The universal genius in human history & the patterns for the construction of the entire Universe.
The celebrated systems thinker Gregory Bateson, who is regarded by some as a founding figure in cybernetics and dynamical systems theory, once famously wrote the following in one of his books: “What is the pattern which connects all the living creatures? My central thesis can now be approached in words: The pattern which connects is a meta pattern. It is a pattern of patterns. It is that metapattern which defines the vast generalization that, indeed, it is patterns which connect.” In terms of the Li, this quote from Bateson can be interpreted as referring to the relationship between the Tao – the meta pattern – and the Li – the innumerable patterns connected by the metapattern.
So what is this unfamiliar concept to the general public – Li? Li is the traditional Chinese word for the organizing principles of the cosmos, the dynamic patterns that connect qi or ch’i in various forms to construct the entire Universe.
Interest in Chinese philosophical thought has always been characteristic of European culture. Leibniz was the initiator of the appeal to ancient Chinese thought in New European philosophy. It is evidenced by the published correspondence between Leibniz and Christian missionaries in China. His interest was driven not only by the awareness of the creative potential of Chinese thought, unknown to Europeans but also by the desire to find the ideological origins of his project – the construction of a universal binary calculus, which he imagined as the logical and mathematical language of the future. And in this, as modern computer technology shows, he proved to be a visionary. The scientist was the founder of mathematical logic, the importance of which he understood at a time when it was not yet evident to anyone. As his unpublished writings and numerous letters appeared, respect for him as a thinker grew incredibly high in the twentieth century. But first things first.
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was one of the universal geniuses in human history who had no particular specialization. He did mathematics, physics, chemistry, philosophy, biology, psychology, and linguistics. Each of these sciences owes something to him. The young Leibniz was very impressed by the study of logic. He was fascinated by the fact that the predicates denoting Aristotle’s ten categories formed a sort of universal register of things. He had the idea of creating something similar for judgments, that is, thoughts that affirm the presence or absence of certain states of affairs. And also something like an alphabet of human thoughts, by combining the signs of which new knowledge could be gained. This idea would later become one of the guiding principles of his scientific work.
As a thinker, Leibniz had three unique traits. He was very perceptive, finding new things in what was commonly known and adding to what was thought to be complete; he often expressed ideas from which new sciences and scientific directions later emerged. Leibniz harmoniously combined what others considered incompatible – the ideas of the scholastic and new philosophy, faith, and reason. It should also be noted that Leibniz was a man of deep faith, and all his life, he tried to combine religion and science without doubting the tenets of the Christian faith. He reflected on an extensive range of questions, from the fundamental principles of philosophy and science to the design of machines and the solution to current problems of international politics.
Long before Sigmund Freud, Leibniz concluded that mental processes are divided into fully conscious and vaguely conscious or unconscious states of mind. For the first time in history, he was able to explain the difference between them, which formed the basis of the theory of “small perceptions”. Leibniz is quite legitimately regarded as the forerunner of German classical philosophy. The philosopher developed a system called Monadology and believed that the whole diverse world consists of certain substances, called monads, which exist separately. These, in turn, are the spiritual unit of being. Each monad, including the human soul, would be a “living mirror of the Universe”. And, from his point of view, the world is not something inexplicable because it is pretty cognizable, and the problem of truth requires a rational interpretation. According to Leibniz, the supreme monad was God, who personified the absolute completeness and clarity of knowledge and established particular world order, and the criterion of truth was logical evidence.
Social media. Doesn’t it look like a product of the age of globalization? But as it turns out, this is not true: the first such platform appeared more than 300 years ago. And the creator of the first virtual social network, the prototype of modern Facebook, is the same great German scientist Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. His network of contacts is a clear example of Networking, which means conscious work on creating a community of valuable connections. The essential elements of a fishing or spider’s net are nodes and connections between nodes, or more simply, two sequentially connected points. Taking this perfectly elementary principle as a basis, the scientist enjoyed weaving a kind of social network. In this, as well as in many other things, the German scientist was far ahead of his time as the very concept of “social network” in its current representation did not yet exist at that time. Leibniz’s addressees included over 1,100 prominent scientists, philosophers, and political figures from all over the world. The prerequisite for forming such a vast ‘network community was that some correspondents connected others to the network – those who also needed to exchange knowledge and advice with fellow scientists. The correspondence was very active and was conducted in German, French, and Latin, which contributed to the rapid development of mathematical analysis in continental Europe at that time. The constant exchange of new results and discussion of various mathematical problems contributed significantly to, for example, the formation, and development of differential and integral calculus.
The letters took a long time to arrive. Leibniz had to wait sometimes weeks for answers to his correspondence, and occasionally they disappeared without a trace. To make the message unreadable to outsiders, Leibniz even invented his own cipher. It could be called an effective means to protect personal data. However, the scientist himself widely used the possibility of exchanging opinions with the comment system characteristic of modern social networks. When he had an interesting idea, he immediately shared it with competent correspondents – he sent a dozen identical short letters to recipients describing his hypothesis and asked for an immediate response. And then, after studying the responses he received, Leibniz refined his idea to perfection.
Wanting to find the source of true morality and hidden secret knowledge in China, Leibniz studied Asian culture for a long time. He later put the result of his search in the form of a universal method of binary numbering, the so-called binary arithmetic, which laid the foundations of the modern programming language. His acquaintance and close cooperation with Joachim Bouvet, a French missionary in China, showed Leibniz how closely his ideas as a European philosopher related to ancient Chinese wisdom. In 1685 the French explorer was included in the expedition sent to China by Louis XIV. The efforts of European missionaries were intended not only to influence the politics and spirituality of the great Oriental power, as China seemed at the time but also to enrich European culture with Chinese literature and to acquaint it with the living tradition of thought of Chinese philosophers.
Luckily, Leibniz’s meticulously arranged archive has been preserved. Thanks to this correspondence, one of the most exciting questions can be looked into and understood, namely, the knowledge of Li.
Christian missionaries in China were not expected to look for common ground between Chinese philosophy and, say, Aristotle’s philosophy and to think that this would help arouse Christian attitudes among Confucian scholars. It is well-known that people are rarely inclined to see what ideas and judgments have in common; they are more inclined to look for differences. The history of religion shows that divergences prevail, but convergences are very rare. And yet, they are possible. The essential line of divergence between these views is that, according to one, the highest reward and good are attained through renunciation of worldly affairs and goods. At the same time, the other, Confucianism, represents the religion of this world as a secular establishment. By preaching renunciation of the world, Buddhism and Taoism become similar to Christianity. According to Confucian ideas, the secular life is no less valuable, if not more so, than the life beyond, which, however, is not fundamentally different from this life and is not even separated from it by an impenetrable wall.
Christian missionaries were not indifferent to what the Chinese they were converting thought about invisible entities. The fantasies and popular beliefs here are pretty comparable to those in the Christian world, although Confucian scholars were more restrained in these matters. And here, the statement of Zhu Xi, a Chinese calligrapher, historian, philosopher, and politician, is appropriate: ” When a man, dying, finally returns to a dispersed state, this should not be understood as a complete dispersal. Hence we see that the sacrifices also prove to be valid. Whether the ancestral generations now living in the very distant past still possess or do not possess the power of the breath, although it is impossible to know, yet since their grandchildren and great-grandchildren offer sacrifices to them, and finally they all now possess the common power of the breath, their sacrifices must reach their goal and have an effect. What has dissipated can no longer condense back into the same Form.” And this reasoning of the philosopher, to whose teachings Leibniz was first introduced by the missionaries living in China, is the answer to one of the main questions raised in his treatise.
Leibniz’s treatise is a study of Confucian philosophy and religion by Catholic Christian missionaries to China, with assessments of their perceptions of both ancient and modern Confucianism. Leibniz’s work is not only valuable in providing new insights into the work of the eminent philosopher but is also useful for a thorough study of Chinese philosophy, especially from the 11th century onward, the so-called Neo-Confucianism. Neo-Confucianism is commonly divided into two branches – the notion of Li (universal principle) as its main feature, with a rationalist philosophy. And the second branch was the doctrine of consciousness, where the main thing was thought to be inner development. The greatest concern of the Christian missionaries was how the Chinese scholars understood the soul and the idea of its immortality. Based on the information that came to Europe from China, Leibniz believed that Confucius used such concepts as Li – the Universal Principle, and qi or ch’i – energy, particles, matter. To fully understand what we are talking about, it is necessary to clarify the relationship of the concepts to each other, which will allow us to get closer to the system present in Chinese philosophy. Such categories are more often lined up in pairs and are of equal status or maybe in a hierarchical relation to one another.
The dictionary’s primary meaning of the word Li is ‘to organize,’ ‘to put in order. All other meanings are derived from it, including ‘justice’ and ‘reason’, ‘idea’, ‘principle’, ‘essence’. Of all the highest personal qualities and human virtues, Confucius placed above only humanity, although he did not think of this without Li. The paired category for Neo-Confucian Li is qi. The basic meaning is air, followed by ‘spirit’, ‘breath’, ‘strength’, ‘power’, ‘energy’ – because this is also ‘spirit’. Of course, if we accept the philosophical meanings of these two categories, for example, spirit and material substance, the ordering or guiding principle, and energy, force, energized substance, then their fundamental relationship is beyond doubt. It is more difficult to see it if we take the basic meaning of Li – order, measure; the meaning of qi remains – energy or energy-possessing substance. In this case, it is possible to consider Li as a ratio of portions of energy inherent in qi and as the law of transformation of such ratios.
In the system of philosophical concepts Li, besides the fact that it is closely related to qi, is closest to Taiji. Which represents the Supreme Ultimate state of undifferentiated absolute and infinite potential, the greatest division into past and future, the beginning of time and all beginnings, the oneness before duality, from which Yin and Yang originate. That is why Leibniz also put Li, Taiji, and Jade Emperor in the same line. In general, Taiji is identified with the pole of the world, which can be considered the Polaris or another star, which points to the northern end of the Earth’s axis in one part or another of the precession circle.
In his correspondence Bouvet noted that there is not a single mystery in the Christian religion, not a single dogma in our theology, that has not been revealed in these ancient Chinese books with stunning clarity and in many ways – as ingeniously as sublimely, and usually with the same images and symbols as in our sacred texts. Bouvet placed the same meaning in the term figure as image or symbol. In the broader context of Chinese philosophy, however, it was pretty adequately understood as a number. Later, therefore, this figureism also came to be called symbolism in theology (theologia symbolica). However, it would be correct to take the term “numerology” because numbers represent symbols, and numbers are important because there is something more significant behind them. Numbers are sacred. And since Bouvet explained the existing connection between numbers and events as divine acts, his concept is close to Leibniz’s idea of the Universal Characteristic or Universal Binary Calculus.
Numerical symbols display the internal structure of a number and the relationships between its components, allowing for a more obvious comparison of numbers. In this aspect, numbers can look mysterious. But perhaps this is how they open up the perspectives that Leibniz, and he was not the only one, dreamed of. And today, it isn’t easy to estimate how much knowledge the Chinese have preserved and accumulated throughout history.
The Chinese call the first principle Li, i.e., the cause (la raison) or foundation of nature as a whole and the essence (la substance). There is nothing more elevated or beautiful than Li. This most profound and universal cause is pure, subtle, calm, devoid of body and form, and cognizable only by reason (l’entendement). Li generates the following five moral qualities: reverence, justice, piety (la religion), prudence, and loyalty. Thus, according to the Chinese, Li is the only cause that makes the Sky move for many centuries and always evenly; it gives stability to the Earth, it endows all kinds of living beings with the ability to give birth to their kind; things do not possess this feature, it is independent of them, but resides and consists in Li; it prevails over everything, it is in everything, rules everything and produces everything, disposing of the Sky and the Earth undividedly.
Why not say after that that Li is our God? That is the ultimate or, if one wishes, the first cause of the existence and even the possibility of things, the source of all the good in them; the first intelligence.
The Chinese also call Li the summation, or supreme unity, for just as in numbers, the unit constitutes their principle but is not itself subject to it. Li is the great Void, or space, the immeasurable receptacle, for in this universal essence are contained all concrete essences (toutes les essences particulières). But the Chinese also call it the highest fullness because it fills everything and leaves nothing unoccupied. It extends into and out of the Universe. This is how we explain the immensity of God: he is everywhere, and everything is in him. Exactly so, God is the receptacle of all things (lieu des choses). And to give this proper meaning, it is necessary to conceive of space not as a substance whose parts are separated from one another, but as the order of all things, since they are to be seen as an existing whole, as arising from a divine infinity, and since they all depend on God at all times. And this mutual order of things proceeds from their relatedness to their common origin.
Li as decency (literally, ethical and ritual norms, ceremonies) is one of the major categories of Chinese philosophy. Until the middle of the 1st millennium B.C., the influence of Li was considered to be based on religious ritual, but later it was interpreted in a predominantly ethical way. The Li doctrine formulated in The Book of Rites, also known as the Liji, formed the foundation of Confucian and generally traditional Chinese conceptions of culture. The category of Li, joining such fundamental cultural and philosophical concepts as “humanity”, “due justice”, “reasonableness” and “goodness”, began to express the idea of a universal – social, ethical, religious, and cultural-civilizational – norm.
The ethical and philosophical system Confucianism houses Li as one of its core concepts. Li is a companion virtue to jen, translated into English as humaneness or humanity. When put together, these two virtues create a highly disciplined and cultivated person, motivated by deep care and empathy for every person and who behaves appropriately in every situation.
Li is sometimes thought of as the working out of jen in one’s life. When one follows the concept of Li, each of the family relationships will be harmonious. Confucianism asserts that once these family relationships are tranquil, Li will seep into the culture. From the home to the village to the empire, all of society will be tranquil. An individual first needs to understand the various recommendations of Confucianism, part of which is the belief in a hierarchical model that society has to follow. This hierarchical model defines family relationships as husbands govern their wives, parents supervise their children, and older siblings outrank the younger ones. This hierarchical model also has different applications within social contexts and categories based on an individual’s occupation.
The influence of Li on modern life
In the business setting, the Chinese are very different from Westerners because employees are likely to emulate the goals and behavior of their employers or leaders. A widespread scenario where the influence of Li is prevalent is the reluctance of the Chinese to confront those ranked above them or those who are in authority. The hierarchical structure of modern-day Chinese society is also evidence of Li.
However, what is most interesting is that communism – considered a form of radical egalitarianism – directly rebels against the hierarchical tendencies of the Chinese. Then again, the communist rule that the country was under before becoming the People’s Republic of China only led to the reshuffling of the relationships amongst social groups, such as workers outranking scholars. By the time reformation started in the 1980s, the old hierarchical patterns had begun to resurface. This slow resurfacing of the traditional Chinese ways, the hierarchical tendency of the Chinese Culture, as well as the revival of Confucianism are all in line with the efforts of the Chinese authorities to put in place a value system that will substitute the Marxist dogmas that continue to haunt China and its people till today.
There are various manifestations of Li in social relationships within the Chinese culture, such as the preference of the Chinese to dress conservatively, speak softly, be slow to anger, etc. It also shows nepotism or a form of favoritism shown by those in power to close friends and relatives. Corruption amongst those in power is also a form of the negative influence of Li within society, as some experts claim. Although Confucius shunned bribery, the overpowering of average citizens by high-ranking officials and wealthy businessmen is similar to the hierarchical system he helped put into place.
As a philosophical category, Li has had three basic senses from the very beginning: physical, metaphysical, and anthropological. In the physical sense, Li is the external sensitive properties of things that determine their bodily forms. In modern language, it corresponds to the term “physics” (literally: the teaching of the principles of things). Li is the invisible inner structure of objects and phenomena in the metaphysical sense, corresponding to the Tao and making them cognizable. A representative of the anthropological sense of Li in modern language is the term “psychology” (literally: the doctrine of the principles of the heart). As a factor of cognition, Li ceases to be a sensitive attribute of the world of things and, on the contrary, becomes oppositional to all sensibility.
The word Li is incorporated into the word liology, which literally means the study of the organizing principles of the Universe. To be more specific, of the complete set of dynamic patterns that make up our entire Universe – what the traditional Chinese called the Tao. In recent times, some Chinese scholars suggest translating the word Li as coherence – emphasizing how the patterns that connect the qi are those which give it coherence. Liology sees humanity as a fractal entity within the natural system of the Earth. As such, it urges us to find a sustainable way of existing on Earth to thrive. This practice of experiencing life in an integrated manner offers a new form of understanding our place in the cosmos with embodied knowledge – knowledge that arises not just from the intellect but from our felt experience that harmonizes intellection and intuition. Li is understood as corresponding to the organizing principles of the natural world as described in complexity theory and systems biology. This correspondence is seen as not superficial but intrinsic to both systems of thought, which permits each system to build from the other.