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Middle Way Philosophy

The Middle Way Society

We’re finally under way with a society to promote the Middle Way! At the end of the Middle Way Study Retreat held in August, all the participants agreed to create a society to promote the study and practice of the Middle Way. You can now read about it on our website, http://www.middlewaysociety.org .

Why a society? Well, it seems far too important to be left to just one person. I want to find as many people as possible who share that general orientation and work with them. There are lots of people who are looking for a coherent way of understanding what our values ought to be that goes beyond social convention and individual choice, now that the dogmas of religion and authoritarian politics no longer hold sway. The Middle Way could help them, but the message just isn’t getting across sufficiently.

The purpose of the Middle Way is practical, and it can provide a clearer rationale for a wide range of practices, from meditation and the arts through to critical thinking, that can help to open up the clenched obsessiveness of the egoistic left hemisphere that thinks it has the whole story.  It can also provide a distinctive approach to those practices, that involves recognition that what makes any of them effective is a balanced flexibility of perspective.

I wanted to start a new organisation, because there is currently no organisation clearly devoted to the Middle Way as such, the Middle Way as a genuinely universal principle rather than just an aspect of Buddhism. There are Buddhist organisations, but these all too often put the traditional metaphysical beliefs of Buddhism first and the Middle Way a poor second, even though there are many good things that they do. Even Secular Buddhism, although it provides a meeting point for people interested in Buddhism who are prepared to challenge the tradition, does not have a clear rationale for really focused action. So although I will remain in contact with Secular Buddhism, the clear pursuit of the Middle Way is far more important.

We want to concentrate on quality of membership rather than just having lots of people vaguely signed up on the web. To that end, of course there will be web discussions, but we also want to hold regular retreats for detailed study and practice. We’d like to hold talks in different localities and support local groups.

All readers of this blog are invited to visit the site and to subscribe to the society. It’s an opportunity to participate in an exciting new venture – the living of a new practical philosophy that takes the best from religion whilst being clearly opposed to religious metaphysics.


About Robert M Ellis

I am an independent philosopher, with a Ph.D. in Philosophy, and a distance tutor in Critical Thinking, Philosophy and Politics. I also have experience of Buddhist practice. I developed Middle Way Philosophy to apply what I see as the central insights of Buddhism in an entirely Western context.


6 thoughts on “The Middle Way Society

  1. Why begin by being implacaably ‘opposed to’, as distinct from in a critical relation to, ‘religiou metaphysics’? Isn’t ‘religious metaphysics’ a rather big and perhaps too amorphous set of ideas to be indiscriminately opposed to anyway? Is all religious metaphysics hogwash (more poitely: meaningless) and anyway how do you define the concept labelled with that term?

    Posted by Ian-Ray-Todd | February 15, 2015, 2:59 am
    • Hi Ian, It’s not just religious metaphysics, but metaphysics in general, that I’m opposed to. Religious metaphysics is just one aspect of it, and I try to be even-handed in my response to all types, including scientistic, political, and other types of metaphysical assumption. It’s not amorphous, but can be described quite precisely: see http://www.middlewaysociety.org/middle-way/ to start with, then my ‘Middle Way Philosophy’ series of books for a full exploration in the detail that this topic deserves. I don’t think it’s either meaningless or hogwash, but I do think that to either affirm or deny metaphysical claims is unhelpful. The reasons for this are psychological and practical as well as philosophical, and draw on both Buddhism and psychological evidence and evidence about the brain. If you’re interested in finding out the full arguments, you will need to read my books – or at least go further than a quick response to one post.

      Posted by Robert M Ellis | February 15, 2015, 11:02 am
      • Thank you.

        In the comment to which I responded, it was religious metaphysics to which opposition was declared. I note that you are opposed to all metaphysics and I have since read the interestingly developed outline of The Middle Way theory according to The MWS, without yet delving into the explicatory pages on its leading components.

        If you consider that metaphysics (an even larger bundle of ideas than the religious variety) is, far from being amorphous, entrely capable of precise description, then in fairness to both the reception and the process of appraisal of your ideas, you ought to be ready, willing and able to formulate a concise definition of metaphysics, particularly as there are various ways of defining the topic.

        Your willingness to subject ideas and doctrine regarded by many as sacrosanct to a degree of critical analysis (as, on one view, the Sakyan Sage encouraged all his hearers to) is not so much commendable as the hallmark of any intellectually autonomous being, and a necessary condition of intellectual freedom. That is why those ‘reliigious’ organisations which demand acceptance of their founder’s particular idiosyncratic interpretation of traditional teachings as a stipulation of membership demand bondage to dogmatism.

        There should be no similar admission price to the MWS and if there is it is exorbitant.

        Even on a preliminary survey of the theory, it has weaknesses as well as strengths. As a quite broad philosophical position, what does it say about epistemology, for example?

        It’s facile to respond to initial criticism with ‘read my books’, a potentially endless process. But OK: as a starting point, may I please have a review copy of the current print edition of The Trouble With Buddhism? But may I also please have a list not only of all your published work on your particular (non-sasanic) rendition of The Middle Way, but also of all published critiques of it?

        Are you still a ‘Buddhist’?

        Posted by Ian-Ray-Todd | February 15, 2015, 12:35 pm
  2. Hi Ian,
    When an approach is complex and has already been publically presented in all sorts of ways, what is ‘facile’ is when commentators expect its author to explain it all again just for their benefit, especially when they are evidently well-educated but have apparently made no effort to even make an initial engagement with it. I’m not suggesting you progress immediately to the most detailed account, but if you explore the MWS site a little more thoroughly using the menu at the top, you will find initial answers to all these questions. The next level of detail might be to read my introductory book ‘Migglism’, and then the most detailed account is in the ‘Middle Way Philosophy’ series. That’s an incremental process of detail, and it seems entirely reasonable to me. Asking me to explain it in a brief way here that you will then immediately shoot down because of its brevity and because you have thus misunderstood it is, on the contrary, unreasonable.

    No, I am not a Buddhist and regard the Middle Way as universal, beyond the Buddhist tradition – though I acknowledge my debt to that tradition in learning about it. On epistemology, see the page on scepticism on the MWS site. The only criterion for admission to the Middle Way Society is a (self-certified) commitment to the Middle Way and to the priority of the recognition of uncertainty it offers over dogmas.

    The ‘books’ section of the MWS site lists all my books plus other relevant and interesting books. You’re welcome to review copies if you tell me where you’re writing the review: please email me at the address given on the MWS ‘about’ page if you want to pursue that, not through public comments.

    Posted by Robert M Ellis | February 15, 2015, 1:36 pm
    • Thanks again, Robert!

      That helps somewhat.

      The trouble with signing up to TWW according to RME / the MWS would be that it might, who knows, entail a rash commitment to (still other) dogmas. There are two kinds of doxy: orthodoxy, that’s my kind of doxy; and heterodoxy, that’s your kinda doxy! 😉

      I would rather decide whether to join the MWS on the basis that ‘TMW’ (i.e., your developed ideas springing from your earlier sustained engagement with Denisian ‘Western’ ‘Buddhism’ and your own subsequent critical development) seems at first impression a sufficiently well developed theory – whatever its exact relationship to TMW a-la, say, Theravada or other strands of the buddhadharma – to be intrinsically interesting, and thus prima facie worthy of active critical (not wholly negative, as you unfairly imply and too readily assume) enquiry and engagement.

      All this in a spirit of frankly speculative exploration of the rich fabric of the unknown. I see no good reason, however, for any thinker (‘educated’ or just awake) to agree initially to your ‘TMW’, any more than to tie themselves down to a slavish acceptance of the Lingwoodian interpretation of the sasana. For to do so would be to accept another’s (your) starting premises about what is so in the world. Now, what was it you objected to about undefined metaphysics again – a priori assumptions invalidated by one’s own experience, perhaps; or possibly that (some) metaphysical assertions are incapable of passing the Popperian acid test of in-principle verifiability and falsifiability for the natural and social sciences, whatever its tenable applicability to the humanities?

      It does seem from what you’ve said so far here (and thank you again for what you have felt willing to vouchsafe) that your real objection may be less to metaphysics itself (however you care – if at all – to define it) than to the process of engaging with it.

      What does it mean to say it is ‘unhelpful’ to engage with (or in) metaphysical discourse (or with the sorts of question with which metaphysics is concerned)? ‘Unhelpful’ in what sense, to whom, for which ends and purposes and according to what values and standards? This reluctance or distaste may express or conceal a presuppositional value perspective of your own, whether aesthetic, moral, political or other. Alternatively, the notion that metaphysics is impossible or somehow worthless needs far more than bare assertion.

      Howbeit if you just don’t go there, whatever your actual motive, then you disengage from a vast body of philosophy, whose various suggestions may well have some relevance to and potential purchase upon your own assertions. You may ignore it but like the bogey man in your nightmare it won’t go away. And with what do you propose to counter such contemptible species of metaphysics itself as ‘scientism’, if not with the products of such disciplines as Psychology and Neurophysiology (the latter dealing with ‘the brain’); and don’t those disciplines’ traditional ways of thinking (entailing certain value presuppositions of their own, e.g., about the inestimable worth of pursuing knowledge and about the superiority of accumulating it ‘objectively’ as distinct from via subjective intuition) fall under the rubric of what you (whether or not justifiably) castigate as wicked scientism?

      If, however, you insist that it is truly metaphysics itself to which you object, then I think you are obliged to say with some clarity what you mean by metaphysics. Otherwise, the danger of talking at cross-purposes with any interested interlocutor until the sacred cows meander home is all too evident. That could well be utterly fruitless, and thereby ‘unhelpful’ in the specific sense that it would not lend itself to clarity of understanding between the pair of you, but at best to confusion and at worst to obfuscation.

      ‘The philosopher is not a citizen of any community of ideas. That is what makes him a philosopher.’ Wittgenstein could well, had he been in the habit of driving home points already expressed with trenchant brevity, have added that he will not, indeed cannot, give any initial commitment to any set of ideas until he sees them clearly expressed and intelligibly, convincingly defended.

      Moreover insofar as you believe you have arrived at such actually or potentially final principles (or statements of truth about the nature of phenomena) that it is intellectually justifiable for you to ask other people to accept them as a condition of associating with you, surely you are already doing metaphysics? And even as futiley as the mythical Canute to try to rule out metaphysical assertion or denial – albeit in salutary resistance to unreasoned, non-negotiable dogmas – as not worth the candle, its tallow or its wick, is, again, willy-nilly to do metaphysics.

      But if on the other hand you concede that all remains uncertain, then by what intellectually (and especially philosophically) legitimate precept or common standard do you ask of people that they accept your own necessarily (and entirely respectably) tentative assertions?

      I mean to follow up your suggestion about review copies in your preferred mode: but probably just one title at a time, if more than a single title at all. Your fully worked out ideas could for all I know be as deserving as Amartya Sen’s were (and remain) of a Nobel Prize in Philosophy but I’m unlikely to read the whole library unless the first item excites enough interest. Even Kant and Hume, knowing the cultural level of their groundling general audiences, each condescended to write a nutshell, and Hume would probably have remained largely unrecognised beyond tiny elite circles had he not had the marketing savvy to compress and summarise his big, bold, radical ideas into a congenially concise form.

      Accordingly and even so, my expectation that you provide a concise definition of metaphysics – a crucial object of your rooted hostility – is less facile in the sense of not showing enough effort than your dismissal of my initial probing questions as springing from an insufficient grasp of the detail of your theory is so in the sense of its being too easy and glib a way with ostensibly justified preliminary criticism. All I know so far is that for you metaphysics is that with which you believe it is unhelpful to engage.

      It is quite untrue to say that I have asked you to explain the whole of your theory, from the top, for my exclusive benefit. The tendency to attribute to a critic an unreasonable demand which they truly have never made is indicative of an unwillingness to adhere to essential axioms of truth in debate. It is to set up a characterisation which is easier to knock down than the actual challenge would be. At best it is a gross exaggeration. What I did and still do seek is your, preferably tolerably concise, definition of metaphysics.

      Since you consider that metaphysics is something with which it is unhelpful to engage and consider its boundaries clear, you must be able to define it. Your reluctance to do so is therefore remarkable, the more so in the promoter of a theory labelled as a philosophy, which is thus one set within a tradition of open intellectual inquiry.

      May you flourish!


      Posted by Ian-Ray-Todd | February 16, 2015, 5:15 am
  3. Hi Ian, There is a reasonably brief account of metaphysics on this page: http://www.middlewaysociety.org/middle-way/about-metaphysics/ , which also has links to other relevant pages.

    I am not approaching metaphysics as merely basic statements or assumptions. These may or may not be dogmatic. Instead I understand metaphysics and its effects in primarily psychological terms that intersect with Pyrrhonian scepticism. If you find the use of the term ‘metaphysics’ for this distracting, then try substituting ‘dogma’ or ‘absolutisation’, which seem to fit better for some people.

    Given that my account of the Middle Way is fallible, I think you are mistaken in seeing a commitment to it as a commitment to my version of it. I do not have a monopoly on the Middle Way any more than Newton has a monopoly on gravity – and nor does he Buddhist tradition. Rather a commitment to the Middle Way is a question of recognising the importance of uncertainty, coming to terms with our embodied limitations and being willing to explore its implications both practically and intellectually. For many people that’s at least partly an intuitive process (i.e. one that draws on wider experience processed unconsciously).

    Posted by Robert M Ellis | February 16, 2015, 10:49 am

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