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Water logic

By Edward de Bono (includes links to many of his other books)

water logic

Amazon link: Water logic

At several points in the book I have referred to ‘water logic’ as a contrast to the ‘rock logic’ of traditional thinking.

The purpose of this naming of ‘water logic’ is to give an impression of the difference.

At this point I shall spell out in more detail some of the points of difference.


A rock is solid, permanent and hard.

This suggests the absolutes of traditional thinking (solid as a rock).

Water is just as real as a rock but it is not solid or hard.

The permanence of water is not defined by its shape.


A rock has hard edges and a definite shape.

This suggests the defined categories of traditional thinking.

We judge whether something fits that category shape or not.

Water has a boundary and an edge which is just as definite as the edge of a rock, but this boundary will vary according to the terrain.


Water will fill a bowl or a lake.

It adapts to the terrain or landscape.

Water logic is determined by the conditions and circumstances.

The shape of the rock remains the same no matter what the terrain might be.

If you place a small rock in a bowl, it will retain its shape and make no concession at all towards filling the bowl.

The absolutes of traditional thinking deliberately set out to be circumstance-independent.


If you add more water to water, the new water becomes part of the whole.

If you add a rock to a rock, you simply have two rocks.

This addition and absorption of water logic corresponds to the process of poetry, in which new images become absorbed in the whole.


It is also the basis of the new artificial device of the ‘strata!’.

With conditions and circumstances, the addition of new circumstances becomes part of the whole set of circumstances.


We can match rocks by saying this shape ‘is’ or ‘is not’ the same as another shape.

A rock has a fixed identity.

Water flows according to the gradient.

Instead of the word ‘is’ we use the word ‘to’.

Water flows ‘to’ somewhere.


In traditional (rock) logic we have judgements based upon right/wrong.

In perception (water) logic we have the concepts of ‘fit’ and ‘flow’.

The concept of ‘fit’ means:

Does this fit the circumstances and conditions?

The concept of ‘flow’ means:

Is the terrain suitable for flow to take place in this direction?’

Fit and flow both mean the same thing.

Fit covers the static situation, flow covers the dynamic situation.

Does the water fit the lake or hole?

Does the river flow in this direction?


Truth is a particular constellation of circumstances with a particular outcome.

In this definition of truth we have both the concepts of fit (constellation of circumstances) and of flow (outcome).


In a conflict situation both sides are arguing that they are right.

This they can show logically.

Traditional thinking would seek to discover which party was really ‘right’.

Water logic would acknowledge that both parties were right but that each conclusion was based on a particular aspect of the situation, particular circumstances, and a particular point of view.


What do we mean by ‘to’?

A ball on a slope rolls ‘to’ or towards the bottom of the slope.

A river flows ‘to’ the sea.

A path leads ‘to’ some place.


An egg in a frying-pan changes ‘to’ a fried egg.


A falling egg leads ‘to’ the mess of a broken egg on the carpet.


A film director may cut from a shot of a falling egg ‘to’ a shot of a collapsing tower.


A film director may cut from a shot of a falling egg ‘to’ a shot of an anguished girl.


A ball that rolls ‘to’ a new position is still the same ball.

The raw egg that becomes the fried egg is still the same egg in a different form.

But the shot of the collapsing tower or the anguished girl in the film is only related to the prior shot of the falling egg because the director has chosen to relate them.


So we really use ‘to’ in a number of different ways.


Throughout this book I intend to use ‘to’ in a very simple and clear sense:

what does this lead to?

What happens next?


It simply means what happens next in time.

If a film image of an egg is followed by the image of an elephant then the egg leads to the elephant.

If you are being driven in a car along a scenic route and an idyllic shot of a cottage is followed by a view of a power station, then that is what happens next.

So the sense of ‘to’ is not limited to ‘becoming’ or ‘changing to’, although this will also be included in the very broad definition of ‘to’ as what happens next.

An unstable system can become a stable system.

A stable system can become an unstable system.

One thing leads to another.


Because this notion of ‘to’ is so very important it would be useful to define it precisely with a new word.

Perhaps we could create a new preposition, ‘leto’, to indicate ‘leads to’.

At this point in time it would sound only artificial and unnecessary


Johnny was a young boy who lived in Australia.

One day his friends offered him a choice between a one dollar coin and a two dollar coin.

In Australia the one dollar coin is considerably larger than the two dollar coin.

Johnny took the one dollar coin.

His friends giggled and laughed and reckoned Johnny very stupid because he did not yet know that the smaller coin was worth twice as much as the bigger coin.

Whenever they wanted to demonstrate Johnny’s stupidity they would repeat the exercise.

Johnny never seemed to learn.


One day a bystander felt sorry for Johnny and beckoning him over, the bystander explained that the smaller coin was actually worth twice as much as the larger coin.


Johnny listened politely, then he said: ‘Yes, I do know that.

But how many times would they have offered me the coins if I had taken the two dollar coin the first time?’


A computer which has been programmed to select value would have had to choose the two dollar coin the first time around.

It was Johnny’s human ‘perception’ that allowed him to take a different and longer-term view: the possibility of repeat business, the possibility of several more one dollar coins.

Of course, it was a risk and the perception was very complex: how often would he see his friends?

Would they go on using the same game?

Would they want to go on losing one dollar coins, etc.?


There are two points about this story which are relevant to this book.


The first point is the great importance of human perception, and that is what this book is about.

Perception is rather different from our traditional concept of logic.


The second point arising from the story is the difference between the thinking of Johnny and the thinking of the computer.

The thinking of the computer would be based on ‘is’.

The computer would say to itself:

‘Which of the two coins “is” the most valuable?’

As a result the computer would choose the smaller, two dollar coin.

The thinking of Johnny was not based on ‘is’ but on ‘to’:

‘What will this lead to?’

‘What will happen if I take the one dollar coin?’

Traditional rock logic is based on ‘is’.

The logic of perception is water logic and this is based on ‘to’.


The basic theme of the book is astonishingly simple.

In fact it is so simple that many people will find it hard to understand.

Such people feel that things ought to be complex in order to be serious.

Yet most complex matters turn out to be very simple once they are understood (here, here, and here).

Because the theme is so simple I shall attempt to describe it as simply as possible.

Although the basic theme is simple the effects are powerful, important and complex.


I have always been interested in practical outcomes. (Find practical outcomes here)

There are many practical processes, techniques and outcomes covered in this book.

How would you like to ‘see’ your thinking as clearly as you might see a landscape from an aeroplane?

There is a way of doing that which I shall describe.

This can be of great help in understanding our perceptions and even in altering them.


I know that my books attract different sorts of readers.

There are those who are genuinely interested in the long neglected subject of thinking and there are those who are only interested in practical ‘hands-on’ techniques.

The latter type of reader may be impatient with the underlying theory, which is seen to be complex and unnecessary.

I would like to be able to say to this sort of reader: ‘Skip section ...

and section ...’

But I will not do that because thinking has suffered far too much from a string of gimmicks that have no foundation.

It is very important to understand the theoretical basis in order to use the processes with real motivation.

Furthermore the underlying processes are fascinating in themselves.

Understanding how the brain works is a subject of great interest.


I have used no mathematical expressions in the book because it is a mistake to believe that mathematics (the behaviour of relationships and processes within a defined universe) has to be expressed in mathematical symbols which most people do not understand.

Some years ago Professor Murray Gell-Mann, the California Institute of Technology professor who won a Nobel prize in physics for inventing/discovering/describing the quark, was given my book The Mechanism of Mind which was published in 1969.

He told me that he had found it very interesting because I had ‘stumbled upon processes ten years before the mathematicians had started to describe them’.

These are the processes of self-organizing systems which interested him for his work on chaos —try an Amazon search.


This book is a first look at water logic and my intention has been to put forward a method for using it in a practical manner.


This book is closely related to my previous book I am Right - You are Wrong (London: Viking, 1990 and Penguin 1991).

In that book I set out to show that the traditional habits of Western thinking were inadequate and how our belief in their adequacy was both limiting and dangerous.

These traditional habits include: the critical search for the ‘truth’; argument and adversarial exploration, and all the characteristics of rock logic with its crudities and harshness.

These habits of thinking were ultimately derived from the classic Greek gang of three, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, who hijacked Western thinking.

After the dogma of the Dark Ages, the rediscovery of this classical thinking was indeed a breath of fresh air and so these habits were taken up both by the Church (to provide a weapon for attacking heresy) and by the non-Church humanist thinkers to provide an escape from Church dogma.

So it became the established thinking of Western civilization.


Unfortunately this thinking lacks the creative, design and constructive energies that we so badly need.

Nor does this thinking take into account the huge importance of perception, beliefs and local truths.

Finally this rock logic exacerbates the worst deficiencies of the human brain, which is why we have made progress in technical matters and so little in human affairs.

For the first time in history we do know something, in broad terms, about how the brain works as a self-organizing information system - and this has important implications.


As I predicted the book was met with outrage that was so hysterical that it became comic and ludicrous rather than offensive.

Not one of those who attacked the book ever challenged its basic themes.

The attacks were in the nature of childish personal abuse or picked on very minor matters - which is always a sure indication that the reviewer is not reviewing the book but prefers to attack the author.

This is a pity because it is a serious subject which needs much more attention than it gets.


It was Einstein who once said: ‘Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.’

It does not follow that violent opposition from mediocre minds qualifies one automatically as a great spirit but it does suggest that the violence of the opposition sometimes indicates emotions rather than value.


To redress this balance, because the subject is important, I invited three Nobel prize physicists to write forewords to the book for future editions.

Those forewords put the matter into perspective.

Why physicists?

Because physicists spend their whole lives looking at fundamental processes and their implications.


I had intended to add a section on water logic and ‘hodics’ to the book.

In the end the book became too long and it was obvious that the section would have to be too short to do justice to the subject.

I promised I would treat the subject in a subsequent publication, and that is what this book is about.


In our tradition of thinking we have sought to get away from the vagueness and instability of perception in order to deal with such concrete matters as mathematics and logic.

We have done reasonably well at this and can now get back to dealing with perception as such.

Indeed we have no choice because if our perceptions are faulty then perfect processing of those faulty perceptions can only give an answer that is wrong, and sometimes dangerous.

We know from experience that both sides in any war, conflict or disagreement always have ‘logic’ on their side.

This is true: a logic that serves their particular perceptions.


So this book is about the water logic of perception.


How do perceptions come about?

What is the origin and nature of perception?

How do the nerve circuits in the brain form and use perceptions?

How do perceptions become stable - and stable enough to become beliefs?

Can we get to look at our perceptions regarding any particular matter?

Can we change perceptions—and if so, where do we start?


This book does not provide all the answers but at the end of it the reader should have a good understanding of the difference between water logic and rock logic. …


  • Foreword
  • Introduction
  • Structure of the book
  • Outer world—inner world
  • Water logic
    • 'TO'
  • Dance of the jellyfish
    • Stability
    • Self-Organizing
  • How the Brain Flows Into Perception
    • Self-Organizing
    • The Behaviour of Perception
      • Recognition
      • Centring
      • Preparedness
    • Discrimination
    • Meaning
    • The Importance of Words
    • Myths and 'Why?'
    • Closure
    • Shift
    • Levels of Organization
    • Broad Principles of System Behaviour
  • Flowscapes
    • Stream of Consciousness List
    • Examining the Flowscape
      • Collectors
      • Stable Loops
      • Links
      • Further Examples
        • Faithful and Loyal Secretary
          • List
          • Flowscape
        • Petrol Pump Price War
          • List
          • Flowscape
        • Absenteeism From Work
          • List
          • Flowscape
        • Sectarian or ethnic violence
          • List
          • Flowscape
      • Inner and Outer World
      • Practical Technique
  • Stream of Consciousness—Base List
    • CAF on the Choice of a Pet
    • The Stream of Consciousness List Is Not an Analysis of the Situation
      • Analysis
      • Stream of Consciousness
    • Problem Solving
  • More Complex Flowscapes
    • Choosing a Holiday
    • Choosing a Career
    • Rapidly Escalating Health Care Costs
    • Complexity
  • Concepts
    • Concepts, Categories and Aristotle
    • Lumping and Splitting
    • Concepts and Flexibility
    • Pre-Concepts and Post-Concepts
    • Blurry Concepts
    • Working Backwards and the Concept Fan
    • Concepts and Flow
  • Interventions
    • Juvenile Crime
    • Old Church Which Is Standing in the Way of a Major Road Development
    • Racism
    • Action
  • Context, Conditions and Circumstances
    • Creating Contexts
    • Accuracy and Value
  • Flowscapes for Other People
    • From Written Material Etcetera
    • Guessing
    • Discussion
    • Hypothesis
  • Attention Flow
    • 'Isness'
    • Tension
    • Triggering
    • Directing Attention
    • Difficulties
    • Example: Looking Around for a New Job
    • Errors
  • Summary

See Peter Drucker's From Analysis to Perception—The New Worldview and The Educated Person for relevance connections. Chapters on these topics can be found in several of Drucker's books. Both can be found in The Essential Drucker.




Structure of the book

I start by considering the importance of perception which is the working of the inner world of the mind.

This is different from the outer world which surrounds us.

Traditionally we have tried to get away from perception to deal with the ‘truth’ of reality.

It is time we looked directly at perception. ¶¶¶

The next section introduces the notion of water logic and ‘flow’.

Traditional logic is rock logic and is based on ‘is’ and identity.

Water logic is based on ‘to’: what does this flow to? ¶¶¶

An analogy involving the behavior of simple jellyfish then illustrates how ‘flow’ works to give stability in a self-organizing system.

Different flow patterns are illustrated. ¶¶¶

There is now a direct consideration of the ‘flow behavior’ of the brain and how this gives rise to perception.

The jellyfish analogy is transferred to the behavior of nerve circuits in the brain but the principles remain the same. ¶¶¶

A practical technique called the ‘flowscape’ is now introduced.

This technique enables us to see the ‘shape’ of our perceptions.

I explain how flowscapes are created. ¶¶¶

A stream of consciousness provides the items for the ‘base list’ from which the flowscape is derived.

The nature of this list is discussed. ¶¶¶

There follows a consideration of flowscapes that are more complex, with comments upon these. ¶¶¶

The next section deals with the great importance of concepts in water logic and in perception.

Concepts give us flexibility and movement in thinking.

These concepts do not need to be precise and a little fuzziness is beneficial. ¶¶¶

We may want to see how we might intervene to alter perceptions.

This section is concerned with methods of intervention based on the flowscape.

Although the flowscapes are concerned with the inner world of perception, we can derive from the flowscapes some strategies for dealing with the outer world. ¶¶¶

The notion of context is central to water logic because if the context changes then the flow direction may also change.

This is very different from the assumed absolutes of rock logic. ¶¶¶

Being based on perception, flowscapes are highly personal.

Nevertheless, it is possible to attempt to chart the perceptions of others.

This can be done in a number of ways ranging from discussion to guessing.

Even guessing can suggest usable strategies. ¶¶¶

The flow of our attention over the outer world is strongly influenced by the perceptual patterns we have set up in the inner world.

This is considered in this section as is the relationship between art and attention flows. ¶¶¶

The practical difficulties that might be encountered in setting up flowscapes are now considered with some suggestions as to how they might be overcome. ¶¶¶

The summary pulls together the nature of water logic and the practical technique of the flowscape.

Water logic does not exist only as a contrast to rock logic.

Edward de Bono

Palazzo Marnisi





Outer world — inner world

The original title of this section was going to be ‘Perception and Reality’.

In the traditional way this would have suggested that there was reality ‘somewhere out there’ and then there was perception which was different from reality.

But perception is just as real as anything else — in fact perception is more real for the person involved.

A child’s terror at a moving curtain in the night is very real.

A schizophrenic’s anguish at inner voices is very real.

In fact, perception is the only reality for the person involved.

It is not usually a shared reality and may not check with the world out there, but perception is certainly real. ¶¶¶

For centuries Western thinking has been dominated by the analogy of Plato’s cave in which a person chained so that he can only see the back of the cave, sees only the shadows projected on this surface and not the ‘reality’ that has caused the shadows.

So philosophers have generally looked for the ‘truth’ that gives rise to these shadows or perceptions.

It is quite true that some people, like Freud and Jung in particular, focused their attention on the shadows, but not on perception in general.

This lack of interest in perception is understandable.

People wanted to get away from the messiness of perception to the solidity of truth.

More importantly, you cannot do much except describe perceptions unless you have some understanding of how they work.

That understanding we have come to only very recently. ¶¶¶

A Georgian manor house is set on its own in the fields.

A party of people arrive for the weekend.

They are all looking at the same house.

One person looks at it with nostalgia for happy times spent there.

Another person looks at it with envy, thinking of the sort of life style she would want.

A third person looks at it with horror, remembering a harsh childhood spent in the house.

A fourth person immediately assesses how much such a house would cost.

The house is the same in each case and a photograph taken by each of the people would show the same house.

But the inner world of perception is totally different. ¶¶¶

In the case of the house seen differently the physical view is the same but the memory trails and emotional attachments provide the different inner world of perception.

But perception could still be different even if there were no special memory trails.

If each of the guests were to approach the house from a different direction they would get a different point of view.

It would be the same house perceived from a different perspective.

The person approaching from the front would get the classic Georgian facade.

A person approaching from the side would see the original Elizabethan house on to which the facade had been tacked.

The person approaching from the back might mistake the house for a farm. ¶¶¶

Everyone knows of the classic optical illusions in which you look at a drawing on a piece of paper and what you think you see is not actually the case: lines which seem to bend but are actually straight; a shape that looks larger than another but is exactly equal.

Stage magicians perform the magnificent feat of fooling all the people all the time through tricking their perceptions.

We are left waiting for the event to occur while it has occurred a long time before. ¶¶¶

It is obvious that perception is very individual and that perception may not correspond with the external world.

Perception, in the first place, is the way the brain organizes the information received from the outer world via the senses.

The type of organization that is possible depends entirely on the fundamental nature of the nerve circuits in the brain.

This organization is then affected by the emotional state of the moment which favors some patterns at the expense of others.

The short-term memory of the present context and what has gone immediately before affects perception.

Computer translation of language is so difficult because what has gone before, and the context, may totally alter the meaning of the word.

For example, the word ‘live’ is pronounced in two different ways depending on the context.

Finally there are the old memories and memory trails which can both alter what we perceive and attach themselves to the perception. ¶¶¶

One of the most striking examples of the power of perception is the phenomenon of jealousy.

A man is accused of choosing to sit in a certain place in a restaurant so that he can stare at the blonde sitting opposite.

In truth, he had not even noticed the blonde and was really trying to give his girlfriend the seat with the best view.

A wife seems to be seeing a lot of a certain man in the course of her business.

She claims it is a business relationship but her husband thinks otherwise.

In jealousy there are complex interpretations of normal situations which may be totally false and yet give rise to powerful emotions, quarrels and violence.

The point is that the perceptions could, just possibly, be true.

The fact that they are not true does not alter the perceptions. ¶¶¶

It is no wonder that the ancient thinkers considered it a magnificent feat to get away from this highly subjective business of perception to truths and absolutes which could be checked and which would hold for everyone. ¶¶¶

If you were making a table you could guess the sizes of the pieces that you needed and just cut them up according to your guess.

You would probably be better off if you were to measure the pieces you needed.

They would then be more likely to fit together and the table legs would be the same height.

Measurement is a very successful way of changing perception into something that is concrete, tangible and permanent.

We take it for granted but it is a wonderful concept. ¶¶¶

Mathematics is another method for escaping the uncertainties of perception.

We translate the world into symbols and relationships.

Once this is done we enter the ‘game world’ of mathematics with its own special universe and rules of behavior within that universe.

We play that game in a rigorous manner.

Then we translate the result back into the real world.

The method works very well indeed provided the mathematics is appropriate and the translation into and out of the system is valid. ¶¶¶

The great contribution of the Greek gang of three was to set out to do the same thing with language.

Words were going to have specific definitions and to be as real, concrete and objective as is measurement.

Then there was going to be a rigorous game with rules which would tell us how to put words together and how to reason.

This game was largely based on identity: this thing ‘is’ or ‘is not’ something else.

The principle of contradiction held that something could not ‘be’ and ‘not be’ something at the same time.

From this basis we developed our systems of language, logic, argument, critical thinking and all the other habits which we use all the time. ¶¶¶

The result was that we seemed able to make judgements (which the human brain loves) and to arrive at truths and certainties.

This was all very attractive and it was very successful when applied to technical matters.

It seemed successful when applied to human affairs because judgement and certainty gave a basis for action and for righteousness.

In fact this habit of ‘logic’ is no less a belief system than any other.

If you choose to look at the world in a certain way then you will reinforce your belief by seeing the world in that way. ¶¶¶

So the trend has been to flee the world of perception in terms of thinking and to leave perception to art which could explore and elaborate perceptions at will.

I believe it is time we did turn our attention to the world of perception in order to understand what actually happens in that world.

The world of perception is closely related to the way the brain handles information and that is what I explore in the book I am Right - You are Wrong. ¶¶¶

There is no ‘game truth’ in perception as there is in mathematics where something is true because it follows from the rules of the game and the universe.

All truth in perception is either circular or provisional.

Circular truth is like two people each telling the other that he or she is telling the truth.

Provisional truth is based on experience: 

‘it seems to me’; 

‘as far as I can see’; 

‘in my experience’.

There is none of that wonderful certainty which we have with ordinary logic — which is a ‘belief truth’ that masquerades as a ‘game truth’. ¶¶¶

In the inner world of perception there is not the solidity and permanence of ‘rock logic’.

A rock is hard, definite and permanent, and does not shift.

This is the logic of ‘is’.

Instead, perception is based on water logic.

Water flows.

Water is not definite and hard edged but can adapt to its container.

Water logic is based on ‘to’. ¶¶¶

The purpose of this book is to explore the nature and behavior of water logic and to demonstrate some practical ways of using it. ¶¶¶

Water logic is the logic of the inner world of perception.

I suspect that it also applies, far more than we have hitherto thought, to the external world as well.

As we start to examine self-organizing systems, as mathematics begins to look into non-linear systems and chaos, so we shall find that water logic is also relevant to many aspects of the external world to which we have always applied rock logic.

I believe this to be the case with economics. ¶¶¶

There is a direct impact of perception and water logic even on the apparent rock logic of science.

The mind can see only what it is prepared to see.

The analysis of data does not, by itself, produce ideas.

The analysis of data can only allow us to select from existing ideas.

There is a growing emphasis on the importance of hypotheses, speculation, provocation and model building, all of which allow us to see the world differently.

The creation of these frameworks of possibility is a perceptual process. ¶¶¶

I should add that there is no such thing as a contradiction in perception.

Opposing views may be held in parallel.

There is mismatch where something does not fit our expectations — like a black four-of-hearts playing card but that is another matter. ¶¶¶

Because of this ability of perception to hold contradictions, logic has been a very poor way of changing perceptions.

Perceptions can be changed (by exploration, insight, context changes, atrophy, etc.) but not by logic.

That is another very good reason for getting to understand perception. ¶¶¶

Only a very small part of our lives is spent in mathematics or logical analysis.

By far the greater part is spent dealing with perception.

What we see on television and how we respond to it, is perception.

Our notions of ecological dangers and the greenhouse effect are based on perception.

Prejudice, racism, anti-semitism are all matters of perception.

Conflicts that are not simply bully-boy power plays are based on misperceptions.

Since perception is so important a part of our lives there seems merit in examining the nature of water logic rather than trying still harder to fit the world into our traditional rock logic.





“The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic”. — Peter Drucker

The shift from manual workers who do as they are being told — either by the task or by the boss — to knowledge workers who have to manage themselves ↓ profoundly challenges social structure

Managing Oneself (PDF) is a REVOLUTION in human affairs.” … “It also requires an almost 180-degree change in the knowledge workers’ thoughts and actions from what most of us—even of the younger generation—still take for granted as the way to think and the way to act.” …

… “Managing Oneself is based on the very opposite realities: Workers are likely to outlive organizations (and therefore, employers can’t be depended on for designing your life), and the knowledge worker has mobility.” ← in a context




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