Daoism as a Way of Systems Thinking

As the “Century of Asia” unfolds, those in the West are becoming increasingly concerned that their predominance in the world will be subsumed by other worldviews, most of which they do not understand or about which they remain largely uninformed. Unfortunately, many people in the West likely consider their worldview as the only viable way of viewing the world around them, but the fact remains that billions of other people around the world go about their daily lives thinking about the fundamental realities that face everyone is drastically different ways. To help shed some light on these differences and how they apply to Western systemic thinking today, this paper will provide an analysis of how Daoism can be viewed as a legitimate method of systems thinking that can help Western observers better understand and appreciate how others seek solutions to the same types of problems that confront them. A summary of the research and salient findings will be provided in the conclusion.

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Review and Discussion

Background and Overview. Daoism (also known as Taoism), is a major tradition in China that embraces philosophical and religious components (Daoism, 2005). While the concept of “dao” was used by all Chinese schools of thought, Daoism as a tradition emerged from the advancement of the concept of “dao” as a social ideal; in this regard, Laozi is traditionally credited as being the founder of Daoism, as well as the author of its seminal text, the Daodejing (Daoism, 2005).* From a Daoism perspective, then, “dao” is considered to be the driving force or principle in life; nothing can be predicated on the dao, but the force is inherently comprised of all of the forms, entities, and forces of all phenomena in the world (Daoism, 2005). Further, Daoists believe that this natural wisdom is something with which mere mortals should not tamper. From the Daoist’s perspective, everyone and everything is equal and part of a larger whole; it is Daoism’s emphasis on nature and the natural order that builds on the societal focus of Confucianism; further, Daoism’s synthesis with Buddhism forms the basis of Zen (Daoism, 2005). It would, of course, be inaccurate to say that everyone in the East thinks this way, but those who do subscribe to the natural systems of Daoism think in this mode (Fraser, Haber & Lawrence, 1986). Because China has been so closely associated with Confucian thought in the West, it is little wonder that there is so much confusion about what Daoism really means today; indeed, some scholars insist on viewing Chinese tradition “as a whole” rather than separating it into distinctively institutionalized traditions such as “Daoism” or “Confucianism” though (Woo, 2002).

According to J.J. Clarke (2000), “Daoist ideas and traditions have inevitably been caught up in this volatile phantasm of China, though its importance in Chinese thought and culture has often been obscured. The commanding presence of Confucianism and its identification with the ruling orthodoxy in China has meant that we often see Daoism through Confucian eyes” (p. 2).

The latter connotation has tended to dominate the Western views of China to date, though, and the comparison between the West’s perception of these two traditions is indicative of the misperceptions concerning Daoism that are prevalent in the West, but even those in the East frequently misunderstand Daoism and its true focus. “Whereas Confucianism has occupied an eminent, if frequently mythologised, place in the Western mind,” Lagerway notes, “in many respects the definitive symbol of Chineseness, Daoism has represented, a ‘censured chapter of Chinese history'”; likewise, according to Schipper (1993), Daoism is “the least understood, the most commonly ignored and maligned, of all the major religions of the world” (p. xvi) and yet another a tradition has Daoism completely ‘written off wholesale as superstition…interpreted as pure religious mysticism and poetry’ (Needham 1956, p. 86).

From the typical Chinese perspective, Daoism is largely regarded as just part of an overall worldview; for example, while elements of popular Daoism and ancestor worship (which is closely related to Confucianism) are the strongest and most apparent in many rural Chinese villages today, there is also a distinct Buddhist influence as well (Knapp, 1992). “These elements have been merged into a single system,” Knapp says, “that allows villagers to adjust to and achieve rapport with the spirits of natural objects, ancestors, deified heroes, and demons or evil spirits” (emphasis added) (p. 284). Clearly, Daoism represents an important component in Chinese systems thinking, but the typical Western perspective of Daoism, if it even exists, is quite different, though. Confucianism has at various periods been regarded as an enlightened form of humanism, and Daoism has frequently been characterized as being a benign type of “nature-loving mysticism” that does not truly hold any real substance for the modern practitioner (Clark, 2000). “As a set of religious teachings,” Clark says, “it has been associated with a number of fanciful activities such as flying though the air, living on dew, indefinitely prolonged orgasm, and the search for the elixir of immortality” (p. 2). Further, in many cases, even the Chinese leadership has, in recent years, viewed Daoism as an embarrassment and as an indication of China’s underdevelopment in relation to the West; this view of Daoism has fueled a drive to completely erase Daoism from the cultural landscape as being “a humiliating blemish on China’s record which must be erased in the drive towards modernization” (Clark, 2000, p. 2). Given these conflicting, and largely uninformed and negative views of Daoism today, it is important to understand precisely what the philosophy espouses and why these conflicting views have emerged in recent years; these issues are discussed further below.

Daoism as a Way of Systems Thinking. Despite the paucity of informed opinion about the East in general and Daoism in particular in the West, things appear to be changing slowly. Indeed, Clark suggests that, “A palpable change of attitude has taken place in recent decades, one which affects not only attitudes towards Daoism but also towards China as a whole and towards the other great civilizations and belief systems of Asia” (p. 2). Indeed, the 21st century has been increasingly regarded as being the “Century of Asia” (Fureng & Nolan, 2003); however, many Western observers today would likely be dismayed to find their worldviews and fundamental beliefs being challenged by anything remotely related to Daoist thought, but the fact remains that this ethnocentristic view of the world by those in the West cannot long endure as the only way of thinking about the world in the coming years. Early in the 20th century, Chamberlain (1913) found Daoism to be an “original and captivating philosophy”; Daoist negation, in fact, represented “the highest point of what is attainable by the Chinese spirit. It was as profound as Confucianism was shallow” (p. 251). Nevertheless, this early example of how Chinese culture was viewed in the West was “extremely instructive” because it “demonstrated that civilization was a product of personality and race rather than evolution and growth (Chamberlain, 1913). In fact, “The Chinese despite producing a ‘feverishly active civilization’ possessed no culture. As it was impossible to civilize non-European civilizations, so ‘we shall fail to graft culture upon the Chinaman'” (p. 252). What these early Western observers were increasingly questioning was the continuing viability of its Confucian value system. “This, in part, reflected a missionary desire to ‘harvest’ souls for ‘the Lord'” (Legge, 1880, p. 309); in addition, it was also fueled by the Western view that the great weakness in Chinese civilization was founded in an indifference to the truth and a preoccupation with giving and losing face. “For the missionary-sinologist, this was a direct consequence of paganism” (Jones, 2001, p. 103). In the 21st century, though, this view of Asia and its people is no longer appropriate or relevant, of course, and the manner in which they proceed to consider the world around them has assumed new importance for those in the West: “In broad terms,” Clark advises, “we have witnessed a transformation in the past century from an imperial age in which Eurocentric attitudes and values enjoyed world ascendancy, to one of profound challenge to the dominance of Western power and ideas” (2000, p. 2). These fundamental challenges relate to the need for those in the West to better understand a diametrically different worldview that embraces these elements of Daoist philosophy about the relationship between mankind and the environment in which we all must survive; Gregory Bateson (1972) describes this relationship clearly in Steps to an Ecology of Mind where he writes:

The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your folks or conspecifics against the environment of other social units, other races and the brutes and vegetables. If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell (emphasis added). (p. 462)

In his book, the Unbounded Mind: Breaking the Chains of Traditional Business Thinking, Linstone and Mitroff (1995) ask, “What, if anything, can the United States do to improve, if not regain, its leadership position? What is the role of knowledge, of new thinking, in this effort? What are the basic ideas on which old thinking rested, and why is old thinking no longer appropriate? If new thinking is required, what does it involve?” (p. 14). Certainly, the vast majority of people in the West have come to think about the world around them in terms of the Greek philosophical tradition, combined with some version of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions. For example, Freiberg (1977) reports that “Philosophical systems based on positive and dialectical logic have co-existed throughout Western history, but dialectical philosophies have become increasingly important during the last two centuries” (p. 3). This author suggests that the emergence of formal symbolic logic in recent years can be attributed, at least in part, to the development of dialectical logic following the philosophy espoused by Hegel, particularly as it concerns its subsequent sociological reinterpretation by Marx (Freiberg, 1977). By sharp contrast, though, the Daoism traditions are virtually outside this hard-wired way of thinking about the world, and it quickly becomes clear that there is some type of conscious effort required in order to “think outside the box” in the West today – but this can be extremely challenging because it would seem no one wants their views of the world challenged or threatened. For example, Trott (2001) advises, “A basic worldview can be challenged, but seldom is by those who have committed to it” (p. 639). In fact, some observers suggest that while the Western view of the world has enjoyed its share of successes, the manner in which these achievements were achieved was less than desirable. According to Linstone and Mitroff:

There is no doubt whatsoever of the great success of the Inductive-Consensual and the Analytic-Deductive approaches in the natural sciences. Any one of countless models from Newton to Einstein attest to their overwhelming achievements. In the social sciences and in human affairs in general, however, far less ‘agreement’ exists regarding the success of this approach. (p. 46).

When researchers attempted to use systems thinking in real-world problem situations during the 1970s and 1980s, they largely found that what made the situations challenging from the outset was the inability to define objectives precisely, given the changing, multiple, ambiguous, and conflicting alternatives; these obstacles were at the level of “what to do?” As well as “how should we do it?” (Currie & Galliers, 1999, p. 52). The alternative to this approach was founded on the real-world universality of any attempted gainful action within the realm of human affairs; it also embraced the need to treat an associated set of activities that comprised a purposeful whole as a new system type: “a human activity system” (Currie & Galliers, 1999, p. 52). Alternative methods of framing models of such notional systems were developed subsequently introduced in the West, with each new paradigm being founded on a stated worldview. Currie and Galliers suggest that this was necessary “because one observer’s terrorism is another’s freedom fighting. Such models could then be used as devices to structure questioning of the problem situation (so that they were models ‘relevant to’ debate, not ‘of’ anything in the real world)” (Currie & Galliers, 1999, p. 52). This alternative method of systems thinking became known as “soft systems methodology” (SSM); it is described by these authors as being learning system as well as a system of inquiry; it is “one which happens to make use of models of activity systems (but other models could be incorporated)” (p. 52). The difference between this manner of systems thinking and the systematic thinking in the methods of systems engineering, RAND, and computer systems analysis is now considered to represent the milestone between the soft systems thinking of the 1970s and 1980s and the hard systems thinking of the earlier alternatives (Currie & Galliers, 1999). This is not to say, of course, that all people in the West – or the East – think exactly alike; it is to say, though, that everyone has a unique view of the world that helps guide them through the everyday routine. According to Olson and Roese (1995), “worldviews function something like schemas (cohesive and stable cognitive structures) in their functions of directing attention; structuring experience; and guiding memory, inference, and the interpretation of events” (p. 237). In many cases, even people from the same culture and background will develop entirely different conclusions when confronted with the same problems (Briggs & Peat, 2002).

The primary difference between them which remains largely unaddressed in the scholarly literature to date, is that the hard tradition assumes that systems exist in the world and can be engineered to achieve declared objectives. By contrast, the soft tradition assumes that the world is problematical, always more complex than any of mere human accounts of it; however, the process of enquiry into the world can itself be engineered as a learning system, one in which soft systems thinkers have the option consciously to adopt the hard stance if they so desire (Currie & Galliers, 1999). “It is this shift of systemicity, from assuming systems to exist in the world to assuming that the process of enquiry into the world can be organised as a learning system, which defines the two varieties of systems thinking” (Currie & Galliers, 1999, p. 52). It is also this shift of systemic thinking that directly relates to the Daoist view of the relationship between mankind and the universe. From the Western perspective, it is assumed that everyone is capable of summoning the resilience to solve any problem or overcome any type of misfortune. “It is simply a matter of reasoned action to choose to make lemonade when life gives you lemons, and to choose to find the silver lining in every cloud” (Olson & Roese, 1995, p. 239). By sharp contrast, the Daoist approach to these same issues involves acknowledging that complex problems require complex solutions, and in some cases solutions may not even be available no matter how hard one tries; in these cases, it is matter of “going with the flow,” a tendency that frequently runs counter to Western thought (Fraser et al., 1986).


The research showed that Daoism is an ancient religious and philosophical tradition in the East in general and China in particular. While Daoism embraces a number of wide ranging views about the universe and mankind’s place in it, the manner in which Daoists think about the processes that drive these forces and what they can do about them can be considered a highly refined systemic manner of thinking that is not incongruent with Western views, particularly as they have evolved in recent years. Part of this process of amalgamation has been fueled by innovations in telecommunications and travel that have provided increased exposure to other worldviews in the West, but it is being driven more today by a fundamental need to better understand the West’s major competitors in the marketplace in the 21st century. In this regard, “know thy enemy” is an appropriate analogy for an economic perspective, and it captures the essence of the changes in thinking that have emerged in recent years.


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Some other Daoist classics include the Zhuangzi (4th-3rd century BC;) and the Liezi, or Lieh-tzu; like earlier Daoist classics, this work emphasizes the mysterious dao (way). The “Yang Zhu” chapter of the Liezi recognizes the futility of even trying to challenging the dao, and maintains that all a person can look forward to in life is sex, music, physical beauty, and material abundance. This hedonistic view of life as one of radical self-interest was a new development in Daoism (Daoism, 2005).