W.T. Stace

Mysticism and Philosophy

Chapter 5: Mysticism and Logic

1. The Mystical Paradoxes

[p.251] The entire body of the world's mystical literature warns us that there is, between mysticism and reason, some relation which is quite unique in the sense that no other body of thought or experience claims to stand in a like relation to reason. A common statement is that mysticism is above reason. In this phrase the word "above" is presumably a value word, used perhaps because the world of the mystic is thought to be divine and not merely earthly.

We shall consider the relation of mysticism to values on a later page. But in this chapter we are not concerned with this subject. We must therefore abstract from the "aboveness" of mysticism. What is above x, however, is certainly outside x in some sense. Presumably, therefore, the mystical experience is believed to be in some way outside the sphere of reason. This much certainly emerges from the world-wide literature on the subject. But this so far is very vague. And so far as I know there exists no clear theory of the actual relations between mysticism and reason. The literature on the subject is a chaos of conflicting suggestions, of which none has got beyond the status of being a suggestion. There exists no definite theory. It is the purpose of this chapter to examine these rival suggestions and to work out a theory.

First of all, we must decide in what sense the word "reason" is to [p.252] be understood. I shall understand by it the three well-known laws of logic. No doubt it may be said that this is a very narrow usage of the word. Ought not one to include inductive reasoning or even the whole sphere of conceptual thinking? The word "reason" may even be further widened to include whatever is considered "reasonable" in any sense. But the reasonable in this sense has little to do with logic and is to all intents and purposes a value term. Moderation in all things, the middle path, has often been considered more reasonable than extreme action of any kind. But moderation is not more logical than the extremes. It is only better in a value sense. The middle way is recommended as the good way.

I have to justify my narrow usage of the word "reason:' In general the justification lies in the necessity of splitting things up and considering each part of the subject in turn. We shall come to these wider meanings of reason in due course. When the mystic says that his revelation is outside reason, he plainly does not mean that it is outside the sphere of the reasonable. No doubt he will urge that in the end the mystic life is the only reasonable one for a man to live. And this is better treated under the head of the relation between mysticism and ethics.

We have next to justify the further narrowing of the topic so as to exclude inductive reasoning and conceptual thinking in general. The general relation of mysticism to the intellect and its concepts will be better left to be discussed in the chapter on mysticism and language. It has been claimed that mystical experience is altogether unconceptualizable, and that it is for this reason that it is said to be "ineffable". It will be found that the discussion of this in the next chapter will bring up the whole subject of the intellect in its relation to mysticism. No doubt when the mystic says that his experience is "above" reason, he may mean both that it is outside the sphere of logic, and that it is beyond the reach of the understanding altogether; and no doubt the two statements are very closely connected, and may even imply each other. But we will consider them one by one and will take the narrower of the two first.

In the previous chapters of this book I have emphasized the [p.253] essential paradoxicality of the mystical consciousness. I need merely remind the reader of the pantheistic paradox that God and the world are both identical and nonidentical or distinct; of the positive-negative or plenum-vacuum paradox with its three aspects, that the One or the Universal Mind is both qualitied and unqualitied, both personal and impersonal, both static and dynamic; of the paradox of the dissolution of individuality wherein I cease to be individual and yet retain my individuality; of the paradox that he who reaches nirvana neither exists nor does not exist; and of the paradox of the extrovertive mystical experience that the objects of the senses are both many and one, both identical and distinct. These paradoxes have not been foisted upon mysticism by the present writer but have been discovered and fully documented by the study of the utterances of the mystics themselves. It may well be suggested however that, although no one who is acquainted with the subject doubts that the utterances of the mystics are in some sense paradoxical, the present writer has given an extreme interpretation to this fact by insisting that the paradoxes are flat logical contradictions; and that much less drastic interpretations can be given which will prove satisfactory hypotheses for the elucidation and explanation of the facts of the case. And I think it is quite true that taking mystical paradox to be the same as unvarnished contradiction is not a plain matter of indisputable fact but rather an interpretation which must be justified. We will begin by considering what less drastic theories can be put forward and what is to be said for and against them.

They are attempts to resolve, or get rid of, the contradictions. There are, I think, four such theories possible. They may be called

  1. the theory of rhetorical paradox,

  2. the theory of misdescription,

  3. the theory of double location, and

  4. the theory of double meaning, or ambiguity.

2. The Theory of Rhetorical Paradox

On this view the paradoxes are merely verbal and do not infect the thought or the experience. The same experiences could be [p.254] described and the same thoughts expressed without loss of content in nonparadoxical language. Paradox is an important rhetorical or literary device which a writer on any subject may quite legitimately use for the purposes of gaining emphasis, expressing thought content in a striking and dramatic way, forcing the reader to stop and think and to pay serious attention to thoughts which he might otherwise be inclined to slide over and leave only half understood. Literary or rhetorical paradox may also have positive esthetic value and poetic beauty. This last happens because paradox is apt to take the form of a rhythmic swing and balance of opposing clauses succeeding one another in the manner of strophe and antistrophe. Consider, for example, the following lines by T. S. Eliot:

In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own.
And where you are is where you are not. [1]

Certainly paradox is here used by Eliot as an effective literary device. But even here one may well ask whether that is all. There are mystical overtones in the poetry of Eliot which seem to go beyond mere rhetoric.

But to return to the suggestion that the mystics use paradox either to enhance the beauty or poetry of their language or for the purpose previously mentioned of causing the reader to stop and think. There is no reason at all why the mystic should not take advantage of the resources of language to make his utterances effective. But I shall try to show that this theory is quite inadequate to account for the facts.

Let us consider a few examples.

In the Isa Upanishad we find this passage (which I have already quoted in part) :

That One, though never stirring, is swifter than thought ...
Though standing still, it overtakes those who are running...
It stirs and it stirs not.
It is far, and likewise near.
It is inside all this, and it is outside all this?[2]

There is no reason to doubt that the balance of clauses as in "it stirs, and it stirs not" was enjoyed and was intended to be enjoyed for its esthetic effect by the seer who was originally responsible for it. But was that all?

Or we might ask the same question regarding the passage from Lao-tzu which speaks of the Tao as follows:

When you look at it you cannot see it;
It is called formless.
When you listen to it you cannot hear it,
It is called soundless.
When you try to seize it, you cannot hold it;
It is called subtle. . . .
It is up, but it is not brightened;
It is down, but it is not obscured.
It stretches endlessly,
And no name is to be given. . . .
It returns to nothingness.
You face it, but you cannot see its front.
You follow it, but you cannot see its back.[3]

Is this only poetry and intriguing verbiage? Actually it is a poetic , rendering of the vacuum-plenum paradox. "It" is formless, empty and void; and yet "it" is the Great Tao, the fullness of reality. And the quotation from the Isa Upanishad is a poetical rendering of the static-dynamic aspect of the same paradox. And therefore to decide the question of whether the two passages quoted are mere rhetoric, what we have to do is to examine the thought content of that paradox in itself and apart from the poetical rendering here given and [p.256] see whether paradoxicality inheres in it regardless of its particular verbal presentation. Is it such that contradiction is inherent in the thought and cannot be got rid of, whatever language we use to express it? Before discussing this there are two more lines of Eliot ; ' which I should like to quote. One is

The still point of the turning world.

And the other is

So the darkness shall be the light,
and the stillness the dancing.

The first of these two lines gives us the picture of a stillness and silence at the centre of the world of flux. The second clause of the second line tells us that the static is the dynamic; the stillness is the dancing. The first clause of the second line says the same thing as Suso's phrase the "dazzling darkness". In other words, both lines are poetic expressions of the vacuum-plenum paradox. (It is unimportant to us whether Eliot was aware of this or not.)

We have previously had before us in earlier pages the most funda- mental of all the assertions of the introvertive mystics, namely, that there exists a kind of consciousness which is void of all particular objects and empty of all content. The vacuum-plenum paradox is derived from this and is a description of it. Now it is impossible to account for this as merely a literary flourish. For in whatever words the description is expressed, whether in poetry or in prose, whether in metaphors or in abstract language, contradiction remains in the description and thought itself. The mind is emptied of all specific content of any kind, sensations, images, thoughts, concepts, propositions, reasonings, volitions. This is the vacuum. There is nothing left to be conscious of. And yet there emerges a pure consciousness, which is not a consciousness of anything. And the darkness of this empty consciousness is the light of a full consciousness — Suso's "dazzling obscurity." It may be alleged that at least one element of the natural consciousness is left, viz., emotion or affective tone. It may be love, or it may be a serene peacefulness. The mystic's answer would [p.257] plainly be that all natural attractions and repulsions which have attached themselves to the obliterated sensations, images, or thoughts have been obliterated along with them, and that an entirely new emotional element of blessedness has emerged as accompaniment of the pure consciousness. In all this what is described is self-contradictory, not merely the words which are used to describe it.

The same contradictory character of what is described appears even more clearly if we remind ourselves that it may be expressed in terms of unity and multiplicity. It is pure unity without multiplicity. But in our ordinary consciousness a one, a unity, or a whole must be a unity of many things — for instance, the table is a unity of legs, table top, and other parts. A pure unity by itself would be impossible. Is it not the same thing as a whole without any parts?

It is not necessary to go through the list of all the other paradoxes of the mystical consciousness to see that what has just been said of the vacuum-plenum paradox is true of them all. However we express the pantheistic paradox that the world is both identical with, and distinct from, the One, this assertion remains equally paradoxical and cannot be passed off as a literary device. And so with all the other paradoxes.

3. The Theory of Misdescription

Of course one can, on the ground of the contradictions, refuse to believe that the mystic has any such experience as he says he has. He is not suspected of telling an untruth, but he must be making a mistake. He may be unintentionally misdescribing his experience. He says that he experiences a total void which is yet a fullness, a light which is also darkness. But any such descriptions — like all descriptions of anything anywhere — include elements of interpretation. Just as it is impossible to obtain pure sense experience without interpretation, so it is impossible to obtain pure mystical experience. Any statements about it, even though apparently pure description, will include conceptual interpretations. And this might result in [p.258] misdescription. If what the mystic experiences were described accurately and correctly, the contradictions might disappear.

Let us consider this possible theory. We may begin by enquiring in general what sort of evidence would convince us of the correctness of a description of anything by anybody, which, for some reason or other, we had suspected of being an unintentional misdescription.

Let us suppose that someone reports to us that at a certain place and time he had a visual experience which he describes as X. It appears to us that X is an impossible or very improbable experience for anyone to have. We suspect that what he really saw was Y but that he mistook it for X. By what means could we become convinced that our suspicion is mistaken and that he really did observe X, as he said? I assume that we are not in a position to verify the experience ourselves, and that we have to rely on testimony.

First, the X-experience would become a little more likely if we found that our man claimed that he had had an X-experience frequently, and not merely once; that he was thus quite familiar with it and was sure that he had described it correctly as X. Secondly, it would become very much more likely if we found that a great many persons claimed to have had an X-experience. The greater the number of witnesses who so described it, the more probable it would become that the description was correct. Thirdly, this probability would increase if we came to know that the evidence came from all over the world, and that witnesses in America, Europe, India, China, Japan, Arabia, Persia, etc, all agreed that they had an experience which was properly to be described as X, and not as Y. Finally, if there were a high degree of relative independence between groups of witnesses in various countries, so that the agreement of their descriptions could not be explained by supposing that they had carelessly copied from one another, or borrowed each other's descriptive language, or been infected by each other's mistakes, we should surely tend to be convinced that the X-description must be correct.

It is easy to see that these conditions of corroboration apply point by point to the descriptions of mystical experience. The description [p.259] of it as a pure consciousness which is empty of all content and is nevertheless a rich fullness is suspect because it is paradoxical. But this description of it is not based on the evidence of a single person who claims to have had the experience once. Vast numbers of persons have had the experience, and most of them, or many of them, have had it repeatedly over long periods of their lives. Next, the same paradoxical description of it comes from the main higher cultures all over the world. Finally, there is a great degree of independence between some groups of witnesses and others. One might expect that mystics within the European Christian culture would influence one another's language. Ruysbroeck may have tended to borrow descriptive phrases from Eckhart, St. John of the Cross from St. Teresa. And it is natural to think that the seers who gave the Upanishads to the world may have influenced one another. Their descriptive phrases may have tended to become traditional.

But how are we to explain it when Eckhart and Ruysbroeck agree in their descriptions with the Upanishads, since these two groups were independent of one another, had no contact, and had never even heard of one another. Yet the very language of the Mandukya Upanishad in describing the unitary consciousness is almost identical with the language in which Eckhart and Ruysbroeck describe the consciousness of the undifferentiated unity. And how can one explain by mutual influence the fact that the empty nothingness of pure consciousness as described by Christian mystics is identical in meaning with the Void of the Mahayana Buddhists. These are but two instances of the independent corroboration of the world's mystics by one another. The instances could be multiplied. But enough has been said to make clear what the case against the hypothesis of mistaken description is.

There is, however, a further point to be added. I have taken the paradox of the vacuum-plenum as my example. But the argument can be strengthened by pointing out that it applies equally well to the other great mystical paradoxes. For instance, the paradox of the dissolution of individuality, in which dissolution the "I" both disappears and persists, is reported in all ages and cultures by [260] countless independent witnesses. So are the paradoxes of the personal-impersonal, and the static-dynamic characters of the Universal Self — though these, of course, are included as aspects of the paradox of the void. The paradox of the identity in difference of external objects in the extrovertive mystical experience is likewise described by independent witnesses in many cultures.

I conclude that the theory of misdescription must be rejected. It is not to be contended, however, that the case against the theory amounts to a complete refutation of it. But it appears to be fair to say that, although the theory of misdescription remains a possible hypothesis which is always likely to find some adherents, the case against it seems strong enough to show with a high degree of probability that it is false, and that we ought to acccpt the basic descriptions of the experiences of the mystics as being true descriptions.

4. The Theory of Double Location

To speak of one and the same thing as being simultaneously both square and circular is a contradiction. But the contradiction will be got rid of if we can point out that the predicate "square" and the predicate "circular" in reality attach to two different objects or to two different aspects of the same object. It is natural to suggest that the same procedure may be used to resolve the apparent contradictions of the mystical paradoxes. For instance, in the vacuum-plenum paradox, perhaps the two predicates, vacuity and fullness, instead of being simply located in one and the same object, may in reality be doubly located — one in one object and one in another. If so, the contradiction disappears.

What at first sight seems a strong argument in favor of this view is that the mystics themselves can often be quoted as favoring it. But a more careful examination dissipates the strength of this argument. The attempts of Eckhart and Sankara to place the void in one entity and the plenum in another have already been discussed in Chapter 3, Section 5. Eckhart put the void in the Godhead and the [p.261] fullness in God. Sankara located the void in the Higher Brahman, the fullness in the lower Brahman. We saw in the earlier section how and why these attempts failed. And it is not necessary to go into the matter in detail again. But we may remind the reader briefly of the main points. The mystics are driven by powerful inner impulsions to utter paradoxes. These are not the product of thought or intellect, but rather of inspiration. But being themselves rational men who in their ordinary lives and in regard to their ordinary experiences use and apply the ordinary logical laws, they are likely to be puzzled and even astounded when these basically paradoxical experiences come upon them and break out from their lips in contradictory phrases. Their mysticism drives them to paradox, their logical natures to logical explanations. Hence they vacillate between the two. This is especially true of the West because in Western culture the scientific and logical side of human personality predominates over the mystical. But in the East the opposite is true; logic there tends to be weak and mysticism strong. Yet even in the East, the sense of the logical may in particular cases, such as that of Sankara, cause a mystical writer to appeal to the double-location hypothesis. And even in the West, an Eckhart, though adopting that hypothesis in some of his utterances, rejects it in others. Thus the mystics in the East and in the West can be quoted on both sides of the argument, and we have to use our own judgment and form our own interpretations. And I gave my reasons in the earlier section for insisting that this logical device cannot dissipate the inherent contradiction of the vacuum-plenum paradox. I will not repeat them here.

But whether this view, is accepted or not in the particular case of that paradox, it is important to see that the double-location theory breaks down completely if we try to apply it to the other mystical paradoxes. It may on first sight seem at least plausible to suggest that the qualitied, dynamic, and personal aspect of the mystical consciousness is to be located in the lower Brahman or God. But there is no way in which one can even begin to apply such a theory to the pantheistic paradox. The world is both identical with and distinct [p.262] from God. How can we divide the identity from the difference and place identity in God and difference in the world, or vice versa? For in this case what we have is not opposite attributes, but relations or relational properties which require two entities to be related. Identity means identity of X with Y, and difference means difference of X from Y. A relation cannot, like a quality, be located in one thing only. There is therefore no possibility of saying how the double-location hypothesis could even be stated in the case of the pantheistic paradox.

It is equally impossible to apply the theory to the paradox of the dissolution of individuality. The "I" both ceases to exist and continues to exist. It makes no sense to suggest that there are two individuals, one of whom ceases to exist while the other continues in existence.

5. The Theory of Ambiguity

In this theory it is suggested that the apparent contradictions are due to using one word in two different senses, so that when this is pointed out the contradiction disappears. To say that X is both Y and not-Y is on the face of it a contradiction. But it may be that the word "Y" has two meanings or senses, and that X is Y in one sense and not-Y in the other.

So far as I know no writer on mysticism has ever attempted to apply this solution to our paradoxes. None has suggested what different senses of what particular words will result in solutions of what particular paradoxes. If we wished to give this theory a fair chance, the only way would be to work out the details ourselves, and so to manufacture the ammunition for our would-be critic and opponent. But with the best will in the world I cannot do much to help him in this matter. The only possibility I can think of is the suggestion that the words "nothing" and "nothingness," used often as synonyms of the void in mystical literature, may be used in two senses, and that this might help in regard to the vacuum-plenum paradox. "Nothing" is used in the paradox in an absolute sense as [p.263] meaning the totally negative or nonexistent. But it may be that the nothingness which is experienced in the mystical consciousness is only relative. It means "nothing to the intellect"; i.e., it means that what is experienced cannot be understood by the conceptual intellect. But as experienced it is of course a positive experience. Thus when we have the proposition "the mystical consciousness is both something and nothing," there is no contradiction because it means that the mystical consciousness is "something" for experience but "nothing" for the intellect. We experience it but cannot conceptualize it.

Now the assertion that the mystical consciousness is totally impenetrable to the intellect or understanding is certainly put forward in the literature on the subject; and it may sometimes be expressed by using some such phrase as "nothing to the intellect". This will be discussed in the next chapter. But it may be said at once that, even if it is true that mystical experience can be correctly said to be nothing in relation to the intellect, yet it is not in this relative sense that the word "nothing" is used in the paradox. We can see this if we ask what the nothingness or void in the paradox is actually a description of. For the vacuum is reached by emptying consciousness of all content, of all sensations, images, thoughts, etc., so that there is no multiplicity. It is the absence of all objects and all entities, in other words total nonentity. Thus, although it may be true that there are two senses of "nothing" in mystical literature, the one absolute and the other relative, the relative sense does not make its appearance in the paradox, and so there is in it no ambiguity.

Thus this attempt to solve the vacuum-plenum paradox by the theory of ambiguity breaks down. And in the case of the other paradoxes I am unable to suggest how an attempt to apply the theory could even get started. How, for instance, could the pantheistic paradox be dissolved in this way? In the sentences "The world is identical with God" and "The world is distinct, i.e., nonidentical with God," about which one of the words used can it plausibly be suggested that it is being used in one sense in the first sentence and in another sense in the second? I see no foothold here for any [p.264] plausible answer to this question. And therefore the attempt to apply the theory cannot even get started. The same will be found to be true of the paradox of the dissolution of individuality. I cease to be this individual, and yet I remain this individual. To what word here can the double-meaning theory be applied?

In regard to the pantheistic paradox, someone may suggest that God and the world are identical in part, but distinct in part, like two circles which intersect each other. This is not exactly an example of one word being used in two senses, but it may as well be brought up at this point. The circles are the sort of sensuous picture or image ' which tends to intrude itself into our consciousness and to mislead us when certain theologians tell us that God is both immanent and transcendent. The picture is absurd because it implies spatial or temporal parts in God. But it is more to the point to observe that it is rejected by the mystical experience which is the source of pantheism. This is the experience that all things, blades of grass, stone, and wood, are One. The extrovertive mystic does not see the One as partly in the objects and partly out of them: He sees a paradoxical identity of opposites, as was shown in our study of that type of mysticism. "I had no doubt," says N.M., "that I had seen God, that is, had seen all there is to see; yet it turned out to be the world that I looked at every day. [4]


I have now discussed several theories all of which have it in com- mon that they are attempts to show that there are no real paradoxes in the sense of logical contradictions in mysticism. They all break down. And as I am not aware of any other theory by which a critic might seek to show that the paradoxes are capable of rational solu- tion, I have to conclude that they are in fact incapable of rational solution, and that the contradictions which they include are logically irresoluble.

After all, what else ought we to expect? The mystics of all countries and ages have always with one accord affirmed that their ex- periences were "above reason" or "outside reason." What did we [p.265] imagine that they meant by these statements? Did we suppose that they did not really mean what they said, that they were exaggerating for the sake of effect, that this was mere talk not to be taken seriously? The discussions of this chapter have been no more than an attempt to show that they meant what they said, and that what they said is true. That their experience is beyond reason means simply that it is beyond logic. And we cannot reject this testimony unless we reject the whole of mysticism as a fraud. It is evident that all those who have mystical experience feel that there is some sense in which that experience is utterly unique, utterly unlike any commonsense kind of experience, completely incommensurable with the sense experience of the space-time world. He who reaches up to the mystical consciousness has reached a plane utterly outside and beyond the plane of everyday consciousness, not to be understood or judged by the standards or criteria of that plane. It is very clear that mystics feel this. But all attempts to show that the mystical paradoxes can be got rid of by some logical or linguistic device are just so many attempts to reduce mysticism to common sense, to take away its unique character, and reduce it to the level of our everyday experience. There is nothing wrong with common sense or with everyday experience. But we cannot have it both ways. We cannot both believe that the mystical consciousness is unique, diflerent in kind from our ordinary consciousness, and yet at the same time that there is nothing in it which cannot be "reduced" to our ordinary consciousness.

6. An Objection

But a radical objection may be taken at this point. How, it may be asked, is it possible to discuss mysticism rationally and logically — as we are trying to do — if mysticism itself is full of contradictions? This book is supposed to be a logical analysis and examination of the utterances of the mystics. How can such a book make sense in the circumstances? Does not the admission or assertion that these utterances are logical paradoxes render our whole enterprise senseless? [p.266]

One may remark in the first place that this objection is never raised against attempts to discuss rationally the paradoxes of Zeno, which have occupied the attention of philosophers for over two thousand years. Have all these discussions been senseless? The critic may reply that the object of such philosophical discussions has always been to show that Zeno's supposed paradoxes are not real logical contradictions and can be logically resolved. But the question what conclusion philosophers hoped to reach by their logical examination of the paradoxes — the question of their motivation — is irrelevant. If they had, by careful logical examination, been forced to the conclusion that Zeno was right in his belief that the experience of motion is self-contradictory, would this have made their careful logical examination less logical? Their conclusion would have been reached by logical discussion, and this discussion would not have been in any sense senseless.

But this reply — which is perhaps somewhat ad hominem — does not really clear up the puzzle. How, it may still be asked, can we conduct a logical discussion of professedly illogical and contradictory material, whether it be the paradoxes of mysticism or of Zeno? The answer seems to the present writer to be that each side of a paradox may be, if considered by itself, a logical and rational proposition. It will be capable of logical analysis and examination. It will also be possible to draw out from it any possible implications or entailments which are wrapped up in it. Both sides of the paradox can be taken up in turn and treated in this way. Of course we shall never by this procedure get away from paradox. The propositions, if any, which are entailed by "A is B" will contradict those, if any, which are entailed by "A' is not B". But if the conclusion which we have to draw in the end is that some human experiences — whether the experience of motion or the experience of the One — are actually paradoxical and that logicality therefore is not part of the universal and final nature of the world, these seem to me to be intelligible and important truths which we ought to know. Moreover, this conclusion is itself a perfectly logical and rational one. The proposition "X is self- [p.267] contradictory and nonrational" is not itself a self-contradictory or nonrational proposition.

But some logician or some supposed expert in the theory of meaning will say that whoever asserts "A is B and A is not B" is in fact saying nothing since the first half of the statement is canceled out by the second. He first asserts something and then takes back his assertion, with the result that no assertion is left. Hence the compound sentence "A is B and A is not B" is meaningless, or senseless. I entirely repudiate this charge as being based upon an elementary logical blunder — notwithstanding the fact that certain contemporary philosophers apparently fall regularly into this mistake. The blunder consists in confusing questions of truth with questions of meaning. The correct doctrine is that the laws of logic are concerned with truth and have nothing whatsoever to do with meaning. What the law of contradiction asserts is that two propositions which contradict each other cannot both be simultaneously true. One must be true, the other false. Hence if we say, "A is B and A is not B," one of the two parts of this sentence will be true, the other false. Hence, in that area to which the laws of logic apply the compound sentence "A is B and A is not B" is false. This conclusion refutes the view that the compound sentence is senseless in the technical sense of being meaningless. For to be meaningless means to be neither true nor false. Hence if the compound sentence is false, it is ipso facto shown to be meaningful. Moreover, if "A is B" is a meaningful statement, and if "A is not B" is also meaningful, it is impossible that the connective "and" placed between them should render the conjunction of the two meaningful statements meaningless. If we pose the sentence "A is hairy and A is hairless," it cannot be alleged that "A is hairy" means nothing. It professes to state a fact. The same is true of "A is hairless". Thus the paradox asserts two factual statements. It says two things and therefore it cannot be said to "say nothing:' We must not be misled by the metaphors of "canceling" and "taking back". The utterer of the paradox does not [p.268] take back the first half. He continues to assert it along with the second.

7. Previous Recognitions of the Contradiction Theory

The view that the mystical paradoxes are outright logical contradictions is no unsupported assertion or original discovery of our own but finds recognition — with varying degrees of clarity — in the writings of a number of previous commentators. A few examples — which do not pretend to be exhaustive — may be quoted here.

The reader may be reminded of Rudolf Otto's words quoted on page 65 in reference to the extrovertive experience in which all blades of grass, wood, and stone are one, namely that "black does not cease to be black nor white white. But black is white and white is black. The opposites coincide without ceasing to be what they are in themselves". And speaking of Eckhart's assertions that all distinctions disappear in the One, Otto writes :

This results in the peculiar logic of mysticism which discounts the two fundamental laws of natural logic, the laws of contradiction and excluded middle. As non-Euclidean geometry sets aside the axiom of parallels, so mystical logic disregards these two axioms; and thence the "coincidentia oppositorum," the "identity of opposites," and the "dialectic conception" arise. [5]

There are several things wrong with this passage. The analogy between mysticism and non-Euclidean geometry is false because the axiom of parallels is not self-evident as the laws of logic are. But more important, it is false — at any rate in my view — that mysticism has a peculiar logic of its own, governed by the principle of the identity of opposites. There exists in fact no such logic. There is only one kind of logic, namely the logic discussed by logicians. The position of mysticism in violating these laws is not another kind of logic, but is simply nonlogical. The idea that there is a superlogic, based on the identity of opposites, is due to the influence of Hegel. Hegel was quite right in his historical insight that the identity of opposites is implicit not only in mysticism but also in much of the [p.269] supposed rationalistic philosophy of the past, notably the pantheism of Spinoza. But he made the disastrous error of mistaking this for a new kind of logical principle and trying to found his own superlogic upon it. This has already been explained in Chapter 4, Section I.

The only merit of the passage from Otto is that he recognized the logical contradictions involved in the paradoxes of mysticism. But I have to point out that neither he nor apparently any other thinker on the subject has ever felt any urge to pursue the obvious challenge of the antilogicality of mysticism as regards its serious, and perhaps revolutionary, implications in regard especially to the status and foundations of logic. Otto remained content with the bogus solution of Hegel. But if that is rejected, the most serious problems are seen to face us. We are left apparently with a head-on collision between mysticism and logic. Does logic then destroy mysticism, or does mysticism destroy logic? Or is there a third solution possible which will enable us to be loyal to both?

Suzuki can also be quoted as a thinker who has recognized the true antilogical and contradictory character of mysticism. He speaks of "the problem of logical contradiction which when expressed in words characterizes all religious experiences". [6] And he writes further that:

When language is forced to be used for things of this world [the "transcendental world"] it becomes warped and assumes all kinds of crookedness: oxymora, paradoxes, contradictions, absurdities, oddities, ambiguities, and irrationalities. Language itself is not to be blamed for it. It is we ourselves who, ignorant of its proper functions, try to apply it to that for which it was never intended. [7]

Suzuki has also written of prajna (which may be translated as "mystical intuition") that:

Sometimes it asserts, sometimes it negates and derlares that A is not A and therefore it is A. This is the logic of prajna intuition.[8]

[p.270] Like Otto, Suzuki makes the mistake of supposing that mysticism has a peculiar logic of its own. But our point is that he does recognize the contradictions. Arthur Koestler, at the beginning of the chapter in which he recounts his own mystical experiences, wrote:

The reflections I have put down so far were all still on the rational level. . . . But as we proceed to others in an inward direction, they will become more embarrassing and more diffxult to put into words. They will also contradict each-other-for we are moving here through strata that are held to· getha by the cement of contradiction. [Italics minc.] [9]

No doubt the idea of things being held together by contradiction as by a kind of cement is an odd metaphor. But that is of no importance. The important thing is that Koestler evidently feels the sense of contradiction in the words which he is forced to use to describe his experiences. It will be remembered that what he described is the dissolution of individuality, which we have seen to be one of the mystical paradoxes.

8. Philosophical Implications of the Paradoxes

What the paradoxes show is that, although the laws of logic are the laws of our everyday consciousness and experience, they have no application to mystical experience. And it is very easy to see why logic does not apply to it. For that experience is the One, an undifferientiated unity in which there is no multiplicity. Now it is obvious that there can be no logic in an experience in which there is no multiplicity. For what are the laws of logic? According to the most common contemporary opinion, they are only linguistic or semantic rules. I reject this opinion. I hold rather that they are the necessary rules for thinking of or dealing with a multiplicity of separate items. If there are many items A, B, C, D, . . . , Z, then we must keep each distinct from the others. A is A and is not B. The laws of logic are in fact simply the definition of the word "multiplicity." The essence [p.271] of any multiplicity is that it consists of self-identical distinguishable items. But in the One there are no separate items to be kept distinct, and therefore logic has no meaning for it. For the same reason mathematical principles have no meaning for it, since there are no items in it to be numbered. It is for this reason that Eckhart says, "No one can strike his roots into eternity without being rid of the concept of number." Thus logic and mathematics are applicable to all those experiences, realms, or worlds where there is a plurality of existences. But they are not applicable to the undifferentiated unity of the mystic. The many is the sphere of logic, the One not so. For this reason, there is no clash between mysticism and logic. The logic and the illogic occupy different territories of experience.

The view that the many is the sphere of logic while the One is the sphere of paradox is likely to meet the following objection. If the paradoxes were confined to the undifferentiated unity, leaving the multiplicity strictly logical, then — it may be said — our solution might be acceptable. But this is not so. For mysticism asserts paradoxes about the world of multiplicity as well as about the One. For example, the pantheistic paradox asserts that the world, which is the multiplicity, is both identical with God and distinct from him. This plainly asserts the paradox about the multiplicity and not merely about the unity. And the extrovertive mystic asserts about the many "blades of grass, wood, and stone" the paradox that they are all one.

This objection arises because the separation between the multiplicity and the unity is an abstraction. There is a first stage of the introvertive experience in which the unity is experienced alone and the multiplicity is dismissed from consciousness. This is the standpoint of the Mandukya Upanishad, and most mystics never get beyond it. They pass into the distinctionless nirvana leaving distinctions behind in samsara. Nirvana is then paradoxical, samsara logical. But there is still the final distinction to be annulled, namely that between nirvana and samsara. Nirvana and samsara, God and the world are one, or rather are identical in their difference. This is the position of Madyamika Buddhism and also of Zen. In Christian mysticism it is apparently the stage called "deification," which was [p.272] attained by St. Teresa and some others. The life in this world and the life in the divine world are integrated in a single permanent union.

In the light of this, the world of flux, of nature, of space and time, in which alone the nonmystic lives, is seen as an abstraction. It contains only a half of the mystic's world. In it the many are not one, nor are distinctions annulled. Therefore in it the laws of logic enforce themselves. Therefore our solution that the many is the sphere of logic, the One the sphere of paradox, is correct. For when we say this, we are taking our stand in the world of the many and speaking from the point of view in which the many is separated from the One. And this is correct because it is only in this standpoint that the distinction between the logical and the nonlogical arises at all. And hence it is only here that either our problem or its solution has any meaning.

But although there is no clash between logic and mystical paradox, each occupying its own territory, yet the discovery that there is an area of experience to which logic does not apply has revolutionary implications for the theory of the status and foundations of logic, and therefore of mathematics also. The paradoxes in fact constitute no threat to logic itself because its principles are in no way affected. The three laws of logic remain what they have always been. Only their application is restricted. But the paradoxes do constitute a threat to certain views commonly held by contemporary philosophers about the nature of logic. These views do not belong to logic but to the philosophy of logic. It is for example a popular dogma among contemporary philosophers that no experience could ever conceivably contravene the laws of logic, and that these laws would be valid for any possible experience in any possible realm or world. It is this dogma which is now shown to be in error.

If we abandon it, several other common views about logic will have to be given up. For instance, we are told that the laws of logic "say nothing" or "tell us nothing about the world". Connected with this is the view that the laws of logic are only verbalisms or linguistic rules. But the existence of a nonlogical kind of experience [p.273] forces us to give up these opinions and to say rather that logical principles do tell us something about the world of our everyday experience because they are ways of expressing the nature of multiplicity — the nature of common experience as distinguished from mystical experience.

Logic applies only to some actual or possible worlds, not to all possible worlds as is usually supposed. And it is not enough to say that it applies to our everyday world, since it might apply to others as well. We should say rather that it will apply to any world in which there exists multiplicity. And multiplicity will exist wherever there is a principle of individuation by means of which one thing is separated from another. The most common principles of individuation known to us are space and time, so that logic is necessarily applicable to the space-time world, or what Kant called the phenomenal world. But there may be other principles of individuation which are unknown to us. Hence there may be other worlds which are inconceivable to us to which logic also applies. Plato's world of forms, if it were real, would also be a world to which logic applies. For it is a multiplicity of universals.


In our conception of a delimitation of areas of logic and nonlogic there remains perhaps one difficulty which should be explored. It is true that the experience of the introvertive mystic is undifferentiated and therefore it is an area of nonlogic. But the experience of the extrovertive mystic is spatially differentiated — even if it is nontemporal. Therefore it would seem that on our theory logic ought to apply to it. But the experience that all blades of grass, wood, and stone, etc., are one is a logical paradox and is the fons et origo of the whole pantheistic paradox. And this seems inconsistent with our theory.

My suggestion is that although in a sense the extrovertive mystic sees the same spatially differentiated world as we do, yet he may also be said to see through the space-time world to the unity, the One, which lies behind and beyond it. And this One is not differentiated. Indeed all mystics hold that the One of the extrovertive experience [p.274] is identical with the One of the introvertive experience. This is the meaning of the Indian identification of Atman and Brahman. "He who is the Self in man, and he who is the Self in the sun, are one," says the Taittiriya Upanishad [10] And Eckhart never made any distinction between the One perceived by him in blades of grass, wood, and stones and the One experienced in the apex of the soul. If this is correct, we must distinguish the sensuous physical part of the extrovertive mystic's experience from the unity which is the only mystical part of it, and which is undifferentiated and therefore nonlogical.

The view which I have put forward in this section is in some respects similar to certain of Kant's theories. It will be remembered that the twelve categories which he enumerated were believed by him to be part of the structure of the human mind, which it consequently imposes on everything which it perceives, but which are not present in the "thing-in-itself". Our theory is neutral as regards Kant's idealistic view of experience. It may quite as well be realistically construed. Also the unknowable thing-in-itself does not enter into our theory. But our theory and that of Kant are alike in one very important respect. Both imply the view that logic is restricted in its application and that there is an area of reality to which it does not apply. For Kant's theory that the categories do not apply to the thing-in-itself certainly entails that the laws of logic do not apply to it. For the principles of logic coincide with some of Kant's categories. For his categories of quantity, namely, unity, plurality, and totality, simply express the nature of any multiplicity, and are therefore in our view equivalent to the laws of logic. It is possible that the same should be said of two other categories, namely, negation and limitation. The other seven categories have no special importance in our theory.

It is perhaps important to observe that this discussion of the nature of logic is entirely independent of the question of the objectivity,[p.275] subjectivity, or transsubjectivity, of mystical experience. It follows that our results regarding the nature of logic will be valid even if it is held that mystical experience is hallucinatory. For the laws of logic apply to any experience of a multiplicity, whether the experience is objective or not. They apply to the worlds of dream and hallucination. A dream is a multiplicity of dream-objects. Therefore dream-object A is dream-object A and is different from dream-object B. Likewise if the mystical experience were written off as an hallucination, it would still be an undifferentiated experience to which logic would not apply. It would thus be an area of human experience which would refute the view that no experience could ever contravene the laws of logic. The rest of our conclusions about logic would follow automatically.

These considerations were suggested to me by certain important passages in Hume's Treatise. Hume pointed out that it is impossible to imagine a self-contradictory state of affairs. One cannot form a mental image of a head which is both hairy and hairless. This means that the laws of logic apply to the world of the imagination, the reason being of course that that world is a multiplicity of images. What Hume says about images is equally true of dreams and hallucinations. It would be impossible to see a round square in a dream, although one might mistakenly think that one had dreamed of one.

There may be some temptation for the philosopher who is sceptical of mysticism to try to use its contradictory character to prove that the experience is subjective. This is what Zeno did in regard to motion. He argued that since the assertion of motion leads to contradictions, our experience of it is illusion. It is important to point out that any such argument, whether as used by Zeno or the critic of mysticism, is entirely fallacious. For, as Hume showed, a contradictory illusion or hallucination is something which cannot exist in the mind at all. From the view that mystical experience is contradictory what follows is that either it is an area of experience in which logic does not hold or that no such contradictory experience exists at all. The alternative that it exists as an experience but is subjective is ruled out by Hume's principle. And if Zeno really proved that motion involves contradiction, what follows is either that logic has no application to it or that we do not even have the experience of perceiving motion. The alternative that we do experience it but that it is subjective is ruled out. For our purposes the importance of this conclusion is that if the paradoxical character of mystical experience is once admitted we are compelled also to admit the view of logic here put forward, namely, that logic does not apply to a11 experience — the only alternative being to deny that the experience is paradoxical.




1. T.S. Eliot, "East Coker" in Four Quartets, New York, Harcourt Brace and Co.

2. Hindu Scriptures, New York, Everyman's Library, E.P. Dutton and Co., Inc., 1943, p. 207.

3. This wording in translation is given by Suzuki, Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist, New York, harper and Brothers, 1957, pp 18-19

4. p. 73

5. Rudolph Otto, Mysticism East and West, New York, Meridian Books, Inc., 1957, p. 45

6. Suzuki, op cit, p. 51

7. ibid. p. 56

8.Charles A. Moore (ed.) Essays in East-West Philosophy, Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1951, p. 43.

9. Arthur Koestler, The Invisible Writing, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1954, p. 349.

10. The Upanishads, translated by Swami Pravadhananda and Frederick Manchester, New York, Mentor Book MD 194, New American Library of World Literature, 1957, p. 57. (Originally published by the Vedanta Press, Hollywood california. Copyrighted by the Vedanta Society of Southern California.)


W.T. Stace: Mysticism and Philosophy

W.T. Stace: Religion and the Modern Mind

W.T. Stace: Theory of Existence and Knowledge

The problem of evil assumes the existence of a world-purpose. What, we are really asking, is the purpose of suffering? It seems purposeless. Our question of the why of evil assumes the view that the world has a purpose, and what we want to know is how suffering fits into and advances this purpose. The modern view is that suffering has no purpose because nothing that happens has any purpose: the world is run by causes, not by purposes.
         ... W. T. Stace, Religion and the Modern Mind