There is something about testing oneself. I try my best to seek out challenges against which I can measure my abilities. The tougher the challenge the better, so long as I can take the time to work my way up the skill ladder toward high level competence. Once my training is done, however, I want to push myself against the very best available to see what kind of obstacle I can overcome. It is only upon contact with the highest level of challenge that one truly knows who and what one is. Without that external check, one’s internal processing can veer unimpeded toward fantasy and romance, leading one to believe all kinds of distortions about oneself and the world. It is in facing a serious challenge that reckoning takes place, bringing with it clarity, knowledge, and insight. Since understanding oneself is the goal of philosophy, and one cannot understand oneself without understanding one’s environment, facing up to serious challenge is the essence of philosophy. That is why philosophers debate: we offer counter-examples, raise objections, propose thought-experiments, and construct arguments in order to challenge our own views as well as those of others whose views we are considering as, possibly, our own.
This is, however, also why we fight. I am not talking about warfare or street fights, nor about heated anger, backstabbing, undermining, or political takedowns, though those may have some features in common with what I am discussing. No, I primarily mean combat sports: boxing, MMA, Muay Thai, etc. To enter into the boxing ring, for example, is to face a serious challenge head-on. To test oneself against another person in controlled combat is to check one’s inner beliefs against the outside world. Am I a good fighter? Am I really in shape? Might I make the Olympic Team? Could I handle myself if my life were threatened? Etc. These are the sorts of questions that only others can answer for you, by standing across from you and attempting to knock you out, or at least down. Of course, nobody should step into the ring without adequate training. You must get fit and skilled by putting in the hours of working out, practicing, and managing one’s diet and sleep. Nonetheless, after all that is done, there is only one way to know how good one is, and that is to face the challenge of another fighter.
One of the many interesting things about my personal favourite, boxing, is that it demonstrates a fine balance between rules and control, on the one hand, and creativity and unpredictability, on the other. The basic principle of boxing is simplicity: four basic punches, simple footwork, efficient defence. The goal is to combine these elements unpredictably to sow confusion in your opponent, which opens up defence and allows one to strike. Ultimately, one aims to defeat one’s opponent, but the true goal is to know oneself: if one is good enough here, then one can push for even better fight partners; if not, one must step back and retrain.
Now, the fight must be fair for the simple reason that if not, then the result tells us nothing about how good we are as combatants, and this holds especially for the victor. That is why enlightening combat must have rules and while, in general, the limits of boxing are agreed upon in advance, referees exist to, in part, enforce the limits. For these reasons, street fights and backstabbing attacks in the workplace have limited philosophical value for the attacker: victory will occur without any gain in self-knowledge. There may be something to learn about how one reacts to an unfair, unprovoked attack, but the assailant will certainly learn nothing of value about himself/herself. These are not, therefore, good fights. One must fight fairly for oneself as much as for one’s opponent, for otherwise the opportunity for philosophical insight is destroyed.
So I remain unsurprised by the fact that I am drawn to both boxing and philosophy. I understand why the ancient philosophers saw combat training as part of a philosophical life, and I am drawn to the interpretation of a philosopher such as Epictetus as a kind of wrestling coach (see here for an interesting take). Put simply, there is no philosophy without understanding, and there is no understanding without challenge.
Philosophy is often portrayed nowadays as excessively combative (see, for example, the opening paragraphs of this interesting essay) and while, much as in boxing, one can certainly step out of bounds in philosophical debate – and unfortunately, there are no referees to bring things back in bounds – in general, I am suspicious of this complaint. Intellectual combat, within the rules and conducted fairly of course, is necessary to test one’s beliefs for philosophical value. It is far too easy for anyone to get lost in flights of fancy dressed up in philosophical language, but ultimately leading nowhere. Much as one can be the greatest boxer in the world in one’s mind, one can be the purveyor of the greatest philosophical knowledge in one’s mind. Training in the gym is some indication of one’s skill in combat, but only a good opponent can tell us the truth. Similarly, a coherent philosophical system is some indication of insight, but only philosophical combatants can reveal the truth. Too much sympathy with a philosopher’s views can in fact be counter-productive for him/her if it interferes with the level of critical engagement required to see just how far the views can be pushed.
Certainly philosophical exchange should be fair and reasonable, without personal, gratuitous, or otherwise inappropriate attacks because victory by such means tells us nothing about ourselves as philosophers. However, I think philosophical debate, like all intellectual pursuits, is inevitably combative and rightly so. This can lead to painful experiences, to be sure, but pain is a large part of learning, as any boxer will tell you after he/she drops his hands in front of a good coach! Philosophers should not shy away from the combative elements of the discipline, though we should do what we can to abide by fair standards and rules that apply to all. I wonder what the philosophical equivalent of a weight-class would be…
Oh, and if you are in Kingston and want to learn how to box, here is the place to go.