Eco: The I Ching and the Binary Calculus
“Leibniz’s tendency to transform his characteristica into a truly blind calculus, anticipating the logic of Boole, is no less shown by his reaction to the discovery of the Chinese book of changes–the I Ching.
Leibniz’s continuing interest in the language and culture of China is amply documented, especially during the final decades of his life. In 1697 he had published Novissima sinica (Dutens 1768: IV, 1), which was a collection of letters and studies by the Jesuit missionaries in China.
It was a work seen by a certain Father Joachim Bouvet, a missionary just returned from China, who responded by sending Leibniz a treatise on the ancient Chinese philosophy which he saw as represented by the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching.
The Book of Changes had for centuries been regarded as a work of millennial antiquity. More recent studies, however, have dated it to the third century BCE. Nevertheless, scholars of the time of Leibniz still attributed the work to a mythical author named Fu Hsi.
As its function was clearly magical and oracular, Bouvet not unnaturally read the hexagrams as laying down the fundamental principles for Chinese traditional culture.
When Leibniz described to Bouvet his own research in binary arithmetic, that is, his calculus by 1 and 0 (of which he also praised the metaphysical ability to represent even the relation between God and nothingness), Bouvet perceived that this arithmetic might admirably explain the structure of the Chinese hexagrams as well.
In fact, the disposition of the hexagrams in the wood-cut differs from that of the I Ching, nevertheless, this error allowed Leibniz to perceive a signifying sequence which he later illustrated in his Explication de l’arithmétique binaire (1703).
Figure 14.1 shows the central structure of the diagrams seen by Leibniz. The sequence commences, in the upper left hand corner, with six broken lines, then proceeds by gradually substituting unbroken for broken lines.
Leibniz read this sequence as a perfect representation of the progression of binary numbers (000, 001, 010, 110, 101, 011, 111 . . . ). See figure 14.2.
Once again, the inclination of Leibniz was to void the Chinese symbols of whatever meaning was assigned to them by previous interpretations, in order to consider their form and their combinatorial possibilities.
Thus once more we find Leibniz on the track of a system of blind thought in which it was syntactic form alone that yielded truths. Those binary digits 1 and 0 are totally blind symbols which (through a syntactical manipulation) permit discoveries even before the strings into which they are formed are assigned meanings.
In this way, Leibniz’s thought not only anticipates by a century and a half Boole’s mathematical logic, but also anticipates the true and native tongue spoken by a computer–not, that is, the language we speak to it when, working within its various programs, we type expressions out on the keyboard and read responses on the screen, but the machine language programmed into it.
This is the language in which the computer can truly “think” without “knowing” what its own thoughts mean, receiving instructions and re-elaborating them in purely binary terms.
Certainly Leibniz mistook the nature of the I Ching, since “the Chinese interpreted the kua in every manner except mathematically” (Lozano 1971). Nevertheless, the formal structures that he (rightly enough) isolated in these diagrams appeared to him so esoterically marvelous that, in a letter to Father Bouvet, he did not hesitate in identifying the true author of the I Ching as Hermes Trismegistus–and not without reasons, because Fu Hsi was considered in China as the representative of the era of hunting, fishing and cooking, and thus can be considered, as can Hermes, the father of all inventions.”
Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 284-7.