concepts section: copyright Robert M. Ellis 2011

Middle Way 

The Middle Way is obviously a central concept of this website. It should be written with capitals, as it is a specific kind of middle way between specific kinds of alternative on either side. It does not just refer to a compromise, as 'a middle way' means in ordinary speech. The initial concept of the Middle Way can be attributed to the Buddha, or at least symbolised in the story of the Buddha. However, it cannot be justified through reference to the Buddha or Buddhist tradition, and is a universally-applicable theory justifiable only through practice and experience. Some of my work has been concerned with freeing the Middle Way from the distortions imposed on it by the Buddhist tradition (see Buddhist errors page), but much more of it with more positively developing a universally-applicable account of the Middle Way.

The Middle Way consists primarily in a response of equidistant balancing between different opposed metaphysical claims. The most central of these are eternalism and nihilism, which I prefer to define in terms of the respective acceptance and denial of an absolute source of moral knowledge. However, more broadly the Middle Way navigates between any pairs of opposed metaphysical perspectives, such as freewill and determinism, realism and idealism etc, many of which are assumed in other opposed perspectives, such as dogmatic moral or political philosophies. This navigation requires systematic metaphysical agnosticism: in other words, a clear commitment to not slipping into either a positive metaphysical belief or its negation. Nevertheless, the metaphysical views we try to avoid remain meaningful, and the traditions associated with them need to be explored open-mindedly for the aspects of human experience that they communicate.

The Middle Way has a dialectical structure, meaning that it consists in a quest to get closer to an assumed truth on the edge of our experience by bring together justified beliefs (and rejecting unjustifiable ones) from metaphysical traditions. In doing this we rise above the limitations of opposed metaphysical views, and create a gradually more justified synthesised view. The dialectic involved here is an epistemological and moral dialectic, not a historical or determinist dialectic along the lines of Hegel or Marx. The Middle Way is a method of investigation which arrives at progressively better justifications for belief through the casting off of delusion rather than through appeal to a source of 'truth'.

The Middle Way does not just consist in a refinement of beliefs, but also in a process of integration of desires and meanings. This integration has a necessary interconnection with the increasing justification of belief because it works with the motives, energies and assumptions that lead to opposing dogmatic beliefs. The extent to which we can integrate our beliefs through reasoning alone is limited. We need greater awareness to address unrecognised assumptions, and this awareness depends on our overall habitual physical and psychological states. The Middle Way is thus also a practical path which can be pursued using a range of techniques (including, but not limited to, Buddhist ones) that help to create the overall conditions for greater objectivity.

Links to related discussion

The psychological basis of the Middle Way (thesis)

The philosophy of the Middle Way (thesis)

The normativity of the Middle Way (thesis)

The ethics of the Middle Way (thesis)

Truth on the Edge


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