Philosophers for Kung Fu: A Response By PEIMIN NI

Thanks to all the readers who have commented on my previous article in the Stone “Kung Fu for Philosophers.” I found many comments thoughtful and inspiring, for which I am deeply grateful. Instead of trying to respond to all, as it is obviously impractical, I would like to offer some additional remarks to supplement my previous article as my response.

Peimin Ni“Kung Fu”

Several years ago, I was invited for lunch by a man named Wu Bin, who was the former martial arts coach of the kung fu movie star Jet Li. Mr. Wu and I did not know each other, and I had no idea why he invited me for lunch. I was more puzzled when I got there — Mr. 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, calledwuji, 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.

Thanks to Mr. Wu’s practical background and drawing on my own philosophical training and experience in the practice of Chinese calligraphy art — a form of kung fu which is deeply influenced by traditional Chinese philosophy — it did not take me long to convey the basic ideas to him and help him see the intellectual connection between the metaphysics and the martial arts, though we both aware perfectly well that it would take lots of cultivation for the connection to be embodied and manifested in the practice. The point is basically to empty oneself (including the metaphysical idea), so that, paradoxically, one can achieve unification of the self and the world! Mr. Wu sighed, regretfully, “Today’s martial arts practitioners focus too much on the surface performances. That is not real kung fu!”

I  share this story here is because a few commenters raised the question of whether my original post was denouncing the practical significance of the theoretical pursuit for truth, despite the fact that I wrote, “Philosophers’ ideas, even when theoretical, have never stopped functioning as guides to human life.” The misreading, however, made me aware that I need to give the other side of the practical-theoretical coin the weight that it deserves.

Even though, as I wrote in the first post, a menu should not be mistaken for food, this does not mean that the menu is worthless for getting food, nor does it entail the demand that everything that can serve as a menu must be created for the sake of getting food. What is “alarming” is not that some people like to think for thinking’s sake or purely for the search of truth; it is rather that when this way of doing philosophy becomes dominant, we tend to forget that there can be other ways of thinking and other values or implications of philosophizing. Just as Zhou Dunyi’s metaphysics can be taken as a guiding principle for xingyi quan, calligraphy, or any other kung fu defined in the broad way and not merely as a mirror of reality, virtually all philosophical ideas can inform human practice and have practical implications. Hence the relationship between kung fu and philosophy goes both ways: As much as we philosophers need to open our vision for the kung fu perspective, all forms of kung fu depend on philosophical ideas, one way or another. Whether good or bad, theories mold our patterns of behavior and even transform us. While attachment to conceptual truth will block one’s path toward higher levels of kung fu, so will a kung fu practitioner have trouble reaching higher stages of perfection if they lack good philosophical guidance, including proper conceptual resources.

Trying to obtain the truth and yet frustrated by the postmodern deconstruction of the project, many people today find themselves facing the dilemma of either embracing relativism or falling back to dogmatic absolutism. The kung fu approach helps us to see the instructional value of our apparently endless philosophical disputes. This is exactly why I propose the term “kung fu,” understood properly, as not only a guide toward more fruitful reading of traditional Chinese philosophy but also as an approach (though obviously not as the only approach) through which we can evaluate philosophies of all traditions.

We philosophers are proud of discovering hidden assumptions and often feel that we have beaten every bush and asked all the perennial questions that philosophers care to ask. But it does not take much reflection to realize that we devote a lot of attention to the pursuit of propositional truth and very little toward exploring the the transformation of the human subject. We have fields of study that bare some proximity to the subject, such as action theory andpraxiology, but one thing that may push these fields of study further is for us to move our focus from mere actions or praxis to kung fu — namely to the transformation and enabling of the human subject. Could the concept of “kung fu” link the practitioner to action in such a way that actions would no longer be treated merely as the result of rational choices or impulses or technical/managerial procedures, but also as the result of cultivation? Could it lead to a shift in our study of human actions and praxis similar to the one in ethics that resulted in a renewed interest in the moral agent? There is a lot of work to do.

Perhaps I did a fine job in helping Mr. Wu, but I can’t help feeling uneasy about the prominent seat that Mr. Wu had me sit in. We philosophers are wise more in the sense of knowing that we don’t know, but on the other hand, people like Mr. Wu look up to us for our guidance, and they have a good reason for that — because our philosophical ideas do matter.

Peimin Ni

Peimin Ni is professor of philosophy at Grand Valley State University. He currently serves as the president of the Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophyand is editor-in-chief of a book series on Chinese and comparative philosophy. His most recent book is “Confucius: Making the Way Great.”

via http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/21/philosophers-for-kung-fu-a-response/

2 Responses to “Philosophers for Kung Fu: A Response By PEIMIN NI”

  1. miguel

    poplar@lonesome.nashville” rel=”nofollow”>.…

    thank you!…

  2. wayne

    trusted@pillspot.com” rel=”nofollow”>.…


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