Monday, May 10, 2004

On Mysticism: A Reply to a Critic

Available on my main site,, is a draft entitled, “Philosophy under Attack: An Exercise in Philosophical Apologetics.” Go here to read it. The draft outlines seven possible objections to philosophy, and suggests ways to respond to them. Arthur Witherall, an Australian philosopher, has sent me some critical comments on the fourth objection. A reproduction of the fourth objection follows. After that, Witherall’s critique (reproduced here with his permission) is to be found together with my responses, signalled by ‘BV.’

4. The Objection from Mysticism. The mystic attacks philosophy with the club of (intellectual) intuition, unlike the religionist who wields the club of faith/devotion. Mysticism, like philosophy and religion, is a way to the Absolute. Mysticism may be defined as the activity whereby a questing individual, driven by a deep-seated need for direct contact with the Absolute, disgusted with verbiage and abstraction as well as with mere belief and empty rites and rituals, seeks to know the Absolute immediately,which is to say, neither philosophically through the mediation of concepts, judgments and arguments, nor religiously through the mediation of faith, trust, devotion, obedience, and adherence to tradition. The mystic does not want to know about the Absolute, that it exists, what its properties are, how it is related to the relative plane, etc.; nor does he want merely to believe or trust in it. He does not want knowledge by description, but knowledge by acquaintance. Nor is he willing, like the religionist, to postpone his enjoyment of it. He wants it, he wants it whole, and he wants it now. He wants to verify its existence for himself here and now in the
most direct way possible: by intuiting it. 'Intuition' is a terminus technicus: it refers to direct cognitive access to an object or state of affairs. You should think of the Latin intuitus as used by Descartes, and the German Anschauung as used by Kant. The intuition in question is of
course not sensible but intellectual. Thus the mystical 'faculty' is that of intellectual intuition. It is activated by (non-discursive) meditation combined with a more or less strict ascesis of the senses and the discursive intellect. The possibility of intellektuelle Anschauung was of course famously denied by Kant.

The mystic's objection to philosophy, then, is that it is a farrago of empty verbiage and bloodless abstraction that blocks, rather than clears, our path to the saving insight. Unfortunately, the mystic faces a problem similar to the one faced by the religionist, namely, the problem of competing revelations. If the Absolute reveals itself to the mystic at all, it reveals itself to him in logically incompatible ways. This implies that no one of them is self-authenticating and that the question of veridicality
arises for each of them. The question of veridicality, however, is a quintessentially philosophical question. So philosophy once again gains the upper hand. She must stand guard to curb mystic excesses and the dangerous fanaticism to which they sometimes give rise.


>>This is a combination of semi-serious argument and sly rhetoric. Its main point is to defend philosophy against a certain kind of hypothetical attack. Apart from the question of whether any such attack has ever been made, or is ever likely to be made, there is a background question of why any answer would then be appropriate.<<

BV: I was concerned to outline a typology of possible objections to philosophy. (It is perhaps not unnecessary to point out that in a blog post little more than an outline could be provided.) A possible objection need not be an actual one, nor need it even be likely. So, given my purpose, it was not necessary for me to supply an example of my 4th objection. But such examples are not far to seek, e.g., William Barrett, ed. Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D. T. Suzuki (Doubleday, 1956), p. xi.

Witherall speaks of “sly rhetoric.” The adjective in its main use connotes furtiveness. Such imputation of a motive to me borders on a commission of the genetic fallacy, a fallacy with which I am sure Witherall is familiar. My suggestion to him would be to confront my theses and arguments themselves and forget about their psychological origins.

>> The reply that Vallicella states may help to reveal something about the nature of philosophy, but as it is itself an argument, it may be irrelevant to a person who does not put a high value upon argumentation.<<

BV: If a person P argues against philosophy at all, then my various replies are relevant to P. If P objects to philosophy without arguing, by simply asserting that he does not like philosophy or
that it strikes him as useless, then P is simply opining and we may ignore him with equanimity. If someone says, ‘I object!’ it is always appropriate to ask why and to expect some such answer as, ‘Because he is leading the witness.’

>> It is a little odd to talk about "the mystic's objection to philosophy", when after all, the very act of putting an objection already seems to presuppose at least partial subscription to
the value of philosophical debate.<<

BV: Witherall’s point here may be that the mystic qua mystic can have no objection to philosophy. If that’s his point, then I agree. But no one is a pure mystic or ‘24/7' mystic, on pain of blowing out his neural circuitry. Mystical experiences are rare even for great mystics. My reply was not directed against the mystic qua mystic – how can one reply to someone who makes no objections, or to someone who sits enraptured in a trance like Ramakrishna? – my reply was
directed against the mystic who in his ‘off-hours’ formulates an objection to philosophy along the lines suggested, or indeed to anyone who formulates an objection to philosophy on behalf of the mystic along the lines suggested.

>>Is an objection to philosophy in itself a philosophical act that demands a reply, or is it more of a statement that, in the end, the 'objector' would rather do something else with his time?<<

Yes, an objection to philosophy is a philosophical act. What else would it be? A serious objection has the form of an argument; otherwise it is a merely gratuitous assertion to which one
may oppose an equally gratuitous counter-assertion. And yes, it demands a reply because, if the philosopher is a serious truth-seeker, then he must examine all possible objections to his chosen way of life. The philosopher’s life is a life, and an unexamined life is not worth living. (Plato, Apology, Stephanus 28) The philosopher must hold himself open to the possibility that there is a better way of life. Otherwise he ceases to be a serious, self-critical truth-seeker.

But no, an objection to philosophy is not a statement that the objector would rather do something else with his time. This for the simple reason that ‘I would rather do something else with my time’ is no objection to philosophy at all, but merely a statement of subjective preference. The Taliban objected to the game of chess on the ground that it is a game of chance. That is a genuine objection inasmuch as a reason was given, despite the fact that the reason is ludicrous.

>> And if this is so, [i.e., if the objection is a statement that the objector would rather do something else with his time], then are philosophers really required to respond? Why not just say nothing and let the poor fellow to go about his business?<<

BV: I’ve just argued that the protasis of Witherall’s conditional is false. So there is no need to respond to the apodosis.

>>Vallicella makes a number of assumptions, sometimes hidden within verbal suggestions, which are either partly or wholly untrue. For example, it is assumed that there is a creature properly called a 'mystic', whose characteristics include a belief in 'intellectual intuition', and a desire to attack philosophy.<<

BV: Witherall does not appreciate what I am doing. I am sketching a typology. Typologies set forth ideal types, ‘ideal’ as in ‘idealization.’ An ideal in this sense is not a norm to be achieved but an idealization to aid understanding. It would be quite a misunderstanding -- and something like this may be the misunderstanding into which Witherall is falling -- to think that the ideal gas or the frictionless plane actually occur in nature. To take another example, William H. Sheldon famously distinguished endomorphic, mesomorphic, and ectomorphic body types, and then
associated each with a mental type, viscerotonic, somatotonic, and cerebrotonic, respectively. If someone approximates to the cerebrotonic ectomorph type, it does not follow that he does not
have any of the features of the other types. There is no implication that any of the types exist in concreto in pure form. Or consider Eduard Spranger’s TYPES OF MEN (German original, Max
Niemeyer Verlag, 1928, written from the point of view of Wilhelm Dilthey’s Verstehenspsychologie). Spranger distinguishes six types: theoretic, economic, aesthetic, social, political, religious. Obviously, no one is purely theoretical in his attitude toward life, although it is equally obvious that Einstein is more theoretical than George W. Bush. Another example is the Myers-Briggs personality typology based on C. G. Jung’s seminal work on introversion and
extroversion in his PSYCHOLOGICAL TYPES.

‘The mystic’ refers to an ideal type, just as, when criticizing liberals, I say something like ‘The liberal is opposed to economic inequality as such regardless of how the inequality arose,’ I am
using ‘the liberal’ to denote an ideal type. This is why an assertion of this kind cannot be refuted by pointing to some individual, call him Jones, who, though predominantly liberal in his attitudes, is not opposed to economic inequality as such.

Furthermore, contra Witherall, what characterizes a mystic qua mystic is not a mere belief in intellectual intuition, but possession of this ‘faculty’ or ability, plus its occasional activation.
Think about it: a philosopher who never had a mystical experience might construct an argument that convinced him that there had to be such an ability hidden in each one of us. This philosopher would not be a mystic, though he would believe in the existence of a mystical

Finally, no mystic qua mystic has the “desire to attack philosophy” nor do I say this. The mystic qua mystic has only one desire: to be in immediate contact with the Absolute.

>> If such a creature actually exists, then Vallicella's
critique has a serious point, and I am happy to agree with his conclusions.<<

BV: This is a total misunderstanding on Witherall’s part. I am not saying that there are pure mystics; nor is the existence of pure mystics necessary for the objection from mysticism or my
reply to this objection to be valid. Would Witherall want to say that Jung’s description of introversion would be of value only if there are pure introverts? I hope not. To repeat, ‘the mystic’ refers to an ideal type, and so does ‘the objection to philosophy from mysticism.’

>>Anybody attacking philosophy in this manner (or any other manner) is either confused about what they are saying, or deliberately villainous.<<

Why does Witherall say this? If someone says that philosophy consists of abstractions that prevent us from attaining, via intellectual intuition, unity with the divine, or entrance into
Nirvana (or whatever), how is this confused? It is no more confused than saying that philosophers try to arrive at the Absolute using a discursive method, when the correct method is intuitive.
There is nothing confused about this at all. It is a possible view, held by many, and must be considered.

Villainous? What could this mean? Is D. T. Suzuki villainous when he says essentially the foregoing in STUDIES IN ZEN, p. 72 et passim?

>>But no evidence is presented that there are any actual mystics of this kind. I suspect that there are none, and that Vallicella is attacking a strawman, but I am willing to be persuaded otherwise. What is needed is evidence, an example of an actual person who has made an attack of this kind.<<

BV: This is NOT needed. Again, Witherall fails to grasp that I am setting forth a typology of possible objections to philosophy. Philosophical apologetics, which I take to be a branch of
metaphilosophy, has as its task the defense of the philosophical life against all possible objections to it. If it dealt only with actual objections, and there was a a good possible objection, the defense would not be complete.

Although the evidence Witherall calls for is not needed, it can easily be provided, and when it is provided, my case becomes all the stronger, since actuality provides the preeminent proof of possibility. So what Witherall wants is an actual person who has brought the objection from mysticism against philosophy. Note that this person need not be a mystic, but a person who merely argues on behalf of the mystic -- a point on which Witherall appears to be confused. But to be accommodating, I will give him examples of mystics who have brought the objection from mysticism against philosophy.

I am one such person. I am a mystic in that I have had mystical experiences. There was a time when I seriously considered giving up philosophy (defined as a discursive activity whose lifeblood is analysis, argument, etc. and whose main product is articles and books) in order to devote myself more fully to meditation, as opposed to my present regimen which is 1-2 hours per day of meditation and 8 or so hours of philosophy. So I brought the above objection against
philosophy, but decided that in the end it was no good. Mysticism needs to be disciplined by philsophy just as religion does.

>> But this evidence would also have to establish that the cited author is truly and correctly called a mystic, in the traditional sense of the word. Admittedly, there are many posturing pretenders, weirdo astrologers and New Age wankers who call themselves mystics.<<

BV: ‘Wanker’ must be an Aussie expression; it sounds none too flattering. But I can say I am no wanker of the sort described. But I suspect what Witherall really wants are famous people who in print have made the objection in question. So without going out of my study, let’s see what I can find:

Eugen Herrigel, THE METHOD OF ZEN, p. 81: “...Zen masters not only avoid all talk but regard it as dangerous...” Talking, thinking, arguing, philosophizing are DANGEROUS. They block the path to reality. See also his ZEN IN THE ART OF ARCHERY, p. 7: “...the bottomless ground of Being cannot be apprehended by intellectual means....”

D. T. Suzuki, see the two references already provided.

Theresa of Avila, INTERIOR CASTLE, p. 86: “Do not suppose that the understanding can attain to Him...” p. 89: “...put a stop to all discursive reasoning...”

St. John of the Cross, COLLECTED WORKS, p. 113: “...God’s being cannot be grasped by the intellect...” See also p. 149. On p. 126, all that the intellect can grasp is described as an “obstacle” rather than a “means” to God. This passage lends excellent support to my claim,
made in the course of characterizing the objection from mysticism, that philosophy “...blocks, rather than clears, our path to the saving insight.” Perhaps I should thank Witherall for inspiring me to search it out.

In the anonymous CLOUD OF UNKNOWING, Chapter VI, we read that God can never be reached by means of thought.

Of course, I could proceed ad libitum piling example upon example from all the different mystical traditions.

>>But there is also a more serious literary tradition (in fact several traditions, relating to different religions), which includes names like Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, St. Theresa Avila, and hundreds of others. I doubt that anybody within this tradition would be interested in attacking philosophy. <<

BV: If we consider all the mystical traditions, then it is especially clear that Witherall’s “anybody” is an unfortunate choice of quantifier. But here we need to make a distinction. There
are mystics who object to philosophy on the ground that it is an impediment to the attainment of ultimate reality rather than a means to it. There are other mystics who manage to integrate their
mysticism with philosophy, and do not consider it to be an impediment to the attainment of ultimate reality, but a different route to the same reality that mystical intuition discloses.

Blaise Pascal is an example of the former, as are the Zennists I am acquainted with. Somewhere in his PENSEES, Pascal remarks that philosophy is not worth an hour of our trouble. (This, however, does not stop him from scribbling a big fat book of philosophical thoughts –did he perhaps think that it was only the philosophy of other people that wasn’t worth anyone’s time?) Now consider his “Memorial” which is his account of the profound mystical experience he had on the evening of 23 November 1654. He describes the object of his experience as the God of Isaac, Abraham, and Jacob, “not of philosophers and scholars.” Here we have, in nuce, the mystic’s objection to philosophy as I sketched it.

Compare Pascal to Augustine and Aquinas who also had mystical experiences. Neither of the latter, and especially not Aquinas, disparage reason in the Pascalian manner. They do not bring
the objection from mysticism against philosophy. They integrate reason and intuition in a laudatory manner – which is why they tower above irrationalists like Pascal and Kierkegaard. Anyone who opposes the God of the philosophers to the God of Isaac, Abraham, and Jacob,
shows a serious lack of understanding. There can be only one God, and there are different routes to God.

>>Furthermore, it is not clear to me what Vallicella is referring
to when he speaks of 'mystic excesses' and the 'dangerous fanaticism' that it can lead to. Clarification on this point would be particularly welcome, for as a student of the mystical tradition in Christianity, I have never come across any evidence of these features. I suspect that they arise from a faulty interpretation, but again, I am open-minded on this, and willing to be persuaded otherwise.<<

BV: One form of mystic excess falls under the rubric overbelief which is discussed by William James in his classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lecture XVIII. Overbelief occurs when a mystical experience is taken to reveal the truth of some quite specific theological or metaphysical doctrine. I was once talking with a Jewish convert to Catholicism. I was raising some objections, bearing on the concept of identity, to the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation in its Chalcedonian formulation. Her refutation of my objections consisted in her claim that she had
had a mystical experience that Jesus is God while viewing Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. In other words, she took the truth of the Chalcedonian doctrine to have been revealed to her by mystical insight, and in such a way that my rigorously formulated (and subsequently published)objections were nullified. I say that this is a clear case of mystical excess in the form of Jamesian overbelief. She read into the experience something that it almost certainly could not reveal. Consider: has any Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, or Islamic mystic ever had a mystical experience that God or the Absolute was identical to a particular man, let alone Jesus of

BV: As for dangerous fanaticism, much could be said about it. I will simply mention Rajneesh and Trungpa and the lives they destroyed in their cults. It would an arbitrary re-definition on Witherall’s part were he to try to exclude them from the company of mystics – they pretty clearly were. That is, they were not charlatans posing as mystics, but mystics who went astray though a lack of philosophical and moral discipline. There is also the case of Nijinsky, described by Paul Brunton on p. 76 of THE SENSITIVES: DYNAMICS AND DANGERS OF MYSTICISM. This work, written by a mystic, is essential reading on this topic.

>>When a philosopher uses a phrase like 'mystic excesses' in this context he might be referring to the fact that mystical writings contain many apparently self-contradictory propositions. This fact is undeniable, but rather than using it immediately as a platform for dismissing the mystical view altogether, it should be more carefully investigated first. This is relevant to Vallicella's claim that there are 'contradictory revelations'.<<

BV: Witherall misses the point entirely. The problem I raised was not that a given mystical text contains contradictions, but that the various deliverances of mystical intuition are logically incompatible, and that this casts doubt on the veridicality of any one of them. This is a standard problem, and not something I have invented. Cf. John Hick, AN INTERPRETATION OF RELIGION, sec. 16.5.

>>One significant thing about the contradictions uttered by mystics is that they are almost all statements about God, or ultimate reality, or the Absolute. Contradictions in the realm of the empirical world are shunned, as they ought to be. But when it comes to the realm of the ultimate, they suddenly seem inescapable. God must be transcendent, and also immanent. He must be one, and also many. Luminous yet dark. Absolute fullness and absolute emptiness. Eternal yet acting in time. And so on. These propositions, if that is what they are, do not necessarily suggest excess or radical incoherence. Instead, we might conclude that they reveal something about the way mystical authors approach the concept of God. Their
conclusion is that this concept breaks down at certain significant points. Or that when we think about 'God', we come to realise that the concept itself inevitably points to something greater than any concept. Something larger than any thought, something that is thinkable, but only on the condition that thought recognises an approach to its own limit. It is not merely that we are dealing with an empirically empty notion. That is already conceded by traditional religious doctrine. But in mysticism, we
discover a different kind of attitude to this emptiness. The mystery of divine being becomes part of the revelation.<<

BV: Be this as it may, it does not address the specific problem I raised, a problem Witherall simply glides past.

>>I offer this much only as a way ahead, as a possible path towards a better understanding of mysticism, not a determination of its ultimate form. My main problem with Vallicella's witty little critique is that it offers no help at all to those who are struggling to understand mystical traditions seriously.<<

BV: Witherall has shown himself to be none too clear a thinker; does he also have an aversion to wit? It should also be pointed out to Witherall that it is not acceptable procedure to criticize someone for failing to do something he had no intention of doing. The task I set myself was not to contribute to an understanding of mysticism – something I am wholly in favor of and have been engaged in for many years – my task, to say it again, was simply to sketch possible
objections to philosophy from competing ways of life and thought.

It surprises me that Witherall has not grasped this. It suggests a deeply uncharitable turn of mind on his part. But there are people like this. Instead of trying to understand what an author has in
mind, they jump to conclusions, set up a caricature, and beginning attacking it wildly. The proper approach is to first inquire into what the author means if there is some doubt, rather than imputing the worst to him.

I am sorry to say that I have learned nothing from his comments, apart from a possible way my remarks could be misconstrued.

>>There is also the question of the relationship between philosophy and mysticism. A careful student of history will note that it is not always antagonistic. Many philosophers are themselves mystics: Plato, Plotinus,Hegel, and Wittgenstein stand out as prime examples. Others have been strongly influenced by the tradition. It is not impossible to be both a rationalist and a mystic. It may be that there is no 'objection from mysticism' at all. Rather than an actual attack, it is a merely perceived threat.<<

Witherall’s misunderstanding is complete. This is a classic case of an ignoratio elenchi, and merely shows how careless and uncharitable Witherall is. Nothing I said in my original post rules out the possibility of there being people who manage to integrate their mysticism with their rationality.