The Need for Theory

“The liquidation of theory by dogmatization and thought taboos contributed to the bad practice; the recovery of theory’s independence lies in the interest of practice itself. The interrelation of both moments is not settled once for all but fluctuates historically. Today, with theory paralyzed and disparaged by the all-governing bustle, its mere existence, however impotent, bears witness against the bustle. This is why theory is legitimate and why it is hated; without it, there would be no changing the practice that constantly calls for change.” [1]

 – Theodor Adorno


The quotation above, written by German philosopher Theodor Adorno, addresses the tendency in modern society to dismiss or disregard the importance of theory, in favour of practice. However, Adorno raises the point that actual practice is often found inadequate, and as a consequence constantly “calls for change”– and the only way that this change can be accomplished is by means of better theory.

From a martial arts perspective, the same tension exists today. Traditional martial arts are, in some circles, being shunted aside in favour of new-age, more “practical” fighting arts. MMA’s popularity, both within circles of laymen and serious martial artists, attests to the contemporary interest in being able to claim, “ ‘You can talk and philosophize all day long, but we know — and practice — what works.’ ”[2]

The image that most people have of traditional martial arts its is a group of misfits wearing strange costumes, repeating ambiguous and arbitrary techniques while occasionally making guttural noises. In many cases, this is unfortunately accurate. Especially in fighting traditions that originated in East Asia, a great deal of the appeal has worn off simply because there is not as much mysticism surrounding Asian culture as perhaps there once was. The pseudo-Zen qualities that were once considered the main purpose of training no longer seem adequate for many people who wish to develop not only their character, but their fighting skill as well.

So in many classical martial arts, the established practice is calling for change. It is possible to haphazardly alter elements of your established practice, hoping to hit on the right combination to suddenly develop students who are satisfied with the learning process, but doing so is simply a shot in the dark. To paraphrase Adorno, it is impractical to not have a good theory behind your practice.

This is not to say that theoretical knowledge is an adequate replacement for training. Information and understanding are “meaningless if you don’t train.”[3] The body has to be conditioned to respond with fundamentally sound techniques under duress, which is no easy feat.

A large number of students are not interested in theory; they want to reach ahead to the end results without undergoing the rigours of the learning process. They want to become better at fighting without understanding the theories at work in their fighting styles.

Some theory that I have collected over the years.

Many teachers, especially in more established martial arts traditions, are equally dismissive of the importance of theory. Their attitudes project the impression that their martial arts, since they have been taught for a number of generations, cannot be improved upon by modern theory. While there is certainly no need to reinvent the wheel, the fact remains that many classical martial arts traditions have become more focused on aesthetics than practical self-defense technique; hence the current discontent with MRT (Mindless Repetition Training) and practicing simply for the vague goal of “self improvement”.

So how can those interested in doing so revive the classical martial arts to a point where they are considered as effective as the variety of modern methods that are popping up and declaring their superiority? The only way to “chang[e] the practice that constantly calls for change” is through better theory[4].

For this situation to improve significantly, more students and teachers need to take an active interest in theory, rather than hurrying to undermine it. Theory would include research into anatomy and physics, the psychology of violence, crime statistics, and the historical premise behind the development of the martial art.

For the classical martial arts, looking to the past is an effective way of changing today’s theory. While it is true that our contemporary practice methods are a direct result of the history of our respective martial arts, it is also true that, at one time, almost any martial art that is currently criticized as being impractical or overly ritualized was developed—and ultimately employed—as a method of fighting. The fact that these traditions have survived to the modern day is testament to the fact that they were once effective in that capacity. Thus, the more we can discover about the old practices, the closer we come to replicating the same process that once made effective fighters out of their practitioners.

It is also important to employ all of the information that we have access to. More advanced science behind anatomy, bio-mechanics, fitness, and injury management gives our generation an advantage over our predecessors. Similarly, our ability to cross-compare between different fighting styles and methods allows us to see how elements of our arts could be supplemented by borrowing from other traditions. I’m certain that if the old masters had had YouTube at their disposal, they’d be utilizing it at every opportunity.

Books are low calorie and an excellent source of knowledge.

While it is obvious that the fighting arts change over time to accommodate the aims of the people practicing them, it is easy to forget that we are also a part of that process. We train with different goals than those who trained one hundred years ago, just as they trained with different goals than those who trained two hundred years ago. Today, theory is needed to help us understand why we train. If we have a clear purpose for our practice, than theory becomes the bridge that allows us to cross from our desired goals to training methods that support those goals. Otherwise, we may know what we want to accomplish, but we will never be able to develop a practice that will get us there.


[1]Adorno, Theodor W. Negative Dialectics.The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005. Pg. 143.

[2]Clayton, Bruce. Shotokan’s Secret.Ohara Publications. 2004. Pg. 129.

[3]Thalken, Jason. Fight Like a Physicist.YMAA Publication Centre, 2015. Pg. 137.

[4]Adorno, 2005. Pg. 143.

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