Epistemology, or how do we know what we’re doing is what we’re doing – Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan Iaido and Roukudan Jodo

I’ve just read a paper called “Limits of understanding in the study of lost martial arts” by Eric Burkart, Acta Periodica Duellatorum, Hema studies at the International Medieval Congress, Leeds July 2016.

A year late but there it is, you can find it through Google Scholar. The paper is worth reading because it sums up a lot of thought and discussion that I’ve had over the past few years concerning the connection between what we are doing and what we think we’re doing. I may be writing a few essays in the next couple weeks.

The paper reflects some of the concerns that the western martial arts folk have had over their attempts to recreate a “lost” martial art from manuals. The problem is not unlike the one we propose for people trying to learn Japanese martial arts from books and video.

Burkart compares this problem of recreation to the attempts to recreate medieval music from the few notations that survive from that time. Do we have the instruments? Do we have the way to play, the fingering, can we even guess at the sound?

Can we recreate medieval sword schools by making the swords and copying what we think is in the texts? We can make swords, certainly, and this is legitimate experimental archeology. Is a sword made by the methods described in the texts a good one? We can section and analyse ancient swords, no problem. Flint knapping has been investigated in a similar way, use the flint, use the tools, figure out how to make what we find in the ground.

But the techniques of using the sword? The sound of the medieval instruments and voice? The methods of pounding metal? Uncertain. These things are “embodied” they are passed along body to body (master to apprentice) and if there is a break the techniques are lost.

Look up instructional lathe videos on youtube, you will find men who worked in the factories turning spindles and they will tell you that techniques they know are not being passed along. They are being lost as we speak. They will have to be re-learned, re-invented or alternate methods will have to be found, once forgotten they are gone. Of course we have the videos but you can’t get the feel for the skew biting into oak from a video. There is no feedback from old hand to new to teach body to body.

Once sword techniques are lost, once the lineage of practice is broken, the knowledge is gone. This is the conceit of the Eastern martial arts practitioners, our lineage is unbroken, we are the end of a body to body chain from the medieval times.

So we assume.

The western martial arts types have to fill in the blanks with their modern ideas of combat, their modern physical background. But so do we. The aims of medieval martial arts are different than the modern aims. That means a change. We have changed, the kata have changed, the embodiment has changed. Can we say that we are doing what Musashi did?

Of course not, Musashi, by his own account, changed his art, and his purpose for studying the art over the course of his lifetime. His life spanned the period from war to peace as the Edo era began. As a youth he would have trained to fight and kill in war. As an old man he lived in a period of quiet, he may have wished to pass along his skills “in case” but the kids of his day were not studying to survive an active war they were about to join. Those were finished decades earlier. Musashi may have been “coasting”, teaching what he knew, but his students were studying for reasons other than Musashi had for learning. By this very difference, they would have been learning something different.

Musashi was not, at the end of his life, doing what he was doing at the beginning. How can we say we are doing what he did?

Burkart makes a distinction between technique and practice. A practice is unique, impossible to reproduce or recreate. The location, the partner, the time of day, all these mean that your practice, your kata will never be the same. But something transcends the practice and the practitioner and that is the technique.

Karl Friday stated that it is the flame, not the vessel that we wish to pass along. Somewhat more prosaically, it is the principle, not the kata. The lesson, not the physical shapes we are making.

Does this require a body to body transmission? Honestly, I think so. I still struggle to teach some lessons I learned at the end of my Aikido teacher’s arm. My students no longer see me making strange gestures in the air (very often) but in my head I run and rerun the feelings while trying to find a way to get them across. Sometimes I give up and grab a student, wrench them around and say “you see? you see?”

My students say “use your words” they say “I don’t know what you want me to do” but they don’t understand that some things are beyond words, beyond description of any type, some knowledge is embodied and has to be learned through the body.

If you are interested in the understanding of your budo, in passing it along as it was passed to you and actually understanding what you are doing and how you are doing it, look up the paper. It’s worth a read for the questions it raises. If there are few answers, there are hints at where to look.

Kim Taylor
July 23, 2017


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s