Internet Resources for Philosophical Mysticism, and Some of Its Opponents


Here is a brief account of the issues, as I see them, between the advocates of “philosophical mysticism” or “the God of freedom” and some of their opponents—with links to many of the most useful Websites that I’m familiar with, on all sides. Whether anyone is really an “opponent” of philosophical mysticism is questionable, since philosophical mysticism, as such, isn’t widely known, even among scholars. I use the word “opponent” only to designate people who, for whatever reason, don’t embrace philosophical mysticism. But Plato, Hegel and Emerson, philosophical mysticism’s great spokespeople, are well known, so it’s possible that, in time, more people will come to appreciate what they have to teach us in this central area. If that occurs, it will bring into view options that are seldom taken into account in our ongoing debates about God, the nature of reality, and so forth. This will help to remove the feeling of dead-end futility that these debates often carry with them.

My discussion on this page supplements the sketch of philosophical mysticism that I gave in the “Manifesto for Philosophical Mysticism,” above. Further details can be found especially in chapter 3 of my Hegel book, which you can download from Writings. See especially section 1.2.3 of chapter 1, sections 2.1, 2.4 and 2.6 of chapter 2, and section 3.8 of chapter 3.

Mysticism as I understand it involves transcendence, in some form. In what form, specifically, I’ll explain below. Intelligent recent critics of religion and transcendence include Sam Harris (The End of Faith), Steven Pinker (The Blank Slate), and Harold Fromm. Fromm has an essay on the Web in which he criticizes Emerson’s “Oversoul,” in contrast to what Fromm takes to be Emerson’s more defensible later “evolutionary existentialism.” (See also Fromm’s interesting “From Plato to Pinker.”) My “Manifesto,” my sermon on Emerson (downloadable from Writings) and my book on Hegel lay out what amounts to a defense of transcendence in general, of Plato, and of Emerson’s “Oversoul” against Fromm’s, Harris’s and Pinker’s arguments—and against the arguments of scientism and materialism in general.

Andrew Sullivan, the Catholic journalistic prodigy who writes for the Atlantic Monthly, conducted an interesting Web-dialogue about religion with Sam Harris. If I had to name a “winner” of this extended exchange, I don’t think it would be Sullivan, though he makes many very suggestive points. A group of writers following in the footsteps of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, including Brian Swimme, Thomas Berry, Michael Dowd, and Connie Barlow, are conducting a courageous defense of the unity of spirit with cosmic evolution. I don’t think they’ve explained very well why one should speak of spirit, the sacred, worship, or God when one doesn’t speak of transcendence. I think Sullivan, too, is hampered primarily by lack of clarity about why we need transcendence.

An influential contemporary writer who comes close to explaining the need for transcendence is Ken Wilber (Sex, Ecology, Spirituality; A Theory of Everything; etc.). Wilber emphasizes the “integral” nature of reality: the way higher levels of complexity and integration, such as molecules, cells, organisms, and cultures, include but go beyond the corresponding lower levels (atoms, molecules, cells, etc.). In agreement with many biologists, “systems theorists,” and so forth, Wilber maintains that the behavior of the higher levels of complexity can’t be fully understood in terms of the behavior of the levels beneath them. He refers to this vertical dimension of increasing complexity and integration (which he credits Plato and Hegel with having identified) as a kind of “transcendence,” suggesting that if we extrapolate it to levels higher than everyday human experience, it will explain the religious experience of transcendence. In which case, a vertical dimension of transcendence would seem to be a finding not just of religion, but of contemporary science, itself.

What remains somewhat obscure to me, from Wilber’s account, is how the extrapolation of complexity and integration beyond our everyday experience will generate the kind of transcendence that we think of as religious. Fortunately, Plato and Hegel themselves make this clear. They show that reason or rationality itself can’t do without a (non-spatial) dimension of “higher” and “lower,” which generates the kind of reality and experience that we think of as religious. Reason can’t do without this kind of dimension because reason is the pursuit of truth, rather than the pursuit (merely) of what’s useful for survival or pleasure or any other arbitrary goal. What’s “higher” is whatever serves truth, in all domains, including the domain of inquiry into what goals we should pursue—that is, inquiry into the Good. Ask yourself, do I want just whatever I instinctively feel drawn to, or do I want whatever would truly be good (for me)? How would I feel if I discovered that while getting everything that I was instinctively drawn to, I had failed to get what was really good? And how would I feel if I discovered that I had lived all my life without being aware of the real nature of the world around me: that I’d been governed essentially by illusions, all my life (the “Matrix” question)? Questions like these bring out the inescapable relevance of inquiry into the Good and of inquiry into what’s true and real, for beings (like ourselves) that seem to be capable of such inquiry.

Rational inquiry in the broadest sense is the effort to come to grips with questions of this kind, which require us to “rise above” questions simply of how to survive, how to get pleasure, and the like. No doubt survival and pleasure will be among the things that we’ll conclude are good; but they won’t be the whole of it, and there may be cases where the whole of it can be attained only by settling for less than the maximum of certain parts, such as survival or pleasure. And as for truth and reality as such, no doubt knowledge of them will often be useful for purposes of survival, pleasure, or whatever. But it seems that truth and reality are important to us for their own sake, as well—even if they won’t affect our apparent survival or our level of pleasure. So in both respects, we seem to be concerned about things that go beyond what our biological instincts for survival, pleasure, and the like, direct us towards.

Plato explores our interest in questions of truth, reality, and the Good throughout his works, and especially in Republic books iv-vii, including the famous allegory of the Cave. Reason’s orientation toward these questions produces the dimension of higher and lower, of transcendence, that religion has always been about. I’ll explain in a moment how this dimension is expressed in religion.

But first I need to explain a feature of Plato’s and Hegel’s thinking about transcendence that may be surprising. Plato’s mature notion of transcendence, and Hegel’s notion of it—their notion of the transcendence that’s involved in reason itself—is not the notion of a transcendent “being” or a transcendent “world.” I refer to “Plato’s mature notion of transcendence” because Plato did indeed promote the idea of a transcendent being or a transcendent world in his Phaedo (which unfortunately is the dialogue from which most of his critics take their conception of what “Platonism” is about). The Phaedo is the famous dialogue about the possible immortality of the “soul,” and about philosophy as a process of preparing for what comes after death. But in his Republic, Symposium and Timaeus, Plato revises his approach in a major way. Rather than  talking about what comes after death, Plato here talks primarily about how we should live this life, and now he describes the “soul” not as something that can be separated from the body and its appetites, but rather as a project of unifying the appetites and the ego (thumos) under the guidance of reason, by seeking what is truly Good. This project of unification through pursuit of the truth and the Good is the vertical dimension of “higher” versus “lower” that constitutes transcendence under this revised, more mature conception. So rather than rejecting the world, as in the Phaedo, transcendence now guides what’s “lower” (the appetites and the ego) to participation in something that’s “higher.” This unifying “ascent” is very close to Hegel’s conception of transcendence, in which what’s truly transcendent (what Hegel calls “true infinity”) is the self-surpassing of the finite or of nature, rather than their polar opposite. The “reason” that Plato describes here as aiming at unity with the “non-rational” appetites is no longer merely the polar opposite of the non-rational, as it was in the Phaedo. Instead, it might well be described as the non-rational’s self-surpassing. 

Hegel describes the self-surpassing of the finite or nature or the non-rational as true infinity, and he describes the “transcendent being” or “transcendent world” as a spurious infinity, because the latter “infinity” in fact fails to be infinite, and fails to transcend. It fails to be infinite or to transcend because it’s opposed to and thus limited—made finite—by the beings that it’s supposed to transcend. But a finite “infinity” obviously doesn’t go beyond (doesn’t transcend) the realm of finite things. Plato may have had a similar point in mind when he stated in the Timaeus that the divine is not “jealous”—that is, it doesn’t wish to insist on how it differs from the world, and thus in effect make itself just another “pushing and shoving” part of the world. This is why Hegel concludes that true infinity can’t be opposed to finite beings, but must instead be their going beyond or surpassing themselves: their becoming infinite. And it’s why more recent thinkers like Alfred North Whitehead (Process and Reality [1929]) have wanted to think of the infinite as a “process,” rather than as a particular being.

Plato’s conception of a unifying “ascent” that’s guided by reason, and Hegel’s conception of true infinity as the self-surpassing of the finite are in fact the keys to each philosopher’s conception of the divine. It’s because of his conception of a unifying “ascent” that Plato says in the Theaetetus that a philosopher can “become like God”; and it’s because of his conception of infinity as the self-surpassing of the finite that Hegel associates what he calls “Spirit” both with human beings and with God. In both cases, “God” is an extrapolation, a limiting case as we “approach infinity,” of the process of transcendence that we experience within human life in the process of unification under the guidance of reason, or in the self-surpassing of the finite and nature, that Plato and Hegel describe. Thus, Hegel would say that the target of Sam Harris’s and Steven Pinker’s criticisms of religion and transcendence, and of most other criticisms of religion and transcendence, is in fact what Hegel calls the “spurious infinity”—the separate and opposed “transcendent being” or “transcendent world”—rather than the extrapolation into a limiting case, which is how Hegel and Plato conceive of the divine.

In other words, neither Plato nor Hegel nor I defend conventional conceptions of God—God as a “transcendent being.” But we do maintain that those conceptions contain a germ of truth—the true “infinity,” or true “transcendence”—that needs to be understood, appreciated, and defended against scientism and materialism, which reject transcendence in any form. This germ of truth is what the mystical currents within all of the world’s religions have focused on and taught. (Chapter 3 of my Hegel book, which you can download from Writings, gives a detailed account of the idea of “true infinity” or “true transcendence” and its most important implications.)

Because our inner unification or our going beyond our finiteness makes us more self-determining—less dependent on things outside us to make us what we are—it makes us more real as ourselves. This is the distinctive feature of “gods”; it’s what distinguishes them from ordinary realities. The Plato/Hegel mystical God can be called the germ of truth in conventional conceptions of God because it’s understood in terms of this distinctive feature. As a result, it resembles the conventional God in several important ways: it transcends finite realities; it “saves” us (by giving us freedom and, with it, love); and by giving us whatever full reality we have (meaning: reality as ourselves), it gives the world whatever full reality it has, thus resembling the traditional “Creator.” And if “power” is the ability to bring about full reality, the Plato/Hegel God has all power—is “omnipotent.”

This is why the mystics all regard their experience of this reality as revealing to them what religion is really about. And it’s how the Plato/Hegel conception of God shows that an experience that we can appropriately describe as religious (because it connects us with divinity, as full, self-determining reality), is the implementation of reason in the fullest sense.

Now let me mention some Internet resources that can support the Plato/Hegel vision. Most of Plato’s and Hegel’s own works can, of course, be found on the Web, though not always in the most recent or most accurate translations. (Kai Froeb) has a good overview of the works of Hegel, both in English and in German, that are available either in html or in pdf format. Andrew Chitty has a very extensive bibliography of commentaries on Hegel. Complete texts of some older commentaries and works on mysticism are available, such as W. R. Inge’s Studies of English Mystics (1905). Complete books, and useful selections from books that are still under copyright, can often be found on Google Books.

Another Internet resource on issues relating to philosophical mysticism is the Yahoo discussion groups. They are easy to join and there are a dozen or more of them relating to Hegel, to Neoplatonism and to Rumi. I participate especially on hegel-religion and hegel-scilogic. The searchable archives of the messages exchanged on these groups can yield lots of useful information and ideas. Also, don’t overlook the “files” section at the group’s homepage, where participants upload larger documents.

In the files of hegel-religion and hegel-scilogic you’ll find a number of essays by Stephen Theron, a highly sophisticated Catholic philosopher who explores the similarities and differences between St Thomas Aquinas and Hegel. Theron’s contributions are especially important because he’s one of the small number of trained scholars working on Hegel currently who have a strong background in and sympathy for philosophical theology. We’re fortunate to have a good deal of his work freely available on the Web. You can also download his valuable recent Essays Hegelian and Ecumenical from GRIN Verlag, for a reasonable price. The most important commentary in English on Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion is Peter C. Hodgson, Hegel and Christian Theology (2008), samples of which can be found on Google Books. Hodgson edited the multi-volume translation of Hegel’s LPR (1984-).

On the border between religion and psychology, my wife, Kathy Kouzmanoff, has written a very illuminating book, Lifewheel. Your Choices at Life’s Every Turn. Portions of it are available on her  website. Kathy shows how transcendence is an integral process, rather than a separate “being” or “world.” In this way, her teaching is very much in keeping with Plato and Hegel, and doesn’t depend on the dualism that Steven Pinker targets. But neither does it fall into the unspiritual materialism that Pinker falls into.

Platonic philosophy influenced Sufism, which is the mystical current of Islam and the tradition that gave us the great poetry of Jelaluddin Rumi. Though persecuted in Saudi Arabia and in Iran, Sufism is very much alive worldwide. Prof. Alan Godlas, at the University of Georgia, moderates a very interesting Sufis Without Borders Yahoo discussion group, and also operates a very comprehensive website on Islam in general.

I’ve recently discovered a bunch of blogs relating to German Idealism including Hegel. An intelligent one is Gabriel Gottlieb’s “Self and World”; he lists other philosophy blogs. If anyone knows of blogs that deal with Hegel’s philosophical theology, or with Platonism and Neoplatonism, or with Romantic and modern poetry and their relations to philosophy, I’d be grateful to hear about them.

A rewarding website on Christian theology and philosophy is Cynthia Nielsen’s “Per Caritatem.”

Finally, on the border between religion or spirituality and politics, Rabbi Michael Lerner of San Francisco edits Tikkun magazine and has co-founded a “Network of Spiritual Progressives.” Another interesting resource in this area is Kosmos Journal.