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Radical Empiricism and the Unremarkable Nature of Mystic Ineffability

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image of Method & Theory in the Study of Religion

Abstract Ineffability has long been considered a hallmark of mystical experience. Dominant trends in epistemology and the study of mysticism, however, hold that experience is fundamentally conceptual and linguistic in nature, and therefore that experience cannot actually be ineffable. From this perspective, ineffability claims stymie analysis, and their cross-cultural prevalence in mystic traditions is problematic. Radical empiricism dissolves these difficulties by offering a broader and less discursive understanding of experience; specifically, it regards ineffable experience as a real possibility. It is therefore able to incorporate ineffability claims into analysis as signals of emotional or qualitative dimensions of experience that are not linguistic in nature. Radical empiricism also thereby explains the cross cultural prevalence of ineffability claims as an unremarkable facet of human consciousness and experience. It therefore affords a more effective explanation for the prevalence of ineffability and a more productive perspective for the study of mystical experience.

Affiliations: 1: Babson College Babson College, Babson Park, Massachusetts, USA


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