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.

A basic comparison between the thought of Plato and Aristotle, in similarity and difference.

“Now for such general conceptions as that of manhood, or triangular shape, or any other abstraction that exists in a number of concrete things but nowhere by itself, Aristotle usually adopts the same word that Plato had used for his self-existing realities, namely “kind” or “kinds.” But just as Plato, in addition to this term which he shares with Aristotle, had a synonym which is peculiar to himself, namely “idea,” so Aristotle too has his own special synonym, namely “form.” And in expounding the doctrines of the two philosophers it has, very naturally, been usual to avoid the term “kind” common to them both, and to adopt for each the synonymous term characteristic of himself. Thus we speak of Platonic “ideas” and Aristotelian “forms.” It is a practice which has an undoubted convenience and is conducive to clearness from one point of view, but it has the great disadvantage of always suggesting the difference between the two thinkers and never their common ground, and also of severing the technical language of both of them, from the common matrix of natural, and naturally significant, phraseology out of which it grows and with which it always remains in connection. It is easy, however, to discern this common ground. “Idea” and “form” are mere variants on “kind.” And Plato and Aristotle both investigate such problems as these: What is meant by saying Socrates and Sophroniscus are both “men”? What does it really tell you of them? What does it enable you to understand? When you ask “what” a thing is and get your answer:–It is a cart, a horse, a tree–what really is that “whatness” or “thatness” that makes it the thing it is and not some other thing? And why can you never give any explanation of a thing except by determining some “kind” or “kinds” which it is or to which it belongs? But Plato is always trying to get at something behind the concrete and Aristotle to get at something in it. The Platonic “kinds” or ideas  exist apart from individual things and are the perfect prototypes of which they are the imperfect imitations or reflections; the Aristotelian  “kinds” or forms are abstractions of the human mind that have no actual existence except in transient and concrete individuals.” (Philip H. Wicksteed, Dante and Aquinas, pps 18-19 [bold emphasis mine]).

Josef Pieper – The meaning of life, according to Plato


“I wish to sum up Plato’s stance [regarding the meaning of human existence] in three brief statements:

The First Statement: To perceive, as much as possible, all things as they really are and to live and act according to this truth (truth, indeed, not as something abstract and “floating in thin air” but as the unveiling of reality)–in this consists the good of man; in this consists a meaningful human existence.

The Second Statement: All men are nurtured, first and foremost, by the truth, not only those who search for knowledge–the scientists and the philosophers. Everybody who yearns to live as a true human being depends on this nourishment. Even society as such is sustained by the truth publicly proclaimed and upheld.

The Third Statement: The natural habitat of truth is found in interpersonal communication. Truth lives in dialogue, in discussion, in conversation–it resides, therefore, in language, in the word. Consequently, the well-ordered human existence, including especially its social dimension, is essentially based on the well-ordered language employed. A well-ordered language here does not primarily mean its formal perfection, even though I tend to agree with Karl Kraus when he says that every correctly placed comma is decisive. No, a language is well ordered when its words express reality with as little distortion and as little omission as possible.”

Pieper, Josef. Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1992. 35-26. Print.