Mysticism and Philosophy
The word “mysticism” has a variety of meanings, but the one of interest to us now is “vague or ill defined religious or spiritual belief, especially as associated with a belief in the occult” (OED). This definition itself contains some vague or ill-defined words, notably “religious”, “spiritual”, and “occult”. For “occult” we find “supernatural or magical powers, practices, or phenomena”. Mysticism is thus understood to include belief in things that are somehow outside the natural, normal, everyday, ordinary, commonsense, intelligible world—the uncanny, spooky, weird, queer, profound, awe inspiring. Is mysticism in this sense a natural part of philosophy? Do philosophers find themselves believing in the mystical as part of their professional occupation? Certainly some philosophers have attracted the label “mystical”: one thinks of Plato’s theory of forms, of Hegel’s metaphysical monism, of the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus. But is the mystical a more entrenched part of the philosophical enterprise—is it woven into the very fabric of philosophy? If we survey the field do we detect signs of it in positions not avowedly mystical? What about panpsychism? What about David Lewis’s possible worlds realism? What about hardline Fregeanism? What about Godel’s mathematical platonism? These doctrines all traffic in entities that go beyond ordinary experience, and all require a leap of faith if they are to be taken seriously; there is a frisson of exhilaration in accepting them. And there is an aura of religious dedication in the attitudes of their firmest exponents. It isn’t as if the mysticism of philosophy past has completely withdrawn its tentacles from the subject; it still breaks out here and there. The philosopher, even the university-based analytical philosopher, is still in the mysticism business, still adjacent to the Department of Mysticism.
Why is this? Why hasn’t philosophy outgrown its roots in primitive mysticism? The answer is that philosophical problems themselves involve us in the permanent possibility of the mystical. Mysticism is always hovering in the background waiting to pounce; we either embrace it or seek to ward it off. We might even call philosophy a battle against the bewitchments of the mystical, with some philosophers temperamentally on the side of the mystical and some against it. It can’t be ignored because it is what philosophy is so frequently about. Take the mind-body problem: the whole debate reeks of the mystical, notably in the threat of dualism. We are constantly trying to avoid going down a mystical path, embracing the occult and the spooky. Materialism might be defined as simply anti-mysticalism: it would have little appeal but for its promise to ward off its mystical-sounding rivals. No one ever claimed that materialism can be seen to be obviously true just by inspecting the nature of the mind! That is why the debate is so heated: mysticism looks to be a real threat when it comes to the nature of mind. But the same thing is true of other central problems: free will, the self, necessity, causation, mathematics, ethics, meaning, etc. In each area we find positions that introduce mystical elements, implicitly or explicitly—stuff that strikes us as occult, as suspiciously thrilling, as subversive of commonsense naturalism. Pure voluntarism, the transcendental ego, modal hyperrealism, inscrutable causal powers, abstract objects, objective values, mind-independent senses, etc. The world is threatened with realities not recognized in science and common sense—realities that excite devotion, enlarge our sense of what is, indicate a hidden reality akin to the divine. Some philosophers will fall in love with these mystical elements; others will bend over backwards to avoid accepting them. But they are part of the philosophical landscape: they define the subject. We may as well admit it and call it by its proper name. Isn’t this partly why philosophy has the appeal it has? The sciences don’t generally stray into mystical territory, except in their most philosophical moments, which is reassuring, if somewhat deflating (especially compared to earlier times); but philosophy is really up to its neck in mysticism, either welcoming it or resisting it. David Lewis was a modal mystic entranced with his super-ontology of existing but non-actual worlds. Quine was a desert landscapes mystic if you look deep: he campaigned for a world unified by physical science and radically contrary to common sense, and he was fond of the gnomic pronouncement (“To be is to be the value of a variable”, “Nothing is true but reality makes it so”). Davidson was a meaning mystic whose ruling deity was Alfred Tarski: the theory of truth as the key to all problems, if only we could see that there is nothing to meaning than those tantalizing snow-bound biconditionals. That is why these philosophers spawned cults whose members seemed hypnotized by certain phrases and postures (“Convention T”, “the museum myth”, “the indexical theory of actuality”). The later Wittgenstein was also a mystic, though of a peculiar variety: he was a kind of second-order mystic sternly opposed to the first-order mysticism of the Tractatus. His catchphrases resonate like cultish mantra: family resemblance, language game, form of life, grammar, use, criterion, custom, practice, rules, seeing-as, etc. He introduced a philosophical vocabulary that promoted a liberationist movement, a dream of a better philosophical life, a life of intellectual peace, and of smug superiority. The cult of the later Wittgenstein was itself a form of mysticism—possibly akin to nature mysticism, or the romantic worship of the everyday.
I don’t say that all forms of mysticism in philosophy are necessarily wrong (though I tend to find myself opposed to them); I am merely observing that mysticism is a real phenomenon within even the most recent iterations of Western philosophy (it’s clearly alive and well in Eastern philosophy). Perhaps we find it embarrassing to admit such retrograde intrusions in our enthusiasm to mimic the natural sciences, but it is clear on reflection that mysticism is built into the structure of the subject. Russell published a book called Mysticism and Logic, relishing the jarring juxtaposition, but a book called Mysticism and Philosophy would hardly be eyebrow-raising, simply because the two things are just not so far apart. Mysticism can come in many forms, often in disguise, sometimes clandestinely, and philosophy as we have it now is not immune to its charms, as well as its possible harms. Let’s start talking about it openly. We need, as they say, to have that conversation. 
 A word on mystery and mysticism: one of main motivations for postulating mystery is the avoidance of mysticism. Instead of declaring some subject matter inherently supernatural we attribute its recalcitrance to understanding to human intellectual limitation. The spooky is just ignorance reified. The mysterian is the least mystical of philosophers. Of course this is compatible with accepting some elements of the mystical viewpoint: some things might really be quite different from other things, and matter might be the most mystical thing of all. There is intellectual room for the mystical mysterian, though he is certainly a rare bird.