James on Mysticism


“One may say truly, I think, that personal religious experience has its root and centre in mystical states of consciousness; so for us. . . such states of consciousness ought to form the vital chapter from which the other chapters get their light.”


4 Characteristics:

1.    Ineffability: cannot be adequately expressed in words and thus can only be known by those who have them

a.    Vedanta’s neti neti, Buddhist tortoise

2.    Noetic Quality: experienced as states of knowledge, as sources of deeply significant illuminations.  The truths revealed in mystical states have their own authority

a.    Visions of the future, sudden understanding of texts (

3.    Transciency: fleeting, hour or so, leave a lasting impression on the inner life, immediately recognized when they occur

4.    Passivity: can be actively facilitated, but when they occur, the person feels no longer in control.  One might feel grasped or held by the Other who is encountered.


James’ Mystical Ladder


Method of serial study: study phenomena from their germ to their over ripe decay


1.    Sense that some word or sensory impression has a deeper significance -- some maxim, word, play of light, musical pattern (hardly any religious significance claimed)

2.    Sudden sense of having been there before -- deja vu. (cf. vuja de).  Sweeps over you.

3.    Feeling of being surrounded by incomprehensible truth.  Dreamy state

4.    Obliteration of sensory experience, leaving nothing but an abstracted self -- beyond the realities of space and time.

5.    Feeling of ecstatic union with the deepest truth -- e.g., awakened by experiences of nature

6.    Full scale cosmic or mystical consciousness. Al-Ghazzali, Saint Teresa, Ignatius, Dionysus the Areopagite.  Self-consciousness obliterated; consciousness of all of life. An extension of normal consciousness.


Mystical states spring from the great subliminal or transmarginal region of mind.


James is open to the possibility that mystical states may constitute superior point of view, as windows though which the mind looks out upon a more extensive and inclusive world.