Red Pyramid by Stanislov and Jaroslava (1993). Corning Museum of Glass.


Martial Arts Studies blogging is a hard habit to break. No sooner had I resolved to step away from more academic questions and spend a few months writing about Wing Chun practice and history than I came across an editorial in the South China Morning Post. The fact that this paper ran an editorial on the failings and shortcomings of the traditional Chinese martial arts was in no way a surprise. During my years of assembling news roundups, it had become apparent that the SCMP devotes more time and energy to covering martial arts than any other major English language paper. Further, its discussions are always topical. While the paper lavishes Wing Chun and other locally popular styles with attention, when there is some new trend or crisis in the “martial forest,” chances are good that this is where you will read about it first.

What I did not expect was to find Martial Arts Studies, or something very similar to it, being invoked as an explanation of 1) why kung fu practitioners are incapable of fighting and 2) why right thinking parents everywhere should steer their children away from these pursuits towards battle hardened disciplines such as Krav Maga and American style MMA. Least of all did I expect to find the philosopher Gillian Russell and her concept of “epistemic viciousness” being invoked in all of this.

I am not entirely sure that Russell would agree with the editorialist’s assessment that it is time give up on the traditional arts. Rather, I believe that she wrote her paper in an attempt to increase the quality and legitimacy of practice within these systems.  While I can understand how some readers might walk away from her work with the conclusion that these practices are hopeless, such a narrow reading would ignore some larger truths about the epistemic traps that most of us face on a daily basis. If martial arts practice can teach us to better defend ourselves from arguments based on authority and the pitfalls of groupthink, that is just another reason to practice them.

Before directly engaging in this work and the ways in which it may be read or misread, a few notes may be in order. First off, the notion of “viciousness” invoked in Professor Russell’s work has nothing to do with the supposed violence of these practices.  Rather, she invokes a much older definition of the term making it roughly equivalent to the notion of “vice” or a destructive habit. Everyone has vices of one sort or another, but what makes this type particularly troublesome to a philosopher is that they deal with the ways that we investigate the world and substantiate truth claims.  The notion of epistemic viciousness thus suggests that many of us have certain blind spots which prevent us from evaluating truth claims in a logical and correct way, and thus lead to the formation of beliefs about the world that are demonstrably false. Worse yet, when confronted with these errors of judgement people just seek new justifications for their beliefs (often ignoring or discrediting evidence that contradicts them), rather than updating their beliefs.

It is self-evident that professional academics would be concerned with questions of epistemology. This is one of the central topics that everyone has to confront in graduate school.  There are no special texts or theories in my field that we hide from undergrads and share only with doctoral students. What makes a graduate field survey different from an undergrad one?  The fact that it typically starts with about six weeks of reading in the philosophy of the scientific method. How we justify and double check our process for creating new knowledge is a big deal throughout the academic disciplines.

But what about in the realm of martial artists? Why should they care about the quality of their beliefs?  That is actually one point that I think could have benefited from some extended critical examination, yet Russell leaves it painfully underdeveloped. Rather than engage in any deep theorizing about who actually takes traditional martial arts classes, or what their goals or subconscious motivations are, she begins with a story of her 11-year-old self encountering a bit of dojo lore. In this reminisce she takes seriously what seems like a throw-away line from her instructor that if she practiced a particular technique for a long enough period of time, and did so with the proper diligence, she would be able to use it to kill a bull. If one’s intentions are solely to learn to defend yourself in a life or death situation (and this is the only motivation for martial practice that seems to interest Russell), then accepting such a claim could have dire consequences. Especially if one were to ever be attacked by a bull.

Of course, there are all sorts of unsupported assertions within the traditional arts about the deadliness of one sort of technique versus another.  Some are prima facia ridiculous (qi projection), other seem to rely on overly compliant training partners, but every so often you come across something that seems credible. How can any of us hope to sort it all out? Are martial artists really as gullible as Russell repeatedly insinuates?

I have spent enough time in a wide variety of training environments to suspect that the situation is more complicated than her chapter suggests.  Yes, almost everyone I know is overly deferential to their own teachers.  But most of these same people are also more than capable of giving you a list of the five stupidest things that they have ever heard in their school. I know this to be true as I have asked it as an interview question. The viral success of the comic persona “Master Ken,” which is basically an inside baseball discussion about the problem of self-delusion within martial arts training, suggests that lots of people who go to these schools are already of aware of these issues.

What makes Russell’s argument on this point truly noteworthy is that she claims that traditional martial arts, above and beyond other sorts of voluntary social activities, generate epistemic viciousness. Or to put it in a slightly more direct way, the practice of martial arts is actually damaging to our ability to generate correct and unbiased beliefs about the world. Their students are, in a non-trivial sense, deluded.

Russell then goes on to discuss the mechanism by which this damage is done. She notes with disapproval that many people treat martial practice as a type of religious community or spiritual exercise. Their search for transcendence in martial practice leads them beyond the sorts of truth claims that can be evaluated. Martial arts communities tend to be authoritarian environments in which the obedience of juniors to seniors is demanded. When learning specific techniques, we may not have an opportunity to question whether, or how, something actually works.  But the larger issue is that we may learn to accept assertions without critically examining them at all. Historical claims and lineage structures also tend to mediate against scientific investigation in the here and now.  If some training technique was good enough for Wong Fei Hung, why wouldn’t it be good enough for us today (the findings of modern sports medicine not withstanding)?

All of this is compounded by the fact that many martial arts systems seem to occupy an empirical vacuum. She notes that even competitive combat sports like Olympic Judo, where everyone gets lots of combative feedback, still have problems evaluating theories about training techniques and weighting the evidence. How much worse will the situation be in a self-defense art where most of us sincerely wish to live out our lives without ever getting a chance to discover whether that knife defense technique really works?  This lack of objective data tends to reinforce each of her previous points.


Javier Pérez (Spanish, b. 1968), Carroña (Carrion), Murano, Italy, 2011. Blown glass chandelier, assembled, broken, taxidermied crows. The Corning Museum of Glass.


I am oversimplifying a complicated argument, but the end result of this is that we tend to develop one of two different types of intellectual vice. One the one hand we have overly gullible students who simply accept any new truth claim that is put in front of them by a proper authority figure.  On the other we have students who have been burned one too many times, but have also learned the wrong lesson. They simply reject any claim that is made out of hand. Both of these predispositions are problematic.

Russell was not asserting in this chapter that you should dissuade your child from taking a karate class, or challenge everything your Sensei says in the name of epistemology. As she notes, that is not being scientific, it is just being an asshole. Rather, she argued that we all need to be cautious in accepting truth claims. We also need to be humble about those things that we think we know, subjecting them to periodic reevaluation.

All of this is very sounds advice. It is actually such a fine conclusion that I had trouble understanding why I took an immediate dislike to the chapter. Upon rereading it, some things started to become clear. Russell begins with a very strong set of claims, most of which boil down to an assertion that the martial arts are unique in the degree to which they encourage epistemic viciousness and, as a result, martial artists are uniquely “vicious” individuals.

It is in these opening lines that her argument runs into problems which arise, ironically, from the author’s own epistemological shortcuts. As a social scientist it strikes me as fundamentally wrong to ask readers to accept as a starting premise what which should be the final conclusion of an argument and investigation. This is doublely true as the sorts of claims that Russell makes can be easily measured and put into a dataset. Within the fields of political science, sociology and economics we have developed all sorts of survey techniques that are specifically designed to measure bias in belief or decision making. This isn’t some sort of exotic skill, it is literally the sort of research that lots of people do on a daily basis.  And in this age of chatty social media and free internet survey apps, I can think of literally no reason not to attempt to test what is, in fact, an empirical hypothesis.

Any such test must have a control group of non-martial artists so that we could really measure the causal effects of the proposed treatment. And this is where we run into the second issue. Russell claims that she is only interested in beliefs about concrete tactical outcomes, and there is no reason to expect that most non-practitioners would have any beliefs at all about the efficacy of a flying sidekick versus its more grounded cousin. But as we read further into this paper, it is not clear to me that many of the beliefs in question are fundamentally about martial arts at all.  The Sensei who refuses to accept sports science findings on drinking chocolate milk after workouts in one of her examples is not really showing skepticism towards a type of hydration, but the fields of sport science and biology as a whole.  His issues in making sense of the world are going to extend way beyond dojo. Likewise, students who have learned to submissively accept the pronouncements of angry male authority figures in the training hall have acquired psychological traits which will not stay there. They are going to have critical effects in other areas of life as well.

Nor is this much of a mystery. The only parents that I have ever met who were genuinely concerned that their kids would learn how to win a fight in a martial arts class were already involved in higher level competitive combat sports (BJJ, competitive Judo, kickboxing). Most other parents have a much broader pedagogical agenda.  A few have mentioned that their child has been subject to bullying, but even in that case they seem to be more conserved with self-esteem and social networking than the actual ability to enact violence on command in  our current era of “zero tolerance” schooling.

When asked about martial arts training most parents go on at some length about how they want their kids to learn to enjoy exercise, make friends, acquire discipline, do better in school, take direction from adults and behave better at home. It would not be a stretch to believe that the actual motivations for why adults join martial arts classes are not actually that different (getting in shape, making friends, finding community, raising self-esteem, becoming disciplined).  It is not that self-defense is never on the list. It certainly is. But even the police officers, prison guards and soldiers who I have worked with (always in a recreational and civilian setting) have generally had a much more complex set of motivations for showing up to a kung fu or BJJ class on the weekend.

Understanding specific motivations and goals is an important first step in coming to terms with why so many people seem to act irrationally in social situations. Again, this is not to say that even professional don’t pick up confused belief about the origin and efficacy of certain combat techniques. They certainly do.  But it may go a long way towards explaining why so few people seem to be willing to invest the time, emotional energy and social credibility necessary to sort all of this stuff out. As Russell herself points out, unless you are involved in regular tournament competition, most of us will never be attacked by a determined and armed opponent. We probably also knew that fact when we signed up for that YMCA Aikido or Taijiquan class in the first place.

The reason that we likely enrolled was that we wanted to acquire a set of bodily and mental habits that would follow us into other areas, improving our daily lives. Now, if Russell’s claims about the epistemological dangers of martial arts training are true we have a real problem on our hands as there is no reason to think that these failures of cognition will be confined the mats. But there is also no reason to accept her assertions that what happens in the dojo is substantively unique. If it were, it is unlikely that political science, sociology and economics would have developed an entire arsenal of statistical techniques and case study methods for measuring the extent of these exact problems.  Indeed, one is unlikely to encounter the term “epistemological viciousness” in any of these field as they have several other more specific (though admittedly less colorful) ways of discussing the issue.


Cityscape by Jay Musler. Blown, cut, Sandblasted and painted glass. Corning Museum of Class. Photo by Benjamin Judkins.


Where do we see these same tendencies arising? Within pretty much any organization or group that humans can form an identity around. Religions jump to mind as organizations were otherwise sane individuals accept fantastic assertions and ask for little in the way of scientific evidence. The average American is much more likely to attend church than a kung fu class.

Corporations tend to develop their own internal “cultures” that are stabilized by hierarchic relationships and “standard operating procedures.” These are often adhered to just as rigidly and irrationally as anything you are going to encounter in the training hall.

No realm is more susceptible to willful self-deception than politics. Supporters of a given political party or candidate routinely ignore extensively documented evidence that the world does not function in the way that their candidate asserts that it does. Nor are their motivations mysterious. They ignore obvious truths so that they do not have to do the very real emotional and social work of “changing teams.” Scholars of international relations have written enormous amounts on the ways that foreign policy officials fall prey to epistemological traps and what can be done in terms of institutional design to prevent this. Ubiquitous concepts such as “group think” and “motivated cognition” were not created with martial arts schools in mind.

All of which returns us to the question of research design. Rather than simply accepting that martial artists are uniquely challenged, their epistemological shortcomings need to be understood in relationship to other groups. What such an empirical study would almost certainly find is that there is no lack of epistemic viciousness to go around. Indeed, the lion share of self-delusion and bias in today’s society would originate far from the training halls.

One suspects that while many of us don’t get attacked frequently enough to accurately evaluate all of our tactical tools, we have been kicked, punched in the face and choked out enough times in the course of our training (however imperfect it may have been) to not be susceptible to certain types of widespread delusions. The physical experience of pain can generate empathy. Training with a diverse group of people can alter our beliefs about society and our relationship to such core concepts as gender and class. The relevant question cannot be “Are martial artists victims of self-delusion?” That is merely a description of the human condition. Rather the question needs to be, what sorts of work do martial arts perform in our lives. Are they worthwhile?

None of my arguments are going to come as a surprise to Prof. Russell. One only has to scan to her CV to realize that she is an exceptionally talented and subtle scholar. So why (other than the always present frustration of word limits) does this chapter lack that sort of nuance?

I think the real reason why I disliked this paper was not its conclusions (which I am in total agreement with), but what it assumed about its readership. Rather than using the martial arts to add to, or perhaps qualify, academic discussions of epistemology, this paper seeks only to talk at practitioners. That is a problem because martial arts studies need to balance these two audiences to progress as a field.

Yet even if we assume that that this text should speak only to practical students of the fighting arts, it is not clear that it can succeed in its goals of addressing epistemic viciousness. To begin with, very nature of motivated cognitive bias is that everyone who reads such a piece will assume that they are the lucky exception, the sole critical thinker who sees the world as it really is, while ignoring their own blind spots. This is what we see in the workplace, in politics, in religious discussions and everywhere else. We call them “blind spots” for a reason, and they don’t go away just because we understand that they are there. This is why political scientists, sociologists and economists deal with these issues by creating new and better institution to constrain and structure decision making processes. Some types of problems cannot be solved simply by acknowledging that they exist. The actual solutions to the problems problems that Russell identifies will probably not be found within the psychology of individuals. Rather, we need to be thinking about the internal structures of organizations and markets.

Secondly, by advancing a conversation aimed only at practitioners, one that refuses to contextualize the martial artists within the larger academic debates on the nature of bias and cognition, Russell fails to take her own subject seriously. When a scholar of her stature does that, it send a subtle message these practices, and the sorts of people who take them up, really are trivial.

The silver lining to this cloud is that she did not just accept the platitudes we so often hear about the ways in which martial arts training “builds character” and all the rest. Asking what the unintended consequences of these practices might be is an important first step in taking them seriously and encouraging other to as well. As I have noted in other places, far too few researchers within our field have seriously investigated the darker sides of these practices. Yet such a first step that must be followed by a second, which is to wonder what new insights our study of these practices might contribute to ongoing conversations in the disciplines.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Who Benefits from the Traditional Martial Arts: Public Goods vs. Private Gains