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.

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The duel is an idealized fight. It’s one-on-one, on even ground, with weapons agreed upon in advance. Neither party is ambushed or denied a chance to prepare. Other rules may apply in accordance with local standards of honor and gentlemanliness. Based on those standards, a duel should ensure that the best man wins. However, the rules of dueling are necessarily artificial.

A plate from Ridolfo Capoferro's 1610 rapier treatise. Capoferro's system is sometimes criticized for being too duel-oriented.

There is no single set of rules for the duel, because dueling conventions changed over time and by region. We like to think that martial arts will work independently of time and place, given that the principles of physics and biomechanics apply equally to all humans throughout history. However, dueling restrictions are not so universal. When you prepare for a duel, you must prepare for a specific, localized type of duel.

Among the European sword arts, some appear to be optimized for just such an idealized or localized duel. These arts are dependent on the idea that there is only a single opponent, that the opponent has roughly the same weapon, and so on. Any system which is optimized for artificial restrictions will be less realistic as a result. If a martial art only works in idealized or localized conditions, isn’t that an undeniably bad thing? Isn’t a dueling system less useful than other forms of swordsmanship?

Ordinarily, I would agree. But a thought has plagued me recently.

Swordsmanship is not practical. In the 21st century, we can hypothesize a sword fight, but it’s not a reality that we actually prepare for. It’s critical that the system can work, but it’s not important that the system does work. That is to say, it’s important that a system of swordsmanship works hypothetically.

Immanuel Kant would put it this way: If we know that swordsmanship is impractical but practice it anyway, then we don’t care whether a 21st century sword fight is actual, we only care whether it’s possible. When a sword fight actually happens in the 21st century, then it becomes both possible and actual.

We can agree that a sword fight is possible. But it’s also possible to have a totally fair, idealized sword fight. And if we can posit the existence of a non-actual sword fight, isn’t it equally fair to posit the existence of a non-actual idealized sword fight? What difference does it make if we add in one more set of conditions?

How can a dueling system be less practical than a system that’s unpractical to begin with? Is it just that the dueling system is marginally less practical? Is there no way to distinguish between dueling systems and other systems of swordsmanship in terms of practicality?

During my time in China, I often found myself in crowded marketplaces, walking among the tourists and flanked on either side by vendors. Tourists being what they are, the vendors kept them well-occupied with foreign trinkets. Booth after booth offered the same mass-produced items: misspelled t-shirts, tea sets, calligraphy brushes, and an endless supply of watches.

Watches have become a staple of the Chinese souvenir industry. Although the official name-brand outlets are there for those who have the money, Chinese street vendors have earned a reputation for selling counterfeits. I was interested to discover that what was once pure deceit has now become a selling point; tourists enjoy the novelty of a fake Rolex or Omega. Nevertheless, the vendors still swear by the authenticity of their name brand watches.

Those markets are not unlike the world of martial arts, as authentic martial arts are no less elusive than a genuine Rolex on the streets of Beijing.

Martial arts are consistently misrepresented, in the media and in person, intentionally and unintentionally, by students and teachers alike. This misrepresentation stems from ignorance of the fact that most martial arts have undergone drastic changes in response to modernity. Those that survived the invention of gunpowder found themselves confronted with a new form of Darwinism: the commercial market. Modern martial arts have been selected for commercial viability after being imported from another time and place, their content filtered by cherry-picking foreigners. Are they worthy of our trust? Can we be confident that every one of our predecessors has been a responsible caretaker of these martial arts? I submit that we cannot, and that the world of martial arts can claim no better track record for authenticity than the average tourist market in China.

This has been the most demoralizing realization of my martial arts career.

 

What Does it Mean to be Authentic?

Let’s take a moment to critically examine the concept of authenticity. An authentic martial art is one which is what it claims to be, whether that claim is explicit or implicit. A martial art need not be traditional to be authentic, but it does need to be authentic in order to be traditional. I use this definition because it doesn’t require us to agree on what is valuable in a martial art. For example, there is nothing inauthentic about a modern martial sport like Western boxing, so long as its exponents don’t claim to represent anything more than a particular fisticuffs competition.

We cannot make blanket statements like “Martial art X is/isn’t authentic” without first clarifying the question. For example, if we ask: “Is Karate an authentic representation of the way that samurai fought?” then the answer is a resounding no. However, some types of Karate are representative of the way that some Okinawan peasants fought, so in that sense, those types of Karate are authentic. Thus the very same art may be considered authentic or inauthentic depending on the claims of its teachers. And it is these claims that are the source of inauthenticity, not the arts in themselves.

 

The Self-Taught Instructor and the Americanized Martial Art

When I began practicing martial arts, it didn’t occur to me to question their authenticity. I spent five years practicing an ill-defined system of Western swordsmanship, my first martial art. It wasn’t until I left that I realized that the instructor had been creating his own system as he went along. To make matters worse, the weapons that we practiced with were padded and unrealistic. No doubt this was for reasons of safety and cost, but it came at the expense of technique. There was nothing authentic about that class, and a self-taught instructor cannot claim to represent any authentic lineage.

That was a case of an instructor misleading his students, but in other cases, students have their own misguided expectations to blame. My first unarmed martial was Kenpo Karate, an odd mixture of influences which came to me through Ed Parker’s lineage. The teacher was a great motivator and storyteller, regaling his students with legends of famous martial artists. We heard about masters from all times and places, from ninjas and samurai to enlightened warrior-monks and the Boxer rebels. Almost none of these people were actually practicing Kenpo, but it didn’t matter. He made us feel connected to them anyway. Some of the more impressionable students even professed to adopt their values. But despite all of this motivational talk, we weren’t really learning the skills that we were romanticizing. We were only training one hour per week in an Americanized martial art.

I used to disdain Americanized martial arts, safe in the assumption that I was immune to that criticism. Later, I realized just how Americanized my Kenpo really was. The art had been intentionally and thoroughly changed on several occasions over the past century. The Kenpo that I studied wasn’t the art of ancient warriors; it was completely modern. What we learned wasn’t necessarily incorrect, but it was not at all representative of any premodern martial art. In this case, we were not misled by our instructor so much as our own misconceptions.

 

Broken Lineage

And then there is the problem of lineage. Any school which claims to teach a traditional martial art cannot be authentic without the appropriate pedigree. I recently found a school in my area offering instruction in Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu. The school teaches traditional martial arts using traditional teaching methods, and I came very close to enrolling. However, they traced their lineage back to Sugawara Tetsutaka, and my research gave rise to some uncomfortable questions.

A few decades ago, there was a famous split between the headmaster, Otake Risuke, and his student, Sugawara. Otake and Sugawara had a falling out, and Sugawara lost the right to teach the art. However, Sugawara continued teaching nonetheless. Sugawara is widely considered to be a qualified teacher, and was expected to receive the second of two teaching certifications from Otake. However, by losing the headmaster’s endorsement, Sugawara’s lineage lost its legitimacy. Naturally, some martial artists have accused Sugwara’s critics of splitting hairs.

Dr. Karl Friday, a historian and holder of menkyo kaiden in Kashima Shinryu, addressed the debate:

At a minimum, it’s inaccurate and just plain wrong to identify oneself as studying or having studied a koryû art, unless the ryûha headmaster would agree that this is in fact what you’ve been doing. Any other study of a ryûha’s arts needs to be called something else.

Dr. Friday’s full response is worth reading, and can be found here.

For this particular Katori Shinto Ryu class, its authenticity was dependent on Sugawara’s credentials. By itself, this would have been bad enough. But in addition to the issues with Sugawara’s lineage, the head teacher at this school wasn’t certified by anyone. Rather, he had spent seven years learning the art by training with a teacher who only came into town a few times per year.

Is this Katori Shinto Ryu? On a technical level, maybe it is. But Katori Shinto Ryu has a very clear requirement that teachers be certified and personally authorized by the headmaster. To bypass this requirement is to cherry-pick among the traditional elements of Katori Shinto Ryu, elements which have been passed down with the art for over five hundred years. It pains me to think that a student would be so presumptuous as to impose his own standards on such a relic, or so uncritical as to think that he is qualified to override the opinions of twenty generations of headmasters. In the case of koryu, authenticity is not merely a question of technique. Authenticity means abiding by all of the traditions of the art, especially those traditions regarding how the art is passed on to students.

 

Authenticity Among Dead Traditions

At this point, I hope that some of you have already spotted some holes in this idea of authenticity. Authenticity may be clean-cut when we’re dealing with disingenuous teachers or naive students, but some martial arts pose problems for a black and white distinction.

A plate from a 1606 Italian rapier manual by Salvator Fabris. Historical European martial arts are dependent on manuals like these.

Can dead traditions ever be considered authentic? The world of historical European martial arts grapples with this problem on a regular basis, as those arts are based on centuries-old martial arts manuals and other written records. For example, if I study a 17th century Italian rapier system, but my teacher had to teach himself using the primary sources, is that an authentic martial art? Certainly his sources are reliable, but every teacher must make his own interpretations and take liberties with the text. Furthermore, not all historical manuals train their readers to teach the system to others. Can we really say that these teachers can rightfully claim to be teaching 17th century Italian rapier?

Yet on the other hand, those manuals have been written by the masters themselves, not passed down orally over hundreds of years. Oral traditions have a tendency to distort ideas over time, whereas historical European martial arts have the rare privilege of seeing the exact words of the masters. With a careful and critical interpretation, the rapier teacher’s art could be considered more authentic than arts which lack the benefit of such a time capsule.

 

Conflicting Opinions

So far, we have mostly ignored the issue of technique. But in order to authentically represent a martial tradition, a martial artist cannot deviate too far from the technical norms of that tradition. However, this idea comes with its own problems.

What about those who can’t agree on proper form for their martial art? When I lived in Beijing, I studied with a Wing Chun teacher who routinely criticized other Wing Chun teachers for their improper form. He lamented that four years of his own training had been wasted on learning from just such a teacher.

In the case of Wing Chun, there is no single headmaster or organization to arbitrate these disputes. We are left to fend for ourselves, to grope in the dark for a working definition of “proper” or “correct.” At first glance, this seems to be as petty an issue as “to-may-to” and “to-mah-to,” neither possible to answer nor worth the effort to try. But though the search for correctness may be futile, it is not unimportant. When teachers of the same art declare each other’s technique to be ineffective, the seeds of doubt find a new and fertile home. No matter who I agree with, I have reason to fear that a more qualified teacher will one day tell me that my time has been wasted. And he may very well be right.

 

Authentic Legacies

Why does any of this matter? Is it relevant whether a martial art is authentic? If it works just as well, isn’t everything else secondary? I am actually quite sympathetic to this argument, and I would subscribe to it completely were it not for the following two problems.

First of all, we cannot make the assumption that an inauthentic martial art will not have lost some of its functionality. Let’s return for a moment to the Rolex analogy. Practical-minded buyers might say that there is no sense in demanding a real Rolex when the imitation performs the same function just as well. But, of course, on closer inspection we know that the Rolex will operate with far more precision than its doppelganger. For a wristwatch, the difference may be minute(forgive me), but for a martial art, subtle differences in technique or training may have grave consequences.

Second, we must dispense with the idea that we actually know how effective a martial art is before committing to the art in the long term. I discussed this subject in some detail in my earlier entry “Choosing a martial art: The fundamental problems. Choosing an art based on its effectiveness is akin to choosing a religion based on its likelihood of getting you into heaven. By the time you know whether your choice is right, it’s far too late to change your mind.

Since effectiveness cannot be part of our criteria, let’s turn our attention to those secondary concerns.

I want to practice the martial arts that I read about. If I take an interest in Taijiquan, I want to be able to practice that art. I don’t want to practice some New Age hybrid of Taiji, Yoga, and interpretive dance. If I learn about Katori Shinto Ryu, one of the oldest extant martial arts in the world, I don’t want to practice a modern variant or an off-brand imitation.

A fake Rolex may still tell the time, but that doesn’t make it a Rolex. I’d rather have a cheaper watch that can actually back up its claims.

You could say that I covet martial arts, perhaps just another object of desire for my modern materialism. But I want to practice the martial arts which have earned their reputations. These are the arts that have passed down fighting skills for centuries. These are the rare traditions which have not been adulterated by commercialism or modernity. While the frugal among us may choose the convenient imitation, that is not the stuff of history and legend. For the imitation is just that, a pale shadow of that which ignites our passion.

Why are you committed to a martial art? Have you made the decision by yourself? How has your identity as a martial artist been influenced by the expectations of others?

A teacher’s expectations are very powerful. When you want your teacher’s respect, you strive to meet them. You want to be the ideal student, the student who wants to master the art. The ideal student wants to spend his free time practicing, reading, and thinking about the art. The ideal student doesn’t just do these things; he wants to spend his time this way. If he doesn’t want to do these things, then he will need a huge amount of willpower to become a great martial artist.

In other words, the ideal student must hold a particular set of values. The ideal student’s values may be even more important than his actions, because values tend to determine actions.

Those of us who desire our teachers’ respect often find ourselves emulating the values of an ideal student. This is a subtle effect which can transform your life.

 

The Case of Charlie

Suppose there’s a student named Charlie. Charlie is a young, excitable new student of Taijiquan. Charlie’s Taiji teacher asks him whether he wants to be a master. Charlie says “Of course.” Who wouldn’t? The teacher says, in order to be a master, Charlie must train for many years, learn Chinese, study traditional Chinese medicine, and so on. Charlie nods and, without any real self-reflection, mentally commits himself to those things. He wants to be the type of person who would do these things. At this point, it’s just a nominal commitment, like agreeing to the terms and conditions for some new piece of software. As Charlie continues to train, that thought sits at the back of his mind as an unquestioned assumption: This is not only what Charlie is supposed to do; it’s what Charlie is supposed to want.

Over time, Charlie internalizes these values so much that he forgets where they came from. Charlie is young, and his identity is still in flux. Charlie’s identity forms around his teacher’s values, like words written in wet concrete.

By simply following his teacher’s expectations, Charlie has committed himself to Taiji. And he doesn’t realize this for a very long time.

 

Competing Values

As Charlie grows older, his values come into conflict with other sets of values. Charlie decides to pursue a career in business. The business world tells him that, in order to compete, Charlie needs to be spending his free time in ways that improve his career, like networking and learning new skills at home. He needs to really want to go the extra mile in order to distinguish himself. This is how Charlie should be spending his time, not practicing Taiji. The business world doesn’t care whether Charlie wants to be a Taiji master.

I have no idea what this chart means, but it has something to do with values.

And Charlie needs to manage his money. He needs to be spending less than he earns and wisely investing the difference. Charlie also needs to stay physically fit; he can’t spend all of his free time sitting around. Charlie needs to eat right: he needs more calcium, more iron, more fiber, more vitamins A, C, D, E, K, B1 through B12, but less food. He needs to get exactly 8 hours of sleep at night, have a good breakfast in the morning, and have paid off his mortgage by the time he’s 50.

Oh, Charlie.

Charlie is expected to have all of these values, but they must compete for his limited supply of willpower. When his values compete with one another, he has to re-evaluate his priorities. He has to ask: Are these really my values, or are these just the values that someone else wanted me to have? Do I want to be a Taiji master, or was that just something that I convinced myself to want in order to win my teacher’s respect?

Now his personal values start to make themselves known. As with anything, contrast leads to clarity.

 

Sacrifices

Charlie will have to realize that he can’t have everything. These demands are only placed on him because he wants so much. He wants to be a Taiji master, a CEO, a successful investor, a great husband, the model of fitness, and so on. But he can’t have it all. It’s easy to say that you shouldn’t give up on your dreams, but what do you do when two of your dreams are mutually exclusive?

These are the sacrifices you always hear about.

Charlie has to takes some time to reflect on what he really cares about. This is the sort of self-reflection that he should have done when he first adopted his teacher’s values. Better late than never, I suppose.

 

A Crisis of Values

It’s tough to determine which values that we adopt for personal reasons and which values we adopt in order to please an authority figure. Even our methods of thinking about this problem, of using reason, emotion, or anything else to justify our values, even this method could have been instilled by someone else.

It’s a turbulent process, reexamining your values. Values are the central component of identity. If your values are not your own, then can you really claim ownership of your own identity?

So Charlie begins to question his identity. Disillusioned and without a foundation, he casts off all of his values. He rejects them all in the hopes of discovering who he is when he isn’t conforming to someone else’s expectations. When he does so, he finds out which ideas still seem to appeal to him. This is the same process of rejection that the rebellious teenager goes through, and it ends the same way: with a new or reaffirmed sense of identity.

 

Role Models

The values that we adopt depend on our role models. Charlie committed to Taiji because his Taiji teacher was a role model. Authority figures are the most obvious role models, especially when they advocate for their own values. But in truth, everyone is a role model for the people around them. Everyone contributes to the communal idea of what “normal” is.

For example, if you ride a unicycle to work, you will contribute to the normality of riding a unicycle to work, as does every other person who does so. As more people follow suit, that action changes from an eccentricity to a characteristic of a subgroup, then eventually becomes mainstream.

This principle is the reason why communities are so effective at instilling values in their members. If you spend your time among a community of marathon runners, for example, you will find yourself valuing endurance, cardiovascular fitness, and so on. Within the community of runners, these values are normal. If you resist these values, then you may end up distancing yourself from the community.

We’re social creatures, which means that we may never be able to claim total ownership of our own identities. That also means that everyone in our lives places some sort of implicit demand on us.

How can Charlie take ownership of his commitment? Has Charlie really made a conscious decision to commit to his art, or was that decision made by his teachers and peers? Does the commitment require as much from Charlie if he lives among a community of Taiji practitioners?

 

Priorities

Fundamentally, this is an existentialist discussion. It’s based on the idea that every decision should be a conscious decision so that we can take ownership of our own lives. This discussion isn’t limited to martial arts; consciousness is important in all areas of life. But too many martial artists choose their arts arbitrarily or commit to them lightly.

Ask yourself: Have you committed to an art for your own reasons? Why have you chosen that art in particular? Have you always felt this way? How would you feel if you were isolated from your teacher and your community?

If your decisions are not your own, then maybe it’s time to reevaluate your priorities, and to assert your own identity as a martial artist.

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.