About religious experience (William James, Schleiermacher etc)

This is something originally written for the MoQ.org group, and published here. But I may as well put it up here as well. I’ll write something else about it in a second, but let me just say at the outset that I partially misrepresent Kant here, tho’ I haven’t changed it because I don’t think the misrepresentation threatens the main point. The essay was written in a hurry!


Pirsig, Schleiermacher, Mysticism and the MoQ

This essay was sparked by a desire to recapitulate some of the central points about mysticism that I have attempted to argue for in the MD forum (normally against David Buchanan). In the course of some revision, I was greatly struck by a description of Schleiermacher’s understanding of mysticism, and so it seemed worthwhile to put the material that I was gathering together into the form of an essay, rather than a long post on MD. Without wishing to sound grandiose, I think I have located a potentially serious problem with the ‘metaphysics’ part of the Metaphysics of Quality.

Central to any account of Western intellectual history is the figure of Immanuel Kant, and considerations of mysticism are no different. A key concept to understand is what has come to be known as the ‘Kantian problematic’, which, in summary, goes something like this: all of our knowledge comes to us from experience. However, since experience is always our experience, it is never a pure experience, but is always mediated and conditioned by the structure of our minds and apprehension. What we experience are the phenomena, that which is provoked in us by the thing in itself; things in themselves are noumena, and unknowable.

This raised problems for religious believers. For although Kant accepted the existence of God, it was in such an attenuated form as to be unrecognisable as a focus of devotion, and his account of human knowledge (his epistemology) ruled out any possibility of relationship between a believer and God; we are simply physically incapable of enjoying such an experience. At best, God is a useful idea, a means of moral regulation.

This is the Kantian problematic: the notion that we cannot experience God directly. It immediately brought forth a response, which, whilst retaining the Kantian epistemology, argued that in certain circumstances it was possible to have a ‘pure’ experience, i.e. to experience the ‘noumena’. This was the Romantic movement, which argued that whilst reason cannot enjoy such a pure experience, it was possible to circumvent the Kantian problematic through the operation of the feelings, most especially through intense, visionary or ecstatic experiences.

In the development of the Romantic understanding, a key thinker is the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), who was strongly influenced by the Idealism of his time. Schleiermacher believed that the source of religion was an immediate feeling or consciousness, which is a precursor to rational awareness. I take the following from a discussion of Schleiermacher by Grace Jantzen :

“…immediate consciousness points to the stage before subject and object are differentiated. There is, Schleiermacher suggests, a primal stage of consciousness in any experience, a stage before the objective content is discriminated from the subjective participation. This consciousness cannot be consciousness of anything, it cannot have any specificity, because by the time the object of consciousness has been specified one has already moved away from the primal undifferentiated state. Such movement is of course necessary for thought or knowledge to take place: in this Schleiermacher agrees with Kant. But the truly religious moment is the moment before such differentiation into subject and object has taken place: this is what he means when he speaks of religion as immediate consciousness.”

Jantzen goes on,

“…any claim of religious belief or knowledge is secondary to this pure experience, and is nothing more than our stammering attempt to articulate its essence. The attempt is natural and right; but it is not right if we then become wedded to these articulations and make them into dogmas which must be believed, or, even worse, treat them, rather than the spring from which they arise, as the essence of religion…. The original feeling, the immediate consciousness, Schleiermacher holds to be essential to human nature, and… this is everywhere the same; but the way in which it is articulated varies with the language and culture and situation of the experiencer. Hence arise the different religions of the world. Their differences of dogma and ritual are simply different expressions of the same essential experience, more or less adequate according to the degree of authenticity, balance, or corruption of its proponents, but all of them only efforts at expressing the inexpressible pure experience.”

Jantzen then outlines aspects of Schleiermacher’s system which are essential for understanding the modern conception of mysticism – for Schleiermacher called himself a mystic and saw his work as defending the insights of mystics through the ages. These aspects are:
1. mystical experience consists of pre-rational immediate consciousness or feeling;
2. mystical experience removes the distinction between subject and object;
3. mystical experience is prior to language and is therefore ineffable; and
4. mystical experience dissolves or annihilates the self;
5. mystical experience cannot be sustained, and is therefore transient;
6. mystical experience is nevertheless noetic, that is, it imparts insights about the nature of Reality.

Schleiermacher’s influence on the way in which mysticism was studied was huge, and his conception dominated academic studies of the question from his own time until very recently. The academic studies built up through the nineteenth century all shared an acceptance of the Kantian problematic, i.e. that division between the ‘phenomenal’ and the ‘noumenal’, and viewed mystical understandings as in some way bypassing the normal constraints of intellect, in order to access reality directly. Hence Rudolf Otto, for example, whose ‘numinous’ is the same as Kant’s transcendent realm.

At the end of the nineteenth century, and drawing on this body of academic studies, William James wrote his “The Varieties of Religious Experience” (published 1902), and he argued that mysticism has certain characteristics (the inheritance from Schleiermacher’s account is, I trust, obvious). He argues, “[I] propose to you four marks which, when an experience has them, may justify us in calling it mystical”, and the four ‘marks’ (two major then two minor) are:
1. Ineffability – “it defies expression, no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of feeling than states of intellect.”
2. Noetic quality – “Mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect”
3. Transiency – “Mystical states cannot be sustained for long.” And
4. Passivity – “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 by a higher power.”

It is William James’ version of mysticism, derived from Schleiermacher, which has dominated the 20th century investigations, and for my purposes here I would point out that, in this understanding – let us call it the “Modern synthesis” – mystical experience is rare, private and experiential; those who enjoy such experiences are spiritually significant and blessed; but they are the inheritors of the great spiritual teachers of the past, and they have access to the common root which supports all the different religious traditions of the world.

This understanding has developed in various different thinkers through the twentieth century, and we could pick out three representative ‘streams’:
1. John Hick and William Johnston focus on mystical experience as the ‘common core’ to all religious belief, transcending the culturally bound expressions in different traditions;
2. Don Cupitt and Matthew Fox emphasise the dynamism associated with those who enjoy mystical experiences, especially in contrast to religious authorities and those who would insist on some sort of orthodoxy; and
3. Joseph Campbell and Alan Watts see the mystical experience in much more Jungian terms as the symbol or sign of the inner psychic transformation attainable by those who pursue religious paths.

From my point of view it is what these thinkers have in common which is of interest, viz. that mystical experience is not bound by a historical community or culture, but is rather focussed on the self-realisation of a particular individual.

The academic community, for all its problems, does not stay still, and this “Modern synthesis” has come under increasingly sustained criticism over the last twenty years. It would be fair to say that it is now largely rejected as a coherent account, certainly of religious mysticism within the Christian tradition, and, by and large, as a description of mysticism as such. I will run through the principal problems under two headings, philosophical and historical.

Philosophical problems:
– the notion of ‘pure experience’ depends upon the Kantian epistemological framework for its coherence. If this is removed, then the concept becomes unworkable. As the Kantian framework is – to put it mildly – heavily contested in the academy, it is difficult to sustain this conception unless you are also prepared to accept the wider Kantian understandings;
– the problem of ‘essentialism’, that is, the assumption that there is a ‘common core’ underlying all the different manifestations of mystical experience. This is an inheritance from the Cartesian program, seeking a reductive explanation of phenomena. If you accept, e.g., the Wittgensteinian notion of ‘family resemblance’ then it becomes problematic to insist upon a common core lying underneath difference;
– in discussing the ineffable characteristics of mystical experience, the expression ‘non-conceptual’ (and equivalents) are being used to stand for conceptual terms. Put differently, if a mystical experience has some impact upon a person’s understanding then it must be ‘ascribable’ to that person, by themselves or another, and so the insistence on ‘non-conceptuality’ is self-contradicting;
– the “Modern synthesis” depends upon an individualist epistemology, again deriving from Descartes, which makes what happens to a particular ego central. If this is rejected (which it generally has been) then, once more, the synthesis breaks down.

The historical problems are related. One of the more surprising things I have learnt about William James is that in researching his Varieties he did no reading amongst the primary sources himself, relying on the work of his student who had gathered together a collection of short extracts. It is not surprising that those who follow in James’s footsteps are confused as to what the mystical tradition is actually about.

– The French church historian Henri de Lubac laid a great deal of the foundations for the revolution in understanding mysticism in the early decades of the twentieth century, showing how the understanding of mysticism had shifted sense during the 11th and 12th centuries, looking particularly at the nature of the Eucharist. One of his most important conclusions was that mysticism was a public and accessible phenomenon.
– More recently, Louis Bouyer has articulated the transitions that have occurred in the understanding of mysticism down the centuries, including the most recent ones outlined above. To quote from one relevant part of his writings, “The links of Denis, the first and most influential of the great mystical theologians… with Neoplatonism are undeniable. But precisely that which, for Denis himself, constitutes mysticism, is not what these experiences which he describes my have in common with, for example, those of Plotinus. It is, on the contrary, their position at the intersection of a whole specifically Christian spiritual tradition of scriptural interpretation and the ecclesiastical experience of the liturgy, the eucharistic liturgy. His mystical theology, as he understands it himself, is his manner of recognising the Christ, at the breaking of bread, in all the scriptures.”
– As more research has been done directly on the Christian mystical tradition, it has become more and more clear that not only are the Christian mystics themselves not interested in their own ‘experiences’ (understood as private, ineffable, noetic etc), but that their precise arguments are to undermine and critique the emphasis upon such exotic experiences, as a snare and spiritual delusion, leading to the vices of self-absorption and Titanism.

The foregoing is a very rough and ready overview of current academic debate on the subject of mysticism. I hope that if nothing else it has imparted a flavour of the debate, and the points that are at issue. However, if this was all there was to it, it could have remained as an MD post. I think there is something more. If the academic community is right in rejecting the Kantian problematic, and therefore the ‘Modern synthesis’ understanding of mysticism – and the grounds for doing so are really quite overwhelming – where does that leave Pirsig and the MoQ? For the links between the MoQ and Schleiermacher’s project seem profound, even down to some of the language used. Is it accurate to describe the MoQ as simply a redescription of Schleiermacher’s scheme, that is, is not Dynamic Quality merely a Kantian ‘pure experience’, and the levels of Static Quality merely a redescription of phenomena? If not, why not? This is not to suggest a direct borrowing, only to point out that Pirsig’s work – probably via William James – has inherited a conceptual shape from Schleiermacher, and that conceptual shape is very largely discredited within the academic community.

I don’t yet have positive answers to put forward to the questions that this raises, but I felt it would be worth sharing the questions.

Sam Norton
December 2004

One thought on “About religious experience (William James, Schleiermacher etc)

  1. Thank you for posting this, it helped with my Philosophy homework which would have been impossible to do if it weren’t for this post 😀

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