What is the relationship between mysticism and philosophy?

I think they are inseparable on a fundamental level, but represent divergent processes and emphases in their methodology. In the Western tradition before Aristotle, mysticism and philosophy felt synonymous. Aristotle is probably the first to tease the two apart — or at least isolate different processes and categories of exploration. But within Aristotle’s differentiations we see the seeds of what later became empiricism, rationalism, and the full-throated speculations of metaphysics. In other words, we see a drifting apart of that which is observable, that which is logically reasoned out, and that which is understood at a deeper level of experiential insight. Later, we would see Thomas Aquinas wrestle with this very same drifting apart, but he would try to honor all trajectories…while also integrating them. It is this tension — along with its attempted resolution — that we can observe repeated in the Western tradition as a fairly contiguous thread through Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Tielhard de Chardin, William James and many others. At the same time, we find thinkers like Bacon, Nietzsche, Russel, Husserl and Wittgenstein steering away from such integration or reconciliation— or even deferent consideration of the intuitive or speculative at all — in favor of the concrete, observable and analytical. Still, I suppose we could say that in the Western canon carries a drumbeat of mysticism forward well into 20th Century philosophy, before postmodernism began to more systematically snuff it out. Since then, however, we have seen a resurgence of the integration among the integralizing crowd (Gebser, Wilber, Rosenstock-Huessy) — and one that for me appears very promising. In fact, this is where I live philosophically, and how I arrived at my own multidialectical synthesis and Sector Theory.

In the Eastern traditions, this process of divergence didn’t occur in the same way — in fact, to my eye the Cartesian divisions never really happened at all, and mysticism and philosophy remained intertwined in a much more persistent and harmonious way up into modern times. There were still sages who focused more on the pragmatic than the esoteric (such as Confucius), but like Plato they apparently didn’t feel the need to distance themselves from mystical perceptions and conceptions. In this light, it is somewhat ironic that it is popular in the West to approach Buddhism or Yoga as a “philosophy of life,” or view meditation as a way to simply recondition the mind into healthier cognitive habits, while ignoring or minimizing the spiritual/mystical/metaphysical elements of these practices and traditions. This is just what we do in Western culture…whereas many Eastern cultures do not appear to have the same (IMO unhealthy) compulsion.

In any case, I feel like I have meandered a bit, but hopefully touched on why mystical and philosophical processes are really aiming toward the same end: understanding self and mind, understanding the world, understanding the nature of reality and truth, developing both knowledge and wisdom about what is. Depending on the school of thought — or mystical practice — these are all just different input streams to fortify human understanding, and deserving of our careful consideration.

My 2 cents.


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