The Yijing (易经) and Cybernetics : From Leibniz’s Xiantian tu (先天图) to Wiener’s Bergsonism

Yeti Kang

PhD Student, Philosophy of Religions, UChicago Divinity School

Respondent: Elvin Meng

PhD Student, Comparative Literature and East Asian Languages and Civilizations, UChicago

The Yijing (易经) and Cybernetics : From Leibniz’s Xiantian tu (先天图) to Wiener’s Bergsonism

When Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz firstsent his paper on binary arithmetic to the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris in 1701, the Academy advised him not to publish it until he had found “better samples” to demonstrate the usefulness of his binary system. What Leibniz eventually added into his paper was a detailed account of the connection between the Yijing (易经) tri/hexagram or gua (卦) system and his binary arithmetic, based on the Xiantian tu (先天图) he received from the Jesuit missionary Joachim Bouvet (白晋). Such connection, as Leibniz suggests, not only reflects the universal applicability and metaphysical importance of his binary system, but also indicates the possibility of using Chinese writing as a sample for universal characteristic. Modern scholars tend to think Leibniz’s use of the Yijing as a strategic move, which proves at best a formal analogy between binary arithmetic and the Yijing system, and at worst a “Chinese prejudice” or “European hallucination.” In contrast, this paper argues that Leibniz’s reading reveals some profound connections and differences between the two systems at both the metaphysical and cosmo-technological levels.


To demonstrate these connections and differences, this paper compares the application of the Yijing tri/hexagrams and binary arithmetic in their cosmo-technological systems, i.e., in the Yijing divination and cybernetics. Based on the reading of Norbert Wiener’s account of cybernetic automaton and the divination system of the Yijing explicated in the Xici zhuan (系辞传), this paper outlines a recursive cosmic system in the Yijing, which not only shares certain logical and arithmetic premises with cybernetic mechanism, but also unifies the recursive system with the idea of sheng sheng (生生). However, beneath the recursive structure shared by cybernetics and the Yijing lies a fundamental divergency in their views towards the mechanism-organism relationship. Such difference leads to two radically different answers to Henri Bergson’s question about mechanism and moral mysticism. Through the journey of comparisons, this paper tries to answer two central questions: How do the two systems with strong similarities at the formal and structural levels end up producing two very different cosmo-technological and socio-ethical practices? How would the encounter of these two cosmo-technologies in the modern West shed new light on the discussions of mechanism/computationalism and moral mysticism in our information age?

This workshop will focus on a pre-circulated paper and will be largely discussion-based. We hope to see you there!

February 14th, 12:30 PM, Swift 200

Hosted by the Philosophy of Religions Workshop at the University of Chicago.


The Workshop on the Philosophy of Religions is committed to being a fully accessible and inclusive workshop.  Please contact Workshop Coordinators Danica Cao (, Audrey Guilbault (, or John Marvin ( in order to make any arrangements necessary to facilitate your participation in workshop events.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *