It’s an old question but an important one: What is a martial art? I know it when I see it, but I’m not sure that’s good enough. When we’re trying to talk about what is and is not true of martial arts, it can be difficult to get anywhere without a formal definition. I won’t try to answer that question here, but there are a few things that are important to think about. Let’s go through a list of potential definitions and look at the problems with each one.

  • Martial arts are methods of self-defense.

This is a popular one. But suppose I learn a method of fighting that is entirely offensive. Does that mean it’s not a martial art? What about a martial art that is intended for self-defense, but ends up being used offensively? Does it cease being a martial art? Or what about martial arts meant for the battlefield? Certainly that’s not self-defense in any strict sense of the phrase.

  • Martial arts are methods of personal combat.

Similar to the above, this definition excludes battlefield martial arts. Some people might say that battlefield martial arts should be excluded, but I don’t think so. Let’s not forget that the root word of “martial” is “Mars,” the Roman god of war. To exclude battlefield martial arts would mean that the pre-Edo period samurai, for example, did not practice martial arts. That would also mean that the earlier German and Italian arts of swordsmanship are also questionable. Many of them were intended for use both on and off the battlefield, and because of that, they straddle the line between military and civilian martial arts. And yet, if you see them in practice, they are undeniably martial arts.

  • Martial arts are military techniques.

This certainly seems true for some martial arts, but most martial arts currently in practice are oriented toward personal combat by civilians. Nor did these arts originate in war. If you practice Karate, for example, it would be wrong to assume that Karate was originally intended for the battlefield. Also, does this definition mean that all military techniques are martial arts. If the US Marine Corps teaches marksmanship, does that mean that the USMC is teaching a martial art?

  • Martial arts are combat sports.

I disagree with this one because of my particular understanding of the word “sport.” A sport must be competitive. In one sense, martial arts are highly competitive in the sense that they pit two or more people against each other, often struggling for their lives. But I think that this sort of competition is distinct from the kind of peaceful competition that you see in sports. Furthermore, peaceful martial arts competitions require rules to keep everyone safe and to establish an objective way of determining a winner. But those rules are highly restrictive and create artificiality in martial arts. When martial arts are adapted for competition, they mutate from their original forms. The martial arts which are most focused on competition are the ones least based on the reality of combat, so I think they are distinct from non-competitive martial arts. I often differentiate between “martial arts” and “martial sports” for this reason. Also, the idea of practicing a martial art as a form of recreation(rather than as some artistic/artisanal discipline) is also offensive to some traditional martial artists. However, the reality is that people rarely practice martial arts as a professional skill anymore, so the recreational aspect may be more accurate than some of us would like. Nevertheless, the “combat sport” definition is flawed.

  • Martial arts are combat-oriented methods of seeking enlightenment.

This is more of an Eastern idea. Under this definition, martial arts are one method of achieving some sort of spiritual transcendence. But what about martial arts which have nothing to say about spirituality or enlightenment? What if they’re just meant for learning how to fight effectively? I would argue that these would still be martial arts, and that this definition is therefore flawed.

  • Martial arts are methods of expressing yourself through combat.

Bruce Lee might like this one, and it gets into the debate over the word “art”(more on this later). But much like the previous definition, this excludes all martial arts which are uninterested in self-expression or artistic statements. Some no-nonsense martial artists may even be offended by the suggestion that this is at all relevant in martial arts.

  • Martial arts are traditions of fighting passed down over time.

Are traditions integral to martial arts? What about martial arts that were never traditions? Does it cease to be a martial art if I develop it myself and never teach it to anyone? What if, like many European martial arts, it was recorded but not passed down as a living tradition.

  • Martial arts are methods of fighting.

To me, this definition seems like the obvious choice, because it is the most inclusive. But even this one is full of holes, and perhaps includes too much. Is it still a martial art if the method of fighting is primitive and undeveloped? If I develop a method of fighting in my backyard, am I right in calling it a martial art? Should there be a minimum amount of refinement? A friend of mine once told me that he didn’t consider Krav Maga a martial art because he thought it was too raw and unrefined. For him, this definition would be too broad. The second problem with this definition is that the words “method” and “art” are analogous here. And here we get into a discussion of art.

What is art?
Oh, here we go. To define a martial art, you must understand both the word “martial” as well as the word “art.” But the latter is notoriously one of the most difficult words in the English language to define. I usually discourage people from defining martial arts for precisely this reason. As soon as you offer any static definition of art, some avant-garde artist will jump at the opportunity to make you eat your words. I am neither an aesthetic philosopher nor art historian, but this discussion might be useful nonetheless.  Art is hard to define because it contains many concepts in one word. When we use that word, we may or may not be referring to all of those concepts. Therefore, art is a vague term which encapsulates multiple meanings which don’t always apply.

Art used to refer to artisanship, i.e. what an artisan produces. A craftsman would produce a table, a vase, painting, etc, and because this was done by hand, it required skill and dedication to produce a good product. At some point, it seems, the upper echelon of these works became known as “works of art,” signifying that they were somehow different than lower-quality items. Along these lines, it’s easy to see how a painting or a symphony could be considered art: They were the products of skilled labor. In the case of performance, such as music, dance, and acting, these products were not even physical objects.

The trouble is that in the modern era, art is now an abstract idea. Art has been largely separated from the production of physical objects by craftsmen. Our physical objects are largely made by machines and artisanship has been in sharp decline for centuries. Most people who still practice this sort of thing do it as a form of recreation, not unlike martial arts. They are no longer practical, professional skills. The common understanding of “art” has changed accordingly. But those old ideas are still around, and now there seem to be multiple ideas expressed within the concept of art.

Martial arts have undergone a crisis, not unlike the crisis of painting in the face of photography. Martial arts were once practical, professional skills for people who expected to come into harm’s way. Firearms and civil order have robbed martial arts of much of their practicality. Since then, martial arts have pivoted around the crisis in a number of ways. Some martial arts have adapted to modernity, others have redefined their ultimate goals. But in general, martial arts have remained nebulous in purpose and definition throughout the modern era.

So, what sense of the word “art” applies to martial arts?

If a martial art is an art in the sense of artisanship, then the practical skill is all that matters. In this sense, it is about the final “product,” i.e. a person who can fight. This idea probably seems intuitively attractive to many people. But a martial art in this sense has no value beyond the practical, and there are some who would object to that.

If a martial art is an art in a more abstract sense, then the ultimate goals are highly debatable. Some would say that the real purpose of martial arts is to cultivate yourself, to express your inner potential by mastering a physical discipline. In this sense, it almost doesn’t matter that the physical discipline is intended for combat. Some people would talk about a spiritual goal, or a goal of artistic self-expression.

Each individual martial art will have its own ideas about where it stands among these options, as they come from a wide range of philosophical backgrounds. But for such a disparate group of disciplines, it is nearly impossible to find a common denominator that is remotely useful as a definition. In other words, the more that you try to include them all within a single category, the less descriptive that category will be. As for me, I will try to err on the side of inclusivity.