Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

Look at a piece of wood that happens to be close to you.  See the swirling pattern of its grain.  If there’s any natural stone close to you, look at it too.  See how the patterns form a random shape, yet somehow seem ordered in a way that you could never define.  What you’re looking at is what the classical Chinese called “li”.  In its most ancient meaning, the word li literally meant “the markings in jade or the fibers in muscle tissue.”  As a verb it meant “to cut things according to their natural grain or divisions.”[1]

The li, as Alan Watts describes it, is:

…the asymmetrical, nonrepetitive, and unregimented order which we find in the patterns of moving water, the forms of trees and clouds, of frost crystals on the window, or the scattering of pebbles on beach sand.”[2]

From this simple idea arose one of the most powerful concepts in mankind’s attempts to understand the world around us.

One manifestation of the li as natural patterning: a manzanita tree at Phoenix Lake, Marin County

From the original meaning of markings in jade, the word li became commonly used in a way that dictionaries often translate as “principle”.  But the Neo-Confucians of China’s Song Dynasty[3] took this notion and transformed it into something far broader, expanding it to a more general level to represent all the patterns or principles through which the natural universe expresses itself.  For the Neo-Confucians, the li represented “the ordering and organizing principle in the cosmos… the order and pattern in Nature.”[4]

Since this blog is called Finding the Li, it’s self-evident that I see this classical Chinese view of the li as important.  In fact, I believe that a true understanding of the Chinese conception of the li can be a crucial step in our society developing a cosmological construct of the universe for the 21st century: one that can bridge the gap between science and spirituality and give a framework for truly integrating technology and the natural world.

The first thing to understand about the li is that it doesn’t refer to a fixed pattern.  We’re talking about dynamic patterns, patterns within patterns, patterns both in space and in time.  And it’s not something that only exists in beautiful natural scenery such as trees, clouds and streams (although that’s a great place to look for it).

Waves: the li as patterns in space and time

The li is the ever-moving, ever-present set of patterns which flow through everything in nature and in all our perceptions of the world including our own consciousness.

Chu Hsi, the greatest Neo-Confucian philosopher[5], gets this point across clearly when he describes:

… the ever-flowing presence of li.  This li moves in the world in continuous cycles without a single moment’s cessation.  None of the myriad things and activities – be they small, large, fine, or coarse would have been possible without the ever-flowing presence of li in them.  So is my mind (heart)[6] which also receives it.  The li never ceases to stay in my mind for a moment; its creative process never ceases to reciprocate with the physical world.”[7]

In the words of Joseph Needham, the great 20th century scholar of Chinese scientific thought, “It is dynamic pattern as embodied in all living things, and in human relationships and in the highest human values.  Such dynamic pattern can only be expressed by the term ‘organism’.”  In fact, Needham suggests thinking of Neo-Confucian philosophy as “a scheme of thought striving to be a philosophy of organism.”[8]

Tropical mollusk shell: the li as "pattern of the organism"

So far, we’ve been seeing li as patterning – as all the patterns that embody existence.  But if you raise this idea to a higher level of generality, then you can begin to think about the li as the set of “organizing principles” that form these patterns.

In the description of Ch’en Shun (a disciple of Chu Hsi), what we’re looking at in the li is “a natural and inescapable law of affairs and things…It is a Patterning Law.”  Ch’en Shun further explains his meaning:

The meaning of “natural and inescapable” is that [human] affairs, and [natural] things, are made just exactly to fit into place. The meaning of ‘law’ is that the fitting into place occurs without the slightest excess or deficiency.[9]

In an earlier post, I’ve described how ancient Chinese thinkers saw the universe in terms of cosmic harmony.  The notion of the li is a key element in explaining how this harmony manifests itself in the ongoing workings of nature.  The ancient Taoist philosopher Chuang-Tzu encapsulates this sense when he says:  “The ten thousand things have perfect intrinsic principles of order [li], but they do not talk about them.”[10]

For Western-educated readers, this might seem like a natural place to think to yourself “Nice idea, but what does this ‘cosmic harmony’ stuff have to do with the real world?”  In the next few posts, I intend to answer this question, and propose that the concept of the li represents a missing dimension to our Western reductionist worldview while remaining compatible with scientific thought.

I’ll try to show how the li contrasts with our Western idea of the “laws of Nature,” and how it relates to modern complexity theory and to the Tao.  Along the way, I hope to point to how the conception of the li can help us to understand current views of how the mind creates consciousness, modern approaches to evolution, and where to look for spirituality in a material world.

Ultimately “finding the li” is about finding our way in this world by finding ourselves.  Or, in the words of Chang Tsai, one of the founders of the Neo-Confucianist movement:

What fills the universe I regard as my body; what directs the universe I regard as my nature.  All people are my brothers and sisters; all things are my companions.[11]


Note: This is the first in a series. Go to other posts:

1: Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

2: The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature.

3: Wiggles in the Stream of Time: Li and Ch’i.

4: The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li.

5: Einstein, Chu Hsi and the Investigation of Things.

[1] Needham, J. (1951). “Human Laws and Laws of Nature in China and the West (II): Chinese Civilization and the Laws of Nature”Journal of the History of Ideas, pp. 194-230.

[2]Watts, A., (1975). Tao: The Watercourse Way. New York: Pantheon Books.

[3] The Song Dynasty, considered by some to be the pinnacle of classical Chinese civilization, existed between the years 960 and 1279.

[4] Needham, J. (1956/1972). Science and Civilisation in China, Vol. II, London: Cambridge University Press, p. 558.

[5] Chu Hsi lived from 1130 to 1200.

[6] The Chinese thought of the mind as having its physical existence in the heart as opposed to our Western view of it existing in the brain.

[7] Quoted in Yu, D. (1980). “The Conceptions of Self in Whitehead and Chu Hsi.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 7(1980), 153-173.

[8] Needham, J. (1951), op. cit.

[9] Needham, J. (1951) op. cit., pp 216-18.

[10]Quoted by Needham, J. (1956/1972) op. cit. p. 546.

[11] Quoted by Ching, J. (2000). The Religious Thought of Chu Hsi, New York: Oxford University Press.



  1. September 1, 2013 at 2:15 am

    […] a moral dimension to it. Li is not just a pattern or principle. It is the pattern. (Check out this post at the Finding the Li blog which delves into the topic a bit […]

  2. September 3, 2013 at 1:57 am

    […] a moral dimension to it. Li is not just a pattern or principle. It is the pattern. (Check out this post at the Finding the Li blog which delves into the topic a bit more. You can see some more examples […]

  3. October 14, 2015 at 5:03 pm

    […] tree,” but it would be so much more poetic if it were the Chinese symbol for “li” – the embedded, transcendent patterns of […]

  4. September 28, 2016 at 3:42 pm

    […] There is more, but it is not often discussed in TCM.  Certain Confucian scholars suggested that deep within the confines of the Dao there was something even more deeply and profoundly hidden. They called it Li which is now defined as “form or pattern” but originally meant “markings in jade, grain in wood, fiber in muscle.”  In Chinese philosophy, in its merging of science, poetry, metaphysics and practicality, Li is considered to be the matrix of the proper order of all things in man and nature. Another very early meaning of Li was “cutting things according to their natural grain or divisions.”  When one lives in accordance with the Li—the natural laws of nature—one gains wellbeing. For example, in practicing a dietetics based on the colors of the wuxing one could gain health. The person is “cutting things according to their natural grain or divisions.”  If they eat too large quantities of processed meat and sweets and become obese they are not, they are working against the Li. [more about Li at […]

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