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Constructivist Epistemologies of Mysticism: A Critique and a Revision

  • Michael Stoeber (a1)

Some philosophers of mysticism stress the dependence of mystical experience upon the conceptual categories of the mystic. This has been referred to as an intentionalist or constructivist view, where the mystic ‘constructs’ the framework of mystical encounter, or experiences that which was ‘intended’ at the outset of the mystical path. Steven Katz, for example, insists that the beliefs, values and concepts of mystics directly affect the nature of their mystical experiences. He says, ‘the ontological structure(s) of each major mystical tradition is different and this pre-experiential, inherited structure directly enters into the mystical occasion itself’. In contrast to essentialist theories which hold all mystical experience to be phenomenologically the same though subject to varying interpretations, this constructivist view interprets the tremendous differences in mystical descriptions to be evidence of differences in experience type.

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1 Katz, Steven, ‘The “Conservative” Character of Mysticism’, in Katz, S. (ed.), Mysticism and Religious Traditions(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 40.

2 Influential proponents of the essentialist view include Smart, Ninian (see especially ‘Interpretation and Mystical Experience’, Religious Studies, i (1965)), and Underhill, Evelyn, Mysticism. (New York: New American Library, 1974).

3 See, for example, Moore, Peter, ‘Mystical Experience, Mystical Doctrine, and Mystical Technique’ in Katz, Steven (ed.), Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis (London: Sheldon Press, 1978);Gimello, Robert, ‘Mysticism and Its Contexts’in Katz, Steven (ed.), Mysticism and Religious Traditions;Gill, Jerry, ‘Mysticism and Meditation’, in Faith and Philosophy, i (1984);Forman, Robert K. C., ‘Eckhart, Gezucken, and the Ground of the Soul’, Studia Mystica, xi, 2 (Summer, 1988);Green, Deirdre, ‘Unity in Diversity’, Scottish Journal of Religious Studies, iii, I (Spring, 1982); andEvans, Donald, ‘Can Philosophers Limit What Mystics Can Do? A Critique of Steven Katz’, Religious Studies, xxv, I (1989).

4 Hick, John, An Interpretation of Religion (London: Macmillan, 1989). All references to this book will be included in brackets in the text body.

5 Evans, Donald, ‘Can Philosophers Limit What Mystics Can Do? A Critique of Steven Katz’, p. 54.

6 It should be noted that the constructivist can still argue that heresy is a consequence of the mystic's psychological and socio-religious backgrounds. Although I agree that heresy can in some cases arise in part from the mystic's own personal history and choices, I doubt very much that it is the sole contributing factor in every instance of mystic heresy. For example, critics of Meister Eckhart might argue that Eckhart's heretical-sounding claims were a result solely of his personal hubris and his reading of rather unorthodox theology, but such accounts seem unjustified given Eckhart's moral background and teachings and his Dominican education. More likely, something about his mystical experiences played a large role in his unorthodox mystic theology.

7 Terence Penelhum brought this point to my attention.

8 Caroline Davis, Franks, The Evidential Force of Religious Experience (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), p. 165. See especially ch. VI where Franks Davis proposes a theory of concept formation which combines the association and hypothesis-testing theories.

9 Donald Evans suggested this ‘experiential—constructivist’ label to me.

10 Louis Dupré depicts this transformation as a process whereby the mystic ‘comes to share the dynamics of God's inner life, a life not only of rest and darkness, but also of creative activity and life’.Also Dupré comments: ‘The contemplative accompanies God's own move from hiddenness to manifestation within the identity of God's own life’. See The Christian Experience of Mystical Union’, The Journal of Religion, lxix, I (01, 1989), pp. 9 and 10.

11 Green, Deirdre, ‘Unity in Diversity’, p. 48.

12 Loughlin, Gerard, ‘Prefacing Pluralism: John Hick and the Mastery of Religion’, Modern Theology, vii, I (10, 1990), 47–8.

13 Thanks to John Schellenberg, Brad Abernethy and Terence Penelhum, who helped me to clarify John Hick's perspective as well as obscurities of my own, and to Donald Evans, whose insightful suggestions helped me to focus the critique and revision. Also, I gratefully acknowledge the support of the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, which gave me time to write the paper.

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Religious Studies
  • ISSN: 0034-4125
  • EISSN: 1469-901X
  • URL: /core/journals/religious-studies
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