Mysticism without concepts

International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 90 (3):233-246 (2021)
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It has often been claimed, e.g. by William James or Aldous Huxley, that mystical experiences across times and cultures exhibit a striking similarity. Even though the words and images we use to describe them are different, underneath the surface we find a common experiential core. Others have rejected this claim and argued that all experiences are intrinsically shaped by the mystics’ pre-existing religious concepts. Against these constructivist objections, I defend the idea of a common core by arguing that even if all experience is interpreted through concepts, there could still be a common core. Those who reject the common core thesis usually argue that no distinction between experience and interpretation can be made since all experience is per se already interpreted. The notion of an uninterpreted experience is self-defeating. Drawing on current research on nonconceptual mental content, I argue that experiences can have nonconceptual content; that interpretation must be understood as conceptualization and that conceptualization presupposes a raw mental content that is not conceptualized. This raw content is not experienced as nonconceptual. Rather, the nonconceptual, uninterpreted common core is an abstraction which shows itself only through reflection. Thus, the existence of a common core is compatible with the fact that all experiences are interpreted.

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Sebastian Gäb
Ludwig Maximilians Universität, München


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