Expertise in Response to the Wellcome Trust

In response to this below video and the wider “expert” climate.

There is one view from amongst those presented above which I feel was a worthy response, and that was: ‘Expertise, one has to be quite humble about, and one needs to be careful not to overrate oneself really, and to keep learning’.

I found this kind of self-effacing caution towards not only expertise as an accepted status, but to expertise in general as a category most refreshing. This response showed a wonderful clear-eyed reticence towards the status of the expert which I think no other respondent even vaguely gestured towards. Largely the respondents here are very willing to embrace the status of expert and its related trappings, which is, for me, to miss the heart of the problem.

The unfortunate final respondent here illustrates this difficulty most clearly. Her claim that ‘people do still trust academic scientists because they see them as having a lot less of an agenda’ demonstrates the easy conflation between ‘expert’ and ‘academic’. Whether the majority of the public do trust academics, whether scientists or otherwise, is somewhat moot here, but it is certainly the case that the status of ‘expert’ has been explicitly mobilised for the purpose of eliciting mistrust and suspicion in the public in recent political discourses.

From Michael Gove’s infamous Brexit line: ‘we’ve had enough of experts’, to Trump’s generalised assault on what he has characterised as a complacent and haughty establishment, the expert is the bogeyman of right-wing populism. In Britain the expert has found its home in the smug elitism perceived in Westminster and the city of London’s role as an economic drain on the rest of the country. In the American context this appears in the form of the Democrats and their patronising attitude to their supporters and enemies alike, along with their neglect of the malcontent of the white working class, especially as represented by Hilary Clinton and her campaign support from big business, and only underlined by Obama’s long-time insistence that ‘the arc of history bends towards justice’. The ‘expert’ stands in for the Neoliberal vision of top-down progress, for a failed trickle-down economics, a social and healthcare system that, particularly in America offers precious little in the way of dignity, and a culture which ultimately falsifies a dream of social mobility while routinely diminishing the quality of life deemed acceptable at the lowest common denominator even as it proffers a utopian ‘hard graft’ as its solution to poverty and socioeconomic ignominy.

In other words, the expert means; someone of privilege who patronises from a position of arrogance and complacency those considered less fortunate while ignoring the prejudices of a socioeconomic environment which has made their privilege possible.

It may be the case that this person does not exist, and it also may well be the case that, even if such individuals do exist, that they are not as ubiquitous amongst the enemies of society as Gove or Trump might have it. Regardless, this is one of the figures upon whom the malcontent and politically disillusioned have focused their displeasure.

The problem with the attitude prevalent in the above video is how easily and apparently blithely the academics interviewed accept their conflation with this identity.

It is not entirely their fault – clearly they have been framed a question within the terms of the discourse. They have been asked to discuss explicitly ‘experts’ and ‘expertise’ and the public attitude towards them – who can blame them for following the lines of an already polarised debate? Yet the fact still remains that only one respondent showed the awareness, pause, and caution towards being aligned with the ‘expert’ which would transform the conversation into one more productive about the role of the academic in society.

I tend to be a little reductive in my thought about what an academic should be. I tend to consider philosophy the ur-discipline of all the others – which is not to say that all disciplines should be trying to do what philosophy currently does or once did, but that all disciplines are breeds of philosophy with particular fields as their object of study and particular methodoligies developed for those fields. I think this is a fairly intuitive claim in the humanities, the arts, and the sciences and since it is not a major point here, I won’t discuss it at length. However, I will say that, the academic should absolutely not be equated with the expert in the sense I have highlighted above.

The expert is an easy imaginary enemy that groups such as Trump’s administration and Brexit campaigners have arrayed their battle-lines against. The expert is on the side of those who know, and against those who know-not. The expert is on the side of those who govern, against those who are incapable of self-government. In more explicitly Marxist terms; the expert is on the side of those who have, and against those who have-not. This is how, in the mobilisation of a single ideological term, an attack can be launched against public healthcare (“doctors are experts who patronise and think they know better when they really don’t”), political orthodoxy (“career politicians are experts who are complacent and privileged and don’t deserve to rule”), economists (“those rich city folks are experts who just manipulate us to keep the money in their own pockets”), educators (“teachers are experts who want to turn your children against traditional values with new-age ‘nurture'”), the European Union (the EU have been damaging and telling the UK what to do too long with their false and failing expertise”), climate scientists (see climate change deniers), academics of all descriptions (do I need to illustrate how?), and the list goes on.

It should be apparent how easy it is to tar any given target with this ideological brush. Whether intentional or not, the polarising power of this discourse as used by the current right-leaning political trends is not to be understated. Expert can apply to anyone who tries to tell you what to do – the ideal category to mark as your enemy if you’re working against the establishment or orthodox knowledge-producing institutions.

Against this, I feel it can’t be stated enough how important this attitude is:  ‘Expertise, one has to be quite humble about, and one needs to be careful not to overrate oneself really, and to keep learning’. This is to remember the first attitude of philosophy: from the ancient greek philo- sophia-, to love wisdom, not to have wisdom, but to seek it. If the expert is one who knows and mobilises that knowledge in the service of power, money, capital, political gain, then the intellectual or the academic must be one who does not know, but who seeks nonetheless.

The objection might be made that science is from the latin scire ‘to know’, and hence, should be conflated with this political notion of the ‘expert’; one who knows. Since I have already stated that I tend to consider philosophy the ur-discipline of all intellectual pursuits, it should be clear why I disagree with this. For me, even the scientist should prefer the status of one who seeks knowledge to the status of one who knows.

By way of contrast, compare this selection of respondents above to the stance of contemporary public intellectual Slavoj Zizek:

Though Zizek has his own questionable brand of self-authorship and politics, what is clear is that a distance must be taken from this noxious status of the expert in the current political and public discourse. An easy and docile embrace of a category such as expertise, and an assumption of the neutrality of language in this context can undercut all the good will attempted by such projects as the video cited above from the Wellcome Trust. I do not, it should be noted, endorse the idea of ironically questioning the conditions for all debates either, however – to take a distance from the terms of the question is not a strategy which will ever actually answer the question itself. What is vital is to pursue the terms of the question itself with a sincere and deep honesty, coupled with a sharp and broad view of the discourse in which the question is framed. To this end, the expert as framed by Gove and Trump et al, has no place in the academic or intellectual climate – one who knows has nothing left to find out, and is no longer an intellectual but a bureaucrat at best, and a zealot at worst – and given its current political status, the expert is a concept that, in its current iteration, we could all do without.

Loosely – The Structure of Belief

A friend asked if I would write on the status of belief, or more specifically, the possibility of altering belief through conscious intervention or an otherwise form of reasoned action. I’d like to offer my understanding of belief as a general concept in answer, but am not entirely certain on the structure of the questioneer’s own concept of belief – therefore I’ll be using a loose workaround to characterise my interlocutor’s position to start with.

As far as I can tell then, the position I’ll be speaking against is characterised by a kind of essentialism of belief. Belief in this schema is unalterable. As it appears to me, this stance also holds that belief exists as a base element of character, an essential unit to the substance of the believer. I feel also that these characteristics are based on a basic contention which holds that belief and decision, or rather, faith and reason are diametrically opposed. Since the lead contention of my interlocutor’s stance appears to be that belief is fundamentally impossible to interfere with through any action on the part of the believer, it seems to me that a binarism can be derived from this which divides belief from conscious thought, faith from reason, and essence from action. This is doubtless a simplification of my conversation partner’s position, but in the absence of a full enumeration of it, I am satisfied to use it until such a time as more nuance becomes necessary or corrections offered.


My position on belief generally stems from the work of the poststructuralists and phenomenologists – philosophers generally active from the early 20th century until around the mid to late nineteen-seventies when that particular heritage began to go out of fashion. Needless to say, I do hold that belief can be altered and intervened in, and argue that belief is constituted in the act of positive decision in the first place. For myself, no true faith is possible without positive conscious intervention – belief, as far as I am concerned is constituted in the decision to believe.

To elaborate: belief must always have an object – there is something that is believed in. Whether that belief amounts to a belief in Santa Claus or a belief that the Earth orbits the Sun, or that God is present in all movements of everyday life, the object of belief cannot be taken alone, but always constitutes a belief system. To believe in Santa Claus is predicated on a belief in a whole mythos around the festival of Christmas, to believe the Earth orbits the sun is to believe in the value system posited by the Copernican revolution in astronomy and Renaissance science, to believe in the omnipresence of God is to participate in a doctrine formally disseminated through a church and its adherents. Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault are the philosophers most famous for discussing the contingency of meaning upon whole contextualising systems. In arguably his most famous single work, Structure, Sign and Play in the Human Sciences, Derrida demonstrates that no term in language, and all forms of meaning more generally, has meaning at all without the system as a whole. One sign does not refer exclusively to its real referent and derive meaning thusly, it instead derives meaning from referring through an infinite movement of substitutions within its system of meaning. A simple way to parse this is through the English word ‘dog’. Culturally speaking, the concept ‘dog’ is opposed to that of ‘cat’. Regardless of any evidence in support of these two animals in any way having opposed features (indeed, both are mammals with similar body shapes and domestic roles amongst humans), the meaning developed between the two concepts is defined, not wholly by reference to the real entity, but by reference to the opposed concepts within the language, the meaning-making system. Thus when asked ‘what is the opposite of dog’, the response which appears at once natural yet without reason or origin on the tongue is ‘cat’.

What Foucault adds to this is in the same vein but speaking from the realm of historical contingency rather than linguistic analysis. Foucault’s idea of ‘discourse’ is, in my estimation, most well elucidated in The Archaeology of Knowledge and Discipline and Punish. For Foucault, any enunciation, any set of statements is always entirely historical, that is, it gains its meaning from the meaning-disseminating institutions present in a given social moment. This is explicitly not limited to language, but to all ‘discursive practice’, including gesture, routine and habit, in everything from legal systems and education to where you sit on a bus. Quite apart from the intentions of the speaker or actor, Foucault’s idea of a discourse is a body of ‘anonymous historical rules’ (Archaeology of Knowledge, p. 131)  which govern the meaning of concepts within any given enunciative (meaning-making) act. Again, to clarify by way of example, it is an obvious matter of course in some cultures for grandparents to aid in the raising of children, while in others, such a proposition would be egregiously offensive and absurd. This is not a mere appeal to cultural difference – it speaks to the function of a series of institutions of value and meaning; a Confucian tradition of ancestry embedded in government and education on the one hand, and a Christian / Hellenic tradition of nurture embedded in government and education on the other, each to form very different concepts of ‘family’. This can be observed on any scale, even within one culture, so the fact that two families in the same neighbourhood can have very different relationships is a function of each individual’s relationship to and interpretation of the discourses through which meaning is generated in their everyday life (who sits at the head of the table, who works in the family, how care is given, what responsibilities are expected, etc.). Foucault performs an excellent explication of this in Discipline and Punish, elaborating how the mechanisms of observation, training and rehabilitation, originating in the prison system, now pervade military, legal, governmental, educational, urban infrastructure, and business apparatus down to the micro-level of everyday human practice – I leave it to the reader to invest in this work at their own leisure.

 It is therefore the case that belief as such always involves an individual’s placement within a belief system. There is no belief without the operation of meaning-making based on concepts developed through language and enunciative practices performed in discourse. However, simple submission within a belief system does not, for me, constitute true belief in any way. The operation of discourse and language as meaning-making and meaning-governing structures is a regular facet of everyday life; humans accept and live accepting the constructs of these systems as a matter of course – there is nothing of the character of belief in that so much as simple everyday adoption through necessity.

Consider the religious man – perhaps born in an Evangelical family and raised with all the trappings of Evangelical Christianity held as inalienable truths, going on with his life in the same manner and never once deviating from this path – a believer for life, so to speak. As far as I am concerned, at no point in this life is true belief or true faith in exhibition. It is as if the man is merely a feature of his environment – it doesn’t matter who he is or what he does, he could be any man, his entire life exists as a continuous and unrelenting operation of the discursive structure in which he has found himself. Consider a different person of religion – this person a convert, raised in the firm belief of a certain set of concepts – perhaps that of no god, or of some other god, or simply just believing whatever their family or significant peers believed, be it ambivalence, ardent atheism or whatever takes your fancy. This person, she becomes a woman of religion, a full-blooded evangelical, no different to our first case in habit or lifestyle. In this case also, no true faith, no true belief exists. The person has simply moved from one environment to another, fully adopting one discourse’s practices and language as truth, then abandoning those practices in order to fully adopt another. Nothing in the person is distinct from the discursive environment in which she is embedded – once again the person herself is meaningless, there is no true belief in the system in which she finds herself, merely a subservience to status quo, a blankness in her which is filled by the ideologies of her current social context.

The Existentialists suggest the way to what I take as true belief or true faith. Kierkegaard, adamant protestant, and Nietzsche, famously for the declaration: ‘God is dead, and we have killed him’, find themselves unlikely bedfellows in this regard. Within a Christian frame, Kierkegaard argues that ‘Innocence is ignorance’, a state like that of Eden where a human is ‘in immediate unity with his natural condition’ (The Concept of Dread, 37). Within this frame, the state of paradise – a prelapsarian garden – is a state in which man is not differentiated from its surroundings. Man only gains freedom through falling, through independence from its surrounding state of being, through becoming self-aware (through Sin and knowledge of Good and Evil in the Christian context). Nietzsche argues similarly that the goal for humanity is the kind of man who is independent of both tradition and convention, swayed by neither the trappings of the past nor the status quo of the present. Though the concept of Ubermensch is most famous for its adoption within National Socialist ideology, the fundamental point has much more to say about the freedom of man as an individual over any and all proximate systems of thought than about the superiority of any national ideology in general.

The point of significance is that a human only gains freedom through separation from their immediate conceptual environment. This, for me, is the starting point of true belief or true faith. Without self-awareness, and the full capacity to doubt and, indeed, deny that a given discourse is true, the possibility of belief does not exist. A person moves in and out of many discourses and many conceptual realms in the course of a lifetime, acting on the ideological systems of each in turn – this does not make that person a believer in any of them, only a conduit through which each of them operates (in order to reproduce an economic reality if you’re a Marxist, to reproduce its memes if you follow that kind of theory, etc.). If I am raised in a family of agnostics and follow their customs, I move out and begin to spend time with atheists and follow their habits, then later convert to Christianity because I am spending time amongst many other Christians who convince me to do so, in no way am I a true believer in any of these systems of thought – I am nothing more than a person who is, as Kierkegaard would put it, is ignorant, who lacks the self-awareness to qualify as a free functioning subject. To adopt the discourses of my immediate surroundings is something that proceeds through the simple ongoing interaction with the people in my proximity. This is little more than a convenience. Indeed, many go through life in this way and this way alone – none are possessed of faith in its richest character. To possess true belief is to make the active decision to adopt a system of meaning in full light of the knowledge that it is fallible and deniable.

If it seems like I am targeting theism unfairly, please forgive another example based in religion – it is an easy lens through which to illustrate the point, though I hold that this character applies to anything that can be believed whatsoever. Imagine again a member of the church, which church doesn’t matter, nor whether they’re lifetime devout or recently enlightened. If this individual does not acknowledge the possibility of the entirety of their doctrine being false and mistaken, and still elect to follow it, they are bereft of faith. Assuming they do not acknowledge the fallibility of their doctrine, imagine entertaining a conversation with this individual. Whether you speak to them from a position of agreement with them or a position of opposition, there is nothing to be spoken about with regard to their so-called belief. Even if you are both followers of the same church, it would be a conversation utterly without merit to, for example, question this person on their interpretation of the nature of the holy trinity, or the implications of the story of Cain and Abel, to pick examples at random. Even if this individual produces sound arguments and well-organised rhetoric, unless they have sought to challenge these arguments and found them lacking in some manner, then belief in its truest form cannot exist. The problem is not a problem of the content of what he might have to say, it is a problem of whether you are truly speaking to him at all. If he produces an internally watertight argument for the nature of the holy trinity being fundamentally based on the holy spirit, it would have no meaning to hear it from him if he had not already acknowledged his argument’s failings and chosen to proceed in his belief in that position anyway. To produce arguments with flawless internal logic is admirable for sure, but without acknowledging that the formation of that logic itself is a function of a given discourse, and therefore possesses the possibility of complete untruth, there is no belief in the argument regardless of its rhetorical execution. One may as well speak to a machine, or (if such a thing were possible) converse with the ideology itself – which is essentially what this kind of person becomes; a pure embodiment of a discourse, but in no way someone capable of belief or faith.

By contrast, consider the religious woman, an advocate of one God or another, who both cares to understand and fully acknowledges the possibility that another religion has merit and its own measure of truth.  Consider that she also cares to pay attention to and investigate the merits of atheistic discourse, scientific discourse, polytheistic and pantheistic discourse, as well as other assortments of spiritualist and paganistic ideology. If she remains firm in her decision to follow the path of her choosing, not only does she epitomise freedom in the sense both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard hold most highly, she also possesses belief in the truest sense. If you ask this woman about her ideas on the mysteries of faith, then she really has something to say – because you can be certain that what she says is hers, absolutely hers, not the mere repetition of discourse, or the recital of a discursive logic speaking through her tongue, but a genuinely considered disposition which she as a free individual has taken the time and effort to unravel and chosen to hold as true based on her own volition.

This holds true just as surely for the claim that ‘the Earth is flat’. To even use this idea, this sentence, presupposes an idea of ‘Earth’ as opposed to something-other-than-Earth, be that space and the planets, the heavenly firmament and hell, or the ancient Apeiron, which in turn presupposes a cosmology – a discourse governing beliefs about the nature of the universe.  It is impossible to speak about this contention without first understanding the world-system, the network of meaning that it entails. To declare my belief that ‘the Earth is flat’ constitutes no true belief at all without acknowledgement that there is a counter-system of meaning which declares that the Earth is round, or in some other state. Truly, to echo again Kierkegaard, a declaration such as this is nothing more than ignorance, a wilful ignorance of the possibility of alternatives – which amounts to nothing other than stupidity; is the very definition of stupidity.

I have made quite a lengthy exposition, but it should be obvious from this why, for me, the very idea of belief is impossible without decision. An idea simply accepted and taken as true is no belief whatsoever, and a human who does so barely registers as a free subject in the Nietzschean sense any case. The refusal to understand and accept the merits of diverse viewpoints amounts to wilful ignorance, which is itself the definition of stupidity, and furthermore rank irresponsibility. True belief, true faith, is the decision taken by a free subject to follow a system of meaning and to uphold its merits, while acknowledging the possibility of the absolute fallibility of that system in the face of alternatives. This is the very essence of belief itself. I refer to one more philosopher in support of my point – the famous phenomenologist and ethical thinker Emmanuel Levinas, who states in Totality and Infinity that ‘the atheist separation is required by the idea of Infinity’ (p. 60). Infinity for Levinas means religion, and is predicated on ‘atheist separation’, by which he means, the absolute independence of a being from its system of being and meaning: belief cannot exist without the believing being being wholly independent from the concepts in which it believes.

At this point the question of whether a belief can change based on a decisive act alone is more or less trivial with the answer affirmative. No true belief exists without decision, hence a belief altered – from the Earth is flat to the Earth is round, say – can of course exist. Especially given that the believer must acknowledge the fallibility of their belief and the truth of alternatives, then I see no difficulty in this, save the commitment on the part of the individual necessary to truly believe anew with sincerity. It should be clear here that this stands against the idea of belief as an opposite to reason, or faith as an opposite to conscious thought, or essence as an opposite to action. True belief and faith are the apotheosis of reason, an apogee of the committed and focused pursuit of thought. The essence of a personality is not necessarily found in the beliefs that go unchallenged and unnoticed in them, apart from their determined action (though this can be the case). The essence of a personality can just as easily be present, and all the more so for the commitment made, in the active and conscious choice made to believe in X, Y or Z in the full light of its flaws and opponents. A free subject is one who is independent of, and self-aware within, the discourses which surround them. This is a goal for any human to aspire to. The opposite is wilful ignorance, the complacency and arrogance to choose not to court or understand or acknowledge the essential viability of competing systems of meaning, which makes a human no more than a discourse machine or an ideological marionette – the prisoner blind to the prison, to speak in more cliche terms. True belief cannot be the idle submission to a dogma, nor can it be the pure logic of an ardent follower. For the former case simply exists within a discourse like a fish not noticing it lives in water, and the latter speaks with an arrogance that posits that water is all that could possibly exist. Only in the considered and measured doubt of self-criticism and the firm and thoughtful listening of commitment is true belief to be found.


This has been somewhat apart from my usual style, far more philosophical in tone and rhetoric, so I hope it was not too much to bear with for the casual reader. For those well-versed in the literature I have discussed, I also ask that you bear with my interpretations: I am not formally trained in philosophy and approach these works from the direction of literature, so if the nuances of the extremely rich positions of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are lost in my writing, I hope you will forgive me. Lastly, to my interlocutor, I hope you have found this an informative and entertaining read and I’d welcome a response should you feel so inclined.

Thanks for reading!

.3.2 Yurusu Budo – Life


If Nishio’s technical curriculum is centred fundamentally on the engagement with death, then his philosophical considerations with regard to the martial arts are firmly situated on the other side of the blade, with life. His philosophic and technical treatises stand as opposite edges of the Japanese sword, an object which he believes is emblematic of the Japanese martial traditions itself. Once again, interpreting this adage in an unusually literal sense, Nishio transposes the form of the katana onto his training method, with there being one sharp edge, which is fragile, and one blunt edge, which is thick and pliable. For clarity, the Japanese sword is usually made of three types of steel: hard and brittle crystalline steel on the cutting edge, flexible and high-tensile strength ‘skin steel’ on the outside of the blade and blunt edge, and slightly softer, shock absorbing ‘core steel’ in the centre of the weapon. The hardened crystalline steel cannot be used in a sword without the other two softer components – it would shatter on any hard contact with another blade. This is a criticism Nishio lays at the door of martial arts such as Karate or Judo and other arts which grow out of the more ancient traditions of war. Nishio’s project is to escape this particular rigidity in the old martial arts (kobudo) whose purpose ‘was to take – suppress, destroy, and ultimately take the life of the opponent’. In a comment uncharacteristically progressive of those in the traditional East Asian martial arts, Nishio states with refreshing lucidity that such an attitude or purpose to martial arts ‘cannot be allowed in modern society’. This is reflective of a deeper anti-conservatism present in Nishio’s thought which is vehemently opposed to dogmatism and the incurious repetition of form and mechanical reproduction of technique, a stance which I follow Nishio in. To be clear, Nishio’s philosophy serves as the soft and pliable steel which supports the cutting edge of technique. It is the depth of Nishio’s beliefs which allows his unorthodox training methods to stand in contemporary society, and saves them from irrelevance. Though Nishio believes that ‘in real martial arts a fight […] is to stand face-to-face with death’, his stance on how a practitioner should approach this encounter with death is clear: ‘people who know the foolishness of destruction and the preciousness of life should not destroy an opponent’.

The question here is how does Nishio marry the two concepts together – that of martiality as a direct encounter with the possibility of death and that of the practitioner who is resolved never to destroy an opponent? It is here that we find the most direct application of the name ‘forgiving’. In Euro-American languages and cultures, the term ‘to forgive’ is inextricably tied to the history of Abrahamic religion, and indeed, I would argue that all cultures which contain a monotheistic entity carry the same load with the term ‘to forgive’. In Japanese yurusu can also mean to permit or allow, which sheds more light on the issue at hand. Put simply: forgiveness implies an absolute law. As already demonstrated in the technique of yurusu budo, the practitioner is absolute, it is their choice and their choice alone which allows them to give or take life, to deal out or protect from death. Philosophically and technically, yurusu budo is completely coherent on this point. The martial artist, the trained and skilled subject, is completely sovereign and autonomous; she has the authority, moral right, justification, and capacity to determine her attacker’s fate in a single stroke without recourse to any other system of judgement. To forgive is to have the right and power to punish, yet choose not to exact punishment. To forgive is to allow or permit life when death is a matter of whim. This is the essence of the unity between Nishio’s technique and philosophy. In a purely technical sense, the practitioner focuses on killing techniques so that she may control them and restrain them. In a purely philosophical sense, the practitioner focuses on the moral imperative to preserve life, to control absolutely the lethality of both her attacker and herself. It is the fact that this is a choice which makes yurusu budo what it is. Just as Kantian ethics is predicated upon a consistent universal moral law which the subject electively acquiesces to under his own will, yurusu budo posits an imperative not to kill or cause harm which must always be upheld under the martial artist’s individual volition. Without offering the choice to also commit murder and grievous bodily harm, yurusu budo loses its ethical character; the fact that the artist chooses not to cause harm in the first place. Just as with a monotheistic God, or an autocratic ruler, death and life are reconciled only through choice. Martial encounters always include death because the practitioner has the ability to wield it at will, as if he carries it around in his back pocket. This encounter is only resolved as forgiving because the artist must always choose life and keep his Reaper’s scythe holstered.

In harkening to this concept of forgiving and forgiveness (the ‘life-giving sword’ [katsujinken] as opposed to the ‘death-dealing sword’ [satsujinken]), Nishio makes the presumption that another’s life is ours to rule and distribute to begin with. For Nishio, the trained martial artist is, by dint of being a trained martial artist, in a position of moral superiority to her attacker. This is expressed not only through the logic of forgiving, but more explicitly when Nishio states that ‘Aikido was founded to lead Japanese martial arts in a better direction’, ‘[Aikido is] a budo that shows the opponent how he/she should live and prosper’, and further, ‘the Aikido way of leading is alive in real society’. Nishio firmly believes his art, his interpretation of Aikido, is apart from other martial arts (‘Aikido was born with a completely different purpose than that of the old martial arts’) and also apart from, or even in a position to lead in, a wider social context. As with many students of the Founder, and plenty of other devotees of the more esoteric martial arts, Nishio entwines his –do with a universal moralism which strikes with a force almost akin to religion. This is not to say that I don’t agree that Aikido and other martial arts have a role to play in society, I believe very much that the martial arts can be extremely powerful forces in the development and enrichment of the young, the old, students, professionals, teachers, parents, children, men, and women. What I do not believe is that any particular martial art, or the martial arts as a whole, should declare itself as a figure of leadership in society. To do so is to re-enact the egotism which I have already criticised in Pranin’s work in the previous chapter; it is to suggest that, on some level, the art and its practitioners are beings above and beyond the average human, somehow transcendent, and closer to a universal moral ‘good’ than everyone else. Though Nishio never says this in such extrovert terms as Pranin does, his logic tends towards the same end point, that his particular art, Yurusu Budo is the one true ‘-do’ in the world which, if only everyone knew it, would grant us all wondrous enlightenment and freedom from the human vices of violence and retribution.

To summarise so far; Nishio’s technical syllabus is a deeply interdisciplinary yet ultimately single-minded pursuit of perfect control over killing techniques. Nishio’s philosophical methodology demands that this technical mastery must be predicated upon the order to never kill an attacker. Together, these two elements unify to produce the concept of ‘forgiving’ martial arts for which Nishio’s style is named. Able to wield killing techniques at will, the practitioner is held by a moral responsibility to never use them for violence, to never take life. The practitioner therefore is placed in a position of effective omnipotence in a martial encounter with any given opponent, able to destroy that opponent at will, but always electing to preserve his life. It is this choice which is vital to the unity of Nishio’s system; the artist is always one who chooses, who is a responsible and compassionate agent in himself. The freedom to choose to forgive rather than kill is an essential characteristic of Yurusu Budo. The problem here is that, while this element of choice does produce practitioners who are able to demonstrate themselves as morally upright martial artists, in the same stroke, it undermines the practitioner’s ethical standing. The practitioner can never engage with their partner or attacker as an equal in this situation, he is always in a position of superiority, one only reinforced by the technique of Yurusu Budo. The martial artist spares her attacker, but in doing so demonstrates her attacker’s insignificance and immorality when compared with the infinite forgiveness of the artist herself (the artist could theoretically receive infinite attacks and spare the attacker each time, according to the logic espoused here). The only way the practitioner, and the art, engages with her opponents is to lead by example, to presume superiority and to mete out endless gestures of magnanimity, equivalent to wagging your finger at a rough child (‘I could have killed you, I am that far superior to you, but I didn’t, aren’t I showing you good morals and haven’t you learnt your lesson?’). Nishio’s moral imperative never to kill is admirable, but the ethical logic which arises from his techniques is untenable, since it does nothing more than situate the practitioner in the seat of God, a kind of accidental egotism which honestly seeks to treat other people, especially opponents and attackers, with respect and dignity (you attack, I forgive), but ultimately reduces them to ignorant and unenlightened creatures there to have their eyes opened by the vast presence of the learned artist (‘now I have spared you, come and learn the way of forgiveness with me’).

These problems are further compounded by a problem of inheritance from O-sensei’s famously cloudy terminology. Nishio cites the Founder as saying ‘one step implies discontinuity. You should take a half-step, there should be contact’. Nishio includes this teaching in the technical sense by dictating that the practitioner should always be a half-step ahead of their partner, such that he is always in a position to lead the attacker’s intent (or, as one of my own teachers, Mr Brown, would say: ‘we let uke think that it’s his own idea to attack’). The essence of this typically opaque saying is that the ‘half-step’ should be understood in the sense of ‘meeting half-way’. If ‘one step implies discontinuity’, or rather, the Founder uses ‘one step’ as a metaphor for conflict, for direct opposition, then the ‘half-step’ is used as a metaphor for non-conflict. I believe this formulation is meant to represent a kind of ‘conversation’ between martial artist and attacker; ‘I offer a half step, which in turn allows you to offer your own, which allows us to reach a conclusion’. In other words, the ‘one step’ is a move which cancels, which opposes and overrides the attacker’s intention, the ‘half-step’ is a move which takes that attack’s intention seriously and is prepared to deal with it in its own terms. ‘One step’ is like a argument, each party has their views but spend little time listening to the opposing ones. ‘Half-step’ is like a conversation, only through listening to, engaging with, and taking seriously your opponent as equal, is a satisfactory conclusion reached. This is epitomised especially when Nishio says ‘I think practice means communication’, and ‘the heart of aiki […] is to reach mutual understanding’ – for Nishio, technique is like language.

This is all well and good, and perhaps one of the most admirable and excellent principles espoused by Nishio’s martial arts, yet it appears to be in direct conflict with the logic of ‘forgiving’ as proposed so far. The logic of the ‘half-step’ is all about equality between uke and tori, between attacker and defender. The martial artist of the ‘half-step’ always takes her opponent seriously, as her equal, and, as her equal, does him the respect of a committed and sincere defence. Yet, as we have already seen, the ‘forgiving’ martial artist is in no way ever the equal of his attacker, he is infinitely superior to her. There is an unbridgeable gulf between the ‘forgiving’ martial artist and his opponent. The artist always holds part of his technique in reserve – the lethal part – such that his attacker is spared, but always exists in a position of impoverished power, the relationship between the two is entirely one-sided, as I have already explained at length. This is even more evident in Nishio’s term irimi isshoku, the one-step entrance (the technical predicate of yurusu budo), which is completely at odds with the ‘half-step’. Whether this is an issue of mistranslation failing to carry across Nishio’s meaning into English, or whether this is a matter of Nishio simply changing his views over time without it being properly documented is unknown. It is clear, however, that Nishio’s martial arts cannot both espouse the idea of being ‘forgiving’ and also endorse ‘technique as dialogue’ at the same time – the two approaches are in direct opposition. ‘Forgiving martial arts’ is absolutely based upon the idea of a transcendent martial arts user who withholds the killing aspects of his techniques. True, there may still be a communicative aspect to this style of martial arts, but it has been demonstrated many times over that only one member of the pair here really gets to speak; the practitioner forgives, that is, places the attacker at her mercy – the attacker is never in a position to express himself here.

Nishio’s schema is caught between two disparate imperatives: the absolute martial artist, and the ethical human being. The artist of yurusu budo must be absolute, be able to kill at will, as Nishio’s concern with the effectiveness and relevance of traditional martial arts amply demonstrates; indeed, the method of forgiving can be argued to be based purely upon this singular ideal. Opposite this, Nishio is very much concerned with respecting the lives of other human beings, with never acting on an impulse to destroy or diminish individual sovereignty. Particularly in his use of the ‘half-step’, his discussion of the ‘life-giving sword’, and his belief in technique as communication or ‘contact’ this is evident. These two principles are irreconcilable as I see it: the forgiving martial artist cannot approach her enemy as an equal, the principle of forgiving forbids it. The ‘half-step’ is incompatible with irimi isshoku, since the latter is a single step which renders an attacker helpless, and the former is an offer which opens dialogue. The forgiving martial artist is never sincere, since she is always holding back some part of her technique; she never takes her opponent seriously, since to do so would be to kill him. If he cannot respond to his opponent seriously or sincerely then no conversation is possible; the forgiving martial artist cannot ever take his attacker’s intentions on their own terms, nor receive them in a sincere exchange. It is for this inconsistency more than any other that I believe the model of yurusu budo cannot be sustained. While I think that, as a technical thesis it has a great deal of merit, and equally, Nishio’s teaching of the ‘half-step’ is something that does have great depth and value for martial arts, I believe the ‘forgiving’ aspect of Nishio’s martial arts must ultimately be dispensed with. For the reasons of its internal inconsistencies and its ethical stance, I do not believe that this particular iteration of martial arts can continue to act as a stable martial method and philosophy.

More Than One Aikido

From what I have written before, it might seem like I have always learnt and pursued one Aikido, and to an extent this is true, but it is also true that I have studied at more than one school. While Exeter Aikido is where I spend most of the year as a student, I am also a seasonal visitor to the Kyushinkan Aikido dojo in Leicester. The only reason I have not written about them previously is because I did not have permission, but now that I do have permission, I have a chance to write about both Aikido schools I’ve studied under, so that’s what I’m going to do today.

But first, something that’s common to all Aikido, indeed to all martial arts, in my opinion. I believe that in the purely technical aspect, all Aikido is for killing. If this were not the case, I do not think Aikido could call itself a martial art in the first place. This most likely sounds somewhat odd given Aikido’s association with peace and harmony, being called the gentle martial art, and Aikido’s highest aim of neutralising any attack without harming the attacker.

So why do I believe this? There are plenty of reasons, but I’ll start with another name for Aikido, one favoured by the late great Nishio Shihan. Nishio called Aikido the Forgiving martial art (or Yurusu Budo which I do not know the kanji for) which, to my mind has a slightly different nuance to “the gentle martial art”. Why does Nishio use the term forgiving instead of gentle? To forgive is usually used to just mean “to let something slide” or “to let something go”, that kind of thing, but what does it really mean? To forgive is to withhold punishment which could be exacted otherwise. It is to give permission for a wrongdoer to continue existing when the forgiver could, and in some interpretations simply has the right to erase/destroy that existence. If you’re talking in terms of divinity and God(s), forgiveness is usually meant to suggest, the deity in question spares the life or soul of one who has sinned or broken their covenants when the deity in question has the absolute right to punish that wrongdoing. That is forgiveness; to hold the absolute power and right to destroy yet choose not to use it.

Therefore, it is my understanding that Nishio’s nuance in calling Aikido “forgiving” was to insert this meaning into the technique and philosophy of Aikido. That is, at the highest level the Aikidoka should at any time and at will absolutely be able to end the life of their attacker and furthermore, the Aikidoka should always choose not to do so. This is why I said that the purely technical aspect of Aikido is for killing. All techniques should have the character of creating an exploitable opening which can result in the uke’s immediate death. The moral aspect of Aikido is such that training partners elect not to murder each other on the mat, and human beings choose not to murder each other if they happen to be in a situation where combat is unavoidable.

To look at it another way, the highest point of Aikido is to be able to choose to neutralise your attacker while doing no harm to them and allowing no harm to come to yourself. If you can’t both kill, maim and harmlessly neutralise then it’s not a choice. If your only capability is to neutralise then very well, you may subdue attackers forever, but there’s no reason for their attacks to ever cease, since they know they’ll be fine no matter what they do. The threat of grave injury or death should always hang over the neutralised, they should feel it, that they’ve survived by the choice of the martial artist alone, and that that privilege could be revoked on a whim. That’s what Aikido at the highest level is, to my mind.

As a side note, I believe that this is also the highest level of all martial arts. Since, if a martial art is a system of movement which teaches the student principles which allows them to defend themselves against any possible attack (within reason, no unarmed person can reasonably defend themselves from a grenade in their pocket, or an unmanned drone missile, or a knife in the back from someone they simply don’t see or hear or smell coming), then a martial art should therefore familiarise the student with every possible method of killing as well as every method of defending. Only once the student has mastered all of the above will their martial arts be complete, hence, at the highest level all martial arts should aspire to this form, where life and death is a matter of moral choice and a technical given. I feel that those methods of attack and defence just happen to boil down to just one or two movements and principles which expose the body to injury and disrupt its balance which can and should be found in the basics of all martial arts, and attack and defence at that point don’t really distinguish themselves from each other. But that’s kindof by the by.

So if this is the highest level of all martial arts, why are all methods not the same? Well, I would say it’s like telling someone who knows no geography, who doesn’t know even the shape of the planet, and who has never seen a map, to go to the imperial palace in Tokyo. Even if you’ve heard “Tokyo” is the destination, you’ve no idea what or where that is or what direction to travel in to get there. So you ask around. You ask someone in London and they might say, “take a direct flight from Heathrow airport”. Ask someone in Roppongi or Akihabara and they’ll tell you to get a taxi or hop on the train or something. If the person you asked in Roppongi told you to take a flight from Heathrow, it’d be an absurd suggestion. So the student has to figure out where they are and not everyone starts standing in the same place, even if the destination that everyone’s looking for is the same. There are lots of different routes, some intersect (if you’re going to Tokyo from Osaka, you’ll probably end up going part of the way with people also from Kyoto and Nagoya) and some never do (a plane flying to Tokyo from Hong Kong has no reason to ever fly the same route as one from Washington D. C.). So each martial art is like that. A different route is all. Some suit different people based on where they were standing to start with. Finding a teacher is like finding a map or a signpost to where you’re going. It might even be like finding someone who’s willing to accompany you the whole way if you’re lucky.

And now I can go back to Aikido, and specifically my two schools, Exeter and Kyushinkan, which are, as I described above, two different routes. I would describe Exeter Aikido as fully Omote Aikido, and Kyushinkan as fully Ura Aikido. Omote and Ura aren’t really well understood terms even within the martial arts as I see it and they tend to be more just a naming convention. But generally in Aikido, Ura techniques involve a spin or a rotation and Omote techniques are direct and “to the point”. In this context I’ll characterise Omote techniques in Aikido as “filling space” and Ura techniques as “giving space” (though that doesn’t necessarily reflect how the terms are used in Japanese or in any school, it’s just how I’m using them here.) Therefore, I feel that Exeter’s Aikido is most characterised by the entering movement as tori (the executor of the technique) moves forward to fill the uke’s (the receiver) space and unbalance them. Kyushinkan, on the other hand, is most characterised by the offer, that is the free space which tori invites the uke to attack, the perceived opening which leads the uke’s movement and the tori can then exploit to produce imbalance. An Omote technique is like running a steamroller over the tube of toothpaste. The toothpaste slowly gets completely squeezed out of the tube because it has nowhere else to go. An Ura technique is like putting a vacuum pump on the end of the same tube of toothpaste. The toothpaste gets sucked out because there is a vacuum, an empty space, and it rushes to fill that space. That’s the idea I’m pushing at.

So in Exeter the tori is always moving, always searching for gaps in the uke’s balance, a weakness to exploit, a pivot point around which uke’s centre can be disrupted and uprooted. Of course, ideally, that unbalancing movement is completed in a single step, all of uke’s balance is completely taken and the technique is complete. This is similar to Bruce Lee’s “be like water” where the rushing flow of liquid fills up all the fissures and crevices in a rock face and can eventually split it open. It’s that kind of feeling. Generally, taking ukemi there feels like a constantly mounting pressure as I have less and less space to move, less and less space to attack, and eventually my own impetus to attack means I cannot take any course but to fall or flip or break. The technique leaves no other space for me as uke to move into. It’s a bit like being cut in half, a feeling which one of our highest ranked ladies often invokes, the balance of my body going one way, my supporting limbs going the other way.

On the other hand, at Kyushinkan tori often begins in stillness. With a katate-dori (wrist grasping) technique the offer doesn’t differ much from at Exeter in that it must be clear and produce a reaction in uke. But something like shomen-uchi (front strike) attack is a bit different, in that where in Exeter, tori might immediately enter to unbalance uke, at Kyushinkan tori once again waits and offers. That is, tori offers their face to be hit by uke, and presents uke with the opportunity to come into tori’s space. the Kyushinkan headteacher is particularly good at this. He bobs his head forward in a way which is immensely inviting and makes wanting to hit him almost irresistible (which may not be a good thing in every situation but in this contexts is great). Of course by the time I’ve attempted to strike him he’s already moved and I have to chase him which leads me to another vacuum and so on. As uke it feels like not so much orbiting something or being sucked towards something as spontaneously faceplanting the floor. I did in fact, take ukemi on my face from ikkyo the other week. Mat-burn isn’t so pleasant on the cheeks, let me say that. It’s that kind of accidental “oops” and splat, which is a bit different to the Exeter feeling which is more like starting a sentence and immediately being cut off. You get time to say “I-” and then it’s tori’s turn to speak and they don’t stop til you hit the ground. At Kyushinkan the sentence runs faster than you can say it. You think you’re leading the conversation but really, tori has the hymn sheet and the conductor’s stick. The more you try to out-talk them the quicker you play into their hands. That’s probably why I hit the ground so fast, it’s cuz I go in fast.

At the end of course, they’re both two sides of the same coin and they both become what I call “binary Aikido”, which feels neither Omote nor Ura to uke in the end. It just feels ‘on’ or ‘off’ hence ‘binary’. I haven’t felt this that often from techniques, and I don’t think I’ve ever done it, but it is quite eerie when it does happen. You get that cold sweat that’s mainly fear and bewilderment, and you get pain. The cold sweat comes in the “off” step where you don’t get any response from tori, which is bewildering since you were certain you hit something, or should have hit something, and initially terrifying because it’s like stepping into thin air when you were sure there was another step on the staircase. The pain comes in the “on” step, because your body has no time to prepare for the technique engaging. There’s no tell, no wind up, no cocking or chambering step and no signal or telegraph to respond to. It just happens. The degree of pain is all down to tori’s choice and in truth, there might be no pain at all. But usually you run into an atemi (strike) or are thrown so abruptly you hit the ground without having time to process how you got there or, with locking techniques, you just experience a very sharp compulsion to drop to your knees and tap out (or flip should the lock call for it). Actually, it’s very exciting to experience too, it’s not just terrifying and painful. It’s like finally realising where exactly Tokyo is in relation to where you were standing (to bear out the directional metaphor). In simpler terms, it’s like going to a concert and being inspired to take up an instrument. Suddenly you know what you’re aiming for and you want to be able to do that, to do better than that, to be the person who other people aim at. That’s the kind of feeling you get from a really perfect technique too. At least on the safety of the training mat. If it’s elsewhere well, you might be dead.

So there’s some stuff about Aikido and whatnot. This week happens to be the UKA summer school, which I’m not attending this year, so all the Kyushinkan guys have gone off to train there so there’s no training for me. I went last year and the year before but I won’t talk about that now. Another time perhaps :D.

Anyway cheers for reading. My thanks to Exeter Aikido ( and Kyushinkan dojo ( for giving me permission to write about them.