Mysticism, nature of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K051-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 24, 2019, from

5. Other questions

Mystics’ comments about the strangeness of their experiences or their difficulties in describing them have sometimes provoked elaborate philosophical analyses of the ‘ineffability’ and ‘paradoxicality’ of mystical states. Yet few mystics actually claim that their experiences are radically ‘ineffable’ or ‘paradoxical’ in the self-defeating sense so easily refuted in philosophical discussions. Perhaps these discussions are most useful as reminders of the complex and creative use of language in mystical literature: sometimes descriptive, sometimes prescriptive, often evocative (the frequent recourse to poetry and symbolism is notable).

Again, while some authors assert that mystics experience union with the Supreme Good and the source of all morality, others claim that mystics pass beyond all oppositions, including the distinction between good and evil. Not surprisingly, therefore, philosophers have shown some interest in the relationship between mysticism and ethics.

Certain neo-scholastics (Jacques Maritain, Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange) and ‘transcendental Thomists’ (Karl Rahner, Bernard Lonergan), as well as authors from other traditions (process thought, for example), have developed their own distinctive approaches to the understanding of mysticism, relatively neglected by contemporary analytic philosophers perhaps because couched in unfamiliar categories and terminology. More generally, the ‘turn to the subject’ in modern theology and efforts (since Schleiermacher) to ground theological claims in religious experience raise important philosophical issues as well. A particularly delicate question is to determine how mystical and religious experience might provide more than mere reinforcement of what is already believed, without adding to or subtracting from the original revelation.

Finally, despite analytic philosophy’s tendency to focus on mystical states of awareness, it should not be thought that this is all mysticism has to offer philosophy. Historically, philosophers have often been influenced by their reading of mystics (for example, Schelling by Boehme, Schopenhauer by the Upaniṣads, Heidegger by Eckhart) in much more complex ways. Mysticism, understood broadly, may have contributions to make in many areas, such as the philosophical understanding of the self and personal identity, for example, or aesthetic theory. Most importantly, contemporary philosophers need to recall that, for all their interest in the internal characteristics of mystical consciousness, they generally have no direct access to mystical states, but only to mystical texts, composed in a particular genre, for a particular audience, in a particular cultural and historical setting, and so on. Without greater attention to the special hermeneutics of mystical texts, contemporary philosophers will continue to run the risk of analysing with ever greater sophistication a ‘mysticism’ that exists nowhere in reality, and seems far removed from the actual experience and testimony of actual mystics.

Citing this article:
Payne, Steven. Other questions. 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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