How does the content and/or object(s) of mystical experiences—if they have an object(s)—compare across mystical traditions? Whatepistemological constraints apply to these experiences? Is unmedi-ated experience possible? To what degree are mystical experiencesconditioned by the concepts and expectations of the mystic? Howdo these experiences occur? What is their psychological and/or spir-itual signi
cance? How is one to interpret mystical language givenpersistent claims (by the mystics) that their experiences are ine
able?These questions have inspired a sustained and vigorous philo-sophical discourse. Two competing theoretical orientations dominatethis discourse: essentialism
Essentialism is asso-ciated with a variety of approaches and claims. A strong essential-ist thesis asserts that all mystical traditions, doctrines, and/or experiences
vision of Jesus is the perceived form of Jesus. I use the term in this sense becauseit has become the convention among scholars of mysticism. This usage, however,is inconsistent with Husserl’s philosophical phenomenology and with at least someapproaches to the phenomenology of religion (such as Eliade’s). Both
elds are con-cerned with identifying background or implicit structures of consciousness. OccasionallyI will also use the term ‘phenomenal’ to emphasize the “
”of an experience. David J. Chalmers,
The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 4, 11.
Other terms that are identi
ed or closely associated with essentialism in thephilosophical literature on mysticism are ecumenism (or ecumenicalism), the ecu-menical thesis, the perennial philosophy, perennial psychology, non-constructivism,postconstructivism, deconstructivism, and decontextualism.In defense of essentialism, Steven Pinker has this to say: “in modern academiclife ‘essentialist’ is just about the worst thing you can call someone. In the sciences,essentialism is tantamount to creationism. In the humanities, the label implies thatthe person subscribes to insane beliefs such as that the sexes are not constructed,there are universal human emotions, a real world exists, and so on. And in thesocial sciences, ‘essentialism’ has joined ‘reductionism,’ ‘determinism,’ and ‘rei
cation’as a term of abuse hurled at anyone who tries to explain human thought andbehavior rather than redescribe it. I think it is unfortunate that ‘essentialism’ hasbecome an epithet, because at heart it is just the ordinary human curiosity to
ndout what makes natural things work.” Steven Pinker,
How the Mind Works
(NewYork: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997), 325–6.
Steven T. Katz—the foremost exponent of constructivism—prefers ‘contextual-ism.’ (Steven T. Katz, “Mystical Speech and Mystical Meaning,” in
Mysticism and Language
, ed. Steven T. Katz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 34.) I useconstructivism here because it is more common in the literature and better re
ectsthe epistemological presuppositions of the approach. Denise and John Carmodydescribe this approach as “empiricist.” This implies (quite erroneously, I wouldargue) that constructivists (compared to essentialists) place more emphasis on thedata and less on interpretation. (Denise Lardner Carmody and John Tully Carmody,
Mysticism: Holiness East and West
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 8.) SeeChapter Two, pp. 36–9, for an extended discussion of the
-databased) nature of constructivist epistemology.