Squirrels And Rockets? “Martial Arts And Philosophy” Reviewed

Scott Farrell comments:

The new book Martial Arts And Philosophy, published by Open Court Books as part of their Pop Culture And Philosophy series, uses the practices of martial arts like karate, judo and boxing to explore and illuminate many principles of philosophy. The book includes my very own chapter entitled Sir Aristotle and the Code of Chivalry, which examines the remarkable similarities between C.S. Lewis’s writings on the virtues of chivalry, and the system of virtue ethics described by Aristotle in his work The Nicomachean Ethics.


This review, reprinted from the blog Older Is Wiser, reminds us that the study of philosophy and the hard-punching, sword-swinging martial arts aren’t as far apart as you might think.

As this book shows, martial arts have benefits other than just being good in a fight

Martial arts and philosophy sound, at first, a strange mix. A bit like concrete and apples, perhaps, or squirrels and rockets. But as this book, edited by philosophers-cum-martial artists Damon Young and Graham Priest, shows, the two have a great deal in common. Not least, the fact they both still have a lot to offer our dumbed down, anti-intellectual world.

For example, did you know that Judo has a lot in common with utilitarianism? Or that the code of chivalry took its cues from ancient Greek thought? That fencing is the loneliest art because it is full of deception? Or that Nelson Mandela credits his self-discipline and virtue to what he learned in the boxing ring?

Some of the chapters – each by a writer with their own tale of fighting to tell – are great to read. For example, Patricia Petersen’s chapter, on martial arts and feminism, makes a strong case for both. (Even though karate, like feminism, is seen as dreadfully 1970s in some circles.)

Then there is Gillian Russell’s gleefully thorough hatchet job on the martial arts’ worst delusions. Mocking all those styles that claim to give the student magic powers and all that blind obedience to ‘masters’, it stands out as a call for reason over today’s new age wishful thinking.

And Scott Farrell’s defence of western swordplay and knightly values is well argued, but also fun to read, as you would expect from someone who wears chain mail in his spare time.

It helps that the book dodges the dry tone of some academic texts. Instead, it is clear and readable to those who are neither black belts nor who strictly know who Wittgenstein was. This is in fact the book’s great strength. The layman really can pick it up, learn something new and enjoy it into the bargain.

True, some of the authors have arguments that will make you curse. In the end, fighting is fighting, and you do have to wonder whether punching people in the face can make you a better person, for all what some of the chapters say.

Yet that’s the point. You’re not meant to agree with all the book says. You’re meant to come up with your own arguments, find out things for yourself and, of course, disagree when you want to.

What the book proves is that good philosophy and martial arts do in fact have a lot in common. Both embody a sort of structured conflict, and both – at their best – put great stead in testing your beliefs and not taking nonsense at face value.

The book is also timely. In the wake of the Browne report, which recast universities as engines of the economy with barely a mention for the humanities, Martial Arts And Philosophy serves as a sort of riposte. It shows us that philosophy, and martial arts, still have much to offer us.

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