Warning: The magic method OCDI\OneClickDemoImport::__wakeup() must have public visibility in /customers/a/8/2/robertmellis.net/httpd.www/wp-content/themes/book-club/importer/inc/OneClickDemoImport.php on line 121 Warning: Cannot modify header information - headers already sent by (output started at /customers/a/8/2/robertmellis.net/httpd.www/wp-content/themes/book-club/importer/inc/OneClickDemoImport.php:121) in /customers/a/8/2/robertmellis.net/httpd.www/wp-content/plugins/onecom-vcache/vcaching.php on line 595 Warning: Cannot modify header information - headers already sent by (output started at /customers/a/8/2/robertmellis.net/httpd.www/wp-content/themes/book-club/importer/inc/OneClickDemoImport.php:121) in /customers/a/8/2/robertmellis.net/httpd.www/wp-content/plugins/onecom-vcache/vcaching.php on line 603 Absolutization: Preface and Introduction – Robert M. Ellis

Absolutization: Preface and Introduction


Most people who pick up this book will probably not need convincing that ‘extreme’ thinking (or dogma, repression, and conflict) is a bad idea. But what constitutes extreme thinking? It is obviously not just what our particular group considers conventionally ‘extreme’, so what are the common elements across groups? In this book I set out to answer that question in a thorough fashion, by drawing together a variety of disciplinary perspectives. I am also doing so with the longer-range practical aim of equipping us for an effective response to such ‘extreme’ thinking.

I aspire to do genuine inter-disciplinary work, which synthesises different perspectives whilst critically questioning some of their limiting assumptions. In my experience, it has been difficult to get such work off the ground. Nevertheless, I have been committed to such work for around twenty years, since I completed the unusually broad Philosophy Ph.D. in 2001 that set the agenda for my work on the Middle Way. That work has been through two more distinct stages of development since that Ph.D., to form first what I now call the ‘old’ Middle Way Philosophy series (2012-15), followed now by the new one of which this is the first volume. I’m immensely pleased to be able to now start publishing the much improved and updated third incarnation of the project with Equinox.

I perceive most academics as being forced by socio-economic constraints into an over-specialized system. That system may suit relatively discrete objects of investigation (such as mosses or metal stresses), but has been disastrous for the systemic understanding of our own process of judgement. There philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, linguists and religious practitioners (among others) are (to apply the Buddha’s parable) just different blind men making claims about different bits of the same elephant, often apparently oblivious to the ways the same issues are approached quite differently elsewhere. I have been fortunate enough to be able to ignore most of those specializing pressures, and to continue to work in a way that doesn’t just branch out from one discipline (for instance, much ‘interdisciplinary’ work is actually social science based), but critically engages with the assumptions of opposing perspectives. I have published most recently on the Middle Way in relation to Buddhist and Jungian themes, largely in order to get published on something, but my interests are very wide.

There is, of course, an opposite trap for those with wide interests: vague generalization, New Agey waffle, and false synthesis. Let me assure those who approach this book with suspicion on that score, that I am just as much aware of those dangers. Synthesis is the life-blood of thought, because creativity comes from previously isolated ideas being brought together. However, each new synthesis also needs to be subjected to critical scrutiny, and empirical claims need evidential support. My approach is that of critical universalism, not of naïve assertions about universality. I am rigorously focused on the Middle Way as a principle of judgement, not as any kind of metaphysical claim about the universe or top-down assertion about human nature. One of the aims of this book is to try to establish much of the basis of that principle.

Generally speaking, I have reached my current understanding of these issues by an extended process of checking one perspective against others, so as to gradually develop an increasingly adequate account of what the Middle Way consists in. It is not merely Buddhism, nor is it only to be understood philosophically or psychologically or neuroscientifically. Nevertheless, all these perspectives can illuminate each other. My prime criteria throughout have been practical: in other words, the most important question has always been “can this help anyone?”. The “helping” may in some cases be very long-range, but it is precisely by insisting on a wider perspective that we can be more helpful, not less.

The need to begin this new presentation of Middle Way Philosophy with a focus on the problem, in the form of a book on absolutization, has only quite recently become apparent to me.  It’s important to start with a focus on the problem in order to develop a fully relevant solution. It is not only practical problem-solvers that will recognize that point, but also Buddhists, who will be used to the way in which the Buddha’s ‘Four Noble Truths’ begin with practical problem and diagnosis before proceeding to solution and prescription.  Buddhists may thus recognize in this book a (highly unorthodox) exploration of some of the insights in the First and Second Noble Truths of the Buddha. Another reason for adopting this approach, however, is a gradually increasing recognition on my part that different specialists in other areas only seem to have partial views of the problem, and that these do not generally connect up to each other.

There are five major perspectives represented in the starting points for the first five sections of this book, and my challenge is to make those who start with one of these perspectives connect it adequately with the others. After my introduction, I begin with Buddhist ideas about proliferation – the hindrance to mindfulness, and the insights of the Buddha’s Middle Way into the sources of polarized thinking. If you are aware of these, have you connected them with limiting non-embodied understandings of meaning, as pointed out in so-called ‘cognitive linguistics’? I then talk about systems theory. If you were aware of the property of fragility in systems (very much brought to our attention of late in relation to the tipping points of the earth’s climate), have you connected this to the fragility of absolute belief? In section 4 I discuss metaphysical beliefs in philosophy: if you were aware that these might be criticized because they are beyond all human experience, have you connected those beliefs to bias in psychology? If I achieve nothing else in this book, I hope that I stimulate you to make a few more connections of this kind.

Beyond this, though, is the need for a more adequate understanding of absolutization due to its practical effects. The inter-connections between dogma, repression and conflict mean that we cannot succeed in addressing any of them adequately by doing so piecemeal without a fuller inter-disciplinary perspective. We also need to do so in a way that addresses the situation of judgement of every human being, not merely offering further causal explanatory theories or analyses. This book will have still better achieved its aims if it helps you to reconsider absolutization as you have found it in your own experience.


Even by the barbaric standards of Islamic State, the murder of the captured Jordanian pilot is particularly gruesome. The 26-year-old is paraded around the site of an alleged coalition airstrike, presumably to witness its effects first-hand.

He is then placed in a metal cage and set alight. The scenes are harrowing, the screams of anguish unimaginably horrific…

IS believes in a principle known as “qisas” which, in its broadest terms, is the law of equal retaliation. Put another way, it is the Islamic equivalent of “lex talionis”, or the doctrine of an eye for an eye.

As a pilot fighting with the Western coalition, Lt Kasasbeh would have been associated with dropping incendiary bombs – so burning could be seen by them as appropriate retaliation.

In this news report from 2015 about the activities of the ‘Islamic State’ group, we have just one of a myriad of possible examples of absolutization, from across the globe, across cultures and religions and across history. I am not referring to anything specific to Islam or Islamic State here, but to a more general question of how human beings can enter a mental state in which their beliefs require them to do things like this.

Although my arguments in this book are not specifically about Islamism, the example quoted above is an especially clear one. The executioners act as they do because of a principle that they believe in and have clearly articulated. They can give further justification for it, from the Qur’an and its tradition of interpretation. This principle is one that completely determines the actions of Islamic State members in that context, not one that is weighed up against other principles in any way. It is completely isolated from all contextual values or considerations. The people who oppose it are demonised. The people doing this believe they have the whole story.

This is my immediate and imprecise definition of absolutization: the belief that we have the whole story (I do not attempt any comprehensive definition at this stage, because a wider understanding of the concept needs to emerge for the reader through synthesis, not strict definition). Used in this sense, the term ‘absolutization’ is not exactly a coinage, but perhaps a specific new development of the previous use of the term. There do not seem to be any equivalents elsewhere.

As a phenomenon, absolutization is not specific to any culture, religion, location or time – it is a feature of human belief in general. Apart from extreme instances like that of Islamic State, we could also cite very ordinary and trivial ones. Supposing in conversation with a friend, I claim that Lagos is the capital of Nigeria. This is a result of out-of-date information, as the capital switched to Abuja in 1991, and the friend soon shows this to be wrong with reference to online information sources. However, I won’t admit that I was wrong, and keep claiming that the capital of Nigeria is really Lagos “in the ways that matter”, because it is still the largest city. So here I am starting to indulge in ad hoc or ‘moving the goalposts’ argument, because I can’t let go of the idea that I have the whole story. None of us can plausibly claim to be totally immune from absolutization in these less serious forms.

Absolutization does not merely consist in dogma, bias, fallacy, metaphysics, repression, certainty, projection or addiction, though it can be responsible for all of these phenomena. To understand it as a whole, we need to understand how these phenomena are linked, and thus a multi-disciplinary approach (what is sometimes described as a ‘transversal’ approach) is demanded. That’s why in this book I draw together approaches to absolutization from Buddhism, Western philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, linguistics and systems theory. I find that there is still a great deal of resistance from academics and others to genuine interdisciplinarity that synthesises approaches from different disciplines, and some of this itself may be due to absolutization, in the form of implicit assumptions that a given discipline tells the whole story. So it is impossible to separate my topic from the issues involved in understanding it. In our understanding of complex systems in the world, just as in a functioning constitution, effective checks and balances are needed: to understand a complex phenomenon, we need to be able to use one kind of disciplinary perspective to check the assumptions in another.

What does this multi-disciplinary approach have to say that previous academic investigations into, say, bias, or conflict, do not? The key thing I will suggest is practicality. My thesis is that absolutization, as a general, enveloping phenomenon with some clear determining features, is the biggest underlying problem facing human beings. It leads us to sabotage many creative and helpful undertakings, whether these are related to personal health, relationships, careers, studies, organisations, ideological beliefs, states, or our dependence on the world environment.

Absolutization sabotages our undertakings by distorting our judgement at each point. Thus, we can respond to it effectively by maintaining a focus on judgement in experience, without distraction from cosmic claims or speculations that are themselves usually absolutizations.  The practical value of gaining a general understanding of absolutization, then, is to help us identify an effective response to it that incorporates the widest possible understanding of the phenomena involved.

That’s why the account of absolutization in this book is not an end in itself, and is not attempting to be merely descriptive. An account of absolutization forms the first half of this book, but the second half will consist in an attempt to identify the defining features of any response to it that effectively addresses its multiple interdependent features. These criteria for an effective response in turn offer a starting point for the larger focus of my whole work on Middle Way Philosophy, and I am expecting this book to be the first volume of a new and more rigorous exposition of Middle Way Philosophy as a whole, that will improve on the previous versions.

The first half of this book will introduce absolutization using twenty-three interdependent features of it that I have identified. These are roughly grouped into five disciplinary areas that are the primary ones where we are most likely to find these features explained, modelled and evidenced. Using these five disciplinary areas will, I hope, provide some way in for readers who have an interest or familiarity with at least one of them. However, you must also be warned that the treatment of these disciplinary areas is not watertight, and I will also be using insights from one area to challenge the assumptions in another throughout this book. For instance, the perspectives offered to me by Buddhism and systems theory mean that I do not accept the still-dominant academic assumptions about representational meaning and metaphysical philosophy, nor the excuses often made for bias.  The first section labelled ‘Early Buddhism’ for instance, is not solely about Buddhism – Buddhism just provides an identifiable starting point. You will need to expect constant interweaving and comparison of different kinds of sources throughout this book.

The first section starts with Buddhism only because it is from Buddhism that, in my own personal progression of understanding, I first recognised the importance of putting practice first, and tackling abstract conceptual issues in a way that is consistent with long-term practical experience. I am no longer a formally committed Buddhist, however, and recognise influential elements of the Buddhist tradition that do not effectively prioritise a practical perspective in this way. For that reason, I now describe myself as a practitioner of the Middle Way (which is not a Buddhist monopoly) rather than a Buddhist. My earlier book, The Buddha’s Middle Way goes into more detail on the distinction between the Middle Way and Buddhism. Here, then, I limit myself to some key insights on absolutization that I get primarily from early Buddhism: the experience of mental proliferation (which any meditator will recognise); the interdependence between craving, hatred and delusion; the absoluteness of negations (that is the recognition that denying an absolute view just gives one another absolute view) and the restriction of options (also known as false dichotomy, or dualism). These are insights that can be gained from the teaching and exemplification of the Middle Way in the Pali Canon, as long as one interprets it sufficiently in a practical context.

These four points are insights that drew me on from an early stage in my investigations to try to understand absolutization better from other kinds of sources. They are thus expressed and symbolised in Buddhist sources, but this does not mean that they are restricted to them. Indeed, one could give a fair justification for them without any particular reference to Buddhism. Mental proliferation can also be understood using psychology and systems theory, the relationship between craving, hatred and delusion can be similarly based in psychological observation, and the avoidance of false dichotomy or restriction of options is long-established in the Western critical thinking tradition. Perhaps the absoluteness of negations is the point least understood and almost never applied in Western discourse: but it can also be readily justified through arguments that involve no appeal to Buddhism or Buddhist tradition.

The second area is systems theory, an inter-disciplinary approach that has been steadily transforming a whole range of disciplines in recent decades, by recognising the greater degree of objectivity that can be developed by treating phenomena as systems of relationships rather than fixed objects. Systems theory identifies two kinds of recurrent feedback loop that can be found in all kinds of organic and inorganic systems: the reinforcing and the balancing. One of the basic features of absolutized beliefs is reinforcing feedback loops, meaning ones that indefinitely repeat the same pattern of assumptions. In systems theory it is also clear that no system is in practice independent of other systems, yet absolutized beliefs assume themselves to be so. Absolutized beliefs are also fragile, meaning that they lack resilience, and are likely to be completely destroyed by a large disruption. The writings of Nassim Nicholas Taleb are highly informative on the extent to which beliefs that continue in the same pattern of assumptions can become disastrously ill-adapted to their context.

The third area I draw on is embodied meaning theory, the revolutionary approach to meaning developed by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson since the 1980’s, yet since then often under-used by theorists who have appropriated it to other approaches rather than followed through its radical implications. This appropriation is particularly clear from the fact that it is often referred to as ‘cognitive linguistics’, when it is neither exclusively cognitive nor exclusively linguistic.

Embodied meaning provides a standpoint from which we can particularly identify the meaning assumptions that create absolutization: those of representationalism. Representationalism assumes that meaning arises from the relationship of language with potential reality, rather than being developed from bodily experience. This is a key feature of absolutization, which operates on the constant assumption that absolute claims get their meaning from a relationship with independent reality.

The denial of embodied meaning in absolutization in turn is an indication of a wider denial of embodiment and its implications. The perspective of the body, backed up by the neuroscience of the brain hemispheres, is a continuous one, but the absolute perspective is readily distinguishable for its discontinuity.  The body providing the basis of every kind of meaning in human experience, though, also means that the meaning of words must always be judged in relation to that bodily context. We thus have to be careful in our judgements about what is an example of absolutization and what is not, that we do not attribute the final meaning to the assembled words alone.

The fourth area for discussion of absolutization is that of (Western) philosophy. Absolutized beliefs in philosophy have taken the form of metaphysics: that is, of beliefs about what is ultimately the case rather than what merely appears in our experience. These ultimate beliefs are not just discussed in philosophy, but much applied – for instance in religion, politics, ethics, or even when interpreting science. I will explain why metaphysical beliefs are unavoidably absolute. Since metaphysical beliefs cannot be justified through experience, they rely on claims about ultimate sources of ‘knowledge’ of some kind, and these are taken to be foundational.

To draw further conclusions from metaphysical beliefs, we also adopt the assumption that deductive logic provides an absolutely valid link between one ‘truth’ and another: but embodied meaning undoes this assumption. Philosophical tradition also gives us evidence of all the ways that absolutized beliefs can be made compatible with any new observation whatsoever – think, for instance, of the way that any amount of suffering can still be judged compatible with the existence of a loving God. Although empirical philosophy has started to offer challenges to some aspects of absolutization, it has not done so effectively, because it has continued to be appropriated by absolutized beliefs.

Philosophy also provides the resources for some of the most widely used defensive arguments that try to maintain absolutization when it is challenged, by making it apparently non-negotiable. Prime amongst these is the claim that metaphysical belief is inevitable, and that anyone arguing against it must be hypocritical, because they must be using metaphysical beliefs themselves. I shall be arguing that this kind of defence again assumes a basically disembodied view of human experience, denies the very possibility of provisionality as an alternative to metaphysical belief, and fails to apply a criterion of practical relevance to the metaphysical beliefs we are assumed to assume.

Further defensive moves may inflate the scope of ‘metaphysics’ and ‘logic’ in ways that confuse the issues. Metaphysics may be associated with religious experience or with profound insight in general, for instance. ‘Logic’ may be used in many remarkably vague senses, including the attribution of the faults in both formal and informal fallacies to faults in ‘logic’, when it is primarily practical criteria that actually make them problematic. I argue that more careful (and practically motivated) distinctions in how we use these terms can resolve these kinds of issues.

I then draw on aspects of psychology and psychoanalysis to discuss repression and projection, which are both psychological aspects of absolutization. Repression, whereby an absolutized belief tries to ‘win’ against its rivals, is the basic reason why absolutization is the source of endless conflict. If we did not assume that we had the whole story, there would be no problem with resolving conflict, either within ourselves or more widely in socio-political power relationships. The identification of projection with absolutization also gives us a clear understanding of why absolutization is delusory: it leads us to attribute the properties to people and things that fit our needs, as opposed to the ones they actually have.

Cognitive psychology can also make an obviously important contribution to our understanding of absolutization, through its exploration of the phenomena of bias. I will argue that being deceived by a bias (or alternatively reacting against it) is absolutization. However, there are some approaches to psychology that defend bias in ways that parallel the defence of metaphysics in philosophy – defences that in both cases involve distractions from their negative practical effects.

The most basic process of bias, as identified in the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, is that of substitution, whereby we adopt easier ‘fast’ thinking in the place of harder and more energy-consuming ‘slow’ thinking. I argue that this substitution process is also characteristic of absolutization as a whole. This ease of use is what makes absolutization such a tempting shortcut for group binding, with all the attendant socially negative effects of absolutization as a tool of power.

Finally, however, it must be acknowledged that absolutization is only negative in its effects when it is clearly put into a context of ultimate reinforcing feedback loops, representationalism, metaphysics, repression, projection and substitution. It is quite possible to make use of the same words and symbols that we use for absolutizing purposes and make them helpful sources of inspiration by giving them a larger practical context. This, drawing on Jungian psychology, can be seen as the archetypal function of absolutes.

These features of absolutization are illustrated here in relation to each other in a diagram (figure 1). They are also summarised for reference in a table in the appendix, along with their main sources and a brief indication of the evidence and implications discussed. In section 6 I argue that they are interlinked by implicitly implying each other, not through an a priori equivalence, and are obviously evident at different times dependent on the conditions in which they appear. Given the particular conditions for the emergence of each dimension, though, I posit that it will appear. The argument for the relationship between the dimensions is also a synthetic one (gaining greater strength from the number of perspectives from which it can be observed) and a practical one (gaining greater strength from the ways it can be applied).

Following this account of the dimensions of absolutization, the second half of this book then offers four criteria of response. These criteria grow directly out of the account of absolutization itself as creating certain basic requirements for how we can address it effectively. The value of offering these criteria as a starting point for the Middle Way is to distinguish it as a connected approach from the many partial existing approaches. Existing approaches, I will argue, are hampered by a failure to appreciate one or other of these four criteria: these range from traditional religious and philosophical approaches to new forms of psychotherapy or other intellectual movements. If it can be recognised that their limitations are due to an insufficiently comprehensive response to the multifaceted and self-defensive nature of absolutization, it should become clearer why the distinctive approach of the Middle Way is necessary to respond to absolutization effectively. This is by no means intended to offer a blanket rejection of other approaches, but rather a basis for assessing and improving them, so that their energies can be channelled most effectively.

The four criteria that I will be discussing are practicality, universal aspiration, judgement focus and error focus.

Practicality is the first requirement, shown primarily by the inadequacies of purely philosophical responses to absolutization that ignore psychology. Practicality involves not only considering our mental states as well as the content of our beliefs, but working with them over the long-term, using techniques that take the conditions into account and try to improve our judgement. A wide range of techniques can potentially do this, so the main challenge is not to develop new techniques, but to integrate the ones we already have in a framework of practice that is fully justified.

However, ‘practicality’ is unfortunately often associated with short-termism or parochialism, and the second criterion of universal aspiration is required to make sure we keep stretching our outlook to wider adequacy so as to be able to face new and perhaps unpredicted conditions. The Middle Way holds this universal aspiration in creative tension with a recognition of the particularity of all our judgements. Approaches to absolutization that merely react to the failure of positive absolutes by adopting negative ones (for instance, relativism), do not help us to avoid absolutization.

The third criterion, judgement focus, is a corrective to our tendency to excessive or irrelevant theorising about conditions that do not affect how we actually respond to conditions. This includes not just metaphysical speculation in philosophy and religion, but also scientific diversion onto excessive concern with explanatory theory at the expense of effective response to the absolutization. We need a principle of theoretical economy to avoid getting caught up in trying to explain things that we do not need to explain – a process that can rapidly take us back into absolutization.

The final criterion, error focus, refers to the specific type of error involved in absolutization. It argues that this type of error is much easier to identify than any correct positive principle that we can have complete confidence in. Although we do need inspiring positive symbols and intermediate goals for our development away from absolutization, our beliefs about how to develop need to primarily focus on what we need to avoid, rather than what we need to positively achieve. It is probably much easier for us to consistently unite, both as individuals and as a species, around the need to avoid absolutization, than it is to all, for instance, agree to gain enlightenment, follow God’s will, identify the true facts of nature, or any other positive formulation of the kind that usually divides rather than unites us.

These four criteria will define the basic requirements for the approach to understanding the Middle Way (the path avoiding absolutization) in further books of the planned series succeeding this one. The structure overall, then, is one of problem followed by a solution. This is not to underestimate the unfathomable size of the problem or the extreme difficulties of the solution. However, it is to try to face up to all the ways that merely partial accounts of the problem prevent us from reaching an adequate understanding of appropriate solutions.