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Was Kant a Mystic?

by Arthur Brown

Immanuel Kant is one of the most famous philosophers of the Enlightenment. He and David Hume represent the two great minds of the eighteenth century. He is well known for his ideal transcendentalism, a phenomenological philosophy that was considered by many to be a safe haven for religion from the fatal empirical arrows of David Hume. According to this philosophy this world is not "real" yet it is not mere illusion either, it is a phenomenon of the ultimate reality, the world of the noumenal, the thing in itself.

Kant describes his position and tries to prove it in his famous Critique of Pure Reason. In the simplest sense, Kant is saying that outside of us there are the things in themselves, the noumenal world. So Kant is denying that our minds somehow create the universe, which is strict idealism. Yet, our minds are crafted in a way by which they cannot comprehend the world "correctly". Some axioms are hard wired in our minds, they interact with the world that we perceive to produce a non-identical image of the universe in our minds. So, according to Kant, we are perceiving a world that really exists, yet not in its real nature, but only as a phenomenon.

It's just like a man who is wearing sunglasses, he will see things as black or dark, the sunglasses did not create the external world, it just somehow "modified" the objects to appear darker.

Kant states twelve axioms among which are time, space, unity, multiplicity and causality. So we can conclude that the world in itself, that reality is neither one nor many, that it is timeless, spaceless... etc. He even tries to prove his position by proving time and space can not really exist by trying to prove that their existence is paradoxical, for example he tries to prove that time cannot have existed for ever and at the same time that it can not have been created, thus he concludes that time does not really exist outside our minds.

It seems all those efforts were mainly done by Kant to preserve ethics. Kant thinks that free will is essential for an ethical world, yet the strict mechanical world view supposed by the classical physics of his age were definitely leading to determinism and negation of any free will. According to Kant's philosophy, our actions are totally governed by the natural laws in our phenomenal world. Yet, free will does exist in the world of the thing in itself. How free will can be "misperceived" as predetermined actions in the phenomenal world is something we cannot know since we lack any knowledge about the nature of the world in itself.

Evaluating Kant's Position here is not my goal. I just want to give the reader a glance on Kant's philosophy before starting our inquiry about his philosophy and genuine mysticism.

Some people would conclude that Kant's philosophy is mystical, since it somehow may sound like the common teachings of the mystics. It agrees with the widespread mystical doctrines in some aspects. My position here is that Kant was not a mystic and that his philosophy was just close to the mystical position by chance.

I will have now to discuss mysticism a bit. Mysticism is a universal experience and practice. Trying to derive certain dogmas from such a wide spectrum of variable systems of mysticism from the whole worldwide heritage is very difficult indeed, yet I think it is not necessary. My personal view is that the mystical experience itself is almost always the same, yet its interpretation is opened to cultures and religions. Thus mystics may teach apparently different dogmas, although all those dogmas are mere explanations for the same experience. So I will try to compare Kant to the basics of any mystical experience.

Many philosophers agree that there are two mystical experiences , one called "extrovertive" mysticism in which the mystic will somehow realize "the one" in everything around him and in his own self; the other is the "introvertive" mysticism in which the mystic will realize "the one" alone, being bare of any form.

Since our interest here is in the relation between the ultimate reality and the world as we perceive, I will mainly stress "extrovertive" mysticism.

Mystics usually perceive things "outside" of time; they speak of "eternal actions" or "timeless actions". Actions still happen, yet the sense of time is dramatically suppressed. Indians usually speak of time (along with the whole world) as maya, illusion. Meister Eckhart teaches us that "Nothing is as opposed to God as time... There is no process of becoming in God, but only a present moment, that is a becoming without a becoming, a becoming-new without renewal... All that is in God is an eternal present — time without renewal" (Sermon DW 50). Mystics also speak in a similar manner about space and multiplicity.

Kant would provide similar teachings: the phenomenal world is not "real", the twelve axioms are merely subjective mental constructions, and among them we find time, place and multiplicity. Kant intellectually concluded this, from what he thought to be paradoxical in this world. His arguments about the paradoxical nature of time and place are well known and found elsewhere on the internet, so in order to focus on our main concern, I will not explain them here. Meanwhile, Meister Eckhart when saying the above stated words didn't conclude that time is inapplicable to god, he felt that. He simply felt a strange state of being, a wired type of consciousness where time is totally transcended. Indian mystics even naively concluded that time is illusory. No mystic did even realize that he concluded anything, the experience was so intense that the illusory nature of time was self evident. The same can be said regarding place and multiplicity.

It was just a coincidence that Kant and the mystics reached such identical positions from totally different starting points and different paths. Yet, such positions are not as close as it might seem to the first instance. There are such critical differences that would solidly prove the different grounds of reasoning, I'll try to explain some here.

While Kant thinks that our mind shapes the world the way we see it, a mystic will simply speak of our being alienated from the "right" perception where we come to see god in all things, good as well as evil. Thus to a mystic the ultimate reality is mainly the core or essence of what exists. It is not to be said that the thing should have a different shape other than the shape that we see, but that god dwells in it the way it already is. Trying to prove that this world is illusory is not a genuine mystical doctrine, it is acceptable in India for example but Christian mystics as Eckhart, Tauler, Suso never expressed their need for such a doctrine. They just stressed that god is in everything.

Theravada Buddhism is maybe the only genuine mystical system where the feeling of sacredness is dramatically suppressed, but if we put this exception apart, we can say that any mystic would feel sacredness towards the ultimate reality. Kant, as far as I know, never talked about the noumenal world with this sanctifying attitude. To him, the thing in itself was merely a solid philosophical object.

Mystics believe that one can experience the ultimate reality via the mystical experience. Some call it nirvana, moksha, being one with the Tao, the inner birth of the Christ, the Christ consciousness, the Buddha nature, the spiritual wedding, etc. Although they all stress that the ultimate reality can never be expressed by words, they believe it can be known, or better say it can be felt. The reasons for this alleged ineffability are worth investigation, but that is not our subject now. Kant, however, denies any possibility of knowing (and not "feeling" since the noumenal world to him is just an intellectual subject) the noumenal world. According to him, our minds were just crafted to see the world this way, the mind has been made to be governed by time, place, etc and it cannot transcend itself to know the thing in itself. It can, however, intellectually conclude the presence of such a thing because it can know that the axioms (time, place, etc) are paradoxical and not real. And thus Kant would strangely agree (and once again for different reasons) that you couldn't say what the noumenal world is, yet you can say what it is not. Just like the lovely Indian "neti neti". Yet the mystics do know what "god" is like, they just negate the possibility of saying what "god" is like. Kant here deviates.

I think that the last paragraph alone can disprove Kant being a mystic.

Here is another difference, less complicated but no less important. Almost all mystics would affirm that the ultimate reality is one.

Oneness is perhaps the only positive affirmation a mystic attributes (and strongly attributes) to the ultimate reality. Yet Kant doesn't. Since Kant thought that Oneness is also an axiom, the thing in itself is neither one nor many. While mystics find this reality to be "pure oneness" Kant thinks the noumenal world transcends even oneness. Finally Kant explicitly deviates from one of the most, if not the most, important tenet of genuine mysticism.

I must state here a possible objection to this point. According to the objection (expressed to me by a friend) mystics claim that the ultimate reality is both one and many, and that I am wrong in saying that they think it to be "pure oneness". I here reply that multiplicity is only evident in the "extrovertive" mystical experience when the one is perceived through all the things that exist, so it is not the ultimate reality that is many, yet the world from beyond which the one is present. So the mystical ultimate reality is one and only one. But it is manifested in the multiplicity of this world, it is not multiplicity itself, but it radiates from beyond the multiplicity.

This is best described in this extract from a poem by Shelley:

Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of eternity.

And after all is said, let's forget about the theoretical part. Let's look to Kant the man. He was definitely a man of ethics, and as far as I can see he didn't build his philosophy to protect religion, but to protect the ethics of religion. He was too wise to be fooled by religion's fairy tales and omnipotent gods. He was sad to see ethics collapse with religion. And his "Religion in limits of mere reason" clearly shows his non-interested position in religion. But although being a man of ethics, he was not a man of mysticism. He never let a tear of love fall on his cheeks, he never let peace dwell in his soul, and he never let his emotions take him to the desert of Eckhart's essential nothingness.

Kant is to be respected as a philosopher who fought for ethics, and as one of the most intellectually advanced men in his century. He definitely deserves to be remembered as a freedom lover and truth seeker, yet not as a mystic.

© Arthur Brown 2005