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This paper was presented at CMS3, the Critical Management Systems conference held at Lancaster University, UK, in 2003. It argues that some of Habermas' notions, of lifeworld, system and modernity may benefit from being enriched by Dooyeweerd, in an immanent way, i.e. fufilling the aims Habermas had for them. It then applies this to information technology. See also the paper, 'Emancipation as if it mattered'.

Enriching Critical Theory

Andrew Basden,
I.S. Institute, University of Salford, U.K.


Habermas' concepts of lifeworld, system and rationalization is an advance on those of Weber, in recognising that modernity has 'unfulfilled potential'. This paper suggests they may nevertheless benefit from being enriched by the philosophy of Dooyeweerd. It then discusses how these notions may be applied to inform our attitude towards information technology.

1. Introduction

Critical Theory, though rooted in the ideas of Jürgen Habermas, Theodor Adorno, and others, is no static structure of thought, but a dynamic and evolving framework for thinking. Habermas' version, especially, is finding application in such areas as information systems design and theory (Lyytinen and Klein, 1985) and social planning (Ulrich, 1983). But if it is to extend meaningfully beyond its roots, developing but retains its integrity, it must be able to take in the ideas of other thinkers in ways that are commensurable with it.

In this paper we explore how the cosmonomic philosophy of the late Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977), might enrich Habermas' notion of lifeworld. Then we briefly discuss how this might be relevant to information technology.

2. Dooyeweerd as Critical Thinker

Though Dooyeweerd's philosophy, as outlined in his magnum opus, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought (1955), has very different roots than those of most Western thinking, including that of Habermas. But it seems commensurable with Habermas in a number of ways. Both thinkers recognised the importance of extra-theoretical factors that affect theoretical thought. Both thinkers fundamentally criticise both positivism and the more extreme forms of interpretivism. Both thinkers recognise the importance of what Habermas calls the lifeworld. Both thinkers recognise the pertinence of one overriding, rich norm; 'emancipation' for Habermas and other thinkers in the Critical community, 'shalom' for Dooyeweerd. As Ray (1993) says, Critical Theory has sufficient courage that it "ties its fortunes to the objective movement of history"; so does the Dooyeweerdian approach.

In Knowledge and Human Interests (1972) Habermas had then been pursuing what Ray (1993:22) calls a "a neo-Kantian quest for the a priori grounds of possible knowledge, via reconstruction of the three 'knowledge-guiding' or 'knowledge-constitutive' interests." Though he has moved back from this, he still believes the outline ideas are valid. According to Dooyeweerd, the Kantian approach is valuable but Kant himself was not sufficiently critical:

"Neither Kant, the founder of the so-called critical transcendental philosophy, nor Edmund Husserl, the founder of modern phenomenology, who called his phenomenological philosophy 'the most radical critique of knowledge', have made the theoretical attitude of thought into a critical problem. Both of them started from the autonomy of theoretical thinking as an axiom which needs no further justification." (Dooyeweerd, 1999:6)

So does Habermas. Though he directs criticism at instrumental rationality, he does not seriously direct it at rationality as such. One may see this when considering Habermas' view of lifeworld that we discuss below.

But Dooyeweerd did direct critique at rationality as such. Following a Kantian method of 'transcendental critique', he sought to discover the conditions that make theoretical thinking possible as part of human living, conditions that transcend theoretical thinking itself. As part of this critique, Dooyeweerd made a thorough survey of 2,500 years of Western thinking, from the ancient Greeks onwards, showing how certain presuppositions made by the Greeks have lain at the root of Western thinking ever since. One was the superiority of theoretical thinking over so-called naïve or everyday thinking. Another was that the most fundamental thing we can say about anything is that is exists, and that all else - activity, knowledge, meaning, norms, etc. - must follow from that.

Dooyeweerd questioned these presuppositions in a fundamental way. In opposition to the two just mentioned, he refused to give any privileged place to theoretical thinking in human life and knowing, and he presupposed Meaning, rather than Being, to be primary. He argued that being, activity, knowledge, norms, etc. all come from Meaning. (By 'Meaning', Dooyeweerd did not mean subjective purpose nor the denotation nor connotation of symbols, but something more akin to what we refer to as the meaning of life.) All is Meaning, and as such all refers beyond itself (to its Divine Source and Destiny). Importantly, for our discussion that follows, he saw rationality itself, and even instrumental action, as meaningful. As we shall see below, this enabled Dooyeweerd to see theoretical thinking and rationalization as part of the lifeworld itself.

3. Lifeworld

3.1 The Views of Weber and Habermas

Lifeworld is a way of seeing life and society from the perspective of participant rather than of observer. The participant sees norms and values as important and experiences meaning in life. The observer (especially rational, scientific observer) sees life and society as a system in which human and other activity is governed by supposedly neutral, norm-free mechanisms, such as those of money and legal rules.

Habermas' view of lifeworld was an advance on that of Weber. In considering what distinguishes the modern from the mediaeval world, Weber suggested that the modern world is characterized by rationalization, by which the meaningful and value-laden lifeworld becomes progressively supplanted by norm-free systems. This explains why in the modern world we experience loss of meaning. The implication, according to Horkheimer and Adorno (2002), was that if we want meaning in life we must eschew modernity and rationalization.

But Habermas believes modernity should not be so readily rejected. He believed Weber's view was too simplistic and differentiated two types of rationalization. That which destroys meaning and creates norm-free systems is instrumental rationality, goal-seeking. But in the lifeworld, communicative rationality is possible, by which we communicate with each other, understand each other and critique each other's arguments. What constitutes the modern, as opposed to mediaeval, lifeworld is that it becomes permeated by communicative rationality: in the mediaeval era, religious and traditional beliefs were obeyed unquestioningly, whereas in the modern world, they are subject to question. Meaning is still ensured, in spite of communicative rationality, because it arises from interaction of subjects.

To Habermas, the systemic world, such as of economics and politics, becomes 'uncoupled' from lifeworld, and becomes, to use his metaphor, a separate empire. (System and lifeworld are, however, linked by social institutions.) While to Weber system replaces lifeworld, to Habermas, system 'colonizes' the lifeworld (as one empire would another). As a result, those aspects of lifeworld where meaning and values are important and where communicative rationality is essential - such as culture, art, science, normative convictions and the development of the individual personality - are penetrated by instrumental rationality of economic and political systems. This is why they lose their meaning, and people lose their freedom in them. Habermas' solution is, therefore, not to reject modernity, rationality and system, but to expel it from those aspects of lifeworld where meaning and values are important.

We may notice the original Greek presuppositions show through in Habermas' thought. That systems, and the rationalization that generates systems, cannot be seen as part of the lifeworld suggests Habermas still presupposes the separateness, if not the primacy, of theoretical thinking from all other modes of human living, and so may not be critiqued from the standpoint of the lifeworld. That meaning arises from intersubjectivity, that is from interaction of subjects, suggests Habermas presupposes the primacy of Being over Meaning.

3.2 Problems with Habermas' View

Habermas' view is more sophisticated, and perhaps more practical, than those based on a direct reading of Weber, but it exhibits several problems. All come from accepting Weber's view that systems are norm-free, and the first three are discussed in Geertsema [1992]. One is experienced by business people who feel they are forced to take action that goes against their ethical convictions. Another problem is that Habermas' suggestion that in a system there can be no meaning (and he treats labour as merely a mechanism of production) fails to account for the fact that many people find real meaning in their work. A third problem is that Habermas' solution would not work, because to expel system from lifeworld presupposes a norm for the expulsion, yet systems are impervious to norms, and so cannot be thus expelled. A fourth problem emerges when we ask who creates the mechanisms by which systems work - rules, protocols, classifications, etc. - because such mechanisms are likely to be an expression of their norms and values.

3.3 Dooyeweerd's View of Lifeworld

To Dooyeweerd, lifeworld and system stand in a different relationship. Rather than being separated empires, system may be seen as part of lifeworld. (He does not use the term, lifeworld, but 'naïve' and 'pre-theoretical', and we define more precisely what the Dooyeweerdian version of lifeworld would be below.) To Dooyeweerd, the human activity that transpires in a system may be usefully seen as lifeworld, because human beings are participants and they respond to norms. Rationalization, even of the instrumental sort, is also seen as lifeworld, though as a part with specific characteristics.

Because of this, while other thinkers have tried to understand lifeworld in terms of rationality, Dooyeweerd tried to understand rationality in terms of lifeworld. Notice the order in which he introduces them in the first words of his New Critique:

"If I consider reality as it is given in the naïve pre-theoretical experience [i.e. approximately, lifeworld], and then confront it with a theoretical analysis, through which reality appears to split up into various modal aspects, then the first thing that strikes me, is the original indissoluble interrelation among these aspects which are for the first time explicitly distinguished in the theoretical attitude of mind." [his italics]

This is the starting point for his transcendental critique, that theoretical thinking is something that we do as part of our everyday human life. Started from there, he then asks himself what special type of functioning theoretical thinking is. Reflecting upon everyday life, he finds several aspects (he also called them 'spheres' or 'modalities'), which are "indissolubly interrelated", from one of which theoretical thinking arises.

3.4 Dooyeweerd's Theory of Modal Aspects

Many thinkers refer to distinct aspects, sometimes using different terminology. Whenever a thinker makes a fundamental distinction between several spheres that they do not justify on theoretical grounds (though they might justify on empirical or intuitive grounds) they are thinking aspectually. What such thinkers hold in common is that their aspects, whether they call them 'aspects' or not, cannot be reduced to each other.

For example, Habermas refers to three worlds (objective, social, subjective), and several action types. But he went further than most do, discussing how to each action type corresponds a distinct characteristic speech act, function of speech, orientation, attitude, validity claim and world (Habermas, 1986:329). Dooyeweerd also went further, discussing the ontic nature of aspects themselves and what philosophical roles they could fulfil. In doing so, he took into account both the diversity of everyday experience and the writings of diverse thinkers over the past 2,500 years, but the central impetus for his idea came as an insight (Henderson, 1994:37-8):

"I enjoyed going for walks in the dunes in the evening. During one of these walks in the dunes I received an insight (ingeving) that the diverse modes of experience, which were dependent upon the various aspects of reality, had a modal character and that there had to be a structure of the modal aspects in which their coherence is reflected. The discovery of what I called 'the modal aspects of our experience horizon' was the point of connection."

Regarding their modal character, aspects:

  • are modes in which things can Be,
  • open up the potential of our Becoming,
  • are spheres of law that enable and guide what we Do,
  • are definers of Norms,
  • provide distinct ways of Knowing,
  • and provide a framework of meaning that enables us to understand, conceive, describe and discuss things.

(It is important to understand that aspectual norms are very different from, and much deeper than, social norms.) Regarding their structure, aspects form a spectrum of Meaning and have the following characteristics:

  • irreducible to each other,
  • related by dependency,
  • intertwined by analogy,
  • in harmony with each other,
  • non-absolute, in that none is self-sufficient.

Of the far-ranging implications of this, we draw attention to the following. Kant separated Being from Norms so there is often tension between them, but since, to Dooyeweerd, both Being and Norms arise from the same root, the tension may be resolved. Being and Becoming of things are likewise from the same root. The Being of a thing is complex, each aspect providing a distinct 'aspectual being' - for example the book in your hand is both paper and words. No aspect is without meaning.

Dooyeweerd made a proposal about what aspects there are; his suite comprises fifteen aspects, each with a 'kernel meaning'.

  • Quantitative aspect, of amount
  • Spatial aspect, of continuous extension
  • Kinematic aspect, of flowing movement
  • Physical aspect, of energy and mass
  • Biotic aspect, of life functions
  • Sensitive aspect, of sense, feeling and emotion
  • Analytical aspect, of distinction, conceptualizing and inferring
  • Formative aspect, of history, culture, creativity, achievement and technology
  • Lingual aspect, of symbolic meaning and communication
  • Social aspect, of social interaction, relationships and institutions
  • Economic aspect, of frugality, skilled management of limited resources
  • Aesthetic aspect, of harmony, surprise and fun
  • Juridical aspect, of 'what is due', rights, responsibilities
  • Ethical aspect, of self-giving love, generosity
  • Pistic aspect, of faith, commitment and vision.

So, for example, a painting in an art sale might have aesthetic meaning as a work of art, economic meaning as something that can be sold, and physical meaning as a collection of pigments. (The reader need not understand all aspects here.) The earlier aspects are determinative in nature, in that we have little freedom in how we respond to their laws (e.g. law of gravity), while the later ones, from the analytic onwards that we might call human aspects, are normative in nature, offering us inherent freedom of response (e.g. lingual laws of syntax, semantics).

It is interesting to compare Dooyeweerd's aspects with Habermas' (1986) action types. In instrumental and strategic action, the formative aspect plays a leading role. In normatively regulated action, the juridical aspect plays a major role, along with those aspects to which the relevant norms apply. In communicative action, the lingual plays the leading role, and in discursive action that seeks to expose assumptions, the pistic aspect is important.

Of interest to us is the analytical aspect that enables reflection, abstraction and theoretical thinking. It is one among many and so theoretical thinking can have no a-priori superiority over other modes of knowing or functioning. Though functioning in this aspect tends towards the separation of analytical subject from analyzed object (notice how, in this way, Dooyeweerd accounts for Descartes' limited view of the subject-object relationship), it is important to remember that this is carried out in the wider context of all the aspects, which do not, in themselves, admit of such a separation. Dooyeweerd expressly distanced himself from the notion of the detached observer, believing that in all our functioning we are involved participants. Even in our theorizing, we are still involved with what we observe in a multi-aspectual way.

3.5 Lifeworld as Multi-Aspectual Human Functioning

Habermas claims that "The communicative-theoretic concept of lifeworld, developed from the participant's perspective, is not directly serviceable for theoretical purposes" (1987:135). It may be that Dooyeweerd can make it serviceable.

To Dooyeweerd, all human activity and being is a functioning in (nearly) all aspects. For example, effective discourse involves not only the lingual and social aspects but also the aesthetic aspect for harmony, juridical for fairness, ethical for generosity, pistic for trust and commitments, etc. Usually, we function in the various aspects tacitly, unaware of their distinctness, but from time to time we abstract aspects of our situation and become aware of them.

The correlation between Dooyeweerd's notion of multi-aspectual functioning and Habermas' notion of lifeworld is striking (especially when considering the normative aspects). In both, as we have just seen, we take the point of view of participant (rather than rational, distant observer). In both, the participant experiences meaning and freedom. Both are guided by norms. To Habermas, the lifeworld is something of a background; to Dooyeweerd, multi-aspectual living is largely tacit and taken for granted. To Habermas, the lifeworld is a medium for social learning (Ray, 1993:30); to Dooyeweerd, people function in the social aspect, and all post-social aspects necessarily involve social functioning. In the lifeworld, communicative action is important; since the lingual action precedes the social aspect, it is presupposed by it. Habermas speaks about the influence of tradition and religious beliefs in the unrationalized lifeworld; Dooyeweerd would see these as formative and pistic aspects. Rationalization of lifeworld by means of critique of arguments would involve Dooyeweerd's analytic aspect.

Thus it is reasonable to see Habermas' lifeworld as multi-aspectual living. But there are differences between the notions, and it is these differences that might enable us to use Dooyeweerd's notion of multi-aspectual human living to enrich Habermas' notion of lifeworld and system.

3.6 Enriching the Notion of Lifeworld

The most obvious difference is that Dooyeweerd believes that a good proposal can be made as to what the aspects are that constitute the lifeworld, whereas Habermas is usually vague or uncommitted about this. It may be that light can be thrown on our understanding of lifeworld by reference to Dooyeweerd's aspects. While Habermas stresses communicative action as that which is fundamental to all action types in the lifeworld (Habermas, 1991:241), Dooyeweerd stressed the irreducible importance of every type of aspectual functioning, and recognising this might also enlarge our notion of lifeworld.

If we subject the lifeworld to criticism a second difference emerges. In Honneth et. al.'s view (1981:16, quoted from Ray, 1993:31) is that "The lifeworld is that remarkable thing that dissolves ... before our eyes as soon as we try to take it up piece by piece." But to Dooyeweerd, it does not necessarily 'dissolve'. While the tacit nature of our multi-aspectual functioning 'dissolves', its multi-aspectual nature does not, and it is this that we have identified as equivalent to lifeworld.

Thirdly, while Habermas sees the influence of tradition and beliefs as something displaced during rationalization, Dooyeweerd would see them as still operating and important even after rationalization; indeed, much of Dooyeweerd's argument was that rationality itself has a religious root. In practice, we do find traditions and beliefs operating in economic and (especially) political systems. To account for them and how they influence system activity we need an integrated view such as Dooyeweerd offers.

3.7 Enriching the Notion of System

A less obvious difference lies in their attitudes to system. To Habermas, this is a separate 'empire' from lifeworld, while to Dooyeweerd, system may be seen a part of lifeworld. This is for two reasons. Habermas saw systems as arising from an instrumental rationality, but to Dooyeweerd, instrumental activity is a formative aapect of everyday living, in which we are constantly shaping things, planning, achieving goals, and so on. The second reason is that a system involves myriads of people making decisions and taking actions - for example, economic decisions and actions. These, says a Dooyeweerdian approach, involve multi-aspectual functioning - including, for example, those little acts of generosity or meanness (ethical aspect), the giving people their due or withholding it (juridical aspect), minor or major commitments (pistic aspect), etc. Labour, which Habermas sees as largely a meaningless mechanism for running these systems, becomes, under a Dooyeweerdian view, a rich human living that can be meaningful and is guided by a diverse variety of norms.

Under a Dooyeweerdian view, each system would be led by a specific qualifying aspect: economic aspect for the economic system, juridical aspect for the political system. (Dooyeweerd discussed the state and legal systems at considerable length.) This means that in each system a specific set of norms is of primary importance. For example, if the political system is qualified by the juridical aspect, then the norm that should guide both what it does and also the design of mechanisms by which it operates is that of 'what is due' to all under its jurisdiction, which applies not only to individuals but also to groups, communities, animals, environments, etc.

But, if Dooyeweerd's suite of aspects contains any useful understanding of what the aspects are, then the norms that should guide the operation of systems might be different from the mechanisms currently in place. This is especially so for the economic system, currently driven by mechanisms of exchange, money, competition and, sometimes, control, whereas Dooyeweerd suggested that the norm for economics is frugality. (To Dooyeweerd, resource limitation is not a negative thing that should be overcome, but a positive thing that can result in meaningful creativity and fulfilment.) So the supposedly neutral mechanisms of the economic system are far from neutral, betraying deep religious presuppositions of (liberal, Western) society. In Dooyeweerd's view, the current mechanisms are not wrong as such, but to the degree that they lead society to transgress the deeper norm of frugality, to that degree are they anti-normative. Aware of the environmental crises that face us, to say nothing of the squandering lifestyle of most in the West, we can easily see that current mechanisms are anti-normative to a high degree.

Dooyeweerd's view of lifeworld and system overcomes the problems we noted earlier with Habermas' notion of a norm-less and value-free system. Labour in the system can still have meaning. System activity is indeed guided by norms. Design of the mechanisms by which the systems operate is guided by norms. And, paradoxically, Habermas' call to expel system from lifeworld now becomes viable as a solution, though, as we now see, it might no longer be necessary.

3.8 Loss of Meaning and Emancipation

What, then, about our experience of loss of meaning in modern life? To Dooyeweerd, it is transgression of aspectual norms that results in perceived loss of meaning, because the aspects are themselves Meaning. It also results, paradoxically, in loss of freedom. Transgressing the norms of post-social aspects has repercussions on others as well as on the perpetrator. So the loss of meaning that has accompanied the systematization of the modern world would be explained, not by instrumental rationalization as such, but by major societal transgression of aspectual norms (especially of the economic and juridical aspects). While, to Horkheimer and Adorno, the solution is to reject modernity, and to Habermas, it is to expel system from lifeworld, to Dooyeweerd the solution is to respect and abide by aspectual norms in our multi-aspectual living in society. This may be summed up in what is known as the shalom hypothesis.

What the Dooyeweerdian community calls 'shalom' is a rich state of well-being as contributed by each aspect when we function in line with all aspects (e.g. health: biotic, prosperity: economic, peace: aesthetic, self-actualization: pistic, etc.). Shalom is threatened by dysfunction in one or more aspects. This is based on the idea that the aspects are in harmony with one another; for example, the popular assumption that being ethical is detrimental to business success would be stridently denied by Dooyeweerd since the ethical and economic norms never work against each other. The Dooyeweerdian notion of shalom is like that of emancipation in Critical Theory. Emancipation might be seen as a need to be freed from the effects of aspectual dysfunction, especially in the later aspects. A Dooyeweerdian approach could invest emancipation with rich meaning.

Critical Theory involves not only critique but also action to address problems thrown up by that critique. Critique requires norms. Action to address problems requires enabling, empowering. If the source of norms is different from the source of empowering, then either the norms become little more than unrealistic wishes or, worse, any action taken could work against its own criteria. This danger is realized when a framework does not openly acknowledge its norms - as Wilson (1997) shows can happen in parts of the Critical community. However, as we have seen, Dooyeweerdian aspects provide both norms and enabling from the same source, thus providing Critical Theory with an integration of critique and solution.

3.9 Rationalization, 'Colonization' and Progress

Weber, Adorno, Horkheimer and Habermas were all agreed on one thing: the difference between modern and pre-modern society. If Dooyeweerd is to provide us with a commensurable framework from which to enrich Critical thinking, he must account for such a difference. Though it seems that Dooyeweerd was unaware of the work of Habermas, Adorno and Horkheimer, his theory of history and progress does this.

Dooyeweerd saw history as uni-directional, and accounted for this in terms of the 'opening up' of aspects (or 'disclosure' or 'unfolding'). We can see this in at least the following aspects:

  • Analytical aspect. 'Opening up' has resulted in the development of scientific knowledge and critical attitudes. Science has succeeded in 'opening up' our knowledge of each aspect (and, indeed, to Dooyeweerd, to do this is the very role of science).

  • Formative aspect. 'Opening up' has resulted in the development of systems and methods. Systems involve structure, which must he 'formed' or 'shaped'.

  • Social aspect. 'Opening up' has resulted in differentiation of structures and institutions of society, largely according to aspects (e.g. churches, legal institutions, schools, businesses, etc.

Given the dependency relationships amongst the aspects, it is no surprise to find that, in the main, the opening up of the post-analytic aspects was delayed until the advent of science, which heralded the modern period.

Dooyeweerd also suggested that the historical opening process involves three sub-norms of differentiation, individuation and integration. It is the analytic aspect that enables humanity to fulfil the sub-norm of differentiation. It is also the 'opened up' analytic aspect that helps us fulfil Habermas' norm of taking a critical attitude to the traditions of the lifeworld. The kernel meaning of the formative aspect also suggests the sub-norm of integration. The instrumental rationalization that generates systems uncoupled from lifeworld may be seen as a fulfilment of all three sub-norms.

'Colonization' of lifeworld occurs when some part of it that should be invested with meaning, freedom and norms, such as art, has become dominated by the mechanisms of systems. Habermas sees this as something that should be resisted. But it may be that right use of such mechanisms could help open up the later aspects. (It might be noticed that the areas Habermas mentions as being colonized are mainly post-social.)

Dooyeweerd saw such opening up as a norm for humanity's cultural activity, and thus to some extent inevitable as humanity discovered and actualized the norm. Therefore, Dooyeweerd would join with Habermas, against Weber, Adorno and Horkheimer, in believing that modernity is not the wrong key so much as a key that has not been filed down enough [Ray, 1993]. Modernity still has 'unfulfilled potential', and to Dooyeweerd especially modernity is meaningful.

However, from a wider perspective in the light of major environmental and other problems resulting from Western modernism, we might feel uncomfortable with both Habermas' and Dooyeweerd's seeming espousal of modernity. Indeed, Klapwijk (1987:128) has criticised Dooyeweerd's theory of progress as "a speculative product of German idealist metaphysics of history", rather than as truly emerging from his main thought. "Dooyeweerd continued to espouse the basic idea of a universal-progressive process of disclosure that in one way or another eventuates, as it turns out, in modern Western culture."

Klapwijk's criticism might have some validity, and while we might accept Dooyeweerd's proposal that progress is 'opening up' of aspects, we should perhaps question his three sub-norms. In particular, it is not clear why the opening up of aspects should be marked primarily by differentiation. But, in defence of Dooyeweerd's main proposal, we may note that he would also severely criticise modernity as it has actually occurred in Western culture. He warned, (Dooyeweerd, 1955:II,275):

"The subjective individual dispositions and talents intended are not themselves to be viewed as the normative standard of the disclosed process of cultural development."

That is, what people have come to do and be able to do is not itself a normative standard. Rather, he continued,

"They ought to be unfolded in accordance with the normative principles implied in the anticipatory structure of the historical law-sphere. The further analysis of this structure will show that these principles have unbreakable mutual coherence so that the norm of cultural individualization is never to be conceived apart from the other anticipatory principles."

That is, we must take into account the norms of other aspects as well as those of the formative aspect. So, even though Western society seems to have obeyed the norm of this aspect, it may be criticised because it has ignored the norms of later aspects.

To Dooyeweerd, the opening up of aspects brings blessing to the Cosmos, and is therefore to be welcomed if carried out in sensitive ways. Therefore 'system' need not be seen as something to be expelled from lifeworld, but to be welcomed as an integral and meaningful part of it, so long as it fulfils the norms of all aspects. In particular, if systemic activities occur in lifeworld, then they should always be in harmony with it (aesthetic norm).

4. Information Technology as System and Lifeworld

We now discuss briefly how these findings might be applied to enrich our view of information technology.

4.1 Information Technology as System or Lifeworld

Perhaps we can see technology as either lifeworld or system by considering ways in which we engage with technology. As lifeworld, we engage with technology as a participation with it in life, and this participation is guided by diverse norms and values and we experience meaning. As system, we are perpetrators of a technical project of some kind, in which only mechanisms, structures, and behaviour, classifications, theories and methodologies, are evident. We may see this in three main areas of concern about technology:

  • System or lifeworld of producing technologies>, such as knowledge representation formalisms, the HTML protocol for creating web pages, and virtual reality technology. Under the systems view we focus on the theories and methodologies, while under the lifeworld view we can take into account the personalities of the people concerned, norms and values, and meaning that such people derive from their work. Free software archives are, perhaps, a concrete expression of the lifeworld vision for information technology.

  • System or lifeworld of creating artefacts employing these technologies. For example, we employ knowledge representation to create expert systems, HTML to create web sites, and virtual reality to create computer games. Under the systems view, we seek formal methodologies for producing such artefacts, and this has been the focus of academia and business. Under the lifeworld view, we take account of the people, their norms, values and meaning. This view was very much evident in the early history of computer games when games-making was a creative process characterized by fun, colour and movement, facilitated by animation- and music-oriented machines like the Amiga and software like Amos.

  • System or lifeworld of using technical artefacts - the expert system, web site or computer game. Under the systems view, we can see the use of an expert system, web site or even game, in an instrumental way, e.g. to increase company profits. Under the lifeworld view, we can see their use as part of everyday living - e.g. the expert system or web site as part of communicative action, and the game as a means of relaxing.

4.2 Information Technology from Three Perspectives

We will now consider these from each of the three perspectives outlined above: Horkheimer and Adorno's, Habermas' and Dooyeweerd's. These writers were developing their thought long before the advent of information technology as it is today, so we can only speculate on how they would have addressed it.

As we have seen, the pessimism of Horkheimer and Adorno would suggest ceasing technological progress if that were possible, with a return to myth.

Habermas, however, might provide a more practical solution. Other parts of Habermas' thinking might have other things to say about technology, but one suggestion emerges from his proposal that system must be expelled from lifeworld: technological activity should be limited to serving, and being carried out in, the lifeworld. This suggestion might be worked out as follows:

  • Technologies could be developed solely by gifted amateurs or small organizations that have not yet succumbed to systematization, who would develop good technologies in their leisure time or in small groups and deposit them in free software archives.
  • Artefacts would be developed by those who wished to use them (which would provide incentive to develop more user-friendly construction software).
  • People would use said artefacts at will within lifeworld.

This is not so far-fetched as it seems. It is actually happening in at least one community, that based around the Amiga platform. Largescale commercial and academic development of the Amiga has ceased, and those who employ it - as this author does - find a flourishing free software community to take the platform further so that almost all that is available on other platforms is available for the Amiga.

But could this truly be a model for all information technology? This author believes so, but most would presumably disagree. It may be, for example, that the speed of technological development and of widespread penetration of technology throughout society, that many assume is the norm, require Habermasian systems of control, investment, research, and the like, so economic and political systems must play their part.

A Dooyeweerdian response would not deny the validity of our supposed Habermasian approach to the issue, but we might make the following tentative suggestions that would take it further or set it in context.

First, the development of information technology might be seen as an 'opening up' of the lingual aspect. While writing and printing were part of this opening process, information technology could take this a step further with its ability to act on information, process it and respond to human and other activity in diverse ways. Knowledge representation techniques are of particular interest here because they have exposed new issues in linguistics. On this basis if on no other, Dooyeweerd would welcome the advance of information technology.

Second, under a Dooyeweerdian approach, there being no need to expel system from lifeworld but rather to ensure that it is in harmony with lifeworld, the diverse information technologies should be designed sensitively to match the diverse aspects of the lifeworld. This leads to the strategic notion that each technology should be appropriate to a particular aspect (Basden, 2002).

Lastly, perhaps the most substantial enrichment that Dooyeweerd could offer is that afforded by aspectual norms to guide human multi-aspectual functioning. This applies whether we see technology as system or as lifeworld. Some aspectual norms are immediately evident when we consider the three types of technology and artefact mentioned above. Expert systems require clearly differentiated knowledge concepts (analytic aspect) and correct calculation of such things as probabilities (quantitative aspect). Web sites require a high standard of linguistic content, form and style (lingual aspect), should be coherent (aesthetic aspect), quick to download (economic aspect), and attractive (aesthetic aspect). Computer games should be fun (aesthetic aspect), and visually and aurally stimulating (sensitive aspect).

But there are also norms that might be less obvious and are generally applicable to all technologies. Here are a few suggestions. The direction in which technologies are developed should be explicitly harmonized with their eventual usefulness in human life (aesthetic aspect), and this development should see itself as servant, rather than master (ethical aspect). Creation of artefacts for human use could be informed by the norm of frugality (the kernel of the economic aspect), so that unnecessary facilities do not accumulate to confuse the user. Use of said artefacts should be guided by the juridical norm of 'what is due' in respect to repercussions of use. This has been used to enrich the notion of 'customer' in Checkland's soft systems methodology (Basden and Wood-Harper, 2002).

(We restrict ourselves to implications that may be drawn from consideration of system and lifeworld. Other implications of a Dooyeweerdian approach to these areas, such as employing Winfield's (2000) MAKE (Multi-Aspectual Knowledge Elicitation) methodology are outside the scope of this discussion.)

5. Conclusion

This paper has examined the relationship between system and lifeworld as understood by three streams of thought, Weberian, Habermasian and Dooyeweerdian, and has applied the findings to gain a perspective on three main areas of concern in information technology. It has conveyed two messages:

  • The philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd can enrich Habermas' notion of lifeworld in sensitive ways.
  • Technology and its development and use may be seen as either system or lifeworld.

Other possible ways of enriching Critical Theory are possible. We could enrich Habermas' ontology of action types by means of Dooyeweerd's fifteen aspects. We could enrich Habermas' view of the interests that guide knowledge and the power relations that 'disturb' discourse with Dooyeweerd's theory of world views and ground motives that act as a "spiritual force that acts as the absolutely central mainspring of human society" (Dooyeweerd, 1979:9). Conversely, Habermas' views might inform those of Dooyeweerd, which are of rather broad sweep. In particular, Dooyeweerd has offered no theory of discourse, a topic about which Habermas has offered considerable insight. But these possibilities must be explored later.

Here, we first briefly followed Habermas' own argument that modernity has 'unfulfilled potential', which he justified against the pessimists, Weber, Adorno and Horkheimer by a different notion of rationalization, system and lifeworld. We then embarked on an investigation of how Habermas' view could be supported, critiqued and enriched by that of Dooyeweerd. We noted the similarities between Habermas' notion of lifeworld and Dooyeweerd's notions of multi-aspectual human functioning or living. But to Dooyeweerd, system is not to be seen as separated from lifeworld. It is part of it, though a specialised part based on the notion of the historical 'opening up' of certain aspects. This enables us to see the human activity that occurs within systems, such as labour, as meaningful human living that is directed by aspectual norms - and in this way it can rightly be considered part of lifeworld. This overcomes certain problems with Habermas' conception and enables us to enrich Habermas' theory in a number of ways.

In applying these views of the relationship between system and lifeworld to information technology, we found three positions that might be summarized as follows:

  • Adorno and Horkheimer: I.T. should not be developed at all.
  • Habermas: I.T. should be developed and used only on a small-scale basis, in and for the lifeworld.
  • Dooyeweerd: I.T. may be part of the opening up of the lingual aspect, its development might involve system, but all its development and use should be treated as lifeworld, and so aspectual norms are important to guide this process.

We have discussed just one way by which a Dooyeweerdian approach might be able to enrich the Critical approach of Habermas in ways that are commensurate with it. In particular, Dooyeweerd's notion of multi-aspectual functioning might be viewed as a philosophical proposal for what constitutes Habermas' notion of lifeworld, and one that allows for system and lifeworld to be integrated.


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Created: 2003
Copyright (c) Andrew Basden. 2007

Last updated: 12 December 2007