The Christian mystical experience and the limits of language

“If the mystic wishes to describe the mystical union of the soul with God and its effects, he has to make use of words which are not designed to express any such thing. For example, in order to express the closeness of the union, the elevation of the soul and the effect of the union on the soul’s activity, he employs a verb like ‘transform’ or ‘change into’. But ‘change into’ denotes such processes as assimilation (of food), consumption of material by fire, production of steam from water, heat from energy, and so on, whereas the mystical union of the soul with God is sui generis and really requires an altogether new and special word to describe it. But if the mystic coined a brand new word for this purpose, it would convey nothing at all to anyone who lacked the experience in question. Therefore he has to employ words in more or less ordinary use, even though these words inevitably suggest pictures and parallels which do not strictly apply to the experience he is attempting to describe. There is nothing to be surprised at, then, if some of the mystic’s statements, taken literally, are inadequate or even incorrect. And if the mystic is also a theologian and philosopher, as Eckhart was, inexactitude is likely to affect even his more abstract statements, at least if he attempts to express in theological and philosophical statements an experience which is not properly expressible, employing for this purpose words and phrases which either suggest parallels that are not strict parallels or already possess a defined meaning in theology and philosophy.”


Copleston, Frederick Charles. A History of Philosophy: Volume 3, Part 1. Garden City, NY: Image, 1962. 206. Print.

Outline of “A History of Philosophy, Volume 1: Greece and Rome” by Frederick Copleston, S.J.

Copleston History of Philosophy, Volume 1: Greece and Rome

Outline (This is an attempt to present the outline which Copleston gives within this work – feel free to request Word doc version of this outline). The autonumbering is messed up, and I’m not sure how I can fix it without destroying my soul… Here is a link to a PDF copy without the auto number confusion… Copleston, HoP, Vol 1 – Outline

You can use this for whatever purpose you like, though a thank you is always appreciated. I did this for my own sake while reading it, first of all, and share it for whatever benefit anyone may derive for any purpose whatsoever.


Chapter I – Introduction

1)          Why Study the History of Philosophy?

i) Knowledge of history is necessary for ‘education’ – Philosophers are key contributors to European thought and culture.

ii) Knowledge of the History of Philosophy will help us avoid the mistakes of our predecessors

iii)         Studying the history of philosophy will enable us to be attentive to developments within it.

2)          Nature of the History of Philosophy

i) No philosophy can be understood unless it is seen in its historical setting and in light of its connection with other systems.

ii) Observation of logical sequence in development.

iii) Progression points ‘beyond itself’ to Truth.

iv) Copleston adheres to the conviction that there is a philosophia perennis.

3)          How to Study the History of Philosophy

i) See any philosophical system in its historical setting and connections.

ii) Study philosophers ‘sympathetically’.

iii)         Understand words, phrases and shades of meaning.

4)          Ancient Philosophy (this volume)


Frederick Copleston on the limits of human language and metaphysics

“Language is primarily designed to refer to the objects of our sense-experience, and is very often found inadequate for the precise expression of metaphysical truths. Thus we speak, and cannot well help speaking, of “God foreseeing,” a phrase that, as it stands, implies that God is in time, whereas we know that God is not in time but is eternal. We cannot, however, speak adequately of the eternity of God, since we have no experience of eternity ourselves, and our language is not designed to express such matters. We are human beings and have to use human language — we can use no other: and this fact should make us cautious in attaching too much weight to the mere language or phrases used by Plato in dealing with abstruse, metaphysical points.”

Copleston, Frederick Charles. A History of Philosophy: Volume 1. Garden City, NY: Image, 1962. 165. Print.