Mystical Awareness and the Problem of Intentionality

Alan Gullette


University of Tennessee-Knoxville

Spring 1980

Philosophy 4103: Independent Study

Dr. Richard Aquila


In the context of discussions about mystical awareness -- which we may take to be an instance of "direct apprehension of (ultimate) reality" -- the notion of intentionality has been raised to cast doubt on the veridicality of "religious experience."1  That is, according to intentionalism, awareness may be awareness of an imaginary (intentional, ideational) entity and yet seem to be awareness of a real (non-ideational, extra-mental) entity merely because the awareness involves intentional mental activity.  For intentionality is that property or feature of mental activity by virtue of which that mental activity is about something, even when there would be no such thing without the object-directedness of the mental activity.  Thus a fervent belief in the existence of God or in the possibility of nirvana, for example, might itself produce an experience which only seems to be veridical, but which in fact is a product of fancy.  To raise this objection as though it posed a problem for mysticism, however, is to overlook the point that the "direct apprehension" which mystics claim is possible is "direct" precisely insofar as it involves no mental activity (and thus no belief or imagination) and no object (at least, as separate from the subject, or as distinct from the act of awareness).  In this paper, I will propose and discuss a mystical "solution" to the "problem of knowledge" in relation to the intentional and constitutive features of mental activity, and with respect to the linguistic-cultural relativism of Whorf and others.

Linguistic-cultural relativism -- subsuming the Whorfian or Sapir-Whorf-Korzybski hypothesis -- involves the notion that a human being’s experience of reality is influenced by the structure of his or her language and by the general world-view inherent in the culture or sub-culture of which he or she is a member.  This influence might be partial (as Edward Sapir thought) or it might be a virtually total determination of experience (as Carlos Castaneda seems to claim).  But to whatever extent the mind produces its own object, to that extent the knowledge acquired by the mind is suspect.  Philosophers follow Kant in recognizing that the phenomenal world with which we are familiar is at best the offspring of an uncertain marriage of mind and noumenal reality; and many of these thinkers have denied the possibility of direct experience of noumena.  A few relevant examples of such thinkers are von Humboldt, Sapir, Whorf, Cassirer; the idealists (who generally deny a noumenal realm transcendent to the mind -- however "mind" is construed) and some mystics (who account for object-constitution but allow for transcendence -- apparently -- of both the "realm," as it were, of ideas, imagination, or image-formation, concepts, interpretation or description, etc., and the "realm" of sense-dependent or means-dependent or "relative" knowledge).

As a transcendental idealist, Kant drew an inflexible line down the middle of reality, defining the necessary limits of knowledge and even dividing the ego into empirical and transcendent.  And though he theoretically allowed a higher unification to take place in the ego, Kant fixed the categories of human understanding and the forms of intuition or sense perception so that the apparent phenomenal world was clearly artificial and probably very much unlike the actual noumenal world, of which (direct) knowledge or experience was impossible.  He might have held an intentionalist view of object-constitution, insofar as experience (on his model) is of (phenomenal) objects by virtue of the interaction of perception or sensation and conception or judgment, and by virtue of some property of the resulting "concept" or concept-percept synthesis that is finally presented to consciousness as a (spatio-temporal) thing.

Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), the German philologist and author, apparently thought that a variety of categorical models in the theory or practice of understanding were allowable, as against the dogmatism of Kant.  For von Humboldt, different languages contain their own implicit world-view insofar as they are used by man to name and describe the objects of the world given in sense-experience.  Von Humboldt wrote:

Man lives with his objects chiefly -- in fact, since his feeling and acting depends on his perceptions, one may say exclusively -- as language presents them to him.  By the same process whereby he spins language out of his own being, he ensnares himself in it; and each language draws a magic circle round the people to which it belongs, a circle from which there is no escape save by stepping out of it into another."2

Thus he denied the possibility of experience which was not mediated by language; and the metaphors "spins a language" and "draws a magic circle round" indicate that, for von Humboldt, the world man lives in vicariously is the effect of some intentional-constitutive aspect of thought.  Linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir echoed this position -- in a weaker form -- when he said:

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone ... but are very much at the mercy of ... language....  The real world is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group....  We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.3

The reference to a world "built up," of course, again implies some sort of object-constitution.  Another linguist, Benjamin Whorf likewise stressed the role of language and linguistic structure in thinking (in "all symbolic processes, all processes of reference and of logic") and in experience (we live in a "linguistically determined thought world" or world-view, which we mistake as real).4  But Whorf was more interested in the particulars of linguistic relativity than in the epistemological issue as to the possibility of experience unmediated and uninterpreted by thought involving language.  But he did leave this possibility open, hinting in a late paper that a "culture of consciousness" could lead western man "to a great illumination" in which he would see at least his folly in having made a "provisional analysis of reality and then regard[ing] it as final."5  Ernst Cassirer, like von Humboldt and Whorf, placed man firmly in a symbolic world -- or in a variety of such "ideation worlds" or "spiritual realities" as language, thought, knowledge, art, and myth.  Also with the others, Cassirer denies immediate perception -- for our "mental processes fail to grasp reality itself and in order to represent it, to hold it at all, they are driven to the use of symbols."  Yet the "spiritual reality" constructed by the mind or spirit is nevertheless a medium for the apprehension of reality -- though of a reality objectified and formalized by mental activity.6  Our symbolic worlds are created by symbols or "forces," Cassirer says, "each of which produces and posits a world of its own,"7 which is to say that linguistic, mythopoeic, and all other symbolic activity is by its own nature intentional and object-constitutive.

Idealists, of course, generally deny that there is a world "out there" at all -- from the Yogacarin Buddhists (who hold the doctrine of cittamatra or "mind only," denying independent ontological status to objects) to Bishop Berkeley (for whom objects are guaranteed a certain status by the fact that God keeps them in mind).  John Dominic Crossan, a contemporary theologian,  holds the self-proclaimed "structuralist" theory that reality is entirely constituted by structure or "story" -- various levels of description beyond which only God knows what exists, if anything does.8  For Crossan, there is no experience without language and thus not of story.  Similarly, for the rather nihilistic skeptic Jacques Derrida, language or speech -- which is essential to thought -- describes the "blank" of what it itself assumes to exist by such terms as Being, substance, what is, etc.; the act of speech intends the described -- and maybe even speech is not.  Such thinkers would say that the world is entirely constituted by the mind (human or divine), and would account for the apparent independence of objects by reference to some aspect of mental activity whereby its "content" seems objective rather than immanent.  In general, of course, the sensory or phenomenal world is commonly mistaken to be "out there" whereas it is really "in" the mind or is a "projection" effected by brain-activity "in here."  It is only because we see the outside of the body that the visual world appears to be external.  This is not to deny an "external" reality, but to draw attention to the fact that our very experience of that reality (even as being "external") is a function of the nervous system, which is "inside."

Freud and Jung, of course, had notions of projection that are not unrelated to our discussion.  For Freud, fantasy-projection with or without sublimation (or censorship by conscience) involves the reconstruction in imagination of the "object-lost" (e.g., the pre-Oedipal mother) as a source of substitute-gratification of the infantile erotic desire.  Culture as a whole is for Freud the product of sublimation, in which the "Oedipal project" (i.e., to achieve causa-sui status by being a "father of oneself" through re-uniting with the mother) is disguised.   In sublimation, objects are reconstructed in fantasy and endowed by   the process of cathexis with libido or sexual energy.  As a result, the self is increasingly separated from the sensory world and identified with a non-bodily soul, so that civilization as a whole -- since it is based on repression and sublimation -- necessarily "moves towards the primacy of intellect and the atrophy of sexuality [i.e., life]" and thus involves an eventually disastrous withdrawal from reality.9  Thus, for Freud, the neurotic mind -- by the intentional energy or tendency of desire itself -- creates an imaginary or purely intentional world which impinges upon external reality to the extent that the latter is unbearable (due to anxiety concerning death, sorrow over objects-lost, etc.)  and the former (existing in the unconscious) is a source of motives which influence behavior in the latter.

For Jung, projection is the activity whereby the a priori archetypes of the collective unconscious are projected upon experience in order to structure that experience and give it meaning by relating it either to primordial experiences or merely to experiences already stored in the personal unconscious.  The archetype is in itself purely formal or structural and is empty of content.10  In relating to an aunt or any older woman, for example, as a mother-figure, one projects the mother-archetype in the form of the mother-image.11  Neurosis and psychosis generally indicate the power of intentional acts of consciousness, whereby ascriptions of meaning to objects increasingly displace the object-as-perceived with the object-as-conceived or imagined, thereby projecting a fantastic over-lay that separates the mind from the body and its world.  Ernest Becker, recognizing this danger, nevertheless held that such "partialization" of reality is necessary in order to restrict awe in the face of the mysterium tremendum of existence.  The ego or character-structure (which Becker says is a "lie") just is the blocking out or repression of actuality, using various defense mechanisms -- without which, Becker claims, "there would be full and open psychosis" in that one would be overwhelmed by the fear of death and incapacitated by awe -- "paralyzed to act."12  Krishnamurti -- counter to Becker and Freud -- views the self or character-structure not as a response to the fear of death but as the cause of that fear: since death is, for the fearful, an idea and not a fact, it is the idea of the death or ending of the self, Krishnamurti claims, which causes fear.13

The whole issue as to the ontological status of the self or "I" is quite relevant to mysticism and the problem of knowledge.  For many mystical schools of thought, the self as an entity separate from the objective world (including the body) and continuous (or having an identity through time), is illusory.  The Buddhists held the anatmanvada or doctrine of no-self; the Advaita Vedantins saw the jiva or personal self or soul as the apparent subject of the object of the world) to be part of maya or illusion.  Zen Buddhists speak of a transcendence of the subjective mind to attain an ontic-noetic state of no-mind (wu-hsin) in which there is no separation of subject and object because there is no-thought (wu-nien).  In other words, the self is itself an "intentional object" which "exists" only insofar as there is mental activity about that self, and it is such activity which creates the division between subject and object, act and content or object, observer and observed, etc.  If by their very intentionality or object-directedness thoughts intend or focalize their own objects -- separating them, say, from the whole field of experience -- then it is by turning thoughts back on themselves that reflection intends the "self" which takes itself to be the "thinker" which exists above and beyond the thoughts which seem to issue from it.  As the mystic or shaman don Juan Matus of Carlos Castaneda’s quasi-anthropological writings has it,  perception or experience as we know it is like a "bubble" which is formed around us in such a way that what we witness is merely the reflection of our self (or, what is the same, of our world view) on the inside of the "bubble."14  Our description of the world then reflects itself, conditioning our experience of the world to such an extent that don Juan uses the term "world" to refer to the view, paradigm, description, or mental-construct we have of reality, rather than to refer to reality itself.  This "world" is "concocted" by reason, using language, and is likewise "maintained" by the "internal dialog" which constantly describes the world.15  For Krishnamurti, the self or "thinker" "has no reality by itself" but is created by thought.16  Thereafter, "the world is not seen as it is but in its various relations to the ‘me’" which is constituted by memory.17  Although thought, dualistic, in nature, divides the thinker from thought and the observer (you) from the observed (the world), "the fact is there is no duality and the observer is the observed at all times," Krishnamurti claims.18

We have now looked at several accounts of knowledge in which the mind is seen to experience a world which is more a construct of mental activity than it is either given in sensation or "real" in a more absolute way.  Most of these accounts grant mental acts an intentionality-like property whereby those acts are not only about something but largely constitute that something.  If this is considered to be one formulation of the important "problem of knowledge," then the mystic’s "solution" can be put in these terms:  Were there no mental activity, there would be no intended world, sensation would present itself (and the sensory world) in an undistorted way (insofar as the organism itself is normal and healthy), and a state of "pure awareness" would be possible which would be without even sensation and which would therefore involve direct and unmediated apprehension -- not of "nothing," but of (ultimate) reality. 

Let us now look more closely at this interesting claim.  What is most important about mystical awareness is its alleged property or quality of directness -- of being "direct apprehension" of (ultimate) reality. The two issues involved are 1) the sense in which mystical apprehension is "direct," and, 2) the meaning of the adjective "ultimate" which I have used to optionally modify "reality."  I can think of two significant senses in which mystical insight is "direct:"  first, it is direct in that it involves neither ideation nor sensation, and thus is perhaps apprehension not of objects but of the very essence of "what is" (i.e., by virtue of the very fact that it is awareness which is yet unfocused or undirected); second, it is direct in the sense that its "object" is sensation (or thought) itself as immediately given in experience.  The first sense is rather mysterious but might be thought of as being a direct apprehension of "what is" or Being as a whole just by being a direct insight either into itself or into the emptiness of the mind.  Thus Zen Buddhists speak of "pure cognition" of "pure existence."19  There is simply an awareness of being, without that awareness being separate from the being of which it is aware.  If there is a level of being at which we can speak of "Being" as a whole, and if this Being has an "essence" or essential nature or a "source" of which it is a manifestation or on which it itself depends, then awareness itself, taken as a being, would have as its own essence that one "essence."  Direct insight into the unity of all things, which mystical awareness is often said to be, is thus insight into the one essence.  In our second sense of "direct apprehension" there is sensation, but this sensation is intuited or seen directly (without verbal, intellectual, or conceptual interpretative mediation) as it is -- i.e., as sensation (stimulated and to some extent causally determined, one infers, by whatever it reveals or reflects of the outside world).  Just as non-ideational apprehension of the essence of awareness itself or of the emptiness of the meditative mind is simultaneously apprehension of the essence, so is apprehension any thing (given sensorily).  Another way in which non-sensory apprehension (in the first sense of "direct") might be apprehension of things-in-themselves, not "ultimately" or essentially but at the level of conditioned being, is that this awareness might involve a "sixth sense" without that "sense" being a medium, means, or mode (for otherwise the apprehension would not be "direct").  But this seems self-contradictory.

As to the "ultimate" nature of the reality which mystics claim to apprehend, we might note that unitive mystics (who claim that reality is essentially one ) hold an absolute non-dualism which does not oppose such pairs of terms as "absolute and finite" or "all and many," "ultimate and conditioned," etc.  For these mystics -- such as Zen masters and Krishnamurti -- the world which we think of as being, pluralistic or manifold is essentially unified in that the "one" "source" is expressed or manifest through it without there being a real ontological distinction between "source" or "cause" and "universe" or "effect."  This doctrine in Advaita Vedanta is known as vivartavada -- the doctrine that the effect only appears to be separate and distinct from its cause.  Krishnamurti -- writing in his Notebook about a sudden experience of "the power that existed before all things came into being" -- says "Nothing exists but that one thing."20

It is not clear whether it is of trees and limousines and such "things-in-themselves" (i.e., taken as things-in-themselves), that the mystic has direct knowledge.  This would be rather difficult to account for in materialistic terms, since sensory perception is the usual medium for awareness of such things but is nonetheless a medium.  To the extent that sensation -- as the natural activity of the sensory apparatus and nervous system as a whole -- offers a veridical or faithful "reflection" of the noumenal realm, then sensory awareness without ideation would yield valid but still indirect knowledge of reality.  In the intuition of sensation itself, however, as given to awareness and as the function of the nervous system and end-organs, there is surely a direct apprehension of noumenal reality itself -- insofar as the body belongs to the noumenal realm.  Insight, further, into the true nature of anything (whether as content of consciousness -- e.g., as concept or percept; or as consciousness itself empty of content; or, by some means or non-means, as a thing-in-itself existing outside of consciousness and the body) would be (or could be, at the deepest level) a direct apprehension of the one essence of all things -- if this really is the nature of reality.  Mystical awareness, then, being without intentional or constitutive activity on the part of the human mind, might entail a direct apprehension of the true nature of the mind, consciousness, and sensation itself, if not of "external" things-in-themselves.  My main point is that since mind, awareness, and sensation are themselves noumenal beings or have noumenal being (for identity theorists, monists, non-dualists, and such unitive mystics as Krishnamurti), and at the same time are "conveniently" immanent, then the problem is solved merely by direct apprehension of what is already immanent as being what it truly is in itself (namely, noumenal being). 




1      See, for example, George Mavrodes, "Real v. Deceptive Mystical Experiences," in Steven T. Katz, ed., Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 236-40.

2      Cited in Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1946), p. 9.

3      Cited in Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language, Thought, and Reality (New York: John Wiley & Sons, and The Technology Press of M.I.T., 1956), p. 134.

4      Whorf, ibid., pp. 252, 154, 244, 263.

5      Ibid., p. 263.

6      Cassirer, ibid., pp. 7-9.

7      Ibid., p 8.

8      John Dominic Crossan, The Dark Interval: towards a theology of story (Niles, IL: Argus Communications, 1975), p. 10.

9    See Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death: the psychoanalytical meaning of History (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1959), pp. 121.

10      Carl Gustav Jung, Four Archetypes, trans. R. F. C. Mull (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), p. 13.

11      Ibid., 9.

12      Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1973), pp. 66, 50.

13      Jiddu Krishnamurti, The Wholeness of Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 77.

14      Carlos Castaneda, Tales of Power (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974), pp. 246-7.  Don Juan, like Krishnamurti, identifies the "self" with the "world-view" or the totality of memory which for don Juan includes "personal history."

15      Ibid., p. 101.

16      Jiddu Krishnamurti, The Impossible Question (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 42.

17      Jiddu Krishnamurti, The Urgency of Change (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), p. 3.

18      Jiddu Krishnamurti, Tradition and Revolution (Madras: Sangam Books, 1974), p. 58.

19      See, for example, Katsuki Sekida, Zen Training: Method and Philosophy (New York: Weatherhill, 1975), pp. 160-192.

20      Krishnamurti, Krishnamurti’s Notebook (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), p. 35



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