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Martial Arts and Philosophy

Questions about human motivation and where to look for answers

Jennifer Baker
Source: Jennifer Baker

In my ignorance, that of an (“unknown unknown”), I assumed academic philosophy and martial arts couldn’t have interacted much.

Kerry Howley’s critically-acclaimed novel Thrown makes brilliant use of that mix. I thought surely this was the first time that was done.

I mean, I had read philosopher John Doris thank his dojo in book acknowledgements; I knew philosopher Thomas Nadelhoffer ran a blog on martial arts; but these things were, I thought, unusual.

It turns out that there are more than a few philosophers who practice martial arts and there is some very good philosophy on the subject, some of it collected here. One of the chapters can be read online. It's by Gillian Russell, one of our top philosophers today. She uses examples from her own training to point out how "false beliefs" can play a role in even successful training. It's fascinating.

There is a Society for the Study of Philosophy and the Martial Arts. Here are just some of the papers being presented at their two sessions at the upcoming American Philosophical Association meeting.

“An Investigation of the Alignment of Various Theories of ‘Realization of the Self’ in Studies on Martial Art Practice with the SA/GC Paradigm”

“Female Fighting Force: Thinking about Common Attitudes and Forming a Better Ethical Foundation For Martial Practice”

“The Martial Arts as Liberatory Praxis: Paulo Friere and Martial Praxis”

It isn’t that surprising that I didn’t realize any of this was going on. I hadn’t even managed to keep up with my cousins’ big-time wrestling accomplishments. (One just got All-American while at Michigan last year. Once I finally watched a match on youtube, I couldn't stop watching. I had no idea humans could go at full power for that long, lift people up like that, or even move at that speed. It looked superhuman or CGI-enhanced.)

I can't even give myself credit for this: watching an interview of my cousin after a match, his eye red and cuts on his face, it wasn't really that I made the connection between wrestling and philosophy. He made it impossible to miss.

Happpiness and Meaning in Life

In class we had been reading philosophers on happiness and meaning in life. We were trying to be skeptical of the connections these authors were trying to make anyway. My cousin (with his face like that) telling a reporter that he wanted to take a break from wrestling because he wanted to “just be happy" became the perfect illustration of the idea that we can bring meaning to our life (through, for example, our achievements) but this isn’t the same thing as happiness.

As philosopher Susan Wolf points out, we are pretty careless in how we talk about good lives. Pinterest pins artfully tell us to “pursue our passion” as if that is the secret. Maybe we are supposed to assume there's more to happiness than success in pursuit of something. We certainly know some successful people are miserable. But I'd guess most of us don't think too critically about these things.

What does pursuing a passion, with all the blood and pain involved in doing that properly, add to our lives? Beyond the obvious “passion,” that is. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that the passionate don’t know what they are after. How are we to talk about how these pursuits fit with a life’s meaning, satisfaction, and happiness? It doesn't seem like that work has been finished.

Thrown by Kerry Howley

An unforgettable way to pose these questions can be found in Kerry Howley’s first novel, Thrown. Is there such a thing as better reviews than these? It’s lyrical, deep, clever, enjoyable. It’s a real work of genius.

The set-up is that a philosophy graduate student leaves an academic conference to wander the hotel and runs into a small-scale MMA match. Watching her first match is described like this:

"With each precisely timed shot to his own mouth, Sean's smile grew, as if The Fire were carving that smile into him. All the while, watching, I had the oddest feeling of cloudiness momentarily departing. It was as if someone had oil-slicked my synapses, such that thoughts could whip and whistle their way across my mind without the friction I'd come to experience as thought itself. I felt an immense affection for the spectacle before me..."

She decides the right place to do philosophy is alongside the MMA crowd, and leaves her program to follow and report on two of the fighters. (Howley’s description of the bloodless, “gray-faced” academics hits close to home!)

This student is the narrator, and her interest in precise language and analysis is such a funny contrast to her being rather self-unaware. She is also a fish out of water around the fighters she follows and reports on. Her aim? To discover the nature of "ecstatic experience." That is this novel’s explanation for why people train so hard to fight for such short periods with such intensity. The fighters featured in the book make it clear that they don’t compete for money, life stability, not even pride.

It really does seem the “martial arts” are a place to look to help us figure what we are missing when we describe people as living lives for reasons that only seem obvious.

My cousin, a happy guy by any single measure imaginable, is, of course, now training for the UFC.