Martial arts are like languages: there are thousands of them, but most are only known to a few people. Depending on the definition of martial arts, some would say that every society in the world has developed a martial art, with the exception of a few peaceful, insular societies.

I’ve practiced martial arts from China, Japan, Italy, Germany, Brazil, and the Netherlands. Most of the groups with whom I’ve practiced have been insulated within their own particular community, without much regard for the martial arts outside of it. Sure, everyone knows about the gendai budo – Judo, Aikido, Karate, Kendo, etc – plus a few other notables like Taekwondo and whatever the latest fad in martial arts is. But the actual crossover between these communities is quite small.

I subscribe to the idea that the ideal martial artist is a cosmopolitan martial artist. A cosmopolitan person is a citizen of the world, one who is free from local attachments and prejudices. In the same vein, a cosmopolitan martial artist is educated about and respectful of martial arts from across the world. Too many martial artists are ignorant of martial arts outside of their teacher’s immediate influences. A Shotokan Karate practitioner may know about other Karate Ryu, but that’s not really being a citizen of the world. That’s like knowing the different neighborhoods in your home town.


Martial linguists

Like languages, there are too many martial arts to be knowledgeable about them all. But there is a difference between the study of a language and the study of linguistics. The study of a language is important if you want to communicate. The study of linguistics is important if you want to understand communication itself. A professional linguist is expected to study several different languages over the course of a career, while understanding important linguistic trends across languages. This is because linguistics can only exist through comparison. Scholars had to become curious, study multiple languages and share ideas with one another. Progress comes from cross-pollination of ideas between curious people.

The ideal martial artist has an understanding of both the “language” of an individual martial art, as well as the “linguistics” of martial arts across the world. If you look at multiple martial arts in comparison, you can start to develop hypotheses about why martial arts are the way that they are, outside of the confines of a specific style. These comparisons tend to highlight the following:

-Discoveries/inventions that occur independently in multiple places/times
-Common characteristics, or possibly even universal truths
-Distinct categories of martial arts

For example, if we want to know why the rapier master Girard Thibault instructed his students to grip a rapier in a peculiar way, we can look at other martial arts. First, we know that Thibault studied swordsmanship in Spain, so we can compare Thibault to his Spanish predecessors. The Spanish masters didn’t use that grip, so Thibault didn’t inherit it from them. However, there are certain German rapier traditions which use a similar grip. Thibault was Dutch, so it’s not unlikely that he was influenced by German swordsmanship while living in the Netherlands. It’s possible that Thibault’s system attempted to reconcile principles from two competing schools. With that relationship in mind, we could turn to the German schools to investigate other questions that seem inconsistent with Thibault’s Spanish background.

Girard Thibault advocated for an unusual rapier grip. We can try to understand it by comparing to other systems of swordsmanship. Image from Academie de l'Espée by Girard Thibault, 1630.

Why does it matter that we have this information? The more we know about why martial arts are the way that they are, the better we can make informed decisions about what to do and when to do it. The system will also be that much easier to teach. Of course, it’s hard to predict the utility of knowledge. You’ll never know whether knowledge is practical until you use it. I believe that I will be a better student of martial arts because I study the intellectual side of martial arts. But that’s incidental. I study martial arts because I want to know more about them. If practicality was my main concern, then I would only learn what I knew would be useful. If I only cared about being able to fight, then I might be perfectly happy with ignorance. This topic goes back to my earlier entry about martial arts for their own sake.


The ignorant devotee

Let’s take a somewhat more committed example than language.

Imagine a man studying to be a Catholic priest. He has devoted years of his life to his religion, but he knows nothing about other religions. He doesn’t care enough about other religions to spend any time understanding them. Maybe he knows about a few different sects of Christianity, probably the ones most similar to his own Catholicism. If I knew a man like that, I would wonder how he knows that Catholicism is the right religion for him. How would he know if he had never learned about other religions? Most people enter into the religion of their parents, which is arbitrary and based on chance. Likewise, a beginning martial artist will usually choose his first martial art quite arbitrarily. If I met a martial artist who had devoted years of his life to one martial art without learning about the alternatives, I would wonder the same thing.


Martial arts aren’t just about being able to hit someone until they stop moving. They are about understanding the way that people fight, and the way that people improve themselves. By learning one system, a martial artist can find one answer. But there are many other answers to the same questions, and there is no way to understand the total range of answers from within the confines of a particular system. Martial artists need to understand martial arts in general terms. They need to know how their own art relates to others – what aspects are commonplace, and what makes it unique? They need to understand what concepts and principles are discovered independently across time and space, and how similar ideas can take on variations in different cultures. That is what it means to be a citizen of the world.