Philosophical Mysticism

I have started reading Robert Wallace’s forthcoming Philosophy and Mysticism in Plato, Hegel and the PresentThanks to Bob for giving me an advanced copy! The book, as the title makes clear, is about the overlap between philosophy and mysticism. This connects to my interest of connecting academic philosophy with new age philosophy. Needless to say, what follows is my understanding of Bob’s view and its relation to some of my thoughts. I could be getting parts of his view wrong, in which case I am happy to be corrected.

Later on, as I get further into the book, I will post more about the book and my thoughts. For now, I want to situate the book as I see it, why I think it is important, and also why it seems to me, in Nietzsche’s phrase, an untimely work. My sense is in affirming mysticism it goes against the grain of a good deal of academic philosophy, but in being focused on arch “rationalistic” philosophers like Plato and Hegel, it goes against the grain of much new age philosophy. In addition, in being focused mainly on European philosophers (though in Chapter 1, Wallace briefly draws some links to Eastern spirituality), from a distance it can draw the ire of the woke philosophers as being more of the “same old, same old”.

Given the syllabus and other culture wars happening in academic philosophy right now, worrying about whether Plato is a mystical philosopher might seem much less important than diversifying the curriculum or figuring out new professional norms. But in this post I want to suggest two things:

1) It is actually much harder for academic philosophy to integrate a work like this with a focus on mysticism than many works with a non-mystical focus by non-European authors. Often seeing “our own” thinkers from a very different perspective can be much more difficult than seeing new thinkers from different traditions.

2) In order to develop a global perspective on philosophy, seeing the mystical dimensions internal to Western philosophy is absolutely essential. This is not to deny that much of Western philosophy is not mystical. But it is to affirm that expanding our horizons requires getting out of the stale, false dichotomy of the materialistic West and the mystical East. As Wallace’s book show, there is plenty of mysticism in the greats of Western philosophy. And as much recent work in, say, Indian philosophy shows, there is plenty of non-mystical, good old fashioned logic chopping, argumentative and a narrowly naturalistic thinking in Indian philosophy.

If we put both of these points together, developing a global awareness in philosophy is not a matter of just adding “those” thinkers to “our” thinkers. The task is much more complex and also more exciting: to rethink who is “us” and who is “them”, and also, as in Wallace’s book, to rethink what “our” thinkers have thought. We can all think together when we are committed to rethinking ourselves – all of us – together.

Heidegger claimed that Western philosophy since Plato forgot Being and became focused on beings. Like the work of Pierre Hadot, who brought out the spiritual dimensions of ancient philosophy, Wallace’s book shows the narrowness of Heidegger’s history. Heidegger’s criticism of 2,500 years of Western philosophy ended up being just another version of “Most Western philosophy is materialist or narrowly rationalistic”, and so which ended up seeking the mystical opening of Being in a realm beyond rationality (disastrously so politically in Heidegger’s case).

Heidegger’s version of history would have surprised Plato, Sextus Empiricus, Marcus Aurelius, Aquinas, Spinoza and Hegel – all of whom saw the rational life as inseparable from what we nowadays might call “the spiritual life”. Contra Heidegger, and also contra neo-Heideggerians such as Dreyfus and Kelly, Plato’s and Hegel’s “Reason” was not an instrumental rationality which contrasts with – in Dreyfus and Kelly’s phrase – the “whooshness” of engaged, embodied, inspired action. Rather, for Plato and Hegel, as for many other Western philosophers, rational activity was itself a heightened mode of embodied whooshing.

As Wallace says in an interesting review of Dreyfus and Kelly’s book: “We do not need to replace the intellect with poietic know-how in order to make room for ‘whooshing up’.” Wallace’s book is as an elaboration of this insight. The greatest whooshing that can happen is the mystical union with God. Just as that can happen with tennis rackets and mountain climbing, so too it can happen with books and while exploring the peaks of thought.

Wallace begins the book this way:

Philosophical mysticism is the doctrine that we sometimes have direct knowledge of a higher reality or God. Although present-day reference works in philosophy seldom mention philosophical mysticism, Plato, who founded academic philosophy, was widely and uncontroversially known for millennia as (among other things) a ‘mystic.’…. Since it is philosophical, philosophical mysticism doesn’t neglect reason; nor is the direct knowledge that is its topic restricted to any small group of people.(4)

The crux of the issue is that according to philosophical mysticism one main point of philosophy is a certain kind of experience: a grasp of a “higher reality” than we are normally conscious of in our day to day life. I say “one main point” as opposed to “the” point of philosophy because philosophy, like most concepts, is a family resemblance term. If for some the aim is grasp of a higher reality, that doesn’t have to mean that is somehow also the aim of someone who wants to understand the logic of conditionals. Wallace’s point is that many of the greats of Western philosophy – even those like Plato who we nowadays tend to think of in terms of theses they defended – saw their work as part of an experiential project. The aim wasn’t just to have the right views or to represent reality accurately. Thinking clearly was the method for altering not only one’s beliefs but also, and thereby, one’s broader consciousness and mode of being. Put this way, contrary to seeing Wittgenstein’s therapeutic aims as an anomaly in Western philosophy, the similarity between Plato and Wittgenstein jumps out.

Later on Wallace writes:

Who are we, really? Most of us, I suggest, are in an ongoing identity crisis. A higher reality of inner freedom (which means making up our own minds) and truth and love and beauty is in this world and us, and we experience it directly when we remember it and try to live up to it. This higher reality of inner freedom, truth, love, and beauty inspires us, while lower goals merely attract us. But of course we also have a huge capacity for temporarily forgetting the higher reality, and pursuing lower goals without regard to inner freedom and the rest.

We usually assume that this familiar conflict of goals has nothing to do with who someone is. We suppose that someone is the same person regardless of whether the goals that she pursues are, in anyone’s opinion, “higher” or “lower.” But a contrasting view is in fact influential in the philosophical tradition beginning with Socrates and Plato. This tradition argues that pursuing inner freedom and truth makes a person more real, more herself, and more of a person, in a way that (say) simply pursuing money or fame does not.(15)

Is Wallace attributing to Plato here anything other than the normal humanities’ platitude that philosophical reflection is a way of questioning and changing oneself? After all, isn’t this what is normally taught in courses on Plato? Not quite.

Central to how Plato is currently standardly taught is that Plato is an other-wordly dualist while Aristotle is a this-wordly naturalist. This is an example of a foundational move in standard academic discourse: contrasting thinkers are presented, with the goal of figuring out which one is right. Thus one’s own philosophical growth is identified with choosing a side and defending that side against its opponents. Hence Plato vs Aristotle, or Descartes vs Locke, Russell vs Wittgenstein, etc. etc. etc.

On Wallace’s view, however, Plato is far from an other wordly dualist. Rather:

Within the framework of this higher reality, the issues of science versus religion, fact versus value, rationality versus ethics, intellect versus emotions, mind versus body, and knowers versus the “external world” all become tractable. It turns out that nature, freedom, science, ethics, the arts, and a rational religion-in-the-making constitute an intelligible whole. This is very different from the muddle in which these issues tend to be left by such familiar agnostic doctrines as empiricism, materialism, naturalism, existentialism, and postmodernism.

This is why such major figures in philosophy, religion, and literature as Aristotle, Plotinus, St Augustine, Dante Alighieri, Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Alfred North Whitehead, and Ludwig Wittgenstein have all been strongly attracted to Plato’s idea that we can and do know a higher reality.(4)

On Wallace’s view, Plato’s talk of the realm of Forms isn’t meant to capture a world other than the natural world. Rather, it is a way of grasping more fine-grained, subtle features of the natural world through a change – evolution and growth – in our consciousness.

Some will probably see Wallace as reading Hegel back into Plato, and then reading this Hegelized Plato into Aristotle, Kant and Wittgenstein – and thereby blurring the usual contrasts between these thinkers (“Wittgenstein is not on Plato’s team!” “Kant isn’t on Aristotle’s team!”, etc.) I think this misses the insight of Wallace’s way of framing the issues. When we see the history of philosophy as Plato vs Aristotle, Descartes vs Kant, etc., it limits the way one can internalize the insights and struggles of these thinkers, and thereby it distorts the point of philosophy.

Wallace’s isn’t denying that of course Plato and Aristotle have differences. Rather, what he is affirming is that they share the view of seeing philosophy as part of a practical transformation of oneself. This doesn’t deny the social nature of philosophy, nor the importance of debate and argument. But it situates that social dimension within the fundamentally personal, first-person task of philosophy. According to Wallace on Plato, through philosophical reflection I aim to change my perception of the world and also thereby my perception and understanding of myself . Not just in the abstract sense that this or that is the right view of human beings. But to know this reality of human beings and the world through the internal sense that is my particular mode of consciousness. Therefore, as Wittgenstein or Cavell claimed, the aim of philosophical is always fundamentally auto-biographical. Or as Nietzsche said, what one wants to know in a philosopher is not just what he thought but who he is.

This auto-biographical dimension of philosophy sits ill at ease in the 20th century with the mass higher education of the modern research university. In the modern research university knowledge is first and foremost defined by the sciences – mainly because that is where the most obvious and least contentious utility of the university can be found. But the modern scientific revolution consisted precisely in removing any value-laden, auto-biographical elements from inquiry. The truths of Einsteinian physics don’t depend on who Einstein is: whether he was a nice guy, or a virtuous person, or religious, etc. There is no reason intrinsic to physics why the nuclear bomb was first discovered by the Allies rather than by the Nazis. Hence when we are taught Newtonian physics or Special Relativity or Quantum Mechanics, in the classes we are not taught about the lives of Newton, Einstein or Bohr. Or for that matter in biology about Darwin, and so on. What matter are simply the ideas.

One might think that this is a Platonistic view: what are seeking in modern science are simply the Forms of Water, Atom, etc. In a way, that’s right. But if Wallace is right about Plato (and I think he is – though I am no scholar of Plato), in another way it is quite wrong. For the Platonic forms are not separable from the kind of essences we grasp in our expanded mode of consciousness and heightened sense of reality. That is, the Platonic forms are what we grasp when we go from the cave into the light. Or as Wallace states it in terms of mysticism, when we have a “direct knowledge of higher reality”. The relevant sense of “direct” here is one which is auto-biographical – where one transforms not just one’s ideas, but looks through and sees a deeper reality of who oneself is.

The fundamental challenge to philosophy in the modern university is: Can auto-biographical philosophy be taught alongside the non-auto-biographical sense of knowledge of the sciences?

The difficulty here is most obvious in the role that dialogue and person to person interaction plays in philosophy. Plato of course founded one of the first academies in the West. But in Plato’s academy there were no mass lecture classes. Plato or Aristotle didn’t have to pass on their teaching to adjuncts who can teach classes of hundreds of students. This was because Plato’s academy was, in a straight-forward sense, elitist. It was taken for granted that only a few would have the temperament, and also the time and the material ability, to challenge their own thinking and expand their consciousness.

When we now try to implement the Socratic and Platonic conception of philosophy as dialogue in the modern university, there is an obvious problem. How can a professor have a dialogue with 200 students in his class? Even the latest fancy technology of MOOCs doesn’t solve this problem on its surface. What ended up happening by the late 20th century was that small discussion sections, office hours and comments on graded papers came to be the closest approximation to a dialogue between the professor and  most students.

Thus, beyond the scientific conception of knowledge, the mass-ness of mass education pulled against the autobiographical conception of philosophy. This created a mode of “modern academic philosophical discourse” which came to be seen as natural and common place – and which was then read back into the history of philosophy. Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Nietzsche were made amenable to being taught in the modern university by interpreting them as if they were implictly and really all along not that different from contemporary philosophy professors.

We might call this the tenurization of the great philosophers. The greats could be put on the pantheon and taught as long as they too – just like the professors who had to adjust to the shifting norms of the profession and the university to be tenured – were made to fit into and accommodate to the forms of life of modern academia. Just as if the Forms had to adjust to the sense perceptions, rather than the other way around, so too the Plato that was taught had to adjust to the Plato scholar’s realities of department life. The modern academic situation thus became the prism through which the history of philosophy was seen.

Thinkers like Emerson, Thoreau, Kierkegaard, Schopenhaur, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Heidegger in the last two centuries were just some of the recent greats in Western philosophy who resisted this straight-jacketing of philosophy by the academic structures – mainly by sticking to the fundamentally auto-biographical dimension of philosophy, and so staying open to its mystical dimension.

In this sense Wallace’s view of Plato is I think a greater challenge to contemporary philosophy than some of the current attempts at diversification. For often what diversification seems to mean is: “We should take for granted the non-mystical framework of contemporary academic philosophy, and make sure that the non-mystical philosophy of Asians and Africans, women and gays, disabled and the poor is studied alongside the non-mystical work of European men like Plato and Kant.”

If diversification in this sense becomes the norm, it would also cement in academia the contemporary, non-mystical readings of the great Western philosophers. The tenurization of the great philosophers would continue unabated, only now with a more colorful pantheon.

Connecting his mystical view of the Western tradition to the East, Wallace writes:

Much of Asian thought, likewise, speaks of something higher which we can experience in ourselves and in the world, whether it’s the “Tao that cannot be named,” or “Brahman” that’s identical to our soul, or the “Buddha nature” that’s in everything but at the same time is truer and thus higher than what it’s in. There is more overlap between Asian and western thought on these issues than we generally realize.

Both Asian teachers and the Plato/Hegel tradition tell us that the central issue is not, as we in the west often suppose, about a separate “supreme being” that a person may or may not “believe in.” Rather, the central issue is the nature of the world of which we’re a part. Is it, as we tend to assume, essentially “all on one level,” or does it have a “vertical” dimension by which some aspects of it really are “higher,” through inner freedom, truth, love, and beauty? (16-17)

This truism that a great deal of Asian philosophy – though certainly not all – is mystical in Wallace’s sense raises the fundamental question with regard to what it means to diversify the curriculum. And that is: is there a sense in which in bringing, say, Indian philosophy into contemporary academic philosophy, Indian philosophy is being misrepresented in order for it to fit into the current framework?

In their wonderful book Minds without Fear: Philosophy in the Indian RenaissanceNalini Bhushan and Jay Garfield discuss how in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, through their or their teachers’ education at British Universities like Oxford and Cambridge, many Indian philosophers (both academics like Radhakrishnan and K.C. Bhattacharya, and also non-academics like Vivekananda and Aurobindo) saw German and British Idealism as a natural link to Indian philosophy. This was obviously because of the idealist views in Indian philosophy such as Advaita Vedanta. But the link is more than just with idealism as such. Rather, I think Wallace’s sense of philosophical mysticism provides the key link.

Whether Buddhist or Hindu, Jain or materialist, a general assumption of a great deal of Indian philosophy (though certainly not all) is philosophical mysticism in the sense that Wallace attributes to Plato and Hegel. The general assumption was that the aim of philosophy was ultimately one of the expansion of consciousness and an awareness of a deeper reality beyond the everyday consciousness. Philosophical understanding was seen as a tool for such transformation. So, for instance, disagreement between Buddhist and Hindu philosophers on the nature of the self wasn’t only to determine the nature of our ordinary sense of self (“Who is Bharath?”). Rather, both sides often accepted that our ordinary sense of self (our normal sense of Bharath) is severely limited and the question was of the truer reality of the self, and what was the best way to access that reality.

Once we see how central mystical philosophy was to the Indian philosophical tradition, the question of how one can integrate that tradition into contemporary American academic philosophy becomes rather complicated. If Vivekananda isn’t taught, is that because he was brown, or because his philosophy is resolutely mystical?

Recent philosophers like Amartya Sen, B. K. Matilal and Jonardon Ganeri have emphasized the extent to which Indian philosophy – for example, in its Buddhist or its Nyaya traditions – is focused on argumentation, logic and the conceptual clarification of concepts of perception, memory, self and so on. The contrast here is usually drawn with earlier representations of Indian philosophy, such as in the works of Radhakrishnan and Aurobindo, where Indian philosophy was seen as fundamentally spiritual and mystical, and contrasted to, as they saw it, the materialistic and scientistic Western philosophy. The upshot of Matilal’s view is taken to be: “See, Indian philosophy can also be arcane, argumentative and analytical, not just spiritual, and so Indian philosophy is very much in keeping with the virtues of Western philosophy.”

The problem with this easy assimilation is that it gets both the East and the West wrong in important senses, and so under-appreciates the difficulty of philosophy’s place in contemporary academia. Yes, definitely much Indian philosophy is analytic and argumentative. I am not a scholar in the way Matilal is, and of course he knows much more than I do. But even Matilal’s student Ganeri grants that much of Indian philosophy was – in Wallace’s sense of the term – a form of philosophical mysticism (see, for example, Ganeri’s The Concealed Art of the Soul). In other words, the argumentation and analysis were not set against developing a mystical awareness of the deeper reality, but were seen – as in Wallace’s view of Plato and Hegel – as part of the process of developing such awareness. The project of self-transformation and the expansion of one’s consciousness towards modes of awareness that most people don’t have is foundational to much of Indian philosophy. The analysis and argumentation was in the service – like the Buddhist’s boat or Wittgenstein’s ladder – of this broader project of realizing one’s life purpose.

If the mystical dimension of even Western greats like Plato is ignored in academic philosophy, in what sense can Indian philosophy be integrated into the Western academic curriculum? How can we appreciate the similarities of Western and Indian philosophy if the mystical dimensions of both are set aside and ignored from the very outset? But on the other hand, if the mystical dimensions of both traditions are to be acknowledged and taken seriously, how can that be done in the context of mass education in universities dominated by the scientific conception of knowledge?

There are no easy answers to these questions. But they are important and exciting. Not least because addressing these questions requires rethinking many of our assumptions from the ground up. It requires not only changing the outer institutional structures, but also, and even more basically, delving deeper into our selves and transforming our modes of awareness. That is to say, it requires the perennial work of philosophy. In this way we are connected to Plato, the Buddha and all the philosophical traditions of our common humanity.

One thought on “Philosophical Mysticism”

  1. Thanks, Bharath! You describe very well the challenges that face us. But anything worth doing is going to be “untimely.” And we have so many wonderful colleagues, in the past!


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