in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Zen, Thomas Merton and Ludwig Wittgenstein

Dear All

I'm just back from a pleasant (but tiring) few days at Liverpool Hope University in the company of the Mystical Theology Network (the brain-child of Dr Louise Nelstrop and Dr Simon Podmore), the Society for the Study of Continental Philosophy and the Eckhart Society - what a combination! It really was a fascinating few days with some heavy-weight breakfast table conversations with some great scholars from all over Europe and beyond. Below is an extract from my contribution to the feast - reflections on the relationship between Merton and Wittgenstein which seemed to go down well. I shall be giving an extended version of this paper in Durham at the beginning of September so if you like this then do come to Durham for the full thing.

Best wishes


The 'Inner' Merton

The Inner Experience (IE), published in 2003 from the manuscript of Merton’s 1950s revision of his earlier What is Contemplation (1948), neatly encapsulates Merton’s lifelong attempt to describe the nature of the contemplative life.[1] Throughout it appears to assume the approach to the ‘inner’ as a distinct ‘mental realm’ that Wittgenstein had so forcibly critiqued in his own late writings. Take this passage from the beginning of the text for example:


Every deeply spiritual experience, whether religious, moral, or even artistic, tends to have in it something of the presence of the interior self. Only from the inner self does any spiritual experience gain depth, reality, and a certain incommunicability. But the depth of ordinary spiritual experience only gives us a derivative sense of the inner self. It reminds us of the forgotten levels of interiority in our spiritual nature, and of our helplessness to explore them. (IE: 7)


Now much of the language here is the traditional language of the Christian contemplative (and often mystical) tradition – that is, ‘interiority’, ‘depth’, ‘the inner self’ and ‘levels of interiority’. As explained above, Wittgenstein was deeply sceptical of such metaphors, not least because he continually asked: ‘Yes, but what do they mean?’ How can we talk of psycho-physical spatial ‘depth’ in the construct of the mental which is essentially non-spatial. Merton is right to point to the ‘certain incommunicability’ that lies in this process for the very concepts of meaning (or in Wittgensteinian terms, ‘the language game’) begin to break down at this point.[2] Now if Merton was to simply essay ‘the inner’ as a realm to be ‘mysteriously approached’ through contemplation without intuiting (I use the word here in its Kantian sense) an unease with such language this paper could finish at this point, we could cheer the wisdom and perception of Wittgenstein and leave the mystical theology of Merton to continue languishing in its dark ‘inner’ prison. But, fortunately for our investigation today, what is fascinating in Merton’s late writing (and the editing of the Inner Experience by William Shannon allows us to read the middle-aged Merton critiquing the work of his younger self) is that Merton himself intuits that the mental language of ‘inner and outer’ simply won’t work as a means of expressing what he has encountered in the contemplative life. These ideas are brought out forcibly in one of his last published works, Zen and the Birds of Appetite (ZB,1968). In this late work Merton (like Wittgenstein) takes as his target the Cartesian self:


Modern man, in so far as he is still Cartesian... is a subject for whom his own self-awareness as a thinking, observing, measuring and estimating ‘self’ is absolutely primary. It is for him the one indubitable ‘reality’ and all truth starts here. The more he is able to develop his consciousness as a subject over against objects, the more he can understand things in their relations to him and one another, the more he can manipulate these objects for his own interests, but also, at the same time, the more he tends to isolate himself in his own subjective person, to become a detached observer cut off from everything else in a kind of impenetrable alienated and transparent bubble which contains all reality in the form of purely subjective experience. (ZB:22)


Which is as good an account as any of the false subject-object duality that Wittgenstein is also gently teasing apart in his later writings. Modern consciousness, for Merton, becomes ‘an ego-self imprisoned in its own consciousness, isolated and out of touch with other such selves in so far as they are all ‘things’ rather than persons’ (ZB: 22). So our two authors, then, share a common unease of the developing of the subject-object duality of the post-Cartesian Western empirico-scientific mindset. However the two authors do differ somewhat in their solutions to this problem. Wittgenstein prefers to lay the problem before us and give us his unendingly curious, frustrating and infuriating puzzles, crypotgrams and aphorisms in order to coax each of our dualistic Cartesian mindsets out of our individualised fly-bottles.

Within Merton’s writings, on the other hand, we can find at least three attempts to crack this problem by three related, but quite different solutions (which has led, perhaps unfairly but understandably, to charges laid at Merton’s feet over the years of eclecticism and syncretism).

The first is the one that occured to Merton as a young man – his encounter on the trams of New York with the writings of Étienne Gilson, especially his Spirit of Medieval Philosophy. From this work he became interested in what he later characterise as ‘the search for Being’ as being at the root of his conversion from post-modern lost soul to reborn Trappist monk:


Underlying the subjective experience of the individual self there is an immediate experience of Being. This is totally different from an experience of self-consciousness. It is completely non-objective. It has in it none of the split and alienation that occurs when the subject becomes aware of itself as a quasi-object... In brief this form of consciousness assumes a totally different kind of self-awareness from that of the Cartesian thinking-self... Here the individual is aware of himself as a self-to-be-dissolved in self-giving, in love, in ‘letting-go’, in ecstasy, in God. (ZB: 24)


This, as I say, is an attitude that Merton had explored all his life following his conversion to Catholicism in his 20s and developed through his long study of scholastic theology in Gethsemani monastery. However, as revealed in this late quote from Zen, Merton is still striving for the healing of a split (between self and Other) rather than the dispersal of the illusion of a split that Wittgenstein is pursuing in his late works.


[1] Both authors share the distinction of having just as much published after their deaths as in their lifetimes. As with Wittgenstein, editors have sometimes been less than transparent about giving their reasons for certain editorial choices. However this makes studying the posthumous work more challenging and exciting for the serious research student!
[2] In similar vein see Tyler 2013.

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