Philosophy of Mysticism

Raids on the Ineffable

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Richard H Jones
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , May
     438 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Philosophy of Mysticism, Raids on the Ineffable is the latest of Richard H. Jones’s numerous philosophical studies of mysticism. Jones’s detailed treatment of a wide number of topics, largely argued convincingly, makes this a superb book. Most of us philosophers who write on mysticism either defend it at all costs (especially when theistic), or devalue it out of hand. This book is different: sensible and balanced. While it is, on the whole, sympathetic to mysticism, Jones hardly gives mysticism a free pass. His purpose is to judge, in depth and independently, an array of topics on mysticism. These include: a typology of mystical experiences; mystical knowledge; the rationality of mystics; scientific attempts to explain away mystical experiences; the metaphysics of mysticism (if we give it credence); ineffability and paradox, the relationship between mystical and scientific enterprises; and mysticism and morality. I must limit myself here to only some of Jones's many significant themes.

Jones recognizes three main categories of mystical experience: extrovertive (12-14), which includes sensory input, seeing everything in the world as connected and nothing as possessing self-substantive existence; introvertive (19-21), with no external input, revealing a transcendental reality through inner experience; and depth experience (21), allegedly empty of all objects of awareness but still claimed to be a state of wakefulness, allegedly granting knowledge of the true nature of reality (Jones argues that such experiences are not truly empty). Happily, unlike William Stace who saw extrovertive experience as stunted introvertive experience, Jones rightly gives the extrovertive experience independent status and value in relevant mystical traditions.

Jones rejects all mystical knowledge, mostly on grounds of disagreement between mystical traditions (chapter 3). Yet Jones thinks that the threshold for rationality is “low enough” for mystics to rationally hold the claims of their tradition based partially on their mystical experiences, unless and until those experiences are undermined (107).

According to Jones, naturalistic attempts to explain away mystical episodes fail. Jones argues in great detail that reducing such episodes to anomalies in brain activity has not succeeded. First, there is wide disagreement about which brain events might naturalistically account for mystical experiences. Also, he says, researchers are too quick to identify an experience as mystical. A brain-stimulated experience might count as mystical in the eyes of the researcher, while not necessarily being experienced as such by practicing mystics. Jones argues, in any case, that no amount of scientific evidence about the brain could establish mystical occurrences as purely natural events. This is one of the best chapters in Jones’s book.  

Jones defends the possibility of the ineffability of mystical episodes by carefully defining “ineffability” as the claim that no possible phenomenal properties could apply to a transcendent reality. This does not entail that nothing else can be said about such a reality (such as that it is transcendent or the ground of all being). This does away with frivolous objections such as that saying “X is ineffable” claims “something” about X and thus, denies that X is ineffable.

Jones explains that when mystics talk about their experiences they are not subscribing to what Jones calls the “mirror theory” of language, which rests on “the assumption that grammatical status dictates the ontic status of the referent” (210). The mystic uses language differently, to talk obliquely about reality without making ordinary referential use of phenomenal language. In this way, Jones thinks he can systematically resolve the paradoxical language of mystics (242 ff). For example, when Meister Eckhart prays to God to be “free of God,” Jones suggests this means praying to be free of any idea of God; that is, praying for an unmediated experience of God, not to be free of God per se.

Regarding mysticism and morality, Jones demolishes the idea that mystics transform into compassionate, loving persons as a consequence of their mystical experiences. Besides individual psychological quirks, Jones shows how the psychological impact of mystical events is due largely to the individual’s embedding of the mystical event into the teachings of their religious tradition. The Adviata Vedanta mystic who is taught that there is only one reality, Brahman, might be non-moral in relating to people who are not really “real”; a Theravada mystic might be immoral at times, if motivated, according to Jones, solely by spiritual self-development; and a theistic mystic of love  (Bernard of Clairvaux) once preached the Crusades, which resulted in the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. These behaviors normally follow from the person’s religious background and context, and not from the mystical episode itself. The experience can only reinforce what has gone before.

There are, alas, some problems along the way. Jones's mystical references tend strongly to Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta, with some other Eastern mystical traditions mixed in; and to Christian mysticism, especially to the excesses of Meister Eckhart. There is sparse reference to Sufism, and even less to Jewish mysticism. Jones gives no attention to garden variety theistic mystical episodes where the person simply experiences God’s presence, without the pyrotechnics of other mysticisms.

Jones acknowledges that a mystical event might come as a complete surprise, as, in the words of Thomas Merton, his experience was a “flat contradiction of all the soul imagined of God” (64). This is not rare in mystical literature. Mystical experiences can even cause a mystic to change religion. Yet Jones never explains how this squares with his view that the metaphysics comes from the background beliefs and not from the experience itself, nor how this is consistent with his claiming that all morality must be due to background beliefs and not to the content of the experience.

Jones's way of resolving mystical paradoxes does not ring true. Somebody familiar with this literature can hardly escape the impression that often paradoxical language is meant to create an aura of deep mystery, one virtually impenetrable to others and impossible for them even to grasp. If Jones is right about resolving paradoxes, he misses explaining why, in the first place, unresolved paradoxical language, rather than its resolved translations, appear ubiquitously in mystical writings.

Jones dismisses John Hick's religious pluralism which argues that all religions refer to the same reality—the “Real”—just with different descriptions (102). Mystics would not agree to this, Jones objects. But here Jones is missing the point. Hick is urging a proposal for how to relate to, among other things, conflicting mystical experiences. He is not describing what mystics think, but proposing how we should think about them. Jones fails to engage this issue.

In spite of a few slip-ups along the way and a relatively large number of typos, including some incorrect numbering of footnotes in the back of the book, Philosophy of Mysticism, Raids on the Ineffable is one of the very best books out on the philosophy of mysticism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jerome Gellman is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel.

Date of Review: 
August 27, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard H. Jones is the author of several books, including Mysticism Examined: Philosophical Inquiries into Mysticism, also published by SUNY Press.



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