Common Sense Filters and Critical Thinking in Martial Arts
Life constantly provides us with information. As a premise, this seems irrefutable and logical. For example, if we study a subject, we obtain more information about that subject. Does this mean that we actually learn more, or simply that we have more information about it? What we do with that information, how we process it and interpret it, is ultimately governed by a myriad of combining processes which are biologically, psychologically and socially based. Each of us have individual variances, filters if you like, which consciously or unconsciously interact, influencing our evaluation and therefore our representation of the received sensory information. Quite simply, two people receiving the same information may come to two very different conclusions as to what it means. The real question here is, can then one conclusion ‘truer’ than the other?
The logical people approaching this question will immediately provide an answer of, well if the information evidences and supports the conclusion then it’s true. For much of physical science this accepted fact. If we can evidence a process, say a reaction between two base elements occurring when they meet, and this reaction statistically occurs more often than not, we would be correct in concluding that there is a clear and proven relationship between the two. There is a causal link. The reaction is caused by the interaction of the elements. Whilst there are exceptions and this is a very simple example, generally speaking physical science is concerned with what we can prove or can’t prove (inductive logic) and the application of these conclusions (deductive logic). However in social sciences there is a much greater opportunity for less empirical and more creative interpretation of information. Indeed physical science is not without opportunity for bias and skewed interpretation of results, however agreed physical laws do tend to prevail. Social sciences however are often much more subjectively based, with information being interpreted on slightly more tenuous observations and individualised theories. As a quick example, just consider for a second how many religious and political parties currently exist. All of these ‘groups’ you’ve identified essentially interpret the same information (that being the ‘human experience’) using applying different filters and resulting in different ideologies.However (and regardless of popular support) what actual evidence is there to support the original premises on which these theories are based? Indeed can some of these premises ever truly be objectively proven or disproven?
To place this issue into the context of martial arts, particularly traditional martial arts, this issue of subjective interpretation becomes even more apparent. The study of martial arts can provide us with a variety of fantastic individual benefits, physical, emotional and spiritual.Taken as a whole, the field of martial arts study also provides us a great microcosmic view of wider society. They can provide an opportunity to look at something small and potentially identify social concepts and processes, and help us better recognise and understand how these apply and exist in a broader and more general context. This article is essentially concerned with highlighting the need for critical thinking filters in the martial arts, essentially how we collate and interpret the information we receive. The principles discussed are as relevant to wider society as they are to the specific field of martial arts practice.
The issue of thinking (and more importantly critical thinking) is a massive area of social, psychological and philosophical study. Even a relaxed, gentle exploration into the subject will present philosophical, sociological and psychological rabbit holes for you to go into and potentially get lost in too. As a logical beginning, we are going to start this particular investigatory process by looking at a small philosophical issue which sits at the heart of not only some academic studies, but also the study and practice of martial arts.
Whilst the French mathematician and scientist Rene Descartes (1596-1650), considered to be the first modern philosopher, is widely misquoted as saying “Cogito ergo sum” or “I think, therefore I am.” (the actual quote is slightly more embellished, wordier and significantly longer) the study of human thinking can be traced further back to antiquity of human history. In western philosophy Socrates (470 - 399 BCE) is widely regarded as the one of the founder members. Pre-socratic philosophy was essentially the philosophy of nature. Philosophers prior to Socrates questioned the world around them, seeking more rational explanations to life than the simple premise that all things in the natural world could be attributed to the ancient Greek gods. Pre-socratic philosophers were considered to be mostly concerned with describing nature mathematically(1) and “cosmological and physical speculation” (2)
The appearance of the Athenian philosopher, Socrates, presented a radical shift in philosophical ideology and principles. Socrates was much more concerned with the human experience, with a focus on morality, ethics (what made a good life), social and political questions.(3) Socrates sought to get others to consider how they thought. He encouraged individuals to understand themselves more deeply. He considered that the actions and behaviour of an individual were directly linked to their intelligences and ignorances. He focused individuals on their personal development as opposed to material acquisition. Through use of dialogue and questioning he sought to get others to understand the difference between their own good and bad behaviours and expose the contradictions in the way people thought.(4) Socrates was a little ahead of his time in the way he thought and much of what he philosophised a suggested was contrary to the established views of the time. Ultimately this approach saw him arrested, accused and tried for being “unreligious and corrupting the city’s (Athens) youth.” Being found guilty and sentenced to either exile or execution by poisoning. Socrates chose execution.(5) The contribution of the “Socratic Method” in the investigation of human thinking cannot be under emphasised. It set a foundation for subsequent philosophers and theorists to delve deeper into what drives an individual’s belief and sentiments. It established a method of debate; questioning, answering and exposing contradictions in the answers provided, which can still be seen in use today, particularly in legal studies and professions. (This approach sometimes now termed “playing devil’s advocate”). Through the use of this method Socrates sought to promote a growth of individual reasoning and critical thinking, providing people with conclusions on which they could more logically base their arguments.
The study of Socrates also presents a further interesting and potentially unresolvable issue, often referred to as “Socratic Problem”. Socrates did not commit any of his philosophy or teaching to writing. We only know what we know through the record of others. Ironically, It has been suggested that Socrates considered written words were too readily open to mis-interpretation and therefore preferred discussion and conversation. The source for much of the information available are the writings of his students and records of subsequent philosophers, notably Aristophanes (+/-450-+/-386), Xenophon (+/-425-+/-386 BCE), Plato (+/-428-+/-348 BCE) and Aristotle (+/-384-+/-322 BCE) with the later two being the most well known and influential. Each of these sources essentially recorded something of Socrates teachings in their writing, often in the form of plays. The issue faced is that the validity of these words and teachings actually being those of Socrates can never be proven. We literally only have the word of others on which we can base judgements as to who he was and what he said.(6) The crux of the “Socratic Problem” centres on crucial differences in the accounts provided,with sources providing different information on some quite critical things. Socrates is quoted as saying, “I know that I know nothing.” In the instance of the classical “Socratic Problem” this quote would appear to ring true.
How does all this attribute to the study of martial arts? To answer that question with a question, in the best socratic way, how do you know that the martial art you learn is the “true” version of that art? On what grounds have you established your decisions on the validity of the information you are being taught? In many cases a similar “Socratic Problem” manifests itself within the study of martial arts.
To many, one of the beautiful aspects of traditional martial arts is their historic lineage and evolution. Being part of a process which has been created, passed down and developed across centuries is a truly awe inspiring proposition. This lineage and historical grounding however is one of the many and varied examples where a “Socratic Problem” presents. There are a multitude of “origin” stories for traditional martial arts. Generally speaking, many believe that the traditional arts originated in China, suggesting the roots of all traditional systems have a common ancestor in the ancient Chinese boxing styles, which came to prominence (although may of existed before) during the Period of the Warring States (403-221 BCE). Further to this it is a widely held belief that these organised fighting arts developed from a combination of primitive fighting arts and those introduced by Indian Buddist missionaries. It has also been suggested that these Buddist arts were derived from the ancient Greek martial art, Pankration,which was introduced to Indian culture during the invasion of Punjab by Alexander the Great (+/-327 BCE).(8) This origin story is often further embellished with the legend of the Indian Buddist monk Bodhidharma (+/-501-600 AD) who is held to have introduced Chan (Zen) Buddhism to China.(9) Bodhiharma is also credited as introducing the Buddhist arts to the monks of the Shaolin Monastery, with this being the common cradle of all “modern” versions of “traditional” martial arts. The historical evidence to support this later view has however been widely identified as being false.
Whilst it is not the purpose of this article to provide detailed analysis of the history of traditional martial arts there are many other potential origin stories available. Each one being as intangible and hard to evidence as the next. Without question though the brief synopsis provided is still held by many as being the true picture and this is despite there being glaring inconsistencies in the information available, contradictory sources and indeed a lack of any evidence to directly support the claims. Ultimately, it is fundamentally improbable that any one will ever be able to reconstruct an accurate historical foundation for the traditional martial arts. Therefore the judgements and conclusions formed must be based on variable and sometimes contradictory sources of information. The issue here is that conclusions such as these become dogma and subsequently become the source of much conflict and argument.
A further “Socratic Problem” within the martial arts is evident when we look at the variety of “styles” which exist. For just one discipline, there can be a raft of varying styles and interpretations, each with their own specific justifications, lineage and traditions. To an outsider looking at martial arts it is almost impossible to identify the true form of some arts, as there are so many potential variations and alternatives, all collected under the same banner. The individual, social and political/cultural influences which have impacted specific martial arts have naturally produced evolutions and interpretations which ultimately create differences in the specific processes, techniques and focuses. This evolution, whilst an essential and natural process in many cases, does sometimes present a problem when accurately referencing the source of some styles, with support evidence being derived from varied and sometimes conflicting sources.
In itself this is not a huge issue. It is entirely possible for all to exist and for individuals to freely practice their preferred activity without compromise. Providing the activity doesn’t present any danger or risk to themselves and others, there really isn’t an issue. The real challenge starts to present however when the style becomes the dogma. When there is a rigid belief and attachment to “undeniable truths”. This creates a sense of “this way is THE way!” There can be no alternative views, the sense of belief here is often absolute and unwavering, even in the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary. Where there are absolutes there also exists the very real prospect of conflict with others.
Unquestioning belief and devotion to unsubstantiated lineage, spurious legitimacy and questionable technical efficacy is often a common issue within the practice of traditional martial arts. Beyond the harmless “Socratic problems” posed, there’s a real danger that as martial arts students we can be assumed into the adoption of “cult” like mentality where an unquestioning allegiance and veneration must be provided to the ancestral forbearers and beliefs of that “style”. At the very least students can often be presented with having to adopt a very closed mentality towards the activity being practiced. Whether based on the insecurities of their teachers, or a genuine misguided belief in the truth, seeking knowledge outside of that school, style or art is tantamount to a sacrilegious act of treason. A student seeking to question, deviate or evolve their practice beyond the walls of this dohang/dojo is considered to be disrespectful and faced with marginalisation and excommunication by fellow practitioners.
There are several causational at the heart of this issue, however broadly they can be generalised into one of two categories.
The first, as previously mentioned, may rest within the structure, approach or traditions of the art/style/school. In many cases traditional martial arts are tied to a type of pseudo-confucian tradition and culture. In this there is a value set, where obedience, conformity and social order are placed above all else. Whilst semantically the words referencing these traditional values may vary, the sentiments they convey remain constant. Moreover, there exists a view within this approach that relationships and an individual's position brings with it certain duties in relation to others. Juniors are required to owe their seniors reverence. Seniors are required to be benevolent and act with concern for their juniors. For example, a child is junior to their parents. The governed are junior to their governors. A student is junior to their teachers. In this environment an individual cannot provide reverence and be truly respectful if they seek to question or deviate from the information and guidance provided by their seniors. For a student to question teachers, even though there is no evidence to suggest that that history is true or technique application will ever work in practice, is to provide the most grave insult and disrespect possible. This being the case students often blindly devote themselves to the rote learning of techniques and applications, believing their teachers to be expert and infallible.
The second broad category is the individual requirement related to this last point. The individual's ability to critically analyse and evaluate the information they receive is either missed or ignored. The cultural and social pressures for conformity aside, our own personal biases may act to prevent us from applying critical filters to the information presented. It is often the case that individuals will seek information and act based on their own “confirmation biases”. People will actively seek information which supports and confirms their own beliefs. They will apply filters to information so that it best represents and accommodates to their own world view and perspective. In this then the individual may be unwilling or unable to objectively evaluate the information they are receiving and rather accommodate it to previously learnt patterns of behaviour and levels of understanding. Critical thinking takes time and energy and it is often easier for individuals to “believe the truth” rather than take the opportunity to “perceive the truth”.