Egocentricity and Mysticism

An Anthropological Study

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Ernst Tugendhat
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , October
     192 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The best way to see this volume is as a supplement to Sigmund Freud’s Future of an Illusion. Freud explained away belief in God as a projection driven by wishful thinking. Tugendhat agrees. “Religion,” he writes, “undertakes a transformation of the world by wishful projection” (99), which he also calls “wishful thinking” (100). Religion leaves us with our egocentric desires intact while we invent a God to turn to for help in fulfilling those desires. It is an attempt to influence reality for the sake of our cherished wants. 

What Tugendhat calls “mysticism” is non-theistic. So, what everyone else calls “theistic mysticism” is not mysticism for Tugendhat. “Mysticism,” for Tugendhat, is opposed to religion. It has no use for invented projections and does not leave our desires as they are. Mysticism aims for self-transformation in which we unify our desires so as not to conflict, and ultimately aims to eliminate our desires entirely. Sometimes, Tugendhat notes, non-egocentric mysticism seeps into religion, as with Meister Eckhart. But then it is no longer religion (115). The purposeof mysticism, and here is the punch-line of the book, is to bring “peace of mind” from out of the cacophony of our desires. That is why people are drawn to (non-theistic) mysticism. 

To advance his view of mysticism, our author provides a lengthy background of several opening chapters, about what it is to be a “I-sayer,” to self-refer by using the word “I.” Every person who refers to himself as “I” takes himself to be “absolutely important,” yet knows that other “I-sayers” think the same about themselves (19). In this way, the stage is set for acrimony and strife, until and unless one can reduce the power of his or her desires. A person does not get to that point until coming to consider the meaning of her life as a whole, not just of the disparate desires that make up her life (74). This is “self-gathering,” representing a need for “self-collectedness,” which makes mysticism attractive (92). Since religion, for Tugendhat, does not do the job and in any case is no longer a live option, our only course is non-theistic mysticism. 

Tugendhat’s distinction between theistic religion and mysticism is ill-advised. On the religion side, he takes theistic religion in its most coarse form, as in a football team praying to God for victory before a game. But self-transformation away from egocentricity is centralto theistic religions. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Judaism), “Do to others what you want them to do to you” (Christianity), and “None of you has faith until he loves for his brother or his neighbor what he loves for himself” (Islam)are not recipes for praying to God to indulge our egocentricity. The entire Pauline kenotic ethic, “emptying” oneself for the sake of the other, screams self-transformation away from egocentricity. There is nothing mystical here. It is simple moral training. 

On the mystical side, Tugendhat vastly underestimates the degree of “infiltration” of the mystical abandonment of egocentrism into theistic religion. Sufism and its surrender to God, Hasidic mysticism and its self-annihilation, and of course the long and rich history of Christian mysticism (think only of the classic Cloud of Unknowing), prove the division between theistic religion and what Tugendhat calls “mysticism” to be artificial and not instructive. 

It seems that our author was so impressed by his Neo-Freudian theory about wish-fulfillment that he simply wanted to be done with God and not look seriously at what theistic religions are. So, he makes do, as did Freud before him, with a cartoon version of theistic religion.

Continuing with mysticism, Tugendhat fails to explain why the desire for peace of mind pulls people into “mysticism” rather than into other forms of life promising peace of mind. Indeed, a common pitch for some forms of theistic religion is precisely that they will give you “peace of mind.” Meditative practices calm the mind. Are all meditative practices to be categorized as “mysticism”? What will determine when a person will turn to mysticism rather than to a jacuzzi?

This book was translated from the German. The translator claims that it “elaborates a new form of mysticism.” Yes, the book is well written, it holds one’s interest in the main, but a new form of mysticism? Hardly. If not for the fancy topping about “I-Sayers” and self-referential language as background (which proves to be not essential to the thesis of the book), it is hard to see what is new in this volume. The Buddha long ago urged meditative practices for detachment from our desires as the means to the end of all suffering. And great Buddhist thinkers, such as the founder of Madhyamika Buddhism, Nagarjuna,long ago argued against God. The book seems to boil down to an old call to abandon God in favor of something like Buddhist meditative practice.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jerome Gellman is Professor Emeritus at Ben-Gurion University.

Date of Review: 
April 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ernst Tugendhat is Professor Emeritus at Freie Universität Berlin and honorary professor at the University of Tübingen.

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