Sign In . Don't have a World Wisdom ID? Sign Up

   Limit Search to: Advanced Search
Library of Articles
Is There a Perennial Philosophy?
Is There a Perennial Philosophy?*

by Huston Smith

Steven Katz’s assertion that there is no perennial philosophy[1] has attracted considerable attention, and its categorical character raises in a pointed way two important questions. Formally, what is the peren­nial philosophy?—how is it to be defined?[2] And factually, does it exist? Do we find it everywhere, as the word “perennial” claims that we should?

Katz rules out the possibility of an ubiquitous philosophy because experience is socially conditioned and societies differ. “The single epistemological assumption that has exercised my thinking,” he tells us, is that “there are NO pure (i.e. unmediated) experiences. Neither mystical experience nor more ordinary forms of experience give any indication, or any grounds for believing, that they are unmediated. All experience is processed through, organized by, and makes itself available to us in extremely complex epistemological ways” (1978:26).

This bears on the perennial philosophy in two ways. First, it rules out the possibility of cross-cultural experiences, because “experience is contextual” (1978:56-57). And it renders cross-cultural typologies suspect, for these too are culture bound. Categories that purport to service multiple cultures slur differences that are important. Their generality insures that they are either vacuous or misleading in presuming more cross-cultural similarity than in fact pertains.

As these are the objections to the perennial philosophy that Katz argues I shall devote most of my space to them, but not without first pointing out that they focus on secondary issues. Katz’s criticisms are the ones that perennialists most often hear, but the real issue lies elsewhere.

The Central, Neglected Claim of the Perennial Philosophy

The claim of the perennial philosophy is not that mystical experiences are cross-culturally identical. Its claims do not appeal to experience at all, save in the trivial sense that everything that enters our awareness can be said to be an experience of some sort. Nowhere in the thirty-odd books of Frithjof Schuon—one of the two perennial philosophers Katz mentions by name (1978:67)—do we find him undertaking a phenomenology of mystical states along the lines of Zaehner, Stace, and James. That he shuns this approach completely shows that the perennial philosophy he argues for does not turn on assessments of mystical phenomena at all; logically it doesn’t even presuppose their existence. The other perennialist Katz names, Aldous Huxley, is less emphatic about this; he was, after all, an amateur rather than an exact philosopher. Yet no more than Schuon does he ground perennialism in experience. The core of the Perennial Philosophy,” he tells us, is “doctrines.”[3]

The doctrines derive from metaphysical intuitions, and it is to these that the perennial philosophy appeals. To discern the truth of a metaphysical axiom one need not have an “experience.” The ontological discernments of pure intellection, which must be distinguished from rational argumentation—ratio is not intellectus—have nothing to do with mystical rapture or access to states of “pure consciousness.” The legitimacy of a metaphysical truth, evident to the intellect, does not depend on samadhi or gifts of “infused grace.” Nowhere does the Brahma Sutra, e.g., appeal to mystical experience to support its metaphysical claims and arguments. The drift is the opposite. Ontological discernments are enlisted to elucidate or validate the yogas and the experiences they deliver.

Like mystical theophanies, metaphysical intuitions are ultimately ineffable. No more than the former can they be adequately rationalized; strictly speaking, they can only be symbolized—not to objectify Brahman but to dispel ignorance is the Shastras’s object, Vedantins tell us. The reasons for the ineffability in the two cases, however, are different. Infused or mystical graces, including the samadhis and nirvakalpa especially, bring into more or less direct view features of higher ontological orders. This does not happen in metaphysical discernment. There it is not other ontological realms, but principles that pervade them all that come to view. In both cases, analogy is the only final recourse for reporting, but the comprehension/experience distinction remains intact. To understand that 2+2=4 does not require access to higher realms of either consciousness or being.

Katz steers clear of metaphysics; his argument is phenomenological throughout. It seems safe to assume, though, that he would expect his “principle of no unmediated experience” to cover metaphysical discernments as fully as it does mystical states. As the latter coverage is the one he spells out, I proceed with it while re-emphasizing the point of this opening section. Only to the extent that Katz’s arguments about mysticism can be read as applying pari passu to metaphysical intuitions do they bear on the perennial philosophy at all.

Is there a Universal Mystical Experience?

By his reading of it, Katz’s unqualified premise—“there is NO unmediated experience”—suffices by itself to rule out the possibility that mystical experiences could be cross-culturally identical, but he adds induction to deduction by marshalling differences that turn up in mystical reports. His premise remains important, though, for he leans on it to argue that the differences are not confined to descriptions. The experiences that generate the descriptions are themselves different. Mystics in different traditions, and to some extent in different pockets of the same tradition, “see” different things.

This is overwhelmingly the case, of course. The question is whether, amidst these manifold differences, which no one disputes, there is one form of mystical experience that is cross-culturally identical—or better, indistinguishable, for it is impossible to determine whether even physical stimuli, such as the color red, are experienced identically. I am referring, of course, to what Stace calls the introspective type of mystical experience, which cannot be culturally pegged because no culturally-identifiable particulars turn up within it. It isn’t culturally tinted because, as the pure white light of the void, it has no tint.

We can approach this question by way of developmental psychology’s classification of the kinds of knowing that successively emerge as human beings learn to abstract. There is a charming story of a Tibetan refugee in Switzerland who, having been persuaded to turn over his hundred frank note to a bank on the assurance that he could have it back on demand, returned the next day to prove that his informants had lied. The bank did not return his note, which for test purposes he had marked; it gave him a different note. To the bank, a hundred frank note was a hundred frank note. Not so to the Tibetan who had been reared in a barter economy wherein every item of exchange was unique.

To the perennialist this tells the whole story of the present controversy, but it cannot be assumed that others will agree, so its moral must be spelled out, To his ontological hierarchy of being, the perennialist aligns a noetic hierarchy that extends beyond Piaget’s while resembling it. In infancy knowing hovers close to the physical senses, but in childhood it takes off into images. Adults go on from there to order their images with abstract concepts. Mystics in their introvertive moments invoke a fourth kind of knowing that rises above sensations, images, and concepts, all three. If those ingredients continue to operate, they do so subliminally—tacitly, as Polanyi would say. They are not in view.

Katz may not believe that this fourth mode of knowing occurs,[4] but nothing in his argument proves that it cannot. His formal point about experience being mediated no more rules it out than the diversely mediated experience of delegates to the World Health Organization prevents them from getting past Irish potatoes and Peking duck to talk about carbohydrates, nutrition, and (quite simply) food. As for his empirical contention—mystical accounts never report a culture-free experience—it is impossible of course to prove such a universal negative, but what is to the point is that Katz’s handling of the data does not give him the edge over Stace who, sifting the same material (85-111), reaches the opposite conclusion; I mention Stace because he is the opponent Katz cites most often. Admittedly things get subtle here. For example, the longest account that Katz quotes to support his conclusion that mystics never rise above the particulars of their respective religious conditionings reads to my eyes as if it supports the opposite conclusion. I refer to Ruysbroeck’s report (which Katz quotes on 1978:61) that at the apex of the mystical experi­ence “the three Persons give place to.…the bare Essence of the Godhead,.…the Essential Unity…without distinction,” which condition is “so onefold that no distinction can enter into it.”

If there were such a thing as the introvertive mystical experience, Katz says in his final argument against it, it could not affect our understanding because the paradoxical and ineffable properties that are regularly ascribed to it “cancels [it] out of our language” and preclude “making any…intelligible claim for any mystical proposition” (1978:56).[5] Paradox and ineffability need to be uncoupled here. Far from saying nothing, a genuine paradox, such as matter being both wave and particle, can precipitate a noetic crisis, generating things not just to think about but to worry about. As for ineffable, far from its saying nothing, it too (in mystical context) makes a major claim: the claim that, poised on the rim of the human opportunity, the human mind can under exceptional conditions—the condition of infused grace it is sometimes called—see things too momentus to be fitted into language which on the whole serves quotidian ends. The claim may not be true, but only a crude positivism can deny that it is a claim.

Are Typologies Trustworthy?

Katz’s second charge is directed against cross-cultural typologies, which he says are “reductive and inflexible, forcing multifarious and extremely variegated forms of mystical experience into improper interpretative categories which lose sight of the fundamentally important differences between the data studied” (1978:25). That typologies can and often do propose improper categories is again not in dispute, the question is whether there can also be useful ones. Katz himself seems in the end to concede that there can be, for he closes his essay with a plea for “further fundamental epistemological research into the conditions of mystical experience…in order to lay bare the [presumably generic] skeleton of such experience” (66). If this is indeed the concession I take it to be, Katz’s objection to the perennial philosophy on this second count cannot be that it spins a typology, but rather that the one it spins is “too reductive and inflexible.” As he doesn’t deliver on these charges,[6] the only way to respond is to present the perennial typology and let the reader assess it for himself. Does it make mince-meat of the religious corpus, cross-culturally examined, or does it (as the perennialist believes) cut where the joints are?

I shall summarize the perennialist typology, but before doing so I want to continue for a second stretch with Katz. Having responded to his criticisms of the perennial philosophy as he understands it, I wish (in the upcoming middle third of this essay) to show what there is about his project that causes it to misfire even when directed toward mystically defined perennialism.

Contra Katz

Katz tell us that his “entire paper is a ‘plea for the recognition of differences’ ” (1978:25), but one difference he doesn’t mention, and it proves to be the one that is crucial for the perennial philosophy. I refer to the difference between occasions on which (and contexts in which) differences are important, and other occasions and contexts in which similarities call for attention. Everything obviously both resem­bles and differs from every other thing: resembles it in that both exist; differs or there would not be two things but one. This being the case, when should we accent one pole, when the other? Claims for similarities or differences spin their wheels until they get down to ways and degrees in which things differ or are alike, and those variables shift with the problem we are working on. Does the fact that an Ethiopian’s hunger is mediated by his African context cause it to differ from mine to the point where it throws international famine relief into question? If not, where are Katz’s contexts and mediations relevant, and where are they not? Where, balancing his “plea for differences,” is the place of Piaget’s “decentration,” the process of gradually becoming able to take a more and more universal standpoint, giving up a particular egocentric or sociocentric way of understanding and acting and moving towards the “universal communications community”? Overlooking this question, Katz by-passes most of the interesting and important issues in his topic. The neglect is particularly unfortunate in religion, where commissions to break through provincial contexts and conditionings—what Max Weber called “the fetters of the sib”—are half the story.

This distinction—to repeat, the distinction between occasions where differences need attention and ones where the flip side of the story becomes important—is so obvious that one wonders why Katz doesn’t mention it. The Judaism from which he speaks may provide part of the answer, for it is especially important that that tradition retain its identity and distinctiveness. Insofar as this is an intended or unintended motive, the perennialist supports Katz completely in it.

Less acceptable to the perennialist is another influence I think I see at work. When I listen to Katz I don’t hear him speaking for himself only, or even (if this pertains; I’m not sure) for Judaism. I hear him speaking for an important thrust in contemporary philosophy; indeed, the leading thrust, if Richard Rorty is right in reporting that twentieth century philosophy “is ending by returning to something reminiscent of Hegel’s sense of humanity as an essentially historical being, one whose activities in all spheres are to be judged not by its relation to non-human reality but by comparison and contrast with its earlier achievement and with utopian futures” (748). “In all spheres” makes clear that by this view not even religion is to be judged by its relation to non-human reality—perhaps God for a starter? Nothing outside of socio-historical contexts may be legitimated or (are we to assume?) even meaningfully pondered.

Katz acknowledges in his closing paragraph that his thinking, too, is contextual. He doesn’t identify its controlling context, but it seems clear that it is the socio-historical, or cultural-linguistic, holism just noted. As the adequacy of his critique of the perennial philosophy turns in the end on the adequacy of that holism, I devote the next short section to it. The way I caption that section is flippant, but I am willing to risk indignity for the sake of emphasis. In four short words, two of them abbreviated, it says exactly what I want the section to say. Katz is to be judged by the philosophical company he keeps, which company is limited.

Katz and Co., Ltd:

By mid-century phenomenologists had persuaded philosophers that the gestalt psychologists were right: the mind doesn’t just add up the data that comes its way; it patterns that data, altering thereby the way the data appears. Introduced into the philosophy of science, this produced the realization that “all facts are theory-laden” (Hanson). Thomas Kuhn picked up that insight and ran with it; his Structure of Scientific Revolutions has been the most cited book on college campuses for the last twenty-five years and turned “paradigm” into a household word. Already, though, Heidegger and Wittgenstein had deepened theoretical holism into practical holism.[7] Because thinking invariably proceeds in social contexts and against a backdrop of social practices, meaning derives from—roots down into and draws its life from—those backgrounds and contexts. This means that in considering an idea we must take into account not just the conceptual gestalt of which it is a part; we must also consider the social “forms of life” (Wittgenstein) whose “micro-practices” (Foucault) give noetic gestalts their final meaning. “In a real sense, the medium is…the content of truth” (Knitter: 19). Wittgenstein insisted that “agreement in judgments means agreement in what people do and say, not what they believe” (Dreyfus: 235).

Katz’s company is those who think that way.[8]  Now for the way their thinking is limited. The social holism they belabor is insightful as a half-truth, but forced into the role of the whole truth it collapses under the weight of its own self-reference. Pushed to logical extreme, cultural conditioning becomes, first, cultural subjectivism, and finally cultural solipsism. It renders unintelligible the ways and degree to which we can and do communicate, understand, and yes, even experience cross-culturally. Underestimating these ways and degrees, it faces two unresolvable problems. First, it cannot adequately answer the problem of relativism. It can escape “cheap relativism” by appealing to underlying agreements or pragmatic outcomes, but relativism remains relativism, and to its expensive versions holism has no answer. Second, holism is unconvincing when it argues that meaning and truth are generated by society, never—not even in the case of arithmetic—apprehended by it.[9] Elsewhere I have argued these limitations of untempered holism.[10]  Here I can only assert them.

The Perennial Philosophy Defined[11]

Let us be clear: the perennial philosophy is a philosophy, not a sociology or anthropology that would jump out of the empirical bushes if only we squinted hard enough. The perennialist arrives at the ubiquity of his/her outlook more deductively than inductively.[12] Having encountered a view of things s/he believes to be true, s/he concludes that it must be true universally, for truth has ubiquity built into its meaning. Not simple-mindedly. That “it is raining” is true in Berkeley doesn’t make it true everywhere. But it does make it true everywhere that it is at this moment raining in Berkeley.[13]

Philosophy is not concerned with particulars such as what’s happening in Berkeley; in the end it is concerned with the whole of things. The topic is too vast for individual minds. They need help, which help the perennialist finds in the world’s enduring religious or wisdom traditions.[14] In theistic terminology these traditions stem from divine revelation, but if that way of speaking closes rather than opens doors, one can think of them as wisdom reservoirs. They are tanks, or in any case deposits. Distillations of the cumulative wisdom of the human race.

Some will protest their being lumped together this way. Is it immaterial that Hinduism and Buddhism teach reincarnation whereas Christianity rejected it; that Christianity and Islam affirm the soul whereas Buddhism negates it; that Christianity exalts the Trinity while Judaism and Islam repudiate it; that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam propound creation whereas Taoism and Neoplatonism prefer emanation? It’s not immaterial at all, the perennialist replies; on the contrary, it is providential. Here, though, the relevant point is that, important as these differences are in respects that are about to be indicated, they are not ultimate. Red is not green, but the difference pales before the fact that both are light. No two waves are identical, but their differences are inconsequential when measured against the water that informs them all.

We are back with the point that arose earlier: people differ according to whether they incline towards similarities or differences. Perennialists are persons who are exceptionally sensitive to the commonalities that similarities disclose; they are drawn toward unity as moth to flame. Sensitized by its pull, they find tokens of unity profligate; they see similarities everywhere. It comes as something of a jolt, therefore, to find that others see their eye for resemblances as an optical defect—a far-sightedness that cannot read fine print.

As the world houses both correspondences and diversities, which come through most strongly must depend on the viewer. Enter the division between esoteric and exoteric personality types that invariably crops up in perennialist writings. The words “water” and “eau” differ in both sound and appearance, which is to say outwardly and exoterically. All the while, their meaning (hidden and therefore esoteric to the senses) is the same. At the elementary level of this example everyone is an esoteric. What distinguishes the esoteric as a type is his aptitude, honed no doubt by desire, to press the distinction between form and content all the way. For him all particulars—things possessing distinguishing identities—are ultimately symbols. They are coverings or containers for inner essences which, being without final demarcations, prove in the end to be single.

With unity thus stressed, the theological story reads like this: there is one God. It is inconceivable that s/he not disclose her saving nature to her children, for s/he is benevolent: hence revelation. From her benevolence it follows, too, that her revelations must be impartial, which is to say equal; the deity cannot play favorites. Here for the first time, perhaps, empiricism enters the picture. Having moved this far largely deductively, the perennialist now opens his eyes to see if evidence supports the hypothesis that has come to view—does the theory check out? The great historical religions have survived for millenia, which is what we would expect if they are divinely powered. Stated negatively, God would not have permitted them to endure for such stretches had they been founded on error. Nor, conversely, would he have permitted multitudes to have been thrown into life’s sea in oceans of desolation—ages and regions where there was no lifeline.

As for the manifest diversity in the traditions, neither equality nor the universality of truth requires that traditions be identical. We have already noted that the same thing can be said in different languages, but different things, too, can be said without violating parity or truth. It is as if the differences in revelations “flesh out” God’s nature by seeing it from different angles. They supplement our view without compromising the fact that each angle is, in its own right, adequate, containing (in traditional locution) “truth sufficient unto salvation.”

If we try to lift out the underlying truth that makes the several revelations internally sufficient, we must speak more abstractly, shifting from theology to metaphysics. There is an Absolute, which is likewise Infinite. This Infinite both includes and transcends everything else, which everything is (in categorical contrast) finite and relative. The way the Absolute transcends the relative is to integrate the relative into itself so completely that even the Absolute/relative distinction gets annulled: form is emptiness, emptiness form. (This separates perennialism from the monism it is sometimes (mis)taken for; it is, rather, a-dvaita or non-dual.) How the opposition is resolved we cannot, of course, imagine or even consistently conceive, which is one reason the Absolute is ineffable. Too vast for our logic not just in extent but in kind, it intersects with language to about the extent that a ball touches a tabletop. At the same time we are so (unwittingly) party to the Absolute that it constitutes the only finally authentic part of our being.

If all this sounds like playing with words, the charge takes us back to the distinction in spiritual personality types the perennialist finds inevitable. One man’s mush is another man’s meaning. Because not many can draw spiritual nourishment from—which is to say find existential truth in—abstractions on the order of the preceding paragraph’s, more concrete formulations are required, which is where the historical religions come in. Not only for exoterics; esoterics, too, stand in need of them.[15] This is an aspect of the perennial philosophy that is often overlooked by critics who see it as sitting loose to religions in the plural, patronizing if not by-passing their concreteness and particularity. Katz’s two volumes perform a needed service in helping to correct the notion that “mysticism…is an autonomous realm of experience which only uneasily fits in with more traditional and widespread religious beliefs, practices, and communities” (1982: Introduction). What is unfortunate is that in countering that error the volumes muddy the waters by tarring the perennial philosophy, even its mature proponents, with the mistake. The charge that the transcendent unity of religions perceived by the perennialist fits “only uneasily” with the historical traditions is like charging that Chomsky’s universal, deep-lying linguistic structures ill-accord with actual languages. The perennialist finds the unity of religions in the religions in the way s/he finds beauty in paintings and song. A more esoteric thinker than Shankara cannot be imagined, but only theoretically can we separate his metaphysical discernments from the hymns to Shiva that he composed and that powered his jnana. On this point the perennialist agrees with the practical holist, Katz emphatically included. Holism presses its case too far when it claims that truth is generated by practices, but it is right in insisting that practice is essential to truth’s effective assimilation.

So the unitary truth to which the perennial philosophy points does not depend on the world’s religions, but from our side we are not likely to come upon it, much less keep it in place, save through them. Does that single truth constitute the essence of the enduring religions? Esoterics and exoterics will answer that question differently. Exoterics will be quick to point out that the perennial philosophy is the minority position everywhere, even in mystical India, to say nothing of the form-loving West. Esoterics admit this statistical point, but insist that profundity is not determined by headcount. Workmen can under-stand nature in ways that are fully adequate for practical purposes without knowing the Einsteinian (or even Newtonian) laws by which it works.

The standard consequential charges against the perennial philosophy are that it devalues matter, history, the human self (in both its individual and communal poles), and God’s personal aspect. The esoteric disclaims these charges; after all, the dictum that “samsara is nirvana” pays the phenomenal world no small compliment. The esoteric sees nothing in his/her philosophy to prevent appreciation of the realities in question as much as his/her exoteric brothers and sisters, while at the same time recognizing that there are things that exceed those qualified and provisional realities. One does not need to be ignorant of things better than chocolate to enjoy chocolate as much as a four-year-old.

The Perennial Typology

I began by pointing out that in aiming his critique of the perennial philosophy at mystical identities, Katz sets out on the wrong foot. What is perennial (which is to say “no matter where or when”) for that philosophy is, first, God (or the Godhead/Absolute if one prefers), and second, the generic human capacity to ascertain truths about Him/Her/It.

Of these truths, or discernments as I early spoke of them, the most important is Cod’s ultimacy as compared with the world’s lack thereof. The Real and the (comparatively) unreal, the Absolute and the relative, Infinite and finite, Noumena and phenomena, appearance and Reality—everywhere we find this distinction emphatically drawn.

As all traditions consider the capitalized terms in the pairs to be ultimately ineffable, this seems to rule out the possibility of cross-cultural differences in characterizing them. To name names; is it possible, in the face of their unanimous countermand to all culturally-mediated, conceptual, reified representations, to saddle the Kabbalah’s ’en-sof, Eckhart’s Godhead, Nirguna Brahman, Nirvana, and the Tao that cannot be spoken, with predicates that distinguish them from their counterparts?

Strictly speaking, this negative, apophatic, neti-neti aspect of the Absolute—metaphysically counterpart of the unmediated mystical experience that Katz goes after—is the only point where perennialists see the traditions converging indistinguishably. Thereafter revelation fractionates like light through a prism, and what the perennial typol­ogy spreads before us is correspondences. Whether one is more impressed by the similarities that underlie these correspondences (which at eventual levels of abstraction phase into archetypal identities) or by the different ways the archetypes are clothed in the various traditions, depends again on the esoteric/exoteric difference that was earlier introduced.

In any case, the correspondences factor out into a hierarchical ontology such as Arthur Lovejoy tells us “the greater number of subtler speculative minds and great religious teachers…through the Middle Ages and down to the late eighteenth century were to accept without question” (26, 59). Everywhere thoughtful people have sensed the presence of another, more fundamental world underlying our familiar, quotidian one. And each of these halves-of-being, immanent and transcendent, subdivides in turn, producing an embracing typology of four ontological levels. The phenomenal world divides into its visible and invisible sides, the former constituting nature and the latter the spirit world of folk religion. As for the noumenal world, it has regions the mind can grapple with theologically—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Allah of the Ninety-nine Names, Saguna Brahman, the Buddha’s Sambhoga-kaya, and the Tao that can be spoken—and abysmal depths, alluded to above, that baffle the mind’s approach.


Conze, Edward. Buddhist Thought in India. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967.

Dreyfus, Hubert. “Holism and Hermeneutics,” in Hermeneutics and Praxis. Ed. by Robert Hollinger. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985.

Gilson, Etienne. MedievaI Universalism. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1937.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Longmans, Green and Company, 1902.

Katz, Steven T. “Language, Epistemology, and Mysticism,” in Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis. Ed. By Steven T. Katz. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

———. ed. Mysticism and Religious Traditions. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

———. Recent Work on Mysticism,” History of Religions 25:76-86, 1985.

Knitter, Paul F. No Other Name? Mayknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985.

Kripke, Saul. Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Kung, Hans. Christianity and the World Religions. New York: Doubleday and Co., 1986.

Lindbeck, George A. The Nature of Doctrine. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1984. Lovejoy, Arthur 0. The Great Chain of Being. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936, 1964.

Merrell-Wolff, Franklin. The Philosophy of Consciousness without an Object. New York: Julian Press, 1973.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Knowledge and the Sacred. New York: Crossroad, 1981.

———. ed. The Essential Writings of Frithjof Schuon. Amity, NY: Amity House, 1986.

Prabhavananda, Swami, and Christopher Isherwood (trs.). The Bhagavad-Gita. New York: New American Library, 1944.

Rorty, Richard. “From Logic to Language to Play,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Association 59:747-753, 1986.

Smith, Huston. Forgotten Truth. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

Stace, W.T. Mysticism and Philosophy. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1986.

Thomas, Owen C. “Christianity and the Perennial Philosophy,” Theology Today 42:259-266, 1986.

Wood, Charles M. Review of Lindbeck in Religious Studies Review 11:235-240, 1985.

Zaehner, R.C. Mysticism: Sacred and Profane. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961.


* This article originally appeared in The Journal of the American Academy of Religion, LV (1987):553-66. It is used here by permission of the author.

[1] “There is no philosophia perennis, Huxley and many others notwithstanding” (1978:24). Let us note right off that others, including others who do not accept the perennialist position, see things differently. Thus Owen Thomas has recently written that “the perennial philosophy…has been the dominant form of Western philosophy from Plato to Hegel” (63). Not Western philosophy only. “The ‘perennial’ philosophy [enlisted] most reputable philosophers of both Europe and Asia up to about A.D. 1450” (Conze, 25).

[2] Because “perennial” refers only to time, “primordial” (which includes space) is the better designator, but I shall stay with Katz’s more prevalent nomenclature.

[3] Introduction to Prabhavananda & Isherwood’s translation of The Bhagauad-Gita, p. 13. The doctrines Huxley refers to are there listed as four. First: the phenomenal world is the manifestation of a Divine Ground. Second: human beings are capable of attaining immediate knowledge of that ground. Third: in addition to their phenomenal egos, human beings possess an eternal Self which is of the same or like nature with the divine Ground. Fourth: this identification is life’s chief end or purpose.

[4] It seems clear that he doesn’t. “There is no substantive evidence to suggest that there is any pure consciousness per se.… The…contention that we can achieve a state of pure consciousness is…erroneous” (197&57-58). For a reasoned argument to the con­trary, see Merrell-Wolff.

[5] By contrast, the protagonist in John Updike’s latest novel, Roger’s Version, attributes his passion for theology precisely to the way it “caresses and probes every crevice of the unknowable.”

[6] Katz doesn’t discuss the perennial philosophy’s typology at all, so one must infer his criticisms of it from the general tenor of his argument.

[7] On the difference between theoretical and practical holism, see Dreyfus.

[8] The way is not limited to philosophers; as the quotation from Knitter signals it has moved solidly into religious studies. All of the contributors to the two volumes that Katz has edited on mysticism lean towards what George Lindbeck calls the “cultural-linguistic” approach which is challenging the “experiential-expressive” approach to religious experience, and noteables are buying into the view—Hans Kong for one, who acknowledges that Katz’s views “fully confirm” his own on this issue (173). Whereas experiential-expressivism sees religions as expressions or objectifications of inner, pre-conceptual experiences of God, self and world, the cultural-linguistic approach insists that experience is shaped by its social context from the start. “Inner experiences are not prior to their linguistic ‘exteriorization;’ rather, the symbol system is the pre-condition of the experiences—a sort of cultural public a priori for the very possibility of ‘private’ experience” (Wood, 236). That last sentence could have been written by Steven Katz.

[9] According to Kripke, Wittgenstein so argued.

[10] In a forthcoming essay titled “Philosophy, Theology, and the Primordial Claim.”

[11] Naturally I assume full responsibility for the definition here offered. My intent is to present the position I find in the writings of René Guénon, A.K. Coomaraswamy, Titus Burckhardt, Frithjof Schuon, Martin Lings, S.H. Nasr, and their like. My Forgotten Truth and two books by Nasr, one that he authored, the other he edited, present overviews of the position.

[12] In a later, 1985, essay, Katz seems to sense this but discounts the approach. The “hermeneutical procedure” of the perennialists, he says, is confessional, “as much by way of testimony as by way of analytic or historical scholarship.…[It] substitutes a priori and non-disconfirmable intuitions for reasoned, defendable theories or generalizations” (76f). When this is contrasted with the hermeneutic Katz recommends, namely “restricting oneself to an independent and coolly distanced reading of the material,” one wonders if part of Katz’s objection to the perennial philosophy isn’t disciplinary—an objection to philosophy itself. The final arbiter of truth, he seems to be saying, is the objective findings of the socio-historical sciences, or the sciences of man as they are coming to be called.

[13] Etienne Gilson’s Medieval Universalism remains a classic defense of this point.

[14] Where else? Certainly not science, with which modernity displaced revelation; science registers only a fraction of the real. Shall it be, then, the autonomous reason of the Enlightenment? What defenders does it still have among frontline philosophers?

[15] “Exoterism is the necessary basis of esoterism” (Frithjof Schuon, in Nasr 1986:121).