Mysticism and Philosophy

Mysticism is not simply an object of philosophical investigation. It is, in a way, the whole goal of philosophy.

Blake jacobsladder.jpg
By William Blake – The William Blake Archive, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1869973

Now, mysticism is indeed something that philosophy can investigate. It’s true that the philosophy of religion examines the testimony of people who claim to have mystical experiences and probes into the questions of language and reality that arise in light of such experiences. But it’s important to recognize that this isn’t the whole relationship of philosophy and mysticism. This is philosophy looking down, reflecting on written records of a particular phenomenon. But philosophy can also, metaphorically speaking, look up from itself toward mysticism.

We can speak of mysticism in a narrow way and a broad way, and both are legitimate. The broader view will not speak specifically of God but of the entire realm of existence toward which we are ignorant. We cannot begin to grasp the many truths that are unknown to us, and we have no way of knowing whether the area of our ignorance might include anything beautiful, anything powerful, anything dangerous, anything glorious, and so the nature of our ignorance, if we dwell on it, can inspire strong feelings and intriguing, often unanswerable, questions.

The narrower account of mysticism will focus on a smaller part of our ignorance. We do not know, and perhaps never can fully know, what is the source of existence, what is the highest truth, the goal of that human longing which is never fully satisfied by finite enjoyments. The narrower kind of mysticism reflects on our ignorance of the deepest origin, perfection, end, of thought and of human existence and of all things, an ignorance which we will never entirely eradicate in this life, and in so reflecting it casts us into questions concerningwhat might reasonably be called the divine, though some will prefer to avoid that term, which is okay too.

The thing that I want to emphasize here is that these matters, this investigation, these questions, are not merely something that reside outside of philosophy, something done by other kinds of people that can be analyzed by philosophy. This sort of work exists at, and belongs at, the very heart of the philosophical project. Such wondering is proper to philosophers, both in the broader and, perhaps even more so, the narrower sense.

Philosophers peer into our ignorance, with no presumption that such ignorance can or will be overcome. Most of all, philosophers attune themselves to the ignorance of the highest and deepest and greatest things, and stay there, not forgetting how little we know and how much there might be.

And to address oneself to an unknown absolute is itself, already, a mysticism, in the narrow sense.

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