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  • Striking Beauty: A Philosophical Look at the Asian Martial Arts by Barry Allen
  • Johnathan Flowers (bio)
Striking Beauty: A Philosophical Look at the Asian Martial Arts. By Barry Allen. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. Pp. 252. Hardcover $30.00, isbn 978-0-231-17272-1.

Striking Beauty: A Philosophical Look at the Asian Martial Arts by Barry Allen is the first English-language book to engage in a systematic investigation of the philosophical underpinnings of the Asian martial arts. In doing so, it aims to construct the Asian martial arts, specifically the Chinese martial traditions, as a field for comparative philosophy, wherein the investigation of Chinese philosophy through the martial traditions can provide illumination into Western questions of aesthetics, ethics, self-hood, and intentionality. Barry Allen's own devotion to the study of the martial arts informs his philosophical investigations: rather than treat the Chinese martial and philosophical traditions as valuable only in reference to what they can provide to the established Western canon, Allen treats the martial traditions as philosophically valuable on their own. In doing so, Allen's investigation demonstrates the need to engage with Asian philosophy through the martial arts in order to reshape many of the presumptions held by philosophers and non-philosophers alike.

In his text, Allen presents the martial arts as constantly in tension. Specifically, the primary tension that Allen addresses is that between the martial arts, dance, and sport. While the motions of the martial arts are similar to dance or sport, Allen takes this similarity to be rooted in the athletic movements common to all three activities. More specifically, athletic movements are the result of a collection of practices governed by the rules of a practice community, a particular style of dance or sport, which go beyond ordinary physical performance. In the case of dance and sport, these practices are effective in the medium for which they were developed: a football player's field goal kick is effective only within the context of kicking a field goal, and not in other mediums. However, the distinction between the martial arts, sports, and dance is the value of the martial arts as weapons.

This value, which is present as the "expressive intentionality" of the martial arts, is one of the primary distinctions between a combat sport and a martial art. For Allen, dance movements are performed for the sake of the dance, without any value beyond the dance; sports movements are performed for the sake of competition, and express that nature. However, "movement in martial arts has a clear aim and direction, and its design, shape, force, and spirit is a weaponed response to violence" (p. 137), and it is this aim and direction that forms the core of the aesthetic appearance of the martial arts, and their distinction from sport or dance.

While the martial arts express violence as a result of their design as weapons, the purpose of the execution of technique is not necessarily violent. This "purpose of action" emphasizes yet another distinction between the martial arts and combative [End Page 304] sports: in a traditional training setting, the intention to do violence to a training partner never enters into the practice; in a combative sport, a violent purpose is necessary in order to accomplish the aims set by the rules of the competition. Violence as a purpose of action is therefore necessary in the practices of combat sports, whereas violence emerges only in the expressive intentionality of the martial arts.

The distinctions between sport, dance, and the martial arts expressed above form the core of the "aesthetic paradox" of the martial arts that Allen expresses in his Epilogue: "designed for violence and visibly expressing that functionality, the martial arts are not practiced with a violent purpose and do no harm" (p. 206), which is to say that the aesthetic expression of the martial arts is paradoxical when contrasted with the "purpose of action" of the practitioner (p. 136). While this might be the ideal state of the martial arts, Allen's treatment of the philosophical and historical conditions that have given rise to the Chinese systems under investigation in his text makes clear that the intention to...


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pp. 304-306
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