Martial Arts & Philosophy: An interview with Professor Graham Priest (PART TWO)

Posted by Alexander Hay

Last week we talked with Professor Graham Priest, the 62-year-old philosopher and Karate black belt about the juxtaposition of the two loves of his life. Here we delve a little deeper and discuss his new book, 'Martial Arts & Philosophy - Beating & Nothingness'

Professor Graham Priest: Too deadly for the beach“It's in the Open Court Philosophy and Popular Culture series”, Graham begins. “I wrote something in one of their volumes a few years ago ('Harley-Davidson and Philosophy'), and that got me talking to the editors of the series.

"They asked if there was any other topic I thought would be good, and I suggested the present volume. They were dubious that it was a goer, but I was pretty sure that it would be. Many of the martial artists I know think quite a lot about what it is they are doing.

“Anyway, they agreed in the end. So I teamed up with my old friend Damon Young, another philosopher martial artist, and we set about producing it. We contacted all the people we knew who might be interested, and put out calls on various email lists. We were rather surprised at how many philosopher martial artists there are out there.”

And there are rather a lot of them. The chapter Graham wrote is in fact an 'interview' with Bodhidharma, the monk who brought Zen Buddhism to China and, it is said, brought Kung Fu to the Shaolin Monastery.

“Yes, I have an interest in Buddhist philosophy, so it was a natural thing to write on.”

It's quite interesting how you use a narrative device like scripted dialogue to make your point. Plus, you do explain how Buddhism can coexist with learning how to hit people.

“Well, the essays are meant to contain some serious philosophy, but they are for people who are not philosophers, and would be bored s**tless by usual academic writing. So it was a matter of finding a good style. I thought that a dialogue form would be appropriate.

“As for the topic, there is clearly an important connection between the Japanese martial arts and Buddhism. I have pondered this for many years.  This is all part of the project of making sense of it.”

The way much of the book is written is very journalistic, I found it very accessible. Should more philosophy books be like this, you think?

“Well, I'm glad that you found it accessible” he says, mission accomplished. “Damon and I worked very hard with the contributors to make their writing accessible for a general public.  I do think it good that philosophers get out of their ivory towers. They have a lot to offer to the general public.”

Graham strikes a note of caution, however. “But I'm not in favour of knocking down the ivory tower. There needs to be a place where experts investigate matters amongst themselves.”

Why do you think martial arts and philosophy go together so well? You certainly seem to tapped a deep vein here after all.

“Well, a decent martial art is not just a sport, or a training in self defence or what have you” he explains. “It's a , a way. What one learns in the dojo is not just about hitting. Practising the art teaches you what sort of person you are, and what sort of person it's good to be. The latter, of course, is a philosophical matter.”

History seems to be full of this duality - the Greek philosophers must have trained as hoplites; Descartes was a soldier and Camus was a resistance fighter. Then there was Musashi, and even Bruce Lee wrote a philosophical tract. Do you think the two opposites naturally attract?

“Well, I don't really see them as opposites. Certainly, there are many philosophers for who matters martial are of no interest. And there are, I am sure, people who do martial arts just to compete and win medals. But it cannot be denied that some people put the two together. I suppose, after all, that the martial arts are about violence, and thoughtful people are not likely to undertake violence lightly.”

But enough of the fighting (and the philosophising) - one thing that stood earlier was how many jobs you have, on three separate continents. How do you COPE???

“I've done two for 10 years. The NY job is relatively recent, and is part of making a transition here from Melbourne. The situation is not sustainable for a long period. Even with the best will in the world, one becomes something of an outsider with one's social groups if one is away a lot of the time.”

I suppose you'll settle in Melbourne in the end.

“I'm English by origin, but I've lived in Australia most of my adult life. It is a country I like very much - the climate, the food and wine, the friendly people. (No British class system!). I can't really imagine living anywhere else when I decide to retire.”

Finally, Graham has some advice for readers who want to get into martial arts.

“A good club is everything. The trouble is that when you start you don't really know what a good club is. I guess one should start by having some idea of the sort of martial art one would like to do - Karate, Aikido, Kendo, etc. Most of these things have national organisations with accredited clubs.  It is a good idea to consult them for a list of recognised clubs. (Anyone can set up a dojo and call themselves a martial artist.)

“Then I'd go watch, maybe train, with a few clubs (if you are lucky to have more than one in your area). Talk to the head of style about the club, the way they teach, what they are trying to achieve with the training. Look at the attitudes of the people training, and especially the senior students.

"This will tell you abut the ethos of the club. If people don't have a good attitude, give it a miss. Of course, training can be tough, and often senseis [Japanese for 'teachers'] can be quite hard on people when training. I'm not talking about that” he concludes, diplomatically.

I considered myself duly enlightened.

You can purchase 'Martial Arts & Philosophy - Beating & Nothingness' from all good bookshops priced £12.99. Alternatively you can purchase it from Amazon for £11.48.

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Alexander Hay

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