Aikido: Learning things cognitively vs. learning things corporeally

aikido 1Some concluding thoughts to follow up on my last post On Experimentation in Aikido.

Some of the more vexing issues that come up with regard to the formal or ritualistic aspects of training in Aikido and other martial arts can be illuminated if we consider the difference between learning things cognitively and learning things corporeally. In the first we build up knowledge through an explicit explanation of things – we say we know something when it is represented clearly by ideas in the mind. In the second we build up knowledge through feeling in to things—we say we know something when we sense it, feel it, or when it becomes lodged in our muscle memory. The first is representational knowledge; the second is not.

The feeling of being centered or off balance for example is simply felt. We do not need to represent it in thought or describe it conceptually to feel it, although it would be a mistake to say we know it “naturally.”

The fact is that most of us are, in general, products of a logocentric school system. We are used to learning by having things explained to us conceptually. This is learning from within a well-worn comfort zone. Having to learn things without them being explained to us often takes us out of this comfort zone. This situation characterizes a lot of the experience of training in traditional martial arts like Aikido where etiquette and the formal nature of practice often restrict talking, questioning and explaining.

A passage in Mitsugi Saotome’s Aikido and the Harmony of Nature (1993) illustrates the point. Saotome writes concerning his years training as an Uchi-deshi (live-in student-apprentice) with O’Sensei that:

Almost every day I received ukemi (the techniques of falling, the act of receiving the force and saving yourself from injury) from O Sensei, and through those experiences I slowly began to grasp the connection of the movements of Aikido with those of the universe. Many of those times remain vivid, a flashback as clear as this moment and deeply remembered; every nerve in my body contains its own individual living memory of the feel of his power. It is not an intellectual memory, but one of emotion and sensation, and in the attempt to give it voice lies the danger of misunderstanding (43).

What Saotome describes as having been learned through the body in his training is not only how to fall, nor just, however complexly, “the feel” of O Sensei’s power, but true insight into the “movements of the universe.” The danger in trying to impart this knowledge is the necessary mistranslation that occurs when a body’s knowledge is conveyed into language. A bodily “thing” is translated onto another register where it is drawn by the codes of language into a symbolic order of signifiers, signifieds and linguistic relations alien to it. To explain something in language or ideas (ex-planare) carries the sense of laying or unfolding it out flat (on a plain)—to make-plain. But can one unfurl what is in its original state furled without distorting, destroying or misunderstanding it?

What does it mean to learn something through the body? to learn something non-conceptually? Michel Foucault seems to go out of his way in the first lecture from his 1981-1982 course on the ancient ‘care of the self’  to demarcate a certain set of practices of the self as ‘spiritual.’ He notes that what qualifies these as spiritual is not their spiritual content so much as the requirement that, in these practices, access to truth is given only to those who transform themselves in a fundamental way. “Spirituality postulates that the subject as such does not have right of access to the truth and is not capable of having access to the truth.…It postulates that for the subject to have right of access to the truth he must be changed, transformed, shifted, and become, to some extent and up to a certain point, other than himself” (2005: 15-16).

The martial arts are an interesting case in point. They are practices of the self in which truths are necessarily learned through the transformation of the experiencing body. The truths of moving together, balance, center, line, thrust, spontaneity, gravity, and lightness, etc. can certainly be described in language and represented cognitively, but only through hours or perhaps years of bodily training can they said to be “known,” or more precisely “felt.” These truths can arguably only be accessed through a transformation of the body—not just in the sense of the acquisition of conditioning, skills or techniques, but in a transformation of how one “lives in” the body itself.

osenseiMany practitioners reject, or at least do not take an interest in, the overtly spiritual content of many of the Eastern martial arts, O’ Sensei’s Omoto-kyo Shintoism for example. In the West matters of “the spirit” are associated with matters of “belief,” “faith,” “revelation,” “esotericism,” or “the supernatural,” which seem diametrically opposed to the purely pragmatic concerns with the physical effectiveness of martial technique. In the ascetic traditions of the West, being spiritual often implies an explicit renunciation of the knowledge or truths of the “flesh” to eliminate from everyday life everything that is not godlike.

Nevertheless, the martial arts can be considered spiritual practices to the degree that one can only learn their “secrets” through a thorough and fundamental transformation of experience. The knowledge is ‘withheld’ until the subject is transformed. This has to be understood as a transformation of the body itself, the “living, attentive body” as Merleau Ponty might say. It is not a knowledge available to everyone, but a knowledge that presupposes that “to some extent and up to a certain point” one becomes “other than oneself.”

How one becomes-other seems to be at the heart of martial arts training.  Hence the fascination with matters of the spirit in the discourses surrounding the martial arts: the martial artist as shaman, the martial artist as monk, the “eye of the tiger” (Rocky), “may the force be with you” (Star Wars), etc. It is as if the process of bodily transformation that the martial artist passes through must be wrapped up and protected by dojo etiquette, sacred practices and purification rituals because: (a) transformation is dangerous; (b) transformation is a dimension of existence that belongs to the Gods.  As purely material things—the mute res extensa of Descartes’ concept of the body–we would be simply inert mechanisms. We do not have a ‘secular’ language to express the knowledge and potentials of the body. Thus, as Saotome suggests, the danger in trying to impart this knowledge is the necessary mistranslation that occurs when a body’s knowledge is conveyed into language.

But as my old philosophy professor Alan Drengson argues, a lot of the spiritual esotericism in the literature we have come to associate with the martial arts—the Tao Te Ching for example—is a product of the poetry and art of paradox the philosophers relied on to bend language to the task of explaining and describing the experience of the body. Is there another, non-spiritual language that would allow us to think and experiment with the knowledge of the body? Maybe, but the task is complex and the parallels between dojo etiquette and sacred interdictions serve a purpose. Ordinary language is too literal, too distorting. As Bruce Lee said, “Don’t think. FEEL. It’s like a finger pointing at the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all of the heavenly glory.”


Foucault, Michel. 2005. The Hermeneutics of the Subject:  Lectures at the College de France, 1981-1982.  Edited by Frédéric Gros. New York: Palgrave Macmillan   

Saotome, Mitsugi. 1993. Aikido and the Harmony of Nature.  Translated by Patricia Saotome. Boston: Shambhala

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One thought on “Aikido: Learning things cognitively vs. learning things corporeally

  1. Pingback: On Experimentation in Aikido: The Wedge and the Wand | William Little's Sociology Web Page

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