What does materialism have to do with mysticism?

Michelangelo, ‘The Awakening Slave’, marble, c. 1520-23, Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, Florence. A profound feeling for the dynamic physical world, informed by Neoplatonism.

Not only is materialism indebted to mysticism – as Marx implicitly acknowledged when he correctly described Hegel’s philosophy as mystical1 – mysticism and its influence pervade Western culture.

The contribution of mysticism in all areas has been profound – to literature, the visual arts, religion, particularly to and through philosophy with its concealed priesthood (which priesthood was identified by the Dionysian priest Nietzsche), to science – it inspired Copernicus to the greatest scientific hypothesis (the Divine Light not the earth is at the centre of the world), and Kepler (in a wonderful yet imperfect world the planetary orbits are elliptical, not circular).

In the West its primarily Neoplatonic form, in reflecting the contradictory, poetic dynamism of the world and having been ‘stood on its feet’ by Marx became the philosophical engine of dialectical materialism itself.2

We in the West, on the back of all that has been achieved, believe a monumental lie, a monumental arrogance, a monumental delusion – that while others worship idols, stare at their navels, are committed to ‘failed’ or ‘backward’ ideologies or are obsessed with filial piety, we have risen above this to become the triumphal bearers of (linguistic, conceptual) ‘Reason’.

We wear this self-awarded badge as a cultural definition. It is the belief we have relied on to most distinguish the West from the rest.

The impact of mysticism argues against this. Linguistic reason, bounded, manipulable and governed by rules and a core tool of all authoritarians and ideologues from Plato onwards is not the only form of reason. At the heart of mysticism is another – powerful and fluid, complex, subtle and evanescent. And in the inspiration of its ‘connectedness’, immensely creative.

Linguistic reason draws on this ‘connectedness’ as its proponents seek to contain and deny it. The artist and theologian Plato is a prime example. I refer you to the lyrical power of the Ion

For a Poet is indeed a thing ethereally light, winged, and sacred…

When we wake in the middle of the night with the solution to a long-standing problem, had we been dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’, or might trotting chairs and fluttering wings have borne fruit in creative ‘space’?3

Or when you round a corner and bump into a stranger – no time for considered words and structured sentences – think of the richness, at multiple levels, of what has taken place in your brain – in a moment’s silence. Such a cognitive experience (that of ‘first impressions’) is so intense it merges seamlessly with the physical. This thinking is the ever-present underlay of what is done linguistically.

Intuitive thought draws most directly on our connectedness – to all that comprises us, to what we remember, and to the world. It provides us with perhaps our deepest cognitive experience of the world. That this has been given mystical meaning does not detract from its objective nature and potential.

In considering what comprises ‘reason’, the materialist must begin with how the brain functions in totality, recognising that its functions bear on the whole dialectically, that they are inseparable and plastic, and not focus only on the brain’s capacity for linguistic expression.



1. Marx wrote: ‘I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker…The mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.‘ Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, Postface to the Second Edition 1873, Penguin, London, 1982, p. 103.

2. See William Franke’s two volume anthology On What Cannot Be Said: Apophatic Discourses in Philosophy, Religion, Literature, and the Arts, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 2007

3. Hegel himself wrote ‘it is also inadequate to…(say) vaguely that it is only in the waking state that man thinks. For thought in general is so much inherent in the nature of man that he is always thinking, even in sleep. In every form of mind, in feeling, intuition, as in picture-thinking, thought remains the basis.’
G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, Part Three of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1830), Trans., William Wallace, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1971, 69

5 thoughts on “What does materialism have to do with mysticism?

  1. As usual a wonderful and insightful post. I enjoyed the trotting chairs and fluttering wings, but I don’t think the argument is strong enough to make the case for non-materialistic cognition. What is a more powerful argument? Can “memory” be a more accessible vehicle to make this point?


    • Hello Rouin, thank you for your generous comment. I intended the post as a summary of my position. I think that reasoning is far more wholistic (drawing on the brain in its entirety) than patriarchal Western philosophy allows and that intuition is an important material element in that process.

      In 2008 I sent an email to Daniel Wilson, Professor of Psychiatry at Creighton University, Omaha: ‘Steven Pinker believes that “language gives us a hint as to what’s going on beneath language, which has to be at least as complicated as language.”

      Do you think the use of any form of language (e.g. “pictures”) is the only means of “thinking” – do brain processes “below” consciousness use any form of language to process experience, or are the fluidity and perhaps “primitiveness” of those processes such that “language” and “pictures” cannot encompass them, but yet they still can be addressed by reason and spoken about?

      Do you, for example, consider intuition as merely “fuzzy language” or do you dismiss it altogether?

      How significant a part do conscious determinations play in comparison with those functions “below” language-based reason – to what extent is the use of any process that could be described as that of language merely the end result of what went before, “beneath” language?’

      He replied: ‘There is clearly a categorical difference between conscious language/thought and emotions but there are also connections. Pinker is really just extending the Chomskian notion of “deep grammar” but, in any event, it seems to me a great deal of mental life occurs in primitive areas and, sometimes, these bubble up nearly to full linguistic grasp — intuitions & etc. 

More concretely, there is increasing evidence that psychotherapy often works via the “movement” of “feelings” into thoughts, typically both from the limbic areas and also from the non-dominant cerebral hemisphere. Likewise, the higher primates all seem to have quasi-linguistic capacities without speech. Similarly, dog and other creatures communicate in quite sophisticated ways without overt language or abstract reasoning.’

      Western philosophy has a lot of catching-up to do in relation to science and I think that the study of mysticism – both of its denied impact and what its practice draws on, its method, has a great deal to offer.

      What do you think?


      • I think it would be very valuable, if possible, to formulate some kind of testable scientific hypothesis and experimental method that could scratch beneath language and lead one to understand how cognition takes place and how intuition forms. Memory, like ‘reason’ mentioned in your post, cannot be isolated to a particular region of the brain and is thought to be delocalized throughout the brain. But it appears to be very unclear how this happens. The same is true, I think, for reason and intuition. However, I have a lot of learning to do, as I have only recently begun seriously researching such topics.


  2. Thanks Phil, for your refreshing thoughts. We are so stuck in our mind’s certainty. Frightening when bored in it, we should never cease to be amazed, until we are freed from certainty, that is.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s