Kung Fu

Kung Fu & Philosophy:

An interesting pair of posts by Chinese philosopher Peimin Ni. He makes the interesting leap about two-thirds of the way into the first post:

This kung fu approach shares a lot of insights with the Aristotelian virtue ethics, which focuses on the cultivation of the agent instead of on the formulation of rules of conduct. Yet unlike Aristotelian ethics, the kung fu approach to ethics does not rely on any metaphysics for justification. One does not have to believe in a pre-determined telos for humans in order to appreciate the excellence that kung fu brings. This approach does lead to recognition of the important guiding function of metaphysical outlooks though. For instance a person who follows the Aristotelian metaphysics will clearly place more effort in cultivating her intelligence, whereas a person who follows the Confucian relational metaphysics will pay more attention to learning rituals that would harmonize interpersonal relations. This approach opens up the possibility of allowing multiple competing visions of excellence, including the metaphysics or religious beliefs by which they are understood and guided, and justification of these beliefs is then left to the concrete human experiences.
The second post is here, and explores the link between metaphysics and the martial arts. I'm not sure if he realizes it, but he hits upon the core difference between Buddhist and neo-Platonic traditions -- which include many Christian, Jewish and Islamic philosophers.
Wu insisted that I be seated in the most prominent spot, and placed himself and all his associates at the table in lesser positions. With the ritual setting in order, he then humbly presented me a classic martial arts manual, and asked if I could explain the introduction of the book for him. “It is full of philosophical terms,” he said. “I have trouble understanding it.”

I looked at the manual. It was on a martial arts style called xingyi quan. While the main body of the book was about postures and movements of the body and energy, which Mr. Wu had no trouble interpreting, the introduction was basically a treatise about metaphysics. It contained views derived from the Song dynasty neo-Confucian scholar Zhou Dunyi, in which an abstract concept, called wuji, the ultimate non-being, takes a central role as ontologically prior to taiji (t’ai chi), or “the primordial ultimate.” Oddly enough, the author offered no indication about how the ideas should be translated into the martial arts, as if it were all self-evident.
What he means here is that the existence of taiji depends on the existence of wuji. This kind of priority is similar to the kind the Persian philosopher Avicenna describes between his own "necessary existent" and the first emanation. It isn't 'prior' in terms of time, because the first emanation is necessary and therefore eternal. Thus, there was never a time when both things did not exist; but one of them depends on the other for its existence.

The distinction to be made here is the difference between the wuji concept, and the neo-Platonic idea of what the One is like. That would be interesting to explore; it's a shame he didn't. Since he invokes Aristotle, however, it's worth noting that Aristotle has a similar concept at work in his physics (James Wilberding wrote about this in "Creeping Spatiality," if anyone is interested).

In any case, it's not right to say that Aristotle isn't also interested in social harmony. Aristotle wrote the Politics on the subject of how to build a state that sustains a space for the best kind of life (the kind of flourishing life that he describes in the Nicomachean Ethics). The ethics is likewise concerned with social relations: a number of the virtues are specifically about relationships with others, for example justice and magnanimity. He pays particular attention to the importance of friendship to the good life.

It's a different vision, but I don't think it's right to say that it is different because one is social and the other is individual.

Oh, the more obvious question: just how does the ontological priority of wuji inform martial arts? Neo-Confucianism has a form/matter distinction very much like the ancient Greeks and Christian philosophers. Form (li, or principle, in the Chinese) and matter (qi) are both ways of actualizing potentials: form is a kind of potential, in that the set of forms govern all things that matter can possibly be, whereas matter is potential in that it can assume many forms. (For example, water can assume the form of a liquid or a gas.) When matter takes on a form, it becomes an instance of that form, and thus there is an actuality of what was previously a potential.

Matter, for the Chinese as for the Greeks, was inherently chaotic: unprincipled, that is. Neo-Confucianism was interested in li, that is, in trying to bring your matter in alignment with the ideal embedded in the principle.

What the martial artist is asserting is that getting there isn't good enough: you also have to look beyond that. Getting a single principle perfect only makes you a perfect single instance of something. That isolates you from the nature of every other principle, as well as from the nature of the matter you are dominating. Li perfected is a pole.

Thus we see the point: taiji means "ultimate ridgepole," whereas wuji means "without ridgepole." Reaching that ultimate limit means distancing yourself from everything else.

The greatest mind will be able to achieve wuji, which essentially involves setting aside the law of non-contradiction. It is reaching the pole, and embracing all the other poles as well; so that all distinctions collapse, and what remains is perfect actuality. Not perfect potential: potential was what we started with. Wuji implies the actuality, and indeed the assertion is that such is the actual nature of reality.

What does that mean to the martial artist? In focusing on mastering the sword, you may forget that you might resolve a dispute with a flower. The true master will not forget, but will think of his mastery only as a starting point.

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