Concept vs Technique

As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. —Ralph Waldo Emerson

What does it mean?

When someone says, “Our martial art is concept based, instead of technique based?”

It’s a familiar phrase in Wing Chun, and it can be difficult for outsiders to know

  1. What the hell that means, and
  2. Why that’s a good thing.


Let’s take the first part first by zooming out a little bit and looking at the world of physics. There are fundamental rules (or principles) that govern how objects behave in relationship to gravity and each other. These are Newton’s laws of Gravity, right?

He didn’t create the laws, they were always there, but he was the first person to understand them in a way he could express in mathematical equations that anyone, regardless of language, could understand if they understood the fundamental mathematics that holds it all together.

Humans Are Objects

The same laws of gravity, inertia, momentum, force, energy, etc apply to humans, too. We’re not somehow exempt from the laws of physics.

And, given how our bodies are essentially the same with some variation in measurements, but at the core we’re melodies on the same theme, there are certain rules that govern the ways in which two or more bodies could interact.

All effective self defense studies start with the fundamental principles that govern how bodies work, and build up from there.

Why Is This A Good Thing?

When you break the law, what happens? You get punished.

When you break the principles of self defense, you lose. Badly.

So, your practice should be focused on the fundamental laws, and maintain focus on maintaining proper adherence to those laws when considering how to best embody those laws in a particular instance or expression. This is where you start dipping your toes into the waters of technique.

A technique is a singular expression of a broader concept.

Unfortunately, most martial arts start with memorizing techniques. This is a drawback because the student is building a catalogue of scattered facts (as Benoit Mandelbrot called it).

Without the fundamental principles that help the student understand how the techniques are all related, the student is navigating between islands of separate applications. What’s better, however, is to see how there are few concepts that really matter, and all techniques are expressions of these few timeless principles.

They work on whatever level you’re applying them on (personal, romantic, business, etc), and when thought of in this way their applications become limitless.

A student of the martial arts could spend a lifetime on techniques, and never fully grasp the implications of the principles. This is why a concept-based approach to understanding self defense is incredibly important; it doesn’t go both ways.

Concepts/Principles will help you understand techniques, but techniques will not automatically help you understand the principles.

Broad Ideas

Take the time to dig into the fundamental structure that shows up in all martial arts, and you’ll be well on your way to building a mental & physical latticework of insight where you can see how all the techniques you see are interrelated.

That’s how you think beyond black belt.

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