A. C. Graham on the Uses of Divination

I thought that this was worth sharing. It comes from A.C. Graham’s [amazon text=Disputers of the Tao&asin=0812690885], and is about the creative potential of divination techniques such as the Yijing, even if we accept (as I do) that the divinatory process is simply an exercise in playing with randomness.


An openness to chance influences loosing thought from preconceptions is indispensable to creative thinking. In responding to new and complex situations it is a practical necessity to shake up habitual schemes and wake to new correlations of similarities and connexions […] There is no reason to doubt that divination systems do help many people to reach appropriate decision in situations with too many unknown factors, and that the Yi is among the more successful of them.  Unless we are to follow Jung in postulating an a-causal principle of synchronicity, we must suppose that the Yi serves to break down preconceptions by forcing the diviner to correlate his situation with a chance sequence of six prognostications. If their meaning were unambiguous, the overwhelming probability would be that the prognostications would be either obviously inapplicable or grossly misleading. Since on the contrary the hexagrams open up an indefinite range of patterns for correlation, in the calm of withdrawal into sacred space and time, the effect is to free the mind to take account of all information whether or not it conflicts with preconceptions, awaken it to unnoticed similarities and connexions, and guide it to a settled decision adequate to the complexity of factors. This is conceived not as discursive thinking but as a synthesising act in which the diviner sees into and responds to everything at once, with a lucidity mysterious to himself. The Yi is not a book which pretends to offer clear predictions but hides away in tantalising obscurities; it assumes in the diviner that kind of intelligence we have discussed in connexion with Chuang-tzu, opening out and responding to stimulation in perfect tranquility, lucidity and flexibility. (p. 368-370)


Image: Grinding Cinnabar and Annotating the Yijing.



I cannot agree. This extract contains a false dilemma:
‘Unless we are to follow Jung in postulating an a-causal principle of synchronicity, we must suppose that the Yi serves to break down preconceptions by forcing the diviner to correlate his situation with a chance sequence of six prognostications.’
No! There is at least one more option that would fall into two options if you gave it a thought.

Chris Willmot

Yes, Dmitry, that one jumped out at me too, but I noticed how my logical response was at odds with the tenor of the piece. (But then I am reading Sarah Allan’s “The Way of Water” at the moment.)

I have a lot of time for Hilary Barrett, a yijing diviner from Oxfordshire, who has spent much of her adult life reading for and counselling querents. She experiences Yi as “a conversation with the universe” and I am inclinded to take her view as a considered, thoughtful one. My own experience with the yijing is very limited by comparison. I experience it akin to seeing faces in the clouds. Therefore, I rather like A. C. Graham’s conclusion, “[assuming] in the diviner that kind of intelligence [which opens out and responds] to stimulation in perfect tranquility, lucidity and flexibility”. Hilary would like it too, I suspect.

She would admit that “conversing with the universe” is fanciful — a poetic way of describing something too subtle for words. So the only difference is whether we are closed-minded (believing that all we know is all there is) or like a beginner in these things, open to things that are beyond us. The former is definitely the Western viewpoint. But isn’t the latter more in keeping with the spirit of Chinese philosophy?


Sorry about my slackness in replying to this. It’s been a busy couple of weeks…

I can see that this might be a false dilemma ifone accepted the Jungian standpoint. But Graham does not accept this standpoint (and I am disinclined to as well), so instead of setting this up as a dilemma, perhaps what Graham is saying is that there is an alternative way of accounting for the actual value of such tools without having necessarily to resort to Jungian models.

I actually think that Graham’s analysis is more subtle than it first looks — and more subtle than my own more heavy-handed presentation of it is. So there are at least three things going on:

1. The idea that this text is particularly well-designed for this kind of allusiveness.
2. The ritual context of divination
3. The activity of the chance conjunction of yarrow stalks or coins or whatever.

This is perhaps what the 12th century scholar Zhu Xi is talking about when he says that the Yijing is an “empty object”, and that it is precisely because of this emptiness that it can cover all principles. If it was “full” with some determinate, mystical meaning, its range and scope would be more limited.

I love Sarah Allan’s book, by the way. It’s beautiful and persuasive.

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