The Foundation of Chinese Systems Thinking

The Foundation of Chinese Systems Thinking
Author: Kuijper, Hans
Almanac: Evolution:Complexity in Nature, Society, and Cognition

Whoever wants to know the fruits should never lose eye of the tree bearing them. In other words, the developments of systems thinking cannot be understood without taking their cultural context into consideration. This holds also for the development of both Western and Chinese systems thinking. As the Chinese culture fundamently differs from the Western one, ideas of the nature, variety and history of system thinking in China and the West can thus not be the same. Even Xuesen Qian (1911-2009), father of the “metasynthesis” , a typical systems approach,[i] and Jifa Gu (1935), originator of the “wuli-shili-renli (WSR)” systems approach,[ii] seem to be unaware of the cultural ground of their intellectual products.

In this article, I attempt to explain the cultural-philosophical foundation of Chinese systems thinking, because China seems to have fully understood the significance of systems science. The conclusion will be that (a) the Chinese, experts in playing go, have been systems thinkers from the very outset and (b) Western systems thinkers could learn something of great importance from them.

Dào ()

In contrast to the ancient Greeks, who inhabited a mountainous peninsula with many inlets and were therefore bound to be a seafaring people who goes out for trade, the ancient Chinese were peasants living in a fertile region around the middle reaches of the Yellow River, far away from the sea. For their existence, they were heavily dependent not only on each other but first and foremost on their knowledge of nature (particularly the seasons). In such a society, individualism had little chance to develop, and attunement to nature was a conditio sine qua non. Everything and everybody were regarded as hanging together with the Umwelt and the Mitwelt. Harmony, balance was considered to be of primary importance. Today also, every Chinese is imbued with the idea of the “unity of heaven and man” (tiān rén hé yī).[iii]

This is probably the main reason why the concept of Dào is the most fundamental of all Chinese ideas. Jin Yuelin (1895-1984), the famous author of Lùn Dào (on dào)(1940), preferred not to translate the word. So did his student Hao Wang (1921-1995), the celebrated commentator on Kurt Gödel. In the Great Appendix to the Yìjīng, a work generally denigrated by Western scientists,[iv] but of crucial importance for understanding China, it is written and emphasized: 一陰一陽之謂道 (Yīn and Yáng: that is called the Dào). This is systems thinking in a nutshell.[v] The word system stems from the Greek word σύστημα (constitution, organised whole, a whole that consists of parts). The words Yīn and Yáng stand for complementary parts. According to the Chinese, black and white, positive and negative, north and south, east and west, interior and exterior, entrance and exit, input and output, life and death, above and under, high and low, even and uneven, hard and soft, hot and cold, short and long, wet and dry, open and closed, foul and fragrant, empty and full, small and big, day and night, dawn and dusk, light and darkness, demand and supply, debit and credit, space and time, one and many, universal and particular, same and other, necessity and contingency, male and female, part and whole, or individual and community are not antagonistic towards, but complementary to each other, the one going well with, and being intimately involved by, the other. Though clearly distinguishable, ship and harbor, train and station, airplane and airport, electrical connector and power point, right hand and left hand, on and off presuppose, and are dependent on, each other. One hand cannot clap. It takes two to tango, to fight, or to embrace. Yīn and Yáng are not hostile against, but implicative of, and closely related to, each other; they are mutually not contradictory but contrary opposites. “Les extrêmes se touchent”. At the ridge of the roof, two sloping surfaces meet each other. A solstice is a natural event in which a planet’s poles are most extremely inclined toward or away from the star it orbits. At the summer, or estival, solstice, one of the Earth's two poles has its maximum tilt toward the Sun. In the Northern hemisphere, the summer solstice is the day with the longest period of daylight and shortest night of the year, when the Sun is at its highest position in the sky. The opposite event is the winter, or hibernal, solstice. So maximum and minimum, highest and lowest, or longest and shortest, “se touchent”; they meet, but certainly do not exclude, each other. It takes not one, but two persons to perform a pas de deux, communicate, negotiate, transact, or make love. These are not only forms of action, which should be clearly distinguished (but not separated) from event,[vi] but also forms of joint action, wherein the whole is more than the sum of its parts.[vii] Human life is awash with saddle-point situations, wherein an individual could start going up and down at the same time. On numerous occasions, man could either turn to the right or to the left, meaning that he usually passes the point where he could turn to both the right and the left. This would make it fundamentally impossible to predict which way a society, consisting of many individuals, is going, a statement commensurate with the one made by Jakob Bernoulli in his posthumously published book Ars Conjectandi (1713).[viii] The point is critical to the Chinese way of thinking, because the Chinese (the Japanese and the Buddhists), who have no fear of emptiness (horror vacui), regard everything and everybody as originating and vanishing or terminating in nothingness (). Whereas the Westerner (child of the Enlightenment) keeps his eyes widely open and looks at the multifaceted world outside, risking to be drowned in the enormous multitude of phenomena, the meditating Buddhist closes his eyes, concentrating his mind on the immeasurable world inside. The Buddhist enlightenment is totally different from the Western Enlightenment,

Bi-conditionality, however, is prevalent in nature and should thus be our guide to living in general and to scientific research in particular. Westerners, who from early childhood learned to think binary, have great difficulty with the Chinese bi-conditional way of thought.[ix] Emphasising the importance of the individual,[x] they prefer to assign each thing a clearly circumscribed place and to grant each person certain rights according to his/her legal obligations. Something is either black or white. In the Western view, grey things (everyday reality!) do not exist. Rationality (the quality of being guided by reason or being reasonable), contested by e.g. Herbert Simon,[xi] is based on binary dichotomies. “Ratio” stems from the PIE root re (to think, to reason, to count). Things that are unthinkable or inconceivable, cannot be reasoned about, cannot be counted, computerized or calculated and cannot be put into perspective[xii] are irrational. However, from sex and rock to religion and war, irrationality makes up the greater part of human life and history. A Westerner tends to simplify the world into true or false statements, good or bad categories, and is or is-not assertions.

One rides either on the right or on the left side of the road; riding at the middle of the road (both on the right and the left side of it) would not be possible. Day or night, there is no place for twilight. The door is either open or closed, but a door ajar is something Westerners cannot conceive of. They do not realize, that switching on the light, one uses both the positive and negative poles of the electric wire. Nor are they aware of it that spring and fall are different parts of one and the same cycle. Westerners adhere to the principle of bivalence stating that every declarative sentence is either true or false. They neglect the obvious fact that everyday language is not restricted to declarative sentences. A declarative sentence does not ask a question, give an order, or express an emotion. The principle of bivalence is also called the law of the excluded middle, stating that there is no other possibility for declarative statements than being either true or not-true. Tertium non datur. In terms of set theory, set A and set B are either disjoint (e.g. {1, 2, 3} and {4, 5, 6}) or not disjoint (e.g. {1, 2, 3} and {3, 4, 5}). In the latter case, A is partly or wholly a subset of B, or the other way around. For example, set {1, 2, 3} overlaps, or is partly a subset of, set {3, 4, 5}, and set {3, 4, 5} is wholly a subset of set {2, 3, 4, 5}.

The Chinese, taking their cue from nature, think differently: grey is to a certain degree white and to a certain degree black, but white is in no way a subset of black, or vice versa. Black and white should be distinguished, but shall not be separated. They are not alternatives. They are not excluding but complementing each other, like male and female, winter and summer, high tide and low tide. “If Yīn and Yáng are obliterated, there would be no means of seeing change” and change is according to the Yìjīng the undeniable hallmark of everything. “Πάντα ῥεῖ”(everything streams), Heraclitus said.

The importance of bi-conditionality should not be underestimated. It does equal justice to both sides and expresses no preference. It is thus less forceful and more objective, more in accordance with reality. A disjointed speech or piece of writing, having parts that are not connected with each other, is hard to follow, but a coherent one is easy to understand. Clearly, not only the parts but also their interconnectedness is important for comprehending, which is an act of intelligent behavior. A team that performs disjointedly is not a team worthy of its name. Mountains are different from, but not hostile against, or irreconcilably opposite to, valleys. Once a common ground is found, even declared enemies can shake hands and make it up to each other. Compromising (said to be the essence of Chineseness) is the art of reaching mutual agreement, a subject that should interest game theorists. Having impregnated his pencil with ink (two seemingly totally different things), the calligrapher draws a particular line. Following the Way and attuning to the Dào, he creates order out of chaos.

In China, calligraphy (the art of giving form, of in-forming) is considered the queen of arts. It would be interesting to compare Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, Tibetan, Indian, Persian, Arabic and Western calligraphy, and to investigate what calligraphy, writing (poetry), painting, architecture, sculpture, dance (ballet) and music have in common. The Chinese regard poetry as invisible painting and painting as visible poetry, the former focusing on process, the latter (like architecture and sculpture) highlighting pattern (configuration). A process is the concatenation of configurations unfolding in time. Dance and music are performing arts, the former is a purposefully selected sequence of human movements, the ordering in space; the latter is sound organized in time. Pattern formation or system building in space and time is the very essence of art.

Roads can be found everywhere, but it is impossible to find only one of their sides. The complementarity view belongs to the ontology of relations rather than to the ontology of things. The so-called Internet of Things, which is an extension of Internet connectivity, seems to lean to the latter, while neglecting the former. The crux of relational or correlative thinking (as distinct from causal thinking) is its focus on in-betweenness. Chinese culture and art are characterised by it. The Chinese believe that reality originates in nothingness (), that there is no movement without stillness, and that being, in whatever form, rises from non-being. In their view, it is not something but not-something (nothing) that generates and connects everything, and it is chaos on which order is based. The spokes of a wheel concentrate on, and come together in, its center, and yet it is the motionlessness of the hub that makes the turning of the wheel possible. Unity is the essence of diversity. It is “the great Interdependence of all differences“ (Yìjīng). Everything, everybody begins and ends in it. No differentiation without integration and no integration without differentiation.[xiii]

The Gospel of John opens with the famous declarative sentence: “Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος” (in the beginning was the word, and the word was with god, and the word was god). The Chinese do not think so. In their view, nothingness, silence was the very beginning, the absolute silence, broken by the word. As written in the Dàodéjīng, chapter 1: “無名天地之始, 有名萬物之母” (without-name is the beginning of heaven and earth [the universe], with-name is the mother of ten thousand [all] things). Or in chapter 40: “天下萬物生於有; 有生於无 ” (all things under heaven spring from being; being emerges from non-being). For example, pots are made of clay, but their usability resides in the not-being of clay. (non-being), the unnamable is the source; yŏu (being), the namable is the manifestation. Existence is preceded by non-existence. This is the fundamental difference between the Christian and Chinese way of thought!

China’s philosophy of nothingness is different from what some modern physicists conceive of as the void. In the Chinese view, reality cannot be grasped; it cannot be caught by any formula whatsoever; it cannot be named (put into words). Trying to do so is like grasping dry, loose sand: it escapes between the fingers. Imagine a straight line connecting point A (on the left side) and point B (on the right side). Somewhere on the line (right at the middle!), it is impossible to say whether one leans more to any of the sides, whether one gravitates more towards A or towards B, but it is after (not: at) this special, absolutely neutral point that A and B start being and become what they really are: endpoints, i.e. points that can be called/named A or B. In the opposite direction, ceasing to be endpoints and thus gradually losing their identity status, A and B end up in , where no identity exists. Moving further on the line, A and B, having lost their identity, gradually change or transform into B and A respectively. When the line between A and B is a hanging one, like a necklace, the very lowest point is where the line does not go up and is absolutely neutral to either A or B.          

Whereas Western scientists are imprisoned by binary thinking and only consider two possibilities (“yes” or “no”, “on” or “off”, “true” or “false”, “black” or “white”), their Chinese colleagues think correlatively and complementarily, not exclusively but inclusively, thus more harmoniously and — more realistically. They make room for a third possibility (tertium datur!). While Western scientists are interested in the application and practical use of natural, negative, whole, rational, irrational, real, complex and even hypercomplex numbers, their Chinese counterparts have the ingrained habit of paying attention to the root of all roots, to zero, to the numberless and nameless, to the ineffable, to the Absolute, that is to say, to . Nothing is, by definition, not anything (in Hinduism: neti, neti). “” is a word referring to the character 無, which is a graphic symbol representing nothingness, i.e. standing for something that is invisible, unsayable and inconceivable. Nothingness is referred to by the word , but cannot be conceptualised, or thought about. Talking about nothingness is thus essentially impossible. The Chinese think relationally and see things pattern-wise and process-wise at the same time, that is to say, matrix-wise.[xiv] Rather than considering things to be pieces that should fit together, they think of fragments constituting completeness, of parts that belong to a whole.

The Enlightenment, which marked the transition from the dark, Christianity-dominated Middle Ages to modernity, has been much eulogized in the West, but the light may still have to come from the East? If that happens, the old saying Ex Oriente Lux will prove to be right.[xv] After modernism came postmodernism, the mode of discourse in which epistemic certainty is rejected and reality is problematized. See Lawrence Cahoone (ed.), From Modermism to Postmodernism: An Anthology (Blackwell, 2003).



The word has many meanings, but its reference to pattern or structure seems to be common to all of them. This is not surprising, because the original meaning of is the natural veins of a piece of unworked jade according to which a professional carves the gemstone. The word refers to the jade’s intrinsic striations.[xvi]

The word structure refers to a number of relations taken together. The concept of relation, being fundamental to mathematics, is extremely difficult to define. It seems to be impossible to make any statement of what a relation is without using the notion of relation in doing so. Binary relations are particularly important. Concerning the relations between two entities, they can have different properties. Typical of the Western way of systems thinking is the conceiving of entities as being absolutely separated. A thing or person (A) may be somehow related to another thing or person (B), but is not thought of as being the same as, or identical with, B in any way whatsoever. A man (individual) is a man and a woman (another individual) is a woman; “on” is not “off”, tertium non datur, full stop.

The Chinese think there is a third possibility. To them, entities that are absolutely separated do not exist, for there is “Great Interdependence” (Yìjīng), “The ten thousand things are all one” (Zhuangzi), “The ultimate is the one” (Wang Bi), “One is all and all is one” (Zhiyan), “There is nothing isolated” (Zhu Xi) and “In the whole, all is one and one is all” (Feng Youlan). The Chinese way of systems thinking is not reductionist but holistic. When the Great Appendix to the Yìjīng states that Dào means both Yīn and Yáng, it speaks of a universal structure, of an all-embracing system, of an eternal pattern. The one consists of the many and the many constitute the one. Monists and pluralists have thus more in common than they usually think they have. Parts and whole are inextricably interconnected. This can only be the case, when Yīn and Yáng are not conceived of as absolutely separated, that is to say, when they are not considered contradictory and irreconcilable but contrary and complementary, Yīn containing Yáng, Yáng being a part of Yīn, and Yīn and Yáng giving birth to each other. Yīn and Yáng together form Dào (also referred to as the One), the circle being the symbol of it. They may differ to a certain extent, or gradually, but they never exclude each other. It is not a matter of “either-or”[xvii] but of “both-and”. Indoctrinated in dialectical materialism (a philosophy of science, history, and nature developed in Europe and based on the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels[xviii]), Xuesen Qian and Jifa Gu do not seem to be aware of this wonderful, great idea, which can be traced all the way back to the Yìjīng (see note iv). The same holds for Ms professor Fenrong Liu, co-director (with emeritus professor Johan van Benthem) of the Tsinghua University – University of Amsterdam Joint Research Centre for Logic (, as well as for Jana Rošker, author of Traditional Chinese Philosophy and the Paradigm of Structure (Lĭ 理) (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012) and contributor to the celebrated Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Algorithmic thinking is thinking about how to solve a problem in a systematic way.[xix] It’s about:

• Defining the problem clearly,

• Breaking the problem down into small, simple parts,

• Defining the solution for each part of the problem, and

• Trying to build up a general solution of the problem from the particular solutions.

Thinking algorithmically is thus intended to be both analytic and synthetic, but at its essence, it is based on binary thinking, riding on one side of the road only, not at the middle.

While the whole appears through the parts, the parts are identified in the whole. Form emerges from interplay, unity from duality, the one from the many. “E pluribus Unum” as well as Plures In Uno”. The whole is not something already there. Being a continuous process, it gradually reveals itself. The trail or the path originates from going, from uniting what seems to be separated, from joining left and right together, from combining the parts to a whole. The brook or the river starts flowing as soon as the water finds its way. The waves are momentarily distinguishable from and yet belong to, and are one with, the ocean.[xx] Dào and are interchangeable. Therefore, the character for in the beautiful saying of the Yìjīng, 理一分殊 (the pattern is one, the parts are many)[xxi] could be replaced by the character for dào. According to the Zhu Xi (1130-1200), a leading philosopher during the Song dynasty, dào and are “the highest categories, nature’s roots and society’s most fundamental principles[xxii].

Chinese steeped in the Yìjīng-worldview conceive of a process as being more than a time series of happenings. They look at processes systemically. To them, the diachronic and longitudinal is compatible with the synchronic and transversal. The warp (zòng) and the weft (héng) form the fabric of life, indeed the fabric of the cosmos, the continuous changing of which we must learn to fully understand (tōngbiàn).

The Western mindset is different. Usually, the words system and process are loosely interchanged. Systems, however, differ from processes, and a system diagram (the visual model of a system, its components and their interactions) is not the same as a flowchart (which represents only a workflow or process). A system-view of an organization differs from a process-view. Systems lend themselves to synthesis, processes to analysis. Lilian Gilbreth (1878-1972) knew the difference between synthesis and analysis, between systemic and systematic thinking.[xxiii] Systems emerge and the properties of an emergent system are irreducible to the properties of the parts which form or constitute the system.[xxiv] For example, the properties of an organism cannot be reduced to the properties of the cells making up the organism, and — contrary to what modern neuroscientists want us to believe — the properties of the human mind are irreducible to the properties of the human brain, let alone to the properties of the physical parts without which no brain could function. In the West, a process is nothing but a chain of consecutive happenings. The systemic and systematic description of these happenings is the concern of historians — a task they miserably fail to accomplish.

I do not know of any Western historian who approaches his/her explanandum (episode or era to be explained) in a truly systemic way, that is to say, a historian who takes the problem of time seriously into account. The things, events, human beings and actions he/she deals with are changing all the time, while taking place somewhere in changing, but no historian has thus far been able to explain environmental change[xxv] and to answer the vexed question as to whether change is discrete or continuous. Even “the present“ is a problematic concept, for the present, being the end of the past, is not part of the past, and, being the beginning of the future, is not part of the future.[xxvi] Despite the media hype about developments in complexity and network science, artificial intelligence, machine learning and data mining technology, the study of complex and dynamic systems is still in its infancy.

The fundamental difference between the Western and Chinese way of (systems) thinking can be illustrated by the symbols † en ☯. In contrast to the Christian cross, the Yīn-Yáng diagram cannot be divided into two symmetrical halves. The diagram is a chiral configuration, the two parts of which are isomorphic without mirroring each other. In contradistinction to the similar left and right half of the cross, Yīn and Yáng are asymmetrical to each other, like the left and the right shoe or glove. Yīn and Yáng are mutually complementary. The two belong together, involve each other and constitute or form an entity. Like male and the female; they cannot do without each other and their wonderful unity results in the emergence of new life. This is the natural order, the way (dào) to be followed. Going against the flow is disturbing the order of things and must, therefore, be condemned, morally and legally. Though Yīn and Yáng can be distinguished, they shall not be separated. The two are dependent on, and borrow their existence from, each other. They differ from each other and yet are the same, and vice versa. The parts constitute a whole, which consists of parts. This basic idea permeates the fascinating culture of the Chinese, their arts, their medicine, their cuisine, their whole lifestyle. Sweet and sour are blended together, forming a delicious dish. Whereas the Christian cross symbolizes the victory of Jezus over death (a sheer impossibility, for we are all dying as soon as we are born), the Yīn-Yáng diagram suggests — more realistically, I think — an eternal cycle, with neither beginning nor end.

The West thinks to be able to explain something by looking at the parts; China thinks to be able to make something clear by taking a look at the whole, by asking attention for its space -, time -, community - and history setting. Being caught in division and fragmentation (the curse of liberalism!), and clinging to reductionism, the West fails to be realistic. Biologists illustrate this dramatically. Contemporary Darwinism reduces organisms to genes. However, the real entity, the whole organism is sacrificed. Genetic reductionism provides no account of the emergence and development of the whole organism. Organisms have disappeared as real entities from biology, which is a fundamental scientific error. Brian Goodwin (1931-2009) was the first to point this error out in his book How the Leopard Changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity (Scribner, 1994).[xxvii]

Being able to make epistemological distinctions does not mean that the reality, of which we are a part and — mystery of all mysteries — from which we are apart, is ontologically divided. Scrutinising a leave, we risk not seeing the tree, and examining a tree, we are in danger of not seeing the wood. The West tends to zoom in and to exclude, China tends to zoom out and to include. As — according to the Chinese — in and out (like right and left, above and below, or black and white) are not contradictory and mutually excluding but contrary and mutually including, however, the Western and Chinese approaches to (complex) systems may one day meet each other, making the world a better place to live. Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) once aptly said: “Classicism is the subordination of the parts to the whole; decadence is the subordination of the whole to the parts.” In his great book, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (HarperCollins, 2000), Jacques Barzun (1907-2012) makes abundantly clear that we are living in a completely decadent world.



Western systems thinking emerged from reductionism, a way of thought closely related to individualism (and to liberalism). Chinese systems thinking emerged from holism, the central message of the first Chinese Classic, the Yìjīng. Holism is closely related to collectivism (and to socialism). Reductionism and holism should and could be combined, for whereas parts are by definition parts of a whole, there can be no whole without parts. Whoever wants to compare Western and Chinese systems approaches should be aware of the fundamental difference between Western and Chinese culture. He/she should sort out the fruits according to the trees from which they come.

Systems science is currently a hotchpotch of confusing ideas, theories and methods. There are various reasons for this deplorable situation:

1)      Insufficient awareness that systems are sets (collections of things), while sets are not necessarily systems (collections of connected things);

2)      Insufficient awareness that epistemic/cognitive issues are closely related to but definitely different from metaphysical/ontological subjects, which in turn are to be clearly distinguished but certainly not separated from topics linguists and philosophers of language are concerned with;

3)      Insufficient awareness of the gap between natural and cultural sciences; going from the study of physical systems to the study of biological systems is making a giant step, but going from the study of biological systems to the study of systems involving the immeasurable and unfathomable human mind is making a step that is even bigger;

4)      Insufficient awareness that there are two kinds of order: natural, endogenous or spontaneous orders on the one side and man-made, designed or engineered orders on the other side. These orders can be combined and, when combined, are inextricable (e.g. a company, or a country);

5)      Insufficient awareness that systems science is but one of the formal sciences, which constitute a system sorely neglected by systems scientists but are worth to be investigated as part of the ever-growing system of sciences consisting of many branches.

6)      Insufficient awareness that the formal sciences (mathematics, logic, statistics, computer science, systems science) have something in common (namely the critical research of structures, or forms)[xxviii] and must be distinguished from the not-formal sciences (physical, biological, human and social sciences). Systems scientists should thus be well informed about the latest developments in other formal sciences, without tacitly claiming to be an expert in any of the fields concerned. Writing about systems is one thing, but writing about systems as intimately related to connected processes (dynamically changing systems) is quite another thing altogether.

It is important that systems scientists have a standard and a generally accepted model of whatever thing they happen to investigate. In the present jungle called systems science, we find scientists focusing on different kinds of systems: physical, chemical, biological, environmental, demographic, political, legal, military, economic, financial, educational, scientific or technological systems. Paying exclusively attention to one group of systems, they develop their own jargon, theories and techniques, forgetting to abstract away from the subject at hand. They investigate individual trees but do not see the forest in which the trees grow. Each systems scientist stays in his/her bubble, compartment or faculty; nobody rises above the rest, nobody stands “au-dessus de la mêlée”.

The vast and fast-developing field of systems science should be understood as including but not being limited to systems theory, system dynamics, systems engineering, knowledge management studies, organization studies, operations/operational research, cybernetics, control theory, complex systems studies and network science,[xxix] but their cultural context should never be forgotten, for each thing gets full meaning only in a particular setting, against its cultural-philosophical background, as parts are always parts of a whole. In the words of Murray Gell-Mann (1929-2019), co-founder of the highly prestigious Santa Fe Institute, scientists should take “a crude look at the whole”.[xxx]

I hope to have led some horses of different breed to the river, but drinking the water is surely something they have to do themselves. In my view, the water coming from the Yìjīng is the purest of the purest. Western “systems seekers” such as Michael Jackson, Gerald Midgley, Dave Snowden, Yaneer Bar-Yam, John Miller, Brian Arthur, Eric Beinhocker, Joshua Epstein, Doyne Farmer, Melanie Mitchell, Stefani Crabtree, Marten Scheffer, Stefan Thurner, Geoffrey West, David Krakauer, Albert-László Barabási, Gary Metcalf, Ray Ison, Gianfranco Minati, Ricardo Hausmann, Wolfgang Hofkirchner, David Byrne and Carlos Gershenson could learn a lot from this amazing, almost forgotten, ancient book. It opened my eyes how to distinguish between reductionist and holistic thinking,[xxxi]


[i] Xuesen Qian (aka Tsien Hsue-shen), who worked on the Manhattan Project, is more known as the father of China’s space program. The systematology he advocated “is neither holism nor reductionism, but the dialectical unity of holism and reductionism”. His metasynthesis method “combines qualitative research with quantitative research, scientific theory and empirical knowledge, natural sciences with social sciences, and macro-research with micro-research. These characteristics enable this method to solve complex problems in open complex giant systems”. Before Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Xuesen Qian, who was in favour with Mao Zedong, also said: “The traditional division of science and technology departments has not only limited our scientific vision and research scope, but also caused the separation of related disciplines, artificially dividing our knowledge into disconnected parts”. For details, read Yu Jingyuan, “System Scientific Thought and System Science Achievements of Qian Xuesen”, in Systems Engineering: Theory & Practice, 31, Supp. 1 (October 2011), pp. 1-7, Chinese), and The Rise of Systems Engineering in China (2016) at (search: systems engineering). In addition, visit the website of the Hsue-Shen Tsien Think Tank. The innovative ideas of Qian were preceded by those of Bogdanov. See Aleksander Bogdanov (translator George Gorelik), Essays in Tektology (Intersystems, 1980, online) and Őrsan Şenalp, “Red Star vs Hammer & Sickle: The Fall and Rise of Alexander Bogdanov”, March 2021, on YouTube.

[ii] Jifa Gu is a leading Chinese operations researcher and systems engineer. Rénlĭ (人理) is an important concept in his WSR system approach. It has been developed from Confucianism and emphasizes the necessity of dealing with human relations in systems practice. See Gerald Midgley et al., “Dealing with Human Relations in Chinese Systems Practice”, Systemic Practice and Action Research 13 (2000), pp. 71-96, and Zhichang Zhu, “WSR: A Chinese Systems Approach”, in Derek Cabrera et al. (eds.), Hand book of Systems Thinking (Routledge, 2021).

[iii] See Li Shenzhi, “Reflections on the concept of the Unity of Heaven and Man”, in Karl-Heinz Pohl (ed.), Chinese Thought in a Global Context (Brill, 1999, pp. 115-128). Good intellectual histories of China are Yu Yingshi, Chinese History and Culture (Columbia University Press, two volumes, 2016) and Ge Zhaoguang, An Intellectual History of China (Brill, 2014 [volume I] and 2018 [volume II]).

[iv] Remarkaby, modern Chinese physicists are not inspired by their illustrious ancestors. Yang.Chen-ning, co-Nobel Prize winner, in 1957, with Lee Tsung-dao, abhors the Book of Changes.

[v] In the years that preceded the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”, countering his adversaries, who persisted in saying that “two combine into one” (合二而一), Mao Zedong maintained that “one divides into two” (一分为二). Sharpening the opposites, however, he conveniently (and fatefully) forgot that, according to the Yìjīng, Yīn and Yáng are not contradictory but contrary towards each other, a crucial and very important but often overlooked distinction. “Yīn contains Yáng” (阴含阳), “Yáng is part of Yīn” (阳分阴) and “Yīn and Yáng give birth to each other” (阴阳相生).

[vi] Zie Maurice Blondel, L'Action : Essai d'une critique de la vie et d'une science de la pratique (Alcan, 1893), Samuel Guttenplan (red.), A companion to the Philosophy of Mind (Blackwell, 1994, blz., 24, 111-122, 375-379), Lester Embree e.a. (red.), Encyclopedia of Phenomenology (Kluwer, 1997, blz. 11-16) en John Hyman en Helen Steward (red.), Agency and Action (CUP, 2004). Ga ook naar,,,, en

[vii] See Herbert Clark, Using Language (CUP, 1996, part II, III and V). Visit

[viii] Nonetheless, the study of the change of society is said to have made considerable advances. Visit and

[ix] Aristotle made the distinction between contradictory and contrary opposition. See Chenyang Li, ‘What-Being: Chuang Tzu versus Aristotle’, International Philosophical Quarterly, 33:3 (1993), pp.341-353 and the special issue of Logica Universalis, 2:1 (2008) on the Square of Opposition. Go to and    

[x] See Sigmund Freud, Das Ich und das Es (1923), Georges Gusdorf, La découverte de soi (PUF, 1948), Peter Strawson, Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (Methuen, 1959), Alfred Ayer, The Concept of a Person (Macmillan. 1963), Satischandra Chatterjee, The Fundamentals of Hinduism (University of Calcutta, 1970), Colin Morris, The Discovery of the Individual 1050-1200 (Harper & Row, 1972), Steven Lukes, Individualism (Harper Torchbooks, 1973), Manfred Frank, Die Unhintergehbarkeit von Individualität (Suhrkamp, 1986), Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (CUP, 1989), Enno Rudolph, Odyssee des Individuums (Metzler, 1991), Louis Dumont, Essays on Individualism (The University of Chicago Press, 1992), Uichol Kim a.o. (eds.), Individualism and Collectivism: Theory, Method and Applications (Sage, 1994), Aaron Gurevich, The Origins of European Individualism (Wiley-Blackwell, 1995), Samuel Guttenplan (ed.), A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind (Blackwell, 1994, blz. 348-355, 550-560), Harry Triandis, Individualism and Collectivism (Westview Press, 1995), Alain Renaut et al., The Era of the Individual (Princeton U.P., 1997), Richard Ashmore and Lee Jussim (eds.), Self and Identity: Fundamental Issues (OUP, 1997), Brian Garrett, Personal Identity and Self-Consciousness (Routledge, 1998), Philipe Ariès and Georges Duby (eds.), Histoire de la vie privée (Seuil, 1999), Jaan Valsiner and René van der Veer, The Social Mind: Construction of the Idea (CUP, 2000), Lars Udehn, Methodological Individualism: Background, History and Meaning (Routledge, 2001), Alan Wallace (ed.), Buddhism & Science: Breaking New Ground (Columbia University Press, 2003), Dale Mathers a.o. (eds.), Self and No-Self: Continuing the Dialogue between Buddhism and Psychotherapy (Routledge, 2009), Dick Houtman et al., Paradoxes of Individualization (Ashgate, 2011), Peter Callero, The Myth of Individualism: How Social Forces Shape Our Lives (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013), Aaron Barlow, The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth (Praeger, 2013), Vincent Descombes, Les embarras de l’identité (Gallimard, 2013), Lorenzo Infantino, Individualism in Modern Thought: From Adam Smith to Hayek (Routledge, 2014), Julie Zahle and Finn Collin (eds.), Rethinking the Individualism-Holism Debate: Essays in the Philosophy of Social Science (Springer, 2014), Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (Penguin, 2015), Georg Gasser and Matthias Stefan (eds.), Personal Identity: Complex or Simple? (CUP, 2015), Henry Rosemont Jr., Against Individualism: A Confucian Rethinking of the Foundations of Morality, Politics, Family and Religion (Lexington, 2015), Mark White, The Decline of the Individual: Reconciling Autonomy with Community (Palgave Macmillan, 2017), Janet McIntyre-Mills a.o. (eds.), Balancing Individualism and Collectivism: Supporting Social and Environmental Justice (Springer, 2017), Bogdan Mach a.o. (eds.), Individuals and their Social Contexts (Institute of Political Studies, Polish Academy of Sciences, 2018, online), Kathleen Wallace, The Network Self: Relation, Process and Personal Identity (Routledge, 2019), Randy Larsen and David Buss, Personality Psychology: Domains of Knowledge about Human Nature (McGraw-Hill, 2020), Ann Davis, The End of Individualism and the Economy: Emerging Paradigms of Connection and Community (Routledge, 2021) and Gregory Berns, The Self Delusion: The New Neuroscience of How We Invent―and Reinvent―Our Identities (Basic Books, 2022). Ga ook naar,,,,,,,,,, and

“Individualism” is a key concept in liberalism, a heterogeneous political-social movement in which individual liberty takes a central position. According to the adherents of Hinduism, ego and reality are identical (tat tvam asi). According to the Buddhists, there is no ego at all (anātman).

[xi] Herbert Simon (1916-2001) is considered to be the father of modern business administration. See Ellen O’Connor, “The Private Argument between Chester Barnard and Herbert Simon about the Boundaries of Management Science” (December, 2011), Robert Frantz and Leslie Marsh, Minds, Models and Milieux: Commemorating the Centennial of the Birth of Herbert Simon (Springer, 2016) and Justin Smith, Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason (PUP, 2019). Go also to (search for rationality). The fundamental principles of the Enlightenment were rational criticism and scientific naturalism. While criticism seemed to end in skepticism, naturalism appeared to result in materialism. For the German idealists, this was unacceptable. See Karl Ameriks (ed.), Companion to German Idealism (CUP, 2000), Terry Pinkard, German Philosophy, 1760-1860: The Legacy of Idealism (CUP, 2002), Dina Emundts and and Sally Sedgwick (eds.), International Yearbook of German Idealism (De Gruyter, 2003), Reinier Munk (ed.), Studies in German Idealism (Springer, 2005ff), Robert Hanna, Rationality and Logic (MIT Press, 2009), Paul Cobben (ed.), Critical Studies in German Idealism (Brill, 2010ff) and Nicholas Boyle a.o. (eds.), The impact of Idealism: The Legacy of Post-Kantian German Thought (CUP, 2013). Go also to,,,,,, en

[xii] See Hugh Brigstocke (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Western Art (OUP, 2001, pp. 553-566) and Jane Turner (ed.), The Grove Dictionary of Art (OUP, 2003, search for: perspective). Go also to

[xiii] In mathematical analysis, the connection between differentiation and integration is fundamental. However, mathematics is based on Boolean, i.e. binary logic.

[xiv] This comes close to what modern natural scientists call “field”. See Richard Amoroso et al. (eds), Unified Field Mechanics: Natural Science Beyond The Veil of Spacetime (World Scientific, 2015).

[xv] For a more in-depth treatment of the concept of Dào, see Tang Junyi, Zhōnggúo Zhéxué Yuánlùn: Dào (fundamental discussion on Chinese philosophy: Dào) (New Asia College, 1973) and volume one in the series Zhōnggúo Zhéxué Fànchóu Jīngcuì Cóngshī (selected library of Chinese philosophical categories), edited by Zhang Liwen and published in 1994 by Hanxing Shuju Ltd, in Taipei.

[xvi] For more information, visit

[xvii] See Rong Du, Cathal Brugha and Shizhong Ai, “Implications from Decision Science for the Inter-Cultural Trust Development in Information Systems” (online, 2007, p. 9).

[xviii] See Mao Zedong, Máodùn Lùn (on contradiction) (1937), Henri Lefebvre, Le matérialisme dialectique (PUF, 1940), Gustav Wetter, Der dialektische Materialismus (Herder, 1952), Mao Zedong, Zhèngquè Chŭlĭ Rénmín Nèibù Máodùn Wèntí (the question about the correct handling of contradictions among the people) (1957) and Zbigniew Jordan, The Evolution of Dialectical Materialism (Macmillan, 1967).

[xix] See Daniel Zingaro, Algorithmic Thinking: A Problem-Based Introduction (No Starch Press, 2020).

[xx] See Henri Bortoft, Taking Appearance Seriously (Floris Books, 2012), Gerard Verschuuren, The Holism-Reductionism Debate (CreateSpace, 2017) and the Holistic Science Journal (2010ff). For mereology, the theory of parthood relations, see Hans Burkhardt et al. (eds.), Handbook of Mereology (Philosophia, 2017). Also visit and

[xxi] See Yen-yi Lee’s dissertation, One and Many: Rethinking John Hick’s Pluralism (2012), available on

[xxii] For a more in-depth treatment of the concept of , see volume two in the series Zhōnggúo Zhéxué Fànchóu Jīngcuì Cóngshī (selected library of Chinese philosophical categories), edited by Zhang Liwen and published in 1994 by Hanxing Shuju Ltd, in Taipei. Also visit

[xxiii] See Victor Newman and Geoff Elliott, “Systematic and Systemic Consulting”, in Paul Phillips et al. (eds.), Management Consultancy through an Academic and Practitioner Perspective (Notion Press, 2018, chapter 2).

[xxiv] Visit,,,, and For the related concept of self-organisation, visit and

[xxv] According to Marshall Sahlins, the late nestor of American cultural anthropologists, history is nothing but geography in time, while geography is only history in space. This insight has still to sink in with many area – or era students.

[xxvi] The role played by space and time in human experience is a hot issue in the social sciences. See Tim Ingold (ed.), Companion Encyclopedia of Anthropology (Routledge, 1997, pp. 460-526). In addition, visit

[xxvii] See Michael Ruse and Joseph Travis (eds.) Evolution: The First Four Billion Years (Belknap, 2009, pp. 299-312). See also Alwyn Scott, The Nonlinear Universe: Chaos, Emergence, Life (Springer, 2007, pp. 181-301) and Stuart Kauffman, A World Beyond Physics: The Emergence and Evolution of Life (OUP, 2019).

[xxviii] Logic, from which metascience (aka philosophy of science) branched off, constituted originally a trio (with epistemology and metaphysics). Logic is divided into several fast developing sub-disciplines and is becoming increasingly formalized. Logic should not be confused with argumentation theory (aka informal logic). Like mathematics, statistics, computer science and systems science (fields of research which are fast spreading out over many sub-fields), logic is subjected to historical and philosophical investigation. For metascience, see, inter alia, the Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science (1956ff), the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science (1963ff), the Journal for General Philosophy of Science (1970ff) and the book series Handbook of the Philosophy of Science (2006ff). In addition, visit,, and (fill in: philosophy of science). For argumentation theory, which deals with the effectiveness or plausibility (rather than the validity) of an argument, see Marta Spranzi, The Art of Dialectic between Dialogue and Rhetoric (John Benjamins, 2011), Frans van Eemeren et al., Handbook of Argumentation Theory (Springer, 2014), Michael MacDonald (ed.), Handbook of Rhetorical Studies (OUP, 2017), James Herrick, Argumentation (Strata, 2019), Sarah Kornfield, Contemporary Rhetorical Criticism (Strata, 2021) and the journals Argumentation and Advocacy (1964ff), Informal Logic (1978ff), Argumentation (1987ff), Cogency (2009ff), Argument & Computation (2010ff) and Argumentation in Context (2012ff). See also the book series Argumentation Library (1999ff) and Argumentation in Context (2009ff). Visit, and

[xxix] All these disciplines overlap, or relate to, each other and are covered by a vast and ever-growing literature.

[xxx] See John Miller, A Crude Look at the Whole (Basic Books, 2016). For Murray Gell-Mann, visit and search for Gell-Mann.

[xxxi] See the special issue “Studies of the Yìjīng and Its Commentaries” of the Journal of Chinese Philosophy (35:2, June 2008), Richard Smith, The I Ching: A Biography (Princeton University Press, 2012) and Liu Dajiu, An Introduction to the Zhouyi (book of changes) (Chiron, 2019). Professor Liu is chief editor of Zhouyi Yanjiu (Yìjīng research), 1988ff. See also Sung Kok Leong, “The relatedness of Yijing and quantum physics” (2021, online), Edward Shaughnessy, The Origin and Early Development of the Zhou Changes (Brill, 2022), Tze-ki Hon (ed.), The Other Yijing: The Book of Changes and Chinese History, Politics and Everyday Life (Brill, 2022) and Paschalis Nikolaou and Richard Smith (eds.), Under the Sign of the I Ching (Shearsman, 2023). In addition, visit and If I were in the position to instruct, I would immediately order the translation and professional annotation of two monumental works: (a) Lin Zhongjun, Lìdài Yìxué Míngzhù Yánjiū (research on famous works in past Yìjīng study) (Qilu Shushe, 2008) and (b) the unsurpassed Zhōnghuá Yíxué Dàcídiăn (great Chinese dictionary on Yìjīng study) (Guji Chubanshe, 2008), compiled, under the leadership of professor Cai Shangsi, by dozens of Chinese Yìjīng-experts. Research into the Yìjīng should be embarked upon by a team of truly collaborating and internationally recruited scientists.


Rotterdam: 27-1-2024