If you read my previous critique of definitions, you may come to the conclusion that definitions are a waste of time. This critique may be extended to all verbal communication. Why bother organizing your thoughts into words at all? Why not learn martial arts simply through observation and experience? The simple answer is this: Clarity is important, and other forms of communication are rarely as clear as words.

As martial artists we are all trying to learn from someone. Clear communication is invaluable because we are trying to understand someone else’s ideas. There are limits to what can be expressed with words, but many martial artists use this as an excuse to be vague and uninformative. Metaphysical concepts are especially prone to vagueness. This is a major reason why I view them with skepticism. Metaphysical concepts are difficult to communicate, but do not mistake what is difficult for what is impossible. Clarity requires effort.

The term “energy” is perhaps the worst offender when it comes to vague metaphysical concepts. There are so many different meanings of the word that it would be ridiculous to try to list them all. Recently, a teacher of mine used this word to refer to at least five different concepts over the course of a two-hour Wing Chun class. He made no attempt to differentiate his different meanings of the word, which meant that he wasn’t willing to make the effort to clarify his instruction. This is an example of a teacher doing a disservice to his students. Clarity is key if students are to progress.

Here is another scenario to consider: A martial arts teacher could say that a movement is a “Tiger technique.” But what does that mean? Here are three ways that you can deconstruct the idea:

a. It means that the technique is an aggressive motion involving the collision of opposing forces.
b. It means that the motion employs specific stances, hand positions, etc.
c. It means that the practitioner exhibits a certain kind of aggression, independent of the motions themselves(e.g. emotionally, through facial cues and body language)

Each of these possibilities might reflect what a teacher actually means by “Tiger technique.” In this case, the three options above are clear because they are much more specific. Consequently, they are much more effective at conveying ideas. Without this kind of specificity, the students have to come up with their own interpretations. It would be much better if the teacher spoke clearly in the first place.

There is an exception: Some people use phrases like these as shorthand, which is fine, but only if everyone is clear about exactly what they mean. For example, if “Tiger technique” refers to quality A, B, or C, then the meaning is ambiguous. It can refer to three different qualities, plus combinations. If “Tiger technique” refers to quality A, B, and C, then the meaning is more precise. Most people don’t discuss these nuances, however, and as a result we must be very careful about defining shorthand clearly and using it appropriately.

Yet even if I make an exception for shorthand, some would still disagree. They would say that if you want to be precise in your meaning, verbal communication is too flawed. They would say that ideas need not be defined verbally to be understood. They would say that as long as student and teacher both have a mutual understanding of ill-defined terms like “energy” or “Tiger technique,” then communication can still be clear. But I have three problems with this line of reasoning:

  1. How do you develop mutual understanding in the first place? If you can’t use clear, verbal communication, you’re going to have a very hard time explaining this concept to someone else.
  2. How do you know that both parties have the same understanding of the concept? For example, my Wing Chun instructor and I undoubtedly have different understandings of the word “energy,” because he refuses to give any definition of the idea. As a result, we’re never on the same page when he uses the term.
  3. What do you intend to do when you are unable to see or feel a physical technique? Sometimes verbal communication is the only option available.

I have made my greatest progress as a student when given clear and precise instruction. Clarity is also useful for the instructor, who is forced to order and clarify his own thoughts before communicating them to others. Clarity helps everyone involved to understand causative relationships. Without a clear understanding of causative relationships, we can’t diagnose problems, and if we can’t diagnose problems, we can’t improve without a teacher present. Clarity is therefore the first step toward independence as a martial artist.