Mysticism and Metaphysics seem to share immediate similarity: both amount to sort of speculations pertaining to capture universal truth that cannot be confirmed nor refuted by the senses. What is the distinction between mysticism and metaphysics?

In my search for some answer I explored Bertrand Russell's "Mysticism and Logic", an essay first published in 1917. However, in that essay, the relation between metaphysics and mysticism is somewhat unclear to me, and further - Russell limited the role of both mysticism and metaphysics in the practice of doing philosophy (since he wanted philosophy to be more scientific).

  • 4
    Assuming that we agree on saying that "Metaphysics amount to sort of speculations pertaining to capture universal truth that cannot be confirmed nor refuted by the senses" we can say that metaphysics try to do this with "logical arguments"; this is not shared with mysticism. Dec 13 '15 at 20:08
  • 2
    Thank you. Would it not then imply that non-Western metaphysics (e.g. that which is embeded in Chinese philosophy - Taoism especially) is no more than mysticism?...
    – Jordan S
    Dec 13 '15 at 20:43
  • 2
    @JordanS That would require you to declare their theories to have no logical value. At the very least, declaring "no more than..." anything is a very striking claim in any circumstance. In my experience, once one uses phrases like that, it guarantees that one will find no further worth in the structure they have minimized with their words. It's a self fulfilling prophecy, if you will.
    – Cort Ammon
    Dec 13 '15 at 21:18
  • 2
    @CortAmmon, thank you for this comment. One can find logic in everything; and personally I find logical value in non-Western philosophies - though the 'logical' in the 'logical value' cannot be taken in the strict sense of logic. (You are right to point out that extreme phrases ("no more than...") reduce or minimize the object of inquiry). I presume that the question of how to demarcate mysticism from metaphysics might be controversial.
    – Jordan S
    Dec 13 '15 at 21:28
  • 4
    I hit the Wikipedia page about the topic. It suggests the meaning of the word "mysticism" has changed many times including one quote as "a catch-all for religious weirdness." I also noticed the root of "mysticism" is "to conceal." Perhaps one may find the delineation between the two words in how the information is conveyed, rather than just its contents?
    – Cort Ammon
    Dec 13 '15 at 21:50

Per Russell's "mysticism and logic", the difference between mysticism and logic (He uses the term logic as a tag for reason and the scientific method in general) is purely epistemic. They are two different epistemic methods, even if they both have the same objective of acquiring (metaphysical) knowledge about the world.

So to answer your question:

  • Mysticism is one method of obtaining metaphysical knowledge. Per Russel, mysticism is mainly knowledge by intuition. I would add that it also includes techniques such as meditation and asceticism.
  • Metaphysics (as a sub-discipline of philosophy) is a different method. Here, logic, reason, and eventually empirical observation when possible are the proper method of obtaining knowledge of the world.

Wittgenstein makes an interesting distinction (as a complement to Russell's analysis of the difference): Mystical truths are exactly the truths that cannot be explained by logic, “What can be shown cannot be said”.

Mystical schools such of Sufism, often speak of mysteries that cannot be explained, instead the mystic has to "follow the path" to arrive at the truth, the teachers (gurus, saints, masters, etc...) can only show they way.

  • 3
    I would (slightly) disagree with Wittgenstein on the "cannot", since, as a Buddhist I'm familiar with the goal being truths that seem to resist description and seem paradoxical or nonsensical if spoken of, but actually have a large body of formal and logical study behind them (that of Nagarjuna and Dignaga, for example). It's just that the point is to know these things like you know your own life, experentially, not just at an intellectual level. However good the map is it can never describe the terrain fully. Then again, it does decribe it.
    – ian
    Dec 14 '15 at 3:21
  • 1
    @iain note that Wittgenstein was limited by the fact that he was using classical logic, Buddhist logic from what I understand is richer, and be understood in terms of developments in non-classical logic which have occurred after Wittgenstein's time. See this ref scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/09/08/… Dec 16 '15 at 1:03
  • that is no excuse! :) I jest, and I think my slight disagreement is less of a disagreement than a slight disclaimer. Regardless, that is a very interesting article, and I'll be reading the others in the series too, thank you for sharing.
    – ian
    Dec 16 '15 at 6:27
  • I would mildly disagree on the grounds that metaphysical truths can be explained by logic. What cannot be acquired in this way is understanding. I like your answer (upvoted) but feel it is misleading on a sensitive issue. Contra to Russell the mystics employ logic, reason and empiricism just as he does but unlike him they do not stop there and nor do they deny the results of logic and reason but claim that these results prove that Reality is just as they say it is. There are good logical demonstrations of what these 'intuitions' tell us about metaphysics and they require no special knowledge.
    – user20253
    Nov 19 '18 at 16:25

There is an overlap in the meaning of these words but they refer to distinct activities.

Definitions may vary but metaphysics may be seen as Hegel's 'science of logic' or the study and use of logic to determine truths about Reality, while mysticism includes metaphysics but is 'empirical' in that it goes beyond logic and proceeds by establishing 'what is the case' in experience.

Iow, the metaphysicians make the maps and the mystics undertake the journey. This is very similar to the experimental-theoretical division in physics except that in mysticism it is the theoreticians who are looked down on. In Buddhism metaphysical analysis would come under the heading of contemplation.

Contrary to your comment in the question mysticism is not about speculation but discovery.

I would suggest that you ignore anything Russell says on this topic since he could make no sense of metaphysics or mysticism and is the first to admit it.


Mysticism and metaphysics can differ in their methods of reasoning as @MauroALLEGRANZA commented. Additionally, they can differ in their aims - for example, mysticism, in contrast to metaphysics, can be thought of inter-alia as a tool helping to conceive the divine realm.

Note however that according to these kind of characterizations most if not all of Chinese philosophy and possibly other non-Western philosophies might be taken as mere mysticism.


Mysticism tends to be in the rubric of which Wittgenstein spoke as ‘that of which we cannot speak, of that we must remain silent.’ Whereas metaphysics can be spoken about adnauseum!

  • 1
    If you have references to others about metaphysics being spoken ad nauseum this would support your answer and give the reader a place to go for more information. Welcome. Jul 18 '19 at 10:28
  • 1
    It is not so much a matter of ‘references’ per se, but rather a remark that may open doors, so to say. The rubric of metaphysics tends to be a ‘speculative’ discipline. We discus it from the viewpoint of a ‘conversation’ ABOUT a philosophical subject matter. The Sanskrit word would be ‘vikalpa’ which -among dozens of meanings- has the sense of distinction, imagination, irresolution and above all perhaps, mental occupation. Mysticism however, or the mystical experience itself, does not lend itself to such speculation. It is, one may say, an objectless experience, nirvikalpa..no ‘talk’ hey! Jul 19 '19 at 13:59

The essential distinction is this:

  • Mysticism focuses on our subjective experience of the world.
  • Metaphysics focuses on our objective ontological understanding of the world.

The core idea in mysticism is that no expression of language can ever fully capture our subjective experience of the world. The richness and detail of subjective experience transcends description. The best we can ever do is sketch out our experience so that others can compare with their own experience; words become a shaky bridge between the private subjective spaces of different individuals. With that in mind, most mysticisms try to increase our awareness of our own subjective experience and minimize the impact of linguistic constructs, effectively getting us to see the world around us instead of merely talk about it. By direct apperception of this sort, we develop a more intimate connection with the world and more natural relationships to it, relieving many of the conflicts and biases that plague human thought. This is why most mystical traditions have something akin to meditation: a practice of direct unfiltered experience.

Metaphysics, by contrast, is philosophical and intellectual. It attempts to understand the world and our existence in it through language. Metaphysics might investigate what being or knowing or time is; it tries to get at the objective roots of our subjective experience, in order to understand the place of humanity in the cosmos.

Depending on how one approaches it, metaphysics and mysticism are either logical complements or strict antagonists, and the antagonism comes more easily than the complementarity (sad to say).

  • 1
    Great answer. Thanx. It raises though another wonder: what is the distinction between mysticism and phenomenology. As is, your account may imply that mysticism is a form of phenomenology.
    – Jordan S
    Jul 19 '19 at 11:04
  • 1
    I think it's best to see phenomenology as an effort to bridge metaphysics (MP) and mysticism (MS). If we think about Heidegger, what he's doing is still MP: he's trying to capture the nature of being in language from an objective view. But he realizes that MP is the forgetfulness of being, and he's looking for a way back so that people will remember/see their own presence which is the essence of MS. But H doesn't really offer a practice or tool for doing that; it's all just exhortation. Jul 19 '19 at 15:44

I appreciate all the thoughtful and informed responses to this question. At the same time, I think there is a large missing piece in the responses. If metaphysics is an externalized route to identify/discuss possibilities beyond what is known (e.g., by physics/science), and as a branch of philosophy confines itself to conventions of logic expressed in language, then it will always be limited by the constraints of the ego-mind; i.e., the mechanics of our being that define us as individuals and separate from source/Divine/God. In contrast, mysticism, which at its base is an internal experience and not limited to the ego-mind but can be an experience of the sacred mind, goes far beyond said constraints. The points of practices like meditation are to go beyond the ego-mind and its inherent limitations. As a consequence, the aspect about it relating to things not spoken of it not necessarily meant that its concepts are not to be spoken (though that is part and may apply to some aspects) but rather that they include what is beyond what can be spoken or even conceived of by the ego-mind. Thus, mysticism refers to a realm far greater than what metaphysics can address as a branch of philosophy. Consider the book series by Paul Selig, which take/carry the reader on a journey to their soul self but express the journey in ways that could be studied by metaphysicians. Consider the writings of Godfré Ray King (pseudonym) and Peter Mt. Shasta that describe mystical experiences but also put them in context of a larger purpose and development of the self that involves them in encounters that we would not think possible or could not pull off from knowledge of the ego-mind alone. Consider writings of Machaelle Small Wright, who describes experiences that science would deem impossible, and are not directly from a journey to the soul self, but some do involve the use of meditate, and all require a belief in what is beyond what we know. As a "teaser," she describes how she lives each day in two different (parallel) timelines (she is in each about half a day) in two different locations, and has evidence in each one of her experience in the other. Happy reading to those who are drawn!!!

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.