“Mysticism” refers to practices that induce ecstatic states of consciousness in order to contact the divine. William James discusses the mystical experience at length in his study of religion because he found mysticism at the foundation of organized religious traditions. According to James a mystic’s revelation becomes dogma as it attracts followers who create lasting institutions. Mystical experiences consistently include a language-transcending insight delivered in a temporary state of consciousness characterized by a feeling of union or surrender to something greater than the self.

A mystical experience that prompts a significant change in the mystic’s religious identification might be called “a conversion experience.” Such an experience conveys so much plausibility that the mystic abandons old beliefs for new. Conversion experiences demonstrate the knowledge-carrying nature of mystical experiences as they appear to serve as strong reasons for a subject to rearrange their beliefs, something that often takes much time and many episodes of reflection.

James allows that the mystic may accept the experience as knowledge and form beliefs accordingly, but he does not offer any account of how one might examine such insights critically. The Pragmatic approach James defines in “The Will to Believe” would direct the mystic to judge whether the resulting beliefs that have a beneficial effect. Observable effects serve as the principal epistemic criterion for all knowledge in the Pragmatic account, so both the mystic and their audience judge the insight by the same standard. Under this account the knowledge-bearing quality of the mystical experience does not do any epistemic work even though the conversion experience demonstrates otherwise.

A mystic inclined to rationality and critical examination seems left in the lurch here. Despite the wide recognition that descriptions of mystical states differ only in diverse views on the same ineffable point, mystics lack many paths to dialogue and shared examination of their insights. The best examples generally reflect examination inside of a tradition where shared frameworks ease the path. Efforts across traditions often rely on common ground and shared influences to bridge the gap. These efforts support critical examination of mysticism by separating content from framework and creating space for recognition of shared values and a wider community.