Here's an article by the University of Melbourne philosophy professor and poet Damon Young (who did actually write a book called Beating and Nothingness),defending martial arts against those that would dismiss all fighting as mere savagery:
What do you readers think of this connection? Personally, I'm resistant to it. Yes, exercise is in pretty much all cases beneficial, and I don't deny the artistic aspect, or its ability to channel physical aggression. The activity is fine in itself, and I find Young's claims in this article pretty uncontroversial.
...But does the activity enhance philosophy? Being well-rounded (not wholly and constantly examined) is all well and good, so certainly martial arts are as compatible with philosophy as many other activities, but do martial philosophers have an advantage over non-martial philosophers? Certainly the activity doesn't make one in any way philosophical; no one's claiming that all fighters are philosophers.
Now, I did martial arts for many years as a kid, and I currently participate in a sort of boot camp at a martial arts center (aimed at fitness, not really technique). Yes, I see the Zen-like concentration thing, the controlling your body as controlling your mind. In my case, I also see my fitness regimen as a private hell that I only put up with because it's preferable to turning into a giant slug and because for logistic reasons it works in better with my life than alternative exercise regimens. When I'm kicking the bag 200 times or jumping back and forth over a line, I do my best to turn my brain off. The activity makes me bleary rather than focused, and I'm desperate for anything (the usually dreadful music playing, the bodies of those around me) that might distract me from my personal discomfort.
So I'm prejudiced right now given how atypical and unmartial my particular participation in this sport is, and purely on aesthetic grounds the thought of someone who's trained up to be a black belt in whatever walking around thinking he's an ubermensch a la Kevin Kline's character in A Fish Called Wanda makes my physically ill. I also can't say I'm in general a fan of physical confrontation as sport. If some dudes want to take the ball that way, my instinct is to let them, or help them out, or ask them what's up rather than jumping in their way to stop them. The actual fighting part of martial arts, or boxing, or wrestling, is pretty grotesque and foreign to me at least: a drug that I have no wish to take.
So, what's it gonna be? Is there something to this, or is a Zen and the Art of Philosophy approach a load of pretentious douchebaggery? Share your experiences and cool things you've read!
Daniel Horne says
Could you be more specific with the question you’re posing? I’m not sure what to make of the question “does the activity enhance philosophy,” because
(1) I don’t see Young making this assertion, and
(2) we’d have to first define
(a) the “activity” in question (olympic wrestling or MMA brawling?), and
(b) what constitutes a “philosophy”
The boiled-down thesis I see from Young’s article is this, “But in the right school and style, martial arts can complement good character.” (I can criticize _that_ statement plenty, by the way, but I’m not sure if it’s that statement which you found interesting.)
But I don’t see Young outright asserting that “martial arts enhances philosophy”. And if he’s citing Plato in favor of that assertion (I’m not sure that he is), then he would be misquoting Plato. Plato recommended wrestling to “masters and scholars” of his ideal (proto-fascist) state for the sake of health, not to enhance philosophy.
Anyway, I may be misunderstanding your question. Could you perhaps re-phrase?
Mark Linsenmayer says
I’m trying to solicit interesting stories in this general area, not pose a specific question to debate or defend a specific thesis.
I’m interested here in the relations between mental and physical activity, on physical competitiveness and how that relates to mental competitiveness, and how Eastern disciplines of the body do or don’t have the capability to help you have a mind that cuts steel.
I’m ambivalent about the whole issue, generally coming down on the unathletic geek side but also recognizing the value of feeling good physically to overall emotional well-being including ones interest in and ability to philosophize.
Kyle Walton says
I get the feeling that Young is conflating violence and competitiveness. Whenever I think of violence, it is always accompanied by some notion that, whoever its being done upon, finds it unwarranted, out of context, or cruel. But with mixed martial arts and other forms of fighting, there’s a social context this takes place in that I think deprives it of that connotation.
I’m also not sure that martial arts have any advantage over simply competitive sports, or even just personal exercise. I know several of my professors enjoy jogging or running but I’ve never heard them say that it helps them focus.
And as far as personal anecdotes go, I only get little moments of understanding when I am doing something completely unrelated like taking a shower or washing dishes.
I have to say that I’m at least a little dubious of the claim that there’s a specific advantage here, other than, as Mark said, feeling well overall.
Daniel Horne says
Cool. For what it’s worth, I’ll share my experience. Like you, I practiced martial arts (taekwondo) for many years as a kid/teenager. Later, in college, I took up full-contact karate (Kyokushin) for a little while when living in Japan. While living in Denver, I returned to a Kyokushin-variant, taught by a former All-Japan full-contact champion. Some bullet points of my own conclusions:
– Eastern martial arts can, over years, help you develop a _body_ that will perform some amazing feats. E.g., breaking baseball bats, or wooden boards, or massive blocks of ice, etc. There is some mental conditioning, of course, but I saw the overwhelming benefit of karate to be physical conditioning. The very best karateka I saw were capable of amazing physical feats, not necessarily mental ones.
– I wonder if a better school (or martial art) isn’t a better fit for what you’re trying to achieve. I worry that with words like “private hell,” “bleary,” “desperate,” “dreadful,” “discomfort,” etc., you’re not enjoying the experience as much as you could be. There are other arts you might try that are less “aggro,” and more explicitly philosophical. Tai chi, for instance, has strong Taoist aspects, and kendo (Japanese fencing) has strong Zen aspects. I find aikido a little kooky, but good friends I respect derive much pleasure and benefit from aikido practice.
– By coincidence, there’s a fairly prominent Kendo teacher (former UW prof) who still heads a Kendo club in Madison. Here’s a book of his on Kendo:
I’m not sure if you’d consider kendo a martial art (for your purposes), but it has the strongest philosophical inclinations of all the Japanese martial arts I’ve encountered. Whether that inevitably collapses into pretentious douchebaggery, I’ll let you decide.
– I found Japanese karate instructors to be no more philosophically inclined than you or I. Given the relatively low socio-economic status and educational background of most Japanese karate instructors (as opposed to philosophy professors or buddhist monks), they are not generally perceived as having unique philosophical insights, even by their students. Even the most disciplined and devoted Japanese students (uchideshi) I encountered looked to their sensei for technical guidance, but not spiritual or philosophical guidance.
– While I gained much from practicing karate, I gained no particular philosophical insight. I did become less foolish about some things, however. And it got me into weightlifting, which has, for better or worse, outlived my interest in karate.
– Regular physical fitness at a good dojo (or gym) will increase physical health, and thereby mental acuity. But I don’t think those benefits are unique to Eastern martial arts. I suspect any regular activity that requires one to develop complex physical dexterity would do the same thing.
– A great book on boxing: AJ Liebling’s The Sweet Science:
Luis Acosta says
It might benefit to define some terms here. From what you are describing your current fitness regime, it is less martial art than (i hope i’m getting the Greek right) a simply physical agon. The most useful definition of martial art i have been a able to come with is two-fold. One part is that it has a methodological basis for selection of techniques, the proper mindset to adopt when facing a situation, methods of thought, concepts it emphasizes and in some cases even a moral dogma. The second is that it has a tradition. Almost universally this is shown through lineage but has most to do with something akin to institutional memory, that is the combined experiences of the people who have added to the canon of techniques, emphasized certain aspects over others or introduces new concepts.
One point to note is that all this sounds like just about any formal ideological tradition, philosophy not excluded. The difference is that martial arts has an emphasis on fighting while philosophy has an emphasis on questioning, at least in the negative (i dare say yang) aspect. Both fighting and questioning are destructive ways to go about things which is why both martial arts and philosophy do not just stop there but continue to positive (ying) aspects namely the building up of stronger ideologies that can sustain criticism with philosophy and stronger bodies and minds that can win fights with martial arts.
I think i should note that like philosophy, martial arts if done dogmatically and by idiots with little mindfulness of what they do will result in rather silly outcomes. Which is in my opinion exactly what happens with most philosophy.
On a personal note i have been interested in martial arts from the time i was wee child. Since that time i have practiced various arts including Soo Bahk Do, Tai Chi, Shaolin Kung Fu, Escrima, Ninjutsu and a smattering of other styles. From observing practitioners of those arts and the style themselves i have seen a wide variety of variations. I have done endless hours of form practice, honed my technique and power and been clueless as to why i do the forms anymore if got what they have to offer. I have been utterly bored learning some very interesting kung fu. I have laughed the entire time i was getting my ass kicked by a ninjutsu master. The realization that most often strikes is that while some arts may have better methodologies and a better base of tradition to work out of, the factor that matters is the superior student that is able to take that methodology and tradition, digest it and integrate it to his life within his own context, producing a superior outcome by cutting away the BS that has accumulated in the art and keeping the golden teachings.
If all that sounded preachy then a major apology for the following. I think i have been greatly improved as a person by some of the episodes of mental and physical stress my job has put me through (soldier.) But the only exercise routines that worked, consistently, for me where the self motivated ones that where fairly light on overall discomfort. From personal opinion, i have seen some of that martial arts boot camp stuff and found it to be generally crap. If you want a good workout, i recommend buying a couple kettle bells, some resistance chords and good running shoes and searching around the internet for a crossfit routine that appeals to you. If you feel up to it hire a trainer for a couple a sessions and pick their mind for effective routines. Do not mean to bash whatever you are participating in, it might even be pretty good, but IMO it is mostly gimmicky crap.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Very nice. I knew we had to have some bad-ass philosophizing fighters reading this. Luis, thanks for your insight. Daniel, you should write a little review of the boxing book if you feel like it. Thanks to you both for your recommendations.
On Kyle’s point about competitiveness vs. violence, it seems like the line gets thin just by the nature of our physicality. If you go in there and do your best to beat on someone, then even if it’s an agreed-upon battle, with safety gear and an appropriate weight class match-up, so there’s no injustice involved, I find it hard to believe that you’re not dipping into that same dark place from which comes all ass kicking. When I did karate as a kid, it seemed very almost ballet-oriented, what with the katas as working on form and strength, and my inability to really get into the spirit of sparring prohibited me from wanting to go beyond a certain point with it. Trying during class to get my fist or foot past someone’s guard to lightly brush up against someone’s stomach or into the empty air a couple of inches in front of someone’s face was fine, but that approach didn’t seem to translate well into how the tournaments actually worked, which were a little more like “Karate Kid” than I was comfortable with.
Luis Acosta says
When it comes to dipping into that deep dark place from which all ass kicking comes from, i think that theres more than one place that comes from. To do a pseudo-freudian analysis on this, most people seem to be motivated by either desire or fear in most fighting. Desire translates into aggression, the ” i want to win” feeling. Fear translates into anger, the ” i do no want to lose” feeling. They manifest in similar manner, can switch between the other, but there are subtle tells like focus and recklessness that generally accompany them. This is more than an academic distinction as reading your opponent is pretty important.
But the most fulfilling fights i have had are not motivated by anger or aggresion. They are consensual, close match ups of skill with opponents who understand each other, can give as good as they take for as long as they can and are motivated by a desire to improve yourself and your opponent. This is going to sound strange, but they are a lot like sex (the post-fight endorphin and adrenaline rush is not quite an orgasm but stacks up pretty well.)
I feel i should bring up a major bone of contention between two schools of thought in martial arts, namely “Martial Art” vs “Martial Sport.” Martial Art proponents think of it as simply contact ballet and are all about aesthetic form and keeping the tradition alive. Martial Sport proponents are all about the competition and would say something like “Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” The dialogue between them is as aggravating as dogmatic atheists and deists. The dichotomy is generally alive concurrently even within single systems, which you pointed out as the difference between sparring on the dojo floor and at a tournament. Most styles have never really been able to solve the internal contradiction without just throwing the other camp out of their association and calling theirs the “pure” art or sport. That and political struggles within the hierarchy is the reason why there are a million styles and half that many practitioners.
Pardon a longish comment and this initial grand generalization: let us consider that the standard philosophical model is of a sensing, thinking self in relation to a world of external events, a relation that is remarkably passive and neutral to an external world, Noumena, the world-as-it-is, whatever it’s called, that is all stuff in movement, stuff out there.
What if the world of external events included other selves too? If there might be a martial philosophy, then it would be one where the external world is one where elements of it might aggress directly at the philosophizing thinking self. This is a world that is not neutral at all, one that can on occasion, bite. Think of it as a kind of philosophy tinged with mortality and the need, the responsibility to maintain self preservation.
Fundamentally, the concept of the enemy is what seems to be at issue here. Is there an existent philosophical tradition of agonistics? I know that this is not a popular idea for those of us who are products of liberal education, the idea that one would anticipate conflict with fellow mankind is naturally repugnant to us. Witness Fukuyama’s End of History and the Last Man thesis, the idea that conflict is over when everyone is on the same rational, civilizational page. The assumption seems to be that rationality can no longer be perverted, that civilization comes free of internal strife. That was written at the same time Al Queda was increasing its operational tempo.
There is a book that I can think of, the only one that is specific to this subject, one that treats the problem of what the author calls “forgetfulness”. It’s Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History by Lee Harris. I would guess that this book would infuriate most or perhaps all of this audience, my fellow liberal friends. However, I am indeed sincerely interested in some feedback on this particular book from the sages of PEL, whom I now like to refer with affection to as my personal Supreme Court of Philosophy. Yes, Lee Harris is nominally right wing, a promoter of the Tea Party and he writes for Policy Review, but The Next Stage, I believe, is worth a critical shakedown and I am very interested to see what you guys make of it. Harris constructs quite an argument and he takes some surprising twists and turns along the way.
(Personal note: I am open to this line of thinking probably because I grew up in a military family and served in the Navy before moving on to two degrees in the arts afterwards. Admittedly, integrating these two different worlds has been a soft preoccupation of mine.)
Here are a few excerpts from the first pages of Civilization and Its Enemies:
Damon Young says
G’day folks. This is a great conversation. I thought I’d add my ten cents’ worth.
Daniel’s first point is spot on. In this Herald column, I’m not arguing that MA aided my philosophical education (although I have argued this elsewhere). Instead, I’m using Plato as a precedent (the two pursuits aren’t in conflict), and then as a suggestion: perhaps the martial arts can cultivate certain virtues. And, yes: Plato does see wrestling as a metaphor for moral struggles, and as a way to keep healthy, but in Laws he certainly doesn’t argue for its ethical value.
Kyle, I’m not conflating competitiveness and violence. I mean violence: physical force, aimed at an opponent. This is one of the the very things that differentiates martial arts from other sports and crafts.
Louis, I agree with your methodological point – it works for philosophy and fighting, to my mind. And this point is very, very well put: “But the most fulfilling fights i have had are not motivated by anger or aggresion. They are consensual, close match ups of skill with opponents who understand each other, can give as good as they take for as long as they can and are motivated by a desire to improve yourself and your opponent. This is going to sound strange, but they are a lot like sex (the post-fight endorphin and adrenaline rush is not quite an orgasm but stacks up pretty well.)”
For my part, I do believe my martial arts training helped to cultivate various virtues, moral and intellectual. But perhaps I was more in need of these – others gained them at school, or in the home. I don’t think this is a mechanical process – obviously it depends a great deal on character and circumstance, to say nothing of the nature of the school and teacher. (The empirical work on this is slim, but growing. One conclusion is that the more traditional martial arts can encourage pro-social behaviour.)
Apologies if I can’t keep up with the debate, though. I write a lot, and I can’t keep tabs on every comments page. But I appreciate the tone and tenor of this one. Thanks for keeping it civilised, all.
Josh Davis says
Sweet post, Mark. I’ll take this opportunity to put in my two cents. When two people actually have a physical altercation, unless it’s in the context of sport, it’s a lose-lose. It means someone wasn’t “playing the game” correctly. Human interactions involving aggression are counterintuitive in the sense that timidity is not always the safest policy. In fact, it can be a downright dangerous policy, and I find that I get by just fine 99.9 percent of the time without there being any real danger of a fight, despite the fact that I live in seedy Port Charlotte, based on the fact that I’m not a timid person. (I’ll resist the urge to relate stories from my childhood.) All in all, I believe that it’s unhealthy to be the sort of person who is “totally unwilling to fight.” Every person has to draw a line somewhere and say, “at such and such a point, negotiations are off, and it’s goin down.”
Reminds me of a (sad) story I saw on TV. A guy and his girlfriend were hiking, and an adolescent bear started stalking them. The bear eventually ends up mauling his girlfriend while he “goes for help”. Prime example of unhealthy. By the way, in man vs bear confrontations, “bear spray” is the best policy. If bear spray is not available, then standing your ground is probably the best policy.
I did a lot of martial arts when I was younger, and the one thing that struck me was that it calmed down the more aggressive types and brought out the timid ones. I think that both aggressive and timid behavior are responses to underlying insecurities and that it’s the martial arts’ ability to address these issues that results in beneficial changes in people’s character.
Where a martial art might contribute towards one’s ability to philosophize is in promoting critical thinking by giving you (sometimes painful) immediate feedback. If you go sparring without thinking, you’ll get your ass kicked, and if you think too much, then you’ll also get your ass kicked. You can’t kid yourself in these circumstances; you have to face up to reality, figure out your limitations and work to improve on them.
Pardon me, my friends, if I replace the point that the most interesting philosophical aspect of the martial arts is about the concept of the enemy.
One retort to the willingness to conceptualize the nature of an enemy might sound like this:
The equation between enemies and hatred appeals to common sense. This Gandhi-like response would be compelling if the overbearing nation state was one such as England, one with a tradition of defending freedom which in time would overcome a colonialist legacy, soiled as it may be. It is an open question whether China will evolve into a nation which will defend democracy and freedom or one which reflexively crush dissent with an authoritarian fist. This equation makes sense for those who initiate the designation of the enemy. But it breaks down when one is the designee.
If China devolves into a brutal, authoritarian state, what recourse does the peace loving have? To repeat the point of Lee Harris: one can be willing not to have enemies, but what if one is designated an enemy instead? Can someone legitimately maintain such a position? If someone identifies you as an enemy, you can be as free from hatred all you want, but now you still have an enemy despite all the philosophy and altruism in the world. I hope with all my heart that China will not bring this eventuality to bear with more oppression of dissent, but this is the open question of our time in China, Burma, the Middle East and beyond: can hostility always be countered with goodwill? Can hatred always be dispelled with love?