InYo: Journal of Alternative Perspectives Dec 2000
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Understanding Ancient Martial Arts Texts: Pooh and Hermeneutics

By Kendall Giles

Copyright © Kendall Giles 2000. All rights reserved.


"This must be the beginning of the article, or the ending, depending on your point of view," said Pooh.

He was standing on his tiptoes trying to peer over the tabletop edge to see what it was that I was writing.

"It looks like the end to me -- I'm not tall enough to see the beginning," he humphed, sitting down at last on a stack of books by my side.

But whether this is the beginning or the end, it serves as a waypoint on your path towards a greater subjective understanding. Such is the nature of hermeneutics.

"Hermeneutics? I'd love some," said Pooh, his attention caught once again.


Broadly stated, hermeneutics is a research method that focuses on the study of reading meaning in human behavior. Its origins derive from the process of interpreting ancient religious texts and it has evolved into "interpreting the unfamiliar and alien" [Lee, 1994, p. 148].

Some might say that martial arts deals with human behavior and that the various techniques, rituals, and movements that the various martial arts profess appear unfamiliar and alien to outsiders or beginners. ("Understatement," muttered Pooh.) Therefore understanding hermeneutics could help outsiders and beginners better understand the art being studied.

Furthermore, scholars dedicated to resurrecting techniques and movements sometimes find interpreting and comprehending ancient texts to provide a formidable challenge. For example, in some Japanese martial arts, techniques were brushed on scrolls by leaders of the particular schools and subsequently passed down to those who took over the schools. Present-day owners of these scrolls (presumably present-day leaders of those schools) interpret the techniques based on their own inclinations, experience, and their master's teachings. While these interpretations may be different from what the original author intended, in theory the old understanding is still known. On the other hand, while Western martial arts practitioners have compendiums of techniques presented as bound manuals, such as Fiore de' Liberi's Flos Duellatorum ('Flower of Battle'), written in 1410, or Hans Talhoffer's Alte Armatur und Ringkunst ('Old Armament and Art of Fight'), written in 1459, neither the ancient maitres nor their students are around to give us insight. Therefore uncovering the meanings and interpretations are difficult for modern day martial artists.

My thesis is that hermeneutics provides a useful method for trying to fathom the musings and sage advice of masters of eons past, and in this article Pooh and I hope to introduce the concept of hermeneutics as applied to the martial arts. It is not a complete workshop, but a springboard of sorts for you in your journeys into uncovering the martial way, in whatever flavor of martial arts you may pursue.


"But how does one know a hermeneutic if one were to meet one in the dark?" asked Pooh, a little concerned at this point.


The basic premise of hermeneutics is that the original author knew what he or she wrote about, and that it is the reader or researcher who must seek, from within, the understanding needed to explain a passage or behavior that does not make sense. The reader tries out alternative readings until the reader comes to see how "a sensible person would have written them" [Lee 1991]. It is at this point that the reader has reached a point of equal or greater understanding than even perhaps the original author of the document under study. It is also at this point when previous passages or behaviors take on new meanings, in which case the document must be re-read to discover even more meaning and understanding.

Like a Zen koan, the above simple description of hermeneutics masks great depth, and there are five basic characteristics of hermeneutics.


Pooh ambled over to my library and thoughtfully pulled a few books from the shelves. "I think I understand what hermeneutics is," he said, rubbing his chin, "but I now have to ask why hermeneutics?"


There are many research methods to use in our research. But as with most problems in life, there is no silver bullet; there is no single research method that can solve all problems with sufficient facility. But hermeneutics, while regarded more as a "perspective" than a full methodology -- "there exist no detailed and explicit guidelines for the hermeneutic method" [Fischer, p. 61. emphasis in the original] -- is known as an interpretive research method. Furthermore, it presents several benefits compared with positivist research methods, as well as with other interpretive methods, which are worth noting.


"What's a positive Ist?" asked Pooh, rubbing his chin and scratching his head.


Hmmm. Permit me to stray on a brief tangent and detail a little about the different types of research methodologies. Basically, humans love to classify things, as evidenced by our taxonomy of fellow animals in biology, the constellations of planets and stars in astronomy, and even the ways we organize our books in libraries. From perhaps a fundamental level this need to classify helps us make sense of the chaos around us, for to group or classify something is to know it, and to know it is to be no longer afraid of it. This never-ending, ever-endearing, inquisitive trait, this need to know, surely has been with the species since its inception.

Humans extend this process of grouping and classifying not only to the "things" -- animals, stars, and books -- but also to the various ways we seek to know in the first place. In other words not only are the things themselves classified, but also the ways in which things are classified or known are classified. This meta-level grouping with respect to how things are known has itself been grouped in the realm of the philosophy of science.

Two major groups or divisions within the philosophy of science, or two major ways in which humans endeavor to know, are the arms of research called Positivism and Interpretivism. Since the processes by which humans conduct their research influence the very character, quantity, and quality of what we know and what we will know, before we can ourselves begin on this noble quest of knowledge we must first understand the socially acceptable ways in which we can research. That is, we must understand the characteristics and compatibility of Positivist and Interpretive research. First we need to gain a better understanding of what research itself means, then see how the philosophies of Positivism and Interpretivism have influenced research, and finally see how these two research methodologies can and cannot work together.

Though many definitions abound, for the purposes of this article research is defined as the use of formal procedures to propose or validate knowledge. It does not matter whether we are researching various interpretations of strikes to the head with a long sword or theories of whether or not certain attacks were meant to be used against opponents wearing armor. The formal procedures are the socially accepted methods we may use to conduct our research, which involve distinct steps and often iteration. This set of steps, or the way in which we conduct research, i.e. the research process, has been succinctly summarized [Meredith] as an iterative cycle of description, explanation, and testing.

The first step, describing and conceptualizing events or actions, provides a background for generating or testing concepts about the situation at hand. These concepts can be developed to form a framework around the situation to provide a straw universe within which further studies can be conducted to investigate the situation. This straw universe is used in the second stage to generate or propose an explanation (or explanations) of the situation. The third stage in the cycle is that of testing the previously generated explanations to determine which are true and which are false.

As an aside, notice for a moment that we can only determine whether the explanations are true or false, as opposed to True or False. These explanations can be found to be true within our constructed universe or framework in the second stage of the research process, but a truth in that universe may not hold true in another. For example, a common "truism" spoken and believed by many is that "the sun sets in the west". Many of us however know that Galileo proved that it is actually the earth that revolves around the sun and that our spoken truism is actually false. We nevertheless speak our truism out of social custom. Yet even fewer of us know that Einstein showed us, through Relativity, that a coordinate system affixed to a given body is actually just as valid as any other body as a reference point. Thus Galileo affixed the coordinate system that we have held as True for centuries to that of the sun. Yet Einstein showed us that a coordinate system affixed to the earth (or even ourselves) is equally valid. Our spoken truism is actually no longer true or false, but somewhere in between. Thus Truth is hard to know; please forgive me for being redundantly redundant but while we may not be able to achieve Truth, we should strive in our research for truth in as universally universal a framework as possible.

Back to the point. Our process of research is cyclic because at any stage (but most often at the testing stage) we may gain through our work a greater or more refined understanding of our original theories, frameworks, or explanations. This allows for restating our initial research goals and more passes through the cycle. New theories can also be generated, spawning research cycles of their own. But, basically:

On a scale of Rationalism versus Existentialism, these two research paradigms appear to be polar opposites [Meredith]. After all, Positivist research is characterized by: On the other hand Interpretive research typifies everything that Positivist research is not. In other words, Interpretive research is characterized by: These perceived differences have divided researchers for many years. Some Positivist researchers did not take seriously the results of the Interpretive researchers due to the perceived lack of rigor, precision, and inherent subjectivity in their methods and goals. Some Interpretive researchers felt that because of the nature of their problem domain, a domain involving the social context of humans, the methods of the Positivist researchers were too limiting to handle the richness and complexity of their human subjects.

However, these differences are probably not as great or automatically divisive as first thought. For example, Positivist research may be good for developing knowledge and conclusions for classes of problems whereas Interpretive research may be better used to describe singular, non-repeating events. Furthermore, both Positivist and Interpretive paradigms fit our definition of research. That is, both:

And, however natural "laws" are deduced, they are the products of a political, social process. As a result, they are not actually laws but fictions [Lee]. Thus even the supposed objectivity of the natural science methods is not exempt from the social context in which we live. For these reasons the many methods historically used by Interpretive researchers are available for use and should be acknowledged by the Positivist researchers. Likewise, as noted by Schutz, "a set of rules for scientific procedure is equally valid for all empirical sciences whether they deal with objects of nature or with human affairs."

The point is that both Positivist and Interpretive researchers have developed methods and tools, and it is neither the subject matter nor the researcher that determines which methods to use. Just because I am studying physics does not automatically preclude me from the method set and tools historically used by the Interpretive researchers. Likewise, just because I am a social scientist or historian does not preclude me from conducting carefully controlled and repeatable deductive experiments. Furthermore, since both Positivism and Interpretivism are humanly created, each is equally subject to error. But their methods are available to everyone, and with openness and creativity researchers can take advantage of the strengths of each, thereby providing greater insight into their subjects' problem areas and better validating their conclusions. How's that, Pooh?


"Kind of like eating honey," replied Pooh, thinking hard about his favorite subject. "I can use my left hand, or my right hand," he said, making motions in the air. "Or I can use both hands at once," he grinned, obviously proud of his new research conclusion.


So, to return to our discussion, unlike the traditional Positivist experiment that requires independent and dependent variables and rigorous mathematical formulations, hermeneutics "gives explicit interpretation to the LifeWorld" [Lee, 1991]. In other words, while electrons and atoms apparently have no meaning to one another, humans do mean something to each other. As a result it is important for social scientists, historians, and martial arts scholars to collect subjective meanings as well as objective behaviors. [Lee, 1991]. In the specific context of the martial arts, we must understand not only the mechanics of the punch or strike, but also the culture in which the original author was living: we need to understand the author, his personality, his experiences, and even his likes and dislikes. The strict scientific or positivist view of cause and action, independent and dependent variable, leaves no room for this subjective understanding, and thus can fail martial arts researchers striving to uncover meaning in ancient texts.

Because hermeneutics is based on the study of language, the domain where hermeneutics excels is that of text and language. In this domain having a hermeneutic perspective may give structure and process for the researcher, and so provide insight not available from other interpretive methods. Grounded Theory, for example, is often used to generate theory that is grounded in the data. A hermeneutic perspective would enrich the data-grounded theory by giving focus to interpreting behavior, meaning, and language. Meanwhile ethnographers often use techniques such as "social structure", "culture", and "world view" to distance themselves from the subject and to remove bias. Hermeneutics on the other hand explicitly acknowledges bias on the part of the researcher. By recognizing this, as in the case of positivist research, hermeneutics can serve as a good way to support and enhance theory.

So, to summarize, hermeneutic martial arts researchers must seek to uncover and understand not only the mechanics of particular techniques, but also:


"Oh, bother," said Pooh, rubbing his head. "This is too much for one little bear to comprehend, I think."

He continued to watch me type, his eyelids growing ever more droopy. Despite being a little confused about the subject matter, he seemed contented, as if my explanations set things right once again in the universe. But before falling completely asleep, he whispered one last thing that made me think that perhaps he understood what I had said after all:

"This must be the beginning of the article, or the ending, depending on your point of view," said Pooh.


Stephen J. Arnold and Eileen Fischer, "Hermeneutics and Consumer Research," Journal of Consumer Research, Volume 21, June 1994, pp. 55-70.

Allen Lee, "Researching MIS," in the book Rethinking Management Information Systems: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, edited by Wendy L. Currie and Bob Galliers, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 7-27

J. R. Meredith, A. Raturi, K. Amoako-Gyampah, and B. Kaplan, "Alternative Research Paradigms in Operations." Journal of Operations Management. Volume 8, Number 2. 1989. pp. 297-325.

Pooh, originally developed by A. A. Milne, 1926.

A. Schutz, "Concept and Theory Formation in the Social Sciences." Collected Papers. The Hague: M. Nijoff. 1962-66. pp. 48-66.

About the Author

Kendall Giles works in the defense industry as a software engineer and is a PhD student in Computer Science at Johns Hopkins University. His interests include playing the bagpipes, reading, martial arts, and travel. For more about the author, visit his website,

InYo Dec 2000