Talk given at the APA Pacific Meeting, 9th April 2021, Society for the Study of Philosophy and the Martial Arts
The TV series ‘Cobra Kai’ brings up some interesting philosophical and practical questions about the teaching of martial arts (MA). I will reflect on these questions and try to come up with some answers. We are presented with two styles of teaching. One is hard and aggressive (Johnny Lawrence from Cobra Kai), the other soft and empathic (Daniel LaRusso from Miyagi Do). The Karate competition invites the following questions: Is it ok to fight dirty, if this gives you victory? Can you use the rules strategically? Can you break the rules to gain an advantage? Isn’t it a hollow victory when you target a pre-existing injury of your opponent deliberately? In a good competition you bring out the best in each other. ‘You want to beat your opponent when s/he is at her/his strongest.’ This reflects the tension in MA teaching whenever there is a sports side (competition). Winning at all cost will be in conflict with MA values: winning honourably, exhibiting indomitable spirit, etc.
A new paradigm has emerged in literature and acting. Imagination and artistic ability are suspect unless they are accompanied by personal experience. This is the latest prescription in the arts. Social justice activists demand authenticity, if the art in question is from or about someone who belongs to a minority. As a consequence, the art of acting may be dying out, as the persona on stage and screen must be close to who you actually are, in real life. Moreover, literature and literary translations will have to be informed by first-hand experience, rather than spring from the writer’s imagination and facility with language.
In the Old Testament, we read: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” God could make things happen by saying the appropriate words. We also read in the Bible: “In the beginning was the Word.” The idea that words have power is still with us. Take superstition: actors don’t want to utter the title of “The Scottish Play” inside a theatre, because it may lead to disaster. Even today, my mother (aged 87) curses “bad” people who cross her. She condemns them (in her native Croatian) to eternal punishment in Hell: “Be damned, and damned again!” In some cultures, words have magical powers, like spells. The anthropologist S.J. Tambiah tells us: “In Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism the view has been strictly held that in religious ceremonies the sacred words recited should be in the language of the authorized sacred texts.”
I was reminded of the power of the word when I read a post on a philosophy notice board: “I identify as a French philosopher.” The funny thing is that this young thinker actually is French and does teach philosophy at a university. They don’t identify into these categories, nor need they.
Our cousins across the pond ask: ‘Why is Britain a hotbed of transphobia?’ The most obvious explanation to them is to project the situation in the US to Britain. Over there, it is the Republican party, Trumpists, the Alt Right, and the religious Right who resist trans ideology. Whereas the Democratic party, leftists, and many feminists in US academia have embraced the transgender cause.
In Britain we have an independent movement of feminists who fight for the rights of women, rather than trying to roll back trans rights (this would be a right-wing agenda, although it does exist here too). In the UK, until recently, all major political parties had signed up to wide-ranging trans-inclusive policies. In the previous legislative period (under Theresa May, 2016-2019), the governing party (Tories) wanted to reform the 2004 UK Gender Recognition Act (GRA), to introduce self-ID, among other things. Yes, you have read that right, the Conservative party was a champion for trans rights. The Labour party, the Liberal Democrats and the Green party had all committed to further the trans cause.
This lack of political representation for those who had reservations about these developments (mostly women) led to the forming of organisations like Woman’s Place UK and Fair Play For Women – both allegedly ‘transphobic’, but in reality nothing of the kind. Feminism and the fight for women’s rights is historically a cause of the Left. I suspect that most of the women in these organisations are former Labour party members, trade unionists, and perhaps some unaffiliated women. The Labour party has traditionally strong ties to the trade union movement; their approach to politics is class based. This is missing in the US, where socialism and the left have always been weak, just like their trade unions. The Democratic party is not interested in the materialist basis of inequalities. Party affiliation there is more about identity.
We, in the UK, also now have our own explicitly Left-wing radical feminist magazine, The Radical Notion, which is ‘run by an all-women collective of radical and socialist feminists. [They] are are committed to the materialist analysis of sex-based oppression’.
So, the British resistance to the erosion of women’s rights through the proposed change in legislation is a fight which was started by the political left, but it also has a right wing offshoot. Our own Posie Parker, founder and head of Standing for Women, has become a darling of the right. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the power and influence her organisation has in the UK. But she is not representative of UK feminism as a whole – and is poles apart from organisations such as WPUK, which are fighting on a left-wing basis to uphold women’s rights.
Interestingly, since Boris Johnson took office, the Tories have made an about turn: no more reform of the GRA in the foreseeable future. Now, this looks like a typical conservative policy: family values, etc. But it is more likely to be a pragmatic move than an ideological one. After all, half of the population are women and you don’t want to alienate them. [Forget the polls by Stonewall, alleging that most people in the UK support the transgender cause. Stonewall has become what Pravda used to be in the Soviet Union.] The Tories have abandoned many conservative values in favour of staying in power. We have seen something similar in the Blair era – the Labour party, all of a sudden, had an entrepreneurial flavour. Politics in Britain is not primarily about values anymore, it’s a game to stay in power. But the resistance among women of the left is alive and well.
There is agreement that transwomen, like everyone else, have a right to participate in sports. But there is controversy about the following question: Do they have a right to compete in the female category?
In a forthcoming paper, the philosopher and transwoman athlete, Veronica Ivy (previously: Rachel McKinnon), claims that she has no choice but to compete in the female category in cycling: ‘the rules of elite sport require athletes to compete in the sex category on their race license. If your license says ‘F,’ then you must compete in the female category.’ Here, Ivy aims to counter the charge that she is ‘identifying into the sex category of her choice’.
This justification brings up interesting questions about the purpose of sport and competition. My view is that sport aims to give us a ‘fair measure of performance’ (on the day). If transwomen, on average, have a considerable advantage over women, due to their male physiology, then, I could just ignore this and say: ‘My racing license…says ‘F’, so I have no choice but to compete in the female category.’
If we can improve our language, by making concepts (roughly: the meaning of words) more precise or by naming something so far unnamed, we should do so. This is what motivates “conceptual engineering,” a relatively new branch of philosophy. 
The engineers of language and thought don’t just restrict themselves to making words more precise, they also want to make them “better.” The latter is called ‘conceptual ethics’. It’s not just about what words mean; it’s about what words should mean.
Conceptual engineering has been taken up by some feminist philosophers. A central concept in feminist philosophy is ‘woman’. Ordinarily it means “adult human female,” but some feminists would like to include transwomen under the term ‘woman’. This view is now widely accepted in academic feminism. If you dare to question this, you will be considered “transphobic,” as Kathleen Stock, a philosophy professor at the University of Sussex, has experienced.
By Vicky Unwin & Miroslav Imbrišević (translation)
Max Ungar (1850-1930) was born in Boskovice, Moravia, and pursued an academic career at Vienna University [Franz Brentano was one of his examiners] after which he took over the failing family business. His memoirs describe his escape from Orthodox Judaism into a century of high liberalism and the turning to science and knowledge and his failure to achieve the humanism that he was devoted to as a result of anti-Semitism.
Max was the son of an Orthodox Jew born in Boskovice, Moravia, and pursued a scientific career in Vienna University after which he took over the failing family business. He returned to Vienna for a few years before coming home to Brno in a private capacity. His memoirs encapsulate many multi-faceted change processes. Although he wrote his memoirs chronologically, there is a recognisable leitmotif: on the one hand his escape from Orthodox Judaism into a century of high liberalism and the turning to science and knowledge; while on the other hand it charts his failure as a devotee of the humanism he was dedicated to as result of his pursuit of science and knowledge. In this respect Max Ungar’s reminiscences written in 1928 but covering the period 1855 – 1892/1928 are particularly significant for their overlapping topics: for its Jewish history during the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in the 19th century and for the portrayal of identity in the modern period.
He concentrates on important events in his life, passing the matura/school exam. Helping in his father’s business. Falling in love, keeping the engagement a secret, while at university. His time at university and his love of mathematics. Also the academic intrigues and pettiness – not much has changed. Then leaving academic life and working in the business. Trying to get back into academia 5 years later, but without success. His home life, travels with family, visiting friends, information about his wider family: who married whom, how they met, who died, etc. Stories from the business. The difficult relationship with his father. His critical stance towards Judaism. He also relates incidents of anti-semitism in business but also at university.
Ungar’s memoirs have previously only been available in the original German. Translation into English by Miroslav Imbrišević. The book is free to download here:
Sixteen years ago I decided to start a Top Ten of the most overrated papers in philosophy. To date, there is still only one entry in my Top Ten: Edmund Gettier’s short essay from 1963: Is Justified True Belief Knowledge? Here is why I don’t rate the paper: