The Purpose of Learning Tang Soo Do Karate Philosophy

In part 10 of my series on the purpose of Tang Soo Do training, I will be going over the purpose of learning karate philosophy, history, and terminology, and how this aspect of Tang Soo Do training fits into the global self-defense system.  

First and foremost, learning terminology and history have nothing to do with self-defense.  Learning philosophy does however, and I will discuss that more later in this post.  All three of these topics are what differentiates Tang Soo Do and other traditional martial arts from MMA and competitive sports.  Learning these things are what makes Tang Soo Do a martial art and not a martial sport.

Learn karate philosophy and history from a variety of texts
Learn karate philosophy and history from a variety of texts

Many organizations and studios have student manuals, black belt manuals, and other texts with information regarding terminology, history, and philosophy.  These manuals were created for a reason and contain information that should be taught in class, not just put in a book and thrown on the shelf, just to be opened a week before testing for black belt.


In Tang Soo Do, we learn to say things in Korean, counting, commands, techniques, etc.  While this is certainly not necessary in order to learn techniques, there are several reasons why it is important to learn terminology:

  • Respect for our heritage.  Tang Soo Do originated in Korea and it is important we respect that by learning aspects of Korea.
  • No lost in translation.  When translate things into different languages, there can be things that get misinterpreted.  Some languages that have words that don’t translate well into other languages.  When you preserve the language, something originated in, you minimize this.
  • Learning terminology allows someone to train and learn all over the world.  When you refer to a technique by the same name everywhere you go, you can train more effectively with less of a language barrier.

There are a few issues with terminology that I am seeing these days which need to be addressed, in my opinion.  First of all, you cannot pluralize the English phonetic spelling of a Korean word.  They are two alphabets with two different systems of grammar.  For example, the phonetic English representation of one step sparring in Korean is Ill Soo Sik Dae Ryun.  You can’t use English to pluralize this by saying Ill Soo Siks.  You can’t pluralize Hyung with Hyungs.

In addition, we need to use the terminology the way we were taught it.  Just because we see certain words that can go together in English, it does not mean they go together in Korean.  Just like a form or sparring technique, stick with what has been passed down and resist the urge to be creative with a language you don’t fully understand.

Let it be known that I am not a Korean language expert nor am I fluent in or even reasonably knowledgeable in conversational Korean.  The above are my opinions and I could be totally wrong.

Learning karate philosophy makes you a karate nerd
Learning karate philosophy makes you a karate nerd


You don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’re from.  A lot can be learned from history.  Just like learning about our founding fathers, presidents, etc. in academic school, learning about the history and origins of our art and its founders is extremely important.  Understanding our history enables us to move forward and grow upon the past while also showing respect to the heritage and culture of our origins.

Karate Philosophy

As I mentioned earlier in this article, philosophy does have a purpose in self-defense.  Learning codes, virtues, and tenets and the reasons for them help us know when it is appropriate to use our martial skills.  We also learn appropriate levels of control and application for different situations.  As martial artists, we have been given physical skills that can be used for good or evil, justice or injustice.  It is important to understand, through the philosophies of our founders, these important concepts.  Otherwise, we are just karate thugs.  Ever see MMA fighters cuss, spit on their opponent, show poor sportsmanship, and use physical violence outside of the competition?  These martial artists lack the philosophical teachings of traditional martial arts.

Without learning and understanding the non-physical elements of Tang Soo Do, we are not learning a martial art.  We are learning a martial sport or an honor-less fighting system.


This was the last part in my series on the purposes of all areas of Tang Soo Do training.  My attempt was to show how all the various aspects of Tang Soo Do training, when understood fully, train someone in a complete self-defense system that is still applicable today.  Outside perspectives point to how traditional martial arts are not as good as MMA or BJJ or Kickboxing solely based on what they see (mainly on TV).  I hope I opened some minds a little or even disproved this notion to some.

I hope you enjoyed them and stuck with me over the last few months.  Feel free to go back and read past articles if you missed them and let me know if you have any questions, comments, or other feedback.

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  1. I get the whole history thing, and I love to learn about the history of martial arts. The problem I have though is, most of the history we learn from our martial arts organizations is sadly not always the most accurate, and a lot of myths still persist in traditional martial arts. For example, I don’t know what your organization teaches, but when I studied Tang Soo Do, we learned a lot of stories about the Hwa Rang warriors, and not a lot about how Tang Soo Do actually emerged as a quite modern martial art. Similar in my current school, you get the impression that Tae Kwon Do is an ancient Korean martial art. And while it is certainly Korean, it is not ancient, but actually quite modern. The other thing is, when I was studying Tang Soo Do, nobody told me our forms were exactly the same as the forms practiced by many Karate styles.
    And in my current school, nobody tells the students where the ITF forms actually came from, which is as far as I can tell, the beginner and intermediate forms are directly based on the Basid and Pyong Anh forms from Tang Soo Do. Now, this is some history that I can use. Where did these forms come from? In my organization, you might think they were passed down from ancient Korean warriors, but you would be wrong. And so teaching history this way is misleading at best, and probably useless. Which is why most of the students memorize the portions they need to know for testing.

    Now, as for using Korean terms. This is fine, if you are actually teaching your students to speak Korean. Most don’t, so it is really just a nod to tradition, IMO.

    Finally philosophy. I like this idea. Really. That said, how many of your students are really absorbing the Tenants of the art, and how many are just reciting them at the beginning and end of class? If I were teaching, I would try to do more of this, because IMO, most TMA students don’t really understand it.

    1. Thanks for the comments.  I agree that there is a lot of misinformation out there and it can be hard to determine what is accurate.  I give my students a reading list at black belt so they get information from a variety of viewpoints.  I feel fairly confident that the information I give to my students regarding things like forms origins is accurate.

      Tang Soo Do has roots from 1000s of years ago in Korea, Okinawa, China, and even India.  It wasn’t until after WWII ended that the modern version of Tang Soo Do was formalized.  I don’t think how modern Tang Soo Do originated is a mystery.

      If you ever want some suggestions on reading material or have a general question regarding history, please feel free to let me know.

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