Rethinking CTI – Classical Chinese Context

In examining the Chinese language, especially in its classical context, we are presented with ideas that are alien to the Western mindset (as can be expected from any civilization sufficiently distant and different from the West). However, it is not only the particular ideas that are alien – it is the whole concept of the reality that language signifies that is radically different. In this section, we’ll take a brief look at this difference and its implications, and consider one key term: dao.

At the core of classical Chinese thought lies the central idea of what the world is, and how it is: dao. Dao is a highly complex term, yet one central to all the authors of Chinese thought. It represents both the path of understanding and knowledge, as well as the indescribable reality of all things. Roger T. Ames (leading philosopher of Chinese thought) and James D. Frankel (major Chinese religion scholar) respectively define the usage of dao as:

[T]o lead through, and hence, road, path, way, method, art, teachings; to explain, to tell, doctrines… “road-building,” and by extension to connote a road that has been made, and hence can be traveled… to experience, to interpret, and to influence the world in such a way as to reinforce and extend the way of life inherited from one’s cultural predecessors… dao… has as much to do with subject as object, as much to do with the quality of understanding as the condition of the world understood.[1]

The “Way” is generally understood in two distinct yet interrelated senses: first, as a transcendent force that undergirds all phenomenal reality; and second, as a principle, which when followed harmonizes worldly affairs… ultimate reality is understood as an invisible force or abstract entity, which defies facile definition.[2]

It should be clear that dao forms the cornerstone of Chinese thought, by providing a systemic structure to the Chinese worldview. To know the dao means to be aware of the full scope of relations, and to understand things as an ebb and flow of forces of related ideas, not as individual items in a vacuum. This principle of relations is the primary tool for drawing out functional and actionable ideas, and abandoning the broken ones.

Western languages have developed a great deal of individuation, not only in the sense of personal and communal ideas, but also in the sense that our scientific and technical studies are based on the idea that an object can be abstracted and extracted from its context, examined in a vacuum, and judgment passed on the thing-in-itself. The classical Chinese basis of language runs in the opposite direction. Namely, there is no thing that can be said to exists on its own – every single thing is a complex of relations to other things. As Ames notes, “for Confucius, unless there are at least two human beings, there is no human beings.”[3] That is, to be human requires relational status to other humans; no relation, no humanity.

As a more visual representation of this difference, we can take an example of two people in a relation (say friendship), which connects them by a rope. In Western thought, if the friendship ends, only the rope is removed and the two entities remain as they were before. By Chinese understanding, the two people are defined by the fact that they are in a relationship to each other (as well as all other things), and they are not simply returned to a pre-friendship status if the relation ends. Instead, there is damage done to both people. By the Western model, the people can let go at any time. By the Chinese model, the rope is superglued to their hands, and getting rid of it means losing skin in the process.

This related nature of Chinese language plays a crucial part in the development and understanding of Chinese thought. The lack of things existing in a vacuum means that all Chinese concepts are relational; there is no way to consider only one thing – one must always consider the relations that are inherently at play, and understand that the various pieces make sense only as part of the whole.

The difficulty for Western thought is that the same degree of interrelatedness does not exist in our languages. These differences are not merely cosmetic – tomayto/tomahto – they’re conceptual; while we think of the world in discrete independent units, they thought of it as relational unity. This difference causes a shift in perspective, focus, order, relations, and values. It is precisely because of these differences that the Chinese position is valuable; it reframes our entire conception of the world in terms entirely different to those that have contributed to the current predicament. This radical difference in the worldview is part of what makes the classical Chinese thought, and especially the Art of War, a much more functional model for CTI.

Let’s consider a brief version of the relational approach to the definitions of information security, and CTI.

  • Security indicates something to be secured, and therefore a threat to be secured against.
  • Success of security depends on the type of threat faced and security desired.
    • For example, the TSA is great at confiscating bottles of water and scissors, though neither of those have posed an actual risk. However, the shoe and underwear bombs (actual threats) got through just fine.
  • There is a path (method) of security, and we’re engaged in following and establishing a path, making it easier to travel, etc.
    • This path can be understood from both the technical perspective (certifications, etc.) as well as an ideological perspective – where the idea of security as a path indicates a continual process, not an endpoint.
  • Intelligence is there to be found.
    • If there is no intelligence to be found, we can’t talk about security; we could only talk about repairing the damage.
  • Intelligence is only valuable insofar as it is related to the type of security against relevant threats.
    • Intelligence that does not give us relevant information cannot be used in providing security, and thus has no value.
  • This means that intelligence must be actionable.
    • Non-actionable intelligence is the same as no intelligence
  • Actionable intelligence for security purposes, means that the intelligence is the method of actionably grasping the path of the threat (hackers, etc.) before it actualizes.
    • After-the-fact shoe checks and full body scans are irrelevant. Real intelligence consists in finding plots before they have a chance to do damage, not in hoping that future attacks will use the exact same methods as old attacks, and limiting one’s security to preventing only those types of threats.

With just a few core concepts, we’ve already made more headway in clarifying the core InfoSec and CTI ideas than most college courses manage to do. By pursuing this line of thinking, and asking relevant questions, we will develop a deeper understanding of the issues facing us, as well as functional approaches in dealing with those issues.

In the next section, we will consider a few general terms regarding this relationality found in classical Chinese thought, and begin to relate them directly to InfoSec and CTI.


[1] Ames, Roger T., and Henry Rosemont. Introduction. In The Analects of Confucius. Pp. 45-6.

[2] Frankel, James D. Rectifying God’s Name: Liu Zhi’s Confucian Translation of Monotheism and Islamic Law. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2011. Pg. 58.

[3] Ames, Roger T., and Henry Rosemont. Introduction. In The Analects of Confucius. Pg. 48.