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Philosophy Is Often Too Weak

I picked up this book at the library last year and forgot to review it.  Such a great title: Martial Arts and Philosophy Beating and Nothingness, Edited by Graham Priest and Damon Young,  Vol. 53 in the Popular Culture and Philosophy® series.  

The sad truth is, I rarely find philosophy compelling.  I very much like live discussions where (my) ideas become the center of attention, so when philosophy is a voice in the mix it's fun. Nothing in this book struck me as novel or stimulating until yesterday when a student of mine graciously sent me a link to an article from the book.  In the context of a student taking an interest in the specific arguments of Gillian Russell I suddenly had a reason to reflect more deeply on them.

Here is the article.

And here is my response:  

If a person doesn't know the historical and religious origins of martial arts it is pretty easy to make unending categorical errors about the purpose of training, and to completely miss the fruition of practice.  If Gillian Russell were to come to class I think her mind would be blown.  If a person is completely unaware of what the fruition of weakness might be, how can he or she be expected to recognize that fruition when it appears?  If her methods require strength, then she is in a self-referential loop.  Are there really no down sides to strength in her experience? or is she simply ashamed of her own natural strength limitations?  
When we truly accept who and what we are, and appreciate our true nature the way it is--the result is freedom.  Why would we want to cover that up with strength unless we feared it?  (Or even weakness for that matter, as she laments a fellow student --and wannabe qi jock-- did.) 
Because we, as human beings, have yet to find the limits of what are, every method we teach is wrong.  Or rather, a method is only right in a particular context at a particular time to the degree which it serves to reveal something true.  Methods always have some fruition, the two are inseparably linked, but the fruition is not always what we expect.  We can never truly know the fruition of someone else's practice or what views they hold about themselves and the world.  We can only know what they communicate to us. 


As a footnote I would like to add that I often encounter martial artists that believe what they have been taught was the method itself; that a given method is the correct way to stand or move or execute a technique.  There are only three methods I'm aware of in which the method is the same as the fruition.  They are wildness, stillness, and emptiness.  Everything else is preliminary or apophatic.  Everything else is wrong.


Also as a footnote, because I mentioned philosophy, I have to say how disgusted I am by a show on NPR called "Philosophy Talk."  Their bad tasting tag line is, "We question everything except your intelligence."  Really?  Well it doesn't pan out because the hosts are so narrow minded and limited in their experience of both the real world and ideas that even when there is an interesting guest or topic they seem to squash it with their own pontificating.  Yesterday they were talking about the recent Citizen's United Decision of the Supreme Court of the United States.  They were completely oblivious to the pro-commerce arguments which obviously informed the majority of the court.  


OK, since I seem to be in a confrontational mood, perhaps bought on by the large amount of time I've been spending around baby goats these last few weeks, please send me any and all links to books or articles about philosophy which you think might stimulate my horns to grow.  Thanks for listening.



Reader Comments (4)

Hey Scott-
I can't resist commenting more on this...
What I initially got from the article was “Don't believe everything your Sensei tells you.” But to refine that a little more, one should be neither too gullible (believing blatantly untrue statements) nor too close-minded (rejecting true statements, in the belief that they are untrue.) The second problem reminds me of a gardener uprooting valuable plants thinking that they are weeds.

I know that there have been instances where I have trustingly believed claims that later seemed to be dubious at best... but there have also been instances where I was extremely skeptical of something, which was later proved to be true. This also can tie in with “weakness:” In a martial arts class that I used to attend, I was struggling with a particular technique, a throw. I became convinced that it was not working because I was simply not strong enough to pull it off. (Note that my training partners were all physically stronger than I was, and had been instructed to give realistic resistance.) My teacher kept saying that it wasn't about strength-- he thought that my problems with the technique were “psychological.” Well, after long and painful practice, not really knowing what I was doing, I changed some subtle details about how I moved and positioned myself, and I was able to do the technique after all. So my teacher was right about about strength not being the deciding factor.

(I won't say that size doesn't matter- once, in a demonstration, I was supposed to do a Judo-type throw on a classmate who's quite strong and stands over a foot taller than me. Well, I successfully brought him down- but I brought myself down at the same time. We BOTH fell down. That probably wouldn't have happened if there was less of a size disparity-- but it's also quite likely that my positioning and timing were a bit off, and were the real reasons that technique failed.)

Back to the article- I easily could see a person becoming like “Kenji”- the hypothetical martial artist who practices (and teaches) a style of kick that is useless and probably harmful, because of an emotional attachment to the style. However, I would not want to train with “Tenji”- the supposed clear-eyed realist who is inventing his own martial art from scratch.


June 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLexi

Well, at the risk of side tracking my own post, I think beauty is more important than truth when discussing martial arts. As Elaine Scary explained, our notions of justice flow from the mistakes we have made about beauty. There are two types of mistakes: 1) Thinking something isn't beautiful, isn't worth learning, protecting, or even looking at, and later realizing it is beautiful and you have been missing it all along, wasting your life away with out this particular experience of beauty. 2) Thinking something is beautiful and investing time, effort, care, consideration, love and passion, only to realize later that it wasn't really beautiful at all.
Some mistakes are worth making, some just feel like a waste of time. Our only hope is to keep checking the world around us to see if it is beautiful, right now!

June 28, 2012 | Registered CommenterScott Park Phillips

I have encountered a teacher who, though extraordinarily talented as a martial artist and knowledgeable about the tradition he represented, was very authoritarian in his teaching style. The only acceptable response to his instructions was “Hai, Sensei” (Yes, Teacher.) He would be very upset if he suspected a student was so much as contemplating disagreeing with something that he said in class. (whether it pertained to technique, philosophy, or something else.) Perhaps as a reaction against my experience with that teacher, I am probably now EVEN MORE likely to question things that I am told.

I am still reluctant to dismiss things out of hand- I don't want to “throw the baby out with the bath water.”

A martial art tradition that has had many generations to develop, is bound to have a kind of “richness.” “Tenji's” new system might have the “martial,” but it probably wouldn't have the “art.” (It also might be overly-specific to the founder's specific needs, and his own strengths and weaknesses.)

As a side note to your side note: as an artist, I am most interested in “beauty” when it occurs in unexpected places. Many things turn out to be beautiful if they are just looked at in the right way.

June 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLexi

Hi Scott
my personal recommendation for philosophical reading would be Gregory Bateson's 'Where Angels Fear'. Its been some years since I read it so I won't try to summarise it. His book 'Mind and nature' is also excellentTo me his style resembled that of a Zen teacher. He was very good at using stories, metaphors, poetry etc to draw out examples of how learning could take place. If I understood him corrently, he also emphasised the importance of developing different styles of learning and thinking. Learning to learn in other words. For example he pointed out that people often imagine that numbers relate only to quantity and things. However numbers are also about quality (relationships between variables), beauty (there are such things as ugly or clumsy models) and also developing better models of reality (whatever that is). Using numbers as quantity only generates differnet undersntadings to using numbers in other ways.

The best introduciton ot him is to read the metalogues with his daughter in the introduciton to 'Steps to an Ecology of Mind'. They are short and if they appeal, then so will he. If you don't get them, then he may not be your cup of tea.

July 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkevin

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