Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The possibility and relevance of unmediated experience

An essay I wrote for my MA at Heythrop, relevant to a debate going on at the moment.

1. This essay will be concerned with the possibility and relevance of unmediated experience, that is, an experience which is not determinatively shaped by the prior conceptual background of the subject. The essay therefore seeks to understand the debate provoked by Steven Katz in his original article ‘Language, Epistemology and Mysticism’[1], and taken forward in particular by Robert Forman in his edited work ‘The Problem of Pure Consciousness’[2]. Forman’s work was provoked by the work of Steven Katz, and much of the development of his ideas comes in dialogue with Katz. In this essay, therefore, I shall first outline the argument as Katz presents it, provide a summary of Forman’s response, and indicate my own position. I shall then consider what is at stake in the debate as a whole, drawing on some criticisms made by Grace Jantzen.

‘There are NO pure (i.e. unmediated) experiences’

2. Katz’s article is concerned to argue the following case:

> there is no such thing as a pure experience;
> therefore all mystical experience is constituted by a formative tradition; and therefore
> the proper form of study of mystical experience is through respecting difference.

Katz begins his article[3] by taking issue with the attempt to account for the phenomena of mystical experience by assuming that there can be any experience apart from the cultural grounding in which such experience is found. Katz claims quite baldly that there can be no such thing as a pure experience. He writes:

‘…let me state the single epistemological assumption that has exercised my thinking and which has forced me to undertake the present investigation: There are NO pure (i.e. unmediated) experiences. Neither mystical experience nor more ordinary forms of experience give any indication, or any ground for believing, that they are unmediated. That is to say, all experience is processed through, organized by, and makes itself available to us in extremely complex epistemological ways. The notion of unmediated experience seems, if not self-contradictory, at best empty.’[4]

For Katz both the experience itself as well as the report made of it are ‘shaped by concepts which the mystic brings to, and which shape, his experience…the forms of consciousness which the mystic brings to experience set structured and limiting parameters on what the experience will be’[5]. Once Katz has explained this guiding assumption, the remainder of his article is concerned with drawing out the implications for the study of mysticism.

3. Katz develops his argument by first considering recent work by Zaehner and Stace. He criticises Stace for being arbitrary in choosing which experiences are to be counted as prior, and for seeing the full force of the point that experience is mediated. Zaehner is criticised on three counts: he is concerned only with post-experiential testimony; his account is distorted by the need for Catholic apologetic; and his phenomenology, although not without merit, is ultimately too simplistic – ‘Zaehner’s well known investigations flounder because his methodological, hermeneutical, and especially epistemological resources are weak.’[6]

4. This is followed by discussions of different forms of mysticism: Jewish, Buddhist and then Christian, the weight of which is concerned to establish the way in which tradition and formation shapes what is experienced. In the course of this discussion, Katz also criticises reliance upon a sense of the ‘ineffable’ to establish commonality between mysticisms. He points out that, purely as a logical matter, if ‘the mystic does not mean what he says and his words have no literal meaning whatsoever then not only is it impossible to establish my pluralistic view, but it is also logically impossible to establish any view whatsoever. If none of the mystics’ utterances carry any literal meaning then they cannot serve as the data for any position…’ (This is supported later in the paper when he points out that merely to say that mystics share an experience of an ineffable and paradoxical nature is not to say that those experiences are of the same ineffability or paradox: ‘To assume, as James, Huxley, Stace and many others do, that, because both mystics claim that their experiences are paradoxical, they are describing like experiences is a non sequitur.’) Katz reaches the interim conclusion that ‘mystical experience is ‘over-determined’ by its socio-religious milieu: as a result of his process of intellectual acculturation in its broadest sense, the mystic brings to his experience a world of concepts, images, symbols, and values which shape as well as colour the experience he eventually and actually has.’[7]

5. In the final section of his paper, Katz broadens his concern to look at questions of language in the study of mysticism. He is concerned to argue that much study of mysticism is misled by superficial resemblances in the surface grammar of mystical speech, without proper regard to what the meaning of such speech might be in its original context. He writes ‘What emerges clearly from this argument is the awareness that choosing descriptions of mystic experience out of their total context does not provide grounds for their comparability but rather severs all grounds of their intelligibility for it empties the chosen phrases, terms, and descriptions of definite meaning.’[8] For Katz, such considerations ‘lead us back again to the foundations of the basic claim being advanced in this paper, namely that mystical experience is contextual’[9] because ‘This much is certain: the mystical experience must be mediated by the kind of beings we are.’[10]

The Possibility of Unmediated Experience
6. This paper is concerned primarily with the possibility of ‘unmediated experience’, which Katz openly describes as an ‘assumption’ in his article, and so it will not closely examine other elements of his paper. Suffice to say that the assertion that the traditional background of a mystic will play some part in preparing for or influencing what is experienced, and that it will determine the way in which such experiences are described – in other words, the second element in his argument – is comparatively uncontroversial; and consequently the third element of his argument, although not without problems relating to the emphasis on difference[11], is also comparatively uncontroversial. However, before beginning to focus on his guiding assumption, it would be worth pointing out that Katz’s avowed pluralism leads to significant problems with his overall project, on three separate grounds:

a) The claim to neutrality between different religious claims is self-refuting, as it takes up a position antagonistic to the claims of the religions themselves;

b) Similarly, with respect to his relativistic perspective, which pretends to a neutral stance from which to observe phenomena without acknowledging the commitments of that stance itself; and

c) His claim that religious perspectives are incommensurable is problematic as that would disallow any form of comparative religious study (for what is to count as a religion?) and therefore rule out the possibilities of articles such as his own.

Put broadly, Katz is situated within a distinctly modernist (post-Kantian) sensibility, which seeks to articulate an objective perspective over diverse phenomena, and which is silent on its own (significant) commitments, as it seeks to arbitrate between different concerns. Such a standpoint is illegitimate if it claims to provide the ‘final truth’ about the nature of mysticism.

7. Forman takes issue with Katz on a number of grounds. He begins his criticisms[12] by stating that Katz ‘maintains two interconnected theses which are linked by an unstated presupposition’. Those theses are, first, Katz’s assertion that all experiences are mediated by our conceptual understanding, and, second, that different religions provide different ‘sets’, i.e. different beliefs and concepts. According to Forman, the logical product of these theses is pluralism, which Forman takes to be important for Katz and others as it represents the rejection of the ‘perennial philosophy’ which maintains that there is a common experience in mysticisms across different traditions.[13] The first of these theses Forman characterises as constructivism, and for Forman this is the source of the difficulties in Katz’s outlook (Forman considers the second thesis, concerning different ‘sets’ to be something which ‘no right thinking person would disagree with’[14]). According to Forman, Katz describes ‘a process in which we impose our blanks or formularies onto the manifold of experience and encounter things in the terms those formularies define for us’[15], which can fairly be characterised as a constructivist position. Forman argues that Katz needs to be committed to a ‘complete’ constructivist thesis for his argument to hold. A modified constructivism might allow for some experiences to be only partly formed by the prior conceptual map, yet that would immediately allow for the claim that it is the non-conceptually formed part of an experience which is essentially mystical, and Katz’s argument breaks down: ‘the best way (perhaps the only way) to protect the pluralist hypothesis is through a complete constructivism’.[16]

8. Moving to specific criticisms of Katz’s article, Forman argues that Katz’s position has the virtues of credibility and respect for the differences between different traditions, but that these virtues are vitiated by fundamental problems with the overall perspective. Forman makes the following points:

a) Katz commits the fallacy of petitio principii, by which he assumes what he is trying to prove. Katz does assert that his paper ‘will attempt to provide the full supporting evidence and argumentation that this process of differentiation of mystical experience into the patterns and symbols of established religious communities is experiential and does not only take place in the post-experiential process of reporting and interpreting the experience itself: it is at work before, during, and after the experience.’[17] Yet as Forman correctly points out, ‘All [Katz] offers are summaries of religious doctrines and restatements of the original assumption. These are instances of an assumed claim, not arguments.’[18]

b) The argument as developed by Katz and colleagues is systematically incomplete. That is, there is no indication as to what concepts and beliefs are to count as important for the shaping of experience. Yet if no limits are applied, the argument is evacuated of meaningful content, for at that point it would have to be argued that all concepts shape all experiences, and ‘all of my experiences would change with every new notion learned. This is clearly absurd, for…I can only learn within a coherent set of experiences which are part of a single consistent background for any experience’.[19] This impales Katz upon a dilemma, for either no limits are applied, which renders the argument empty, or else limits are applied, and this opens up scope for asserting the existence of parallel experiences shaped by a common heritage (e.g. from neo-Platonism in Jewish, Sufi and Christian mysticism), which undermines the pluralism thesis.

c) Katz is careless of the distinction between sense and reference, i.e. that similar language can refer to different things, or, conversely, divergent language can refer to the same thing. Conceptually, as Forman points out, it makes sense to imagine cases where different religious traditions might consider the experiences of a concrete individual, and say ‘that is experience X’ or ‘that is experience Y’. Forman writes ‘There is no problem in using different terms with different senses to refer to the same experience. Whether this is, in fact, what they would say is not a matter for a philosopher to decide in advance’.[20]

d) Forman’s final specific point claims that Katz commits the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Logically, it is perfectly possible that the relationship between belief and experience is contingent rather than necessary, and Forman refers to the different gastro-intestinal experiences undergone by an Eskimo and a Frenchman – the differences in culture and expectation will no doubt shape the experiences undergone, but that does not mean that the culture caused the experiences themselves (the food did that).

Interim conclusions
9. What can be made of Katz’s assertion that ‘There are NO pure (ie umediated) experiences’, for this does represent the foundation of his argument? The first thing to note is that there is no epistemological discussion concerning what is to count as ‘experience’ – whether pure or not – and this is part of Katz’s general inadequacy on questions of epistemology.[21] If experience is taken to mean ‘whatever may happen to an individual’ then it would seem uncontentious to suggest that humans might experience something which is unmediated by prior concepts or beliefs – an obvious example is of a small child experiencing pain, but that can extend to, eg, the instinctive recoil from a hot stove which happens without any nerve signal passing through to the brain. Yet this is not of great significance for our discussions, as the discussion of mysticism depends upon the reports made by mystics of what they have experienced (or, more accurately, upon the teaching of the mystics). The question therefore stands as to what is to count as an experience. An interim definition might be ‘an event undergone by an aware subject, which impinges upon their understanding’. The argument that there is no such thing as a pure experience is therefore that there are no events, which have consequent implications in terms of understanding etc., that are not themselves the products of a prior understanding, and related to this is the argument that it is meaningless to talk of ‘non-conceptual’ experience (because ‘non-conceptual’ is itself a conceptual term). A useful interlocutor to introduce at this point would be Thomas Kuhn, for his understanding of the way that scientific understandings change can provide a non-religious parallel for our discussions. It seems to me that there is a parallel between the constructivist position articulated by Katz and what Kuhn describes as ‘normal’ science, and between the experiences that Forman is concerned with and what Kuhn describes as ‘creative’ or ‘revolutionary’ science.

10. Over the last thirty five years or so there has been a great deal of historical investigation of the way in which scientific revolutions or paradigm shifts take place, sparked in the main by Thomas Kuhn’s ground-breaking study The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. [22] Contrary to the received (modernist) opinion that science provided a sure path to knowledge, and that science developed in slow methodical steps to a greater understanding of the truth, Kuhn showed that there were a large number of non-rational factors at work in any paradigm shift. For Kuhn, the great majority of scientific enquiry normally takes place within a particular paradigm. For example, to establish the particular way in which one species has evolved requires research, and the way that that research is constructed is governed by the assumptions inherent within the dominant paradigm. It is rather as if the paradigm has set down railway tracks down which the practice of scientific enquiry must travel. In this way the normal practice of science, in fact the vast majority of what is currently described as science, is a deductive and non-innovative activity. The practice of scientific method is applied to a particular area, in line with the assumptions of the dominant paradigm, and the conclusions derived from experiment or observation are then added in to the relevant body of knowledge. Most science is essentially puzzle solving. As such, this form of scientific endeavour is determinatively shaped by the conceptual background of the researcher, and is open to the type of constructivist interpretation favoured by Katz.

11. However, in contrast to this is revolutionary science, which is when a dominant paradigm is overturned in favour of a different understanding. Classic examples of revolutionary science are the change from a Ptolemaic to a Copernican cosmology, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the change from a Newtonian paradigm to an Einsteinian paradigm. As normal science proceeded within a particular paradigm data experienced would be either incorporated into the prevailing worldview or be rejected as erroneous, but over time there would develop an increasing number of anomalies and inconsistencies between the information gathered and the dictates of the overarching paradigm. The paradigm would be revised piece by piece until the weight of anomalies became too great. At that point the most creative scientists would develop a different paradigm which, once articulated, would then be used to interpret the information gathered in a new and more productive way. As Kuhn writes[23] ‘the perception of anomaly – of a phenomenon, that is, for which his paradigm had not readied the investigator – played an essential role in preparing the way for perception of novelty’. This would seem prima facie to be a well understood example of an experience which was not conceptually determined by the background attitudes and beliefs of the observer. Indeed, by definition, such background details cannot have formed the experience, for it is the status of the attitudes and beliefs that is called into question by the experience.

12. I would argue that the constructivist position, as articulated by Katz, is ultimately a sterile one, which precludes any understanding of normal intellectual (or spiritual) development. Forman makes this point when he argues that the constructivist hypothesis has difficulties in finding a place for creative novelty in their schema[24]. As such I would argue that it IS possible to have an experience which is not mediated by a prior conceptual world-view, and that there is such a thing as unmediated experience. The anomalies described by Kuhn fall into that category by definition, because they are experiences which are not fully understood – the scientist is baffled – and it is only at a later stage, once the overall conceptual framework has changed, that the experiences are able to be linked in with the beliefs and conceptual heritage of the individual concerned. I therefore judge that Katz is wrong to disallow any possibility of unmediated experience, and that Forman is correct to argue for its possibility.

The relevance of unmediated experience
13. Forman spends much time, with his colleagues, in developing a theory of the ‘Pure consciousness event’ and exploring some of the ramifications of this theory. Whilst I have some sympathy for his account, not least in the way in which it can have a spiritually beneficial function in provoking a growth of understanding, this last section of my essay shall be concerned with a criticism of Forman’s approach. This line of criticism is not concerned so much with the possibility of a pure experience, as with its religious relevance.

14. In her book ‘Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism’[25] Grace Jantzen makes the argument that who is to count as a mystic, and what is to count as mystical writing, has changed over time, and been subject to political, especially patriarchal control. From its original sense relating to ancient Greek mystery cults, through the early Christian understanding relating to the discernment of meaning in scripture, in our present age mysticism has come to refer to a highly exalted state of feeling: ‘Instead of referring to the central, if hidden, reality of scripture or sacrament, the idea of “mysticism” has been subjectivised beyond recognition, so that it is thought of in terms of states of consciousness or feeling.’[26] This transition from the public realm to private sensation has the political consequence of marginalising the testimony of the mystics and a significant part of Jantzen’s argument is to show that this transition coincided with the growth of women’s voices in the mystical tradition – so part of the effect of this shift has been to minimise the impact of women’s voices: ‘It was only with the development of the secular state, when religious experience was no longer perceived as a source of knowledge and power, that it became safe to allow women to be mystics…The decline of gender as an issue in the definition of who should count as a mystic was in direct relation to the decline in the perception of mystical experience, and religion generally, as politically powerful’.[27]

15. My interest here is not so much with the gender issue as with the broader political issue. For it seems clear that the modern conception of mystical experience, deriving from Schleirmacher via William James[28], which emphasises the importance of personal feelings, stands in marked contrast to the testimony of the Christian mystics themselves. In particular, the idea of ineffability (that is, the via negativa, or the apophatic path) has changed from being an imagery concerned with letting go of false idols to being a direct report of personal experience. The principal reservation that I have about Forman’s account is that he is concerned with an abstraction from living religious traditions. Although he concedes that this is only one part of the spectrum of mystical experiences, and he does ‘not regard it as salvific in and of itself’[29] I would put the case more strongly: unless these experiences are able to be absorbed and valued by a religious community, then they are irrelevant to theology.

16. Katz’s paper was explicitly based on the assumption that ‘There are NO pure (i.e. unmediated) experiences.’ This assumption is unwarranted. For the reasons outlined by Forman, and by consideration of the parallel experiences in scientific research it would seem clear that there are experiences which are not wholly constructed by the conceptual background of the individual. To assert that there are no such experiences is to deny any possibilty of creative development, and, if nothing else, that stands in contrast to the mystical teachings which Katz is claiming to study. However, the existence of unmediated experience is, of itself, not religiously significant. Forman would appear to stand in the line of modernist interpretation which emphasises the importance of the individual experience[30]. Yet this highly academic approach does seem to have disengaged with all that is most vital and distinctive in the religious tradition itself. Two points are worth making in conclusion. The first is that the mystics worked and taught within the context of a living tradition – they were deeply engaged with the inheritance of faith. As Bernard McGinn puts it, ‘No Mystics (at least before the present century) believed in or practiced “mysticism”. They believed in and practiced Christianity (or Judaism, or Islam, or Hinduism), that is, religions that contained mystical elements as parts of a wider historical whole’.[31] Secondly, the mystical path, the attempt to discern the nature of God – and to thereby be transformed by God in turn – has what would now be considered essentially political consequences. The fruits of mystical contemplation were to be found in increased social engagement – in the search for justice and mercy in the wider social sphere, hence the concern for the relief of poverty on the part of the mendicant orders and the Beguines. As such, the existence of unmediated experience needs to be subjected to a rigorous religious critique. Fortunately, the writings of the mystics themselves provide the ideal raw material for such a study.

Language, Epistemology and Mysticism, Steven Katz, in Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, Steven Katz (editor), Oxford University Press (London: Sheldon Press), 1978.
The Problem of Pure Consciousness, Robert K C Forman (editor), Oxford University Press, 1990.
Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago, 2nd Edition, 1970.
Grace Jantzen, Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism, Cambridge University Press, 1995
Mark A McIntosh, Mystical Theology, Blackwell, 1998
Denys Turner, The Darkness of God, Cambridge University Press, 1995

[1] Language, Epistemology and Mysticism, Steven Katz, in Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, Steven Katz (editor), Oxford University Press (London: Sheldon Press?#), 1978. Hereafter LEM.

[2] The Problem of Pure Consciousness, Robert K C Forman (editor), Oxford University Press, 1990. Hereafter: PPC.

[3] LEM p23-4.

[4] LEM p26. Emphases in the original.

[5] LEM p26-7. Emphasis in the original.

[6] LEM p32.

[7] LEM p46.

[8] LEM p46-7.

[9] LEM p56-7.

[10] LEM p59.

[11] For example, the fact the people share a common humanity (a common physiology), born of a common existence on one planet, would provide some grounds for optimism relating to the exploration of common elements between different religions.

[12] PPC p9.

[13] I should point out that Forman is not consistent in his discussion of ‘theses’ and ‘axioms’. He moves from claiming that there are “two theses” linked by a “presupposition”, to describing the second thesis AS the “unstated presupposition”, and then to describing a “third axiom of the essay”, as a product of the first two. The “two theses” that he refers to at the beginning can therefore be taken to mean either 1. No unmediated experiences AND 2. Different religions have different sets; or 1. No unmediated experiences AND 2. Pluralism. My account takes the first of these two options as determinative, as the references later in the article seem to imply that this is Forman’s own preference.

[14] PPC p10.

[15] PPC p11.

[16] PPC p14.

[17] LEM p 27.

[18] PPC p16.

[19] PPC p17.

[20] PPC p18.

[21] For a detailed discussion of this point, see the essay by Donald Rothberg, Contemporary Epistemology and the study of Mysticism, in PPC, pp163 – 210.

[22] Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago, 2nd Edition, 1970.

[23] Kuhn, 1970, p57.

[24] PPC 19-21.

[25] Grace Jantzen, Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism, Cambridge University Press, 1995

[26] Jantzen, p317.

[27] Jantzen, p 326.

[28] For an overview of the history, see Jantzen pp304-321.

[29] PPC p9

[30] To be fair to Forman, his position is a little more subtle. In his discussion of Eckhart, for example, he concedes that Eckhart’s intention is that ‘the contemplative life is only complete when brought into action’ (PPC p114).

[31] Bernard McGinn, The Presence of God: A history of Western Christian Mysticism, p xvi, quoted in Denys Turner, The Darkness of God, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p261.

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