concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2010


Incrementality is a crucial feature of Middle Way philosophy. The most basic imperative in Middle Way philosophy is to address conditions - that is, to judge on the basis of beliefs that are as free from delusion as possible. If we make an effort to understand any matter incrementally or gradualistically, rather than in terms of absolute quantities, then this helps to avoid the delusions created by our conceptualisation in terms of absolute quantities. We do not ultimately know whether or not the world is actually made up of absolute things that either exist or don't exist, but we do know that we have a tendency to construct a view of the world in absolute terms, and that subsequent experience often shows these constructions to have been an over-simplification of a more nuanced picture. We need to try to understand things in terms of shades of grey, not in black and white, because further reflection and awareness nearly always provides us with more shades of grey and reveals the degree of delusion in our previous back-and-white view.

To consider the increments often takes a further effort of awareness. Is that table brown? An instant stubborn response might lead to a fruitless argument about colour, but more awareness suggests that it is brown in some ways and to some extent, and in others not. Was President George W. Bush a wise man or a fool? Much as political passion might lead me to answer ' a fool', closer examination obviously leads to the reflection that he was (indeed is) a complex human being who is foolish in some ways to some extent, and wise in others. Should I give up eating chocolate? An absolute answer is easily arrived at - of course - but the sudden giving up of a pleasure one is accustomed to (and still has access to) is far less likely to succeed in the longer term than a gradualist strategy. Our absolute conceptions are usually hasty, gross, and dualistic, but our incremental conceptions, whilst still imperfect, get a lot closer to the conditions.

This is why in Middle Way philosophy incrementality can be identified with objectivity and absolute positions with metaphysics. Our experience, when more closely examined, tends to be an incremental experience, whilst absolute conceptions tend to prevent us from appreciating the subtleties of that incremental experience. Absolute conceptions can usually be analysed as metaphysical conceptions of one sort or another that are immune to modification in the light of experience. I might believe that the table is really brown because of metaphysical realism, that George W. Bush is a fool because of a belief in, say, determinism or positive freedom (see thesis 6.b), or that I should give up chocolate all at once because of moral absolutism. The metaphysics in all these positions restrains our objectivity and thus our morality.

Incrementality is necessary for maximising the objectivity of our judgements, but it does not help us with actually making judgements that lead to action. When we act we have to set a presumed view of the world as the background to our action, and in many circumstances decisiveness is important, and too much effort to arrive at incrementality would actually interfere with the objectivity of our judgement about how to act. For example, when you are captain of a ship that is about to hit an iceberg, it is not helpful to seek an incremental view about where the iceberg begins and ends before rapidly changing course. Where our provisional view of a situation includes a recognition of urgency and a need for decisiveness, the value of incrementality disappears, but nevertheless that does not undermine the value of maximum possible incrementality prior to that point. For example, it may only be because of careful observation through foggy conditions, tolerating vagueness and probing it for indicative patterns, that the iceberg was spotted in good time by the lookout in the first place. If we waited for a pattern that was certainly an iceberg it might be too late.

Links to further discussion

On incrementality (in Buddhism)

Philosophy of the Middle Way (thesis chapter 6)

The psychological basis of dualism and its philosophical expression (thesis 2.c)


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