The Innate Capacity: Mysticism, Psychology, and Philosophy

By Forsthoefel, Thomas | Anglican Theological Review, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

The Innate Capacity: Mysticism, Psychology, and Philosophy


Forsthoefel, Thomas, Anglican Theological Review


The Innate Capacity: Mysticism, Psychology, and Philosophy. Edited by Robert K. C. Forman. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. iii + 245 pp. $42.50 (cloth).

Robert Forman's current editorial project continues the work he began in The Problem of Pure Consciousness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), namely, critically examining mysticism using the tools of philosophical and historical analysis. More specifically, in these two books Forman and his colleagues have engaged proponents of "constructivism," a powerful sociophilosophical position currently enjoying wide currency in the academy. Constructivism comes in varying strengths, the most severe being that religious experience, including mysticism, not only is informed by cultural factors-certainly a common sense position-but is necessarily determined by cultural factors. Versions of constructivism have enjoyed longstanding favor among sociologists and anthropologists in this century, but its contemporary philosophical position has been powerfully articulated in several books edited by Steven T. Katz, perhaps the most famous being Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis (London: Sheldon Press, 1978). The work of Katz and his colleagues has stimulated much critical and creative debate on nature and interpretation of religious experience, and it is this debate that Forman has engaged in his two editorial projects.

Why Forman and other "non-constructivists" have responded so vigorously to Katz, et al., is perhaps made more clear by recognizing the high stakes in the debate: strong constructivism appears to reduce religious experience to mere epiphenomena of broader social, cultural and ideological patterns. The implicit assumption in some versions of constructivism is that, by extension, God or some Ultimate Reality is, in principle, ruled out. It is to Forman's credit to have engaged this debate creatively and with philosophical acumen. His first book might be said to be a negative attack on construetivism, first demonstrating its incoherence and then illustrating historical examples of so-called "pure consciousness events" apparently void of cultural accretions.

The Innate Capacity extends these philosophical and historical analyses in an attempt to establish a positive alternative to constructivism. This is what Forman calls the "perennial psychology," a useful twist on the compelling but problematic "perennial philosophy" of Aldous Huxley. Rather than arguing for an intellectualist conclusion derived from intense forms of religious experience ("mysticism everywhere is the same"), Forman argues for a universal psychological disposition, a capacity for "mystical consciousness"; this capacity can be seen in various religious traditions precisely because it is innate. While this position may appeal to theists, mystics, and nostalgic historians of religion, it certainly goes against the tide of current academic discourse. Proponents of post-modernism seem to eschew all things universal, and may consider attempts to discern something as elusive as a universal human nature as quaint but failed tilting at windmills. …

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