Authors talk about exciting new book Philosophy and the Martial Arts

Graham Priest and Damon Young talk to us about their forthcoming book Philosophy and the Martial Arts. They tell us why this book this book needed to be written and what they hope readers will take away from reading it. Click here to view the full interview

You both practice and have experience in the martial arts but what led you to writing the book together?

A combination of passion and curiosity. We discovered as colleagues, some years ago, a common interest in the martial arts. Damon was writing an essay on courtesy in the Japanese martial arts (included in this volume), and Graham was interested in the links between Zen Buddhism and karate-do.

We organised two conferences on this (held at the University of Melbourne), and edited a volume of essays for a general audience: Martial Arts and Philosophy: Beating and Nothingness. We decided fairly early on that we also wanted to develop a more academic volume, for professional philosophers and postgraduates.

Why did Philosophy and the Martial Arts need to be written?

We were convinced, as philosophers and martial artists, that there were profound and fruitful connections between the two practices. While there have certainly been some fine writings on the topic, we wanted to offer readers the first definitive volume; to put the territory of martial arts on the philosophical map, so to speak.

Why is understanding the relationship between philosophy and the martial arts so significant?

The insights can be divided into two parts: from philosophy, and for philosophy.

In the first, we use philosophical ideas and analysis to comprehend more clearly the martial arts. For example, is it virtuous to practice violence? If so, why? Might some martial arts encourage credulity and malice? What kinds of experiences (e.g. of self) are involved in martial athleticism, and do they vary in different traditions? In what ways are martial arts ‘arts’, and not something else?

In the second, we use the martial arts as case studies to afford philosophical insights. For example, does pain, and its positive role in certain arts, suggest the need for a reevaluation of disutility in utilitarianism? Can the Buddhist ‘selflessness’ of some martial arts shed light on recent phenomenological conceptions of experience? Do the martial arts require a broadening of the concept of ‘art’?

The point is that, as practices, philosophy and the martial arts can learn a great deal from one another.

What can philosophical reflection teach us about the martial arts?

To take one important example, many karate schools advertise the ‘peaceful warrior’ ideal, in which training in the martial arts necessarily encourages good character.

Philosophical analysis reveals that the situation is more complicated. In her essay, Gillian Russell argues persuasively that training in the martial arts might legitimately be characterised as an education in evil – if by ‘evil’ we mean the removal of normal psychological barriers to doing harm. Simon Roberts-Thomson sounds a similar warning, noting at one point that many touted benefits of martial arts – like confidence, hopefulness – can equally be part of a bad character.

The point is not that the martial arts cannot have a good influence on us – both authors concede that this might be true in many cases – but that this claim has to be treated in a very careful way if it is to stand up to scrutiny.

How is the field evolving?

This field is very much in its infancy, so it is difficult to generalize. But we can use this volume as a good starting point. Philosophy and the Martial Arts contains a variety of philosophical perspectives, styles and theories. In this sense, the martial arts provide a common ground upon which various philosophical schools and positions can communicate. Our hope is that the field will continue to demonstrate this diversity. We also believe that philosophers will combine their intellectual traditions with insights from other disciplines – including history, psychology, sociology, physiology, neuroscience – as they have in this collection.

How does your book differ from other books in the field?

There are many fine books that reflect on the virtues and history of martial arts, usually written for a general audience. (We have edited one ourselves.) Philosophy and the Martial Arts is the first volume of its kind: reflections on philosophy and the martial arts, written by practitioners of both, for an academic audience.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

We believe that the martial arts are philosophically valuable practices, which reward rigorous inspection. Our hope is that scholars will come away from the volume agreeing with this position, if not with the content of each chapter.

What has practicing martial arts taught you?

Damon has reflected on the educational benefits of karate in his youth, including patience, appropriate respect for demonstrated authority, and honesty about failure – benefits that later aided his philosophical training. There are also potential broader character benefits, which Damon outlines in his essay in this volume and elsewhere. Graham has also learnt the things just mentioned, as well as the stupidity of unnecessary violence (physical, emotional, psychological). Better to be at peace. He reflects on some of the Buddhist connections in his essay in the volume.

  • Philosophy and the Martial Arts


    Edited by Graham Priest, Damon Young

    This is the first substantial academic book to lay out the philosophical terrain within the study of the martial arts and to explore the significance of this fascinating subject for contemporary philosophy. The book is divided into three sections. The first section concerns what philosophical…

    Paperback – 2014-09-26
    Ethics and Sport