I think that’s an important question for people studying internal arts, especially people studying taijiquan. Because people seem to get really bogged down in something. It becomes hard to distinguish the purpose of some strange idea or mental process. Then you falsely think the art is some great mystery, that you must do more “research”, etc., etc. You get more confused and you certainly don’t get very far. You have little “application” skills. As if you’re trying to understand physics and everything else is just a simple application once you grasp some fundamental principle of it all. You tell yourself “it’s the journey, not the destination”. That all sounds reasonable but is of course a grand copout.

Well what about some definitions. At the time I checked wikipedia, it said “philosophy is famously difficult to define”. Oh great. Then later:

There is some agreement, therefore, that the philosophical method is rational, systematic and critical, or characterised by logical argument.Intrinsic Character: Philosophy can be distinguished from empirical science and religion. The Penguin Encyclopedia ([citation needed]) says that philosophy differs from science in that its questions cannot be answered empirically, i.e. by observation or experiment, and from religion, in that its purpose is entirely intellectual, and allows no place for faith or revelation.

So I guess it is “rational inquiry”. Ok great. We all need that for learning these arts. Sure. But “entirely intellectual”? Big Red Flag. What about theory? More from wikipedia:

The word theory has a number of distinct meanings in different fields of knowledge, depending on their methodologies and the context of discussion.

In science, a theory is a mathematical or logical explanation, or a testable model of the manner of interaction of a set of natural phenomena, capable of predicting future occurrences or observations of the same kind, and capable of being tested through experiment or otherwise falsified through empirical observation.

Ok good. Seems to be a more detailed explanation of philosophy. So prediction, explaining, and testing is important. We need that, too. What about strategy?

A strategy is a long term plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal, most often “winning”. Strategy is differentiated from tactics or immediate actions with resources at hand by its nature of being extensively premeditated, and often practically rehearsed. Strategies are used to make the problem or problems easier to solve, and also for you to understand it more.

Strategy is adaptable by nature rather than rigid set of instructions. Strategy is the subcomponent to tactics. The simplest explanation of this is the analogy of a sports scenario. If a football team were to organize a plan in which the ball is passed in a particular sequence between specifically positioned players, their success is dependent on each of those players both being present at the exact location, and remembering exactly when, from whom and to whom the ball is to be passed; moreover that no interruption to the sequence occurs. By comparison, if the team were to simplify this plan to a strategy where the ball is passed in the pattern alone, between any of the team, and at any area on the field, then their vulnerability to variables is greatly reduced, and the opportunity to operate in that manner occurs far more often. This manner is a strategy.

Ok, we want a long term plan, to win, and some plan that can be reduced to a method to deal with large numbers of variables. Great. Definitely need that.

So what is the difference, really? Philosophy – don’t know how to define it. Strategy? That seems to make sense. Use the “8 gates” or “13 postures” and combine. Ok. Theory – we do need to explain phenomena. I think that’s where we get in trouble. Trying to use weird vocabulary and difficult concepts like “qi”. That’s where people get very hung up and confused and paralyzed about what to do and how to train. Or off in academia instead of in “martial” arts. So what if people just didn’t worry too much about theory? Or said, I’ll accept a hypothesis that doesn’t use the word “qi”? That doesn’t deny qi exists. It just says the framework or lens on the phenomena doesn’t explain it. I think that helps some. But clearly for many people, qi of course exists, however hard to define or explain, like philosophy. So then we are back to something difficult to define. So how about just trying to experience the phenomena and not analyzing it too much? All of it, “energies”, techniques”, “whole body power”, “internal power” has to be learned kinesthetically and experientially, not intellectually. Do people learn movements sitting around in a cave or in a dream, or do they learn them by doing them? After that one can make some analogies but can’t actually say “it”. The Tao that can be told is not the real Tao. Something like that. So why do we worry about it so much? Overanalyze? Why can’t we “just do it”? If taijiquan is supposed to teach people Taoism, why does it seem to get them as far away from it as possible? Like someone who can’t stop analyzing the zen koan about one hand clapping. I guess analytical people like the idea of some mystery that cannot be unraveled, that they will somehow figure it all out. The art seems to attract intellectuals but intellectualism can only lead one astray. Wanting too much science and not enough art. That is the paradox and mental trap that prevents progress. And if few individuals make progress in an art, what is the state of that art?

The other problem is we then think we like the taiji, we have some attachment to it as a thing that it is not or a related set of ideas, and we really don’t like the taiji QUAN. Some people give up and say they are interested in health only. Ok. so be it. good for you. we should all be healthy. Some people have a reformist attitude about it, but then they analyze it to death as well, more to define what it is not, or to basically define it the same as a sort of traditional jiu-jitsu, a collection of techniques and flavors and superimposed philosophies. Sure I see that rationale but I don’t think that’s “it”. Maybe this is the same problem as the question: how to explain yiquan’s “formlessness” idea? What about jkd? What is that? What the heck is taijiquan? A collection of principles? Rollback, press, push, and ward off? An art that tries to be like the taiji diagram? Can it be defined any more easily than philosophy can? I checked wikipedia again:

Tai chi chuan (traditional Chinese: 太極拳; simplified Chinese: 太极拳; Hanyu Pinyin: tàijíquán; Wade-Giles: t’ai4 chi2 ch’üan2) is an internal Chinese martial art often practiced with the aim of promoting health and longevity. Tai chi chuan’s training forms are well known as the slow motion routines that groups of people practice together every morning in parks around the world, particularly in China. Some medical studies support its effectiveness as an alternative exercise and a form of martial arts therapy. Tai chi chuan is considered a soft style martial art — an art applied with internal power — to distinguish its theory and application from that of the hard martial art styles. There are many different styles of tai chi chuan, but most modern schools can trace their development to the system originally taught by the Chen family to the Yang family starting in 1820[1][2].

That has to be the worst definition I’ve ever seen on Wikipedia. It does talk some true things all around the art. It fails at an actual definition. What to do? Use it as therapy? Collect forms and styles? I love how no one can define it but people try to dis each other by saying what it’s not. That is, in push hands, if someone uses BRUTE FORCE, some idiot can say “that’s not taijiquan!” as if that is actually saying SOMEthing. Being weaker and not able to deal with stronger brute force is the exact opposite of martial art. It’s the exact opposite of deflect 1000 lbs with 4 oz. Accusing someone else that they don’t have the art doesn’t really do anything for anyone, least of all for yourself.

I think we have to come back to the idea that we need 1% inspiration 99% perspiration (literally). But we fall in love with the inspiration part. What are some solutions? Go train HARD to learn SOFT as cotton. If you can’t do that, zhan zhuang. I am starting to understand that story where the master says to the eager, earnest student the harder you try to learn faster, the longer it’s actually going to take you to make any progress.