Archives for category: philosophy

As a martial arts junkie, I often find myself comparing concepts between different martial arts. Whenever I can, I like to adapt what I’ve learned in one martial art to make me better at another. I like to think that my experience with prior martial arts can help me learn other martial arts by applying concepts that I already know. But when I do this, I often run into problems. Whenever you try to import a concept from one martial art to another or compare ideas across martial arts, you are likely to run into trouble. Why is this?

Right away, one thing is clear: Sometimes different martial arts conceive of similar ideas very differently. For example, Wing Chun traditionally teaches six and a half point pole techniques as if they were extensions of unarmed techniques. On the other hand, there are other martial arts which teach very similar long staff techniques without pairing it with unarmed martial arts at all. If you were to examine the reasoning behind the techniques of Wing Chun or these other martial arts, you would probably find that they are very asymmetrical and difficult to compare, despite their similar jurisdictions. Why? Some would say it’s a matter of comparing apples and oranges. That may be true, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the underlying reasons for their asymmetry.

It’s easiest to examine and compare concepts when they are deconstructed as much as possible. When we deconstruct concepts, they tend to become more specific and less inclusive(more limited in scope). For example, if I say that “spirit” is important in martial arts, I am allowing that concept to remain broad and vague. If I say that it is important for a martial artist to cultivate spiritual strength, then I am a little more clear and specific. More specifically, I could say something like “a martial artist can increase his awareness and mental acuity by engaging in meditative exercises.” This last statement is the most deconstructed, and the easiest to analyze. However, it is also relatively narrow in scope, so it may not contain all of the meaning of the original statement.

But sometimes we can’t deconstruct ideas as much as we would like. For example, the principle of Aiki is an umbrella concept which contains multiple ideas. On the physical side, Aiki involves taking the path of least resistance by using the opponent’s momentum against him. On the interpersonal side, Aiki involves taking the path of least resistance in social relationships as well. There are also ethical aspects to Aiki(e.g. if the goal is to neutralize a hostile opponent, then one should not attack if the opponent is already neutralized. Furthermore, if you do attack, the opponent may use the very same tactics to neutralize you). While we can look at each of these aspects separately, it’s clear that Aiki links these ideas together at a fundamental level. That provides an obstacle to those of us who would try to deconstruct it.

Aiki is problematic because it contains several linked concepts. When concepts are linked together, they are difficult to compare to other martial arts which have similar ideas that are not linked. This is a problem that translators encounter every day. In language, we encounter linked concepts frequently. In English, the word “house” has different connotations than the word “home,” because “home” is linked to ideas such as comfort, safety, love, and so on. If we were translating the word “house,” it would probably be easy in most languages. On the other hand, it would be difficult to translate “home” if the target language did not have a word with those same connotations. This is why many words do not have direct translations in other languages. Likewise, many martial arts concepts do not have direct translations in other martial arts. This is because when concepts are linked together, those concepts acquire certain connotations.

It’s not always a problem when concepts are linked. But when we’re comparing ideas across two different martial arts, it’s a problem when that linkage is asymmetrical. For example, martial art A believes that every stance is associated with a certain state of mind, so it links its concept of proper stance with its ideas about attitude. On the other hand, martial art B looks at stances independently, preferring to think of attitude as an unrelated concept. When comparing the stances of martial arts A and B, or when applying the stances of one martial art to another, these linked concepts will be an obstacle to the translation.


A former girlfriend of mine once laughed when I used the word “martial artist.” She had never heard it before, and I suppose she thought it was a bit pretentious. I was surprised that she had never encountered it, especially considering that she was practicing a martial art at the time. I explained it to her grammatically: If there is such a thing as a martial art, then the one who practices it must be called a martial artist. This seemed like a sufficient answer at the time, and she laughed it off. But I wondered whether the phrase “martial art” is commonly understood.

Most martial artists will take it for granted that martial arts are forms of art. But to the non-practitioner, this is neither obvious nor uncontestable. If you can’t explain to a non-practitioner why a martial art deserves to be an art, then it is your unclear ideas that are to blame. The nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford once said “an alleged scientific discovery has no merit unless it can be explained to a barmaid.” We tend to complicate our ideas when we talk about them with other “experts,” which is perhaps one reason why the role of art in martial arts is unclear. But clarity is paramount. If you would like to deceive yourself or anyone else, the first step is to obfuscate and confuse. Use vague language, speak in aphorisms, commit logical fallacies, appeal to emotion instead of reason, falsely equate one term with another, and you will not only ruin your sense of clarity, but you may also earn yourself a career in politics. I subscribe to the idea that the goal of a philosopher is not to ask deep and meaningful questions about existence, but rather to think clearly about whatever it is he chooses to think about. And so I choose to think clearly about the following question: What is artistic about martial arts?

The least definable word in English

Our first order of business will be to decompress this vague word, “art.” Nowhere in English does there exist a word which defies definition so stubbornly as this one. Art has no single definition because it is not a single idea. It tries to be too many things to too many people, a conceptual snowball which collects new ideas without shedding the old ones. Rather than wasting our time by defining art as a whole, let’s break it into manageable pieces.


Sometimes, when we say art, we mean skill. Art once referred to artisanship, the craft of a skilled tradesman like a carpenter or potter. By this definition, a martial art is unarguably an art, for the simple reason that fighting demands a high level of skill. For example, a great swordsman can refine his skill to the point where we can say that he is an artist. This is the least controversial sense in which martial arts are artistic, and it is the conception of art most commonly applied to martial arts. In this sense, “martial arts” roughly means “the refined skill of fighting,” plus all its associated practices.


Art used to be associated with manufacturing, back in the days when manufacturing was done by hand. For this reason, older conceptions of art tend to focus on the creation of a tangible work. Thus arts were creative in the simple sense that they were skills for the purpose of creating things. Martial arts do not create anything tangible, although I would argue that they can engage in a more abstract kind of creation. But if that were our reason for denying the artistic status of martial arts, then we would have to deny it to performance arts such as dancing and acting as well.


Sometimes when we say art, we mean a form of expression. According to this idea, art is important because the act of expression is valuable in itself. Expression is the process of turning an idea into reality, taking a mental impulse and exporting it to the outside world. Just like a dancer, a martial artist can express himself through his choice of physical motions. He can express his emotions, his character values, his tactical priorities, and so on. For example, a martial artist who studied Bagua and Hapkido could express his individuality by displaying a form of fighting which is neither Bagua nor Hapkido, but a unique combination of the two.

Yet fighting presents a problem for expression, because expression requires intent. Expression begins with a mental impulse, and what is that mental impulse if not intent? Without intent, then there is no mental impulse to be expressed, and nothing to be exported to the outside world. However, a martial artist does not typically reserve part of his mind for expression during a fight. While training, he can express whatever he likes, but during a real fight for survival, a martial artist can’t afford to be concerned with expression. At a glance, it seems like there is no room for expression in a fight. However, I can see two exceptions: First, while expression must be intentional, it need not be consciously intentional. In other words, a martial artist could subconsciously express himself during a fight. Second, it is possible, though unlikely, that a martial artist could be so much more skilled than his opponent that he has the presence of mind to express himself while fighting. Imagine a master who has been attacked by an artless thug: If the master proceeds to intentionally embarrass the thug, isn’t that a kind of expression? Therefore it is possible, though unlikely, to express yourself in life or death situations.


If an artist comes up with an idea and intentionally communicates it, we call that expression. However, not everyone believes that art has to be intentional. Sometimes “art” refers to a work which is supposed to elicit ideas in the mind of an observer. According to this view, the artist’s intent is not as important as the effect of the art in another person’s mind. This is very similar to expression, with one critical difference: The idea need not originate in the artist’s mind. Therefore a work of art could be accidental; it makes no difference. A child dancing freely, unaware of any spectators, might elicit ideas in an observer just as well as a professional dancer could. It’s not hard to imagine how this can apply to martial arts. Almost anything that can be expressed through martial arts can also be elicited from an observer in much the same way. But elicitation also adds new possibilities: Two martial artists could collaborate in eliciting ideas from an observer while fighting one another. A fight proceeds like a debate, with an attack presented as a thesis and a counterattack presented as an antithesis. In effect, the fight is an argument about what fighting methods are most effective. The observer, seeing this in progress, can merge the two opposing viewpoints into a synthesis of ideas, learning something expressed by neither fighter individually but rather by the two in conflict. This is the sort of creativity which is only possible through elicitation.


For some people, art is not so much about the work of art as it is about the internal processes within the artist. According to this idea, a work of art is painted upon the canvas of the artist’s mind, which grows and transforms as it is inspired by new ideas. This process is both physical and mental in the case of martial artists. A martial artist must cultivate his mind and body into the tools of his trade. He must acquire a work ethic, condition himself physically, and develop the proper mental state to make split-second tactical decisions mid-fight. He has to manage his own fear while contending with an adversary who is doing everything he can to interfere. The ideal martial artist sculpts himself like clay, from his primitive state into a physically conditioned, mentally controlled, precise, agile instrument of combat, able to choose and execute the proper response to a threat, guided by values which lend themselves to effective training and fighting. For some people, the process of cultivating these qualities is more important for art than self-expression. Those people will find no end to the art within martial artists.

Transcendence: The refrigerator test

This all seems simple enough. Each of the above is a facet of the word “art.” If martial arts meet the criteria for each facet of art, then they must be artistic, right? As usual, it’s not that simple. Let’s take expression as an example: Not all expression is artistic. Communication is a form of expression, and it would be ridiculous to suggest that all communication is a work of art. Now we have a new and stickier problem. There must be some rare and elusive quality which distinguishes artistic expression from ordinary expression. The same can be said for the other facets of art: Skill, creation, expression, elicitation, and transformation all require a minimum quality to be artistic. Essentially, they only become artistic once they are “good enough,” once they have achieved a certain level of meaningfulness. I can’t tell you where this threshold is; it’s inherently subjective.

Purpose and the double standard

Yet this idea of thresholds exposes a double standard in art. For some activities, “artist” is a term we reserve for the best of us. For others, an artist is anyone who participates. A crayon drawing pinned to a refrigerator is a work of art, and its creator is an artist. Drawing is art, end of story. By contrast, take a skill like penmanship: Ordinary penmanship isn’t art, yet develop your skill enough and it becomes the art of calligraphy. Somewhere between good penmanship and calligraphy is an invisible threshold, a level of quality at which the skill exhibits new meaning. At that level, skill transcends its original purpose and strays into the realm of art. Purpose is the key distinction here. Penmanship differs from drawing in that penmanship is not primarily intended to produce works of art. The purpose of drawing, on the other hand, is to produce art in the first place. It’s difficult to generalize about the purpose of all martial arts, but at the center of every martial art is a fighting method(to paraphrase Karl Friday, martial arts may be more than just fighting methods, but they are never less). The purpose of every fighting method is control, not aesthetics, and a fighter in a life-or-death situation cannot afford to worry about art. This is why martial arts are less like drawing and more like penmanship, only becoming artistic at a certain threshold of quality. A martial artist may develop skill, express himself, elicit ideas in others or undergo an internal transformation, yet none of these actions become art unless they are performed well enough. As an added layer of meaning, in transcending the martial art’s purpose, the practitioner shows that works of art and fighting methods can coexist in a single action. In the process the practitioner becomes an artist, earning his rightful place on the refrigerator.

Rescuing the martial “artist”

My girlfriend may have been right to scoff. Maybe she assigned more weight to the term “artist” than I did. While grammatically convenient, it implies a minimum level of quality in our actions. I have always been hesitant to refer to myself in this way; it seems somewhat pompous and self-congratulatory. I once heard a man bemoan the label “writer” for the same reason. He liked to write but had not found any success in writing as a trade, and so he resisted the title. He continued this way until he realized that there are countless people who play instruments infrequently and recreationally, yet still have every right to call themselves musicians. He and they were practitioners of their crafts; the titles of writer, musician, or martial artist require nothing more. It may be possible for a martial artist to create, express, or elicit something artistic. He might even create art by transforming himself into something new. But even if none of this is possible, there is still one facet of art which undeniably applies to martial arts. Martial arts are refined skills, and this is the main reason why we call ourselves artists. A practitioner of martial arts needs neither to achieve nor pursue artistic transcendence to be called a martial artist. And just as a crayon-wielding child has claim to call himself an artist, so too do our scribblings earn us the same title.

In my attempts to speak philosophically about martial arts, I have failed in one colossal way: I haven’t properly defined what a “martial art” is. I’ve tried, of course, but it seems to be a fool’s errand. A martial art is a big idea, filled with lots of tiny moving parts. Any definition broad enough to encapsulate every martial art would be as near to meaningless as makes no difference. Instead, I’m going to address the thing that all martial arts have in common.

A martial art is, among other things, a method of fighting. But exactly is a fighting method? There are two possible answers. A fighting method is a collection of either

a. physical responses for hypothetical confrontations

b. abstract martial principles to be followed in combat or in training

Both types of fighting methods may exist, but the latter idea interests me more. I’m not at all sure that it’s true, or that any value of truth or falsehood can be assigned to the idea. But it strikes me as a useful way of looking at things, and for that reason I like to keep it handy.

The Nucleus

For a fighting method to be more than a collection of physical techniques, it must have a set of principles at its core. Those principles should be coherent, internally consistent, and based on the laws of physics. Physical techniques are simply expressions of those principles, but those principles can be expressed in infinite ways.

In martial arts, people tend to get caught up in the particular teaching methods that have been passed down over generations. Every technique or sequence is a tool for teaching, not a set response to be recited in the event of a fight. Every technique contains the core principles, but the techniques themselves are secondary.

Fight by Numbers

It’s like algebra. Algebra is an abstract concept with a simple premise: You can solve for any single unknown value by using variables to represent them in an equation. If there are multiple unknown values, you can manipulate the equation to discover their mathematical relationship to one another. This is the fundamental idea behind algebra, and we all learn a system of axioms and theorems which teach us how to accomplish that goal. When we learn algebra, we learn a series of specific lessons. However, no single lesson is algebra in itself. The lessons are merely examples.

Once you understand the concepts – how to manipulate variables in an equation – you can forget about the examples. You can make your own examples, expressing the principles of algebra in an infinite number of equations. You can even pass on exactly the same core principles without ever repeating the specific lessons that you were taught.

But on the other hand, if you don’t understand the core principles, then you’re stuck with those lessons. How could you discard them? What if you had missed some critical detail? It would be like a math teacher who doesn’t understand long division, so he memorizes his teacher’s entire long division lesson. He thinks: Maybe if I pass on the whole lesson to my students, they’ll figure it out on their own. But of course, this is a case of the blind leading the blind.

Yet another reason why a good teacher is so important.

A Finger Pointing at the Moon

If we could learn the core principles of a martial art directly, then most of us would elect to do so. Sometimes that’s possible. But for the rest of the time, we have to settle for an oblique approach, learning the rules by example like a yankee at a cricket match. For the student, particular techniques and sequences are very important; they are the vehicles of the core principles, the proverbial fingers pointing at the moon. But the teacher doesn’t need a vehicle anymore. He already knows where the moon is, presumably, so his job is to provide students with the vehicles that they need by expressing the principles in ways which demonstrate their value.

Yet again, I find myself undermining traditionalists. But fear not, gentle antiquarians, for I shall not defeat myself so easily. Certainly a free-thinking teacher could dispose of all pre-made techniques and sequences and, according to my logic, his art would be no worse for it. I acknowledge that possibility, but I equally acknowledge its improbability. How do we know when we’re finished learning? How do we know that the “moon” is where we think it is? When does a teacher know enough that he can apply his own judgment over that of his teacher’s? In the broad sense, I have no answer for this question. But for the great unwashed masses which constitute the rest of us, the answer is quite simple: Not yet.

When you encounter an attack, there are only four options: Resist, yield, avoid, or submit to the attack. Let’s take a moment to examine the idea the most difficult of these four options: yielding.

Unlike dodging, when you yield to pressure, you’re not avoiding contact altogether. Yielding involves allowing the opponent to make contact with your body and letting a portion of the force pass through your body. To yield is to receive the opponent’s force, and to yield well is to receive it safely. Many times it involves redirecting the opponent’s force, but it can also involve moving the opponent’s target out of the way so that the force passes through harmlessly.

Unlike resisting, yielding does not attempt to stop the incoming force abruptly. To yield is to meet hardness with softness. However, not all softness is yielding. If a person collapses under pressure, that is not yielding. That is submission. Instead, yielding requires a base level of resistance. For example, you must have enough structural tension to maintain your balance in spite of the incoming force. Wing Chun practitioners might think of bang sao(aka bong sao), an arm position which is often used for yielding. Bang sao only works if you have enough bodily tension to keep the elbow from collapsing and keep it in its proper position. By relaxing certain muscles and tensing others, you are manipulating the path of least resistance for the force, making it easier for the force to go where you want it to go while making it more difficult for the force to go elsewhere.

Yip Man and Bruce Lee practicing Wing Chun. Bruce Lee is performing bang sao with his right arm, a technique which requires some structural resistance in order to yield.

Yielding does not necessarily neutralize the force. For example, Aikidoka often yield in order to turn an attack back against the opponent. In this case, yielding is used to redirect that force, not just to absorb it safely.

The goal of any martial encounter is to maintain control over yourself and, secondarily, to gain control over your opponent. The basic problem of yielding is that you need to stay in control while allowing the opponent to affect you. What makes yielding dangerous is that it comes close to giving that control to the opponent. This is why yielding usually requires more timing, sensitivity, and subtlety than resistance or avoidance. It’s hard enough to manipulate the path of least resistance for an unchanging force, like digging a canal for a stream of water. But when that force is actively changing direction and magnitude, then it becomes very complicated to yield.

I regret to inform you that I have decided to abandon reason altogether.

I don’t abandon it lightly. All of modernity is tied to the same anchor, and so to cut loose of it must cause one to hesitate. But cause itself is the cancer, and can therefore be surgically removed without scrutiny.

Martial arts are a little bit crazy, as you and I quietly know. Maybe it follows that martial artists are as well, and I wouldn’t be the first to volunteer evidence to the contrary. We have at once been labeled naive, paranoid, anachronistic, arrogant, dangerous, and especially delusional. Admittedly, the signal to noise ratio in our community isn’t exactly favorable. In fact, I would argue that any signal we may come across is merely a statistical anomaly, and the rare fruitful discussion is well within the margin of error.

And so we, as martial artists, begin our journey toward understanding with the deck stacked against us. The responsible martial artist does his part to impose order upon the chaos of combat, using whatever shreds of philosophy that he has at hand. He collects theories and observations, instructions and experience, and then he cuts a swath through them with his faculties of reason. But many an inquisitive martial artist has caught himself in the epistemological traps of his discipline. Martial arts, both traditional and modern, commit daily offenses to reason which cannot be overcome as easily as we would like. As students, we have no idea which elements of a martial art contribute to its success as a method of fighting or training, so we have no recourse but to empty our cups and accept the teacher’s tea. And yet, when I emptied my cup, I found it difficult to refill.

Cracks in the Foundation

When I lived in Beijing, I had a Wing Chun teacher who was prone to talking to me at length after class. During one such talk, he asserted that Westerners take the wrong approach to Chinese martial arts. Western logic and reason are limited tools, he said, and anyone who bases their beliefs solely on reason is stuck in a box. If I never leave that box, I can only reinforce the worldview that I already have.

As a dyed-in-the-wool rationalist, I was keenly aware that reason is the only path toward certainty. I was tempted to pursue the matter Socratically, to expose faults in his idea through a series of innocent questions. But each question that arose in my mind presupposed the very idea that was under attack. I couldn’t critically examine his point without betraying myself as an advocate of reason.

After listening quietly, I asked “How do we know whether we are achieving our goals?” He thought for a moment, then said “That is a very good question.” The problem, he said, is the word “know.” We cannot know, we can only have faith. It seemed that he had given up on certainty altogether.

I went home frustrated, unable to come up with a way to convince him of the importance of reason. We disagreed on such a fundamental level that it was nearly impossible to find common ground. So I asked myself: How could I justify reason to a man like him?

The Paradox of Reason

That night, I discovered a problem. Reason cannot be justified without begging the question. All justifications are based on reason, so any justification must presuppose that reason is valid. Circular reasoning is invalid logic, so reason fails on its own terms.

Well, that was easy.

David Hume (1711-1776) is usually credited with identifying the problem of induction.

There must be some other justification, I thought. Reason seems to match observation, shouldn’t that count for something? Yet sense observation is a poor basis for reason, as reason itself can undermine the senses quite easily. Take Descartes for example, who reasoned that his perceptions could all be part of a dream or deception. Fair enough, you might say, but doesn’t reason have an incredible track record of success? Cue David Hume, who famously outlined the problem of induction. Not only is it impossible to use past experiences to predict future events, but to do so is to engage in inductive reasoning. So we are left, once again, begging the question. The very notion of justification presupposes the value of reason.

Reason demands that we discard all ideas which have no justification. But if reason has no other justification, then we are left with an order to disobey all orders. It seems that all commands of reason are suspect, and that we had better learn to do without.

Living Unreasonably

It’s liberating. Without reason, there is no way to establish cause and effect. In terms of martial arts, I am free to use any solution to solve any problem, although I have no justification to expect any result. In fact, why solve problems at all? There’s no reason for it. There, I can take the rest of the day off.

My teacher was right about one thing: Once you take reason out of the picture, the only alternative is faith. Faith requires no reason whatsoever, and ceases to be of use when reason is involved. Since matters of faith require no reason, I need no reason to have faith in anything – another liberating idea. I can have faith that the world is as it seems, that I can trust my perceptions, and that my pen is now a leopard. Perhaps those ideas seem contradictory, but I have faith that they are not.

Faith has no claim to certainty. But once we give up all hope of certainty, faith becomes quite an attractive option. It is the only way to satisfy our addictions to cause and effect. For example, when I am unhappy with someone, I simply lend them my pen. I have faith that they will be very badly mauled as a result. Such feats of mental agility are beyond the grasp of reason. Faith’s reach never exceeds its grasp. No article of faith is more nor less reasonable than any other article of faith, because reason has nothing to do with it.

Best of all, faith can be as circular as it likes. When confronted with a doubt about my faith, I can simply conjure up more faith in my own beliefs. It’s really quite convenient.

But I am not willing to have faith in reason. What’s the use of faith if I have confidence in reason? If I have faith that things can and should be justified, then I may require a reasonable justification of my own faith. And then the house of cards comes tumbling down yet again.

So it seems that my teacher was right. I’m grateful, because my world has become significantly more whimsical as a result. I only wonder why he persists in teaching Wing Chun when he could just get a leopard like mine.