Steve Palmquist’s Kant and Mysticism (Palmquist Reference Palmquist2019; hereafter KM) is divided into three parts. The first discusses Kant’s 1766 Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, a work devoted to Emanuel Swedenborg’s mysticism. The second focuses on the works of Kant’s Critical period and develops what Palmquist calls Kant’s ‘Critical mysticism’. The final part offers a reading of the Opus Postumum with the surprising thesis that it advances a sort of Panentheism.
Throughout, Palmquist seeks to show that, rather than dismissing mysticism outright, Kant rejects a ‘mistaken, “delirious” form of mystical experience that he believed Swedenborg exemplified’ (p. 5), but supports forms of mysticism that remain consistent with the familiar epistemic restrictions of transcendental idealism. In fact, as understood by Palmquist, transcendental idealism ‘actually guarantees their possibility’ and our staid and steady Kant even ‘positively encourages such experiences’ (p. 6).
In this brief commentary, I will focus on Part II of KM, particularly its three loci where Palmquist thinks there is space for mystical experience (in some sense) in Kant. Specifically, these are (a) what Palmquist calls ‘immediate experience’ or ‘encounters’; (b) what he calls the ‘supervening’ of religious experience on ordinary experience; and (c) moral conscience as the ‘voice’ of God.
2. Immediate Experience
Before discussing Palmquist’s use of ‘immediate experience’, let us first take note of Kant’s own use of the term, unmittelbare Erfahrung. It appears in a variety of Critical texts, most prominently in the Critique of Pure Reason’s Refutation of Idealism, where it is used to draw a distinction between representationalism (with its ‘gap’ between inner states and outer objects) and an immediate (not causally mediated) perception of objects of the outer sense.Footnote 1 ‘Immediate experience’ thus in Kant’s usage is consistent with transcendental idealism. It involves the forms of intuition and pure concepts as constitutive conditions for its objects. Such conditions thus do not ‘mediate’ but rather constitute objects and our experiences thereof.
By contrast, when Palmquist uses ‘immediate experience’, he means something other than the above. Palmquist concurs that experience for Kant necessarily involves the aforementioned conditions. He also concurs that there can be no experience absent these conditions. But Palmquist proposes that, in addition to experience, there are also what he calls ‘encounters’ between God and humanity and such events are ‘immediate’ in the sense that they are not determined by the conditions for possible experience.
Such ‘encounters’ have, we might say, a bracketed status, as they are not items of knowledge nor evidential grounds for knowledge claims. For example, Palmquist writes that so long as we ‘have not yet adopted any Critical standpoint’ and scrutinize them as ‘potential source[s] of determinate knowledge’ (p. 54) such ‘encounters’ can be allowed according to Kantian principles. He also proposes that ‘Kant does not regard the Copernican Perspective as one that must be adopted at all times’ (p. 54) and thus when this ‘perspective’ is set aside, room is given for the mystical.
This, however, assumes that the ‘Copernican Perspective’ is something like an interpretative stance, rather than a description of the relationship between our faculties and the world. Yet if the ‘Copernican revolution’ is not the invention of just a new theoretical stance, but rather an insight into the essential nature of finite consciousness, then there should be no setting it aside. Such an ineluctable role for the Categories is articulated by Kant within the first Critique’s Transcendental Deduction and in its related preliminaries. For example, he writes ‘that objects (Gegenstände) of sensible intuition must accord with the formal conditions of sensibility that lie in the mind a priori is clear from the fact that otherwise they would not be objects for us’ (A90/B122).Footnote 2 Likewise, §26 of the Transcendental Deduction argues that ‘everything that may ever come before our senses must stand under the laws that arise a priori from the understanding alone’ (B160). As such, I do not see room in Kant for human consciousness to have ‘encounters’, if by that Palmquist means a contentful sensible awareness that is not determined by the operations of our faculties. It seems to me incorrect to grant such alternatives to experience, as rendered by Kant, for it then makes the ‘Copernican Perspective’ into just a ‘perspective’, a contingent (though presumably our default) option for how we relate to the world, rather than the ineluctable nature of our finite consciousness.
3. Supervening Mysticism
A second way in which Palmquist presents mystical experience in Kant is by describing the mystical (or religious) as supervening on ordinary experience. Palmquist quotes Robert Oakes, who offers an example of a person who hears the sound of church bells, sensible content that may be quite ordinary on its own, yet with it, ‘the experience of God supervenes upon the experience of the bells’ (Oakes Reference Oakes1973: 37).
In this instance, Palmquist presents God as ‘mediated’ by the sensible content of the bells, ‘pointing indirectly to something nonsensible beyond them: they remain symbols of a transcendent ideal that can never become an object of empirical cognition’ (p. 68). In other words, rather than opening up a mode of experience (‘immediate experience’ or ‘encounter’) where the agent received content that is not ‘mediated’ by the constitutive conditions for possible experience, we have here an experience in line with these conditions, though an experience that in some way links the agent with the transcendent.
This might be construed as saying that the agent represents God as having a causal role in the ringing of the bells, or perhaps more modestly, that the ringing of the bells brings the agent to a moment of religious reflection.
The causal language here is certainly problematic, even though the thesis that God may in some special sense act upon the natural order is not rejected by Kant. For example, in the Religion, Kant acknowledges that revelation may have been ‘at a given time and a given place … wise and very advantageous to the human race’ (6: 155). He also accepts the possibility that the founding of Christianity was accompanied by various miracles (6: 84). Kant also seems amenable to the doctrine of providence (e.g. 6: 100, 134 and Perpetual Peace, 8: 361, 362, n.). Nevertheless, while Kant is open to the ‘concept of a supernatural intervention’ (6: 191), he recommends agnosticism towards claims of such – it is ‘salutary to keep ourselves at a respectful distance from it’ (6: 191). More strongly, he writes: ‘The persuasion that we can distinguish the effects of grace from those of nature (virtue), or even produce these effects in us, is enthusiasm, for nowhere in experience can we recognize a supersensible object’ (6: 174); and ‘[t]o want to perceive heavenly influences is a kind of madness’ (6: 174).
Given Kant’s view, what is one to do with experiences such as the church bells? People do have experiences that seem as if they are revelatory or mystical. Someone might, for example, hear church bells, the adhan or the Shema and be moved in some new way to morally better themselves. They may represent the moment as if it were a communication to them from God. And this, I think, is still consistent with Kant, so long as the agent does not regard the sensible content as evidential, but rather appropriates the moment as adding to their own personal narrative, a special moment which prompted them to take their moral duties more seriously. Kant allows for at least the hope that God may aid us in our moral efforts (6: 52, 98), and the agent who subscribes to this hope may then think about their moment with the bells in its terms.
Similarly in part four of Religion, after a lengthy attack on ‘priestcraft’ and ‘counterfeit service’, Kant seeks to reappropriate religious activities such as prayer, church attendance and initiation rituals. They are given meaning in terms of an ‘enlivening of the disposition to a life-conduct well-pleasing to God’ (6: 198). Someone might, for example, periodically reflect back upon a religious or mystical experience, how it made them feel, how as a result of the experience they began to change their ways, etc., and out of that reflection find greater strength in their ongoing moral efforts. This strikes me as a tenable view consistent with Kant, but once brought in line with Kant, it is hard to regard it as mystical in the typical sense of the term.Footnote 3
4. Moral Conscience
A third locus for Critical mysticism offered by Palmquist involves our moral conscience. The most prominent discussions of our moral conscience can be found in the Concluding Remark of Kant’s 1791 ‘Theodicy’ essay, part four of the Religion and in the Metaphysics of Morals’ Doctrine of Virtue. Kant describes our conscience as the ‘internal court in man’ (MM, 6: 438), and ‘the moral faculty of judgment, passing judgment on itself’ (Rel, 6: 186). The conscience is not the faculty which ‘judges whether an action is in general right or wrong’ (Rel, 6: 186) but is rather that faculty by which the agent ‘witness[es] for or against himself’, i.e. whether or not he has been diligent in his moral efforts (whether or not he appropriately scrutinizes his maxims, whether or not he is diligent in his acting on his duties, etc.).
Palmquist is correct that Kant associates the conscience with God. In the Metaphysics of Morals, for example, Kant writes that ‘conscience must be thought of as the subjective principle of being accountable to God for all one’s deeds’ (6: 439). Yet there is a significant difference between thinking of this faculty as, shall we say, standing before God as our judge, versus the determinations of this faculty as literally ‘the voice of God’ (KM, p. 65). Palmquist blurs this distinction, however. He writes that in conscience ‘God’s voice comes to us immediately, through practical reason’ (p. 64) and is an ‘existential experience of the divine-human encounter’ (p. 66).Footnote 4
It seems, however, to me incorrect to regard our consciousness of the judgements of conscience as an ‘immediate experience’ of God or ‘divine-human encounter’. Human beings have a faculty of reason and that faculty has both theoretical and practical applications. In its practical applications, it tests whether or not a maxim can be universalized, whether or not the maxim treats other agents as ends, and whether or not (in the form of conscience), one has been suitably diligent in one’s efforts to heed the moral law.
Likewise, rather than assigning our moral awareness to a divine communication, consider the gallows example from the second Critique, which Kant uses to stage the fact of reason. There, Kant offers a thought experiment, the conclusion of which is that, while we might deny at times that we can resist our inclinations, when the right examples are put before us, we will recognize that such resistance is possible (5: 30). That is, in the second Critique Kant grounds our commitment to being bound by the moral law upon a reflection about our practical lives. I do not see the merits of reading this as mystical.
There are portions of KM where Critical mysticism seems genuinely mystical, proposing some exception to the Restriction Thesis, some special-case ‘encounter’ that slips through what are otherwise the necessary conditions for possible experience. Yet there are other portions of KM where Critical mysticism reads more as aligned with the core principles of transcendental idealism.
Palmquist writes, for example, that ‘[t]o be mystical in a Critical sense, therefore, is to allow our reason to strip away the clothing of bias and private interest that tends to masquerade as knowledge and goodness, in order to bathe oneself in the pure light of wholeness that shines forth from this distinctly human faculty’ (p. 75). But if the outcome of this critique is that whatever falls within the ‘mystical’ is always in accord with our ‘distinctly human’ faculties, it no longer seems right to call these outcomes ‘mystical’.
Ultimately, though, I think that Palmquist’s goal is to bring to life the experiential dimension of Kant’s philosophy of religion. I am not comfortable calling it ‘mystical’, even with the qualifier ‘Critical’, even though I do believe Palmquist is right that there is need to develop a Kantian account of religious experience. As such, Kant and Mysticism is an important contribution to scholarship as it works through how such experiences can be understood within the framework of Kant’s Critical philosophy.