The Aesthetics of Nature | Carlson and Berleant (2004)

Towards a non-anthropocentric view of aesthetics, we explore the legacy of work in the aesthetics of nature. The collection of essays in The Aesthetics of Natural Environments (2004), edited by Allen Carlson and Arnold Berleant, illuminates some of the issues and debates on this perspective.

In the Acknowledgements for the 2004 book is a trail back to work published in 1998.

We especially thank the authors for agreeing to contribute their essays.

Moreover, we thank Philip Alperson, editor of The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, as well as the journal’s editorial board, for inviting us to edit a special issue of the journal (Volume 56, number 2, spring 1998) on environmental aesthetics. Several of the essays reprinted here first appeared in that special issue, the editing of which was our initial collaboration and eventually led to the publication of this volume [p. 9]

Philosophical works can develop slowly!

The Introduction chapter is a sequential exposition, working through the history, into prospects for research. The philosophy of aesthetics is not limited to works of art!

I. Introduction

The aesthetics of nature is the initiating and central focus of environmental aesthetics, one of the two or three major new fields of aesthetics to emerge in the second half of the twentieth century. Environmental aesthetics considers philosophical issues concerning the aesthetic appreciation of the world at large and, moreover, the world as constituted not simply by particular objects but also by larger units, such as landscapes, environments, and ecosystems. Thus the field extends beyond the confines of the artworld and our aesthetic appreciation of works of art. Its scope covers the aesthetic appreciation of non-artistic artifacts and natural objects, as well as the appreciation of both natural environments and our various human-influenced and human-created environments.1

This collection of essays, however, focuses on only that part of environmental aesthetics that considers the aesthetic appreciation of the natural world. It concerns philosophical issues about the appreciation of nature, addressing matters such as the exact nature of both the natural world and the modes of aesthetic appreciation appropriate for it. This renewed interest in the aesthetics of the natural world has developed only recently. Nonetheless, it has historical roots in earlier work on the aesthetics of nature. To fully appreciate the recent and contemporary research in this area, it is useful to briefly examine this historical background and the developments that follow from it.2 [p. 11]

There’s a companion volume on The Aesthetics Of Human Environments (2007), that “investigates philosophical and aesthetics issues that arise from our engagement with human environments ranging from rural landscapes to urban cityscapes”. For now, we’ll focus on natural, acknowledging the artifactual as separate.

This volume is oriented towards Western philosophies.

II. The Background to the Current Interest in the Aesthetics of Nature

The historical roots of the interest in the aesthetics of nature lie in the ideas concerning aesthetic appreciation developed in the eighteenth century by British and Scottish philosophers, such as Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Burke, and Alison, and solidified by Kant.3 Central to this approach is the concept of disinterestedness.4 The basic idea of disinterestedness is that aesthetic appreciation requires appreciators to abstract themselves and the objects of their appreciation from their own interests, such as the personal, the possessive, and the economic. Coupling the concept of disinterestedness with the eighteenth century fascination with the natural world resulted in a rich tradition of landscape appreciation. With the aid of disinterestedness, not only could domesticated, rural countrysides be seen as beautiful, but even the wildest of natural environments could be appreciated as sublime. Moreover, between the two extremes of the beautiful and the sublime, disinterestedness made space for the emergence of an even more powerful mode of landscape appreciation, the picturesque.5 The picturesque mode, although initially tied to particular sorts of landscapes, ultimately developed so as to facilitate the aesthetic appreciation of other kinds of environments by means of focusing attention on the picture-like properties of sensuous surface and formal composition. The upshot was an eighteenth century aesthetic synthesis having disinterestedness as the central theoretical concept, landscapes as the paradigm objects of aesthetic appreciation, and formalistic, picturesque appreciation as the favored mode of appreciation. [pp. 11-12]
Although lacking the natural world as their main focus, the other key elements of the eighteenth century synthesis — disinterestedness and the formalistic mode of appreciation — nonetheless survive into the twentieth century. [p. 12]


The relevance of the early twentieth century re-entrenchment of disinterestedness and formalism to the current interest in the aesthetics of nature is to be found somewhat ironically, in the fact that a major theme of mid-twentieth century philosophical aesthetics involves the rejection of both disinterestedness and formalism. The rejection begins with the development of the expressionist theory of art and reaches its climax in the institutional theory of art.8 [pp. 12-13]


This paradigm shift results in a problem that directly impacts the development of the aesthetics of nature. The problem is that the new paradigm is a paradigm for the aesthetic appreciation of art. Moreover, it is a paradigm seemingly exclusive to art appreciation, for few, if any, of the resources introduced to replace those inherent in the doctrines of disinterestedness and formalism have application to the appreciation of anything other than art. This is no surprise, for the new paradigm is developed explicitly within the context of philosophy of art, and the rejected Bulloughian and Bellian reincarnations of the old doctrines were especially tailored to accommodate works of art. The upshot is that the resources of the new paradigm — designing intellects, art historical traditions, art critical practices, the artworld itself — appear to have little relevance to the world beyond the artworld. Thus, the aesthetic appreciation of the natural world is left behind, seeming to involve at best only distanced contemplation of sensuous and formal properties. [p. 13]

Hmmm …. “Disinterestedness” and a “formalistic, picturesque appreciation” doesn’t seem very compatible with 21st century thinking!

Moving forward in time, research into aesthetics hasn’t been oriented towards nature.

III. The Rise of the Renewed Interest in the Aesthetics of Nature

In the second half of the twentieth century, this problem finds expression in two developments that constitute the immediate background to the renewed interest in the aesthetics of nature.

The first is that, in developing and defending the new par- adigm of aesthetic appreciation, analytic aesthetics apparently abandons any remaining interest in the aesthetics of anything other than art. The abandonment is institutionalized by virtually equating philosophical aesthetics with philosophy of art. [p. 13, editorial paragraphing added]


The second development constituting the immediate background to the renewed interest in the aesthetics of nature involves the real world beyond both philosophical aesthetics and the artworld. It relates to the public awareness of the aesthetic quality and value of the natural environment that begins to evolve, especially in North America, early in the second half of the twentieth century. 13 This awareness causes a difficulty, since, given the developments in philosophical aesthetics, individuals concerned about the aesthetics of the natural environment are left with few theoretical resources other than the old neo-picturesque paradigm of distanced contemplation of scenic views. [p. 14]


The renewed interest in the aesthetics of nature is in part a response to these two developments. This is evident in the title of the essay that almost single-handedly initiates the renewal: Ronald Hepburn’s groundbreaking 1966 article, “Contemporary Aesthetics and the Neglect of Natural Beauty.”17 Reacting to the treatment of the appreciation of nature within analytic aesthetics, Hepburn argues that those features that other philosophers have seen as aesthetic deficiencies in the natural world and thus as reasons for deeming its appreciation subjective, superficial, and even non-aesthetic, are actually sources for a different kind of, and potentially very rich, aesthetic experience. He emphasize the fact that, since it is not constrained by things such as designing intellects, art historical traditions, and art critical practices, the natural world facilitates an open, engaging, and creative mode of appreciation. Moreover, he argues that, as in the appreciation of art, there is in the appreciation of nature a movement from shallow and trivial to deep, serious aesthetic experience, and thus the open, engaging, creative mode of appreciation should be guided by our realizations about the real nature of the natural world. [pp. 14-15]

Recognition of the overlooking of the asthetics of nature has spurred two directions: (i) a more cognitive, science-oriented approach; and (ii) a more culture-based approach.

IV. Recent and Contemporary Research in the Aesthetics of Nature

[….] The call to fill this [theoretical] vacuum results in two kinds of responses: on the one hand, attempts to provide sociobiological underpinnings for the aesthetic appreciation of nature, such as Appleton’s own prospect-refuge theory,20 and, on the other, a wide range of theoretical models of aesthetic response grounded in, for example, developmental and environmental psychology.21 In general, this kind of research is beyond the scope of this collection, but there are a number of overview articles concerning it 22 as well as some useful anthologies.23 [p. 15]


The former of the two initial developments stresses the role of the cognitive in the aesthetic appreciation of nature. This cognitive line, as noted, is in part a response to the old appreciative paradigm’s obsession with sensuous and formal properties. [….] [Analogous] to the way in which the appropriate aesthetic appreciation of art is cognitively informed by art history and art criticism, the appropriate aesthetic appreciation of nature must be cognitively informed by natural history and scientific understanding. Thus Carlson finds a central place in the aesthetic appreciation of the natural world for the knowledge provided by sciences such as geology, biology, and ecology.26 [p. .16]

The second of the initial philosophical developments in the aesthetics of nature involves a reaction against the traditional concept of aesthetic appreciation as disinterested contemplation and an endorsement of the idea that the natural environment facilitates an open, engaging, and creative mode of appreciation. Consequently, it parallels some of the developments that helped to clear the ground for the new paradigm of art appreciation, primarily analytic aesthetics’ attack on both the Bulloughian and other more recent reincarnations of disinterestedness, such as the aesthetic attitude theory.29 [p. 17]

This leads to V. Directions for Future Research … which is what the rest of the book is about.


Carlson, Allen, and Arnold Berleant. 2004. “Introduction: The Aesthetics of Nature.” In The Aesthetics of Natural Environments, edited by Allen Carlson and Arnold Berleant, 11–42. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.

#aesthetics, #nature

Genealogy of Systems Thinking | Debora Hammond | 2002

In the history of science of systems thinking, Debora Hammond related the backgrounds and connections of the founder of the Society for General Systems Research, that is now the International Society for the Systems Sciences.

Boulding (1956) plays a large role in framing two orientations towards “general systems theory”.

Kenneth Boulding used to distinguish between what he called ‘special’ general systems theory and ‘general’ general systems theory, the first oriented primarily around mathematical modeling and the second incorporating a more philosophical consideration of the ethical dimensions of systems. From my own perspective there are three primary orientations within the systems community. Each of the original founders reflects one or more of these orientations, with slightly different emphasis.

(1) Theoretical/Rational—Formal Models, Quantitative Analysis
(2) Applied/Empirical/Utilitarian—Interdisciplinary Problem Solving
(3) Normative—Humanistic, Anti-mechanistic [p. 426]

These three orientations reflect the motivations of why individuals might be interested in diving into a science of systems.

While von Bertalanffy is considered the father of General Systems Theory, he was actually in an earlier generation of researchers (born 1901), before the founding of a society.

Ludwig von Bertalanffy is generally recognized as the father of general systems theory (GST). He introduced the idea of a general theory of systems in a seminar at the University of Chicago in 1939. He also contributed significantly to the development of organismic models in biology. His most important contribution to the field is the concept of the ‘open system’, which is capable of taking in energy and matter from its environment in order to create increasingly complex organizational structures, in apparent disregard of the second law of thermodynamics. Although Bertalanffy initially conceived GST in mathematical terms, emphasizing isomorphic relationships, much of his writing reflects a deeper concern with the mechanistic and reductionist orientation of then current models in biology and psychology. His concern with the unity of science may have evolved out of his participation in the Vienna Circle, although he rebelled against the dominant current of positivism in that group. The most significant influences in the evolution of his own thinking were philosophers and mystics, including Heraclitus, Nicholas of Cusa and Leibniz. [p. 426]

James Grier Miller was a convenor, becoming the editor for the journal Behavioral Science.

Although it also contained normative elements, the work of the Committee on the Behavioral Sciences at the University of Chicago, under the leadership of James Grier Miller, was probably closest in spirit to the articulated goals of the society. In additional to Miller, the two most active members of this group were Ralph Gerard and Anatol Rapoport. Although Miller was not at CASBS with the other founders, he continued to work closely with Gerard and Rapoport throughout that year. Miller had been inspired to integrate the biological, psychological and social dimensions of human behavior by Enrico Fermi and Alfred North Whitehead. As a student at Harvard he was very much influenced by the homeostatic models of Walter Cannon and Lawrence Henderson. As Chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Chicago he formed the Behavioral Science Committee in 1949. [p. 426]

Ralph Gerard (born 1900) preceded James Grier Miller (born 1916).

Born at the turn of the century, Ralph Gerard entered the University of Chicago as a student at the age of 14, later returning as a professor of neurophysiology. The range of his interests included ecology and social theory, and he spoke often on the role of scientists as the brain of the social organism. He was particularly influenced by Herbert Spencer’s organismic model of society and was one of the original participants in the Macy conferences on cybernetics in the early 1940s. The framework for Miller’s Living System model grew out of a much more simplified framework that Gerard developed to explore the relationship between different levels of organization in biological systems, examining structure, function and evolution at the level of the cell, the organism and society as a whole. [p. 436]

Anatol Rapoport (born 1911) was a University of Michigan (1955-1975) when Miller directed the Mental Health Research Institute there (1955-1967), subsequently moving to Toronto.

Although he worked closely with Miller and Gerard on the Behavioral Sciences Committee, Anatol Rapoport’s most significant contributions to the systems field grew out of his work with Nicholas Rashevsky and the Committee on Mathematical Biology, where he became interested in neural networks and game theory. Like Bertalanffy, he became increasingly concerned with the symbolic dimension and began to study semantics. Among the original founders he was the only socialist, and he split from Miller and Gerard over their respective views during the Vietnam War era. He continued to work with Boulding in the field of Peace Research and Conflict Resolution, which had grown out of their collaborative efforts at CASBS. [pp. 436-437]

Kenneth Boulding (born 1910) was at University of Michigan 1949-1967, and then moved on to Boulder, Colorado.

Boulding was the only member of the original group of founders who was not a biologist. By training he was an economist, although he was one of the first in that field to incorporate ecological considerations, drawing on Robert Park’s concept of ‘human ecology’. Beginning in 1949 he began organizing interdisciplinary seminars on a variety of themes, including competition and cooperation, a theory of the individual, growth, communication and conflict resolution. It was in this context that he was first introduced to Bertalanffy’s work and his proposal for a general theory of systems. Most significant from my perspective is Boulding’s emphasis on the importance of dialogue in the decision-making process

In contrast to what he described as the physiological orientation of Gerard and Miller, elaborating common processes at various levels of organization in living systems, Boulding was more interested in qualities and properties that emerged at increasingly higher levels of organization, illustrated in the following progression from simple to complex (Boulding, 1956): [p. 427]

The levels of organization from Boulding (1956) [(i) frameworks, (ii) clockworks, (iii) themostats, (iv) open systems, (v) plants, (vi) animals, (vii) humans, (viii) symbolic systems, (ix) social systems] should be required reading for anyone who doesn’t know them.

Boulding had the distinction of being accused of NOT being an economist, when he was president of the American Economic Association!

In seeking to understand the nature of social systems, Boulding emphasized the role of perception and values, which could only be elaborated through collaborative and inclusive decision-making processes, challenging efforts at problem solving by experts external to a system. [p. 427]

The generation of founders was marked with a series of passings: von Bertalanffy in 1972; Gerard in 1974; Boulding, in 1993; Miller, in 2002; Rapoport in 2007. Now in the 21st century, we’re in another (or maybe even a third) generation of systems scientists.

Tracing back earlier in Hammond (2002), we can see some of the origins predating the first generation of system scientists.

Hammon (2002), Table 4: Overlapping influences in the development of system ideas

For those who prefer to watch and listen than to read, there’s 2016 recording of a lecture by Debora Hammond on “An Overview of Systems Lineages and Implications for Research and Practice“, given a the ISSS meeting in Boulder, Colorado. (You’ll have to go to , because there’s no preview available cross-site!)


Boulding, Kenneth E. 1956. “General Systems Theory — The Skeleton of Science.” Management Science 2 (3): 197–208.

Hammond, Debora. 2002. “Exploring the genealogy of systems thinking.” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 19 (5): 429–39.

#general-systems-theory, #systems-thinking

Moral character in human systems (Geoffrey Vickers) | Adams, Catron, Cook (1995)

While Geoffrey Vickers and Gregory Bateson both worked with human systems, the background philosophies on ethics were different.

— begin paste —

Beginning with The Art of Judgment and culminating in 1983 with Human Systems Are Different, Vickers was concerned to avoid the narrowing of scope that had become a remarkably powerful force in both the theoretical and empirical study of organized human activity. His concept of appreciation was a pivotal element of this effort. Gregory Bateson (1972) also wished to keep the sense of “system” more open than was the norm. Yet while Vickers and Bateson admired one another’s work, they parted intellectual company on the origin and role of ethics.

  • For Bateson, since all systems are identical, morality enters, if at all, in systemic processes that would be found in all systems.
  • Vickers, by contrast, saw a moral character within human systems that distinguished them from both natural and man-made systems.

Vickers argued that appreciation is an inherent and essential part of human activity from the level of individual consciousness to that of human cultures. It was for him a way to achieve the broadening of scope that he felt to be essential both to a practical understanding of the world of action and to responsible action within that world. [p. xviii, editorial paragraphing added]


The exercise of appreciative judgment, the central theme in this book, has three components.

  • The first is the making of reality judgments: those judgments concerning what is or is not the case—ranging from basic cause-and-effect beliefs to more subtle and complex “facts.”
  • The second facet is the making of value judgments: those concerning what ought or ought not be the case—including imperatives, wants and desires, prudential or self-interested considerations, and individual and collective goals and norms.
  • The third is the making of instrumental judgments: those concerning the best means available to reduce the mismatch between is and ought—including the personal resources of time, attention, intellect, passion, money, and power, along with those social resources that can be marshaled and applied (by influence or command) through communication, coalition, and access to social institutions. [editorial paragraphing added]

Along with being a single activity composed of three interrelated but distinct forms of judgment, appreciation, Vickers argued, is always partly tacit. Human judgment, he insisted, cannot be fully described in explicit or analytic terms. But to hold that something is tacit, he maintained, is not to relinquish hope of describing or understanding it, nor does it relegate it to the realm of the mystical. The analytic and the appreciative, he maintained, are not conflicting but complementary, not dichotomous but dialectical. Vickers saw it as a regrettable prejudice of our times that those things that can be described explicitly are honored with the terms scientific and rational, while those that are not are often correspondingly deemed unscientific or irrational. In his interest in understanding the tacit and his insistence on treating it in its own right, Vickers clearly reflects his long personal and intellectual friendship with the philosopher Michael Polanyi (1958).

The incorporation of the epistemological and ethical along with the instrumental in the single activity of appreciation is a central feature of Vickers’s thought. The more economic and analytic treatments of judgment and decision making common in the social sciences provide a means of assessing only the instrumental (epistemological and ethical judgments are typically treated merely as “givens”). For Vickers, human action (as distinct from reaction, instinct, or reflex) inextricably entails all three forms of judgment; it is a product of judging what is, what ought to be, and what can be done to reduce the difference by selecting specific means from the set of possible actions at hand. [pp. xix-xx]

Kenneth Boulding, in his foreword to the 1983 edition of The Art of Judgment, concluded that Vickers’s concept of appreciation remained a more robust way to account for the exercise of human judgment and decision making than the “facile models of maximizing behavior in economics or rat and pigeon behaviorism in psychology” that were then still dominant. Now, in this centenary edition, we come to the same assessment yet again. [pp. xx]

— end paste —

With that new foreword, who were the authors? They were all professors, now retired.


Adams, Guy B., Bayard L. Catron, and Scott D.N. Cook. 1995. “Foreword to the Centenary Edition of The Art of Judgment.” In The Art of Judgment: A Study of Policy Making, by Geoffrey Vickers, Centenary Edition, xii–xxiv. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.


Protein remover tablets (RGP)

For wearers of RGP (Rigid Gas Permeable) contact lenses, protein remover tablets used to work better than enzymatic liquids. The tablets seem to be unavailable in Toronto (or online in Canada). The older hydrogen peroxide-based solutions not only have antimicrobial benefits, but also remove protein buildup.

Hydrogen peroxide lens care solutions kill microorganisms by producing free radicals that destroy cell membranes and essential cell components.11,12 This contrasts with MPS systems that use polyhexamethylene biguanide (PHMB), which acts on bacterial chromosomes12,13 or with alexidine and polyquaternium-1 (PQ), which interact with cell membranes and disrupt the membrane structure.12–14 Irrespective of mechanism, the disinfecting solutions must be capable of killing a broad range of microorganisms as prescribed by ISO and FDA standards.5,15 The disinfection tests are typically carried out against planktonic (floating in liquid) microorganisms, whereas it is known that, once adherent to a surface, bacteria will cover themselves with a protective biofilm that renders them more difficult to kill. Testing against bacterial and fungal biofilms showed that hydrogen peroxide disinfection performs better than a range of MPS

Gabriel, M. M., McAnally, C., Chen, H., Srinivasan, S., Manoj, V., & Garofalo, R. (2021). Hydrogen Peroxide Disinfecting Solution for Gas Permeable Contact Lenses: A Review of the Antimicrobial Efficacy, Compatibility, and Safety Performance of a One-Step Lens Care System. Clinical optometry13, 7–14.

There are multiple brands of hydrogen peroxide-based solutions available.

Hydrogen Peroxide Based Cleaners
These solutions use hydrogen peroxide as one or two-step cleansing options to both disinfect lenses, clean the surface of debris and build-up, and store overnight.  They both require 6 hours of cleaning time to fully disinfect the lenses.

Manicam, C., Perumal, N., Wasielica-Poslednik, J. et al. Proteomics Unravels the Regulatory Mechanisms in Human Tears Following Acute Renouncement of Contact Lens Use: A Comparison between Hard and Soft Lenses. Sci Rep 8, 11526 (2018).

#contact-lens, #protein-remover, #rgp

Book review of ZHANG, Zailin (2008) “Traditional Chinese Philosophy as the Philosophy of the Body” | Robin R. Wang | 2009

In this review of a philosophical work written in Chinese, a comparison is made between Chinese philosophy centering on the body, in comparison to Western philosopy centered on the mind. (I found a reference to this book, tracing back from Keekok Lee (2017) Chapter 9, footnote 8.

— begin excerpts —

The first part consists of four chapters, which illustrate how body plays a crucial role in four areas: cosmology, ethics, religion/spirituality, and history of Chinese philosophy. This part establishes two important claims:

  • (1) Chinese philosophy is a philosophy of body; and
  • (2) this philosophy of body reveals a pattern that provides a center for the basic structure of Chinese philosophy: body–gender–family/kinship.

This pattern is different from the more common pattern seen in Western philosophy: consciousness–concepts–universe. [p. 113, editorial paragraphing added]


Diving into this multi-layered book, one may find at least three important and valuable philosophical themes:

  • (1) Why is Chinese philosophy a philosophy of body? What is the textual and conceptual evidence for this claim?
  • (2) What are the characteristics of this body philosophy?
  • And (3) how does this understanding offer a space for the study of Chinese philosophy? [pp. 113-114, editorial paragraphing added]

First, Chinese philosophy is a philosophy of body. The author discusses three ways to support this statement. (1) Dao exists in body. This statement is selected from WANG Fuzhi and refers to the claim that Dao is manifested in one’s own body. Body is not simply physical flesh or a pure object of science. Body is a unity between subject and object, thinking and action, and oneself and the world. [….]

Body obviously falls into a gender field: the body is seen as either male or female. This necessity of gender naturally leads to a living force and generative process through intercourse. This interaction creates gan 感 (response, resonance). More importantly this gan will inevitably bring out qing 情 (feeling, emotion). Qing is the root of all Chinese literature. The focus on body also raises the vital issue of shi 時 (time, season, opportunity). Contrary to a thin notion of time, shi in Chinese philosophy contains five properties (16–19): shi is a presence; shi is a position; shi is a rhythm; shi is a synchronicity; shi is unity of subject and object.

(2) Ethical rules are derived from body. Body as the root of Chinese philosophy exhibits two features. One is that body is a starting point and a blueprint for cosmology. The other is that all ethical principles can be deduced from the body. Body is the manifestation and vessel of social and ethical rituals. Many ethical terms and views are embedded in the body. [….]

The ethical body starts in taking good care of the physical body. Respecting body also communicates the significance of bodily rituals. Bodily gestures, shapes, and forms are all indications of one’s ethical training. Ethical language is also a bodily language: how one moves the body, such as lifting the arms, taking steps, and even facial expressions all contain profound ethical meanings and must be cultivated. If body itself is action then action has to be trained according to rituals. There is a logical necessity that body and bodily movement is a sign of moral cultivation. Ritual without body is impossible. [p. 114]

(3) Transcendence, chaoyue 超越, is manifested in body. There is nothing which is independent, beyond, or outside the body. This provides a clue in grasping the meaning of shen (body) in Chinese as having the same sound as shen 神 (divine, spirit). [….]

Chinese spirituality promotes respect for body, yet at the same time it is all about becoming a sage.

To sum up, these three themes encapsulate the body in Chinese philosophy, in contrast to traditional Western philosophy, which takes consciousness as the basis.

  • First, Chinese philosophy, unlike western philosophy, which employs abstract conceptual notions to understand the world, uses the body as a starting point to reflect on and know the world. Rather than “I think therefore I am,” it is, “I bow therefore I am.”
  • Second, the body is gendered and exists in relationships.
  • Third, the body exists in time and history. [editorial paragraphing added]

Second, after the author establishes the body as the foundation of Chinese philosophy, from which cosmology, ethics, and spirituality are derived, the author attempts to discuss the characteristics of this body philosophy from four aspects:

  • (1) Body as family (jia 家). [….]
  • (2) Body as the Zhouyi’s genealogy. [….]
  • (3) Body as politics. [….]
  • (4) The embodiment of knowing. Chinese body philosophy demonstrates an embodiment of cognition with three features (170):
    • (a) Intuitive knowing that dissolves the dualistic distinction between subject and object, essence and phenomena, heaven and human beings. [….]
    • (b) Bodily knowing is also a correlative knowing. [….]
    • (c) Bodily knowing is a transformative act where language is functional and practical. [p. 115, editorial paragraphing added]


Third, the author constructs body philosophy in order to prompt a paradigm shift for studying Chinese philosophy. According to the author, the study of Chinese philosophy since 1949 has taken place under the shade of consciousness-centered Western philosophy. [….]


This is a very intriguing book. The interpretation of body offers many significant insights into Chinese philosophy, such as the claims about a gendered cosmology, ethics, and religion. The clearly defined structure also allows creativity for grasping Chinese philosophy. Body does offer a vital space through which to wander into the field of Chinese philosophy. This ingenious attempt to find a new way to interpret Chinese philosophy is a worthy effort. However, one wonders whether this new paradigm is a truly Chinese way or simply importing another new Western methodology, namely phenomenology, to impose upon Chinese thinkers/texts. It might yield more fruitful returns, but after all, it is still a Westernized interpretation.

— end excerpts —


Wang, Robin R. 2009. “Zhang, Zailin 張再林, Traditional Chinese Philosophy as the Philosophy of the Body 作爲身體哲學的中國古代哲學.” Dao 8 (1): 113–16. .


Approche systémique

The translation from English “systems thinking” to French “la pensée systémique” misses meaning.
“Approche systémique” cites “Conférences Macy“, “General System Theory (Bertalanffy)” and “Gregory Bateson“, suggesting a better lineage.

Also compatible with The Systems Approach and Its Enemies | C. West Churchman | 1979


The Arrogance of Humanism (1978/1981) David W. Ehrenfeld

With the recognition of the anthropocene in the early 21st century, we might pause to consider whether humanism unduly places human beings as a centre of the universe.

David W. Ehrenfeld published a book The Arrogance of Humanism in 1978 (with an additional foreword in the 1981 edition) that foreshadows a criticism of anthropocentrism.  (There’s a version on the Internet Archive., and a preview on Google Books). Some excerpts from the book may be enlightening.

For those who prefer to listen to a recorded interview with David Ehrenfeld, rather than reading, he was part of a series on “The Age of Ecology”, produced by David Cayley for CBC Ideas in June 1990. The audio is available at (with the bigger context for the program at ).

To reduce confusion, it’s worth noting that David W. Ehrenfeld was the first editor of the journal Conservation Biology from 1986.  He was a founding member of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, in the Berkshires of Massachusetts.  and a professor of biology at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

He is not John R. Ehrenfeld who was executive director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology ( , and has most recently been championing sustainability as flourishing.  John was director of the MIT Program on Technology, Business and Environment from 1985 to 2000.

Preface to the Galaxy Edition (1981)

[….] The text remains essentially unchanged.

[….] In the three years that have passed since I finished writing the first edition many things have happened. The tragedy of Love Canal was revealed, the rate of destruction of the Amazonian rain forest accelerated, the failure of a forty-six-cent computer component twice signaled the start of a nuclear war, China adopted more of the methods and goals of modern industrial technology, the large mammals and birds of Uganda’s parklands were nearly all destroyed, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture discovered organic farming.  [….]  [p. vii]

Shortly after the first edition was published, the disaster at Three Mile Island occurred.  [….]  It is amusing, in a grim kind of way, to compare the Browns Ferry transcripts with the records from Three Mile Island; only the names of the engineers and administrators have changed, the rest is the same. 

As I expected, many people who read the book were distressed by my use of the word humanism. “We agree with your message,” they said, “but you have picked the wrong word as the focal point of your attack. Humanism asserts human dignity and the freedom of the human spirit; it is a kindly philosophy.”  [p. viii]

Perhaps so, but this is not to the point. When one chooses a guiding philosophy of life  — and the modern world has chosen humanism — one becomes responsible for all the consequences that flow from that choice. We have chosen to transform our original faith in a higher authority to faith in the power of reason and human capabilities. It has proven a misplaced trust. This is the other side of humanism, as I point out in the first chapter, and no amount of denial will make it go away. The economist, E. F. Schumacher, wrote in A Guide for the Perplexed: [pp. viii-ix]

Faith in modern man’s omnipotence is wearing thin. . . . More and more people are beginning to realize that “the modern experiment” has failed. …  Man closed the gates of Heaven against himself and tried, with immense energy and ingenuity, to confine himself to the Earth. He is now discovering that …  a refusal to reach for Heaven means an involuntary descent into Hell.

This book is a documentation and explanation of the failure that Schumacher described—the failure of humanism. So the word stands. [p. ix]


My first concern, and the primary aim of this book, has been to identify the consequences of humanism and to explain how they are brought about. Although I have tried to indicate the self-destructive elements of modern humanism that will eventually destroy it from within, and although I have also called attention to the sources of human strength that have remained independent of the humanist tradition, I have given no master plan for individual survival. Again, Wendell Berry (in The Unsettling of America) says it: very well: “The use of the world is finally a personal matter, and the world can be preserved in health only by the forebearance and care of a multitude of persons.”  [p. xi]

Preface (1978)


My readers will find that I do not counsel a total rejection of humanism, which has its nobler parts. But we have been too gentle and uncritical of it in the past, and it has grown ugly and dangerous. Humanism itself, like the rest of our existence, must now be protected against its own excesses. Fortunately, there are humane alternatives to the arrogance of humanism.  [pp. xiii – xiv]


1. False Assumptions

When religions decay, form generally outlasts substance: rituals continue to be observed, sometimes even intensified, but they move outside the lives of the people who practice them. In these circumstances, ritual is celebrated but no longer believed; it may even become embarrassing. Vital religions are different. Although the extent of ritual observance varies from one to another, all living religions are part of daily life and their central tenets are accepted as truths that need no further verification.

Humanism is one of the vital religions, perhaps no longer growing but very much alive. It is the dominant religion of our time, a part of the lives of nearly everyone in the “developed” world and of all others who want to participate in a similar development. There is very little ritual in humanism, and most of its devout followers do not seem to be aware that they are humanists. Ask them for the name of their religion and they will deny having one, or, more commonly, name one of the traditional faiths. On the other hand, people who consider themselves humanists usually are — frequently, however, for reasons other than the ones they know and admit.

Can a person unknowingly belong to one religion while under the impression that he or she is part of another? If that person believes in the dogma of the former and only celebrates the latter, why not?  [p. 3]


Among the correlates of humanism is the belief that humankind should live for itself, because we have the power to do so, the capacity to enjoy such a life, and nothing else to live for. Another correlate is the faith in the children of pure reason: science and technology. Although shaken in recent years and the source of much confusion among humanists, this faith continues to permeate our existence and influence our behavior, like the universal assumptions that day will always follow night and water will always flow downhill. There is also a strong anti-Nature (at least raw Nature) element in humanism, although it is not always expressed and is sometimes denied.  [p. 6]


Many people like to call themselves humanists because the name has acquired pleasant connotations, like “freedom.” They probably are mostly humanists, as I have said, but this is in spite of their misunderstanding of the meaning of the word. We cannot allow the definition of humanism to become totally amorphous, even though we may still end up calling the same people humanists. Otherwise, we will never be able to see humanism clearly enough to discern the terrible thing that is wrong with it. Nor will we be able to criticize it. 

In its early years as an established philosophy, humanism was constantly at war with organized religion in the West, and this has since tended to obscure the common elements and similarities between them. It is a well-known principle in biology, first set forth by Darwin, that closely related species in frequent contact with one another tend to evolve exaggerated differences in appearance and behavior. Whether for reasons similar to those advanced by biologists or whether by chance analogy, the same thing has happened to classic religion and to humanism. One has God and the other does not—an important difference, but not enough to conceal the relationship that is there.  [p. 7]

The key to this relationship is the archaic but still enormously popular doctrine of final causes. This doctrine, whose origins go back beyond the ancient Greeks, has flourished since the rise of science in the West in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It asserts, in one formulation, that the features of the natural world—mountains, deserts, rivers, plant and animal species, climate—have all been arranged by God for certain ends, primarily the benefit of humanity. These beneficial ends can often be perceived if we look carefully: rivers provide edible fish and transportation, deserts give boundaries and limits, etc. Our responsibility is to acknowledge this gift and accept control of the planet in return, an acceptance that was urged by some Jews and Christians even in ancient times. Thus the idea of using a Nature created for us, the idea of control, and the idea of human superiority became associated early in our history.  [pp. 7-8]


To some, humanism serves to protect us from the darker side of Nature, a side that all but the most hopelessly naive and sheltered of urban pastoralists know well. Anyone who copes regularly with Nature has met the winds, frosts, droughts, floods, heat waves, pests, infertile soils, venoms, diseases, accidents, and general uncertainty that it offers in succession or simultaneously. The primitive way to confront this darker side is with toil, and the human faculty of invention has ever worked to lessen that toil. Small wonder that humanism, which elevates our inventiveness to divine levels and celebrates it as infallible, has been embraced by many of those who believe they have been released from toil.  [p. 10]

Setting aside for the moment the question of the side effects and durability of the release, what are the implications of this way of thinking about humanity and Nature? At the outset it is clear that a dichotomy has been created: people vs. Nature. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a dichotomy if a dichotomy is warranted. Situations in which two well-defined alternatives are set in opposition to one another occur all the time in ordinary existence. Digital computers operate in a binary language that glorifies the concept of dichotomy. Yet there is something about the extreme commonness of dichotomies that must make one suspicious: are clearcut alternatives with two possible, mutually exclusive choices really so frequent in life? Good-bad; socialist-capitalist; Republican-Democrat; beautiful-ugly; cowardly-brave; even pleasure-pain — who has not been hurt or fooled by dichotomies that at least part of the time are false and misleading? Evidently we set up dichotomies because our logical thoughts are more comfortable in that mode. This does not mean that the dichotomies necessarily exist, or are even useful. [pp. 10-11]

[….] Nature can be portrayed as being in opposition to us, but it also includes us; we comprise one system. Perhaps the most vivid illustration of this has been provided by Gregory Bateson, in his discussions of alcoholism and schizophrenia. Traditionally, both have been treated by forming a dichotomy—the patient on the one hand and the disease (the darker side of Nature) on the other. The two are separated conceptually, and the “disease” is treated with drugs or other therapy. Not surprisingly, the results are usually terrible; either there is no progress, or the symptoms are masked or exchanged for others. 

Bateson is a realist; he avoids the dichotomy. He sees, in many cases, the symptoms of alcoholism and schizophrenia as understandable responses to long-standing, aberrant social environments, which are so constructed as to leave the sufferer with no options for behaving in a “normal” fashion. The alcoholic or schizophrenic symptoms offer a form of escape, albeit a self-destructive one; or to put it another way, they are appropriate behaviors towards parents or others who have built a personal world in which there is punishment for either behaving or not behaving in ways that have been forbidden, (An example is a parent who cannot accept love but also blames a child for not being loving.) The singular success of Alcoholics Anonymous is, according to Bateson, the result of its recognition of alcoholic behavior as a permanent part of a person who is, in turn, part of a larger system.  [p. 11]

The dichotomy between humanity and Nature is not the only one that has been imposed or supported by a humanistic way of thought. There is also the logic vs. emotion dichotomy, which although founded in fact has been exaggerated and distorted by humanism. Both will be dealt with later.  [pp. 11-12]

The arrogance of the humanist faith in our abilities was nurtured by the late Renaissance triumphs of science and technology working in tandem.  [p. 12]


The Assumptions


The principal humanist assumption, which embraces all of our dealings with the environment, and some other issues as well, is very simple.

It says:

All problems are soluble.

In order to make its connection with humanism clear, just add the two words that are implicit; it becomes:

All problems are soluble by people.  [p. 16]

There are other humanist assumptions that are either less or more sweeping than the principal assumption, but which lack some of its force. These secondary assumptions include:

Many problems are soluble by technology.

Those problems that are not soluble by technology, or by technology alone, have solutions in the social world (of politics, economics, etc.).

When the chips are down, we will apply ourselves and work together for a solution before it is too late.

Some resources are infinite; all finite or limited resources have substitutes.

Human civilization will survive.

So far, these assumptions cut across political lines; they are humanist in the broadest social sense.

There are also, however, a group of secondary assumptions peculiar to the humanism of the Left. Probably all of the ones worth mentioning were first pointed out by George Orwell, a socialist with uncommon powers of self-analysis. [….]

“The Left, … inherited from Liberalism certain distinctly questionable beliefs, such as the belief that the truth will prevail and persecution defeats itself, or that man is naturally good and is only corrupted by his environment.”

Later, in a review of a book by Oscar Wilde, Orwell continued the theme:  [p. 17]

“If one looks more closely one sees that Wilde makes two common but unjustified assumptions. One is that the world is immensely rich and is suffering chiefly from maldistribution. …. Secondly, Wilde assumes that it is a simple matter to arrange that all the unpleasant kinds of work shall be done by machinery.” [p. 17-18, editorial paragraphing added]

Orwell himself did not entirely reject the latter two assumptions, but neither did he anticipate seeing them proven in his lifetime. Like the apolitical secondary assumptions that I listed above, Orwell’s four assumptions are derived from the prime assumption; therefore both groups can be dealt with together.

All of the modern, humanistic assumptions are optimistic— perhaps euphoric would be a better word.  [p. 18]


Throughout this book I speak of humanism and humanists, but I rarely quote from the writings of self-avowed humanist philosophers. There are several reasons for this. First, no two humanists define humanism the same way, and if I quote from one in order to illustrate a point, all the others will be able to say, with some justification, “But that is not my idea of humanism.” Second, because the assumptions are so closely interwoven in the fabric of humanism, so much a part of the daily humanist life, they are not often written about, and when they are, their manifestly religious nature causes a certain amount of confusion and covering.  [p. 19]


The third and most important reason why I have not quoted extensively from humanist writings is because I do not want to imply that this book is directed primarily towards the small group of philosophers and other intellectuals who actually call themselves humanists. You are a humanist; Joseph Stalin was a humanist; I, despite my better judgment, am at times a humanist. Humanism is at the heart of our present world culture — we share its unseen assumptions of control, and this bond makes mockery of the more superficial differences among communist, liberal, conservative, and fascist, among the managers and the managed, the exploiters and the preservers. [p. 20]


Humanism and modern society have opted, albeit unconsciously, for the assumptions of human power.  [….]

What, finally, is the point of opposing the unwholesome assumptions of humanism? The answer is that this enables us to adopt a more flexible and practical approach in a dangerous situation. If we start without bias and are capable of both realistically sifting the evidence and listening — perhaps for the first time—to the profound, irrational, and ancient voices within us, we may gain a better appreciation of what is going to happen.  [p. 21]

2. Myth

God created the world and all of its creatures in the year 4004 B.C. We have this on the assurance of the late Bishop James Ussher, who had many supporters in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  [p. 25]


In 1898, a traveler was introduced to President Kruger of the Transvaal, leader of the Boer rebellion against the British Empire. Judge Beyers, who was presenting the traveler, remarked that he was voyaging around the world. President Kruger angrily interrupted, reminding the judge that the world was flat. “You don’t mean round the world,” insisted Kruger, “it is impossible! You mean in the world. Impossible! Impossible!”


We live in a unique age. Contrary to the gloomy defeatism of Ecclesiastes, there is something new under the sun. Truth has finally conquered myth, objectivity is enthroned, assump- tions are no longer validated by prejudice and faith alone—at least for the leaders of world culture. Fairy tales are now re- served for children, who evidently need them more than adults. We are part of the first great age of the world whose cultured inhabitants will never seem quaint, superstitious, or silly to their descendants.

Now that myth is gone, what kinds of things do people believe?

We believe that many children are “hyperactive,” and that this condition interferes with their learning and social development.

We believe that the world desperately needs a clean, economical, dependable, and very abundant source of concentrated power. [p. 26]

We believe that public opinion can be discovered by polls, provided that the questions are phrased objectively and that the sample group is both representative of the population and large enough to indicate its variation.  [pp. 26-27]

We believe that the prospect of thought control through the use of chemicals and other scientific methods is frightening, especially if knowledge of the techniques falls into the wrong hands.

We believe that environmental decisions are best made by people who are specially trained for the job.

We believe that a minimum daily intake of vitamins and certain minerals is necessary for maintenance of good health.

And of course we believe a great many other things that are too numerous to list. But mere listing is an inadequate way of characterizing belief. Better to take fewer subjects and examine them more carefully. Thus I describe in the following pages a mixture of science fiction, contemporary prophecy, accounts of real methodologies in science and social science, and descriptions of inventions and plans for inventions. Each item, whether true or imaginary, either reveals our beliefs and expectations or describes the modern accomplishments that have generated and confirmed them.  [p. 27]



This extract from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation concludes the first recorded lesson in psychohistory ….  [p. 28]


Many will recognize these extracts immediately as part of B. F. Skinner’s Utopian novel Walden Two. [….]


These two extracts both deal with the common belief in our potential and realized ability to control, even to restructure, the human mind: the individual mind through behavioral engineering, and mind in the aggregate through psychohistory (in the latter case, control is derived automatically from the ability to predict). Science fiction is here a reliable guide to popular belief, and many examples exist of the incorporation of this erstwhile fiction into modern life.  [p. 30]


I have indicated that the science of mind has used the events of recorded history to demonstrate the scope of its theories and to test and refine the appropriateness of its methods. I have also stated that the behavioral data essential to predictive psychohistory and behavioral engineering are now being gathered in large quantities by ever more sophisticated testing procedures. This accounts for past and present. What, then, is being done to forecast and control the future?  [pp. 35-36]


These passages are quoted from a scientific paper entitled “A Model For Institutional Disturbances,” ….  [p. 36]

[….] The paper represents one of the first attempts to apply ad- vanced mathematical theory, in this case “catastrophe theory,” to the task of predicting the behavior of groups of people. Catastrophe theory is a fairly new branch of topology, the mathematical study of geometric configurations subjected to transformations. The theory provides a way of analyzing discontinuous transitions, such as the snap that eventually occurs while an elastic band is being stretched, no matter how smoothly. The word “catastrophe,” in this context, is meant to denote a sudden change — not necessarily anything dreadful. [pp. 36-37]

[….] The prediction and therefore the prevention of prison riots is but a minuscule part of the potential use of catastrophe theory in the once-fictional fields of psychohistory and behavioral engineering. Even the act of falling in love, a markedly discontinuous process involving an abrupt change of state, is not beyond the reach of catastrophe theory, once the appropriate quantitative variables have been identified and measured.  [p. 37]



In addition to mind, there is body. Here, too, we believe in the inevitability of control—control over our physical inheritance and destiny, a control that liberates us from many of the physical ills of the body and will ultimately free us from most if not all of them. More than that, a control that will erase the normal defects of form and function to which we have grown accustomed, and help us approach the perfection that was once attributed only to machines and the gods themselves.  [p. 37]




Beyond mind and body there is the world outside, and it is in this realm that our beliefs, based on scientific principles, have reached the furthest and claimed the most. New technologies for modifying the environment are developing so quickly that science fiction has become transformed into a popular academic game known as futurology.  [p. 44]


Part of this explosion involves our ability actually to design the specifications, the basic properties, of both natural and synthetic materials in a way that we never could before. Materials used to be treated as if they had a quasi-independent life of their own, a set of characteristics that were associated with them and did not change. [p. 46]


Our belief in environmental control, approaching omnipotence, is reinforced by repeated demonstrations of the enormous yet precisely directed power we can mobilize against the forces of nature, a power extracted by novel means from nature itself.  [p. 47]


The ultimate in environmental control is manifest in the deliberate synthesis of new environments, using components from the natural earth — or elsewhere — in a novel way.  [p,. 51]


The most extraordinary aspect of the new environmental design is the way we have bypassed the tedious, haphazard, and unpredictable process of evolution, which formerly shaped our environments for us. Inspection of most cities will confirm our distrust of the disorderly evolutionary process that has generated them: a hodgepodge of growth, precarious equilibrium, and terrible decay will invariably meet our eyes. Can we not do better than this?  [p. 52]


Our destiny is in our own hands at last. As the clean white sheet of paper is to the author, so is our future to us: we can write anything we wish.  [p. 54]

3. Reality

I can remember the way in which my paternal grandmother, an autocratic and deeply religious lady, used the future tense in her speech and writing. To her the future was tentative and uncontrollable—always a mystery, but at least a mystery that was inevitably revealed on schedule. Thus she never said, “I will see you on Friday.” This would have been presumptuous. “I will see you on Friday, God willing,” is the way she would have put it. Such phrasing has largely disappeared among the younger generation. With the control that we claim to exert over our minds, bodies, and environment, one might think that it was no longer necessary to be so tentative, so submissive to fate or higher power. Nevertheless, this usage has not really diminished, merely metamorphosed into a more acceptable formula that serves the same purpose as the old one.

The new qualifier of statements about the future is the word “hopefully.”  [p. 57]


The major reason for the prevalence of hopefully = let us hope is that deep within ourselves we know that our omnipotence is a sham, our knowledge and control of the future is weak and limited, our inventions and discoveries work, if they work at all, in ways that we do not expect, our planning is meaningless, our systems are running amok — in short, that the humanistic assumptions upon which our societies are grounded lack validity. We are trying to fool ourselves, and although we keep on trying we know it nonetheless.  [p. 58]

… for real objectivity, we must increase our perspective and broaden our view, and to do this it is often necessary to ignore claims and counter-claims concerning methods, intermediate goals, and theoretical objectives, and look exclusively at the final results of a technology or a set of humanistic beliefs. 

For want of a better term, I call this process “end-product analysis,” End-product analysis is the necessarily informal study of effects that sum up many causes. [p. 59]


Some further examples of end-product analysis will help explain it more fully. In his book Energy and Equity, Ivan Illich, a pioneer of this kind of approach, examines the efficiency of the American automobile. His conclusions are both amusing and horrifying. The average American male, he finds, spends approximately four of his sixteen waking hours either driving his car, parking it and searching for it, or earning the money to make the payments on it, maintain it and replace worn parts, buy gasoline and oil, and defray the costs of a driver’s license, vehicle registration, and insurance. These sixteen hundred hours spent annually on behalf of the car enable the owner to drive an average of 7,500 miles, which works out to 4.7 miles per hour, regardless of individual driving speeds. The ramifications of this end-product analysis would fill a dozen books, but one thing is clear: the fast, luxurious, personal style of transportation offered by the automobile does not really liberate anyone from the true costs of travel.  [p. 60]


The second example is quite different. Before the second World War, the eminent geographer Sir Dudley Stamp completed a sweeping Land Utilisation Survey of Britain, in which he and his staff mapped the way in which the British landscape was partitioned among various categories of urban, suburban, and rural use. What this survey revealed was a sorry record of land misuse and disuse:  [….]  In consequence of these findings, Stamp helped prepare a corrective mechanism, a system of national land- use planning that was embodied in the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947.  [p. 61]


We are only interested in the end result—what has happened to the land. After the end- product analysis has been performed, there may well be de- bate about its implications for the future. Some will prefer to try to modify and improve planning in the light of what we have learned from the analysis. Others, myself included, are tired of the endless promises and excuses forthcoming from the humanist camp. They always sound so plausible and reasonable — indeed they are reasonable: “Just give us a little more time; we have figured out what we were doing wrong.” What they haven’t figured out, of course, is what they will do wrong the next time.  With respect to planning, I fear that no amount or quality of it can ever compensate for the inevitable damage wrought by a self-destructive society and a diseased way of life.  [p. 63]



….  Real history is not theoretically predictable, ex- cept in the very short term and in the most trivial cases. And even then, nothing is certain. As the late economist E. F. Schumacher wrote:

The real world . . . is not a deterministic system; we may be able to talk with certainty about acts or events of the past … but we can do so about future events only on the basis of assumptions…. It must be clear that, change being a function of time, the longer term future is even less predictable than the short-term. In fact, all long-term forecasting is somewhat presumptuous and absurd, unless it is of so general a kind that it merely states the obvious.

Schumacher based his argument largely on the unpredictable quality of individual human decisions, which is equivalent to the idea of human freedom. What he said may well be correct, but human freedom — a red flag to some — need not even enter the discussion.


So far, the themes that have emerged in this section on the control of mind and behavior can be summed in a single word, arrogance. The claims of predicting the unpredictable and of knowing the unknowable, the absolute faith in procedures whose end-results can never be comprehended — these things appear repeatedly.  [p. 77]



The arrogance that forms such an important part of our atti- tude towards the control of mind and behavior is manifested again, as we have seen in the preceding chapter, in the beliefs we hold concerning our power over our bodies.  [pp. 82-83]


The cold truth is that our bionic devices and spare parts can never be the equals of the organs they are meant to replace. Evolution, wasteful and haphazard as it is, has had three billion years in which to match organisms to their environ- ments. This does not mean that we are perfect as a result. It does mean, however, that it would be very difficult in practice to make fundamental changes in our bodies that would better equip us for what we consider life as a human to be. The evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr once wrote in connection with the subject of macro-mutations: “Giving a thrush the wings of a falcon does not make it a better flier. Indeed, having all the other equipment of a thrush, it would probably hardly be able to fly at all.” [p. 86]


Tranquilizers also have their uses, especially in the treatment of serious mental disease.  [p. 88]


Even the name we have assigned to these compounds — tranquilizer — is both a sign of our arrogance and a proof that this arrogance is not warranted. As the cell biologist Paul Weiss has pointed out, we tend to invent names to mask our ignorance, and in doing so pretend that we understand certain “isolated” events which, in fact, are part of a vastly larger system which we do not comprehend. In other words, we give our discoveries and inventions names that have a sweeping generality and convey an aura of power in order to hide what Weiss calls “the amputations which we have allowed to be perpetrated on the organic wholeness . . . of nature and of our thinking about nature.” These names Weiss calls “anthropomorphic gremlins. . . . demigods, like those in antiquity, doing the jobs we do not understand.” Weiss was not referring to the word “tranquilizer,” but the point is the same regardless: our humanistic ears do not like the sounds of words that imply weakness, ignorance, or uncertainty. Thus the words we choose to describe our discoveries and inventions are them.  [p. 89]


It is time, perhaps, for me to set down two “laws” of my own invention. Poor sorts of laws in a scientific sense, for I cannot prove them. But I believe them to be true, because I know them to be supported by the human experience of the last few centuries, especially the twentieth.

1. Most scientific discoveries and technological inventions can be developed in such a way that they are capable of doing great damage to human beings, their cultures, and their environments.

2. If a discovery or a technology can be used for evil purposes, it will be so used.

In addition to these two laws, which I will return to in my discussion of our arrogance towards the environment, the subject of gene transfer has introduced another topic that will recur again — the irreversibility of some of our actions, a topic whose gravity can never be exaggerated, although it is too often ignored.

Finally, it should be stressed that all scientists who have ex- pressed concern about gene transfer experiments have gone beyond a narrow preoccupation with human health.  [p. 97]


In this section we have encountered contemporary ideas of conquering death and related ideas of perfecting life. A great deal has indeed been learned by humanity since the days of Bishop Ussher. That cannot be gainsaid. Yet this new knowledge, which has revealed to us vast horizons beyond horizons of unsuspected ignorance, has done little more than convince us of our cleverness. Ironically, it has also given us a new Devil to replace the old one who, in Christianity at least, could be blamed for our imperfections. For our arrogance about what we think we know and what we think we can do has made it impossible for us to accept or deal any longer with the unknowable and the undoable. Once, it was taken for granted that we were neither omniscient nor omnipotent — the old religions, whatever their faults, helped us to accept this imperfect state as a condition of earthly life. The humanist assumptions now keep us from this acceptance, for it would be a denial of them. But the assumptions are challenged by a contradictory reality every day; we all experience this. Thus the unknowable and the undoable become the Devil, something within us that we must make external, and a potent source of anxiety and terror.  [pp. 98-99]

People and Machines

… increasingly, humans are coming to value the abilities of their machines more highly than their own. This was most evident in the section “Body,” as the result of a deep dissatisfaction with our physical selves, but it is clear that even though we have a better regard for our mental abilities, there is a general feeling that potentially, if not actually, computers are faster, more efficient, more objective, and more accurate than we are in performing some of the most important functions of the mind.  [p. 99]


The final stage in the evolution of the humanistic people- machine relationship might be called “the stage of excuses.” By this time it has become perfectly obvious that machines, even sophisticated ones, are terribly inadequate to perform many tasks that humans used to do quite well, albeit in a different way. So excuses are found to explain the poor performance of the machine-idols. The most common excuse is “human error”; it is invoked most frequently, perhaps, when humans participate in complex systems that involve computers. Its object is to show that the machines in the system are no source of problems and limitations — just innocent bystanders and witnesses to the imperfections of human beings. [p. 101]



The most spectacular failures of human control and negations of human omniscience have been manifested in our dealings with the many human environments. In no important instance have we been able to demonstrate comprehensive, successful management of our world, nor do we understand it well enough to be able to manage it in theory. Only in those few cases in which small, remote systems could, in effect, be treated as if they were isolated, have management and control worked at all; but one cannot run an entire world this way.  [pp. 104-105]


The examples of the Chartres windows and solar-powered pumping illustrate a new general principle, which has been called by Eugene Schwartz the principle of “quasi-solutions and residue problems.” Quasi-solutions are solutions to problems defined within an artificially restricted context, and residue problems are those that result from the application of quasi-solutions. In his book Overskill, Schwartz writes:

The dialectical process whereby a solution to one problem generates sets of new problems that eventually preclude solutions is summarized in the five steps of techno-social development.

1. Because of the interrelationships and limitations existing within a closed system, a techno-social solution is never complete and hence is a quasi-solution.

2. Each quasi-solution generates a residue of new technosocial problems arising from: (a) incompleteness, (b) augmentation, and (c) secondary effects.

3. The new problems proliferate at a faster rate than solutions can be found to meet them.

4. Each successive set of residue problems is more difficult to solve than predecessor problems because of seven factors: (a) dynamics of technology, (b) increased complexity, (c) increased cost, (d) decreased resources, (e) growth and expansion, (f) requirements for greater control, and (g) inertia of Social institutions.

5. The residue of unsolved techno-social problems converge in an. advanced technological society to a point where technosocial solutions are no longer possible.  [p. 107]


The best time for asking the important questions, for doing an end-product analysis, is before any of the quasi-solutions have been initiated.  [p. 108]

The remarkable concatenation of undesirable events that has followed large-scale agricultural irrigation provides a glimpse of the incredible complexity of residue problems that result from each technological quasi-solution. The initial “problem” to be solved is the need for large, assured supplies of water to meet the demands of modern agriculture. This water is necessary for many reasons, but especially to dissolve fertilizer and wash it into the soil, to sustain modern crops that are productive but not very hardy, and to allow drought-sensitive crops to grow in places where they could not ordinarily survive.  [pp. 108-109]


As many of my readers will realize, the original problem in this sequence — the need for irrigation water — is itself but one of many residue problems in a larger sequence that embraces all of modern agriculture and its arrogant, humanistic premises. Nevertheless, although my catalog is incomplete, this ever-growing morass of problems, solutions, and yet more problems is a typical one, and is sufficient to illustrate the process.  [p. 110]


…. In 1947, John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern showed that it is mathematically impossible to maximize more than one variable in an interlinked system at a given time. Adjust one variable to its maximum con- dition and the freedom to do the same with the others is lost—in non-mathematical terms, you cannot make everything “best” simultaneously. Although the biologist Garrett Hardin wrote in 1968 about the wider implications of this theorem, they are only now beginning to be appreciated. [p. 112]


And of course Nature is anything but simple. Thus at a higher level of analysis the problem of the humanist’s restricted context and the problem of simultaneous maximization of variables can be seen to merge. The result is devastating to the myth of power and control. 

Beyond the quasi-solutions and residue problems, beyond the problems of narrowed contexts and too many variables, there are certain ecological realities that impose additional, albeit sometimes overlapping, constraints on our exercise of power. The most direct of these is that few biological systems in the world, either individual organisms or groups of organisms, have evolved any mechanisms for coping with large, surplus inputs of concentrated energy in their immediate environments, energies of the sort that man now has readily at his disposal. [p. 113]


A second ecological constraint is time. Natural plant and animal communities change their structures and species compositions over time — the process is known as succession. We can modify the process, derail it, but we can hardly ever accelerate it in a predictable way.  [p. 114]


Irreversibility is the third ecological constraint. It seems difficult for the humanist mind to grasp the significance of the many irreversible processes that we have stirred up in living systems; the tendency is to deny that anything so final, so thoroughly beyond our control, can occur. But we are causing irreversible changes all the time.  [p. 115]


The grand delusion of our “space age” is that we can escape the earthly consequences of our arrogance by leaving the mother planet either for little ersatz worlds of our own making or for distant celestial bodies, some of them as yet undiscovered. This is an immature and irresponsible idea, that having fouled this world with our inventions, we will somehow do better in other orbits. However, if one sees humanism for what it is, a religion without God, then the idea is not so strange: space with its space stations and space inhabitants is just a replacement for heaven with its angels.  [p. 120]


I have not in this chapter examined in any depth the techniques of self-deception that are in common use to support the humanistic assumptions. These techniques include: the use of mathematical models that make their own inappropriate assumptions (of linearity, of generality, of continuity, of importance values, of randomness, etc.); the clever methods of extrapolation from a poorly described present to an unknow- able future; the elaborate statistical ways of weighting or ignoring or accentuating evidence in order to preserve an appearance of objectivity while arranging the desired answer; the crediting or discrediting of certain classes of perception, and many others. They would merit an entire book and not one that I could write. Instead, I have relied on the idea of end-product analysis, which is to say that I think it is fair to judge a process by its results even when one does not understand all of the intrinsic theory, mechanisms, and defects involved. In fact, when we are dealing with our own future, it is not only fair but necessary.

On the basis of these end-product analyses I have concluded that the humanistic assumptions are wrong, that there are limits to the knowledge and power that human beings can muster for any purpose. As the references to these limits have been scattered throughout this chapter, I think it worthwhile to gather them together in one place.  [p. 125]

First, there are the limits imposed by our inability to know the future, to make accurate long-range predictions. This is a theoretical and unalterable limit based on the great complexity and uncertainty of the interacting events that will deter mine the future, and on the catalytic influence on the future of seemingly minute and trivial happenings in the present.  [pp. 125-126]

Second, there are limits imposed by the consequences of prior failures of our assumptions of control — these take the form of the expanding waves of quasi-solutions and residue problems described by Eugene Schwartz, all hastening the time of a final paralysis and collapse of further efforts to keep the situation under a facsimile of control.

Third, there is the limit, an especially frustrating one, that is described by the maximization theory of von Neumann and Morgenstern, which says in effect that in a complex world we cannot work everything out for the best simultaneously. This third limit is why evolution has proven more reliable than our substitutes for it. Evolution is slow and wasteful, but it has resulted in an infinity of working, flexible compromises, whose success is constantly tested by life itself. Evolution is in large measure cumulative, and has been running three billion years longer than our current efforts. Our most glittering improvements over Nature are too often a fool’s solution to a problem that has been isolated from context, a transient, local maximization that is bound to be followed by mostly undesirable counter-adjustments throughout the system.

Fourth is the limit inherent in what I have earlier called the uncertainty principle (because of its purely analogous but suggestive resemblance to the uncertainty principle of physics). This is the notion that our ability to seek technical solutions to certain kinds of problems grows along with our capacity to augment and multiply these kinds of problems — that we do not solve problems as we acquire new technologies because new technologies simultaneously make our problems worse.  [p. 126]

There are other limits which I have only hinted at: those imposed by vanishing resources and by the exhaustion of the capacity of ecological systems to withstand excessive interference without radical change or disintegration. Finally, there is the perversion of our control technologies to evil purposes, which I have briefly characterized in my two “laws” of science and technology, and which limits by virtue of its ultimate destructiveness.  [p. 126-127]


There has been no space devoted to praising human creativity in this chapter, and that will bother many who are accustomed to the usual humanistic habit of self-congratulation. I have no desire to present an entirely sour view of humankind or to leave the impression that I believe all of our recent works are utter failures. But the successes are isolated and run counter to the trend, and they are adequately celebrated in a myriad of other books by other authors. It is now more important to remind the world of our failures, and if we succeed in this, there will be time later for appropriate pride.  [p. 128]


4. Emotion and Reason

It is extremely difficult to trap or poison wild Norway rats. Traps, no matter how skillfully laid and attractively baited, are avoided. Poisons, even when concealed in foods that appeal to rats, may be left untasted for a week or more before receiving the first, cautious, sub-lethal nibble. This characteristic of Rattus norvegicus is just: one of many reasons why rats have fared so well as pests of men and co-inhabitants of human cities, leaving their ancestral Asiatic stream banks, or wherever they originated, and accompanying man around the world.

[….] Rats have an innate distrust of anything new in their environment. When this occurs in human beings it is called superstition or emotion, and is characterized by its lack of an immediate, rational relationship to the object of the behavior. So it is with rats.  [p. 133]


Not all rats are the same in their behavior; some are considerably bolder than their fellows. Calhoun and others have noticed that these bold rats tend to be socially low-ranking; they are the subordinate and defective members of rat society.  [….]  As might be expected, it is the socially inferior rats that are most likely to be caught in traps. Why low-ranking animals lack the usual rat suspiciousness is not known.  [….] A fit rat is an untrusting, conservative, and suspicious rat. A bold rat who makes judgments based on an individual consideration of the immediate appearances of each situation is a dead rat.

This last point is important to note, because rats do have a certain capacity to solve problems, a certain reasoning ability.  [p. 134]


… rats, in addition to possessing a problem-solving capacity, have another potent, inborn protection against many hazards, including those posed by humans, the thinking animals.  [p. 135]

This inborn protection, the behavior already described, is too complex to merit a simple name, depending as it does on many parts of the sensory, central nervous, and endocrine systems. But things that are to be written about must have names, so I have grouped these protective reactions under the heading “emotions.” This is a poor name, because emotion is in bad odor in modern society, and also because it does not indicate the services provided to the organism by the complex of reactions that it represents. Joseph Altman subdivides what I am calling the emotional level of mental activity into three classes:

First, there is the maintenance of the general activity level of the organism. This is partly rhythmic, as in the regular alternation of sleep and wakefulness. There is also the regulation of relaxation and awareness which occurs at all times during the wakeful period.

Second are the behaviors that satisfy the needs and appetites of an animal — for food, sex, and the exercise of parental care.

Third, and most important for our purposes, are the usually social activities that are “concerned with the safeguarding of the integrity of the individual.” These include defense (of one’s self, one’s territory, and one’s family), aggression, and formation of social relationships. It would be hard to exaggerate the complexity and size of this category, or its importance in daily life.

Thus the emotions keep vertebrate animals, including humans, alert or easily alerted, wary of danger, responsive to hostility or friendship, and sensitive to internal bodily needs. They are the mechanism that Nature has given us for fitting ourselves into our world. If we could voluntarily abandon them we would not survive; nor does pretending to abandon them serve us much better ….  [p. 136]


In his chilling and gloomy book Posthistoric Man, Seidenberg begins by describing the rise of the rational part of humans, a process which he believes occurred at the expense of the emotional part (he calls the latter “instincts”).  [p. 138]


[….]  Organization, to Seidenberg, is the rationally derived form and structure that we impose on our multifarious life processes. It is apparent in all spheres of life: business, sports, art, agriculture, education, transportation, and government. It is a series of formally defined, “consciously contrived relationships … dictated by the essential logic of intelligence,” a way of “marshaling means toward focused ends.” Organization “abhors chaos” and converts it into order; it is “an ever expanding trellis, along which civilization expands and develops.” The model for organization is the machine, but that is a static model—the dynamic spread of organization is better de- scribed by a different analogy, the inexorable propagation of ice crystals as water is progressively chilled below the freezing point.  [p. 139]


Seidenberg’s analysis is profound, but his prophecy will not come to pass. His basic errors are simple—he under-rates the usefulness, the durability, the necessity of emotion or “instinct” while ignoring the weaknesses of reason and the limitations of organization. As is the case whenever these mistakes are made, he has both left the environment entirely out of his calculations and has distorted what remains. These are common errors, and they generally occur in association with each other. Oddly enough, one encounters them among both the champions of reason and those who have their doubts.  [….]


What has blinded Seidenberg is the now-familiar arrogance of the humanistic assumptions.  [p. 140]


It never pays to forget, even for an instant, the interactive nature of evolution. For all its inflexibility, inefficiency, and apparent crudeness, our emotional system developed under very prolonged conditions of constant testing in real-life situations. Not so with reason, which from the beginning of the humanistic age moved too fast to be tested, and later made a boast and a virtue of this unfortunate circumstance. We have never been able to slow down long enough to see whether our rational inventions and methods of control would survive the test of long-term use in the real world.  [p. 142]

Typical of the contemporary position taken by the leaders of rational humanism is an article entitled “The Goals of Science,” by Salvador Luria, the Nobel prize-winning biologist. After dismissing much of the criticism of the genetic recombination studies as “mystical,” while admitting that science and scientists have caused many problems in the modern world, Luria offers his solution.  [….]   [p. 143]


Like many scientists, Luria is not averse to using unproven and possibly false assumptions, provided that they are not directly mentioned. There are at least three in this sentence. First is the assumption that we can create a world fit for future generations to live in—an odd conceit, considering that we have taken a world which was perfectly fit for human life (often beautiful, although frequently unpleasant and harsh) and turned it into a world that by either rational or emotional criteria is unfit (opulent for some, stressful, inhumane, and lacking peace for nearly all, and offering multiple threats of vast and terrible destruction). Second, there is the assumption that we can achieve a degree of precision in our understanding of “all interactions within our own body cells.” And third, the enigmatic assumption that this improbable understanding would make the world fit to live in.  [pp. 143-144]


… our real problems occur when emotion (both constructive and destructive) is denied, and is therefore never subjected to the selecting and sorting that rational analysis can provide, and conversely, when these selected, better parts of emotion are unavailable to help us choose which of many rational alternatives is the right one.  [pp. 145-146]

By concentrating on one part of human nature, reason, at the expense of the other, we do ourselves a disservice. It is like telling ourselves that true health can be achieved if we become voluntary cripples. Nor, I think, is it strange that this sort of advocacy, which is common enough these days, has the inevitable effect of sanctioning business as usual among the humanistic logic and power cult.  [p. 146]


The philosopher Hubert Dreyfus has written a fine critique of Artificial Intelligence; his book is entitled What Computers Can’t Do, and it can serve briefly as our guide to this highly technical field.  [….]

Commenting on the characteristic optimistic expectations and exaggerated claims of Artificial Intelligence, Dreyfus says that “[these] predictions fall into place as just another example of the phenomenon which Bar-Hillel has called the ‘fallacy of the successful first step.'” In the case of language translation, for example, he points out that after certain crude successes there have been no real breakthroughs, nor are any to be expected.  [p. 149]


The critical element in this latest in a long list of tortures is reason, which itself is the critical element in all communist theory. Indeed, communism is at heart intensely humanistic, for it contains the central idea that rational planning can alter any pre-existing condition of man. When a nation lives with this kind of nonsense for half a century, it is only natural that its leaders should acquire a utilitarian and dissociated approach to reason.  [p. 152]


Up to this point, except for a brief discussion of rats, I have been mostly concerned with the inadequacy of reason alone, and with the persistence of emotion despite the efforts to make it go away. What of the positive side, the usefulness of emo-tion? There is a tendency to believe that whereas emotion was useful in simpler and more primitive times, it is of no value when confronted with the complexities of modern organized and technological life. That would be correct if we expected emotion to cope on organization’s terms, but this is not what we should desire. Emotion must interact with reason on its own terms: the terms of unrestricted contexts, broad integrated views, and an emphasis on overall reality rather than on methods, short-term objectives, technical details, and contrived goals for closed systems that do not exist. When employed in this fashion, emotion is an essential part of modern decision-making, inseparable from reason because it supplies what reason does not have. Dispensing with emotion because it is not rational is like rejecting one’s lungs because they do not formulate thoughts. [pp. 153-154]

The best example of the value of emotion in contemporary life concerns the debate over the safety of nuclear reactors.  [p. 154]


Not only is nuclear energy an unknown, but it is a powerful unknown: powerful in terms of the absolute magnitude of its actual and potential effects; powerful in terms of the pervasiveness of these effects; powerful in terms of the duration of its effects and its activity; and powerful in the sense of the secrecy of its action (radioactivity is not seen, srnelled, or touched, and one or two generations must pass before the cancers and genetic defects that it can cause begin to be noted). This power only enhances our fear of the unknown, and again we are right to be afraid. In the previous chapter I characterized as a new humanist Devil the fear of admitting the existence of the unknowable. But the unknowable does exist, and rather than squander our emotions on anxious denials of the obvious, it is better to put the fear to some good use. It is necessary to admit that some things are beyond our knowledge, and when fear of these things seems appropriate, we should fear them—directly and openly.  [p. 162]


Emotion is necessary and more sensitive in situations with a wider context. Emotion is an integration and summarization phenomenon: for instance, it tells us things about unemployment that are beyond the grasp of the census bureau. The example of the Rasmussen Report confirms that this is not a know-nothing attitude; there are realms beyond the realm of reason, and their proper designation is “a-rational” rather than “irrational.” Near the end of the Rasmussen Report there is a section entitled “Realism Versus Conservatism.” I think it is fair to say that what this kind of “realism” means is a restriction of the horizons of inquiry to the point where reason alone can be made to ap- pear sufficient to provide all the answers. This is neither realistic nor safe.  [p. 163]

[….]  In Africa, according to the ecologist D. F. Owen, there is often considerable reluctance among peasant farmers in the tropical zone to do much weeding of their fields or even to make an effort to remove conspicuous insect pests from their crops. This attitude persists in the face of all rational arguments to the contrary.  [pp. 163-164]


But it is well to note that if one questions an African peasant farmer about his or her reasons for not practicing pest and weed control, the answer is more likely to be a feeling that it is unnecessary — not a list of observations and their associated logical deductions.  [p. 165]


Throughout this chapter I have concentrated on the dichotomy between the two elements of mind, because of the exaggeration of the split by humanism, with its fear of emotion and crazy worship of reason. It is a real dichotomy, and conflict will always be a part of our nature, but a peaceful synthesis is also possible at times, and must be nurtured, encouraged, and practiced — if only as an act of self-preservation.

One of the greatest spokesmen for synthesis is Robert Pirsig, whose book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a profoundly moving plea to restore emotion to its rightful place in the duarchy. Although the terms he uses — the “romantic” and “classical” traditions — are different than my “emotion” and “reason,” I believe that we are referring to the same basic entities. Pirsig traces the rejection of the romantic part of human endeavor back to the early days of recorded Western thought — to Plato, who first suggested separating and elevating the classic tradition, and to Aristotle, who consolidated, entrenched, and formalized classicism while completing the rejection and discrediting of the romantic spirit.  [p. 170]


It is common in contemporary humanist writing to find that a good deal of lip service is paid to the value of “emotion,” “compassion,” “human needs,” “vision,” and the like, but somehow reason always emerges as the dominant force in any humanist world view. This is not the road to synthesis. For a working synthesis can only be achieved if we make a continuous conscious effort to purge our thoughts and behavior of all traces of condescension towards the non-rational part of our nature. Emotion is a vital part of life—anger, love, fear, happiness—part of the essence of daily existence, part of our birthright which we have paid for with countless deaths and tragedies over the course of aeons. In full partnership with emotion, reason has at least a chance to help us survive. Without it, none.  [p. 174]


5. The Conservation Dilemma

The cult of reason and the modern version of the doctrine of final causes interact within the humanist milieu to bolster one another; one result is that those parts of the natural world that are not known to be useful to us are considered worthless unless some previously unsuspected value is discovered. Nature, in Clarence Glacken’s words, is seen as “a gigantic toolshed,” and this is an accurate metaphor because it implies that everything that is not a tool or a raw material is probably refuse. This attitude, nearly universal in our time, creates a terrible dilemma for the conservationist or for anyone who believes of Nature, as Goethe did, that “each of her creations has its own being, each represents a special concept, yet together they are one.” The difficulty is that the humanistic world accepts the conservation of Nature only piecemeal and at a price: there must be a logical, practical reason for saving each and every part of the natural world that we wish to preserve. And the dilemma arises on the increasingly frequent occasions when we encounter a threatened part of Nature but can find no rational reason for keeping it.  [p. 177]

Conservation is usually identified with the preservation of natural resources. This was certainly the meaning of conservation intended by Gifford Pinchot, founder of the national forest system in the United States, who first put the word in common use. Resources can be defined very narrowly as reserves of commodities that have an appreciable money value to people, either directly or indirectly. Since the time that Pinchot first used the word, it has been seriously overworked. A steadily increasing percentage of “conservationists” has been preoccu- pied with preservation of natural features—animal and plant species, communities of species, and entire ecological systems — that are not conventional resources, although they may not admit this.  [pp. 177-178]


Economic Values for Non-resources

The values attributed to non-resources are diverse and some- times rather contrived; hence the difficulty of trying to con- dense them into a list. In my efforts I have relied, in part, on the thoughtful analyses provided by G. A. Lieberman, J. W. Humke, and other members of the U.S. Nature Conservancy. All values listed below can be assigned a monetary value and thus become commensurable with ordinary goods and services—although in some cases it would require a good deal of ingenuity to do this. All are anthropocentric values.

1. Recreational and esthetic values. This is one of the most popular types of value to assign to non-resources, because although frequently quite legitimate, it is also easily fudged.  [….] [p. 179]


2. Undiscovered or undeveloped values. In 1975 it was reported that the oil of the jojoba bean, Simmondsia chinensis, is very similar in its special physical properties to oil from the threatened sperm whale. Overnight, this desert shrub of the American Southwest was converted from the status of a minor to that of a major resource. It can safely be assumed that many other species of hitherto obscure plants and animals have great potential value as bona fide resources once this potential is discovered or developed. Plants are probably the most numerous members of this category ….

Animals have potential resource uses that parallel those of plants, but this potential is being developed at an even slower rate. The possibilities for domestication and large-scale breeding of the South American vicuna, the source of one of the finest animal fibers in the world, were only recognized after its commercial extinction in the wild had become imminent.  [….] [p. 181]


3. Ecosystem stabilization values. This item is at the heart of a difficult controversy that has arisen over the ecological theory of conservation, a controversy based on a semi-popular scientific idea that has been well expressed by Barry Commoner:

The amount of stress which an ecosystem can absorb before it is driven to collapse is also a result of its various interconnections and their relative speeds of response. The more complex the ecosystem, the more successfully it can resist a stress ….  [p. 183]


4. Value as examples of survival. Plant and animal communities, and to a lesser extent single species, can have a value as examples or models of long-term survival. J. W. Humke has observed, “Most natural systems have been working in essentially their present form for many thousands of years. On the other hand, greatly modified, man-dominated systems have not worked very reliably in the past and, in significant respects, do not do so at present.” The economic value here is indirect, consisting of problems averted (money saved) by virtue of good initial design of human-dominated systems or repair of faulty ones based on features abstracted from natural systems. This viewpoint is becoming increasingly popular as disillusionment with the results of traditional planning grows.  [p. 184]


5. Environmental baseline and monitoring values. The fluctuation of animal or plant population sizes, the status of their organs or by-products, or the mere presence or absence of a given species or group of species in a particular environment can be used to define normal or “baseline” environmental con- ditions and to determine the degree to which communities have been affected by extraordinary outside influences such as pollution or man-made habitat alteration. Biological functions such as the diversity of species in a particular location when studied over a period of years are the best possible indicators of the meaningful effects of pollution, just as the behavior of an animal is the best single indicator of the health of its nervous and musculo-skeletal systems. Species diversity is a resul- tant of all forces that impinge on ecosystems. It performs an automatic end-product analysis. It should also be noted that the traditional economic value of a species is of no significance in determining its usefulness as an environmental indicator—an important point if we are concerned with the metamorphosis of non-resources into resources.  [….] [pp. 184-185]


6. Scientific research values. Many creatures that are otherwise economically negligible have some unique or special characteristic that makes them extremely valuable to research scientists. Because of their relationship to humans, orangutans, chimpanzees, monkeys, and even the lower primates fall into this category.  [p. 186]


7. Teaching values. The teaching value of an intact ecosystem may be calculated indirectly by noting the economic value of land-use alternatives that it is allowed to displace. For example, a university administration may preserve a teaching forest on campus if the competing use is as an extra parking lot for maintenance equipment, but it may not be so disposed towards conservation if the forest land is wanted for a new administrative center. This establishes the teaching “value” of the forest to the administration.   [p. 186]


8. Habitat reconstruction values. Natural systems are far too complex for their elements and functional relationships to be fully described or recorded. Nor can we genetically reconstitute species once they have been wiped out. Consequently, if we wish to restore or rebuild an ecosystem in what was once its habitat, we need a living, unharmed ecosystem of that type to serve as both a working model and a source of living components.  [p. 187]


9. Conservative value: avoidance of irreversible change. This is a general restatement of a basic fear underlying every other item on this list; sooner or later it turns up in all discussions about saving non-resources. It expresses the conservative be- lief that man-made, irreversible change in the natural order — the loss of a species or natural community — may carry a hid- den and unknowable risk of serious damage to humans and their civilizations. Preserve the full range of natural diversity because we do not know the aspects of that diversity upon which our long-term survival depends.  [p. 187-188]


Exaggerations and Distortions

The preceding list contains most if not all of the reasons that a humanistic society has contrived to justify the piecemeal conservation of things in Nature that do not, at first, appear to be worth anything to us. As such, they are all rationalizations— often truthful rationalizations to be sure, but rationalizations nonetheless. And rationalizations being what they are, they are usually readily detected by nearly everyone and tend not to be very convincing, regardless of their truthfulness.  [pp. 188-189]


In a capitalist society, any private individual or corporation who treated non-resources as if they were resources would probably go bankrupt at about the time of receiving the first medal for outstanding public service. In a socialist society, the result would be non-fulfillment of growth quotas, which can be as unpleasant as bankruptcy from a personal standpoint. People are not ready to call something a resource because of long-term considerations or statistical probabilities that it might be.  [p. 189]


Thus the conservation dilemma is exposed: humanists will not normally be interested in saving any non-resource, any fragment of Nature that is not manifestly useful to humankind, and the various reasons advanced to demonstrate that these non-resources really are useful or potentially valuable are not likely to be convincing even when they are truthful and correct. When everything is called a resource, the word loses all meaning— at least in a humanist value system.  [p.  192]


As May and others perceived, the diversity-stability hypothesis, in the restricted sense described here, was a case of inverted cause and effect. The most diverse communities were usually those that had occupied the most stable environments for the longest periods of time. They were dependent on a stable environment — not the reverse. They did not necessarily produce the kind of short-term, internal stability that Margalef had assumed to exist. The moral of this story underscores the poignancy of the conservation dilemma. In our eagerness to demonstrate a humanistic “value” for the magnificent, diverse, “mature” ecosystems of the world—the tropical rain and cloud forests, the coral reefs, the temperate zone deserts, and so on — we stressed the role they were playing in immediate stabilization of their own environments (including their own component populations) against the pollution and other disruptive by-products of modern civilization. This was a partial distortion that not only caused less attention to be paid to the real, transcendent, long-term values of these ecosystems, but also helped to obscure, for a while, their extreme fragility in the face of human “progress.”  [pp. 196-197]


I want to emphasize here that the purpose of this chapter is a restricted one: to demonstrate how the ubiquitous humanist assumptions taint and damage the efforts even of those who are busy fighting the environmental consequences of modern humanism, and to identify the honest, the durable, the non- humanist reasons for saving Nature. This does not mean that I reject resource arguments when they are valid. The Amazonian rain forest, the green turtle, and many other forms of life are indeed resources; they contribute heavily to the maintenance of human well-being. The prospect of their loss is frightening to anyone with ecological knowledge, and it is not my aim to make it appear less so. But this is only one of the reasons for conservation, and it should not be applied carelessly, if only because of the likelihood of undermining its own effectiveness.

Additional Risks

Even when it is quite legitimate to find humanistic values for quondam non-resources, it may be risky, from a conservation viewpoint, to do so. What happens is that discovering a resource role for these once-valueless parts of Nature turns out to be a quasi-solution, and a crop of residue problems soon appears. The ecologists J. Gosselink, Eugene Odum, and their colleagues have conducted an investigation to discover the “value” of tidal marshes along the coast of the southeastern United States, which — despite its scientific elegance — can serve as an illustration of these risks.  [p. 200]


… finding a value for some part of Nature is no guarantee that it will be rational for us to preserve it—the reverse may hold. 

… the risks of even legitimate reassignment of non-resources as resources become quite plain, as do the risks of over-emphasizing the humanist cost-benefit approach in conserving even the more traditional and accepted resources. There is no true protection for Nature within the humanist system — the very idea is a contradiction in terms.

There is another risk in assigning resource value to non-resources: whenever “real” values are computed it becomes possible—even necessary—to rank the various parts of Nature for the unholy task of determining a priority of conservation. Because dollar values of the sort worked out for tidal marshes are not often available, other ranking methods have been devised. These are meant to be applied in a mechanical, objective fashion. [p. 202]

Non-economic Values

The attempt to preserve non-resources by finding economic value for them produces a double bind situation. Much of the value discovered for non-resources is indirect in the sense that it consists of avoiding costly problems that might otherwise appear if the non-resources were lost. This is the basis of the double bind. On the one hand, if the non-resource is destroyed and no disasters ensue, the conservation argument loses all capacity to inspire credence. On the other hand, if disaster does follow extinction of a supposed non-resource it may prove impossible to prove a connection between the two events.  [pp. 204-205]


The Noah Principle

The exponents of natural art have done us a great service, be- ing among the first to point out the unsatisfactory nature of some of the economic reasons advanced to support conservation. But something more is needed, something that is not dependent upon humanistic values. Charles S. Elton, one of the founders of ecology, has indicated another non-resource value, the ultimate reason for conservation and the only one that cannot be compromised:

The first [reason for conservation], which is not usually put first, is really religious. There are some millions of people in the world who think that animals have a right to exist and be left alone, or at any rate that they should not be persecuted or made extinct as species. Some people will believe this even when it is quite dangerous to themselves.  [p. 207]

This non-humanistic value of communities and species is the simplest of all to state: they should be conserved because they exist and because this existence is itself but the present expression of a continuing historical process of immense antiquity and majesty. Long-standing existence in Nature is deemed to carry with it the unimpeachable right to continued existence. Existence is the only criterion of the value of parts of Nature, and diminution of the number of existing things is the best measure of decrease of what we ought to value. This is, as mentioned, an ancient way of evaluating “conservability,” and by rights ought to be named the “Noah Principle” after the person who was one of the first to put it into practice.  [pp. 207-208]


I have tried to show in this chapter the devilish intricacy and cunning of the humanists’ trap. “Do you love Nature?” they ask. “Do you want to save it? Then tell us what it is good for.” The only way out of this kind of trap, if there is a way, is to smash it, to reject it utterly. This is the final realism; we will come to it sooner or later—if sooner, then with less pain.  [p. 210]


6. Misanthropy and the Rejection of Humanism

Criticisms of humanism are not new, although they have become uncommon in our time. Periods of human ferment and creativity have always provided opportunities for evil, which has its own inventive genius. And then a reaction occurs: “saintly and ascetic” preachers arise and flourish for a while, gaining popularity as they criticize not only the vices but also the creations of others, and as they prophesy doom. Such criticism is generally short-lived; the public cannot tolerate it for long, for this kind of self-denying reform soon becomes wearying, then boring, then irritating, and ultimately threatening. At this point, the anti-humanistic preachers are rejected, some- times with violence. But the situation does not then return to what it was before the preachers came, for society has been changed and passes into a new age, one in which the old conflicts may no longer be relevant.  [p. 215]


It is important to know when one is contaminating, to use Orwell’s word, a truthful, balanced vision of the world with an internal projection that satisfies some personal need but bears no other consistent relationship to external reality. Achieving this awareness is not an easy task, for a high level of cooperation between emotion and reason is required. The proper path is an extremely narrow one, with pitfalls on both sides.  [p. 218]


There are as many causes for contamination as there are motives for our behavior; it would be futile and tedious to attempt to catalog or even categorize them. But several examples will help to explain what the problem is.

The simplest contaminating motive is what Orwell called “wish-thinking.” In his “Notes on Nationalism” he observed that a nationalistic habit of thought, the tendency to identify with a particular group and to submerge oneself in that group, lends itself readily to a blurring of the distinction between nationalistic dreams and reality. One imagines that what one wants to happen is actually happening.  [p. 219]


Another motive for contamination results from an increasingly common feeling of baffled and impotent rage — that special rage of those who know that they are powerless to affect the forces that threaten them.  [p. 220]


A final source of contamination is suggested by Orwell’s comments in an essay entitled “Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver’s Travels.” Probing the ultimate madness of Swift and the near-madness of Tolstoy, he finds common elements that are, to me, reminiscent of part of the anti-humanist spirit. Involving a rejection of all human society, this part comes closer to true misanthropy than any I have yet named.  [p. 221]


One of the curious facts about the great prophets of doom, often overlooked, is that they were very frequently correct.  [p. 230]


7.  Beyond Humanism

Befoer reading this final chapter, I ask the reader to set aside the matter of optimism and pessimism. I have already noted that the familiar accusations of pessimism and defeatism (which are not the same) serve to protect humanists from a reality that they do not care to face. The motive for their constant insistence on being optimistic and “positive” is simply the converse of this; optimism is necessary for those who are attempting the impossible; they could not continue to function without it. But those who are not crippled by commitment to the humanistic assumptions will need no such crutches. We do not feel defeated even when we are pessimistic, because we do not really know what the future will bring, nor do we feel constrained to put a cheerful false front on any sagging dogmas. [p. 235]


On “Engineering” the Future

As my readers know, I think there is little or no chance that the humanists will be able to “engineer” a future. The present and past are our only guides to what the future may be like, and they give scant comfort to the humanist position.  [pp. 236-237]


It is a tenet of contemporary belief that technology, organization, and planning can be integrated and controlled in a way that will let us shape a desirable future.  [….] There are other mechanisms, however.

Perhaps the most important of these can be described by the single word ego. I use this word in an unsophisticated and non-technical way to describe the internal force that prompts most people to act in a self-aggrandizing manner much of the time, regardless of whether this behavior is at the expense of other people or at the expense of society itself. It is ego that is behind my “second law of science and technology.”  [p. 238]


The next mechanism might be called the fallacy of direction. Raymond Dasmann said it much better when he titled a book chapter “Nobody Is at the Wheel.” Of course nobody is at the wheel, because there isn’t any wheel, nor can there be. Yet we persist in believing that it exists—and that certain persons are busy setting some sort of course while a host of ghostly steersmen keep us off the shoals.  [p. 240]


Also among the mechanisms that make a mockery of progress is inertia. The humanists often speak of overcoming inertia, not realizing that inertia increases in proportion to the complexity of our invented institutions. The more specialized, compartmented, and intricate we make our society, the more difficult it is to make any fundamental or sweeping changes of a humanist sort.  [p. 241]


Another mechanism is the primacy of organizational goals. It is particularly noticeable in the case of large organizations such as multi-national corporations and governments, and is one of the most troublesome features of our humanistic society. In a sense, this is just a special case of the problem just mentioned—that because of the many special interests in the modern world, the “solutions” (in the humanistic sense) to any difficulty or the plans for any “designed” future are both numerous and conflicting. In this instance the conflict is between the needs of an organization and the needs of people both inside and outside the organization.  [p. 242]


I have already mentioned the mechanism that can be called the avoidance of unpleasant reality, and there is no necessity of elaborating. Needless to say, any society that aspires to rational control but does not want to hear about the results of that control is not likely to proceed far towards its goal.

Ignorance of the causes of problems is a mechanism that goes hand in hand with the previous one, for in addition to not wanting to hear bad news, there are certain kinds of bad news that can never be traced to their causes among the humanistic roster of inventions and interventions.  [….]

Humanism postulates a world that is totally redesigned and controlled by human beings; however there will always be some people who are destructive or insane while occupying positions of power. The more interlinked and organized the world becomes, the more vulnerable it will be to such disturbed persons, the more power they will have. Yet there is little that can be done about it in any fundamental sense — organization and interlinkage are absolutely essential to the spread of humanism and our dreams of dominion, a fact which is exploited every day by revolutionaries, who occupy a different position of power.  [p. 243]

The inevitable presence of destructive people is complemented by the rapidly increasing numbers and powers of destructive forces that are available to them. Here is another paradox of humanism: it depends on invention and organization for its illusion of control, and yet it also is constantly developing new methods of destroying inventions and organizations (not to mention human beings).  [pp. 243-244]


One of the principal mechanisms working against our control of ourselves and the environment is, paradoxically, one of humanism’s proudest discoveries, the idea of efficiency. Originally a manufacturing concept, it has now spread into every realm of modern life, and is doing great damage. Being so intimately related to the ideal of mechanical perfection, efficiency comes as close as possible to humanism’s notion of “the good.” And a sorry good it is.  [p. 244]


The humanist mind loves efficiency because it appears to be completely defined, completely logical and analytical. This appearance, however, has been achieved at the sacrifice of context, until in many cases there is no context left at all. When only efficiency is considered important, end-product analysis becomes impossible.  [p. 245]


The last of the mechanisms that I have seen working to prevent a humanist future from happening stems from the structure of organization itself. Organization, as I have said, is the humanists’ main tool for controlling the world. The more things there are that we want to be managed, designed, produced, or corrected, the more organization is needed to direct these operations. This, inevitably, leads to a proliferation of administrators, people whose job it is to manage and direct organizations. And these administrators, whatever they are doing, are not producing what Schumacher called the goods and services necessary to a becoming existence. They are a burden upon the real producers in society ….  [p. 247]


Here at the conclusion of this catalog of anti-humanist mechanisms that humanism itself has created or enhanced, I come back again to the most important item, ego. I have tried to show why the humanist approach to life must break down, and have set forth the mechanisms for this reason, but while considering them something else has become plain. Not only do the mechanisms explain why the modern humanist promises must fail, but one of them explains why humanists, even knowing these things, will be unable to give up the assumptions, the dreams of power. We will not give them up because we cannot — our egos prevent us.  [p. 248]


The Politics of Anti-humanism

… certain political philosophies are so excessively humanistic in outlook that they deserve comment.

The most openly and avowedly humanistic philosophies are the liberal group, which includes all forms of communism, socialism, and moderate liberalism.  [p. 249]


The most conspicuous case is the welfare system, which has unintentionally played its part in depopulating the rural countryside, destroying the cities, increasing racism and violence, and in general lowering the welfare of nearly everybody. Now a new welfare plan will come along, with its humanistically conceived methods of solving these terrible problems in one grand scheme according to one imagined future, and we can only wait to see what unexpected and probably awful results will follow next.  [pp. 250-251]


The opponent of humanism is also opposed to modern conservative economics, which is the ne plus ultra of humanist arrogance, operating as it does in an artificially defined context which excludes as trivial or beneath contempt any consideration that cannot be translated into the crude and simplistic language of economics. The opponent of humanism is not ensnared by or subject to the dream of power. The opponent of humanism believes in limiting the pretensions of reason by first using it without prejudice to evaluate the consequences of our own actions. The opponent of humanism knows that when evil results from human discovery it is usually because of unforeseen circumstances rather than wicked intent. The opponent of humanism dislikes and fears large organizations whose purpose is control. The opponent of humanism deplores any form of lack of consideration for the environment. Thus if we are not political allies of the liberal group, neither are we congenial associates of the political right wing, nor for that matter of the orthodox center. We have not found a popular political philosophy which has the answer.  [pp. 252-253]


All major political philosophies are humanistic, and with the abrupt and terrifying breakdown of humanism that we are experiencing, all are now outmoded. New cleavages and new alliances are coming. Our parents’ conflicts will be moot and forgotten. The new lines of political battle will array clerics against clerics, Marxists against Marxists, and capitalists against capitalists. Old ideas, reawakened by new circumstances, will return to shake the earth.  [p. 254]


Expectations and Options

… one does not have to be a futurologist to see into the immediate future, and one can abandon long-range strategy without giving up tactics.

…. The main difficulty that we are now facing is not the emergence of a few monolithic superstates; it is the spectacle of global waste and destruction that are occurring in the last great selfish denial of human limitations. We are all participants in a horrible race between destruction and preservation. Destruction has the power of death, which is final and irrevocable. Preservation has the power of life, which is evanescent and fragile, but which can grow and spread under favorable circumstances. The circumstances do not appear to be favorable right now, so the balance has swung in favor of destruction. What is being lost?

First is wilderness, which is not any particular species or habitat type, but a higher class of life form with its own nobility derived from its complete independence of human beings.  [p. 255]

Second are species and communities, the former of which are now being lost at a rate that is probably a thousand times greater than the rate of the extinction that occurred during the last ice age.

Cultured landscapes are third: British hedges and small fields, European farms and vineyards, Central American small fincas, North American urban and suburban parks and farms, and gardens everywhere are either being destroyed or altered and degraded in the name of efficiency, with the latter bringing increasing uniformity and decreasing Quality.  [p. 256]

Closely allied to the previous loss is the fourth — the loss of human skills, one of which is caring for the cultured land- scapes that are disappearing. There are still fine stonemasons, master carpenters, inspired gardeners, great mechanics, and a few celebrated violin-makers among us, but their numbers are declining rapidly in proportion to the whole population.  [pp. 256-257]

The fifth loss is resources — one that everyone appreciates and will come to appreciate better as the destruction continues.

The sixth and final loss that I will mention is environmental and human health and human sanity. I have discussed this extensively in the third and fourth chapters, and therefore need say no more about it. The reader will think of additional losses —true freedom, perhaps, and many others—but I have listed enough to show the gravity of our situation.

Once we know what is being lost, the critical question is: by the time the machinery of humanism has broken down sufficiently so that it is no longer capable of doing widespread destruction, how much will be left of what we value? To answer this we must first know how and when the breakdown will occur.  [….] For the “how” of the breakdown we can expect the agent to be a senseless malfunctioning part of the mechanism itself, rather than some conscious force external to humanism. But what part? There is no way of knowing. And this is only the “how” — the “when” is also utterly beyond our power to predict. Thus the critical question cannot be answered; we cannot even know whether the commitment to the humanist assumptions and the damage will stop gradually, giving us at least a chance to adapt realistically to the world that remains, or whether it will stop abruptly, crash, possibly after the wilderness, the animals and plants, the cultured landscapes, the human skills, environmental and human health, and the remaining resources are gone or ruined, leaving no alternative for us but chaos.  [p. 258]

If any mechanism, economic or otherwise, stops us short of the brink, what parts of humanism might be saved? First, it should be made clear that what we want to save and what will be saved are unlikely to be the same thing. This may be fortunate, because we will all want to cling to things the world cannot afford to keep.  [p. 260]


The Human Spirit

Are people ready to move beyond humanism, should the times favor such a change? We don’t seem to be able to give up by ourselves the Marxist dreams, the dependence on technology, or the eternal quest for progress—will we be willing to accept the sacrifice with grace and even enthusiasm if it is made easy for us by circumstances? It isn’t enough to say that we will have to accept it because there won’t be any alternative. There are plenty of alternatives, all of them unpleasant. But if chance breaks in our favor I think that there are many people who will do the right things, not a majority but perhaps enough to start and lead a transition to a new life.

There are elements of the human spirit that might help us to gain a new earth. Not themselves new, these elements have been forgotten in our quest for knowledge and power. I will conclude this book by recalling some of them to mind.  [p. 263]

The capacity to take pleasure in simple things, both natural and man-made, has not been destroyed permanently by our culture: it recurs with every human birth, no matter how elaborate our plans to analyze it, define it, control it, and profit from it, and no matter how successful we are in stamping it out during childhood.  [….] Pleasure and humor will always be available to our descendants if they have the opportunity to cultivate them.  [pp. 263-264]

The human spirit is capable of abjuring power without feeling or being enslaved, and in so doing gains a sort of peace and fulfillment that is utterly foreign to humanism.  [p. 264]


We have also the capacity to acknowledge and cope with death and the darker side of life, even to extract from it a necessary meaning. This is sometimes hard to remember in the humanist world, where so much effort and money are spent in the twin futilities of trying to make these frightening things go away and denying that they exist even now. We combine an unwholesome desire to discard our essential biology with the pitiful notion that it can be done at will. All this has succeeded in doing is robbing us of our strength and will to meet death with courage when we must, and to fight it on our own best terms when we can.  [p. 266]


Another part of the human spirit that might again stand us in good stead is the capacity to love. Not unique to human beings, it is nevertheless of tremendous importance to us, for it is the source of the cohesion of the family and the small community, the only viable inheritors of a post-humanist world. Love, like the other qualities, is under heavy attack, and the family and small community have weakened perceptibly. Unable to survive the inconsistencies and conflicting demands of a humanistic life, they suffer doubly — especially the family — for they are also scapegoats for the humanist failure to supplant them with something better, or even with something that functions at all.

Last of all, different from the capacityzo to love but not alien to it, is the capacity of men and women to stand alone, triumphant, in simplicity, independent of the constructions and devices of society and the plans of other people.  [p. 267]


Will the things that are being lost — the wilderness, the plants and animals, the skills, and all the others — leave too vast a gap in the continuity of life to be bridged even by the human spirit? This is the unanswerable question.  [p. 269]


Ehrenfeld, David W. 1981. The Arrogance of Humanism. Oxford University Press.


The evolution of service systems to service ecosystems | Brozović and Tregua 2022

“Rethinking Systems Thinking” (2013) is cited by #DaniloBrozović (U. Skövde), #MarcoTregua (U. Napoli Federico II):

The level of complexity in current service ecosystems is rising, not least due to technology (Barile et al., 2020), with the effect of such increased complexity of service ecosystems being perceived as ‘simple’. On the other hand, some systems researchers warned that systems’ increasing complexity may lead to their deterioration and that they should consequently be decomplexified and exchanged for other, loosely coupled structures (Ing, 2013). [p. 15]


  • Brozović, Danilo, and Marco Tregua. 2022. “The Evolution of Service Systems to Service Ecosystems: A Literature Review.” International Journal of Management Reviews, British Academy of Management, n/a ((early view)).
  • Ing, David. 2013. “Rethinking Systems Thinking: Learning and Coevolving with the World.” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 30 (5): 527–47.

#ecosystems, #service-systems

1995 Francois Jullien, The Propensity of Things

Jullien views propensity in Chinese philosophy, as a counterpart to causality in Western philosophy.  Some unpacking of his writing in digests may be helpful.

Jullien, François. 1995. The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Zone Books.


How can we conceive of the dynamic in terms of the static, in terms of “disposition”?  Or, to put it another way, how can any static situation be simultaneously conceived in terms of histori­cal movement?  [p. 11]

A Confusing Ambiguity: The Word Shi

A single Chinese word, shi1` will serve as our guide as we reflect on this matter, even though it is a relatively common term gen­ erally given no philosophical significance. The word is itself a source of confusion, but it was out of that confusion that this book emerged.  [pp. 11-12]

1 The term shi (勢) is the same as the word yi, which is believed to represent a hand holding something, a symbol of power to which the diacritic radical for force (li 力) was later added. Xu Shen thinks that what is held in the hand is a clod of earth, which could symbolize something put in position or a “positioning.” As such, the word shi, in terms of its spatial connotation, corresponds to the word shi (時) , with its temporal associations in the sense of “opportunity” or “chance”; in fact, the latter term is sometimes used in place of the former.

Extra sources from David Ing (thanks to scholarly translation by Don Tai):

Dictionaries at times render the term as “ position” or “circumstances,” and at other times as “ power” or “ potential.”  [p. 12]


This book thus begins by wagering that shi, a disconcerting word because it seems torn between points of view that are appa­rently too divergent, is nevertheless a possible word with a discoverable coherence or — better yet — with an illuminating logic. And it is not merely Chinese thought that might be illuminated — that is, the whole spectrum of Chinese thought which we know has focused since its origins on perceiving reality as a process of transformation.  [pp 12-13]


Convergences between Fields: Potentiality at Work in Configuration, Functional Bipolarity, and a Tendency toward Alternation

I have accordingly decided to make the most of the fact that we have in shi a word that can serve as a tool, even though it may not correspond to any global, defined concept with a ready-made framework and preestablished function.  …]

… to grasp its importance, we will be forced to track it from one field to another – from the field of war to that of politics, from the aesthetics of calligraphy and painting to the theory of literature, from reflection on history to “first philosophy.” One by one, we will have to consider all these diverse modes of conditioning reality, even though they lead us in apparently disparate directions: first, to the “potential born of disposition” (in strategy) and the crucial nature of hierarchi­cal “position” (in politics); next, to the force working through the form of a character in calligraphy, the tension emanating from the disposition of things in painting and the stylistic effects of the configuration within literary texts (dispositif); and finally, to the tendencies resulting from particular situations in history and the propensity that governs the overall process of nature.  [pp. 13-14]


Above all, by forcing us to move across domains, this word makes it possible for us to discover many overlapping areas. Com­mon themes emerge:

  • an inherent potentiality at work in configuration (whether in the deployment of armies on the battlefield, the configuration of an ideogram set down in calligraphy and a painted landscape, or established by literary signs);
  • functional bipolarity (whether between a sovereign and his subjects in a political situation, between high and low in aesthetic representations, or between the cosmic principles “ Heaven” and “ Earth” ); and
  • tendency generated sponte sua simply through interaction, which proceeds to develop through alternation (whether, again, it involves the course of a war or the unfolding of a work, a historical situation or the process of reaility as a whole).  [pp. 14-15, editorial paragraphing added]


There is thus a second bet to be made as we embark on this study. A term like shi, while somewhat disappointing from the perspective of a conceptual history of Chinese thought, is well worth studying to help illuminate such thought. […] Art, or wisdom, as conceived by the Chinese, consequently lies in strategically exploiting the propensity emanating from that particular configuration of reality, to the maximum effect possible. This is the notion of “ efficacy.”  [p. 15]


A Possible Alternative to Philosophical Preconceptions

To the Chinese, the idea of shi seems self-evident; but it may never occur to us in the West.  [….]

When compared with the elaboration of Western thought, the originality of the Chinese lies in their indifference to any notion of a telos, a final end for things, for they sought to interpret reality solely on the basis of itself, from the perspective of a single logic inherent in the actual processes in motion.  [p. 17]


Chapter 1, Potential Is Born of Disposition in Military Strategy

The reflection on the art of warfare that developed in China at the end of Antiquity (between the fifth and third century B .C  ., in the period of the warring states) went far beyond its actual sub­ject. Not only did the particular systemization characterizing it constitute a remarkable innovation from the point of view of the general history of civilizations, but the type of interpretation to which it gave rise projected its form of rationalization on reality as a whole.  [….] Chinese strategic thought stands as a perfect example of how one can manage reality, and provides us with a general theory of efficacy. [p. 25]

Victory Is Determined before Engaging in Battle

(Sunzi 4th century B.C.)
An intuition serves as our starting point: war is a process that evolves only in relation to the force it puts into play. The task of a good general is to calculate in advance and with accuracy every factor, so that the situation develops in a way as beneficial as pos­sible to him: victory is then simply a necessary consequence — and the predictable outcome — of the imbalance that operates in his favor and that he has been able to influence.  [pp. 25-26]



The crucial point in this strategic thinking is to minimize the armed engagement …  [p. 26]


The Laozi, the found­ing text in the Daoist tradition, states that “it is easy to control a situation before any symptoms have manifested themselves” (para. 64).  [p. 27]

The Notion of Potential Born of Disposition

As a result of this perspective, the concept of a potential born of disposition emerged for the first time. In the context of military strategy, this is usually conveyed by the term shi.5 The whole art of strategy can be more precisely recast through use of this term: to say that “ skill” in warfare “ depends on the potential bom of disposition” (shi)6 means that a general must aim to exploit, to his own advantage and to maximum effect, whatever conditions he encounters.  This dynamism, which stems from the configuration of things and must be harnessed, is represented well by the flow of water: if a wall retaining a large amount of water is breached, the water can only rush down,7 and in its impetuous surge forward, it carries everything in front of it, even boulders.8 Two features characterize such causality: it results only through some objective necessity and, given its intensity, it is irresistible. [pp. 27-28]

6 Sun Bin bingfa , ch. “ Cuanzau,” p. 26.

Sunzi, ch. 4, p. 64.

8 Ibid., ch. 5, “ Shi pian,” p. 7 1.

9 Ibid., ch. 10, “ Di xing pian.”


Variability according to Circumstances and the Renewal of the Strategic Mechanism

Now let us examine more concretely how this efficacy works. In general, strategy aims, through a series of factors, to determine the fixed principles according to which one evaluates the prevail­ing power relations and plans operations in advance. However, warfare, consisting of action and, moreover, regulated by reciproc­ity, is known to be the domain par excellence of unpredictability and change, and thus it always remains more or less beyond the scope of theoretical predictions. All this has often been regarded simply as a matter of common sense, imposing practical limits on any strategy. However, for the same reason that they rely on the notion of shi to resolve the contradiction, the Chinese theorists of war do not seem bothered by this aporia.  [pp. 31-32]


But the main strength of Chinese strategic intuition lies not so much in this intermediary concept making it possible to combine what is constant and what is changing (theory and practice, principles and circumstances); rather, it is that it demonstrates pertinently how the evolution of circumstances, inseparable from the course of any war, in fact constitutes a general’s major tactical trump card, allowing him to renew the potential and hence the efficacy of the strategic deployment [pp. 32-33]


Thus, a disposition is effective by virtue of its renewability; it is a tool. To say that shi, as a strategic tool, must be as mobile as flowing water” and that “ victory is gained only through transfor­mation and adaptation to the enemy’’26 means more than merely saying that the ability to adapt is necessary or purely a matter of common sense. What is involved is the deeper intuition that a particular disposition loses its potentiality when it becomes inflexible (or static).  [p. 33]

26 Sunzi, ch. 6, pp. 101-102. In the Sun Bin (ch. “Jian wei wang,” p. 8 ), we find the formula fu bing zhe, fei shi heng shi ye, which can be understood in this sense (cf. the edi­tion by Fu Zhenlun [Chengdu: Bashu shushe, 1986], p. 7).


A Major Chinese Originality: Dispensing with Confrontation

The concept of potential born of disposition, which lay at the heart of ancient Chinese strategic thought, ultimately passed into wider usage27 and the entire later tradition never detached itself from this point of view.28

27 Treatises on the game of go resort to this concept to explain the evolving relation of the forces represented on the checkerboard. Go is well known as a game that illustrates the fundamental principles of Chinese strategy.

27 See the beginning of ch. 15, “Yi bing,” by Xunzi or in the summary chapter, “ Yao lue,” of the Huainanzi, pp. 371-72 . The bibliographic chapter of the Hanshu (“Yiwenzhi” ) refers to one of the four categories of works relating to strategy as that produced by shi specialists (bing xing shi); for an apprecia­tion of this rubric, based on such works as have survived, see Robin D.S. Yates, “New Light on Ancient Chinese Military Texts: Notes on Their Nature and Evo­lution, and the Development of Military Specialization in Warring States China,” T’oung Pao 74 (1988), pp. 211-48 .


Decisive and direct confrontation in battle is central to mod­ em European concepts of war, particularly in the writings of Carl von Clausewitz.  [p. 36]


Because Clausewitz conceives of warfare from the perspective of finality, he not only ascribes maximum importance to direct confrontation (as a goal), but he is also forced to recognize the intrinsic importance of unquantifiable moral factors, such as cour­age and determination. He is thus led to think of war in terms of probability — the means used are simply those with the greatest chance of leading to the desired result. As we have already seen, this in no way relates to the attitude of the Chinese theorists of warfare, for whom war is conceived from the perspective of pro­pensity and a shaping of effect.  [p. 37]


Finally, it is well known that Clausewitz’s theory of friction plays an important role in his thought. This theory was conceived as a means to account for a troublesome gap in Western strategic thought: the disparity between the plan drawn up in advance, which is of an ideal nature, and its practical implementation, which renders it subject to chance. The Chinese concept of shi, inserting itself into the distinction between what Westerners have opposed as “practice” and “theory,” and thus collapsing that dis­tinction, shifts “execution” toward something that, given the propensity at work, operates of its own accord and excludes any uncertainty or inadequacy: neither deterioration nor friction is involved. [pp. 37-38]

For the Chinese shi is most important; for Clausewitz “ means” and “ end” are.  [p. 38]


Chapter 2:  Position as the Determining Factor in Politics

Efficacy Does Not Depend on Personality

Strategy and politics both lead back to the same fundamental problem: What is the source of the efficacy that will allow us to manage the world as we wish?  [….]

… the course of things is determined by some force that has nothing to do with personality.  [p. 39]


Instead of seeking to manage the world imperiously by our own actions, we should let ourselves be carried along as the world pleases; instead of wish­ing to impose our own preferences on it, we should let ourselves go with the flow of things, adopting the line of least resistance. 

When we transfer this reductive view of reality as a play of potentials to the political level, we find it there too, within soci­ety, as a kind of hierarchical “ position.” Here too, as in the world itself, we find an arrangement or disposition which infallibly gives rise to a certain tendency.2 The term shi is used to designate the configuration of power relations in politics in the same way it denotes a strategic setup.  [p. 40]

2 On the problem of the relation between the “Daoist” Shen Dao, as presented in the Zhuangzi, and the Legalist Shen Dao, as in the Hanshu, see P.M. Thompson, The Shen Tzu Fragments (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 3; Leon Vandermeersch, La Formation du legisme (Paris: Ecole francaise d’ Extrene-Orient, 1965), p. 49; for a study on the principal references for the term shi in this political context, see Roger T. Ames, The Art of Rulership: A Study in Ancient Chinese Political Thought (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983), p. 72.


Chapter 3, Conclusion I: A Logic of Manipulation

Analogies Between the Strategic and Political Mechanisms

The conduct of warfare and the management of power: we can push the affinity between the two, but there also seems to be a reluctance, in the West, to define more closely what they have in common.  [….[

However, some of the ancient Chinese thinkers felt no such reluctance or qualms.  [p. 59]


The Art of Manipulation

Manipulation, not persuasion, was the Chinese way.  [p. 69]



Chapter 4, The Force of Form, the Effect of Genre

Absence of Mimesis: Art Conceived as the Actualization of Universal Dynamism

The dislocation of the empire (at the end of the second century A .D.) and the fragmentation of China over several centuries …. enabled the development of artistic criticism as a distinct line of thought emerged at last.

But from the start this mode of thought never conceived of artistic activity as the West initially did, that is, as mimesis (the reproduction or imitation of a particular kind of “nature” at some level more “ideal” or more “real,” either more general or more specific, than nature is normally understood to be).1 Rather, artistic activity was seen as a process of actualization, which produced a particular configuration of the dynamism inherent in reality. It operated and was revealed through the calligraphy of an ideogram, through a landscape painting, or a literary composition. The particular disposition that receives form can potentially express the universal dynamism.  [p. 75]

1 Zhuangzi, ch. 33, “Tian xia,” a paragraph devoted to Shen Dao. This is a difficult as well as fascinating passage, the translation of which is more of an interpretation; cf. Arthur Waley’s comments in his Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China (London: Allen & Unwin, 1939), p. 237.


… in Chinese thought, as in calligraphy, for example, the “form” through which the literary shi is realized is that of a particular configuration which itself operates spontane­ously to create an effect. Thus, what we customarily translate as “ form” in Chinese texts of literary criticism is not the opposite of “ content” but the end product of the process of “actualization,” shi being the potentiality characterizing that actualization.  [pp. 88-89]

Once again, the Chinese perspective is of an ongoing process taking place between the zone of the visible and the invisible. This process leads from the author’s initial (affective, spiritual) situation to a formulation specific to it, as well as from the tension implied by the words of the text to the limitless reactions of its readers. In these circumstances, the writer’s main task is to “determine” the propensity of that process, endowing it with greater effectiveness so that it produces a maximum impact. Such a determination remains general and unifying despite its variability from case to case, and it depends upon a logic that he must know how to exploit. In literature as in painting, shi is the decisive factor: it circulates, bestowing a particular orientation on the com position and breathing vitality into it. And in literature as in painting, it is explicitly compared to wind and associated with it.44 [p. 89]

44 See ch. “Fuhui,” p. 652; ch. “Xuzhi,” p. 727.


Shi involves energy and effect: it animates the configuration of the written signs and makes that configuration effective, just as it operates in a painted landscape. Let us now move further backward, toward the source of that efficacy. Let us see how this source operates in nature.  [p. 89]

Chapter 5, Lifelines across a Landscape

Lifelines in Geomancy

Let us first take another look at “nature.” We will not consider it as an object of science, formulated through demonstration and reasoning by distinguishing “ principle,” “cause,” and “elements.” This has been our usual procedure since the early work of the Greeks — the procedure of “historical” humankind, in Heidegger’s terms, a humankind that always heeds the unchanging call to respond to Being, and whose destiny this may be.1 Rather, we should here perceive nature intuitively, through the sensibility of our bodies and their activity, as the single common principle within and outside us that operates throughout reality and ex­plains how the world is animated and functions. [p. 91]

1 Heidegger, “Comment se determine la phusis,” Questions II (Paris: Gallimard, 1968), pp. 181-82 .


(Guo Pu, 4th century A.D.)

Let us instead experience “ physics” as the single “breath at the origin of things, forever circulating,” which flows through the whole of space, endlessly engendering all existing things, “deploying itself continuously in the great process of the coming-to-be and transfor­mation of the world” and ‘Tilling every individual species through and through.” 3 [p. 91]

3 The most commonplace and unexceptional concept in the Chinese tra­dition. The citiations are taken from the beginning of the Book of Funerals (Zangshu) attributed to Guo Pu.


But just as it permeates the human body, this vital breath trav­erses the earth along particular tracks: in the language of geomancers as it developed from the first century on, the term shi refers to certain “lifelines” detectable in the configuration of the terrain.5 “The vital breath circulates along the lifelines (shi) of the terrain and is concentrated at the points where they come to an end.” 6 Since the breath of life is itself invisible, it is only by attentively studying the ramifications of these lines which run over the terrain that one can ascertain where the breath of life passes and where its vitality is concentrated, its energy condensed. This is at the point where the “lifelines” end, and the art of a geomancer thus resembles that of a physiognomist7: as it crosses fields, rocks, valleys, and hilltops, a lifeline is both a “vein” along which the breath, like blood, circulates, and the “ skeletal structure” giving the relief of the terrain its solidity. Or again, it is the “spinal column” that snakes in an uninterrupted line from one end of the horizon to the other, rising and falling, curving and winding, constantly changing. It follows no rigid route or preestablished model (recall that in strategy shi was compared with the moving flow of water).  [pp. 92-93]

5 The term shi already had this particular topographical sense at the end of Antiquity, e.g., in the Guanzi; cf. ch. 76, p. 371; ch. 78, p. 384. This sense is specified in the bibliographical chapter of the Hanshu (“Yiwenzhi” ), in the rubric devoted to “ configurationists” (xing fa liu jia).

6 Guo Pu, Zangshu; idem for the citations that follow.

7 This point has been forcefully made in the important study by Yonezawa Yoshio, Chugoku kaigashi kenkvu (Tokyo: Heibonsha), p. 76.


Thus, space, and hence any landscape, was also conceived by the Chinese as a perpetual setup which puts to work the original vitality of nature. Everything in the landscape, down to the slight­est hollow in the ground, is through its own particular disposition endowed with a particular, ever-renewed propensity one should rely on and exploit. We have already encountered other configurations (on battlefields, in political power relations, in cal­ligraphic ideograms, or in literary signs). Topographic configu­ration is similar but prior to them all.  It constitutes a magnetic field which the geomancer explores with his compass, charged with a regular and functional potentiality that organizes it into the various networks through which efficiency winds its way. Lifelines are also energy lines.8 [p. 93]

8 I have chosen the expression “lifeline” to convey this aspect of shi because it relates directly to the notion of the vital breath on which it is based and because it is reminiscent of our own chiromancy, closely related to geomancy. I have, furthermore, noticed that in the West certain contemporary schools of drawing and painting (such as that of Martenot) are now distancing themselves from traditional training methods and utilizing this expression in their own teaching.

Chapter 6, Categories of Efficacious Dispositions

Technical Lists

There are lists of many different kinds of shi: the shi of the hand or the body, the shi of topography, the shi of the development of a poem. In the most general and yet concrete terms, what is art if not to capture and put to work all the efficacy possible through gesture and arrangement? And how better to assess precisely this possibility than by enumerating each example, one by one? The purpose of these lists is to record in each domain a typology of the various ways to group things, the ways recognized to be the most appropriate and experience has handed down from master to disciple, through the generations, as a secret of expertise. These lists, the fruit of long experience and practical in purpose, are mostly found hidden away in technological texts, handbooks, and collections of precepts. Many were drawn up under the great Tang Dynasty (seventh to tenth centuries), when the Chinese first began to think more precisely about the processes of creation1 instead of concentrating exclusively on the moral and cosmic impact of its “ spirit.” These lists constitute an altogether new type of literature for us. [p. 107]

1 A more general application could probably be given to the remark made by Dong Qichang, according to which the Tang calligraphers were particularly interested in technique (fa), while those of the Six Dynasties period stressed the “internal resonance” (yun) and the Song calligraphers stressed the expres­ sion of “individual feeling” {yi); see Jean-Marie Simonet, La Suite au “Traite de calligraphic” de Jiang Kui, unpublished thesis (Paris: Ecole nationale des langues orientates, 1969), pp. 94-95.


Efficacious Dispositions of the Hand and Body

The foremost art in China is that of the brush; in this domain “efficacious dispositions” relate to its handling. Their primary concern was originally calligraphy, which in turn influenced the art of painting.  [p. 108]


Positions that Best Embody the Efficacy of Movement

As a cultural phenomenon, the compiling of a list could be con­ sidered one of the most neutral acts. The task of assembling different compatible cases is merely one of tabulation, a concise and discreet operation hardly even deserving to be so named. Nonetheless, these lists are somewhat disconcerting. [pp. 111-112]


It is as if the Chinese using the lists would have no need to derive a more abstract concept from the material instances, as if they had no need for any theory over and above what they could themselves instinctively and actively feel to be the pertinence of shi through the cases listed. For them, shi was a “practical” — indeed the most practical — term and one to be considered as such. Shi is self- evident, permeating whatever field one considers, and as soon as one is exerting oneself effectively and educating oneself in an apprenticeship, the very idea of explaining shi becomes pointless, even harmful to anyone using it. To consider doing so would only occur to someone uncommitted, unconcerned (from the perspective of his own particular logic), someone merely reading the text.  [pp. 112-113]


… these dispositions are not only dynamic but also strategic. For these sets of shi represent not just any random slice of movement but those that most fully exploit the powers of this dynamism and that are the most potentially effective. Arrangement possesses its own potentiality, which it is precisely the task of art to capture. Each list of shi thus constitutes, as it were, a set of various ways to induce the efficacy to operate. For this reason, despite their amaz­ing heterogeneity, these lists are generally presented as exhaustive and systematic wholes, marked by a particular number (“ nine,” “ thirteen,” etc.).  [p. 114]


Strategic Dispositions in Poetry

But would it be equally possible to apply these terms of effica­cious positioning to artistic procedures such as poetic creation, which involve no gesture or physical movement but stem solely from mental activity? The answer is that an exactly similar method is employed for these practices as well. The poetic shi are also represented to us by means of a most colorful imaginary bestiary.  [p. 117]


… these lists already demonstrate that we should recognize the existence of two different kinds of logic (one is reminded of the unusual “Chinese” lists “a la Borges” at the beginning of Foucault’s The Order of Things). Chinese reasoning (for “reasoning” is certainly involved here, not incoherence and disorder) does not seem to proceed in the same way as “Western” reasoning (“Western” in the symbolic sense).

The latter first seeks to adopt a command­ing position that provides a theoretical perspective ordering all the material to be organized. This makes abstract thought about it possible, resulting in a vantage point from which one can usually derive some classificatory principle of homogeneity.

Chinese reasoning, in contrast, seems to weave along horizontally, from one case to the next, via bridges and bifurcations, each case eventually leading to the next and merging into it. In contrast to Western logic, which is panoramic, Chinese logic is like that of a possible journey in stages that are linked together. The field of thought is not defined and contained a priori; it just unfolds progressively, from one stage to the next, becoming more fertile along the way. Furthermore, the path along which it unfolds does not exclude other possibilities — which may run alongside temporarily or intersect with it.15 By the end of the journey, an experience has been lived through, a landscape has been sketched in. Not everything is visible and unequivocal, as in a Western pic­ture; rather, the view unfolds like a Chinese scroll in which a path running up a mountainside (and thereby giving it consistency) appears at one point, then disappears around the hill, to reappear even further on.  [pp. 123-124, editorial paragraphing added] 

15 A comparison between this chapter of the “Seventeen shi” and the following lists of the Bunkyo hifuron‘s “Earth” section is instructive in this respect; see the study by Francois Martin, “ L’enumeration dans la theorie litteraire de la Chine des Tang,” in L’Art de la liste, Extreme-Orient —Extreme-Occident 8 (1990), p. 37f.


Chapter 7, Dynamism is Continuous

Common Evidence

A number of questions arise when we reflect on the arts in China. In terms of their basic underlying principle, to what extent can we really make distinctions between those “ three jewels” of Chi­nese culture; calligraphy, painting, and poetry?  [p. 131]


A single idea thus lies at the heart of each of these practices, the idea of an energy both fundamental and universal and based on a binary principle (the famous yin and yang) with seamless inter­ action between the terms (as in the great cosmic Process). This idea, logically enough, gives rise to the ultimate meaning of shi used as an aesthetic term: the power to promote the continuity of dynamism,1 rendering it perceptible through that energy* and the semiotics of art.  [pp. 132] 

1See, e.g., the analysis of Shen Zongqian, Leibjan, p. 907.


The Propensity for Linking: Calligraphy

The Chinese art of calligraphy provides a key example of dyna­mism in operation, as a coming-to-be, since its theoretical codifi­cation developed relatively early and since, above all, its linear nature made it an ideally direct and immediate means of register­ing the temporality of movement. (A calligrapher can never go back and touch up the lines already made by his brush.)  [p. 133]


The Propensity for Linking: Painting

Chinese painting lends itself to a similar analysis. [p. 136]


The Propensity for Linking: Poetry

Liu Xie offers us a fine image for the dynamism at work in a literary text: when one sets down the brush at the end of a para­graph, it is like feathering an oar while rowing. [p. 139]


The Propensity for Linking: The Novel

Chinese literary criticism is largely allusive, and frequently de­scribed as “impressionistic,” but occasionally it undertakes an extremely detailed analysis of how a text functions.  [p. 144]


Chapter 8, Conclusion II: The Dragon Motif

The body of the dragon concentrates energy in its sinuous curves, and coils and uncoils to move along more quickly. It is a symbol of all the potential with which form can be charged, a potential that never ceases to be actualized. The dragon now lurks in watery depths, now streaks aloft to the highest heavens, and its very gait is a continuous undulation. It presents an image of energy con­stantly recharged through oscillation from one pole to the other. The dragon is a constantly evolving creature with no fixed form; it can never be immobilized or penned in, never grasped. It sym­bolizes a dynamism never visible in concrete form and thus un­fathomable. Finally, merging with the clouds and the mists, the dragon’s impetus makes the surrounding world vibrate: it is the very image of an energy that diffuses itself through space, inten­sifying its environment and enriching itself by that aura.

The dragon is one of China’s richest symbols, and many of its most essential meanings have served to illustrate the importance attributed to shi in the creative process.  [p. 151]


The Potential Invested in Form

Even before it comes to serve as a model for works of art, the drag­on’s weaving body surrounds us everywhere.  [p. 152]


Variation through Alternation

The dragon is at once yin within yang and yang within yin. Its body is constantly transformed but never exhausted: a finer em­ bodiment of alternation as the driving force of continuity could not be imagined.  [p. 153]


Endless Transformation Results in Unseizability

Since it is constantly changing, a dragon has no fixed form and can never materialize in a permanent, definitive shape.  [p. 155]


Dragon and Clouds: The Power of Animation

The Beyond of poetry and the magic of the novel permeate these works with their atmosphere. Similarly, in Chinese iconography, the dragon’s body is frequently represented as emerging from the clouds, enveloped in mist.  [p. 159]


The “ Void” and the “Beyond” Are Implied by the Tension in the Setup

As the reference to the dragon helps to show, the Chinese con­cept of effectiveness in the aesthetic domain is a far cry from that of a rigid, mechanical, and stereotyped operation. As in the field of strategy, it is dominated by ideas of efficacy and variability (i.e., efficacy through variation), and as in the domain of politics, it stresses the spontaneous nature of the effect produced as well as its inexhaustibility.  [p. 160]



Chapter 9, Situation and Tendency in History

What Is a Historical Situation?

What is a historical situation and how can it be analyzed? This is the same fundamental problem we have been treating all along, but now transferred into the social domain. Our goal remains to conceive reality better, to move beyond the antinomy between stasis and movement, between an established state and a process of becoming. In other words, to reconcile somehow the immo­bilizing perspective promoted by any synchronic vision with a dynamic perspective that can accommodate the ongoing evolu­tion and flow of events. While circumstances of a situation con­stitute a unique whole, they are all simultaneously undergoing change. We need to think of the system as an evolving one; then the process of history can also be seen, at every instant, as a setup with potential. In this context shi signifies both a particular situ­ation and the tendency expressed through it and orienting it.1 [pp. 177] 

1Etienne Balazs has suggested rendering this use of shi in a historical context as “power of prevailing conditions, tendency, trend” or even “necessity.” See Political Theory and Administrative Reality in Traditional China (London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1965). In his study Nation und Elite im Denken von Wang Fu-chih (Hamburg: Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft fur Natur un Volkerkunde Ostasiens, 1968), vol. 49, p. 87, Ernst Joachim Vierheller ren­ders it as “die besonderen Um stinde, die Augenblickstendenz, die zu diesen Zeiten herrscht” ; and Jean-Francois Billeter (“ Deux etudes sur Wang Fuzhi,” T’oung Pao [Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1970], vol. 56, p. 155 ) writes as follows: “ More simply, one might suggest, provisionally, ‘situation or the course of things.’ The course of things is clearly inseparable from their structure.” In effect, it means both “ course” and “ situation” at once, and it is to this ambivalence (as we see it) that the term owes its philosophical richness.

Every situation constitutes in itself a direction. The Chinese thinkers of Antiquity, and in particular the theorists of authoritarianism, stressed the dual nature of this inherent tendency from the point of view of its shi. On the one hand, a historical situation — seen as a set of factors operating in a particular way — can be used to determine events objectively, since it allows one to constrain the initiative of individuals; on the other hand, every such situation is new and unprecedented in character, one particular moment in an evolving process. As such, it cannot be reduced to previous models; it leads the course of things con­stantly to take new turns and, arguably, favors modernity.  [pp. 177-178]

Anything that appears as a result of circumstance in the course of history acts as a force and is endowed with efficacy. And yet all forces in history depend on a particular disposition and can­ not be abstracted from this.  [p. 178]


However, among the ancient Chinese schools, a number of dif­ferent theories on the evolution of society were in competition, and these produced a heightened sense of the human process of becoming.  [p. 179]


The Historical Necessity of Transformation (from Feudalism to Bureaucracy)

The first emperor not only unified China politically, he also proudly transformed it by replacing the earlier system of fief-doms with a system of administrative areas — commanderies and prefectures — that would remain predominant. This important change provided Chinese civilization with most of its unique character, for it replaced the common and widespread ancient hereditary privileges with a bureaucratic structure composed of appointed officials who were both registered and dismissible.  [p. 180]


There is a before and an after, and the two are incompatible. Wang Fuzhi explains, by way of an example, that there was no distinction in Antiquity between the military and the civil sectors, but once the empire was established, it proved necessary to separate them: “The state of things evolves in accordance with the tendency, and institutions must be adapted accordingly.” 22 The tendency at work must be considered in light of the differences between one period and another, with a long-term view. Nothing comes about in a single day, yet from day to day everything is changing. History is made up of precisely such “in-depth shifts” and “ silent transformations.” 23 [p. 186]

22Wang Fuzhi, Dutongjianlun, ch. 12, “ Huaidi,” p. 382. The attention payed by Chinese thinkers to slow, progressive change dissolves individual events into historical conti­nuity. However sudden and spectacular an event may seem, invariably it is simply the logical end result of a tendency that, when it suited , was probably barely perceptible (on this subject, cf. the wenyan commentary on the first line of the Kun hexagram in the Book of Changes).

23Ibid., ch. 20, “Taizong,” pp. 692-94.

The Tendency toward Alternation

The transition from feudalism to bureaucracy constituted rela­ tive progress, thus contradicting the myth of a Golden Age.  [p. 186]


The power of evolution, a challenge to all dogmas on human nature, should be recognized to operate in both directions. Once man acquires civilization, his way of life changes, his practices evolve, and his “organic nature itself is altered” ; yet at this point he is ready to return to brutish animality, and civilization is ready to plunge back into chaos. Then everything associated with his rise, down to the smallest trace, would be wiped out.

Thus, it is not progress that rules the world but rather alternation; alternation in both space and time.26 [p. 187]

26Siwenlu, pp. 72 -73 .


As time passes, the “cosmic influxes” shift, but the balance (between civilization and barbarity) remains constant. [p. 188]

In this form, this concept of a tendency toward alternation (shi), an upward surge followed by a decline, is shared by all the Chinese theorists of history27 and constitutes their dominant per­spective. It is even something they assume to be self-evident. But for Wang Fuzhi, it is also important to establish clearly what is meant by the two terms tendency and alternation. In contrast to the moralist view initially inherited from Antiquity,288 he believes it crucial to understand that the phases of upward surging are not simply brought about by great sovereigns but are inherent ten­dencies in the regularity of historical processes. In this view, his­tory loses in creative heroism but gains in internal necessity. In contrast to all those who later subscribed to the imperial ideology, Wang Fuzhi deems it important to show the extent to which the very principle of alternation implies rupture and difference between one age and another, and thus should never be regarded as simply a “prop” for superimposed continuity. In such a case, the reverse of the earlier one, the negative tendency would no longer have any substance to it and would seem to be reabsorbed into itself: regularity would be so codified as to become artificial.  [pp. 188-189]

27See, e.g., Huang Mingtong and LG Xichen, Wang Chuanshan lishiguan yu lishiyanjiu (Changsha: Hunan renmin chubanshe, 1986), p. 10.

28This idea is already explicit in the Mencius, ch. 3, “Tengwengong” pt. 2, para. 9 (Legge, p. 279): in Mencius, it is Yao and Shun, the king Wu, the duke of Zhou, Confucius, in his capacity as the author of the Chunqiu, and Mencius him self who, in one period or another, intervene to cure disorder.

The second of those mistakes in particular deserves denunci­ation, since it nurtures an illusion that is not innocent. The estab­lishment of the empire led to the construction of an integrated general conception of history, beginning with the ancient royal dynasties. New imperial dynasties could profit from that integra­tion by being able to present themselves as the legitimate out­ come of the historical process.

To that end, ingenious attempts were made to present historical alternation systematically as fol­lowing the model of the cycle of nature, which was traditionally construed on the basis of the interaction of the “five phases.” Sometimes the schema was sometimes conceived with an antagonistic bias: wood is overcome by metal, metal by fire, fire by water, water by earth, earth by wood, and so on; sometimes it simply implied a mutual production: wood (which is also the spring, the East, birth) engenders fire, fire (which is also the sum­mer, the South, growth) engenders earth, earth (at the center of the process, controlling all the seasons and representing both the center and full maturity) engenders metal (which is also the autumn, the West, the harvest), and metal engenders water (which is also the winter, the North, the storing of the harvest).29 [p. 189, editorial paragraphing added]

29This idea was inherited from Zou Yan (in the third century B. C.) and was later theorized by Dong Zhongshu (175 -105 B.C. ) in the Chunqiu fanlu; see Anne Chang, Etude sur le confucianisme Han (Paris: Institut des hautes etudes chinoises, 1985), vol. 26, p. 25.

This schema is sometimes further complicated by correlations with “ colors” and “ virtues.” But it always entails a closed and repetitive cycle in which alternation operates simply as a factor aiding transmission, and makes the cycle start all over again. Projecting such schemata onto the course of history (with each successive dynasty corresponding to some cyclical phase, virtue, and color) makes the course of history seem homogeneous and regular, as though it were simply an uninterrupted chain of “reigns”: all of these are imagined as harmonious, united totalities, with one dynasty spontaneously giving way to the next and the succes­sor taking over in all equity.

Wang Fuzhi considers this representation to be all the more reprehensible because it has been deliberately used throughout Chinese history to mask the worst usurpations. The integrating function of official historiography has been so formalized that it has wound up integrating anything and everything: a sinister bandit needed only pompously attribute to himself a particular phase, color, and virtue (as did the bar­barians who laid claim to the empire in the third to fourth cen­turies) or even dignify himself with the name of the preceding dynasty (as Li Miau did in the tenth century), and he could offi­cially claim to be inaugurating a new era and guaranteeing the continuity of legitimacy.30  [pp. 189-190, editorial paragraphing added]

30Wang Fuzhi, Dutongjianlun, ch. 16, “ Wudi,” pp. 539-40.


The Logic of Reversal

In Wang Fuzhi’s opinion, the course of history is always decided by a twofold logic. On the one hand, every tendency, once bom , is naturally inclined to grow; on the other hand, any tendency carried to its ultimate limit becomes exhausted and cries out for reversal.39 [p. 194]

30Wang Fuzhi, Dutongjianlun, ch. 16, “Wudi,” pp. 539-40.

This principle is absolutely general and constitutes the justification for alternation. Nevertheless, one can distinguish between two forms of negative tendencies and, on that basis, two modes of reversal. A negative tendency may lead to progressive deviation; it becomes increasingly difficult to backtrack, so that, unless the tendency exhausts itself, only an overall transformation can resolve the situation; alternatively, it will lead instead to an imbalance. In this case, the imbalance itself will generate a reaction, and the greater the imbalance, the stronger the reaction will be.40 [p. 194]

30Ibid., “ Xulun,” 1.1106 .

In the first of these two situations all one can do is passively recognize that one is increasingly becoming stuck in this groove. In contrast, in the second, which involves opposite poles, a dynamic force creating equilibrium is present. Different strategies should accordingly be adopted in the two situations: in the former, it is essential toforesee the difficulty as soon as possible; in the second, one can also count on the effects of a reversal and rely on time to do its work.  [p. 194]


This logic of reversal is modeled explicitly on the shape of the hexagrams of the ancient Book of Changes. Based on two types of lines, antithetical yet complementary (the continuous and the discontinuous, — and – – ), these provided the basis for the Chinese concept of becoming.  [p. 195]


The interior of each hexagram illuminates still more about this process of transition and inversion. For while the opposite prin­ciples (yin and yang, rise and decline) are categorically exclusive and mutually repulsive, at the same time they condition one another, each implying the existence of the other. An open con­flict and a tacit entente: whichever principle is actualized, it always latently contains its opposite. At every moment the prog­ress of one implies the regression of the other, but simultaneously the progress of either principle necessarily leads to its own future regression. The future is already at work in the present, and the expanding present will soon pass away. Becoming is gradual; only transition actually exists.  [p. 196]


Moral Strategy: The Historical Situation as a Setup to Be Manipulated

“Tension-detente,” “deployment-withdrawal” — or “order-disorder,” “ rise-decline”: all history inexorably passes through “highs and lows,” 49 not as a result of any metaphysical principle projected onto the passage of time but through the inherent necessity of every process; the factors at work, both positive and negative, necessarily become exhausted and are replaced by compensatory factors. A regulatory dynamic is thus inherent (even if in no more than a discreet or even inchoate fashion) within every stage of becoming, turning every historical situation into a setup that can be manipulated. [p. 198]

49See, e.g., for these expressions, and in order, Dutongjianlun, ch. 13 , “Wudi,” p. 405; Songlun, ch. 15 , p. 259 ; Dutongjianlun, ch. 20, “Taizong,” p. 691; Ibid., ch. 13, “ Chengdi,” p. 411.

In this respect, the tactic to employ could not be more simple, yet it is so constantly applicable that it serves as a Moral Way for mankind: Learn how to make the most of the tendency at work in the course of things; allow the setup represented by the situation simply to develop according to its tendency. Every historical situation, even the most unfavorable, is always rich in the possibility of change, since a positive de­velopment over the more-or-less long term is always a possibil­ity: if not now, then later. One only has to count on the one factor that is the most influential: the factor of time. [pp. 198-199]


Chapter 10, Propensity at Work in Reality

Chinese Tradition’s Scan Interest in Causal Explanation

[….] Kant tells us that causality is a general law of understanding that must be established a priori. Chinese thought, in contrast, seems almost never to rely on such a prin­ciple, even in its interpretation of nature. Of course, it cannot totally ignore the causal relationship, but it resorts to it only within the framework of experiences taking place in front of us, where its impact is immediate. It never extrapolates it in imag­ined series of causes and effects extending all the way back to the hidden reason for things or even to the principle underlying real­ ity as a whole.  [p. 220]


The Chinese interpretation of reality in any realm, and even where most generally speculative, thus appears to proceed through the understanding of the disposition of things. One starts by identifying a particular configuration (disposition, arrangement), which is then seen as a system according to which things function: instead of the explanation of causes, we have the implication of tendencies. In the former, one must always find an external element as an antecedent, and reasoning can be described as regressive and hypothetical. In the latter, the sequence of changes taking place stems entirely from the power relations inherent in the initial situation, thereby constituting a closed system: in this case we are dealing not with the hypothetical but with the ineluctable. In the context of natural phenomena and in first philosophy, this ineluctability of tendency can be expressed by the term shi, translated as either “tendency” or “ propensity” depending on the word chosen by the first Western interpreters of Chinese thought as they tried to convey its originality.  [p. 221]


The Meaning of Natural Propensity

To the Chinese, the principal “disposition” (or arrangement of things) concerns the relation between Heaven and Earth. Heaven is above and Earth beneath; one is round, the other square. Because of the Earth’s situation — it is beneath Heaven yet also matches it — its “propensity,” shi, always leads it to “conform with and obey” the initiative emanating from Heaven.44 [p. 222]

44Even for Aristotle in his guise as a “naturalist,” the good is not imma­nent in the world; it emanates from God, who is its source, as is attested by a comparison with the general and his army; see Metaphysics, 50, 1075a: “ The efficiency of an army consists partly in the order and partly in the general; but chiefly in the latter because he does not depend upon the order, but the order depends upon him.”

Earth and Heaven, through their “ disposition,” embody the antithetical and complementary principles presiding over everything that happens. They constitute on the one hand the “initiator,” on the other the “receiver,” the Father and the Mother. It is from the configura­tion of this primary pair that the entire process of reality stems. Propensity thus provides the key to the actualization of things.  [p. 222]


Attempting to act upon the physical or social world without going along with the tendency objectively implied in it and gov­ erning its development would be vain and therefore absurd, as would seeking to aid the unfolding of reality rather than acting in conformity with the logic of the propensity that always stems from the given situation. This perspective is particularly high­ lighted by those trying to retain “ Daoism” as the state doctrine at the beginning of the Empire. [p. 223]


The Demystification of Religion and Interpretation Based on Tendencies

One of the most striking peculiarities of Chinese civilization is that it moved at an early date away from religious feeling toward a sense of universal regulation.  [p. 225]


The Setup of Reality and Its Manipulation

The sway of tendency is not only universal, but also logical. With the development of Neo-Confucianism from the ninth century on, Chinese thinkers become exceedingly inclined to emphasize the principle of internal coherence that accounts for the processes of reality. Although they react against the influence of Buddhism (in their view, it has perverted their modes of thought), they are nevertheless obliged to consider the metaphysical necessity brought to their attention by this new tradition, and so they re­turn to the sources of Chinese thinking. The idea of a principle and reason for things (li) thus comes to the fore and serves as the basis of their view of the world. This idea gives reality a new struc­ture, which is described at three levels:25

  • at the level of “prin­ciple” is “ duality-correlativity” ;
  • at the level of “tendency” (shi) is “ mutual attraction between the two poles” (“they seek each other out” );
  • finally, at the level of “relationship” and its numer­ical determination is a constant “ flux” that is in perpetual meta­morphosis.

25Jingxiu xiansheng wenji, “ Tuizhaiji.”

At the starting point thus remain two factors standing in opposition and interrelation; from this “ disposition” stems a reciprocal interaction which constitutes their propensity; from that dynamic relationship proceeds the actualization of phenom­enal manifestations in a perpetual state of variation. In this chain, tendency is the intermediate term linking the principle to the coming-to-be of what is concrete, and it constitutes the creative and regulatory tension coextensive with reality in its entirety. [pp. 228-229, editorial paragraphing added]


The Concept of “Logical Tendency” and the Interpretation of the Phenomena of Nature

The idea that propensity contains a rationality eventually led to the new concept of “ logical tendency,” which was used over the later centuries of Chinese thought to clarify the view that Chinese civilization evolved of nature and the world. “Logical tendency” incorporates two ideas that Chinese thought cannot dissociate: first, the notion that in reality everything always comes about immanently as a result of an internal development, with no need to invoke any external causality; second, the idea that this spon­taneous process is itself a supremely regulatory force and that the norm it expresses constitutes the basis for transcending reality. In the last analysis, this is the Chinese “Heaven”: its “ natural” course also constitutes an absolute “morality.”  [p. 231]


The Chinese Concept Is neither Mechanistic nor Finalistic

… the Chinese concept of the dis­position of things stresses the idea of an ineluctable unfolding given shape by propensity, and accounts for their generation purely on the basis of physical qualities (“hard,” “soft,” etc.); these qualities are regarded as phenomena produced by energy.41 [p. 246]

41See, e.g., the presentation of the mechanistic theory in Aristotle, Physics, 199a.

But in the Greek theory, this ineluctable necessity is simply the other side of chance, and the adaptation of nature cannot be a principle immanent in that nature. (According to Empedocles, whom Aristotle criticized on this point, nature simply proceeds as the result of a series of happy coincidences and through the elimination of everything unviable.) In contrast, the idea of regulation is at the root of Chinese thinking on the whole process; instead of some blind mechanism, the propensity that conducts the process is, as we have seen, conceived to be eminently logical.  [p. 246]


The Absence of Any Theory of Causality: No Subject and No Mover

This point of agreement between Greek physics and the Chinese concept of a process, before any divergence, can certainly be found in both traditions’ conceptualization of change in terms of contraries.  [p. 246]


“There is no being whose substance is seen to be constituted by contraries,” Aristotle also tells us. In China, all the energy fuel­ing actualization is constituted by both yin and yang. Those two are thus not only the limiting terms of change; they together form all that exists. There is thus no need to posit a “third term” to support their relation. Even the regulating principle does not exist over and above the two contraries: it simply expresses their har­monious relation. The two contraries form on their own a self-sufficient configuration; as we have certainly seen by now, the propensity that stems on its own from their interdependence ori­ents the process of reality. Even as energy is ceaselessly divided between yin and yang, it is constantly led to actualize itself, func­tioning in a balanced and regular fashion: there is constantly materialization but, strictly speaking, no matter. In Aristotle, in contrast, the dynamic insufficiency of contraries goes hand in hand with his doctrine of substance: reality is not conceived as a particular arrangement providing its own dynamic from disposition; rather, it is conceived as a relation between matter and form, based on the concept of essence (which is why contraries can only be “ inherent” to a subject as “ accidents” ). It also follows that change can no longer be interpreted in terms of spontaneous ten­dency, as in a bipolar structure, but instead implies the elaboration of a complex system of causality.  [p. 251-252]

Chapter 11, Conclusion III: Conformism and Efficacy

Neither Tragic Heroism nor Disinterested Contemplation

Two models of human fulfillment have come down to us from ancient Greece and have helped to fashion our aspiration toward the ideal. The first is that of a heroic commitment to action, conceived in the tragic mode: an individual decides to take part in the course of things, resolutely assuming responsibility for his initiative despite all the contrary forces that he encounters in the world and even at the risk of being destroyed and swept away. The second is the model of a vocation to contemplation, conceived in a philosophical and religious mode: having seen through the illusion of all that is “perceptible” and having understood that everything here on earth is ephemeral and doomed, the soul aspires to eternal truths and conceives of no “ overeign good,” and hence no “happiness,” other than the world of the intelligible, which it may reach by drawing closer to the divine absolute. [p. 259]

In contrast, ancient Chinese thought is above all concerned with avoiding confrontation, which is exhausting and sterile. It conceives of a model of efficacy based on correlation and detectable at the heart of the objective processes. This is the only kind of efficacy valid on the human level. Chinese thought is, further more, unassailed by the doubt about the perceptible realm that is the source of the opposition between appearance and truth in Western thought and that has oriented our philosophical activity toward abstraction aimed at description and disinterest. In Chinese thought, the level of knowledge is not separate from that of action: a wise man, yielding to an intuition of the dynamism implied in the course of things (revered as the Dao), takes care not to go against it, and instead lets it it operate fully in all situations. [pp. 259-260]

The Closed System of Disposition Evolving Solely as a Result of the Interaction of Poles

What we have learned about the word shi demonstrates this last point. Because it implies no dissociation between practice and theory, it never becomes detached from its initial strategic meaning and always helps us to think about the processes to which it is applied from the perspective of how to use them. Since the principles of dynamism are fundamentally the same across reality, the word shi can serve equally well in the analysis of nature and in the analysis of history; in the field of political management and in that of artistic creation. Reality always presents itself as a particular situation that results from a particular disposition of circumstances that is, in turn, inclined to produce a particular effect: it is up to the general, and equally to the politician, the painter, and the writer, to avail himself of the shi (the same expression is repeated in all fields) so as to exploit it to its maximum potentiality.  [p. 260]

Chinese thought, then, may not be inclined toward specula­tion, but it is from early on inclined toward systematization. It tends to exclude as far as possible any form of external interven­tion (such as supreme modes of causality that cannot initially be grasped: not only “God,” in the sense of the prime mover of nature, but also “destiny” in warfare and “inspiration” in poetry). To this extent, it repeatedly conceives of reality as a closed system that evolves from a single principle of interaction and necessarily refers back to two poles. Those two essential features of any con­figuration of factors, which stand in opposition to each other and at the same time function correlatively, are to be found at every level of reality, from the relation between yin and yang (or Earth and Heaven) in the order of nature to the relation between sov­ereign and subject (or man and woman) in the social order, and similarly from the relation between above and below (or dark and light, slow and rapid, etc.) in the art of writing to the relation between emotion and landscape (or empty and full, flat tones and oblique tones) in poetic composition. From the established bipo­lar system stems variation through alternation, the tendency toward engendering that is implied by the very deployment of things, and it is that variation that makes it possible for “reality,” whatever that might be, to continue to come about. This variation can be found both shaping the relief of the land and punctuating time: we can contemplate it in the sequence of mountains and valleys in the landscape and equally in the unfolding of times of achieve­ ment and decline in the course of history. Everything oscillates between two poles, changes, and is renewed. This is the model that the general must emulate, as he switches constantly from one tactic to its opposite in as sinuous a fashion as a “ snake-dragon” to keep his power to attack always fresh. It is also the model for the poet, who makes a poetic text “undulate” like “the folds in a draped canopy” to maintain vitality in his expression of emotion.  [pp. 260-261]


Wisdom or Strategy: Conforming with Propensity

Conceiving, as they do, of all reality as a deployment, the Chi­nese are not led to backtrack along a necessarily infinite series of possible causes. Convinced as they are of the ineluctable nature of propensity, they are not inclined to speculate on ends, which can never be anything more than probable. Neither cosmogonical stories nor teleological suppositions interest them. They are concerned neither to recount the beginning nor to imagine the end. All that exists, has always existed, and will always exist are inter­ actions that are constantly at work, and reality is never anything other than their ceaseless process. Thus, the problem that con­cerns the Chinese is not that of “being,” in the Greek sense (i.e., being as opposed to becoming and the perceptible world); rather it is the problem of the capacity to function: the source of the efficacy that is at work everywhere in reality and the best way to profit from it.  [p. 262]

#jullien, #propensity, #yinyang

Reformation and transformation (Ackoff 2003, 2010)

In his system of system concepts, Russell Ackoff made the distinction between reformation and transformation in many of his lectures. Here are two written sources.

From Redesigining Society (2003) …

Systemic Transformation

A system is transformed, as contrasted with reformed, when its structure or functions are changed fundamentally. Such changes are discontinuous and qualitative, quantum leaps. For example, Ghandi led the transformation of India from a colonial state to an independent democracy. In contrast, Roosevelt reformed the United State; of the changes he brought in were wihtin the existing systems of government.

Reform maintains the existing system but modifies its behavior; it manipulates the system’s efficiency with respect to the same objectives as it had previously. Transformation involves changes of ends as well as means. Reform is preoccupoed with doing things right, even the wrong things. Transformation is concerned with doing the right things, as well as doing them right. Put another way: when a system is reformed, the way it is conceptualized, though of — for example, as an organism — is not changed. When it is transformed, the way it is conceptualized is changed — for example, from the organism into a social system. [p. 163]

In a society conceptualized as an organism, as most are (see Chapter 7), the government is not thought of as an instrument of its parts. “Ask not what the government can do for you, but what you can do for the government.” The parts are though of as instruments of the whole. “Theirs is not to question why; theirs is just to do or die.” In contrast, when a society is conceptualized as a social system, service to its parts, its stakeholders, is its principal function. Those who govern and lead are take to be public servants in fact as well as in word. In a reformed society, the leader is one who empower the followers. In a transformed society, the leader is one who is empowered by the followers. [pp. 163-164]

From Differences That Make a Difference (2010) …


To reform a system is to change its behavior without changing its structure or its functions. It continues to do the kinds of things it has always done but does some of them differently. To transform a system is to change its structure and the way it functions. The changes it produces are radical (go to the roots of the system) or even revolutionary.

Reformations and transformations are both intended to improve performance of that which has been modified.

Transformations of any type of social group require leadership because they involve a risk. Therefore, they also require a willingness on the part of followers to make short-run sacrifices in order to make longer-term gains. The willingness to make such sacrifices requires a vision supplied by the leader of the end-point of the transformation. It must be an inspiring vision and one that is accompanied by a formulation of a strategy for making progress toward its realization.

A reformation does not require a leader; managers can usually make it happen. Inspiration is seldom required. A tactical plan is usually sufficient to bring it about; a strategy is not necessary. A manager who can exercise authority can frequently bring a reformation about with subordinates who do not necessarily follow voluntarily (as is required in a transformation). Transformations may be led by leaders who have absolutely no authority over their followers. If the leader of a transformation exercises authority it is authority voluntarily given to him/her by his/her followers.

The change of an autocratic monarchy or dictatorship to a democracy is a transformation. The change of a democracy from conservative to liberal is a reformation. The change of Christianity from Catholicism to Protestantism was also a transformation but was called a Reformation. The change from Methodism to Baptism was a reformation. The Industrial Revolution transformed societies. Changes in a nation’s constitution, in contrast to additions, usually transform the nation. Additions to a constitution may or may not do so. Perestroika and glasnost were transforming in the Soviet Union but they have been diluted (reformed) since.

For finer points on the distinction between a biological conception and a social systems perspective, there’s a digest at “System types as purposeful, and displaying choice” that refers to some articles by Russell L. Ackoff and Jamshid Gharajedaghi.


Ackoff, Russell L., and Sheldon Rovin. 2003. Redesigning Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Ackoff, Russell Lincoln. 2010. Differences That Make a Difference: An Annotated Glossary of Distinctions Important in Management. Triarchy Press Limited.

#reformation, #systems-thinking, #transformation