Sunday, March 23, 2014


138. Cycles of change: Yin/Yang and discovery


The economist Schumpeter proposed that innovation arises out of ‘novel combinations’, in surprising connections between elements from previously unconnected areas of thought or practice. Here I raise the question whether perhaps there are fruitful connections between the dynamic of Yin and Yang, indicated in the preceding item of this blog, and the ‘cycle of discovery’, developed in my earlier work, which I summarized in items 31 and 35 of this blog.

In Taoism, the interaction between Yin and Yang, between integration and disintegration, is taken to produce and change the universe, to create being and non-being.

In the cycle of discovery also, novelty arises from a succession of integration and disintegration, which results from an opening and closing of context and content, of practices or theories.

I start with a summary of my cycle.

In generalization an existing mental scheme or practice is applied to novel contexts. It is an opening up to new contexts. Generalization is needed for four reasons. First, to escape from the existing order in the present area of practice. Second, to obtain fresh insights into the limitations of existing practice. Third, to create pressure for change fr the sake of survival, in the novel context. Fourth, to obtain insight into alternatives. Generalization can be real, as in a new market for an existing product, or a new field of application of a technology, or it can be virtual, as in a computer simulation, laboratory experiment, or a thought experiment.

To survive in the new conditions the scheme is differentiated in an attempt to deal with them. For this one taps from existing repertoires of possibilities and capabilities learned from previous experience. It is still integrative in that sense, though it begins to open up to variety. If that does not yield survival, one tries to adopt elements of local practices that appear to be successful where one’s own practice fails, in reciprocation. Here the basis is laid for an opening up of content. This yields hybrids that allow experimentation with novel elements to explore their potential, while maintaining the basic logic or design principles of the old practice. One next obtains insight into the obstacles from the old architecture that prevent the full utilization of the potential that novel elements have now shown. This yields indications for more fundamental opening up of content, in changes in the architecture, in accommodation. That is disintegrative.  

Next, the new architecture, with old and new elements, is still tentative, requiring much experimentation and subsidiary changes, and elimination of redundancies and inappropriate leftovers from old practice, in a process of consolidation. Here there is re-integration into a unified whole. There is often competition between alternative designs, which mostly results in a dominant design. In this process there a renewed focus, in a tailoring to a specific context, a closing down of context. And next, to get away from that one again needs the opening up of generalization, and the circle is closed.

The logic is captured succinctly as a succession of closure of content (in a dominant design), opening of context (in generalization), opening of content (reciprocation, accommodation), closure of context, and again closure of content (in a dominant design), with integration in consolidation and disintegration in accommodation.

Does this parallel between Yin/Yang and the cycle of discovery make sense? Does it help to elucidate the former? If it makes sense, then in the stage of reciprocation Yin and Yang are most difficult to separate. It is Yin in the attempt at ongoing integration into basic logic or architecture, but Yang in bringing in the variety that leads up to disintegration.

Can I learn from Yin/Yang to improve the cycle of discovery?  In Taoist thought ultimately the integrativeness of Yin is mostly seen to be the most fundamental force, while I have tended to focus on the Yang of creative destruction, in accommodation. Perhaps I have not fully appreciated consolidation.

My predelection towards Yang is reflected also in a pro-innovation bias in present, at
least Western, society. Stability is associated with conservatism, which is seen to be
antithetical to progress. But without the stability of Yin, Yang becomes neurotic and
erratic.