The Claims for Mysticism in The Varieties of Religious Experience


In his famous discussion of mystical experience, James finally turns away from the descriptive task that dominates his treatment and attempts to assess the legitimacy of belief founded on such experiences. He asks, "Does it furnish any warrant for the truth?" (V 335). . On this head, he concludes that (1) "Mystical states, when well developed, usually are, and have the right to be, absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come" (V. 335 my emphasis). At the same time, (2) such states do not have authority over those who have not had them. However, their existence does (3) "overthrow the pretension of non-mystical states to be the sole and ultimate dictators of what we may believe (V. 338). In this paper I want to examine each of these claims and the relation between them. It will be my contention that the evidence which supports the second, undermines the first.

In his justly famous discussion of mystical experience, William James  finally turns away from the descriptive task that otherwise dominates his treatment and attempts to assess the legitimacy of belief founded on such experiences.   He asks, "Does it furnish any warrant for the truth?" (V  335).  Since he has argued that mystical experiences tend to be pantheistic, optimistic and anti-naturalistic, the question is whether those experiences provide evidence for the truth of pantheism, optimism and anti-naturalism.  On this head, he concludes that (1) "Mystical states, when well developed, usually are, and have the right to be, absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come" (V. 335 my emphasis).  At the same time, (2) he contends that such states do not have authority over those who have not had them.  However, their existence does (3) "overthrow the pretension of non-mystical states to be the sole and ultimate dictators of what we may believe (V. 338).   In this paper I want to examine each of these claims and the relation between them.  It will be my contention that the evidence which supports the second, undermines the first. 

In examining  James' case for the first of his three claims,  we must note an important distinction.  There are two elements to that claim.  One is descriptive and the other is normative.  That mystical states usually are taken to be authoritative merely states a fact about how such states occur for those who have them.  It is on a par with "Most of those who have fought in Iraq, believe that the war is justified."  It is no doubt true but it does not assert that they have a right to that belief although they certainly may.  Those who have mystical experiences tend to take them as revealing  reality.  This is a descriptive claim with which I do not wish to disagree.  In fact, it is well confirmed by James' own careful and extensive discussion.  He reminds us of the conviction which normally accompanies these experiences.  "We can throw him into a prison or a madhouse, but we cannot change his mind" (V 335).   All of this goes to support the first part of James's first claim, namely that these states do reign authoritative for those who have them   However, it is the second and normative claim that I wish to examine.  Do individuals who have had such states "have a right to" take them as absolutely authoritative? 

There are at least two interpretations here.  On a narrow view James' claim comes merely to the contention that when the mystic is in the mystical state it presents itself as authoritative and the mystic, at that moment, has no basis to deny that authority.  She thus has a right to accept it.   Here the claim is not that one has a right to every belief that one has no basis to deny but rather that one has a right to a belief that "is being confirmed before your very eyes" when one has no basis to deny the belief.  It is the experiential nature of mystical experience that impresses James.  However, even if we were to accept this reading,  it is worth noting that dreamers often are in the same position.  Many dreams come with all the hallmarks of reality and in the moment there is no basis to deny them.  It is only when one awakes that it becomes clear that the claims to authority were themselves part of the illusion.    (So even if we accept this reading, the mystic is in no better epistemic position than the dreamer which we might be inclined to say is not a very good position.  However, James refers to mystical state which have a right to be taken as authoritative as "well developed" and this may provide a reply.  If we take our cue from James' own descriptions of traditional mystics like St John of the Cross or St Teresa, we can see that their mystical experiences are multiple and not of the disjointed, more or less random nature that most dreams exemplify.  There is a unity across experiences and there is a developing coherence of content.  It is just these features that James has in mind by "well developed" and it is these features that distinguish mystical experiences from dreams.)  But if we accept this reply we must certainly abandon the initial reading of "authoritative.   James must be making a stronger claim. 

Certainly the text supports a stronger reading.  James's very reference to putting someone in jail suggests a stronger interpretation for, in this case, we have an attempt to change someone's mind after the fact.  And he goes so far as to contend that the mystic becomes more attached to belief.   This is not a reference to someone who is in the throws of mystical rapture but to someone who has had an (or several) experience(s). 

How shall we formulate that stronger claim?  Perhaps James can help us here.  He appeals to an analogy between sense experience and mystical states.  

Our own more 'rational' beliefs are based on evidence exactly similar in nature to that which mystics quote for theirs.  Our senses, namely, have assured us of certain states of fact; but mystical experiences are as direct perceptions of fact for those who have them as any sensations ever were for us (V 336).

Since we accept as evidence something which is qualitatively identical with the mystic, we are in no position to criticize his belief while leaving our own unexamined.  Therefore, the mystic has, at least,  a prima facie justification for his beliefs.   But James concludes,  the "mystic is...invulnerable" (V 336).  What can this mean?  Is James suggesting that the mystic has a right to her beliefs all things considered?  Certainly that seems to be a natural reading of "invulnerable."  However, and this will be the critical point, we do not accept at face value all "face to face presentations of what seems immediately to exist" (V 336)1.  A critical stance is possible here and I will argue James gives us the ammunition that we need to develop one.. 

I  now pass on to a consideration of James' second claim.  I will argue that much of what he says with regard to the second undoes his argument for the first.  At the beginning of the discussion of the second point James makes a distinction between "suggestive"and "logical" reasons.  What does he have in mind here?   The distinction arises in the context of the mystics appeal to the unanimity of  mystical experience.  He says,

they establish a presumption.  They form a consensus and have an unequivocal outcome; and it would be odd, mystics might say, if such a unanimous type of experience should prove to be altogether wrong.  (V 336)

Now James sees this argument as merely an appeal to numbers without logical force.  He says "If we acknowledge it, it is for 'suggestive' not for logical reasons: we follow the majority because it suits our life"  (V 336).   This is a strange distinction for James to draw especially in light of the fact that he seems to come down on the side of "logical reasons".  One might expect James, the pragmatist,  to set himself against "mere logical reasons" and for what "suits our life." 

In order to understand what James has in mind here it is necessary to distinguish between two distinct arguments that he presents in the first section.  Initially he appeals to a "pragmatic argument" when he says,  "If the mystical truth that come to a man proves to be a force that he can live by, what mandate have we of the majority to order him to live in another way?" (V 335). However further on in that section, as we have seen,  he appeals to an analogical argument when he says "Our own more 'rational' beliefs are based on evidence exactly similar in nature to that which mystics quote for theirs" (V 335-6).   If we see these as distinct arguments we can make sense of the distinction between logical and "suggestive" reasons.  When James makes that distinction he must be thinking of the pragmatic argument so that the fact that others might also find the mystic's way of life the way to live adds no logical force to the claim.  In this context, greater numbers don't add up.   Here the point seems to be analogous to the case of a movie critic.  The fact that a critic sees a film  which she likes  very much is unaffected by whether others like it as well.  Of course, if I know something about the critic's tastes, I may find her recommendation "suggestive" but that is an independent matter. Conversely, even if many people like the film that bears no logical weight on the original judgement of the critic. She may be lead to reconsider her judgment in light of what others think but she is under no logical compulsion to do so.2

However, when we consider the analogical argument, inter subjective agreement is not merely a matter of more people.  It is part of our concept of "a real object" that under normal circumstances, it is open to  the experience of others.3   So James' argument, on this level, ought to be that the unequivocal nature of mystical experience is analogous to the convergence of so called "rational"' experience.  The fact that mystics all report something similarly argues for the reality of what they report.   If, for example, I seem to see a pink rat in the corner, I may ask if others see it as well and when I discover that they do not I may conclude that my experience is an illusion. But if others also report seeing it, then I  take it for real.   It is just this cross personal agreement that underwrites the veridical nature of the experience.  So when the mystic points out that other mystics agree about what their experiences seem to reveal, he is relying on the analogy with every day experience.  Of course, the argument is not absolute.  After all, in the case of every day objects–a tree outside my window–if I see it I can get others to see it simply by directing them where to look and it is clearly the case that the mystic cannot to that.  Some of us simply don't "see" it at all.   But James only claims that the agreement among mystics "establishes a presumption."  In normal life, the argument carries substantial weight.  Inter subjectivity just is at least part of what we mean by the objective.  That this is part of our concept of the real may, in the end, rest on pragmatic considerations–"it suits our life"-- but the mystic is appealing to that concept when he claims that the unanimity of mystical experience creates a "presumption" and so the point is "logical".   Perhaps James is not himself clear about the difference between the two sorts of arguments he is offering.

This same distinction might also provide us a way to understand why James says that the mystic is invulnerable.  If we have in mind the pragmatic argument then in a sense the mystic is clearly justified.  These experiences provide her with a way she can live her life.  That we cannot deny.  That she can live in accord with what these experiences seem to reveal, can only be confirmed by her doing so.  There is nothing that we can add or subtract from that.  As James puts it "It is vain for rationalism to grumble."  (V 335) If this is all there is to the matter, we and the mystic must simply part company but this is not all there is.  As we learn from Pragmatism, truth just is "the expedient in the way of our thinking" but "expedient in the long run and on the whole course" and the mystic has yet to run the whole course.  (P 100)

The heart of James argument for his second point–that the authority of mystical experiences does not extend beyond the person who has them-is his contention that  the  "presumption from the unanimity of mystics is far from being strong" (V 336).   Here James makes what I believe to be an amazing admission.  He has "cooked" the data.  He says,

I over-simplified the truth.  I did so for expository reasons, and to keep the closer to the classic mystical tradition.  The classic religious mysticism, it must be confessed, is only a 'privileged case' (V 336)

So James has not been merely describing the phenomenon as he found it.  He has been constructing a "type" by selecting those examples that fit that type and leaving to the side cases that do not and he admits that "if we take the larger mass as seriously as religious mysticism has historically taken itself, we find that the supposed unanimity largely disappears. (V 336) Even classical religious  mysticism is not as unanimous as James has suggested.  Remember his contention is that mystical experience is pantheistic, optimistic, and anti-naturalistic.  However, as he now admits, that is not true.  For example, the "the great Spanish mystics are anything but pantheistic" (V. 337).     In fact, 

the mystical feeling...has no specific intellectual content whatever of its own.  It is capable of forming matrimonial alliances with material furnished by the most diverse philosophies. (V. 337)

So an unbiased survey even of religious mystical experience provides us–those who do not have such experiences- with no basis to infer anything except that such experiences occur and that their

occurrence is compatible with the "most diverse philosophies."  He seems to imply that the "intellectual content" is a matter of antecedent beliefs or at least vocabularies.  But this means that  the experiences provide no independent support for the beliefs or vocabularies at all.  This admission not only undercuts the third person value of the experiences but also offers some reason for the mystic to reassess their evidential value as well.  If she learns of a diversity of experiences and articulations she may come to suspect the support which she uncritically accepted initially.  To up this point more generally if, as James argues, the unanimity of mystical experiences is suppose to add to its epistemic legitimacy then diversity must undercut it.

But the problems do not stop there because "religious mysticism is only one half of mysticism." (V. 337) He tells us that if we but open the text-books on insanity, we will find "abundant cases in which 'mystical ideas' are cited as characteristic symptoms of enfeebled and deluded states of mind" (V 337).  This is a stunning admission for surely the similarity between such experiences and those of the classical mystic calls the latter into question.  In fact, it now seems that the very fact that there is something called "classic religious mysticism" is a function of there being a religious tradition which lends its voice to the articulation of experiences instead of the experiences being somehow expressive of that tradition.  What I mean to say is that James admits that there is nothing about the experiences themselves–experientially they are on all fours with "enfeebled and deluded states of mind"–in terms of which we classify them.     In fact, James concludes this section with the admission that being a mystical experience confers no "infallible credential." 

What comes must be sifted and tested, and run the gauntlet of confrontation with the total context of experience, just like what comes from the outer world of sense.  (V 338)

 So the mystic is not invulnerable.  Her views must be "sifted and tested" even though they are experienced as coming with a sense of authority. 

For some reason, which is not clear to me, James exempts the mystic from this test.  He says that the sifting and testing is limited only to those who are not mystics.  "Its value (mystical experience) must be ascertained by empirical methods, so long as we are not mystics ourselves" (VRE 338) But why is the mystic exempt.  Surely she can reflect on the similarity between her own experience and that of the insane.  If in insanity someone can have experiences that claim reality and if such a sense forces itself upon them, while all the while we know that it is not true, perhaps, the so called mystical experiences of mine are also illusions. 

In part three James seems to bite the bullet and allow that what he calls in part 2 "enfeebled or deluded states of mind" might also be revelatory.  But it seems to me that it is the presumption in favor of the mystical that pushes James to that conclusion.  Had he not presented us with these as a special category of experience with authority built right in, so to speak,  we might simply reverse his argument.  Since, mystical experience is on a continuum with the experiences of the insane, and since we rightly discount those experiences at least with regard to their evidential value, such experiences provide no reason to abandon "the pretension of non-mystical states to be the sole and untimate dictators of what we may believe" (VRE 338)   What I wanted to argue is that once we see mystical states on a continuum with delusional insanity, this might provide even the developed mystic with a reason to reconsider her claims.  After all, the person with paranoia can very well see the madness of that experience in a sane moment so that the authority that is internal to the experience may be discounted.  So also the mystic might at least ask herself if all this is real or merely an illusion.  Had James presented the continuum initially so that we might have seen the two side by side without making a privileged case of mystical experience and if we remove the surrounding tradition–something James admits can be done in his discussion of the second thesis–it is certainly not clear that the mystic might not or should not reassess her assurance based on the occurrence of these experiences.  The point here is that even if she does not it is by no means clear that she should not.  Her failure to do so may simply be an indication of a "enfeebled and deluded" state of mind. 

1Perhaps 'invulnerable' is meant to be systematically ambiguous in just the way that "authoritative" is but then we need not be interested in the merely descriptive claim in which authoritative= cannot change one's mind and in what follows I contest the normative reading.

2There are obvious cases in which when someone finds out what others think about a film, she changes her own opinion.  Such is the force of conformity but again that is not a logical matter.

3I am not suggesting that "objectivity" and "inter subjectivity" are inter changeable only that the latter is a test for the former and that that is a logical fact.