Mystical Experiences: Perennialism and Constructivism
The comparative category of mysticism in religious studies is a modern construct designed to elicit nuances in the investigation and description of these types of phenomena termed mystical experiences. I will start this essay by defining the terms mysticism and mystical experiences and investigating the implications of these definitions. The scholarly inquiry of mysticism over the past century has diverged and distinct philosophical movements have emerged: the perennialists school and the constructivist school are the two main identifiable branches that I will compare and contrast in the second part of this essay, specifically as it relates to their approach in classifying and categorizing mystical experiences. Both schools maintain a coherent focus of investigation of the esoteric phenomenology: the perennialists and the constructivist approach the mystical instances as noteworthy events or experiences that are not deniable. Their divergence centers on whether or not these experiences are pure in and on themselves.
Mysticism a word in religious science that is still attached to working definitions since it is the subject of intense debate of what constitutes a mystical experience. In my investigation of the comparative categories of mysticism I begin by addressing the question of the definition of what mysticism and mystical experiences are, since this is today the subject of contention between the philosophical schools I am proposing to investigate. Mysticism, Kripal states is a term that appeared in the 20th century in the sense that we understand it today in religious studies. “The term ‘mysticism,’ comes from the Greek μυω, meaning “to conceal.” In the Hellenistic world, ‘mystical’ referred to “secret” religious rituals. In early Christianity the term came to refer to “hidden” allegorical interpretations of Scriptures and to hidden presences, such as that of Jesus at the Eucharist.” In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, mysticism is defined as “a constellation of distinctive practices, discourses, texts, institutions, traditions, and experiences aimed at human transformation, variously defined in different traditions”. The term mysticism appeared in the scholarship of the 20th century of those known as the philosophers of mysticism, such as William James, Evelyn Underhill, Joseph Marechal, William Johnson, James Pratt, Micrea Eliade, W.T. Stace, Steven Katz, and Robert Forman amongst others. Mystical experiences are defined as representing ‘an immediate direct contact with a variously defined absolute principle. After that direct contact the experience is interpreted according to the tradition’s language and beliefs.”
In the beginning of the last century the term appeared and evolved in definition. The first notable attempt was delivered by James in 1902 in lectures 16 and 17 he proposes four marks which, when an experience has them, may justify us in calling it mystical: 1. Ineffability 2. Noetic Quality 3. Transiency and 4. Passivity. James notes that “although the oncoming of mystical states may be facilitated by preliminary voluntary operations, as by fixing the attention, or going through certain bodily performances, or in other ways which manuals of mysticism prescribe; yet when the characteristic sort of consciousness once has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy classifies and contrasts experiences in various ways, such as: extrovertive (sense-perceptual, somatosensory, or introspective content) versus introvertive (one's mystical consciousness of the unity of nature overlaid onto one's sense perception of the world, non-unitive numinous extrovertive experiences, experience of “nothingness” or “emptiness); theistic (experiences purportedly of God, numinous theistic experiences), and non-theistic (ultimate reality other than God or of no reality at all); Union with God (a falling away of the separation between a person and God, short of identity); Identity with God (consciousness of being fully absorbed into or even identical with God); theurgic (from the Greek theourgia, a mystic intends to activate the divine in the mystical experience) versus Non-Theurgic; Apophatic (from the Greek, “apophasis,” meaning negation or “saying away”, nothing can be said of objects or states of affairs which the mystic experiences) versus kataphatic (from the Greek, “kataphasis,” meaning affirmation or “saying with”, vivid and active experiences); pure consciousness events. This classification of experience has evolved in the last century.
The question of what experience is becomes central, specifically a mystical experience. In the article, “Experience”, by Robert H Sharf, the idea of experience as it relates to religious experience and mystical experience is discussed Sharf attempts to define the word experience as what is “simply given to us in the immediacy of each moment of perception”(p 104). Sharf states that “indeed I sympathize with the difficulty that mystics have in expressing themselves, the problem of conceptualizing that which transcends all concepts”. Sharf expresses how it becomes challenging to allow for accounts, no matter how similar, frequent, and common they may be, to be received by the critical mind by questioning if they are valid and plausible. It is in my opinion that by nature these experiences are inexpressible. There seems to be a parallel almost reality that sometimes mystics are allowed to experience and in that reality even if consciousness remains active, the mystic is no longer able to express the vastness of his or her experience. Indeed many mystics express that words are not enough, and often they choose to speak in metaphors, in parabolas, in poetic forms or a combination of the above. Experiences can even be shared and yet each person can only describe his or her perception of what has occurred, sometimes only sharing a general sense of characteristics in the experience. This would be an important challenge to overcome for the academic investigation of mystical experiences. It may be a possibility though that no matter how careful investigation is and how many attempts the researchers makes into defining and establishing a universal truth that precisely this universality as it relates to experience would keep eluding their efforts. Yet this is what the theorists of mysticism have trying to achieve in the 20th century.
The traditional understanding of mysticism, mystics, and mystical instances often focuses on events, experiences, and ideas that are more or less amenable to orthodox framings of what constitutes experiential truth and practice. “Mysticism is a modern comparative category that has been used in a wide variety of ways to locate, describe and evaluate individuals’ experience of communion, union and identity with the sacred” (Kripal, p 321). A mystical experience is generally construed as a direct encounter with the divine or the absolute and, as such scholars of mysticism claim that the “raw experience” is not affected by linguistics, cultural or historical contingencies” (p 96). For Sharf the debate that those scholars concerned with mysticism seem to be having appears to center on the issue of whether the experience is colored by the background of the experiencer or whether it is the description of the experience is colored thus, and as such in the author’s opinion the scholars of mysticism are missing the most important question of what in fact is the experience and whether the experience even can be accepted as such given the lack of scientific evidence and proof. “Scholars of mysticism are content to focus on the distinctive characteristics and the philosophical implications […] of religious or mystical experiences without pausing to consider what sort of thing experience may be in the first place.” (p 103)
The early scholars of mysticism William James, Evelyn Underhill, Joseph Marechal, William Johnson, James Pratt, Mircea Eliade, WT Stace investigated the similarities of mystical experiences. They came to be called perennialists because of their philosophical stance to seeing mystical experiences as one and the same and then determining that it was the interpretation that was what differentiated their approach. In 1978 Steven Katz wrote an essay “Language, Epistemology and Mysticism” in the book of Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis where he was the editor. His thesis was that “There are no PURE (unmediated) experiences. […] The epistemological fact seems to me to be true, because of the sorts of beings we are even with regard to the experiences of those ultimate objects of concern with which mystics have had intercourse.” And he continues “the mediated aspect of all our experience seems an unescapable feature of any epistemological inquiry, including the inquiry into mysticism, which has to be properly acknowledged if our investigation of experience, including mystical experience is to get very far.” For Katz the mystical experience takes different form in different contexts. In his wake came important scholars like Robert Gimello, Peter Moore, Frederick Steng, Ninian Smart. They were called constructivists and their position is that experiences simply cannot be pure.
Forman responded in 1990 by introducing the idea of Pure Consciousness Events (PCE) and framing his criticism to constructivism around the idea that pure events can in fact exist, it is the interpretation of the mystical actor that differs. Forman edited the now classic book The Problem of Pure Consciousness: Mysticism and Philosophy and he and his co-authors set up to “establish beyond a reasonable doubt the existence of reports of PCE, defined as wakeful content less consciousness (introvertive mysticism)… despite common philosophical presuppositions and claims to the contrary.” They defend the position that that there is indeed a core experience common to mystics of all creeds, cultures and generations. I would find myself inclined to defend this position since as I established earlier there is a commonality in the experience itself. I would need a lot more than this short essay though to establish any theories that are worth noting.
What I would like to do in the last part of this essay is to notice that the scholars of mysticism defend the validity of mystical experiences per se and the question that all the schools seems to argue is whether it is the experience that affects the interpretation or whether the experience itself is the one that gets colored by the interpretative markers, namely the religion, culture, experiences etc. of the mystic. Katz opens his article by saying that “though no philosophical argument is capable of proving the veracity of mystical experience, one would be both dogmatic and imprudent to decide a priori that mystical claims are mumbo jumbo, especially given the wide variety of such claims by men (and women) of genius and/or intense religious sensitivity over the centuries as well as across all cultural divisions.” Forman goes further in acknowledging the particularity of mystical events, although he chooses to focus on PCEs because “they are relatively common, rudimentary and may therefore indicate certain features of other more complex (perhaps more advanced) mystical phenomena.”
Forman, Robert (1990) “Mysticism, Constructivism and Forgetting” in Forman, Robert editor, The Problem of Pure Consciousness: Mysticism and Philosophy Oxford University Press.