24 May 2011

More on (Martial) Science versus (Martial) Art

I think more and more that 'art' in combative or martial arts is probably the right word. It is and must be a creative, spontaneous process. The logical part of the brain, the one that tries to remember what you were taught or what you 'should' do is too slow. But so is the creative part, if it is bounded. – Rory Miller (Violence Expert)

In previous posts I've been quite adamant that I do not consider Taekwon-Do a martial science, but rather “a martial art based on certain scientific principles.” One reason I feel so strongly about this is because Taekwon-Do claims to be a system of self-defence. Self-defence presupposes chaos and uncertainty. For a scientific system to function effectively, chaos and uncertainty cannot exist.

In previous posts I tried to explain in what way Taekwon-Do is to be understood as an art (see here and here). In this post I will discuss an occasion in which Taekwon-Do is indeed a science and then see how we can merge these two concepts resulting in a “martial art based on scientific principles.”

While I strongly believe that Taekwon-Do is not a science, there are many aspects of Taekwon-Do that is indeed scientific. Probably the best illustration of this is found in one of ITF Taekwon-Do's sport categories: power breaking.

Source: C J Photographers
In a tournament, power breaking involves the breaking of wooden (pine) boards or special plastic boards that can be reassembled afterwards known as rebreakable boards. Sometimes bricks, tiles, ice, wooden poles and even flat stones are also broken. The objects are broken with Taekwon-Do techniques, such as punches, strikes and kicks. Heavy people can break such things with mere brute muscular strength. Surprisingly, smaller individuals are also able to do astonishing breaking, although they are lighter in weight and weaker in strength. How do they accomplish it? They achieve this through the application of certain scientific (Newtonian) principles. Power breaking is an aspect of ITF Taekwon-Do that is wholly scientific. Effective breaking is only achieved if scientific principles such as angle of force, penetration of force, duration of force, momentum (mass and speed) are correctly applied. One can increase the force of the technique by scientifically adjusting the angle, the penetration, the duration and momentum. You practise this over and over again, perfecting your technique. This is possible because the variables are so few: the boards do not randomly change in density; the boards do not randomly change position; the boards do not randomly change angle; the boards do not have a mind of their own and don't dodge as you punch them or try to kick you as you come close; the boards do not have friends that attack you from behind; the boards do not jump you in a parking lot when you least expect it. It is easy to be scientific when you can control or manipulate the variables. It requires something else completely when you do not control and cannot predict the variables.

Below is the scene from Enter the Dragon where Bruce Lee famously says: "Boards don't hit back."

Certain aspects of Taekwon-Do like power breaking, special technique breaking, and even prearranged sparring can be very scientific. If Taekwon-Do was limited to these aspects only, then it would definitely have been a martial science, since we can control or predict the variables as one can control and predict the variables in a scientific experiment. But Taekwon-Do claims to be more. It claims to ultimately be a form of self-defence. Real occurrences of self-defence do not occur in a closed system like a scientific experiment. Instead, self-defence occurs in the chaos of life, where science must make room for creativity, spontaneity, and improvisation. (Creativity, spontaneity, and improvisation tend to be exceedingly 'unscientific' activities.) In other words, real self-defence requires an artistic expression, rather than a purely scientific aptitude.

However, ITF Taekwon-Do does rely heavily on scientific principles gained from Newtonian physics, biomechanics and anatomy. We use these scientific fields as the maxims for moving our bodies and approaching the bodies of our opponents, in the same way as a painter approaches his paints, brushes and canvas according to a certain “art manifesto.”

While some aspects of ITF Taekwon-Do can be defined “scientific,” the system as a whole is better defined as “a martial art based on certain scientific principles.”

Read More:

  • "A Principle Based (Martial) Art", in which I discuss the idea of a martial art based on scientific principles and compare it to other arts based on a manifesto.
  • "Should one always move this way?", in which I discuss the two schools of thought: the one a wholly scientific approach and the other a more creative approach that embraces improvisation. 

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