The Problem of Pure Consciousness: Mysticism and Philosophy
Edited by Robert K. C. Forman

Reviewed by Puligandla Ramakrishna

Philosophy East and West
Vol. 50, No. 2 (April 2000)
pp. 304-308

Copyright 2000 by University of Hawaii Press
Hawaii, USA



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Philosophy East and West, Vol. 50, No. 2 (April 2000)

Robert Forman and the other contributors to The Problem of Pure Consciousness: Mysticism and Philosophy richly deserve to be congratulated for their courage and boldness in raising and systematically discussing the question of non-intentional



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consciousness -- pure, objectless consciousness -- which is central to any discussion of mysticism and mystical experience. It is well known that the possibility of nonintentional consciousness is categorically denied by Western philosophers in general, including phenomenologists, whose proclaimed task is the systematic investigation of the variety of modes of consciousness. Thus, even according to Husserl, the founder of the phenomenological movement, all consciousness is intentional; that is, consciousness is always of something or other, and hence there simply cannot, in principle, be non-intentional consciousness -- consciousness without any intentionalities, objects. This denial of non-intentional consciousness is so entrenched and pervasive among Western philosophers that anyone who is even willing to consider the possibility of non-intentional consciousness is summarily dismissed as irrational and muddleheaded. However, it is also well known that many mystical traditions, Eastern as well as Western, maintain that non-intentional consciousness is at the very heart of mystical experience; and it is further known that the philosophico-religious systems of India in particular, such as Advaita Vedānta, Patañjali's yoga, and Yogācāra Buddhism, firmly acknowledge not only the possibility but also the actuality of non-intentional consciousness. In light of all these considerations, a systematic discussion of non-intentional consciousness and its possibility and actuality is a most welcome and timely scholarly labor.

    The driving force behind this book is the desire on the part of the contributors to examine carefully and refute Steven Katz' Constructivism, which has gained considerable support among Western philosophers. For this reason, it is essential that the reader clearly bear in mind Katz' own characterization of Constructivism:

There are No pure (i.e., unmediated) experiences. Neither mystical experience nor more ordinary forms of experience give any indication, or any grounds for believing, that they are unmediated... The notion of unmediated experience seems, if not self-contradictory, at best empty. This epistemological fact seems to me to be true, because of the sorts of beings we are, even with regard to the experiences of those ultimate objects of concern with which mystics have had intercourse, e.g., God, Being, nirvana, etc. (Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, p. 26; p. 9 of the book under review)

    Simply put, Katz' Constructivism is the claim that there can be no experience, whether ordinary or mystical, untouched by the culture and belief -- formative and shaping concepts, percepts, and expectations -- of the subject. Hence there cannot, in principle, be any non-intentional (mystical) experience transcending language, culture, belief, and expectations. It is to be emphasized that the claims of mystics contradict Constructivism. Katz is not alone in defending Constructivism; on the contrary, it has been upheld by Bruce Garside, R. C. Zaehner, Robert Gimello, Peter Moore, Ninian Smart, and Jerry Gill.

    The Constructivist does not deny mystical experience and is eager to affirm the Pluralism Thesis, which, according to the Constructivist, does full justice to the variety and diversity of mystical traditions:

Thus, for example, the nature of the Christian mystic's pre-mystical consciousness informs the mystical consciousness such that he experiences the mystic reality in terms



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of Jesus, the Trinity, or a personal God, etc., rather than in terms of the non-personal, non-everything, to be precise, Buddhist doctrine of nirvana. Care must also be taken to note that even the plurality of experience found in Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist mystical traditions, etc. have [sic] to be broken down into smaller units. (Katz, p. 41; p. 10 of the book under review)

    The Pluralism Thesis of the Constructivist contradicts the Perennialist Thesis, according to which "mysticism is by and large the same across time and tradition" (p. 11); that is, there is a core of mystical experience that is universal -- the same everywhere and everywhen -- transcending language, culture, beliefs, and expectations.

    The present work consists of an introductory essay by Forman, followed by two parts. Forman's introduction deals with mysticism, Constructivism, and forgetting. He begins with a clear definition of "mysticism," subjects Constructivism to incisive analysis, and argues that the Pure-Consciousness event involves, contrary to Constructivism, neither memory nor acts of differentiation nor computation; it is the noninvolvement of any Constructivist elements, which Forman refers to as "Forgetting." With clarity and insight, Forman exposes the shortcomings and inadequacies of the Constructivist thesis.

    The first part of the book, titled "The Empirical Investigation," consists of essays by Christopher Chapple, Paul Griffiths, Robert Forman, and Daniel C. Matt. All these essays approach the problem of pure consciousness in different traditions from the empirical standpoint. The Pure-Consciousness event in Sāṃkhya is discussed by Chapple, in Yogācāra by Griffiths, in the Christian tradition (with special reference to Meister Eckhart) by Forman, and in the Jewish mystical tradition by Matt; each concludes that there is considerable empirical evidence in the tradition examined for not only the possibility but the actuality of non-intentional consciousness. Matt's essay is particularly interesting in that it sheds light on the Jewish mystical concept of Ayin (Nothingness). The essay is very learned but somewhat disappointing in that Matt does not compare Ayin with śūnyatā (Emptiness) of the Mādhyamaka. Some of these authors also discuss their own personal experiences in the practice of meditation or narrate the experiences of others. It is commendable that the authors take into account the neurophysiological data in their discussions of the Pure-Consciousness event.

    The second part, "Philosophical Investigation," consists of essays by Donald Rothberg, Philip C. Almond, Stephen Bernhardt, Anthony N. Perovich, Jr., Mark B. Woodhouse, Norman Prigge, Gary E. Kessler, and R. L. Franklin. Given that in the first part it has been shown that there is evidence "which demonstrates that there are reports of the experience of pure (nonintentional, objectless) consciousness found in a variety of traditions" (p. 28), the second part deals with the following questions:

What philosophical implications do these experiences (as reported) have? Does such an experience require a novel form of analysis? Are the extant forms of analysis and current models adequate to account for these experiences? (p. 28)



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Rothberg argues, on purely a priori epistemological grounds, that the Constructivist excludes by sheer fiat the possibility of a Pure-Consciousness event and dismisses traditions that acknowledge non-intentional consciousness. He points out that the Constructivist, contrary to the latter's off-repeated claim, is not an impartial and neutral inquirer but is opposed to certain religious traditions, and offers some suggestions and modifications toward an epistemology that will do justice to the Pure-Consciousness event.

    Perovich lists a series of objections against Constructivism and attempts to show that the Constructivists' claim to base their approach in Kantian lineage is not supported by the Kantian corpus. I should point out, however, that Perovich's arguments to show that Kant does not exclude the Pure-Consciousness event are somewhat strained and not very convincing (particularly in light of the Kantian declaration that the human being has only sensible but not intellectual intuition). Further, Perovich, along with Bernhardt and Almond, tries to unravel the logical, methodological, and hermeneutical presuppositions of Katz' Constructivism and show them to be highly questionable and indefensible.

    The essay by Woodhouse and the joint contribution by Prigge and Kessler undertake a phenomenological investigation of the concept of consciousness and point out that traditions that rule out the possibility of a Pure-Consciousness event suffer from a basic flaw in their very conception of consciousness. They then go on to investigate whether there is a way of understanding consciousness that allows for the possibility of non-intentional consciousness. Among all these contributors, only Woodhouse has the insight that somehow the analysis of the deep-sleep state (as discussed in the Māṇḍūkya Upanishad) is central to the whole question of the possibility and actuality of the Pure-Consciousness event. His analysis of the deep-sleep state is quite illuminating; however, it is unfortunate that Woodhouse does not pursue the analysis to its logical conclusion.

    The final essay is by Franklin. His discussion of the philosophic and salvific significance of the Pure-Consciousness event, the interpretation of mysticism, and whether it is possible to do justice to claims of personal as well as impersonal forms of mystical experience is quite learned and illuminating.

    I shall bring this review to a close with the following observations. I am quite surprised to note that Forman talks of mystical phenomena: "And finally, what is the relationship between these pure consciousness events and other -- perhaps more advanced -- mystical phenomena?" (p. 43). Why am I surprised? Because "phenomena" always refers to some intentionality or other; and it is hard to understand what "mystical phenomena" means. Forman should have clarified this matter. I myself submit that the term "mystical phenomena" is self-contradictory; and it is quite puzzling as to how something more advanced than Pure-Consciousness could be a phenomenon.

    There is a central question that has not been considered and answered either by Katz or by the contributors to this volume: what, in the first place, allows one to classify different claims from different traditions as mystical? If one acknowledges



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theistic mysticism as well as nontheistic (not atheistic) mysticism, one first needs to clarify the grounds on which one regards both as mysticism.

    This book is an important and significant contribution to the study of mysticism, insofar as it deals with the central problem of non-intentional consciousness, a topic until now summarily dismissed by Western philosophers. It is not necessary to agree totally with the views and claims of any contributor in order to recognize that the essays comprising the book are at once truly learned and thought-provoking. All students of phenomenology and mysticism will find the book richly rewarding.