Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants - Respect in the Martial Arts

I keep coming across websites and martial artists that have created their own unique new martial art.  It seems that they are popping up everywhere. So and so has created the ultimate martial art, the unstoppable martial art, the unbeatable one etc. Some even have names that I've never heard of. Some are so secret that you have to sign up for a year just to find out what it is.

The language that we use is important, If I open my own martial arts school, I haven't made a new martial art.  I haven't 'created' it.  What I've done is use existing techniques from existing martial arts systems and formed a teaching methodology.  The manner in which those techniques are taught and applied is what I've brought to the table.  That's the part that's new, that's mine.  In this way, I've created my own style, or mode of martial arts.  Well, sort of.

Style is defined as:

"1. The way in which something is said, done, expressed, or performed: a style of speech and writing. 
  2. The combination of distinctive features of literary or artistic expression, execution, or performance  characterizing a particular person, group, school, or era."

Mode is defined as:

"manner of acting or doing; method; way:"

Why am I making this distinction?

It bothers me that people out there tout themselves as the creators of a new martial art.  I find it disrespectful to their teachers and the system they were taught and practiced.  There are no new 'discoveries' to be made, no previously undiscovered techniques. The human body can only move so many ways, there are only so many strikes, kicks, locks etc.

There is a saying dating back to the 12th century and a variation of it used by Isaac Newton.  The gist is that if you can see or reach higher or further, it is because you are standing on the shoulders of giants.  Not an exact quote, but I hope you get the meaning.

The giants are those that came before us, our teachers, training partners and the founders and teachers of martial arts systems dating back many generations.  It is on their shoulders that we all stand.

I'm not suggesting you market yourself as a master or teacher of another person's martial art, or style, but I am saying to give credit where credit is due. Assuming you are in good standing with your previous teachers, I would suggest you at least make it very clear that your teachings are based on, or influenced by, another school or system.  Then you can call your style whatever you want.

I guess it all boils down to respect and honouring those that have been kind enough to pass down the gift of martial arts knowledge to you.

Food for thought, I hope.


  1. We are thinking alike. Very alike. My work is intended to see further than my instructors, because, I will be standing on the shoulders of giants. If I add one more percent to their teachings, I've seen further, but my contribution to the knowledge base has only been one percent.

    The actual quote in Principia by Newton was: 'If I have been able to see further, it was only because I stood on the shoulders of giants.' Another quote I like that fits in with your theme is from Einstein: 'Creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.'

    I've had this discussion with other like minded individuals. 'There is nothing new under the sun' is countered by 'there's always a first time for everything.' I think the answer lies in auditor professional standards - critical sceptiscm. A sceptical auditor is one who 'neither assumes that management is dishonest nor assumes unquestioned honesty.' Scepticism means the auditor makes a critical assessment, with a questioning mind, of the validity of audit evidence obtained and is alert to audit evidence that contradicts or brings into question the reliability of documents and responses to inquiries and other information obtained
    from management and those charged with governance.

    We need to be more 'auditor-like' when we 'audit' the claims that others make within the martial arts.

  2. Very good article, very good reflection!

  3. John,

    You're right, any contributions we might make are minimal compared to what was given by those before us. It is, and should be, somewhat humbling.

    I like the approach of neither trying to prove, or disprove, what we are presented with. A healthy amount of skepticism is a good thing, as I see it. There was definitely a time in the martial discipline where you accepted the word of teachers without question, but I suspect the number of teachers were less, and claims not nearly so grandiose. Also, students had to woo the teachers, not the other way around.

    By the way, thanks for pointing me in the direction of the hormonal stress response differences between genders.

    Also, I belive the shoulders of giants quote can be tracked back to the 12th century where theologian and author John of Salisbury used a version of the phrase in a treatise on logic called Metalogicon, written in Latin in 1159. See? I'm starting to research my material a bit more. You're rubbing off on me...


    I'm happy you enjoyed the article. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  4. God forbid that you become an obsessive like me. If you haven't already, check out Karl Friday's Legacies of the Sword. A must-have for any one involved in the Japanese martial arts and interested in a little more than in the how-to. Within his book, Friday talks about the transmission and naming of the different styles which his (a) interesting, and (b) authoritative.

  5. Ha! I'll try to keep myself in check...

    You're not the first person to mention Karl Friday's work. I'll make sure to add it to my must read list. Thanks.

  6. Hi Journeyman, a very interesting article. You're right to suggest that there are not really any new things to be discovered in martial arts just new ways of putting it together. When our karate club joined a new organisation in 2009 it was not to move forward into a new style but rather to turn around and look backwards to an older one. My instructor (and others) felt that the style we had been practising had moved too far away from its parent style and become too sport orientated and too diluted. So now we've turned back to learn from those 'giants' of karate again and return to our roots. Moving forwards sometimes means turning around to look behind and remember where you're art came from.

  7. Sue,

    You're right to look back. I've sometimes almost discounted some styles because they lacked any combat edge. Then I meet a master who hasn't strayed too far from the roots. Then I see the beauty and the brutal effectiveness and I realize once again, it's all about who teaches the art.

    So, instead of one step forward, two steps back, perhaps it should be one step backwards, two steps forward. A new saying?

    I commend you and your club for revisiting the roots.

    Thanks for your comments.