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Mysticism and Philosophy: Towards a Validation of Feminine Epistemology

Academics have largely avoided the use of the mystical disciplines as a form of academic inquiry because those disciplines typically cannot be formatted into syllogistic systems. But we should note that this exclusion presumes that logical ways of knowing are somehow superior to experiential ways. In other words, it assumes that masculine knowledge is better than feminine knowledge, if indeed the latter exists at all. In this essay I want to defend the existence and validity of feminine ways of knowing and understanding by exploring the idea that the mystical disciplines are valid sources of knowledge despite their “lack” of logical argumentation. To do this I will first explore the relationship between female epistemology, the history of female education, particularly in the medieval times when mysticism was a common practice, and the mystical disciplines themselves. I will then petition for a paradigm shift towards a validation of experience and intuition as valid forms of knowing, though they may lack what is historically considered philosophically sophisticated argumentation.

Knowledge can be split into two large categories: “knowledge that” and “knowledge of.”[1] “Knowledge that” is what is primarily considered to be the masculine mode of knowing. It is comprised of premises and systematic propositions. “Knowledge of” is a completely different sort of knowing. It originates in experience, and has been historically considered, by academics and philosophers, to be the feminine mode of knowing, as it focuses on relational and intuitive knowledge. Vrinda Dalmiya and Linda Alcoff, in their essay entitled “Are ‘Old Wives Tales’ Justified,” explain this epistemological distinction,

Traditional women’s beliefs–about childbearing and rearing, herbal medicines, the secrets of good cooking, and such–are generally characterized as “‘old wives’ tales.” These “tales” may be interwoven into the very fabric of our daily lives and may even enjoy a certain amount of respect and deference as a useful secret-sharing among women. But nevertheless, it remains the case that they are considered to be mere tales or unscientific hearsay and fail to get accorded the honorific status of knowledge.”[2]

Historically, “knowledge that” has largely dominated the academic and corporate spheres.

Experiential knowledge is knowledge that cannot be spoken in propositions. It is an understanding that must be lived and recounted through narrative. There are some things that must be displayed and felt to be understood—no argument will suffice to reach the depths of the “knowledge of.” There is an understanding that is sensory and experiential, and which can grasp reality as successfully as logical argument.

Some have asked whether this feminine epistemology, if it actually exists, arose from our created nature or from our evolution. There is reason to believe the latter. Women of the middle ages, for instance, may have developed an intuitive, experiential knowledge in response to their lack of formal education (boys were typically the only ones traditionally educated). The majority of women were taught mostly how to keep house, how to care for children, and how to find and keep husbands. With this in mind, it is understandable that these women, and other in like circumtances, would have developed an epistemology distinct from that of men. Their virtues lay in the house and in their relationships. This lent itself to intuitive knowledge—a knowledge of human persons. In order to function well in the society that they were in, women needed to have empathetic capabilities so that they could keep households running smoothly. They needed certain virtues, like hospitality and domesticity.[3] And, as this became the expected role of women, little girls grew up with it in mind. In other words, “knowledge of” originates through experience and relationship, without the addition of formal study.

As a part of an Oxford University series regarding the interplay between science and faith, Dr. Charles Foster posited at his lecture entitled “Are We Wired for God? The Biology of Spiritual Experience” that women may be uniquely disposed to religiosity or spirituality due to their keen empathetic relational skills. To quote, “They fundamentally understand relationships on a horizontal level with other humans, so it would make sense that they would be able to connect laterally with the divine in a similar way.”[4] It is in this light that I would like us to consider female mysticism in the middle ages, which emphasized sensual experience and heavily emotional relationships with God.

The idea of a ‘sensual’ reality is something that medieval women tap into more aptly than men. The female mystics are often very physical in their language and visionary experiences. They had a notion of the physical “giving eyes” to the spiritual, which is something quite ‘feminine’ in nature—as the historical mode of knowing for women has been found in experience (largely a physical thing). Essentially, female mystical experience is “the interior adventure” during which spiritual experience leads to understanding.[5] The senses are often engaged in the writings and visions of the female mystics, as is the case with Julian of Norwich, who, in particular, desired bodily sickness so that she might better understand the passion of our Lord.

Behind this idea of a sensual reality in which Christ can be met is an idea that emotions are valid pathways into some kinds of knowledge. A.J. Ayer, a philosopher of the modern analytic tradition, argues that this kind of knowing is certainly valid:   “Aelthough my belief in a certain proposition may in fact be causally dependent on my apprehension of the evidence which makes the belief rational, it is not necessary that it should be. It is not self-contradictory to say that beliefs for which there are rational grounds are frequently arrived at by irrational means.”[6] The academic world has largely denied this idea. However, in the medieval mystic tradition, the female mystics, Julian of Norwich in particular, speak numerous times of how their relationships, either with Christ or with fellow believers, impact their understanding of what is true. For them, it is experience that leads to knowledge. In fact, St. Catherine of Siena wrote her entire moral philosophy on second-personal ethics, shaped by how people treat and love one another. There is a sense in which these women’s emotions are grounded in a kind of theological awareness and soundness.

Given the insight of these great female mystics, it seems that a paradigm shift towards a system that validates “knowledge of” as a legitimate mode of knowing true things is in order. For, on the grounds of rationality or logic, intuition and experience do not qualify as legitimate forms of knowing, and yet even trying to make this claim is tricky. Eleanore Stump makes this clear when she writes,

I want to claim, however, that there is a kind of knowledge of persons… which is non-propositional and which is not reducible to knowledge that. What could that possibly be? A skeptical objector may ask. But, of course, if I give an answer to the skeptic’s question, I will have an incoherent position: in answering the question, I will be presenting in terms of knowledge that what I am claiming could not be presented that way.[7]

So instead of answering the skeptic directly, we have to make reference to occurrences of experience leading to valid forms of intellectual discovery.

An excellent example of this is the knowledge of a midwife. Dalmiya and Alcoff, in their essay concerning female epistemology, present the case of the midwife to demonstrate not only the justifiability, but also perhaps even a kind of necessity, of pragmatic or experiential knowledge. They show that midwives care for their patients in holistic ways that takes into account the psychological and emotional well-being of the mother-to-be.[8] This kind of knowledge has to come from an understanding of persons, not from a textbook of “how-to” instructions.

It is also important to note that I am not arguing for a notion that implies the superiority of experiential knowledge over “knowledge that,” but instead for a system that has room for both to be considered legitimate forms of knowing. In other words, mystical experiences should not need to be explained in terms of logical premises for them to be capable of providing us with some kinds of truth.

In his book Mysticism and Philosophy,  Stace references Bertrand Russell on this same topic: “Russell’s reply is that mysticism yields no truths at all. Only science and logical thinking give us truths. What mysticism contributes is fine and noble emotional attitudes towards the truths which have been discovered by the logical and scientific intellect.”[9] This simply cannot be true. Humans do not operate this way—even those, like Russell, who might argue that logic is the only thing that can provide us with true ideas do not live like this. In fact, some of the things in life that people might even claim to be the most true are not derived in such a fashion. A mother does not love her child because of some logical conclusion she has drawn; she loves her child in ways that she has trouble putting into words. There is something deeper than rationality going on there, and yet it cannot be denied that the love is real and true. The midwife does not know to nurture the soon-to-be mother because of some syllogism that she has studied and believes to be correct. She knows that is good to do so because she understands something deep about persons, and knowledge of persons cannot be put into propositions.

Mysticism is the same way. Julian of Norwich does not come to love her Christ because she has reasoned that she ought to do so, but instead because she has seen and felt his love for her. She experienced her Savior and therefore loves him. She comes to the same end as the philosopher who loves God because he has followed his thoughts to their logical conclusions—experience lends itself to a kind of understanding that is true.

[1] Vrinda Dalmiya and Linda Alcoff, Female Epistemologies, “Are ‘Old Wives’ Tales’ Justified?” (New York: Routledge, 1993), 226.
[2] Vrinda Dalmiya and Linda Alcoff. Female Epistemologies: “Are ‘Old Wives’ Tales’ Justified?” (New York: Routledge, 1993).
[3] Eileen Power, Medieval Women. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), chapter 4.
[4] Dr. Charles Foster, “Are We Wired for God? The biology of spiritual experience.” (St. Fridewides Church lecture series, 2 March 2016).
[5] Benedicta Ward, Signs and Wonders, (Hampshire, Great Britain: Variorum, 1992), XVI, 27.
[6] AJ Ayer, Language Truth and Logic, (New York: Dover Publications, 2002), 129.
[7] Eleanor Stump, Wandering in Darkness, “Narrative as a Means of Knowledge: Francis and Dominic,” 51-52.
[8] Vrinda Dalmiya and Linda Alcoff, Female Epistemologies, “Are ‘Old Wives’ Tales’ Justified?” 235.
[9] WT Stace, Mysticism and Philosophy. (London: Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1961),14.
Ayer, AJ, Language, Truth, and Logic. New York: Dover Publications, 2002.
Benedicta Ward, Signs and Wonders. Hampshire, Great Britain: Variorum, 1992.
Dalmiya, Vrinda and Linda Alcoff, Female Epistemologies, “Are ‘Old Wives’ Tales’ Justified?,”New York: Routledge, 1993.
Foster, Dr. Charles, “Are We Wired for God? The biology of spiritual experience.” St. Fridewides Church lecture series. 2 March 2016.
Power, Eileen, Medieval Women. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.
Stace, WT, Mysticism and Philosophy. London: Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1961.
Stump, Eleanor, Wandering in Darkness, “Narrative as a Means of Knowledge: Francis and Dominic.”