Objection #3. This is a piece of alienated rationality not giving enough space to the emotions.

I do accept that reasoning alone will not necessarily enable the practice of the Middle Way, but needs to be supported by working with the body and the emotions. This is because it is easy to reason without being aware of many of the emotional and bodily factors affecting one's judgement. If the balanced approached to judgements represented by the Middle Way is a psychological state rather than just a position of reason then of course it is important to address all the factors which influence it.

An emphasis on reasoning as opposed to an emphasis on emotional work is very much a matter of temperament. There will certainly be many who are practising the Middle Way to a fair extent practically speaking without having the taste or inclination to engage with philosophical arguments about it. However, I think that this will limit their progress. Rational and emotional work are both necessary to engage with all the conditions on the Middle Way, but I don't think this means that they are equally weighted. Here's why.

The narrowness or breadth of our judgements depends on the prior conditions affecting them, as well as our own efforts at awareness. All kinds of psychological conditions from our earlier lives, environment, and relationships might create those prior conditions. To some extent, then, having the emotional capacity to practise the Middle Way is a matter of luck, or perhaps of the effects of half-aware earlier judgements as we were reaching maturity. In my case, for example, being born in an educated middle class family in a developed country, having a stable and loving family background, and then accidental meetings with Buddhists, and with the woman who became my wife, all had a big effect on my capacity to make intellectual judgements backed up by a reasonable degree of emotional integration.

Of course it is possible to practise the Middle Way either to a greater or lesser degree regardless of whether one has those kinds of advantages, but one works with what one has to begin with. Some people from very deprived backgrounds make astounding progress, and some people beginning in what seem like ideal circumstances may end up as aimless drug addicts. However, to make progress from that base (unless you are just going to be overwhelmed by a new and different social context) you need to be able to question its assumptions. If you only work within the assumptions of the group you find yourself in, you will inevitably reject the meanings, desires and beliefs that you encounter from outside that group, and will never develop the awareness needed to engage with the conditions the outside represents.

Rationality is required to question assumptions effectively. Those who are rebellious without any rational channel for their rebellion are very likely to become counter-dependent, defining themselves only by their differences from the group they are rebelling against. It is only critical thinking ability which enables us to weigh up different kinds of claims and liberate ourselves from the constraints of a previous context. It is vital for that critical thinking ability to be directed in the right way if it is going to be used to address conditions - but having it to start with is essential for any moral progress beyond the limitations of a group. Just moving from an old group to a new group without it will only help in an accidental way, as you might just as easily end up in an unhelpful group as a helpful group.

Once that move has been made, it is possible to become stuck in other ways. It is possible to be rational in a narrow fashion, reasoning on assumptions which remain unquestioned. It is then that emotional work (for example through meditation, yoga, psychotherapy or just friendship) might have the most effect in freeing up one's judgements. It is probably middle class intellectuals that will benefit most from these kinds of activities, because most traditional Western education systems do not put much emphasis on them, and some re-balancing may help. Nevertheless, to address new conditions even then reasoning is also required. One cannot just give up reasoning and expect to make moral progress.

So, overall, systematic philosophical reasoning is not necessarily alienated. On the contrary, it is a tool for breaking down psychological barriers which, in some circumstances, are unlikely to be broken down in any other way. Even if you are not temperamentally well-suited to philosophical thinking, it is worth trying to engage with it as far as you can. Philosophy can be (and unfortunately often is) narrow and alienated, but the limitations of such philosophical approaches can be shown in philosophical terms. Over-reliance on argument can be a weakness where assumptions are not really questioned, but not as much of a weakness as over-reliance on emotion in a narrow and unquestioned context.

To illustrate this point, compare two people with contrasting weaknesses. Firstly a kind, loving peasant woman in a village in rural Asia, whom everyone admires and who is a great support for the narrow circle of her family and village; compare her with an alienated but highly-trained scientist in the same country. Now suppose some important new problem comes up requiring a response to new conditions. Perhaps it is the big environmental threat such as the loss of water from a vital river being extracted by a neighbouring state upstream, or perhaps it is the threat of war from that neighbouring state. Who is best placed to respond to this crisis? Not the peasant woman, however loving she is, because she will simply support the views of the more powerful people around her, who will defend their self-interest even when this means further environmental degradation or loss of lives in war. It is the scientist who may be able to propose solutions and avoid catastrophe just by thinking about it, applying knowledge and reasoning. He may have a terrible relationship with his wife and get irritable with his subordinates, and those weaknesses will not be without effect on his life and his science, but his general degree of integration and his capacity to address conditions is far, far higher than that of the peasant woman.

People who object that systematic thinking is alienated, even when it is not based on narrow assumptions and supports and promotes spiritual practices, are often (in my experience) people who already have the capacity for such thinking but take it for granted. Having discovered the importance of emotional life later in life, they then underrate the importance of the intellectual life. Such intellectual anti-intellectuals are often drawn to religions that appear to be anti-Western in one way or another, such as Buddhism or Islam, or to Christian fundamentalism. This is where a positive recognition of the huge benefits of Western education and scientific advance, rather than carping about them, would be more appropriate. Reason can liberate us, when used in collaboration with emotional work. Let us use it positively rather than undermining it.

Links to further discussion relating to this objection

The role of practice in the Middle Way

The psychological basis of the Middle Way (from thesis - see especially section e on integrative practices)

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