History and Mystery


History and Mystery



How does the history of philosophy look to a mysterian? As follows: the history of philosophy is the history of our consciousness of mystery. Philosophy consists of a set of mysteries, possibly open-ended, and philosophers, as conscious beings, are aware of these mysteries—and aware of them as mysteries (no matter what they might say in professional moments). The philosophical state of mind is a confrontation with mystery felt as such. But this set may not be static; it may be that different mysteries are salient at different times. Given that philosophical preoccupations vary over time, the mysterian will expect to find a different set of mysteries dominating during particular periods. What is distinctive of the mysterian point of view is that it characterizes philosophical perplexity as an encounter with the mysterious—the baffling, incomprehensible, confusing, and elusive.[1] That is, philosophy is not just grappling with problems that are experienced as solvable and open to available methods, but as peculiarly taxing and prone to rational disagreement. I won’t attempt to say more here about what this mystery consists in; my aim is rather to sketch the overall shape of (Western) philosophy as seen from this perspective. What were the mysteries that occupied thinkers at different periods of history, and is there any pattern to the succession of philosophical mysteries that gripped people over time? I am not attempting to defend the mysterian position, nor even to articulate it further, merely to describe (sketchily) the history of philosophy as seen from its perspective. I think this provides an illuminating way to think about philosophical history.

The pre-Socratics were concerned largely with mysteries of the physical world: what things are made of, whether reality is one or many, do things change or remain the same. The empirical sciences didn’t exist at that time, so their suggestions were highly speculative (e.g. Greek atomism). To these thinkers the physical world presented many mysteries that could not be resolved by common sense or by any generally accepted method—the model of Euclidian geometry could not be applied. No doubt their intellectual attitude toward these questions resembled the attitude of later generations towards questions about the mind: physical nature will have seemed to them like a vast enigma. Their questions don’t strike us now as part of philosophy proper, though to them they may have seemed the way the mysteries of philosophy seem to us today. In any case the mysteries that concerned them pertained mainly to physical nature—to what they could see and touch. They wrestled with these questions as best they could, aware of their intractability.

Plato’s concerns were rather different: he was interested principally in mysteries of definition. What is knowledge? What is virtue? What is the just state? He was also concerned with reality and appearance, including the distinction between particulars and universals. His interests were centered on the human: human knowledge, human virtue, human nature, and human concepts. He found these questions exceptionally difficult to answer (or Socrates did), not part of existing human understanding. Socrates is forever asking people to define some concept or other and finding them irrationally overconfident; famously, he knows only that he does not know. Ignorance is standard; human knowledge is limited; real knowledge (of the forms) is difficult to acquire. There is mystery lurking in the most familiar of things. It isn’t just the world outside us that is mysterious; our own thoughts are mysterious—we are mysterious. Everyone could see that we know little about the external natural world, but it takes a philosopher like Plato to see that we know little about our own internal world. Plato’s pupil Aristotle is also concerned with matters of definition, though he prefers to speak of essence—the essence of existing things. Thus his concern with the essential nature of substances, causation, biological forms, and human virtue: he looks outward to the world not inward to our modes of representing it. He thus combines Plato and the pre-Socratics, simply put. His mysteries belong to external reality, though they emerge through the search for essences (hence “Aristotelian essentialism”). They belong to nature, but nature as viewed through Aristotelian categories. In Plato the mysteries come with a dose of mysticism, while in Aristotle no trace of mysticism can be detected—though he is still grappling with the most recalcitrant of problems.

The medieval period undergoes a shift of interest, despite its debt to Plato and Aristotle: God and the supernatural now become the field for the contemplation of mystery. No doubt this is mainly the result of the rise of Christianity: theological questions become paramount. The problem of evil, divine foreknowledge, the Holy Trinity, arguments for the existence of God, angels dancing on pinheads—all these become the mysteries of the moment. And they were apt to be characterized in just those terms, God being the ultimate mystery—thus the lucubration of Augustine, Aquinas, and sundry others. Now the mysteries exist in the supernatural realm not so much here on earth, in nature or human nature. Philosophers had to look upward not outward or inward. What is constant is the sense that philosophy deals with deep mysteries not merely problems solvable by the application of recognized methods. Whether these were pseudo-mysteries, born of misguided religion, is not to the point; they were conceived as grist for philosophy precisely because they were seen as genuine mysteries. Philosophy goes wherever the mysteries are perceived to be.

The modern period, in which philosophy as we now know it was largely formed, is characterized by two main problems, along with subsidiary problems: the problem of human knowledge and the problem of motion. The latter problem has now shifted to what we call “physics”, but at the time no sharp distinction was made by practitioners. Natural philosophers from Galileo to Newton tried to understand the nature and origin of motion; the problem was seen as presenting deep mysteries to the human mind in its effort to understand nature (the equivalent to today’s mind-body problem). Newton’s eventual triumph was not total, since gravity as a source of motion was agreed not to be intelligible by mechanistic standards (“occult” in Newton’s word). The mystery of motion was not fully resolved (and arguably still is not). In the case of knowledge the main question concerned the acquisition of knowledge (the “origin of ideas”) and two theories were formulated, rationalism and empiricism. Thus we have the efforts of Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, and Hume (among others). Solving this problem was not understood as routine empirical inquiry but as steeped in imponderables and controversy. Human knowledge was seen as a mystery, a puzzle, something calling for distinctively philosophical work. And it is indeed still a mystery how human knowledge is possible, despite the efforts of “learning theory”. How we come to know mathematics, for example, is still not understood at a fundamental level. The mind-body problem was also much discussed during this period—also still a mystery today. It isn’t that the dawn of science saw the conversion of philosophical mysteries into tractable scientific problems; rather, natural philosophers began to appreciate more fully the mysteries inherent in knowledge and motion. New mysteries were added to old.

Not much later the mysteries of metaphysics began to assert themselves, particularly in the writings of Kant, and later Hegel and others (e.g. Schopenhauer). Reality and appearance, space and time, necessity and contingency, the self, idealism versus realism, monism versus pluralism—all the problems of traditional metaphysics are extensively debated. Again, this was not a matter of routine science, still less common sense, but was understood as a confrontation with profound mysteries that stretch or exceed the powers of the human intellect. Philosophy changed its focus with Kant, but it did not change its preoccupation with mystery; it did not perceive itself as moving to a new phase in which mysteries gave way to mere problems. The torment of philosophy never went away. The mysterian sees in this the essential connection between philosophy and mystery. Mystery is not associated only with the earlier immature phases of the subject, nor with the medieval emphasis on religion and the supernatural, but is part of the very texture of the subject–the impenetrable, the obscure, the maddening.  Anti-metaphysical positivism was the welcomed antidote to this sense of oppressive mystery—the promise that all confounding mystery could be banished by appeal to the principle of verifiability. Mysteries consist of unanswerable questions, but there are no such questions because every meaningful question must be answerable. It was not so much a priori metaphysics that the positivists objected to; it was mysterious metaphysics, the kind that resists resolution. If metaphysicians had been able to reach consensus on their questions it wouldn’t matter that they eschewed methods of empirical verification; the real problem was that the questions of metaphysics presented insoluble mysteries. Why labor at questions you can never resolve? Kant’s entire system is really a rebuke to the human intellect (the noumenal world is completely impenetrable to the human mind); positivism promised to do away with all such metaphysical mystery by adopting an exclusionary theory of meaning. That was its main motivation and appeal.

Twentieth century philosophy then dedicates itself to pondering the general nature of meaning, making the “linguistic turn”; but here too mysteries abound, controversies rage, frustration descends. Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Carnap, Quine, Austin, Kripke, Davidson, Grice, and others: they all tried to lay the mysteries of meaning to rest, but those mysteries persisted. The state of philosophy as mystery management did not fundamentally change, just the nature of the mysteries being studied. Theory of meaning never turned into a branch of science; it remained as philosophy with its characteristic sense of puzzlement. Anti-metaphysical philosophy of this type is not mystery-free philosophy; indeed, the focus on meaning only accentuated the sense that philosophical questions resist resolution. Wittgenstein exemplifies it best: the Tractatus is a deeply mysterious (and mystical) work, but the Investigations also raises profound puzzles about meaning, despite its ostensible complacency. Philosophy of language is just philosophy as usual, complete with its own roster of puzzles and paradoxes (Chomsky has always been willing to accept that language presents genuine mysteries).

In the present day we have the mystery of consciousness, but also mysteries of free choice, imagination, creativity, dreams, and thought. The currently accepted mysteries cluster around the mind, human and animal. To some extent these are new mysteries, or new versions of old mysteries. Calling them mysteries is perhaps new, at least within the last hundred years (Hume had spoken of “mysteries of nature” in the eighteenth century). Chomsky has been using this language for many years and the term “mysterian” was introduced to describe my position on consciousness thirty years ago. Whether the existence of these mysteries shows anything about the limitations of the human mind is a separate question; for all I have said here the mysteries might stem from objective reality (we live in an inherently mysterious universe). I have only suggested that the history of philosophy can be described as an engagement with mysteries whatever their provenance may be. The point of this exercise is to draw a distinction between philosophy and other disciplines: philosophy is characteristically concerned with mysteries, while other disciplines traffic in them only incidentally. You can write a book called The Problems of Philosophy and be expected to deal with the kind of mysteries I have enumerated; a book called The Problems of Physics will not deal with the mysteries of physics but with the achievements of that field. Even psychology, an undeveloped science, does not deal in mysteries in the way philosophy does (though philosophical problems certainly arise within psychology): its problems arise from lack of data and lack of theory, not from recalcitrant conundrums or conceptual roadblocks.

So philosophy has a distinctive kind of history—a distinctive kind of psychological history. The psychology of the philosopher differs from the psychology of other seekers after truth: it might be described as ecstatic despair(if I may be allowed a degree of hyperbole). Ecstatic, because of the grandeur of its questions; despair, because of the difficulty of answering them (sometimes even formulating them). It is like being in contact with an elusive god: the object is radiant, but the access is limited. Philosophy thus produces a curious mixture of optimism and pessimism: optimism born of being able to think about these questions at all, but pessimism born of constant failure to answer them. Oh how wonderful it would be to solve these problems! But oh how lowering it is to come up with nothing! Doing philosophy is an exercise in hubris and humility: hence the pained expression on the face of philosophers (true philosophers), but also the wild glint in the eye. The philosopher longs to discover things, to write up his or her results and announce them to the world; but alas it is all controversy and rejection, doubt and neurosis. We want to see into the nature of things and take their measure, but they remain maddeningly elusive. Still, we cannot quench the feeling that this time we have it right… Thus the life of the philosopher is apt to be veering and halting, or else digging dogmatically in; the serenity of certain knowledge is not ours to be had (except in very limited ways). We live with the consciousness of mystery, while committed to unraveling it. We are like babies learning to walk—we get up on those rubbery legs and totter a few paces before collapsing on the floor (but we gamely get up again to totter a few more wobbly paces). We don’t feel merely ignorant, remediably so; we feel stupefied, nonplussed. No amount of further study can remove our bafflement. No grant is large enough to resolve our perplexities. The mystery bears down on us.[2]

Of course, there have been attempts to deny mystery: it’s all pseudo- questions, nonsense, confusion; or it will all eventually turn into regular science; or it has already been taken care of by the latest theory from Professor X. There are no real mysteries, just ordinary problems or conceptual snarl-ups. That too is part of the history of philosophy from the mysterian standpoint—the need to deny that philosophy deals with mysteries. Meta-philosophy is part of the history of philosophy and it often takes the form of denying the mysterious character of philosophical problems. For the mysterian, however, this is predictable, since the human mind is impatient with mystery and would like to be rid of it. So the history of philosophy will be marked by attempts to deny the truth about the nature of philosophy. For philosophical perplexity is irritating—it disturbs the mind, won’t let it rest. The mind wants badly to solve mysteries (hence the appeal of detective stories) and it grows peevish when denied that satisfaction. Thus the philosopher is forever irritated and exhilarated at the same time. Acceptance of mystery is difficult, and there is always the possibility of total triumph! So it has gone in the past, and so it will continue to go in the future. I don’t expect the future of philosophy to be any different from its past, though new mysteries may rear their heads as time goes by.[3]



[1] See my Problems in Philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry (1993).

[2] I don’t mean to say there are no lighter moments when dawn breaks and clouds part—and there is always the thrill of refutation. But the experience of solving problems to one’s own and others’ satisfaction, central hard problems, is not one that we can hope to enjoy. At best we can argue for positions, not announce results. (I used to be an experimental psychologist where at least one can tabulate data and perform statistical tests on them. And think what a field biologist can hope to discover!)

[3] My guess is that the brain will come to seem the mystery par excellence, much more so than today; also the mysteries of physics will become more widely acknowledged.


5 responses to “History and Mystery”

  1. Giulio Katis says:

    A sweeping tour – that demonstrates the power of the concept. The information processing and computational model of the mind misses out on the (critical) fact we ask questions. And it is a fascinating idea that the question mark might be part of the fabric of reality, not just the psychology of the human mind.

  2. Giulio Katis says:

    Consider the view that Science does not resolve mysteries, but rather uncovers relations (and the language, or patterns, of those relations) that reveal deeper mysteries. (Eg a falling apple, the motion of the stars, the movement of the tides are related via a deeper mystery, that has a particular language in which we can calculate.) From this perspective, is a science of mysteries a possibility?

    Or are you saying the history of philosophy can be seen as just this?

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