Kung Fu for Philosophers

Kung Fu for Philosophers

An Article by Peimin Ni, Professor of Philosophy, Grand Valley State University, President, Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy, published at The New York Times on December 8, 2010

In a 2005 news report about the Shaolin Temple, the Buddhist monastery in China well-known for its martial arts, a monk addressed a common misunderstanding: “Many people have a misconception that martial arts is about fighting and killing,” the monk was quoted as saying, “It is actually about improving your wisdom and intelligence.”[1]

Indeed, the concept of kung fu (or gongfu) is known to many in the West only through martial arts fighting films like “Enter the Dragon,” “Drunken Master” or more recently, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” In the cinematic realm, skilled, acrobatic fighters like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li are seen as “kung fu masters.”

But as the Shaolin monk pointed out, kung fu embodies much more than fighting. In fact any ability resulting from practice and cultivation could accurately be said to embody kung fu. There is a kung fu of dancing, painting, cooking, writing, acting, making good judgments, dealing with people, even governing. During the Song and Ming dynasties in China, the term kung fu was widely used by the neo-Confucians, the Daoists and Buddhists alike for the art of living one’s life in general, and they all unequivocally spoke of their teachings as different schools of kung fu.

This broad understanding of kung fu is a key (though by no means the only key) through which we can begin to understand traditional Chinese philosophy and the places in which it meets and departs from philosophical traditions of the West. As many scholars have pointed out, the predominant orientation of traditional Chinese philosophy is the concern about how to live one’s life, rather than finding out the truth about reality.

The well-known question posed by Zhuangzi in the 4th century B.C. — was he Zhuangzi who had dreamt of being a butterfly or was he a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi? — which pre-dated virtual reality and “The Matrix” by a couple of thousand years, was as much a kung fu inspiration as it was an epistemological query. Instead of leading to a search for certainty, as Descartes’s dream did, Zhuangzi came to the realization that he had perceived “the transformation of things,” indicating that one should go along with this transformation rather than trying in vain to search for what is real.

Confucius’s call for “rectification of names” — one must use words appropriately — is more a kung fu method for securing sociopolitical order than for capturing the essence of things, as “names,” or words, are placeholders for expectations of how the bearer of the names should behave and be treated. This points to a realization of what J. L. Austin calls the “performative” function of language. Similarly, the views of Mencius and his later opponent Xunzi’s views about human nature are more recommendations of how one should view oneself in order to become a better person than metaphysical assertions about whether humans are by nature good or bad. Though each man’s assertions about human nature are incompatible with each other, they may still function inside the Confucian tradition as alternative ways of cultivation.

The Buddhist doctrine of no-self surely looks metaphysical, but its real aim is to free one from suffering, since according to Buddhism suffering comes ultimately from attachment to the self. Buddhist meditations are kung fu practices to shake off one’s attachment, and not just intellectual inquiries for getting propositional truth.

Mistaking the language of Chinese philosophy for, in Richard Rorty’s phrase, a “mirror of nature” is like mistaking the menu for the food. The essence of kung fu — various arts and instructions about how to cultivate the person and conduct one’s life — is often hard to digest for those who are used to the flavor and texture of mainstream Western philosophy. It is understandable that, even after sincere willingness to try, one is often still turned away by the lack of clear definitions of key terms and the absence of linear arguments in classic Chinese texts. This, however, is not a weakness, but rather a requirement of the kung fu orientation — not unlike the way that learning how to swim requires one to focus on practice and not on conceptual understanding. Only by going beyond conceptual descriptions of reality can one open up to the intelligence that is best exemplified through arts like dancing and performing.

This sensitivity to the style, subtle tendencies and holistic vision requires an insight similar to that needed to overcome what Jacques Derrida identified as the problem of Western logocentrism. It even expands epistemology into the non-conceptual realm in which the accessibility of knowledge is dependent on the cultivation of cognitive abilities, and not simply on whatever is “publicly observable” to everyone. It also shows that cultivation of the person is not confined to “knowing how.” An exemplary person may well have the great charisma to affect others but does not necessarily know how to affect others. In the art of kung fu, there is what Herbert Fingarette calls “the magical,” but “distinctively human” dimension of our practicality, a dimension that “always involves great effects produced effortlessly, marvelously, with an irresistible power that is itself intangible, invisible, unmanifest.”[2]

Pierre Hadot and Martha Nussbaum, partially as a result of the world-historical dialogue of philosophy in our time, have both tried to “rectify the name” of “philosophy” by showing that ancient Western philosophers such as Socrates, the Stoics and the Epicurians were mainly concerned with virtue, with spiritual exercises and practices for the sake of living a good life rather than with pure theoretical endeavors.[3] In this regard, Western philosophy at its origin is similar to classic Chinese philosophy. The significance of this point is not merely in revealing historical facts. It calls our attention to a dimension that has been eclipsed by the obsession with the search for eternal, universal truth and the way it is practiced, namely through rational arguments. Even when philosophers take their ideas as pure theoretical discourse aimed at finding the Truth, their ideas have never stopped functioning as guides to human life. The power of modern enlightenment ideas have been demonstrated fully both in the form of great achievements we have witnessed since the modern era and in the form of profound problems we are facing today. Our modes of behavior are very much shaped by philosophical ideas that looked innocent enough to be taken for granted. It is both ironic and alarming that when Richard Rorty launched full-scale attacks on modern rationalistic philosophy, he took for granted that philosophy can only take the form of seeking for objective Truth. His rejection of philosophy falls into the same trap that he cautions people about — taking philosophical ideas merely as “mirrors” and not as “levers.”

One might well consider the Chinese kung fu perspective a form of pragmatism. The proximity between the two is probably why the latter was well received in China early last century when John Dewey toured the country. What the kung fu perspective adds to the pragmatic approach, however, is its clear emphasis on the cultivation and transformation of the person, a dimension that is already in Dewey and William James but that often gets neglected. A kung fu master does not simply make good choices and use effective instruments to satisfy whatever preferences a person happens to have. In fact the subject is never simply accepted as a given. While an efficacious action may be the result of a sound rational decision, a good action that demonstrates kung fu has to be rooted in the entire person, including one’s bodily dispositions and sentiments, and its goodness is displayed not only through its consequences but also in the artistic style one does it. It also brings forward what Charles Taylor calls the “background” — elements such as tradition and community — in our understanding of the formation of a person’s beliefs and attitudes. Through the kung fu approach, classic Chinese philosophy displays a holistic vision that brings together these marginalized dimensions and thereby forces one to pay close attention to the ways they affect each other.

This kung fu approach shares a lot of insights with the Aristotelian virtue ethics, which focuses on the cultivation of the agent instead of on the formulation of rules of conduct. Yet unlike Aristotelian ethics, the kung fu approach to ethics does not rely on any metaphysics for justification. One does not have to believe in a pre-determined telos for humans in order to appreciate the excellence that kung fu brings. This approach does lead to recognition of the important guiding function of metaphysical outlooks though. For instance a person who follows the Aristotelian metaphysics will clearly place more effort in cultivating her intelligence, whereas a person who follows the Confucian relational metaphysics will pay more attention to learning rituals that would harmonize interpersonal relations. This approach opens up the possibility of allowing multiple competing visions of excellence, including the metaphysics or religious beliefs by which they are understood and guided, and justification of these beliefs is then left to the concrete human experiences.

The kung fu approach does not entail that might is right. This is one reason why it is more appropriate to consider kung fu as a form of art. Art is not ultimately measured by its dominance of the market. In addition, the function of art is not accurate reflection of the real world; its expression is not constrained to the form of universal principles and logical reasoning, and it requires cultivation of the artist, embodiment of virtues/virtuosities, and imagination and creativity. If philosophy is “a way of life,” as Pierre Hadot puts it, the kung fu approach suggests that we take philosophy as the pursuit of the art of living well, and not just as a narrowly defined rational way of life.


[1] York, Geoffrey, “Battling Clichés in Birthplace of Kung Fu,” in The Globe and Mail Nov. 3, 2005.

[2] Herbert Fingarette (1972): “Confucius —The Secular as Sacred,” New York: Harper & Row, 4-6.

[3] See Pierre Hadot (1995): “Philosophy as a Way of Life,” Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, and Martha Nussbaum (1994): “The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics,” Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Published at: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/08/kung-fu-for-philosophers/