In The Shape of the Soul: What Mystical Experience Tells Us About Ourselves and Reality, Paul Marshall makes a strong case for taking mystical experiences seriously as a topic for the philosophy of religion. In this volume, his extensive reading and lifelong engagement with topics related to mysticism, alongside his previous scholarship in the field, is supplemented with analyses and considerations that also take his own personal experiences into account. Marshall presents a philosophy that sees the mind as the center and origin of experience. The book aims at “a unified picture, favoring an idealism that absorbs the material world into the soul and the contents of its perceptions” (xi). For Marshall, “There is no material world outside these perceptions” (ix). However, his book is far more than an argument for this position.
Several threads are weaved together in the book. On the one hand, it presents extensive analyses of reported mystical experiences. Marshall is to be commended for his careful and nuanced analysis of what such experiences entail, and he presents them in an accessible way and with an eye for nuance and diversity. In doing so, he contributes to the “mapping” of the experiential field of mysticism. This dimension of the book will be relevant to all who want to learn more about the different aspects of mysticism. Marshall’s work is based on a diverse selection of sources, of which most have a historical character. For instance, the careful and extended analysis of Thomas Traherne shows Marshall’s ability to read historical sources with a systematic aim. His scholarship extends beyond the Western sphere, though, as he also draws in Eastern mystical traditions.
The second main feature of the book is the pedagogical set-up of the different positions Marshall analyzes and tries to bring into one comprehensive—although complicated—framework. The figures used for illustration serve the author’s purpose well and contribute to making his presentation transparent and easy to follow. For a complex topic, the parts of the book that analyze mystical experiences are not hard to follow, and students and scholars alike will find them valuable.
The third feature of the book lies in its original contribution to the field of theorizing about mystical experience and developing the theoretical approach referred to above. When Marshall moves from report and analyses of mystical experiences towards a comprehensive theoretical framework, he develops his own take on what these mystical experiences might mean ontologically. For readers already acquainted with Marshall’s work, his extensive use of and modification of Gottfried Leibniz’s monadology and his inspiration from Plotinus comes as no surprise. This is the most challenging part of the book. Although not everyone will be able to follow Marshall here, two qualities contribute to the making of his case: firstly, his ability to ground the theoretical elaborations with reference to experiential content; and secondly, his admittance of how he, at times, presents suggestions that appear (even to himself) as speculative. The effect of such openness to the speculative character contributes to the book’s quality, because, consequently, it does not appear as another dogmatic system one has to accept as the final word on the topic.
Marshall’s book appears to be thoroughly researched. The reader might nevertheless miss discussions with contemporary scholars about the nature of mystical experience, and also with some of the criticism that has been presented to previous versions of Marshall’s position. Moreover, some elements would have strengthened the book’s philosophical project: The subtitle suggests that mystical experiences tell us something about reality. But strictly speaking, what mystical experiences tell us may be nothing more than about mystical experiences, (i.e., a specific mode of experience). Furthermore, Marshall could also have made a more extensive case for what such experiences tell us about ourselves based on what they contain, and not only based on his own theoretical suggestions for a comprehensive theoretical framework based on monadology. More extensive engagement with the phenomenological dimension of mystical experiences could have contributed further to his aim.
The book also calls for the reflection that mystical experiences, as often life-changing and important to those that have them, imply a concrete way of relating to the world and towards oneself. However, this experience seems to get lost or recede in the background when one moves from experience to theoretical elaborations about what they may entail. To the extent that Marshall grounds his theoretical considerations with reference to experience, he does not fall into that trap. But some of the more theoretical sections may still cause some concern in this regard.
As should be clear, this book runs counter to prevailing naturalist tendencies in contemporary scholarship. Even when one may not agree with Marshall’s more speculative theorizing, his book should nevertheless be of interest for scholars who accept that mysticism is a present, often ignored, and for some, a life-changing feature. Because a considerable amount of humans experience reality’s mystical dimension, constructive scholarship like Marshall’s should be welcomed.
Jan-Olav Henriksen is Professor of Philosophy of Religion at the MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion, and Society.
Date Of Review:
December 19, 2019
Paul Marshall is an Independent Researcher with interests in mysticism, religion, philosophy, science, and their interactions.
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