View Full Version : The Problem of Interpretation

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Erick Mead
12-04-2011, 12:22 PM
"Human behavior is determined not by what really happened, but by the interpretation of what happened."
Rene Girard

In viewing a number of historical and current debates on the subject of aikido and its interpretation, I am struck by a fundamental division between those proceeding first from the "why" and those proceeding first from the "how." It seems to me that this problem of interpretation is a fundamental issue for the history and the future of aikido as an art. There is, at present a sort of rampant vigor in the pursuit of certain schools of "how." Disputes on a similar basis are evident in the history of the art as well.

Indeed, those involved in the current movement on this front seem entirely content to disregard the question of "why" as unimportant or dispensable to the interpretation of aikido for purposes of training. This is an express exclusion, explicitly stated by at least one proponent, who would leave questions of "why" to the individual practitioners -- after achieving a certain preferred interpretation of the "how" in physical practice.

"We do not have knowledge of a thing until we have grasped its why, that is to say, its cause."
Aristotle, Physics.
This approach leaves the "why" aspect of interpretation, essentially, completely divorced from the understanding and interpretation of the physical practice itself. And yet, this presently very vocal and active interpretation of the "how" uses language of capability (strength, power), which seems, at least to me, to become a substitute "why" in the interpretation of the art as a whole. It is never explicitly acknowledged as such. But because this is only implicit, I fear we are beginning to mistake the why's and how's.

Why ask Why (http://social-tango.com/why-answering-why-is-the-most-important-part-to-get-right-first/)?

Because if you don't know the why of a thing the how doesn't matter. ...So I ask you this question.
Why are you doing what you are doing?
Billy Delaney

If I need physical power of violence in a situation, I may far more easily get a gun. Even in a country without a present tradition of private arms, a speeding vehicle will suffice just as well, and in largely disarmed societies (as Japan was, in its late tradition) there are much more surreptitious and highly effective ways of visiting violence against an opponent, if necessary, and without any confrontation whatsoever. None of these are advocated or recommended, but as means of violence go, history is replete with examples. If the "why" of the practice is a more capable and effective use of violent means, poison and bullets work quite well, and with less effort.

Aikido does not involve such means. The "hows" of aikido involved personal confrontation and involvement in a mutually acknowledged violent encounter of persons -- as persons -- and not merely the most expedient removal (actually or figuratively) of people who are obstacles to the designs of one's will. The question of "why" seems therefore , to me, the more critical than the "how" to an interpretation of aikido as an attempt to understand the practice of violence in human behavior, physically and socially. The results of training encounters in aikido were not meant (even in the Founder's day) to satisfy ego in personal competition nor even to establish social hierarchy based on technical merit, as such. Indeed in a literally 'family' art the latter idea makes no sense.

The latter point has been in fact much criticized in observing the nature and presumed technical merits (or demerits) of that hierarchy. Even acknowledging a degree of deficit in the "hows" as practiced by some (more or less widely, one cannot easily determine), it seems to me that aikido -- as aikido -- takes the "whys" as primary and the "hows" as secondary. And this seems in danger of being lost.

I wonder therefore if my concerns about present trends and the nature of the art as it was given to me are shared or not shared.

Are we sure we know why we are doing what we are doing?

12-04-2011, 01:31 PM
Form follows function. The elegance of the Japanese sword is a direct result of its functional goals.

In other words, I agree that the "why" is important.

On the other hand, a swordsmith's forge could just as easily be used to make shovels. Any given "how" can support many different "whys." So I don't think a focus on "how" really displaces contemplation of "why." Quite the contrary, it supports it. Until you know how to use a forge, you can't choose to make shovels *or* swords.


graham christian
12-04-2011, 03:37 PM
I agree that in general the whys are missing. O'Sensei gave many whys but but most didn't understand.

I'm afraid not being aware enough to see they whys leaves only hows and false reasons.