Katz (ed.), Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis

Steven T. Katz (ed.), in Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, Oxford University Press, 1978. 272 pages.


That Steven T. Katz at no point explicitly defines mysticism is not in the least bit surprising. For the entirety of Katz’s work could be understood – indeed, as he tells us his essay “Language, Epistemology and Mysticism,” should be understood – as a “plea for the recognition of differences” (LEM, 25). “Our primary aim has been to mark out a new way of approaching the data, concentrating on disabusing scholars of the preconceived notion that all mystical experience is the same of similar” (LEM, 65). According to Katz, “the ontological structure of each major mystical tradition is different,” and consequently the mystical experiences shaped by these different ontological structures are different (CCM, 40). Christian mystics have Christian mystical experiences, Jewish mystics, Jewish mystical experiences, and Hindu mystics, Hindu mystical experiences. Therefore, “readers should treat the terms “mysticism” as a shorthand for a list of independent mystical traditions, Buddhist, Hindu, Sufi, Christian, Jewish, etc.” (CCM, 51, n1). The phenomenon of mysticism is best referred to as “mysticisms,” and best defined from within particular religious and mystical traditions.Does this then mean that Katz abandons all possibility of a comparative phenomenology of mysticism? Not entirely, though he states that such projects have in the past been fatally flawed: “Careful inspection thus shows that while lists of supposed phenomenological characteristics seem to help in delineating what mystical experience is, and also in establishing what ties seemingly different experiences together as a class of like experience, such lists, in fact, are so general that even though they serve to exclude certain types of experience as, for a bizarre example, contemplating one’s navel, as a mystical experience, they remain so general as not to suffice to delineate what mystical experience actually is, nor again are they sophisticated in their recognition of the contextual basis of language and thus are incapable of sorting out the actual meaning of mystical reports” (LEM, 51). Nevertheless, Katz opens the door – just the tiniest crack! – to the possibility of a careful, empirically-hermeneutically oriented comparative phenomenology of mysticism toward the end of “Language, Epistemology and Mysticism”: “If mystical experience is always the same or similar in essence, as is so often claimed, then this has to be demonstrated by recourse to, and accurate handling of, the evidence, convincing logical argument, and coherent epistemological procedures. It cannot be shown to be the case merely by supported and/or unsupportable assertions to this effect, no matter how passionately by a priori assumptions on the matter which ‘prove’ their case in what is essentially circular fashion” (LEM, 65). Moreover, Katz perhaps undertakes such comparison in his most recent essay, “Mysticism and the Interpretation of Sacred Scripture”: “In the employment of this logical technique, he [Sankara] reminds one of Eckhart, though readers must take care not to push this comparison too hard or too far. That is, for Sankara, as for Eckhart, the logic of negation contains, paradoxically, a capacity to inform, while, at the same time, it does not allow the accumulation or formation of propositional knowledge or the direct attribution of predicates to the Divine (Brahman)” (MISS, 49). But when all is said and done (in this case, at the end of “Language, Epistemology and Mysticism”), Katz calls, not for a comparative phenomenology of mysticism, but for both careful contextual study of specific mystical traditions and further epistemological research into the conditions of mystical experience. One might call the entirety of Katz’s work in mysticism a careful, contextual study of mystical phenomena, one that steers clear of any and all comparisons of mystical state of consciousness.

Katz leaves no guesswork concerning his position on the mediation of mystical experience. In “Language, Epistemology and Mysticism” he boldly proclaims: “There are NO pure (i.e. unmediated) experiences” (LEM, 26) – a proclamation he reiterates time and time again, referring to it in later essays as his “working hypothesis.” All human beings – mystics included – necessarily experience reality through a conceptual framework, one that simply cannot be bypassed. Katz’s work is in large part an exploration of various facets of this framework – epistemological-conceptual facets in “Language, Epistemology and Mysticism,” religious-cultural facets in “The Conservative Character of Mysticism,” performative-linguistic facets in “Mystical Speech and Mystical Meaning,” and scriptural-hermeneutical facets in “Mysticism and the Interpretation of Sacred Scripture.” This framework sets “structured and limiting parameters on what the experience will be, i.e. on what will be experienced, and rule out in advance what is ‘inexperienceable’ in the particular, given, concrete context” (CCM, 5). Mystical states are therefore “the outcome of the complex epistemological activity which is set in motion by the integrating character of self-consciousness employed in the specifically mystical modality” (LEM, 62). Mystical states, however, are not merely subjectively-culturally constructed; Katz recognizes that mystical experience is a two-way street, giving a brief nod to the role played by “the object or ‘state of affairs’ […] that the mystic (believes) he ‘encounters’ or experiences” (LEM, 64).

Katz’s position regarding the espressibility of mystical experience – located primarily in his essay “Mystical Speech and Mystical Meaning” – is a logical extension of his “working hypothesis.” If mystical experience is shaped by – among other things – one’s linguistic framework, then mystical experience can be conveyed in that linguistic framework: “It is my view, argued in detail elsewhere, that mystical reports do not merely indicate the postexperiential description of an unreportable experience in the language closest at hand. Rather, the experiences themselves are inescapably shaped by prior linguistic influences such that the lived experience conforms to a preexistent pattern that has been learned, then intended, and then actualized in the experiential reality of the mystic” (MSMM, 5). Moreover, quite a bit of positive information is usually conveyed in reports of mystical experiences, much to the contrary of claims that mystical experience is ineffable: “My purpose is to show that, contrary to their own sincere declamations regarding ineffability, the structural logic of such theories necessarily tells us more than proponents of apophasis recognize. And this fact should be taken as paradigmatic of mystical systems universally; despite their avowal of neti neti, the reality is otherwise. That is, mystics reveal, however unintentionally, more of the “truth” they have come to know in language than their overt negations of meaning and content would suggest” (MSMM, 25).

Two additional comments regarding Katz’s views on the expressibility of mystical experience, however, are in order. First, in “Language, Epistemology and Mysticism” Katz points out that similar sounding claims of ineffability and paradoxicality, made by mystics from many different mystical traditions, do not provide evidence for the similarity of mystical experience. Rather, they eliminate the possibility of all phenomenological inquiry and comparison: “The proposition ‘x is PI’ has the curious logical result that a serious interpretation of the proposition neither makes the experience x intelligible nor informs us in any way about x, but rather cancels x out of our language – which, of course, is what most mystics claim they want. This, however, is no foundation for a phenomenology of mysticism or a typology of comparative mystical experience, for there are a wide variety of mutually exclusive ontological ‘states of affairs’ which can thus be ruled out” (LEM, 56). As interesting as this hypothesis is, Katz’s take on the use of paradox is a good deal more developed in his most recent essay, “Mysticism and the Interpretation of Sacred Scripture.” Here Katz calls paradox a “fit vehicle for religious language” insofar as it breaks linguistic and logical rules and thereby conveys the “metastatus” of ultimate realities (MISS, 41). Eckhart, for example, by employing paradox, “seeks to use language to make plain the incapacity of language to deal with the transcendent, and, at the same time, the necessity, however contradictory, to struggle to do just this” (MISS, 43). Moreover, Katz claims “negation serves as an apophatic indicator – that is, its denials affirm the reality of that which is beyond speech” (MISS, 49). So while Katz does not hypothesize about the expressibility or inexpressibility of mystical experience, he does recognize the difficulties that some mystics have had in expressing the transcendent as well as the creative techniques that some mystics have employed in order to express their belief that the transcendent and experience thereof are inexpressible.

Katz claims he has no “particular dogmatic position to defend,” that his “sole concern [is] to try and see, recognizing the contextuality of our own understanding, what the mystical evidence will allow in the way of legitimate philosophical reflection” (LEM, 66). Moreover, in singing the praises of his account of mysticism, he proclaims his theory of mysticism “able to accommodate all the evidence which is accounted for by non-pluralistic accounts without being reductionistic” (LEM, 66). “That is to say,” he continues, “our account neither (a) overlooks any evidence, nor (b) has any need to simplify the available evidence to make it fit into comparative or comparable categories, nor (c) does it begin with a priori assumptions about the nature of ultimate reality” (LEM, 66). Is Katz, however, dogmatically defending difference at the expense of similarity? Does Katz leave any ground whatsoever for a comparative phenomenology of mystical experience? Katz accuses so-called perennialists or essentialists of ignoring much of the data of mysticism, most notably below: “Without such knowledge [about “specific religious traditions and communities, as well as about particular mystical authors and groups”] one might generate theories that are ingenious, but scarcely related to the evidence and therefore flimsy when subjected to serious technical analysis. Many of the best-known accounts of mysticism are indeed the product of a priori metaphysical and theological requirements, and not the result of any close encounter with the mystical sources of the world’s religions. Such presentations, whatever their appearance, are independent of the data and brook no contradiction. They are proclaimed to be “true” no matter what the details of scholarly research reveal” (MISS, 5). But has Katz himself apprised himself of all the relevant data, or has he conducted his research and formulated his theories from within the safe confines of religious-cultural studies?

by Tim Knepper
Boston University, 2001

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