ways.
To maintain the ‘common core’ hypothesis in the face of conflicting descriptions, authors typically distinguish the mystical experience as such from its interpretation. Ninian Smart, for example, argues that ‘phenomenologically, mysticism is everywhere the same’, but that ‘different flavours accrue to the experiences of mystics because of their ways of life and modes of auto-interpretation’ (Smart 1965: 87). Stace, as noted above, maintains that all authentic introvertive mystical states are in fact experiences of ‘pure undifferentiated unity’, but that ‘the same mystical experience may be interpreted by a Christian in terms of Christian beliefs and by a Buddhist in terms of Buddhistic beliefs’ (1960b: 10). Thus ‘union with God’, according to Stace, ‘is not an uninterpreted description of any human being’s experience’, but ‘a theistic interpretation of the undifferentiated unity’ (Stace 1960a: 103–4).
Interestingly, Stace’s approach is sometimes turned on its head in popular writings on mysticism, by authors who seem to imply that all mystics in fact experience union with God, but that some interpret this union in non-theistic terms. Most proponents of the ‘common core’ hypothesis, however, seem to favour ‘undifferentiated unity’ or ‘pure consciousness without content’ as the essential feature of all introvertive mystical states.
Stace in turn has been roundly criticized for his naïve approach to the experience/interpretation distinction. Peter Moore notes that, besides the ‘raw experience’ (that is, ‘features of experience unaffected by the mystic’s prior beliefs, expectations, or intentions’), the interpretive element found in mystical reports may be not only retrospective (as in Stace’s view) but also reflexive (‘spontaneously formulated either during the experience itself or immediately afterwards’) or incorporated (‘caused or conditioned by a mystic’s prior beliefs, expectations and intentions’) (Katz 1978: 108–9). Steven Katz goes further, insisting that ‘there are NO pure (i.e., unmediated) experiences’. Rather, ‘the experience itself as well as the form in which it is reported is shaped by concepts which the mystic brings’ to the experience, so that Hindus have Hindu mystical experiences, Jews have quite distinct Jewish mystical experiences, and so on (Katz 1978: 26). As critics have pointed out, Katz seems to assume rather than prove the ‘constructed’ character of all experience, and makes his case more by way of persuasive examples than conclusive demonstration. Pressed to its limits, his radically pluralist, contextual and constructivist approach would seem to have the counterintuitive consequence of making all mystical states (and indeed all experiences) unique and incommensurable.
In response, Forman and others have argued that so-called ‘pure consciousness events’, involving ‘a wakeful though contentless (non-intentional) consciousness’, can and do occur, and that such mystical states cannot be adequately accounted for on the ‘constructivist’ model, since they contain no inner content to be ‘constructed’ in the requisite way. Moreover, in so far as such experiences occur across different traditions and cultures, they would seem to provide a clear instance of what Katz claims is impossible: a type of mystical consciousness virtually the same everywhere. Whether Forman has identified a convincing counterexample to the ‘constructivist’ position, or whether ‘pure consciousness events’ are what most classic mystical texts are actually describing, is still under debate.
Other authors, without adopting Katz’s radical pluralism, nevertheless sort out mystical states into a smaller number of basic types. Here, too, the question arises of which differences in the way such states are described correspond to important differences among the experiences themselves. Many surveys of mysticism divide their material according to the major religious traditions, although ordinarily for expository reasons alone. Zaehner, as we have seen, sharply distinguishes theistic ‘love’ mysticism from the monistic or ‘soul’ mysticism found in certain Asian religions. Neo-Thomist Jacques Maritain (1944) likewise sharply differentiates ‘supernatural mystical experience, by means of affective connaturality with the deity’, from the purely natural mysticism of Hindu yogis, involving ‘an intellectual (negative) experience of the substantial esse of the soul’. Critics charge that such distinctions are dictated as much by Maritain’s and Zaehner’s theological presuppositions as by careful attention to the mystical reports themselves. Yet while acknowledging such criticisms, Wainwright and others have defended the legitimacy in principle of a typological approach, and pointed the way towards a more sophisticated typology of mystical states.
Such ongoing disputes have spawned a vast and often highly technical literature on the relationship between experience and its interpretation, with important implications not simply for the understanding of mysticism but for epistemology in general. These discussions underscore the complexity of the hermeneutical task in interpreting mystical reports, and the necessity of focusing not just on isolated psychological states, but on the larger historical and cultural context in which they occur.
Payne, Steven. Mystical experience and its interpretation. Mysticism, nature of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K051-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/mysticism-nature-of/v-1/sections/mystical-experience-and-its-interpretation.
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