Martial Arts & Philosophy: Professor Graham Priest (1)

Posted on: 19 November 2010 by Alexander Hay

As a rule, you wouldn't expect a philosopher to be much into karate, let alone one who's in his 60s. Yet Professor Graham Priest is that contradiction, fitting in the sense that he argues that some paradoxes are actually true

Professor Graham Priest in fighting stance

But we're not here to talk about that, or ask that Cretan whether all Cretans are liars. Graham has a new book out, which we've already reviewed, so an interview was the natural next step.

Once we started, I asked how he was. Well, as it happened, then I told him I had a cold, but that you can't get it on Skype. “They're working on it” he replied. One has to wonder.

Anyway, let's start with introductions. “Well, I'm Graham Priest. I'm a philosopher, and I work at the University of Melbourne and the Graduate Center of the City University, New York. I also work at the University of St Andrews a couple of months a year. So I'm a bit peripatetic.”

Not to mention busy. One thing that stands out is that you're still doing martial arts at 62. What do you do? “Well, I practice Shitō-ryū karatedo. I've been training now for 22 years.”

He had a surprising inspiration for this: “Many years ago, my daughter was about 10. My wife and I decided that she should learn to defend herself. She was not a very physical kid, so my wife said that she would train with her. They found a local club in Perth (where we then lived), and started to train. A year or two later we moved to Brisbane. In Perth I played baseball, and when we moved I decided to hang up my glove, so I needed something else to do.

“My wife said, why don't we find a karate club here and all train together? I said that I was not into hitting people. She said 'You don't understand; its about not hitting people'. That sounded crazy to me (though she was quite right), but I thought 'why not give it a go?' Within a few months I was hooked. We had lighted upon a very good club (Shobukai), largely by accident. I trained with them for 12 years. Then I moved to Melbourne. There were no branches of that club there, so I changed styles to Shitō-ryū. By that time, I knew what to look for in a good club, and I found one.”

There are, of course, many styles of karate. Some range from no contact at all, to full contact bloodbaths. Graham's style adopts a fittingly Aristotelian Mean: “In most style of karate, people are taught to pull their techniques, and so not to make full contact, even in kumite. If you want people to train regularly, it's no good having them off injured a lot of the time.”

How do you deal with that, healthwise? “Of course you get hit hard sometimes, but it's usually an accident. I don't do as much kumite now as when I was younger, but I've never had a serious injury.”

It's a practical matter I suppose - you need to be able to function afterwards. “Before, during, and afterwards” he says, sagely.

Often we think martial arts and older people means 'Tai Chi' yet Graham's style is very physical. Is there much room in the martial arts for older practitioners?

“Absolutely. The head of my style, Mabuni Sensei, in Osaka, is 90, and he is still teaching. Many of his senior students, who also teach, are into their 70s. In fact, in Japan, you don't get well regarded as a karateka until you have been doing it for a VERY long time.”

Graham corrects himself. “In fact, he's 92 now.” Bet no one nicks his pension.

He's not alone. One thinks of Kyokushin karate's founder, Mas Oyama who died in his 70s, or Gichin Funakoshi – all of 88 when he went.

“Yes, I believe that Okinawans are well known for their longevity”, Graham says, reminding us that Karate isn't strictly Japanese in origin.

I suppose the hard cardio helps a lot too.

“Yes, exercise is important. You can't prevent ageing, but you can slow it down a bit... Flexibility and general fitness certainly.”

Not that he had much experience of the fighting arts until he put on his dogi. “None” he says. Then adds: “Well, I fenced when I was at school, if that counts as a martial art.”

Possibly, but only if you can swing on a chandelier in a dashing fashion. Moving on, we're here to talk about your new book: "Martial Arts & Philosophy: Beating & Nothingness"...


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Alexander Hay

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