The Mystical, The Existential

by Mark Chmiel

Dear Bella Levenshteyn

I was reading Pierre Hadot’s Plotinus, or The Simplicity of Vision, and the following passage reminded me of our recent discussion at Café Disponibilidade. Suggestion: read a few pages of Hadot on weekends when you are in D.C.:

To ignore our material, psychological, or sociological conditioning would indeed be to mystify ourselves. But there is another kind of mystification, just as tragic, although more subtle: it consists in imagining that human life can be reduced to its analyzable, mathematizable, quantifiable, or expressible aspects. One of the great lessons of Merleau-Ponty was to teach us that it is perception—that is, lived experience in the full sense of the term—which gives meaning to scientific representations. Since, however, there is already an inexpressible element within perception itself, this is implicitly to admit that human existence derives its meaning from something inexpressible. Wittgenstein was profoundly conscious of the part played by the inexpressible in the midst of scientific or everyday language:

“That which mirrors itself in language, language cannot represent.”
“There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself (but cannot be expressed); it is the mystical.

Then, I consulted Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life, and came across this at the very end of the book:

Everything which is “technical” in the broad sense of the terms, whether we are talking about the exact sciences or the humanistic sciences, is perfectly able to be communicated by teaching or conversation. But everything that touches the domain of the existential—which is what is most important for human beings—for instance, our feeling of existence, our impressions when faced by death, our perception of nature, our sensations, and a fortiori the mystical experience, is not directly communicable. The phrases we use to describe them are conventional and banal; we realize this when we try to console someone over the loss of a loved one. That’s why it often happens that a poem or a biography are more philosophical than a philosophical treatise, simply because they allow us to glimpse this unsayable in an indirect way.


I would add to that last line the following: “… it often happens that a poem or a biography [or a story] are more philosophical than a philosophical treatise …”