Citizen Action Monitor

What ‘spirituality’ is not: Thomas Metzinger finds just one meaning of ‘spirituality’ with a “semantic core”

‘Incorruptibility’ is the semantic core of a truly philosophical concept of spirituality.

No 2108 Posted by fw, November 27, 2017

Thomas Metzinger

A further aspect that is important for an enlightened, secularized form of spirituality is exemplified by Jiddu Krishnamurti, one of the greatest non-academic philosophers of the last century. Krishnamurti radically rejected not only the idea of a particular path or method of practice, but of any kind of tradition, spiritual organization, or the idea of teacher-student relationships. … on August 3rd 1929, he said  ‘. . . for I maintain that the only spirituality is the incorruptibility of the self’, and this is precisely the element of the meaning of ‘spirituality’ that I am concerned with here. … ‘Incorruptibility’ is the semantic core of a truly philosophical concept of spirituality. If our goal is to investigate the possibility of a secularized but still substantial form of spirituality, then we need incorruptibility … But more than anything, we are concerned with discovering incorruptibility towards oneself, and independently of any theory or sense of ideological commitment.” —Thomas Metzinger, German Philosopher

Thomas Metzinger (dob March 12, 1958) is a German philosopher and professor of theoretical philosophy at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz.

In yesterday’s initial post of Metzinger’s essay and video of Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty, the focus was on the latter. In fact, in both the essay and the video, the section “What is Spirituality?” precedes “Intellectual Honesty” — I chose to invert them simply because “Intellectual Honesty” reflects a personal interest.

In this repost of Thomas Metzinger’s “What is ‘spirituality’”? section from his essay, Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty: An Essay, his analysis leads him to conclude that, by the standards of academic philosophy, there is very little of intellectual value that leads to a “semantic core” of a truly philosophical concept of spirituality – until, that is, he considers the contribution of  “Jiddu Krishnamurti, one of the greatest non-academic philosophers of the last century.” Finally, he finds in Krishnamurti’s writing “precisely the element of the meaning of ‘spirituality’ that I am concerned with here.

It is important to note that the 50-minute video is primarily an abridged PowerPoint, bulleted highlights of the text of Metzinger’s 36-page essay. Both share the same title.

In this post, the selection “What is ‘spirituality’” is excerpted in full from the essay, and is presented before the video.  (Although the endnote numbers appear in the text, the endnotes themselves are not included in this post).

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What is ‘spirituality’? – excerpted from Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty: An Essay by Thomas Metzinger, Self-published, July 2017

What is “spirituality”?

Metzinger’s three theses on spirituality

Even though this is not a technical philosophical text, I still will to try to defend the following three theses.

1/ The opposite of religion is not science, but spirituality.

2/ The ethical principle of intellectual honesty can be analyzed as a special case of the spiritual stance.

3/ In their purest forms, the scientific and the spiritual stance emerge from the same basic normative idea.

The argument for each of these three theses will develop gradually throughout this essay, as will the preliminary answers to our three initial questions—as well as, hopefully, a new perspective on the deeper problem in the background.

The three meanings of “spirituality”, derived from the history of Western philosophy

Let us now turn to the concept of “spirituality”. Is there something like a logical core, an essence of the spiritual perspective? In the history of Western philosophy, the Latin term spiritualitas has three main meanings.4

First, it has something like a judicial and cultural meaning—referring to the totality of spiritualia, which are the opposite of temporal institutions, or temporalia; spiritualia, accordingly, are clerical offices, the administration of the sacraments, jurisdiction, places of worship and cult objects, ordained persons such as clerics and persons belonging to religious orders.

The second meaning is the early concept of religious spirituality, which refers to different aspects of religious life and is the opposite of carnalitas, or carnality.

Third, there is a philosophical meaning of spirituality, which for centuries referred to the existence and ways of knowing immaterial beings. Here, the opposites are corporalitas and materialitas.

I do not, however, want to delve deeper into history, but rather first want to ask which understanding of spirituality might be shared by many of those people who describe themselves as spiritual today, in the Western world.

Recent emergence of  a “spiritual counterculture” most popularly practiced as “mindfulness meditation”

The interesting fact is that after the Second World War, a kind of spiritual counterculture began to develop in Western countries, supported by people who pursue spiritual practice far away from churches and organized religions. Today, the most widespread form is probably mindfulness or “insight” meditation in the classical Buddhist Vipassanā tradition. This form of meditation is largely ideologically neutral to begin with, but there also exist completely secularized versions such as so-called MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction).5

Countless other forms of meditation exist

In addition, countless other forms of meditation exist, many of which involve movement, such as yoga, which stems from the Hindu tradition, spiritual martial arts like the Chinese shadow-boxing Tai-Chi Chuan, or Kinhin walking meditation practiced in certain Zen-schools.

There are also newer forms of spiritual exercises in Christianity

There are also newer forms of spiritual exercises in Christianity, for example in the tradition of St. Ignatius. Many of these practices are characterized by the idea that regular and rigorous formal practice serves as a basis for the gradual transformation of everyday life.

The first defining characteristic of contemporary spirituality is concern with “practice” and “inner action” 

We now have a first defining characteristic: Most contemporary, live, forms of spirituality are primarily concerned with practice and not with theory, with a particular form of inner action and not with piety or the dogmatic endorsement of specific beliefs. “Spirituality”, then, seems to be a property, a particular quality of inner action.

“Spirituality is a property of whole persons, as a specific epistemic stance”

But what is the carrier of this property? One could say, for instance, that spirituality is a property of a class of conscious states, for instance of certain meditative conscious states. However, spiritual experience does not only aim at consciousness as such, but also at its bodily anchoring, at the subjective inner side of what in modern philosophy of cognitive science is called embodiment or grounding.6 The goal is always the person as a whole. For this reason, I want to conceptualize spirituality as a property of whole persons, as a specific epistemic stance.

What exactly does “epistemic stance” mean?

What does that mean? Episteme (ἐπιστήμη) is the Greek word for knowledge, science, or insight; “epistemology” is one of the most important disciplines of academic philosophy, namely the theory of knowledge, the acquisition of true belief and of gaining a reliable form of insight (which would be the most direct translation of the German Erkenntnistheorie, which literally means theory of insight). A stance is something that a person has in virtue of being directed at something, for instance in desiring to achieve a particular goal. One can say that having an epistemic stance involves being directed at a special kind of goal, namely at an epistemic goal, and that it involves the desire to attain knowledge. The spiritual stance, then, involves the desire for a specific kind of knowledge.

Spiritually is clearly aimed at an experience-based form of insight, which is related to inner attention, bodily experience, and the systematic cultivation of certain altered states of consciousness

Spirituality is, at its core, an epistemic stance. Spiritual persons do not want to believe, but to know. Spirituality is clearly aimed at an experience-based form of insight, which is related to inner attention, bodily experience, and the systematic cultivation of certain altered states of consciousness—but the next step is already much more difficult.

The goal is consciousness as such, attained by dissolving the subject-object structure and transcending the individual first-person perspective

When you talk to people who pursue a spiritual practice, for instance with long-term meditators from the Vipassanā or Zen tradition, it quickly becomes clear that the domain of knowledge, its associated objectives and epistemic goals, the sought-after forms of insight cannot be named in clear and distinct terms. These objectives partially overlap with those that used to be sought after by religions and traditional metaphysics, and, in particular, by the mystics. Frequently, they also involve something like an ideal of salvation; some call it “liberation”, others “enlightenment”. Typically, the sought-after form of knowledge is described as a very specific form of self-knowledge, suggesting that it is not only liberating, but also reflexively directed at the practitioner’s own consciousness. Roughly speaking, the goal is consciousness as such, attained by dissolving the subject-object structure and transcending the individual first-person perspective.7

Although the spiritual goal is related to the cultivation of altered states of consciousness, there is ongoing debate over just which path leads to attaining the requisite knowledge 

This goal is often related to the systematic cultivation of particular altered states of consciousness. If one reads the relevant literature, it quickly be-comes clear that it is not only the representatives of different spiritual traditions who have been debating for centuries whether anything like a learnable form, method or technique of spiritual practice, that is, a systematic path towards attaining the relevant form of knowledge exists.

The same questions continue to be asked —

The same classical questions continue to be asked to this day:

Is meditation as an example of spiritual practice, a method, or does it exactly involve letting go of all methods and goals?

Does it involve effort or is it necessarily effortless?

What does real progress consist in, how could one detect it, and are there any criteria for distinguishing illusions, delusions, and self-deception from genuine insight?

The answers are judged in relation to a single criterion — the “ethical integrity” of one’s actions

There is a classical answer, which continues to manifest itself in different contexts: the criterion is ethical integrity, the sincere pursuit of a prosocial, ethically coherent way of life that is observable in a person’s actions. At the same time, almost nothing can be said about the relevant form of knowledge itself; it cannot be communicated linguistically or be argumentatively justified, and there is no widely accepted doctrine.

To summarize —

This is very little [by the standards of academic philosophy]. Let us summarize:

Spirituality is an epistemic stance of persons for whom the sought-after form of knowledge is not theoretical.

This means that the goal is not truth in the sense of possessing the correct theory, but a certain form of practice, a spiritual practice.

Applying these defining propositions of spirituality to a classical meditative practice —

To take the example of classical meditative practice,

+ it is a systematic form of inner action, which on second sight turns out to be a certain form of attentive non-action.

+ The sought-after form of knowledge is not propositional, it does not involve true sentences.

+ Because it also does not involve intellectual insight, the sought-after form of insight is not communicable by way of language, but at most can only be hinted at or demonstrated.

+ On the other hand, it always remains clear that spirituality is not merely about therapy or about a sophisticated form of wellness, but that in a very strong sense,

+ it concerns ethical integrity through self-knowledge, a radically existential form of liberation through insight into oneself; and

+ it is also clear that in many traditions, this involves some kind of mental training and practice, an inner form of virtue or self-refinement.

At the very beginning, then, there is an aspect of knowledge as well as a normative aspect, and this means that, in a very special sense, taking a spiritual stance on the world involves both insight and ethics. The spiritual stance is an ethics of inner action for the sake of self-knowledge.

An enlightened, secularized form of spirituality is exemplified by Jiddu Krishnamurti

A further aspect that is important for an enlightened, secularized form of spirituality is exemplified by Jiddu Krishnamurti, one of the greatest non-academic philosophers of the last century. Krishnamurti radically rejected not only the idea of a particular path or method of practice, but of any kind of tradition, spiritual organization, or the idea of teacher-student relationships.

For Krishnamurti, “the only spirituality is the incorruptibility of the self” – and this the meaning that interests Metzinger

But if there were anything like a discipline called “theory of meditation”, he would certainly be one of the classical sources, one of the most important authors of this discipline.8 When he dissolved the “Order of the Star in the East” (which was founded for him as the putative coming “World Teacher”) on August 3rd 1929, he said . . . for I maintain that the only spirituality is the incorruptibility of the self”9, and this is precisely the element of the meaning of “spirituality” that I am concerned with here.

“Incorruptibility” is the semantic core of a truly philosophical concept of spirituality

“Incorruptibility” is the semantic core of a truly philosophical concept of spirituality. If our goal is to investigate the possibility of a secularized but still substantial form of spirituality, then we need incorruptibility in several different directions:

+ towards the representatives of metaphysical belief systems who try to bind meditation practice to a certain type of theory, whatever it may be, but also

+ towards dogmatic forms of rationalist reductionism that strive to discredit all non-scientific forms of gaining knowledge for purely ideological reasons.

But more than anything, we are concerned with discovering incorruptibility towards oneself, and independently of any theory or sense of ideological commitment.

What does it mean to be incorruptible towards oneself?

But what does this incorruptibility consist in? What does it mean to be incorruptible, especially towards oneself? Is there a form of spirituality that is not self-congratulatory, complacent, or kitsch, that does not involve committing intellectual suicide and losing one’s dignity as a critical, rational subject in more or less subtle ways? Is there something like “inner decency”, a clearly nameable intellectual quality of integrity—or must we always end by retreating to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s classical warning: “What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.”10

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The Video

The section, What is Spirituality? begins about the 1:40-minute mark and ends at about the 9:38-minute mark.

Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty with Thomas Metzinger, Published on You Tube by the Krishnamurti Foundation of America, July 19, 2017 — A talk by Thomas Metzinger at the May Gathering 2017 – Krishnamurti Foundation of America, Ojai, CA

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