Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Howard L. Parsons on mysticism revisited

In my two previous posts on Parsons, I commented, inter alia, on his essay essay "Theories of Knowledge: A Dialectical, Historical Critique", with some complimentary and non-complimentary remarks. Revisiting it, I want to emphasize that this essay is unique and invaluable.

It's an example of how much philosophy arrives in the public sphere DOA, while academic philosophy, like the intellectual world at large, rolls on addicted to familiarity and fashion. I don't participate in the star system in philosophy any more than in any other area. My goal has been to rescue noteworthy work from oblivion. Parsons belonged to a particular tradition in Marxism too heavily indebted to CP/Soviet-style Marxism: these people produced some good work even though they took questionable positions in other instances.  And the more "worldly" philosophers get now, the more they lose perspective: the merger of popular culture and intellectual culture demonstrates how thoroughly the culture industry saturates the souls of people in our time.  But back to Parsons.

Of particular interest in this essay is Parsons' treatment of mysticism, especially its psychophysical aspects.  Parsons makes a number of interesting statements, including this one:

As a theory of knowledge and of reality, mysticism is false. It absolutizes a moment in man's interaction with the world—the sense of qualitative unity. It statically identifies that moment with reality and with knowledge. It destroys the distinction between man and the world and obliterates the dialectic between them. Mysticism is the practice and ideology of men bent on escape from their conflicts and struggles in the real world. It is a flight of the attention from continuous intercourse with things, events, and people to concentration on a single quality or experience. It is a flight of fantasy insofar as it elaborates a theory in defense of this flight in practice. In the Western Christian Church heretical movements have often been associated with mysticism because it represented a counter‑movement against abstract and verbal orthodoxy. But it remained an alienated protest against the ruling form of alienation, a religious answer to a religious mistake. That mistake, especially in Western supernaturalism but also in various forms and mysticism, is the division and falsification of reality in thought. Things and events are interpreted as static, fixed, and isolated from one another, with no real interpenetration, conflict, development, or qualitative change. Such an interpretation serves the interest of the ruling class, which wishes to keep things and classes as they are, and to avoid conflict, change, and development into a new kind of class society or into a classless society. Mysticism perpetuates this mistake by emphasis on an experience which presumes to absorb and transform (aufheben) all parts and conflicts into a final and unified whole. But the mistake of mysticism is that while the world is felt to be unified, it goes on, in separated processes that interact and change without ceasing, outside the skin of the mystic.

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