Striking Beauty: A Philosophical Look at the Asian Martial Arts

Barry Allen. Columbia Univ., $30 (288p) ISBN 978-0-231-17272-1
According to this fascinating, challenging treatise from McMaster University philosophy professor Allen (Vanishing into Things: Knowledge in Chinese Tradition), the uninitiated often see Asian martial arts as nothing more than a mix of sport and combat, but there is also a great deal of beauty in the discipline. Allen, himself trained in kung fu, wushu, taijiquan, wing chun, karate, and hapkido, attempts to unravel the central paradox of martial arts—that they are imbued with both beauty and violence. He begins with quotes from ancient Chinese texts, tracing the growth of martial arts alongside the ideas and practices of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. He contrasts these systems of belief with the philosophy of the ancient Greeks, in particular the mind-body divide. Allen then compares the aesthetics of martial arts to dance, drawing the distinction that dance is endotelic (“actions that contain their end in their doing”), while martial arts, originally designed for violence, can be performed without it. In his final chapter, Allen ruminates on the place of violence in civilization, asking whether it truly possesses what Yeats called “a terrible beauty,” and ultimately concluding that the essential value of martial arts lies outside their function in combat. He acknowledges that his book may be more approachable for “philosophers curious about the martial arts than... martial arts practitioners seeking a philosophy of their practice.” Allen’s inquiry is certainly esoteric enough that outsiders will be unlikely to fully appreciate it. (Aug.)
Reviewed on: 06/22/2015
Release date: 08/01/2015
Genre: Nonfiction
Ebook - 288 pages - 978-0-231-53934-0
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