MWP 1.3.d: Defining the Poles avoided by the Middle Way

Full text level

In traditional Buddhism, as we have seen in 3.b, the Middle Way is seen as the path between eternalism and nihilism, understood as the affirmation or denial of the eternal self (or in the Madhyamaka version, of Reality in general). This formulation has the weaknesses of not accounting for the practical complexity of the relationships between our beliefs and motives, and not clearly differentiating the Middle Way from metaphysics. When I first started working on the Middle Way in my Ph.D, thesis, A Buddhist Theory of Moral Objectivity (a title later changed to just A Theory of Moral Objectivity), completed in 2001,I tried to take the concepts of eternalism and nihilism, and define them in a way that could be made adequate to the complexities of different ideologies and their effects. This led me to define eternalism in terms of its acceptance of an absolute source of ethics, and nihilism as the rejection of such a source, with other metaphysical beliefs being understood as tributary to this primary pair of poles.

This approach provided the structure for my analysis of Western approaches to ethics through the ages, where I categorised the key Western philosophers or schools of thought as ‘eternalist’ and ‘nihilist’. I still think that this work (which provided the basis for the whole first half of my thesis), contains much that is useful. However, this approach also had some major drawbacks. The chief of these was that the classification of theories as eternalist or nihilist had to be defended even when there was a good deal of crossover or ambiguity (as I found, for example, in Marx and in Utilitarianism): this carried the danger of distracting the reader from the much more important point of the Middle Way as an alternative to metaphysics in general. Another drawback with this approach was that it involved presenting the Middle Way primarily as a theory of ethics. Although I think ethics is still an extremely important part of it, it is also just as much a theory of epistemology and critical metaphysics, as well as potentially of science, political philosophy and aesthetics. Allowing the navigation between metaphysical views on ethics to lead and structure my analysis of all other types of metaphysics carried the danger of a partial view of the whole set of relationships between metaphysical views.

Thus it is for reasons of theoretical economy and clarity that I have decided to stop using the terms ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism’ to represent the two poles avoided by the Middle Way. In a sense this decision is a somewhat belated codicil of my decision in 2008 to stop using the word ‘Buddhist’ to describe Middle Way Philosophy. The label ‘Buddhist’ undermined the theory’s universality, and ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism’ were chosen in the past, not because they would provide the clearest way of understanding the Middle Way, but because they were used in Buddhism. I am beginning to see them as a piece of unnecessary baggage from the Buddhist tradition.

Instead, in this book I am sticking to the terms ‘positive metaphysics’ and ‘negative metaphysics’ to describe the two opposed poles between which the Middle Way navigates. These terms are not in any way synonyms for eternalism and nihilism, but also indicate a shift in conceptions from a single pair of essential poles to a plurality of inter-related poles. There are many forms of positive metaphysics, and for every form of positive metaphysics there is at least potentially an opposed form of negative metaphysics. These different metaphysical beliefs are also inter-dependent in complex ways, many of which are discussed in the first part of A Theory of Moral Objectivity. For example, belief in an absolute source of value is often closely associated with belief in cosmic justice of some kind, whether involving afterlife beliefs or the inevitability of eventual justice in history[1]. Conversely, the denial of an absolute source of value is usually accompanied either by a denial of cosmic justice, or of the belief in freewill that often accompanies it[2]. However, to understand the ways in which metaphysics undermines experiential adequacy, and the ways in which different forms of metaphysics are interlinked, we do not have to impose the theoretical structure of one overriding or essential principle on each side, merely to note dominant patterns of interrelationship between metaphysical claims.

To take an example – Marx and Marxism provide interesting crossovers between types of metaphysical belief that are not so commonly associated. Marx was a materialist and a determinist, but at the same time believed he had found a source of absolute moral value in the Communist Society that would redeem humankind, known through the ‘scientific’ analysis of dialectical materialism. His belief in the inevitability of the Communist Society fulfilled a similar cosmic justice function to beliefs in afterlife states of reward and punishment in other religious contexts. Marx thus offers a good counter-example to the naive traditional Buddhist version of the Middle Way, showing that the ‘eternalist’ features of absolute ethics and cosmic justice can be combined with the ‘nihilist’ features of materialism and determinism. However, if one tries to classify Marx as either an eternalist or a nihilist at all one is struck by how easy it would be to argue the other way instead. In A Theory of Moral Objectivity I classified him as an eternalist because of my strategy of defining eternalism and nihilism primarily by their absolute or relative views of moral value: but even Marxist ethics has to be largely inferred from the way that Marxists behave, given that in theory Marxism doesn’t have an ethics, for ethics is seen as merely a bourgeois construct.

So I have concluded that a more adequate account of the metaphysics of Marxism should merely identify different positive or negative metaphysical features of Marxist doctrine, show their inter-relationships, and show the relationship of these Marxist metaphysical beliefs to failures to address conditions. The Marxist failure to address conditions – which we can see fairly clearly in the history of what Marxists have actually done – can be seen as an ethical failure, but it can also be seen (rather as Popper saw it[3]) as a failure of the very scientific method that Marx invoked. The poles to be avoided by the Middle Way thus need to be understood anew in each new situation of judgement, where the positive and negative metaphysical options to be avoided on each side can be understood in relation to the specific representation of the situation made by the person who needs to make that judgement. There will be positive metaphysical beliefs that are potentially inter-dependent in that situation, with negative metaphysical beliefs opposing them. Those beliefs may be ones about the world, ourselves, authorities, causes, values, boundaries in time and space, or even what counts as meaningful: a fuller categorisation of the possibilities will be found in IV. 3 & 4. But those  metaphysical beliefs will all be distinguished by their absoluteness. Beyond that, we do not need to speculate about essential links between groups of metaphysical beliefs, and thus ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism’ are unnecessary constructions. 

[1] Ellis (2001) 3.b.i & ii

[2] Ellis (2001) 4.a.i & ii

[3] See Popper (1957) and (1945) 4

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.