Maya Bhogal took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2016. In this post she writes about ‘mystic’ as a philosophical keyword.

Today, when someone says the word mystic, the most common connotation might be the figure of Mystic Meg, astrologist and psychic for The Sun. As in the picture below, Meg is often depicted holding a crystal ball in an ethereal setting. She is the archetype of a popular understanding of the word mystic. However, the original ‘mystics’ would be somewhat puzzled over this definition.

Mystic Meg with her crystal ball.

Mystic Meg with her crystal ball.

The online Oxford English Dictionary defines a mystic as a person who can grasp spiritual truths; i.e. something beyond the realm of knowledge. This definition perhaps might explain why Meg is adorned with the title of ‘Mystic’ beyond its mellifluent alliteration obviously. Through her (alleged) ability as a psychic to tell the future, she is able to transcend the boundaries of her own world in order to gain knowledge or insight into another realm.

However, earlier definitions of the word mystic, with roots in fifteenth century ecclesiastical history, define a mystic as an exponent of mystical theology. So traditionally, mystics were a phenomenon related to religion and God. The most prominent expounder of the mystic as a religious ‘experience’ was William James, in his influential work The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).[i] He writes that it is an experience which has united many world religions, from Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and most prominently in Britain, Christianity. Yet somewhat paradoxically, he also highlights the view that these experiences are so profound that they cannot be communicated through ordinary language, making them very isolated and individualistic experiences.

The ensuing definition by the OED, says that in its latter usage, a mystic was a person who seeks union with, or absorption into God. We can see this understanding of the word emerge around 1856 in relation to the Christian Mystics. When this is woven with James’ idea of the mystical ‘experience’, we can understand the nineteenth century philosophical understanding of mysticism as the ineffable experience of becoming one with God. Talking about mysticism coincided with the rise in spiritualism in Britain.

In 1848, Kate and Margaret Fox in New York used a primitive noggin to attempt to establish a dialogue between the spirit of Charles B. Rosma, who they believed had been haunting their home and after excavating their cellar, they found what they believed to be his skeleton. This episode, for many scholars represented the turning point where spiritualism began to gain a real following. By 1853 there were over 100,000 converts to spiritualism in the United States, and by 1900 the trend had caught on across the Atlantic with another 100,000 followers.

Looking at a Google Ngram viewer, we can see that the use of the word ‘mystic’ in books began to greatly increase from this moment onwards. A facet of spiritualism is the belief that a medium has the ability to channel a spirit which is separate from themselves, often allowing them to be overcome by that person. This draws distinct parallels with the mystic experience which is defined by the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy as:

“A (purportedly) super sense-perceptual or sub sense-perceptual unitive experience granting acquaintance of realities or states of affairs that are of a kind not accessible by way of sense-perception, somatosensory modalities, or standard introspection.”[ii]

Google Ngram depicting the use of the word 'Mystic' from 1800 - 2000

Google Ngram depicting the use of the word ‘Mystic’ from 1800 – 2000

As the Google Ngram viewer shows, writings about ‘mysticism’ reached their peak at the beginning of the twentieth century. Evelyn Underhill was an influential figure during this period with her 1911 book, Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness, amongst other works. Mysticism in particular became a staple introductory text to the topic for the following fifty years.[iii] In it, she argues that mysticism is “the expression of the innate tendency of the human spirit towards complete harmony with the transcendental order.” Following the tendency to regard mysticism as an ineffable experience, Underhill expounds the means to achieve this experience, rather than the nature of the experience itself. Underhill’s extensive writings about mysticism were influential to the aforementioned William James amongst others as she defines it as, explicitly a transcendental experience.

 A rather saintly portrayal of Evelyn Underhill by Ron Dart, no doubt to emphasise her transcendental connection

A rather saintly portrayal of Evelyn Underhill by Ron Dart, no doubt to emphasise her transcendental connection

However, Bernard McGinn argues that this nineteenth and early twentieth century definition of mysticism is not accurate. McGinn, and later Ralph Norman, contend that during the Romantic era, mysticism was an academic endeavour, predominantly pursued by German Romantics. They interpreted mystical texts in the context of romanticism, thereby imbuing it with their own notions of creating unity and harmony between the self and nature to overcome the evils of modernity. “It became a form of religious romanticism concentrated on the themes of individual subjectivity and heightened emotional or psychological states.” Norman instead argues that the only, and correct context for interpreting these texts is within the Christian doctrine, because Christian mysticism is filled with expressions of theological reflection.[iv]

The definition of the ‘mystic’ continued to be misconstrued throughout the majority of the twentieth century. This is evident in Steven Katz’s collection of essays Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis (1978). The authors of these essays had all relegated the importance of the primary texts of mysticism in their analysis. These sources normally range from the Hellenistic to the medieval period. Denys Turner argues that the modern interpretations of mysticism have essentially invented the word and that “we persist on reading back the terms of that conception upon a stock of mediaeval authorities who knew of no such thing.”[v] On such a reading, established mystics from the modern period, including Meister EckhartJohn of the CrossJulian of Norwich and Dionysius the Areopagite are not in fact mystics at all!

After the realisation of this misunderstanding, attention for philosophers of mysticism shifted back to the primary texts, revealing what traditional believers in mystic theology actually ascribed to. The word mystikos is derived from the Greek myo meaning “to close” especially ones eyes. When we apply this understanding to the Hellenistic mystical text, Mystical Theology written by Dionysius the Areopagite, it becomes apparent that the pursuit of the mystic was understanding the philosophy behind the idea of an ineffable God, who is hidden from us and therefore beyond our understanding

Dionysius the Areopagite

Dionysius the Areopagite

This definition of mysticism then, would arguably make Thomas Aquinas one of the most important Christian mystics as he advocated the theory of negative theology. His theory argues that Christians should not understand God by what he is, but rather what he is not. Aquinas’ teachings are fundamental in Christian theology, which views the essential nature of God as being beyond the capacity of the human mind.

Modern notions of mysticism tend to be based on the idea of the parting of ways between the theologian and the mystic, but the traditional view does not separate the two. Russian philosopher, Vladimir Solovyo argued that mysticism was the remaining aspect of knowledge which reconciled the speculative gaps between rationality and empiricism. In his work Philosophical Principles of Integral Knowledge, he rejects rationality and empiricism as the only foundations of knowledge, arguing for mysticism to provide a more transcendental understanding of philosophy. Interestingly, the author of this article, writing within the framework of the modern conception of mysticism, argues that it is important to distinguish this from the term mysticism as it denotes to a reflection on that connection with the transcendental. By pursuing such a line of thought, he seems

This is somewhat in line with the direction of early theological and philosophical discussions of mysticism, which, according to Jerome Gellman, do not obey traditional laws of logic and reason.

In modern times, mysticism, with its association as an experience that connects one with the divine or supernatural knowledge, has been considered an irrational and superstitious pursuit. Many have dismissed it as a “queer” phenomenon of sociological or psychological behaviour as it does not operate within modern conceptions of epistemology.[vi] Interestingly, Grace Jantzen has argued that a stress on the concept of mystic experiences as ineffable have largely been an attempt to consign it as an “irrational” belief and remove it from rational discourses into the realm of emotions.

As such, discussion regarding mysticism has dwindled back to the levels of the eighteenth century. The common perception of the mystic as an eccentric fortune-telling figure, but ultimately not someone (one should hope!) that people take too seriously, appears to be a huge anti-climax in the history of mysticism, after having been a philosophy that essentially championed a huge section of Christian theology.


Further Reading

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Mysticism

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Dionysius the Areopagite

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – Evelyn Underhill

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, (1902).

Ralph Norman, “Rediscovery of Mysticism” in, ed. Gareth Jones, The Blackwell Companion to Modern Theology, (Blackwell Publishing Ltd: Oxford, 2004).

Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness, (1911)


[i] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, (1902).
[iii] Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness, (1911)
[iv] Ralph Norman, “Rediscovery of Mysticism”
[v] Denys Turner, The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995),
[vi] Constantinos Athanasopoulos, “The Validity and Distinctness of the Orthodox Mystical Approach in Philosophy and Theology and Its Opposition to ‘Esse ipsum subsistens’”, Revista Portuguesa de Filosfia, (68:4, 2012).