Episode 31

Why Swords are Cool, with Damon Young

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Show Notes:

Damon Young is an Australian martial artist and philosopher, author of books like Philosophy in the Garden and the soon to be published in Europe, already out in Australia, On Getting Off: Sex and Philosophy. He has also edited a couple of books on philosophy and martial arts: Engagement, Philosophy and the Martial Arts, and Martial Arts and Philosophy: Beating and Nothingness.

In this fascinating conversation we discuss the importance of the study of philosophy when practising martial arts. How do we know the difference between bravery and foolhardiness? How can someone engage in violence and still be a good person? And perhaps, most importantly, why are swords so damn cool?

Philosophy is a precise field, and at one point Damon tells me he misspoke: “I describe David Hume as empirical and rational. This is true, but I ought to have said “sceptical” not “rational” (to distinguish him from rationalists like Descartes).” Incidentally, all my guests have the opportunity to check the episode for boo-boos like this before it goes live. I am sworn to secrecy about what may or may not have been cut from this or any other episode! And I am always happy to insert nuanced corrections in the shownotes, if they are beyond the scope of editing the audio file.

For Damon’s essay on why swords are cool, you can find the details of the Meanjin magazine article in Damon’s blog post here.

Damon has also written a series of six books for children, which he mentions near the end of this episode. If you would like to check them out, the first one is My Nanna is a Ninja, which is available in the usual bookshops. You can watch him reading it on YouTube here.

GW: Hello sword people, this is Guy Windsor, also known as the Sword Guy, and I’m here today with Damon Young, who is a swordsman and a writer, and a little birdie tells me he is also something of a philosopher. So without further ado, Damon, welcome to the show.

DY: G’day.

GW: Whereabouts in the world are you, Damon?

DY: So I am in Hobart City, in the state of Tasmania, in Australia. So if you think of the south of the southern island of the southern continent, that’s where I am. I was actually born and raised in Melbourne and capital city of Victoria, but we moved here to Hobart a few years ago. And it’s gorgeous, but it’s yes, it’s very south. We’re about 2600 kilometres from the Antarctic.

GW: Wow. Have you ever visited the Antarctic?

DY: Not yet. No. Sometimes I wander off from the house and think I might go for a little bit of a stroll, but I never quite reached the Antarctic.

GW: Well, just by Australian standards, 2,000 kilometres really is kind of next door.

DY: Yeah, it’s not that far at all.

GW: Marvellous, OK, so you’re a philosopher, author of books like Philosophy in the Garden and the soon to be published in Europe, already out in Australia, On Getting Off: Sex and Philosophy. And you’ve also edited a couple of books on martial arts and philosophy. Shall we start with those?

DY: Yeah, sure do.

GW: Tell us about them.

DY: OK, so there’s this two volumes with two very different audiences. The first volume is called Engagement, Philosophy and the Martial Arts, and that’s edited by Graham Priest and I. And that is academic papers bringing these two topics together for academics, or at least for students. It’s a scholarly collection for scholars. And then there’s a second collection called Martial Arts and Philosophy: Beating and Nothingness, which is a very pop volume, which is written for a general audience. And there’s some crossover in the topics, the themes, the ideas. Obviously, as an editor, I have a paper in both and each paper looks at very similar things. But one’s written for academic philosophers and the other is written for everyone. These came out of some conferences that Graham and I put on at the University of Melbourne, where I’m an associate, really just bringing together what we thought were a natural fit, but what others thought was completely bizarre.

GW: It makes perfect sense to me. There’s a centuries and centuries old connection between martial arts and philosophy. If you’re going to go around killing people, you have to have some kind of philosophical framework to justify it.

DY: And look, many of the papers, including my own, begin with Plato, because Plato was widely regarded as the father or the grandfather of European philosophy after Socrates, before Aristotle. And Plato was a noted wrestler. In fact, Plato was his wrestling nickname, referring to his build, his broad shoulders.

GW: I did not know that.

DY: Yeah, there’s this immediate connection. Now, unless Plato was horribly contradictory in this, and I don’t think he was, it’s fascinating to me to think of this as someone who regularly engaged in martial arts, who defended the martial arts in his dialogue, but was also The Philosopher for generations of Europeans, and Arabic scholars, for what it’s worth.

GW: Wow. So, most people I think listening to this probably don’t really know what a philosopher does when he wakes up in the morning. What is the job?

DY: OK, so I think Alfred North Whitehead, who was a mathematician and philosopher, put it really nicely. He said a philosopher is a critic of abstraction. And that sounds bizarre because we tend to think of philosophers as people who deal in abstractions. But actually the kind of essential philosophical work is to take our ideas, which are themselves abstractions from the world. We’ve neatened things up. We’ve taken away a lot of the relationships, a lot of the mess and tangles and knots of life. And we’ve simplified things and we’re left with this nice, crisp, clean idea that we then sort of toss back and forth between ourselves. And Whitehead was arguing that actually the philosopher’s job is to say, well, hang on a minute, how does that idea you’re playing around with square up with reality as we know it, how does it relate to other ideas? Is it as neat and as simple as you think? I think a lot of what philosophers do and have done for at least a couple of thousand years is exactly that practise. To just say, hang on a minute, I know you think you know what you’re talking about, but do you actually know? Are you sure your confidence about this idea is reasonable? And so this takes many forms. Some philosophers do that with ideas of goodness or justice. Some philosophers do that with notions of beauty. Some philosophers do it with language. But I think all philosophers, insofar as they are philosophers, are engaged in that basic task of saying, let’s take a closer look at your ideas, at your concepts, or at the patterns behind those concepts.

GW: Wow. Yeah, I think critic of abstraction is a really, really useful phrase.

DY: I have reminded myself of that.

GW: Do you have a philosophy?

DY: I mean, it’s a good question. The answer to that question can often take two forms. So there’s a difference between philosophy as a practise of reflection and its accomplishments. So we might say someone like David Hume had a philosophy that was empirical and rational. He was concerned purely with what sense perception was able to give him, and he was trying to reject everything that we couldn’t point to and say, “There is a something”. That was his explicit working philosophy. So that’s one way in which we use philosophy. Then there’s another way in which we use philosophy, which is a kind of implicit framework of ideas and values and habits that we don’t necessarily think about all the time, but which guide us every day. And I’m absolutely certain I have, in terms of the martial arts, for example, I’m sure I have an implicit framework of ideas, values and habits that I take with me into the training hall, or that I used to take with me into the dojo. That’s quite different to having a kind of very clear and systematic practise of reflection that relates to martial arts and yes, I have that, but there’s no way it’s as expansive as my living philosophy, which I’m still sorting out, you know.

GW: You’ve got the rest of your life to get it right.

DY: Yes, and I’m trying to lengthen it, you know, but only so I can get the philosophy right. A good example, I think of one kind of reflective philosophy I’m interested in, in martial arts – to talk about the specifics here – are the virtues. I’m very interested in how the virtues as articulated by someone like Aristotle, relate to our practise in the training hall, because we often hear a lot about notions of say, bravery, to do with the martial arts and sword fighting. And it’s a really important part of the chivalric code as well. But what exactly is meant by “bravery” and how in practise can we disentangle that from things that might look like bravery, like foolhardiness, but which are actually dangerous to us and to others? And just in case it’s helpful, Aristotle, when he was talking about what a virtue is, he said a virtue is kind of a middle point between two extremes. On the one side, you have a deficiency and on the other side you have an excess. So, if you look at courage, the deficiency of courage is cowardice and the excess is foolhardiness. So the coward exaggerates the danger or exaggerates their incapacity to do anything about it and is paralysed or runs away. The foolhardy person doesn’t even notice the danger or just kind of hurls themself into it heedlessly. Now, that may look like bravery, but bravery is when you rationally and knowingly in full knowledge of the danger, meet it anyway because it’s your duty. And I think anyone who’s been in a sword bout with someone who’s superior to them knows what it is to be foolhardy when you kind of hurl yourself in without the proper protection, because it’s kind of the only way you can overcome your damaged pride. But you’re not being brave because you’re not doing it reasonably, you’re being foolhardy. So that’s something that interests me a great deal.

GW: Oh, me, too, and Fiore’s four virtues are famous examples of these, and you can for those who may be listening who are not familiar, those are foresight, boldness and strength and speed. And as I see them, foresight is the ability to see what’s about to happen and foresight tempers boldness, because if you have no idea what’s about to happen and you just go charging in any way, that’s not boldness, that’s foolhardiness. But with sufficient foresight, you can temper your boldness. And strength tends to make you static and immobile. So speed tempers strength and vice versa, too much foresight will make you too aware of all the risks and therefore paralysed by sort of fear of consequences and too much speed makes you unstable.

DY: Exactly, yeah, and it’s not enough to just cultivate one without the others. And that’s a point that Aristotle made. But I think it’s super important for good swordsmanship. But I also think for living a good life, to give your example of foresight and boldness. You can be extremely bold, for example, with someone in the training hall. But if you’re too bold, if you’re too heedless of your relationship with that person, you can hurt them, you can injure them, you can disrespect them. And in doing so, you can undermine their training and yours. And perhaps we’ll get to that later. But this is something I wrote about in those collections. It’s what virtues are necessary to not just win bouts, but to train as a martial artist in a social context with other human beings who are also vulnerable and so on.

GW: Let’s just backtrack a little bit so people have an idea of your martial arts background. I know because I’ve seen you post pictures of yourself on Twitter with swords, you are a practising swordsman. How did you get started with all of that? And what are you currently training?

DY: Yeah, so I’ve always had an interest in the martial arts. I started with karate and then I did some judo and some Aikido, huge fan of judo. And then I took a break for a while, focussing on other things, doing different kinds of fitness. And then when we moved to Tasmania, it turns out there was a HEMA school, a sword play school 10 minutes away. And that’s the Stoccata, a school run by Stephen Hand.

GW: Oh, you train with Stephen, he and I are old friends.

DY: Yeah. I mean, he has mentioned you in classes as well. Approvingly, I should say. And so my base weapon and skillset is English broadsword. But we’ve also trained subsequently with rapier, sword and shield, sword and buckler. And we’ve just started on Paul Wagner’s interpretation of English longsword, which is really, really interesting.

GW: It is, yeah. I had Paul over to Finland to teach a seminar on that so I could get a proper look at it. How I’ve always worked with my own training is when an instructor has some kind of interesting idea, I would get them over to Finland and they would teach a weekend seminar for me so I could really properly see the idea. And they’d be staying with me a couple of days before, a couple of days after. Sometimes, like when Stephen came over, he came for two weekends and the week in between. And so he a taught a sword and buckler workshop on the first weekend. Then on the Wednesday night, we taught a seminar together on how our interpretations of 1.33 have now changed now that we’ve actually met each other and interacted. And then on the Sunday he did a seminar for me on George Silver. So, yeah, I had him brought over so I could get a proper look at his English longsword and it was really interesting. It’s certain that Paul really knows how to fight, so whatever he teaches is going to work. My only question really is, is that what the text actually means?

DY: Yes, and it’s incredibly complicated, I’m in no position to speak on the detail of this, but sometimes the question is raised is, would that work for the rest of us, or would it just work for Paul? Because having fenced Paul, sometimes he’s able to pull off things that I don’t quite understand. But look, most of it, because we also have people who’ve done German longsword in the class and many of the techniques cross over, as you would expect, because the human body only has so many feasible positions and there are only so many tactics to take advantage of those positions. But there are definitely some parts that do seem distinctly English in their approach. If you can speak of a kind of unified national approach to sword, I don’t know if you can. I’m being very cautious here, but if there is such a thing, it would make sense of what Paul is teaching. But again, I must claim ignorance here.

GW: Yeah, I didn’t get you on to go in depth and details on Paul’s longsword. I should get Paul on to do that because I think that that’s probably a bit fairer. So you have been training swordsmanship pretty much since you got to Hobart?

DY: Yes.

GW: So obviously, to my mind, martial arts to me are a holodeck for the study of ethics.

DY: Yes.

GW: I’m not a professional philosopher, so I’m curious about how your study of philosophy colours your martial arts practise.

DY: One of the points that Graham and I made in the collection was a nice kind of bicameral relationship happening there. So you can use philosophy to make sense of practises in the martial arts. You can use philosophy to make sense of the interpretation of martial arts. But you can also use martial arts to throw up really interesting problems for philosophy, or practises or experiences that suddenly challenge ideas in the martial arts. And I might get to that in a second. First of all, I’d like to talk about how philosophy can help us to think about aspects of the martial arts. And obviously the first one is ethics. That’s the most straightforward and a great many of the papers in our collections were about ethics, because the obvious question is, how could you weakly engage in violence and be a good person? And I think it’s a really important question because I think you could make a fairly reasonable case to say, well, if you engage regularly in violence, you’re going to become a more violent person, surely? And in some cases, I think that’s true. And I’ll get to the research in a second. But actually, there’s another claim that’s made in the martial arts, certainly in the many of the Japanese and Chinese martial arts. But in other martial arts as well, there is a claim made regularly that no, actually, studying martial arts makes you less violent. And it seems like a paradox, but in fact, it’s not. And there are studies that show that young people and adults who regularly train certain kinds of martial arts actually develop more prosocial behaviours. So they are better to be around. They are less violent, less aggressive, have fewer violent thoughts and so on. And one of the reasons for that is that partly it allows them to kind of purge their violent urges in a safe and respectful environment. So, if you do have this need to engage in violent acts, the dojo or the training hall, salle, whatever you want to call it, is a place where you can do that, but safely with rules about how it has to happen. Some of those rules are about the equipment. Some of those rules are about techniques. But some of those rules are also about how you express your feelings when you’re engaged in violence. And a good example of that is in karate. If you hurt someone during sparring, you immediately had to move to the side of the dojo and sit down kneeling in seiza. And the idea was it’s a sign of respect. You recognise you’ve hurt someone, you withdraw from the fighting area. They make that expression of respect explicit. It’s part of the code. But that helps everyone understand where they stand relative to each other. But a similar thing happens informally in many fencing schools. As soon as you hurt someone, you stop fighting, you express regret, you make sure they’re okay. You move away so a doctor or a teacher can check them out and so on. So these are good examples of how you’re engaging in violence, yes, but you’re also participating in a social structure that emphasises social virtues and does so with safe techniques and safe equipment. So, the second part of that is that this only works if the authority structure in the school demonstrates prosocial virtues. So in karate school, for example, traditional martial arts schools, so-called. (I might get to that a little bit later, what we call traditional and what we don’t.) But in so-called traditional martial arts schools, it was only those schools that had teachers who explicitly addressed the ethics of fighting, of mutual respect, of courtesy and care, that produced students who developed more prosocial behaviour. So as a teacher, it’s not enough to just let your kids rip and assume that everything’s safe and everything will be fine because they might then go back out into the community and be more violent because of your teaching, because of what you’ve taught them.

GW: Yeah, what you’ve taught them is it’s OK to hit people, end of. As opposed to, in this controlled environment, it’s OK to hit people. But if things go wrong, I think Dave Lowry has a lovely article about this, I think it’s in his book. Sword and Brush. And it’s about, you know, he got punched in the face by a senior Japanese instructor. And how that guy handled it was he apologised. He took responsibility for it. And he was all right. Yeah. And that’s the model.

DY: Exactly. And it’s just a basic standard of decency, care, courtesy and so on. It shows that you respect the other person as a human being. You don’t want to injure them. You don’t want to harm them. On the contrary, you want to work together. And that’s the whole point of why you’re there, is working together for mutual benefit. And that’s, again, something I’ve discussed quite a bit in my papers for those collections. It’s the idea that you’re there to learn. You can’t learn if you’re continually maliciously hurting one another or scared that someone’s going to maliciously hurt you. So that’s an area where I think your philosophy brings some ethical clarity to the relationships that are necessary to learn the martial arts. And I think if you are a HEMA teacher and you’re looking for what traits you need to encourage, the kind of leadership you need to display, I think philosophy is a handy way into those ideas. So that’s a very long answer. But I also think it’s a really important area of the martial arts, because we absolutely cannot ignore the fact that if we’re doing proper martial arts, we are doing violence to one another. The only difference is that violence is consensual and safe and respectful.

GW: Right, and some people, though, are practising in, shall we say, I don’t know, modern self-defence or combat shooting or training in the military or whatever, and actually they’re not practising just to fight with swords with their friends. They’re actually practising how to kill somebody should that situation arise. And in that situation the arts they are practising may very well arise. It’s one of the reasons why I like teaching historical martial arts, because you can get right into the holodeck of it and it’s theoretical. I don’t have to worry about the character of my students. Are they actually going to take this stuff and go out and murder people?

DY: Yes. Which is not something you want on your mind.

GW: No, exactly. So, yes, the ethical component. I mean, one way that I’ve handled that is after the advanced class, I will ask them a question like, OK, in what circumstances is it OK to stab somebody in the face with a sword? They will go off and think about it and write me an email telling me what they think and some people interpreted that as well obviously we’re only talking about blunt swords and masks, and other people took it to mean a sharp sword in the face, and some people were basically sociopaths – like when it feels like a good idea.

DY: Yeah, a Friday is a good time to stab someone in the face.

GW: Yet other people were like, no, under no circumstances I can think of would that be an okay thing to do. And I fall somewhere in between. But yes, just getting people to think about it is, I think, a critically important part of teaching martial arts ethically.

DY: Yes, and one more thing I’ll add and then I’d like to move on. One more thing is that it’s not enough, as I’ve seen in some traditional martial arts schools, it’s not enough to just say “this is what the art teaches you”. You know, it becomes a form of advertising magic, where if you practise this form of karate, this so-called “traditional martial art” that’s younger than boxing, if you practise this traditional martial art, you’ll become a better person. And it’s as spurious as the claim that reading makes you a better person. Reading how? Reading what? Reading with what proclivities? And it’s the same with martial arts. You must be engaged in an active moral effort to become better. And in many cases you will need someone to encourage you or to model that behaviour. And that’s going to be your teacher and seeing your students. Without that, it really just does become a form of marketing, that if you engage in this mystical practise, you’ll somehow become better through woo and it doesn’t work.

GW: Yes, quite right. There are all sorts of unfounded claims that are made, like you practise this particular martial art, you’ll get better at self-defence. Well, OK, if they’re looking at self-defence scenarios and training you in identifying those scenarios and avoiding them or training you in surprise attack from behind by somebody bigger and stronger or whatever. If that’s what they’re actually modelling, then yes, it might work. But you don’t just sort of magically get better at self-defence by practising, say 17th century rapier, that isn’t going to help.

DY: No. But suppose it did work and you then became extremely good at killing people with a rapier, what would the everyday modern value of that be? Well, I can defend myself if I’m allowed to murder people, but without the whole murder thing, I’m not so good. You know, it’s impractical. And, in fact, it sounds odd when you say it using HEMA when you talk about rapier here like that. But that’s legitimately a claim that some traditional martial arts make, that we will teach you how to kill people. Like, why? Why do you need to know how to kill people? That’s absurd. You work an office job. The most annoying thing in your day is when the Uber is late.

GW: One of the reasons I like martial arts is I really like the idea of the able to kill people, because when I was young, there were some vengeance issues.

DY: Of course. And I have them too.

GW: I got bullied at school and whatever. And, you know, the opportunity to really do some damage in return was really attractive.

DY: Yeah, I have used martial arts to defend myself well and poorly. I recognise its martial value, which is another philosophical question. But I think so much of the advertising and marketing of the martial arts is at the level of comic book wish fulfilment fantasy. You know, it’s more about living out a dream of being martially proficient than what it actually is to be in a situation where you’re defending yourself, which is often awful, even if you do well. It’s awful. It’s harrowing. But moving on for a second, I think there are actually a bunch of other ways that philosophy can be helpful in HEMA. And talking about HEMA specifically. One is notions like the hermeneutic circle. I don’t know if you’ve come across that in your interpretations, but hermeneutics originally referred to biblical study, the interpretation of biblical texts, the idea that, well, look, this was written a long time ago in a different language, translated through several languages. It’s got to us centuries, sometimes thousands of years later. How do we make sense of this holy book? But that kind of broadened out to include all kinds of other interpretation and the issues that come out when you’re trying to interpret a historical document. And the hermeneutic circle is the idea that, well, in order to understand, say, Fiore’s work or Liechtenauer or George Silver’s works, you need to understand the context in which they were written. But in order to understand the context in which they were written, you need to understand a whole lot of the particulars. You need to understand works like Fiore’s or Silver’s or whatever. So the hermeneutic circle refers to this continual to and fro between text and context that happens when you’re trying to make sense of a historical document. But it doesn’t just apply to texts, it also applies to human behaviour. So if you’re trying to understand what’s happening in a martial arts school, you need to have a look at the social context, what’s happening here. But that social context only makes sense by referring to the very specific actions and their very specific meanings. So that’s another way in which something that seems quite obscure and starts in biblical studies is actually brought to bear today by people who are trying to make sense of what George Silver wrote in the late 16th century. I mean, you work on translation. Does that sort of very basic notion of the relationship between texts and contexts makes sense to you? Does it sound reasonable?

GW: Well, also my first degree is in English Lit, so, without getting too postmodern whatever, to try to understand something that was written, say in 1600 you have to have a pretty clear idea of, oh and by the way Roland Barthes can just fuck right off. The author is technically dead.

DY: We like the author, Guy, we like the author.

GW: Exactly. Basically us sword people, we go to the text basically to get a fencing lesson and to get the fencing lesson, we have to understand what it is the person is actually saying. So what the words mean and what they mean in the context of the other words on the page and what they mean in the context of maybe the pictures on the page, but also what they mean in the context of that person’s culture and background and what was going on in the world around them, what was going on in the fencing world, what was going on politically and socially. And it just expands out from there. And you can end up going down all sorts of fascinating but unnecessary-for-fencing-purposes rabbit holes. But we’re in this for curiosity. That glorious feeling of how it feels to pick up a sword and swing it and it feels right.

DY: Swords are cool. One of my side projects is I am writing a philosophy of swords. And I believe it’s going to be called “The Point: the Philosophy of Swords”. I was so close to calling it “Swords are Cool” and just leaving it at that.

GW: Swords are cool.

DY: They are so cool. And there’s an immediate appeal. You know, spears are enormously useful and no doubt so many wars have been won with spears. But swords!

GW: Tanks, I suppose, are kind of cool, because they’re better at killing people, but I don’t know. I think that there is some kind of profound fundamental kind of human neurological thing that you have basically this extension to your arm that can do stuff. And that’s cool. And, you know, I’m a woodworker as well. So I have a similar feeling about planes and chisels. But swords are cooler because self-defence and defending your life from violent harm is a more fundamental purpose than making a nice piece of furniture.

DY: It’s certainly more primal. I don’t know if it’s more fundamental, but I’m going put that aside. I do have a whole essay on why swords are cool in a popular magazine, Meanjin, a little while back, and I will send that to you.

GW: I’ll put it in the show notes, but please summarise it for us.

DY: Well, the basic idea is, as we’ve just said, swords are a sidearm a lot of the time. And when they’re not a sidearm, they’re often used with something else, like a shield. On their own they are a very specific, limited kind of weapon. Why is it then that they are so enormously popular? Because if you look at popular culture, like Star Wars, not a small franchise, and essentially what are the stars? Who are the great figures, the protagonists of Star Wars? They are swordsmen. They might be sort of space-age Samurai, but they’re essentially swordsmen. Harry Potter has a sword. There are swords in comic book, swords in video games and so on. I don’t think I need to make that case because I think we know how potent a symbol they are. My argument is, and again, this is something I want to expand on in the sword book, but in this essay, the argument is partly that swords seemingly demonstrate virtue because in order to fight with a sword, you have to put yourself immediately in harm’s way. It’s not like killing from a distance. You have to be able to see the whites of the eyes, so to speak. So there’s immediately more sense of martial virtue, courage and perseverance, I would say, in a sword than there is in, say, a rifle or a bow or a catapult or certainly a missile that you can control remotely. And then you might say, OK, well then, why aren’t knives equally as symbolically potent as swords? And the answer to that is, knives are sneaky. You can hide a knife, a knife is what you used to ‘do’ someone without being noticed. And sure, of course, there are knife fights, but most uses of knives are sneaky. They’re done very quickly, very nastily. There’s a sense of, if not cowardice, although I think in many cases knife use is cowardly, if you’re up against someone unarmed. If not cowardly, then a bit sneaky. They’re the tools of assassins, not duellists. With a sword you are certainly in melee range. You’re there intimately with that other person, but you’re doing so explicitly and openly. You’re putting yourself on the line and saying we are going to fight now. Which is very different from either shooting at someone from a distance or shanking them quickly through the ribs. So I think that’s one reason why swords are popular, is because they symbolise martial valour and perseverance in a way that other weapons don’t. Second reason is that they’re wearable. And as I said, yes, you can wear a knife, but it doesn’t have the same valour. You can’t wear a spear. You can’t wear a bow in the same way. Swords are in the perfect range to become part of your uniform, part of your martial identity. And they often have. You know, if you look at something like a rapier, I think a rapier is really at the very edge of what you can reasonably wear as a sword. And if you’ve ever tried to get around wearing a rapier, you would not want to do that in an antique shop. So I think that those two elements come together with swords: explicit marshal valour and the capacity to become part of a uniform. I think there’s more to it.

GW: I think you’ve nailed it because, you know, I love all martial arts. I’ve done karate and kung fu and spears and swords and bows and guns. There isn’t a weapon I don’t like and there isn’t a martial art that involves hitting people I’ve ever not enjoyed. But swords are the thing. I realised long ago that I’m primarily interested in sidearms. The things I like best are sidearms. And so, you know, when it comes to guns, I much prefer pistols over rifles, though obviously rifles are inherently better in many circumstances. And when it comes to bladed weapons, I love knives and Zweihanders and poleaxes and what have you, but the sword is the thing. I think it’s because you can wear it and it’s just part of who you are when you just put it on and it leaves both hands free for a spear or whatever else. But the sword just hangs and yeah, that’s there’s something magic about it.

DY: There is. And look, I think there is slightly more in that the sword was often proof of a certain status. Only certain people could afford them because it really does take a lot more to make a sword than, say, an axe or a spearhead. Spears are much more efficient than swords, but they just aren’t as cool. And that’s partly because they’re associated with an aristocratic elite, I think both monetarily and literally the only class that is sometimes allowed to wear a sword. So in Japan and also in Europe, commoners were banned from wearing swords. And that wasn’t because they were worried about the commoners spending too much money. You know, it was partly because they wanted to disarm them, but also because it was a badge of pride. But my hunch is that the other two things I was talking about are more important in what makes swords so enormously rad.

GW: I think you’ve nailed it.

DY: The philosopher in me can talk a lot about this sort of stuff, I might just mention two more things very briefly. There a couple of other things where I think philosophy is helpful for the martial arts. I’ve said ethics, obviously, the hermeneutic circle, thinking about what swords are and their value, which we were just doing. I think philosophy can, at its best, teach you to be comfortable within ignorance. And that sounds bizarre because you’re constantly curiously questing after truth, but one of the things about being a philosopher, and I would say most academic disciplines worth their salt, is that you really have to get used to not knowing. You have to get comfortable with the limits of your knowledge. You have to recognise when other people know far more about a topic than you do. And I think this is extremely helpful with HEMA, because we are dealing with, in some cases, documents that are centuries old. And there are some questions that we can’t answer and we shouldn’t pretend that we can, until we can. We can develop feasible and plausible techniques. Steve, when interpreting George Silver’s work, will say, look, Silver doesn’t say whether it’s this or that. All I can say is this technique works when we apply it. I think philosophers, good philosophers, are accustomed to that feeling. And I think there is a tendency in martial arts, especially when the product you’re selling is tied to your historical authenticity, there’s a real danger of saying, “Oh yeah, I know that. Here’s the great martial secret. This is exactly what Fiore or Silver or any one of these people. I know that the great secret.” and I think the philosopher will say, you just don’t. But that’s OK, right? You don’t have to pretend.

GW: Yeah, I’ve been running a school for a long time and we have formal teaching exams for people starting to lead classes and so on, and like the highest level exam, basically, you run a seminar for a day and there’s a bunch of people watching, including me with a stopwatch and a notebook and looking intimidating and all that kind of stuff. And there’s always one question that will get put to the candidate where I know they don’t know the answer. And in front of a class full of students they have been teaching for the previous three hours or whatever, they have to say “I don’t know.”

DY: Nice.

GW: Because that is so hard to do. It is so hard because particularly you’re teaching so it is sort of your job to know. It’s your job to be the person who knows the things that everybody else can learn the thing. Yes, but that so very easily leads you into saying, “Yes, of course I know.” And then somebody asked you a question you don’t actually know the answer to. And so you just bullshit your way out of it because it’s just a natural thing to do, and so having that trap in there, no one has ever failed that yet because they are very, very carefully prepared for several years before the exam takes place. I’m not in the business of failing my students if I can avoid it. But the test is there and it is hard because your whole body wants to be the person who knows the answer when you’re in that position.

DY: Yes, absolutely. And I think that actually leads nicely into my next point, which is about testable claims, and there’s a lot of work in the history and philosophy of science about what are you saying is true? Under what conditions is it true? How would you test this and so on? Now, obviously, that’s super important to science and philosophy itself, but it’s also really, really helpful for the martial arts where someone might say, for example, “Well, I know I know the death touch, I’ve trained for many years. I know the death touch.”

GW: I’ve met these people.

DY: The obvious question to this is, how do you know, how many people have you killed? Should I be calling someone here? And they’re making a claim which in terms of everyday life is untestable. And often they’re making that claim because it’s untestable, because no one’s going to say, alright, let’s fight to the death. And you were talking before about the martial context of HEMA. These were men who themselves had been in duels, who had taught people who were going to have duels and the spectre of death was there.

GW: Yeah. It’s a very good bullshit detector.

DY: Exactly. Maybe I’ll talk about this later. One of the things I really like about the martial arts when they’re done well is you can’t bollocks your way out of getting hit. You can’t argue your way out of it. You can’t say, well, there’s a bit more nuance there. No, you got smacked in the head because you made a mistake or because you tried your best but the other person was better on the day. That doesn’t happen sometimes in philosophy because you can argue your way out of it to someone who demolished your points. But you don’t recognise that they demolished your points, so they didn’t. That doesn’t happen in the martial arts when they’re practised well.

GW: Well, yeah, when they are practised well is really important because you do find all sorts of situations where, no, I didn’t get hit, you didn’t touch me, because we’re not doing it with sharp swords usually. And so there’s no blood, which is incidentally, you know, one of the lovely things with 19th century sharps, like an épée, but it has like a quarter inch sharp point on the end of it. It was not very common, but if someone was training and was expecting a duel, again, this is not a common practise in 19th century fencing, but it did exist. They would fence without shirts and with just enough of a blade on it to give you a nasty poke and you would bleed.

DY: I think Pérez-Reverte, in The Fencing Master, his novel, has his protagonists fencing with those. So they’re not they’re not full-on impaled by these essentially small swords, but they give a nasty poke.

GW: And the point of that is you can’t deny the hit. And likewise I have a friend who is in the SCA and got fed up with the honour system. And not everyone’s honour is quite as robust as it ought to be, perhaps. And so he took he took to chalking the end of his rapier.

DY: Oh, nice. Yes.

GW: And that’s great. In boxing, the hit only does the damage that it actually does. In wrestling the hold only does the restriction that it actually does. But with swords, the blow does just the very tiniest little token of what it is actually supposed to be doing. And so we do have this problem of how do we establish that actually was a hit. And, you know, I think that’s why a lot of people find the tournament environment so attractive is because there’s a very clearly established system of deciding, was that actually a hit. You’ve got judges and you’ve got points. And it’s really clear. And, you know, this sort of hit, you might count it or not in the salle, but no, this is a rule that is a very clearly defined environment. What works in this environment, we know it actually works because we actually have a system for establishing what actually a hit really is.

DY: Yes, which I think is falsely clear, because we all know of the circumstances in which you just don’t know, we don’t know the damage that hit would have done. We don’t know if he would have survived long enough to give the after blow and so on. But I think you’re right that there’s enough clarity there to provide a consistent, clear system of possible damage or possible harm and so on. And I agree. I think that clarity is very important. And it’s certainly several steps above other rule sets that have no concept of an afterblow, for example, where all you have to do is hit the person first. And, as I hope you would agree, hitting someone first with one and a half kilograms of steel and then getting hit yourself with one and a half kilograms of steel is not the victory that you might think it is.

GW: Yeah, the word “Pyrrhic” springs to mind.

DY: Exactly. Yeah. And I was watching a Kendo tournament recently, and this really brought this to mind. I mean, I have enormous respect for Kendo as a martial art. And I know some Kendoka practise as a martial art, not just as a sport. I mean, obviously, it’s heavily sportified. But you see the swiftness of their techniques and their commitment. The speed and precision is beautiful, but sometimes when you watch two Kendoka, each giving the other an incredibly swift, precise hit to the head.

GW: You have to wonder what is the truth there?

DY: Yeah, exactly, because that’s not a double. Someone hit first, but someone hits a fraction of a second first. You know, I’m not sure you would call that much of a of a conquest, but I don’t want to get too much into that because I’m not I’m not an expert on Kendo, but I do think it’s really important in the martial arts to have these systems that allow people to have a clear sense of when they failed. Sometimes that’s just because your head’s ringing, because you got hit so hard that it’s absolutely impossible to deny. But also, you need to be part of a community that is continually trying very hard to recognise the truth so that they’re watching, there are two or three of them. They’re all aware of human error and they’re trying to work their way to finding out what happened and they’re trying to do it within a few seconds of it happening. I have enormous respect for tournament judges where they get it right.

GW: But I think one of the really critical things there is that the failure has to be survivable, not just physically, as in we’re not injuring each other, but also socially and in terms of like if somebody goes in and they know if they get hit, they’re going to be ridiculed and disdained by their community, they will do whatever they can to avoid acknowledging that the hit has occurred. Donald Trump right now denying the results of the election is a perfect example of that. This is going to go out some weeks from now. We’re recording this on the 19th of November 2020. But if the environment treats that sort of failure as a necessary, even an enjoyable part of the whole learning process and so you can actually show your bruises off in the pub afterwards and people are, Oh, that’s cool. Not you should be fucking buried.

DY: “You suck.” Yeah, right. And that’s crucially important, I think. That’s partly what I was talking about earlier, about the importance of developing a community of learning for mutual benefit. And one of the things that Steve stresses regularly, Stephen Hand, is that you’re there to fence well, not just to win. And there are many times when I know damn well that I’ve scored a point because of my, not natural, but my habitual sense of timing a distance, not because I did the technique well. And if I try that same technique that sloppily with other opponents, I’m going to get nailed. But what I really wanted to do at that moment was I wanted to win, I wanted to beat them, I didn’t want to do the technique well. That’s entirely my failing and entirely in character. But the structure is there to encourage me to do otherwise. And I’d rather attempt a technique well and fail than to just score points by doing techniques badly against the opponents that they’ll work on.

GW:  Right. That’s the essence of it.

DY: Yes, I am a sucker for a cheap leg shot in the middle of a bout.

GW: Well, if I ever get to fence you, I will bear that in mind.

DY: A good opponent just slips the leg and smacks me in the head, as they should. But I know that there are some people I can get away with it with and in a moment of frustration I might try to get away with it. And I think I’m completely honest and open about that, partly because, again, I train in an environment where you can be honest and open about your mistakes. It’s not seen as good that that happens. It is seen as natural and something to work on.

GW: Yes. Is a necessary part of the process. Because if you’re not generating mistakes, there’s no natural stimulus to get better.

DY: Exactly. Yeah. And look, earlier you mentioned curiosity. And honestly, that is my primary guiding, I want to say virtue, but I will also say pleasure, I get enormous pleasure from indulging my curiosity. I am thrilled by seeing how techniques work and don’t work and why they don’t work and in what context they work and so on, and that, to me, takes precedence over winning, which is healthy, I think.

GW: Yeah, I would agree. You have to be in an environment where that’s valued. And it’s like a good librarian, right?  A kid comes into a library and the kid is interested in cars, or the kid is interested in history, that’s fine, it doesn’t matter what the child is interested in, the librarian will go, oh, OK, yes, we have these books. This one might be a bit old for you, but it try anyway. This one might be a bit young for you, but it might be a good place to start if you’re new to the subject. Libraries exist as monuments to curiosity. And so I think that a good martial arts environment is similar, so it’s OK if what you’re mostly interested in is how to win tournaments. That’s a valid thing to be curious about. Or if you’re mostly interested in this particular text from 1428, what does it actually mean, how do we reproduce the art that’s within it? That’s a perfectly valid curiosity. The environment that the teacher or the school creates should provide the necessary negative feedback of the times of where you are hit, so obviously something’s not working, but also the necessary kind of psychological comfort that it’s OK to get it wrong and it’s OK to get hit and it’s OK to have stumbles on the way to finding out the thing you want to find out.

DY: Yeah. And I think it’s also fundamentally OK to just be curious. It was enormously beneficial for me to study karate when I studied it as a teenager. It was an immense source of self-discipline and pride. But one of the problems with some traditional Japanese martial arts is that they discourage curiosity. You are not encouraged to wonder why such and such is the case. In fact, you were explicitly told don’t ask questions, you don’t need to know. And the idea is that curiosity, if it’s for anyone, is for far more experienced people. And maybe that worked when I was a teenager. But it just really disappoints me now, I think, because at least in HEMA, what else would drive someone to a 16th century manuscript other than curiosity? It can’t possibly be practicality.

GW: I have a theory that sort of explains why many martial arts schools behave that way. If you join the army at the age of 17 or whatever and you go through basic training and the drill instructor does not give a shit about your curiosity. You are there to be told what to do, what to think, what to dress, how to do everything. Maybe some time later, when you’ve gone through your basic training or whatever, and you’re looking at specialising as a medic or a sniper or whatever else, then yes, then we can take those things into consideration. But at the boot camp level we’re trying to make a soldier out of a person, we’re not interested in that person’s curiosity. And I think a lot of martial arts schools conflate that sort of military boot camp sort of mentality with it being real martial arts.

DY: That’s an interesting point. Yes, OK. And that that would dovetail nicely with what we know about the formations of karate, for example, which was in Meiji-era Japan the martial arts were developed as part of a kind of nationalistic educational exercise in which obedience was really important.

GW: Obedience is the key virtue of the soldier.

DY: Yes, exactly. So in both of these kind of social institutions, the most important thing is for you to shut up and do what you’re told. And later on, maybe you can ask why you were doing that. But the primary thing now is to fall in line and do your basics so that does make some sense. And again, that obviously has some functional place. And as a teenager, I needed to learn how to shut up and do what I was told, it was something I wasn’t very good at and I needed to swallow my antisocial pride and learn to discipline myself.

GW: Which is a perfect preparation for getting married later on.

DY: For me, not wanting to take issue too strongly with your notion of marriage, but for me, love has always been about the free relationship between two equals trying to respect the other as an other. And in fact, the whole point of obedience is that the other is not recognised as an other. They’re an extension of yourself. What you will, they do. Whereas in love and I’m absolutely pillaging from the French philosopher Badiou here, in love, there’s a continual struggle to actually be two, to not reduce them to you or yourself to them, but to be an actual couple, a distinctive set of two entities that work together. And that phenomenon is exactly what’s missing from a lot of martial arts where there is really an emphasis on you’re not a distinctive person. You’re not an autonomous being. You’re here to do what you’re told. So obviously, I know your marriage quip is just a quip, but it’s actually hugely relevant because love is what obedience isn’t.

GW: Yes, in some traditional martial arts sense is king, yes, but in historical martial arts, Fabris was fencing master to the king of Denmark, an actual king. Who was in charge in that relationship? One of them is a hired professional, like a plumber or someone who can arrange the fireworks, and the other is the actual king, appointed by God himself, according to the way they were thinking back then. So the notion of the historical martial arts instructor being some kind of guru or sensei is entirely anti-historical. Us sword professionals, we were a sergeant hired by an officer to teach him how to fight with swords or Fiore who wasn’t even a knight. He was a son of a knight, but he wasn’t a knight himself, teaching people like Galeazzo di Mantova, who was definitely a knight, or he might even have to at some point taught Niccolò III d’Este, he addressed his manuscript to him. That’s the Marquis of Ferrara, and you have Fiore who is not even a knight. Who is in charge? When I teach a seminar these days, I normally give this little speech at the beginning to say, look, if I’m Fiore, you guys are the Marquisses of Ferrara. You have hired me to teach you something. So you tell me what you want us to cover and that’s what we’re going to do. I don’t just show up with, “This is my class today and what we’re doing is.” No, it’s their job to tell me what they need from me.

DY: Yes. And they could be wrong about what they need from you, too. That’s really important. Like they might say, well, I want to look flashy.

GW: That’s not wrong.

DY: Let me rephrase that. I want to learn to fight like the hero of The Witcher by constantly turning my back on my opponents and holding the sword in reverse. You would be remiss as a teacher if you just said, yes, that absolutely works. You should definitely learn to fence like that, because that’s how they all fenced back in the day. It would be your job to say, I’m happy to, but here are the limitations of those techniques.

GW: It’s like, we have a plumber in the house at the moment who is installing a shower and it is our job to tell him what kind of shower we want and what we want it to do. And it’s his job to decide where the pipes go and how they connect them. If I came in and said, no, I’m sorry, I want that pipe to go over there, he would probably quit. Because it would be an impossible situation for him because he is being told to do something that is definitely going to cause problems and then he’s liable because all this water came pouring through our bedroom ceiling. And it’s his fault, because he put the pipe there. Very often what the students actually tell me that they need is they need a basic introduction to Fiore and just to be told what to do all day, that’s fine. But that has to be something they are consciously and deliberately choosing. Not something that I’m imposing on them from without.

DY: Yep, I agree. And, you know, a similar example might be if we turn up to class and we want to do longsword, but we don’t have heavy sparring gloves, it’s the teacher’s job to say, well, look, maybe we can do some drills, but you cannot bout without heavy sparring gloves because you’ll break your fingers. And I can’t in good conscience teach you that. Of course I could. And you could demand it because you’re paying me. But I’m not going to do it. So there’s a really important educational relationship there, I think. Aristotle said “knowledge and money have no common measure”. So there’s often debate between students and teachers because, well, I’ve paid this money. Now I want the knowledge. And a good teacher will be in a position to say, well, I’m happy to give you much of this knowledge, but you have to know that this may hurt you. This one is futile. This one is silly. This one is false, and so on. Do you know what I mean? The money doesn’t translate into ultimate power. Unless, as you’ve said, you actually are king, in which case, you’re the king. We’ve been talking a bit about how philosophy can help us make sense of what happens in the martial arts and HEMA in particular, but I think there have been things I’ve learnt in the martial arts that have been helpful for philosophy, too.

GW: I can totally see how philosophy helps martial arts, but how do martial arts help philosophy?

DY: So I suppose there’s there are, again, two ways in which this works. There’s a general approach to philosophy itself, how I approach the discipline, my own habits, my own propensities, and how the martial arts might inform those. And then there are very particular philosophical problems that arise from martial arts practise. I might talk about those in a bit, but just talking about my basic approach to martial arts, I found that it’s a really good reminder of what it feels like to make a mistake. We were talking about this earlier and as a philosopher, I won’t say that I think about philosophy as a combat sport. I certainly did as an undergraduate and postgraduate, I was brutal. I was cruel. I really was after the victory, which is certainly common of many philosophers, and I suspect it’s common of young, white, male, middle class philosophers, there is there is a kind of arena vision of philosophy, which I think in some ways is bad for philosophy. But I also find that martial arts reminds me of what it feels like to fail, and it does it in a palpable, embodied sense. And that’s really important so that I don’t delude myself that I’m not continually making excuses. When I failed, it ought to hurt. It shouldn’t destroy me, it shouldn’t break me apart, but there ought to be something palpable about failure, even if it’s only the sting of lapsed pride or humility. Humility is not a bad feeling. We should sometimes feel a certain ugliness about ourselves. And there’s a related point, and that is I shouldn’t be frustrated by my opponent’s blow, I should be frustrated by my own weak defence. I think that’s absolutely true of philosophy. If I’ve muddled the argument and someone’s pointed out the flaw, if I’ve written a book where there are holes or oversights or simplifications or generalities that I can’t back up. It’s not someone else’s fault that they’ve pointed that out, it’s my fault. Similarly, as I was saying, if I go for that leg cut and I get smacked in the head by one of my tall opponents who regularly does that, it’s not on him, it’s on me. Because he’s the one pointing out my mistake. He’s actually helping me. If anything, I should be grateful.

GW: I would go further and say, if he fails to whack you in the head, he’s not doing you any favours at all. In fact, he’s not being a good training partner. He is encouraging you to take risks.

DY: I agree. Yes. In fact, that was one of my definitions of courtesy in my paper on the Japanese martial arts. There is a courtesy in attacking your opponent with commitment. You are doing your opponent a sincere courtesy by not waving away their mistakes, their vulnerabilities.

GW: And I’ve come across this, particularly when young men are training with women and they’re reluctant to hit a girl or reluctant to throw a girl on the floor.

DY: Right. It’s “disrespectful”.

GW: Exactly. And so they have this cultural conditioning to not hit women, but the person standing in front of them is only accidentally a woman. She’s deliberately a training partner and a martial artist. What I normally do is in that situation, I’ll go over and I’ll do the drill with the woman and I’ll dump her on the floor or smack her in the head or whatever is supposed to happen, so the person can see. Because using a different cultural conditioning, which is if the teacher does it, it must be right. So I can use that to get the student over the thing. I have had a couple of male students over the last 20 years or so who have quit because they simply don’t want to be in a situation where they ever have to hit a woman. Which is odd.

DY: I don’t know what to say about that. I mean, it’s also the arrogance that they don’t want to hit a woman, given that there are so many women who would impale them within a few seconds. They won’t have a choice about whether or not they hit that woman. They will be hit. And, you know, it reminds me of that terrible thing recently that “women can’t be sword fighters”, I don’t know if you saw that absurd YouTube clip.

GW: Oh, yeah, I heard about that.

DY: By a novelist. Anyone who’s practised HEMA knows that that’s just fundamentally false.

GW: Right. My first fencing coach was a woman. Her name was Gail Rudge. And yeah, she could just stab me wherever she liked, whenever she liked. She was really good at swords and I had never trained with them before. It’s funny how that works!

DY: for those of us who are in these institutions, it’s not even a question. It’s beyond being a question. It’s so normalised that people of all genders and sexualities could kill each other with swords, that it’s only these ignorant outsiders who are like, what, they let a woman do that? So, yeah, there’s another thing. And actually it goes to what we were just saying. It’s that in the martial arts, they must be goodwill in order to practise together. You must have some basic level of goodwill, some basic sense that your training partners are decent and respectful and caring, and that if they’re not, you simply cannot train with them because the results will be bad for everyone. Not only will it spread discord and the social fabric will begin to unknit, but you will have injuries. You will have the psychological injuries and probably physical injuries because people who can’t get on can’t train together. And interestingly, that lesson in martial arts, I think, has informed me more in philosophy than the other way round, if I can’t have a conversation, a debate, an argument with some basic level of goodwill, I’m not going to have the argument because it’s pointless. It’s just going to end up in petty insults, slurs, nasty sarcasm, point scoring, and it will be bad for everyone involved. So it’s just better to not have that argument because no one’s going to learn anything from it. And yeah, and it’s odd that I’ve learnt at that way round. But there it is.

GW: Although, you know, at a certain level in martial arts, it is useful to go and find those people who will cheat and the break the social contract, because they actually provide really useful training opportunities, but you have to be pretty advanced before you’re ready for that kind of exposure.

DY: Yes, I think in some ways that’s a teacher or a senior student’s job. Yeah, not your average student’s job.

GW: Oh, yeah. I’m really thinking of professional instructors.

DY: In fact, I think that the professional instructors must undertake these efforts for the good of everyone to as we were saying earlier, they must provide some kind of moral leadership and try to cultivate the habits that make for a good learning environment or everyone suffers.

GW: Now, I have just noticed the time. We’ve run significantly longer than I normally run. It’s my show so we can have episodes as long as I like. But I think we should probably start bringing this to a close. So let me just finish up with a couple of questions that I ask most of my guests. And the first is, what is the best idea you’ve not acted on?

DY: Part of me wants to say I should have had plush toys made of the characters in my first children’s book, because I also write picture books for children. And my first picture book was My Nanna is a Ninja. There is this great ninja Nanna and her ninja ginger cat. And I keep thinking that I really should have plush toys made. I’m not the illustrator, so that would be complicated, but that would be so cool. And yet I’ve never done it. I know it seems like a really obscure thing, but it’s been a really popular book, still selling. It was like six years ago. It came out.

GW: And I will put a link to it in this show. I definitely want a copy.

DY: So there’s a there’s a series of six: My Nanna is a Ninja, My Pop is a Pirate, My Brother is a Beast, My Sister is a Superhero, My Mum is a Magician, and My Dad is a Dragon. And the first one is still the most popular. But I always have this thought, sometimes in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning when I think, you know, a plush toy, Nanna Ninja, would really be something, but I never do it. But in general, it’s really difficult to assess an idea abstractly, like, would it have been the best if I actually tried it? Aren’t they good reasons why I didn’t try it? So I have to say, I’m not really that regretful. I don’t think “If only I had taken that shot or this shot,” if I think something’s a really good idea I tend to do it. That’s why I’m a philosopher. But I’ve also written fiction. I write children’s books. I do all sorts of things because I think they are good ideas.

GW: I ask that question of many guests, and a lot of them say, I wish I started my own school or I wish I’d written this book or whatever, and I’d often it’s like, well, actually now I’m going to go and do that. But no one has ever said I wish I had had plush toys made, because that’s genius.

DY: I’m kind of doing what I always wanted to do. I write books for a living, that is the dream. That is the good idea that I followed. So that’s luck as much as anything, but, yeah, plush toys, man.

GW: OK, and my last question, you have a million pounds, two million Australian or something like that to improve either philosophy or historical martial arts or both. How would you spend it?

DY: Well, I could buy a one bedroom bedsit in London for that or half of one.

GW: OK, but these are theoretical pounds, and I actually have as many of them as you really want.

DY: OK, so I don’t feel qualified enough to make suggestions about what would improve HEMA, you know, I’m not an instructor. I don’t know enough about the culture to say what would make things better. What I will say is that if someone found a way to highly subsidise very good quality, articulated longsword gloves, I would be thrilled because the really good gloves are very expensive and the cheap gloves feel like you’re wearing two bicycle helmets. And it’s very difficult to do many longsword techniques with bicycle helmets strapped to your hands. I don’t think I could offer much in terms of HEMA. In terms of philosophy, I would spend my infinite pounds at sort of two ends. I would do more outreach, I would try to involve more marginalised, poor groups, marginalised or poor groups and philosophy, it’s very much dominated by middle class white men. I would try to make philosophy itself more diverse, and I mean that quite sincerely. I think philosophy would be better at its job if it had a richer group of people doing philosophy. At the other end, I suppose I would encourage working philosophers to do more work with the general public. But I don’t just mean giving the odd lecture, I mean writing. And I don’t just mean either dumbing down, I think that’s a really poor phrase often. What I mean is learning to write beautifully, punctually, evocatively, lyrically or whatever is your mode for a general audience. And that might be non-fiction. It might be fiction. It might be poetry. It might be for TV. But I would really like to encourage more philosophers to do that because, you know, you look at somebody like Jean-Paul Sartre, some of his writing was awful. Being and Nothingness is just gnash my teeth bad. Some of his writings, because he was he was hopped up on amphetamines while he was doing it, but some of Sartre’s best work was work like Nausea, which is a novel. And it’s possibly the finest representation of existentialism he ever wrote and it’s in the form of a novel. I would love to see more philosophers doing that sort of thing.

GW: OK, and how would the money help?

DY: I think partly funding projects. So, for example, a philosopher comes and says, well, look, I really love to write something for TV, but I have no idea. Can you hook me up with mentors? Of course you’d have to pay them. Can you provide me with equipment? I need these kinds of cameras. I need these kinds of lights or studio time or whatever it is. Or maybe it’s funding someone to go away and work with a novelist for six months to understand how it works. Or maybe it’s a prize for the best popular work or something like this. Creative work in philosophy, because there is there’s so much to say is such a rich tradition in European and Eastern or Arabic philosophy, African philosophy. There is so much to be said. And sometimes it pains me that it’s typically being said to 10 or 12 people in papers in universities that no one else reads.

GW: Yeah. I was thinking having better philosophy teaching at the primary school level. That philosophy is a system of thought and a toolkit. Which, if you’ve been exposed to it, is really, really useful. But if you haven’t been exposed to it, it’s just mystifying.

DY: That’s partly what I mean by outreach. Going to schools that are poor or marginal, where these kids might not even have a proper library, certainly not a teacher or librarian, and teaching philosophy and making it as exciting and challenging as it should be. And as I said, that would be really good for philosophy, but I think it would be really good for kids, too. And of course, the people are doing this. There is philosophy for schools, there are people doing some amazing work out there. But in so far as I had my chest full of bullion that you’ve so kindly given me, part of it would go on projects like that.

GW: Okay. I think we should maybe finish on that chest full of bullion. Thanks very much for talking to me Damon, it has been really interesting.

DY: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you, Guy.