Self-Protection and the Problem of Fetishizing ‘Techniques’

Whenever politically oriented publications feature articles on the question of self-defense, invariably one can expect to find a Second Amendment article discussing firearms.

The more fundamental principle of self-protection embodied by the Second Amendment, however, is seldom addressed. Yet it should be.

It needs to be.

A reading that frames the Second Amendment exclusively in terms of guns fetishizes the proverbial cart without paying any attention whatsoever to the horse that pulls it. The gun is anything but the magic wand that popular culture and, unfortunately, far too many gun aficionados, make it out to be.

The gun is only as effective as the person wielding it.

The same goes for any “unarmed” techniques and combinations of techniques upon which many martial and combative arts systems are based.

An analogy makes the point: One can have the most enviable of tool boxes, yet regardless of how many state-of-the-art hammers, wrenches, pliers, and screwdrivers a person possesses, neither the possession of these tools nor the knowledge of how they work at the most rudimentary level suffice to make a person a carpenter.

As more than one commentator has noted, the era of modern philosophy differs from its ancient and medieval predecessors insofar as its representatives tended to be obsessed with discovering a “technique,” as Michael Oakeshott referred to it, a rule or principle, framed as infallible, by which absolute certainty could be achieved. Rene Descartes, widely recognized as the father of modern philosophy, is the exemplar par excellence of this orientation. Descartes, equating, as he did, knowledge (as opposed to mere opinion or belief) with absolute certainty, embarked upon a quest to land upon a technique that would guarantee knowledge. He was confident that he did just this by way of his “cogito ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”), for this indubitable truth embodied the criteria of “clarity and distinctness” that he would employ to differentiate ideas that are immune to doubt from those that were not.

Beyond the subdiscipline of epistemology to which Descartes contributed, ethics and political philosophy in the modern era would also come to be dominated by this faith in technique. Locke’s (and Lockean) “natural rights,” Rousseau’s “general will,” Kant’s “categorical imperative,” and Bentham’s and Mill’s “greatest happiness” principle are all techniques that, if properly applied, would always preclude error.

Influential critics of traditional Western philosophy such as Karl Marx and the socialist theorists that he inspired also contracted this modern obsession with finding short-cuts to absolute certainty. While Marx’s theory, unlike that of many others, centered in “history,” his philosophy of history was nevertheless unmistakably modern in that he replaced the infallible principles or rules of the philosophers he critiqued with allegedly infallible historical laws that were no less designed to achieve absolute certainty.

Of course, there is a place for principles, rules, laws, and propositions that we’re here calling “techniques.” They are indispensable to human life. And all pre-modern philosophers (and others) knew this. This being said, pre-modern thinkers didn’t make idols of technique. They recognized that techniques don’t establish a way of life, which is grounded in the constellation of historically and culturally specific traditions. Modern philosophical techniques are abstractions of that very way of life!

Pre-modern thinkers, in other words, realized that principles are the proverbial cliff notes to a much more complex, nuanced, open-textured tradition. Just as, for example, the cliff notes to Robinson Crusoe are utterly unintelligible unless and until they are recognized as the abridgment of a larger, more intricate text, so too do epistemological, ethical, and political-philosophical principles lose all intelligibility unless and until they are seen as the distillation of the traditions to which they belong.

This excursion into the history of philosophy provides the context within which both the present state of the Second Amendment debate and the world of martial arts is to be understood. The singularity of focus upon guns reflects the tendency of those who are generally on the correct side to view this one particular weapon as if it is the infallible technique that all but guarantees the safety of its owner. The larger context, the types of physical and mental training that render the gun-wielder a force to be reckoned with—and that make him or her a force to be reckoned with irrespective of whether a gun is involved—have been neglected.

To repeat the point above, it’s not that techniques in the martial arts are somehow bad or undesirable. Far from it! A martial art system can’t exist without techniques. They’re both necessary and quite desirable. The problem, rather, is the manner in which technique is taught which, in turn, arises from the more fundamental problem of how technique is conceived.

Just as a rule, a principle, or a law derives its coherence from the larger tradition within which it arose and to which it belongs, so too does a strike, a combination of strikes or any artifactual weapon (like a knife or a gun) derive their coherence—in the case of the fighting arts, its effectiveness—from the context to which it belongs. And this context consists of physics, human physiology, the uniqueness of each human body, and the psychology that is indispensable for victory in potentially mortal combat.

In Chinese folklore, Chuang Tzu relayed an account of an interaction between Duke Hwan and his servant, Phien, a wheelwright. When Phien learned that the Duke was reading a book that contained “the words of the sages,” i.e., the words of men that have long since died, Phien replied that the Duke, then, was reading nothing more or less than “the dregs and sediments” of those “old men.” The Duke, taking offense that a lowly wheelwright would presume to be dismissive of the wisest of men, told his servant that Phien would either defend his remarks or be put to death.

Phien responded by referencing his own craft. “If the movements of my hand are neither (too) gentle nor (too) violent, the idea in my mind is realized.” The tricky thing is, however, is that “I cannot tell (how to do this) by word of mouth,” for “there is a knack in it,” and “I cannot teach the knack to my son, nor can my son learn it from me.” 

Hence, the words of the sages read by the Duke are indeed “dregs and sediments” as the greater part of the wisdom that gave rise to those words cannot be imparted—particularly now that those sages are gone from the Earth.

So, too, is a gun, a knife, or any natural weapon a “dreg” or “sediment” as long as it is the object of exclusive focus, a technique taught in isolation from the context that birthed it and upon which it depends for its meaningfulness, its effective execution.

Perhaps this impulse to reduce a weapon (including one’s natural weaponry) to an all but infallible technique isn’t peculiar to the modern West. Miyamoto Musashi—another Taoist of a sort (a Zen Buddhist, to be exact) and a 17th century Japanese samurai warrior—may have intended to speak to this phenomenon in his own place and time:

“You should not have any special fondness for a particular weapon, or anything else, for that matter. Too much is the same as not enough. Without imitating anyone else, you should have as much weaponry as suits you.

The way to martial mastery (training to maximize one’s odds of successfully protecting oneself and one’s own, whether with an artificial weapon or a natural one) is not found in fetishizing the technique.

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About Jack Kerwick

Jack Kerwick earned his doctorate degree in philosophy from Temple University. His areas of specialization are ethics and political philosophy, with a particular interest in classical conservatism. His work has appeared in both scholarly journals and popular publications, and he recently authored, The American Offensive: Dispatches from the Front. Kerwick has been teaching philosophy for nearly 17 years at a variety of institutions, from Baylor to Temple, Penn State University, the College of New Jersey and elsewhere. His next book, Misguided Guardians: The Conservative Case Against Neoconservatism is pending publication. He is currently an instructor of philosophy at Rowan College at Burlington County.

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