Friday, 10 October 2014

Phenomenology and Mysticism: The Verticality of Religious Experience

Anthony J. Steinbock, Phenomenology and Mysticism: The Verticality of Religious Experience, Indiana University Press, 2009, 309 pp., $28 (pbk), ISBN 978-0253221810/Blogger Ref

Scott O’Leary, University of Saint Mary

In his latest work, Anthony Steinbock offers an insightful phenomenological analysis of mystical experience and its implications for our understanding of human uniqueness or individuality, the nature of phenomenology, and the role of religious experience or ‘epiphany’ in human life. Although this sounds overly ambitious, Steinbock generally succeeds.
In his introduction, Steinbock explains his intention to provide an account of a unique dimension of human experience that possesses its own phenomenological structure, a dimension he calls the ‘verticality’ of mystical or religious experience in contrast with the ‘horizontal’ realm of experience of traditional phenomenological investigation. Steinbock differentiates these dimensions by their distinct levels of phenomenological ‘givenness’: the horizontal realm is that which is in principle within our grasp and the vertical is that which is not within our grasp or control but ‘given’ freely and superabundantly. Steinbock argues that the fundamental characteristic of religious experience is its vertical orientation and that the phenomenological structures and criterion of evidence of vertical experience are distinct and independent of those of horizontal experience. Steinbock advances these claims by analyzing paradigmatic examples of mystical experience and their impact on phenomenology’s understanding of evidence, givenness, and individuation.
The book does not offer a first-personal account of the phenomenology of mystical experience, presumably because the author is a philosopher interested in mystical experience rather than himself a mystic. Nor does Steinbock think that mystical experience can be achieved through the use of  psychotropic substances or other instrumental means, as William James attempted, since what is essential to mystical experience is not any particular objective mystical ‘content’, but rather the openness to the Holy captured in vertical intentionality. He therefore focuses his phenomenological study instead on three mystics, one from each of the Abrahamic faiths: St. Teresa of Avila represents the Christian tradition, Rabbi Dov Baer the Jewish, and the Sufi Ruzbihan Baqlı the Islamic. He justifies his selection of these three ‘exemplars’ on the grounds of each account’s immediacy, rawness, and lack of theological conceptualization. In addition, despite differences in these Abrahamic faiths, he claims that there is an underlying unity present in these mystics’ experiences that is illustrated by their vertical rather than horizontal intentional structure. Nonetheless, he later broadens his analysis to include the accounts of Saint John of the Cross, Mother Teresa, Rabbi Zalman, and Hallajı Mansur.
Steinbock is aware that some may question the possibility of offering a phenomenological, rather than hermeneutic, account of written rather than first-personal experiences. But he claims to follow the ‘phenomenologist’s effort…to guide us to the point where the matters can flash forth of themselves, stirring in us the lived experience he or she is trying to awaken’ (p. 27). According to Steinbock, the core to phenomenological analysis is not first-personal experience, then, but rather an openness to that which is given in experience, whether one’s own experience or another’s, and through his analysis, he aims to evoke in us the realm of verticality that is latent but unthematized in the mystics’ first-personal accounts. Ultimately, whether this project is best characterized as a phenomenology or a hermeneutics of mystical experience will therefore depend largely on how one understands these two enterprises. 
Less convincing is Steinbock’s quick argument that mystical experience best explains religious experience more generally. He might be correct that there is a wider array of mystical experiences than non-mystical ones, but this differs from the claim that we can appeal to these as ‘exemplars’ to understand religious experience. One might argue that mystical experience is just a small part of religious experience, less important than elements like belief, faith or daily practice. It would have been helpful for Steinbock to develop his argument since he focuses exclusively on the phenomenological data of the mystics, but then uses these insights to attempt to explain the core of all religious experience. Furthermore, it is not immediately apparent that a broader array of experiences necessarily implies a more truthful account of experience or reality, since theoretically the experiences unique to mystics could be illusory.
Nor is Phenomenology and Mysticism an easy work. This is less a function of Steinbock’s style or presentation and more a result of the subject matter.  Steinbock generally succeeds in keeping philosophical and mystical terminology to a minimum. However, this reviewer became slightly lost in the chapter on Jewish mysticism, which introduces somewhere between ten and twenty Hebrew terms. This is unfortunate since Steinbock manages to avoid this with Saint Teresa and Baqli, which shows that although difficult, phenomenological description seems possible without a deep grasp of the relative individuals’ cultural or theological milieu. While Steinbock provides a rigorous phenomenology of mystical experience, appreciating its scope and philosophical significance presupposes a thorough understanding of the phenomenological method and the history of phenomenology. Nowhere is this clearer than in the chapter on ‘Individuation’, where Steinbock offers a comparative analysis of his account of individuation and the mystics’ explanation of the separation between the Holy and the human with Heidegger’s account of ‘the forgetfulness of Being’. Though Steinbock presents a concise analysis of Heidegger’s views, those unfamiliar with the details of Heidegger’s claim will likely miss much of the significance of the chapter. While this is unfortunate, it is nonetheless evident that Steinbock goes to great lengths to make his account clear and most sections will be accessible to many outside the field.
The last chapter, on ‘Idolatry’, is perhaps Steinbock’s strongest and it is here that he turns from a primarily descriptive to a critical phenomenology. He diagnoses three aspects of idolatry: individual pride and an overvaluation of the self, secularism and fundamentalism, and the ‘delimitation’ of reality to one restricted sphere (p. 212). Each of these phenomena is idolatrous in Steinbock’s technical sense because each is a reversal or denial of verticality. Pride not only impoverishes the self by closing it off from others horizontally and vertically, it also ‘impoverishes the world since it fails to recognize the value of things unless they relate to me or serve me’ (p. 216). Even pride in others, like pride in a child’s accomplishments, is essentially a way of distancing oneself and a form of idolatry of the self. The child’s accomplishments become valuable only because they better the self, rather than being valuable in the way that they benefit the child.
Secularism and fundamentalism represent idolatries of the world.  Both reverse the relative with the absolute. Secularism involves an exclusive attraction to the world in the world’s supposed ‘absoluteness’, which is fundamentally mistaken if Steinbock’s analysis of the verticality of religious experience is correct. Since the world encompasses only our horizontal orientation, any exclusive focus on the world results in a denial of the vertical and a misplaced absoluteness. Similarly, fundamentalism is idolatrous because it attempts to make the relative absolute by bringing the absolute (the Holy) down to earth. Fundamentalism attempts to make the Holy conform to our ideas and conceptions in the service of humanity, rather than opening ourselves up to the Holy. It is a reduction of the infinite to the finite, all in the name of the infinite, and it is for this reason so hard to diagnose.
The third moment of idolatry, delimitation, occurs whenever there is an exclusive orientation toward one aspect of reality such that the aspect concerned remains trapped in the horizontal and can no longer point beyond itself to anything greater. Pride, secularism and fundamentalism all delimit reality by refusing to go beyond the self or the world, restricting experience to the horizontal aspects of reality. But all finite experiences point beyond to the infinite. Whether it is Mother Teresa seeing Christ in the faces of the poor, Buddha seeing existence in a flower petal, or Simone Weil seeing universal beauty in individual beautiful things: for Steinbock, ‘[w]hat is given is infinitely richer than itself’ (p. 239).   Steinbock repeatedly makes the claim that religious ‘vertical’ modes of experience cannot be reduced to other modes, especially that of presentation. This claim is supported throughout by highlighting differences in the modes of givenness and evidence between vertical and horizontal orientations. It also neatly undercuts efforts to reduce religious experience to power relations (Nietzsche), economic structures (Marx), psychosexual development (Freud), or any of a number of more recent proposals made in neuroscience or evolutionary biology. Although Steinbock is sympathetic to the way culture influences mystical experiences, for him the direction of intentional relations in mystical experiences precludes any reduction of the vertical to the horizontal and, in the manner of phenomenology, all evidence given in experience must be taken ‘as given’ and any  ontological presuppositions ‘bracketed’.
Nevertheless, this reviewer wonders if Steinbock overstates his claim for the independence of ‘vertical’ or religious experience from ‘horizontal’ modes of experience. While it is one thing to deny that the vertical can be reduced to the horizontal, it is another issue altogether whether the vertical and horizontal are truly independent of each other. Steinbock’s claim amounts to a separation of two orientations of reality, one vertical and the other horizontal, which happen to coincide at the juncture of human existence. But simply because their modes of givenness and evidence are different does not entail independence from each other.
Steinbock’s independence thesis is evident in his claim that religious experience must be addressed on its own terms, with its own criteria and evidence, just as the ‘moral within the experience of the moral’ is independent (p. 115).  But this independence of moral experience is a substantive phenomenological claim rather than a formal one, posited by Levinas but seemingly very different from the phenomenology of Husserl or that of Brentano. For Husserl, the axiological realm is revealed through affective experience that is grounded in descriptive experience. My indignation at the latest sufferings of those in Darfur is an evaluative experience that takes the suffering of the people of Darfur as unjust. But this evaluative claim is grounded in descriptive features of the situation: the lack of food and medical supplies, the treatment of these people by their leaders, and the indifference of the world community.  Axiological attributes, in this case the injustice in Darfur, are founded upon presentational experience, such as a news program detailing the suffering or the testimony of a friend. For many phenomenologists, our entire experience of value and valuing, the axiological part of reality that is an indispensable part of ‘the moral’, is founded upon the descriptive aspects of reality that are revealed in presentational experience.
This does not mean that we can reduce the moral to the descriptive or the affective to the presentational. However, it means that contra Steinbock, the moral is not part of the vertical or that the vertical is in some way dependent on the horizontal. Yet, if this is true about the moral, why not think the same of the religious? The religious, our vertical orientation, might simply be founded upon certain affective moments such as Rudolph Otto’s feelings of the Holy. Don’t the mystics often describe feelings, images, and other qualia that ground these experiences? Rather than giving reasons to believe that the vertical is independent from the horizontal, Steinbock simply shows that the logic of the vertical and the modes of evidence and verification may be different. But this seems no different than Husserl’s claim that the logic of the axiological is different than the presentational or descriptive. This seems just one example among many of Steinbock relying heavily on claims he makes in his earlier book, Home and Beyond: Generative Phenomenology After Husserl (Northwestern University Press, 1995), to advance substantive rather than formal claims concerning key questions at the heart of phenomenology.
In addition, it seems that in focusing on verticality, Steinbock neglects the temporality, or lack thereof, of mystical experience. Mystical experience presumably happens at a specific time (and place) in the flow of life, but mystical experience often conflicts with everyday time consciousness, focusing on experiencing the present moment apart from any connection to a past or future moment. This is something that Eastern and Western mystics seem to agree in emphasizing. If mystical experience offers a wider account of human experience, one wonders, what does this reveal about time-consciousness? Though this opens up an entirely separate set of questions, it seems essential to address time-consciousness if one posits an entirely different, ‘vertical’ form of intentionality.
Despite these worries and criticisms, Steinbock should be commended for generally succeeding in such an ambitious project. He offers a rigorous, phenomenological approach to the study of Western mysticism that reveals a whole new ‘vertical’ dimension to human experience. Phenomenology and Mysticism should be required reading for anyone interested in mystical experience.
December 5, 2012

The Above Article from Plurilogue
Politics and Philosophy Reviews

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