I've been thinking lately of the fact that a lot of people, many intellectuals included, pretty much dismiss of any kind of "mysticistic" practice.

I'll put the general definition from Wikipedia for "mysticism":

Mysticism is the practice of religious ecstasies (religious experiences during alternate states of consciousness), together with whatever ideologies, ethics, rites, myths, legends, and magic may be related to them. It may also refer to the attainment of insight in ultimate or hidden truths, and to human transformation supported by various practices and experiences.

The second, highlighted part is more important. So, aside from the stuff that relates to magic, myths, rites, legends, that definition seems very similar to what practical philosophy, or more precisely practical aesthetics (in the context of art as revealer of Nature for example).

I'd like to ask then, how do we separate mysticism from practical philosophy? How do we say which is "legit" philosophically, and which is simply nonsense?

Edit: According to Philip's suggestion, I'd like to emphasize that the practical philosophy I'm talking about is, for example, the sort of philosophy of nature that talks about connection to Nature, like Aristotle's "nous", Kant's (and the rest of the German Idealists) "Genius"/"Intellectual Intuition" via art.

  • I'd be critical of lumping together mysticism and virtue ethics. Probably "human transformation" in this context is to be read stronger than just "becoming a better human", but rather "becoming something better (and other) than mere humans".
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Jun 8, 2018 at 8:43
  • 1
    @PhilipKlöcking true. It might be wrong of me to do so, but I'm emphasizing "attainment of insight in ultimate or hidden truths", and as extension, the idea that via some sort of practice one might achieve a connection to some higher "dimension", "being", or as natural philosophers might say, to "Nature". I hope the similarity is better felt when put like that. Commented Jun 8, 2018 at 9:07
  • Ah, yes. I think it might help framing this aspect through Aristotle's contemplation (nous) and perhaps Schelling and William James (who also emphasised that insight comes from living a full life)
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Jun 8, 2018 at 9:22
  • "Mysticism" has always been a part of philosophy, and the boldface quote can easily describe Buddhism or Hinduism, for example, which are quite popular even among "intellectuals". People are skeptical of "mystical" or "spiritualistic" practices because there is also a lot of snake oil salesmanship in that area, but separating that is not a question about the line between mysticism and practical philosophy, it is a question of common sense, experience and judgment.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jun 9, 2018 at 20:52

1 Answer 1


It's an interesting question and an important one. I'll identify your definition of mysticism (the bolded sentence) as Yoga, the art of union with reality.

I'd say that Yoga is practical philosophy while what discursive philosophers do is speculative and theoretical. In physics the theorists tend to be disparaging about the experimentalists but in mysticism it's the other way around.

The idea that what professional philosophers do is practical would raise an eyebrow in mysticism. It is pure theory for the most part and after two millenia of work it is clear that it is not at all practical in respect of results. The mystics have the advantage of access to experimental results, viz. the insights and knowledge you mention.

It is difficult to imagine anything less practical than a purely scholastic philosophy. It just goes around and around in circles with no way to move on.

Separating the wheat from the chaff is difficult in religion and mysticism but probably no more difficult than it is in scholastic philosophy and once you get the idea it is usually fairly easy. The problem is only that it takes some study and effort and many people don't bother on the grounds that they already know before they begin that it's all chaff.

As you say, a lot of people, many intellectuals included, pretty much dismiss any kind of mystic practice. They will never know how to sort the wheat from the chaff. They are theorists not interested in a practical approach. Note the degree of success they achieve in philosophy and their inability to understand it.

In short, mysticism is practical philosophy and what universities call philosophy is not. This is true of both its methods and its results.

EDIT: Mysticism normalises on a 'neutral' metaphysical position. This is easily identifiable where it appears since it requires the use of an unusual technical language. It solves all philosophical problems. It is difficult to see how it could be any more practical. Although it can and has been proved in logic it is not a theory for practitioners but an experimental result.

For these reasons I'd agree with Conifold. The idea that the practice of philosophy may be practical or mystical seems to be a category error.

  • So, you have any suggestion as a follow-up to some book that explain some of the separation process? Commented Jun 10, 2018 at 8:46
  • @YechiamWeiss - I don't believe there is or ever can be a single book. It's a task for comparative religion and would require reading widely. More than anything I feel it's a task for metaphysics and logical analysis. There were two books that cracked opened the door to mysticism for me. The first was 'Mind of God' by Paul Davies. The second was 'Cultivating the Empty Field - The Silent Illuminations of Master Hongzhi' by Daniel Leighton. I suspect it's only necessary to persevere with ones studies for the separation to become ever easier.
    – user20253
    Commented Jun 10, 2018 at 11:51
  • @YechiamWeiss - Pardon me. That was a poor comment for an interesting question. It needs a thread of its own. .
    – user20253
    Commented Jun 11, 2018 at 11:22

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