If we assume that a martial art is a holistic practice, is it wrong to try to examine its component parts on a fundamental level?

If the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, then how do you examine individual pieces?

Many Eastern martial arts are commonly described as holistic. That is to say they (supposedly) cannot be understood in pieces, only as a whole. Every piece of a holistic martial art is mutually dependent on every other piece, creating a cohesive system.

A holistic martial art may not just be a martial art. It may be just one piece of a greater philosophical system. For example, Chinese martial artists often supplement their training by studying traditional Chinese medicine, qi gong, calligraphy, music, and other traditional arts. According to a traditional Chinese worldview, each of these areas of study is interconnected with each of the others.

Here’s the problem: I have a tendency to deconstruct ideas. In fact, I’m doing it right now. I like to break concepts down into their component parts in order to understand their fundamental premises. Naturally, this applies to martial arts as well. Every martial art consists of physical actions which in turn express abstract principles. Those principle actions are rooted in a logical understanding of the natural world. I believe that all new knowledge must build upon a foundation of prior knowledge, so it makes sense to understand the most fundamental concepts before moving forward.

At first glance, it seems that traditional martial arts tend to support the idea of building fundamentals. We have all heard the stories about masters who forced their students to repeat a single motion or sequence endlessly at the beginning of their training. Complex actions rely on the integrity of their simpler components in order to succeed. For example, a throw won’t work if your stance is unstable.

So why not break everything down to the fundamentals?

The Case Against Deconstruction

The standard argument against deconstruction goes as follows: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Douglas Adams put it succinctly when he said: “If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat.”

Along those same lines, if you only learn about cats by dissecting them, then you could only learn about dead cats. When a holistic system broken apart, then anything you learn must be inaccurate. Therefore, you could hinder your martial art if you were to make training decisions based on your understanding of individual pieces instead of the art as a whole.

The Case For Deconstruction

But there’s another side to the debate. Modern teaching methods are based around the idea that you can study a subject by analyzing its pieces. Where would we be without that tool? Any other method seems horribly inefficient by modern standards.

Here’s another problem: Even if holistic martial arts can’t be deconstructed, how do we know whether a given martial art can be considered holistic? That’s a very complicated question. In order to answer it, we would need to thoroughly understand the philosophical context of the art. Don’t make the New Age assumption that everything Eastern must be holistic and that everything Western must be the opposite. Rarely is philosophy so cut and dry.

Can We Reconcile Holism and Deconstruction?

These two methods may not be mutually exclusive. On one hand, you can use more than one method to teach or learn a martial art. On the other hand, the dissection analogy suggests that deconstruction could provide you with inaccurate information and thus steer you in the wrong direction.

I don’t have an answer to this question. But it seems important to keep in mind as I approach these conceptual debates in martial arts. Maybe my standard analytical tools can’t be applied equally to every situation. After all, the most important part of inquiry is how you ask the question.