Resources for a Christian worldview



Newest Members


This paper was presented at the Reformational Conference in the Netherlands in 2005. It discusses how the author has, in his research in information systems and critical social theory, has been able to enrich rather than oppose humanist thought with Dooyeweerd. Its purpose is to stimulate discussion about how this might be done. Since this talk, this paper has been worked up for Philosophia Reformata, to be published 2008.

Enriching humanist thought


Andrew Basden,

Informatics Research Institute, University of Salford, U.K.


This paper is intended for a more-or-less Christian audience. I recently received an email in which the Christian writer said he found it frustrating to engage with the secular mind. Even though I am deeply critical of secularism, I do not find it frustrating, but rewarding and stimulating, to engage with the secular mind. The reason I now do so, is because I look at secular thinkers and thinking in a new way. Though one can argue for a deep antithesis between 'Christian' and secular thought, no longer do I see it primarily in these terms. Now I see primarily that secular thinkers have genuine insight (with some exceptions below), and secondarily are antithetical to my thought in a particular way.

My theological standpoint as a Christian believer motivates me to engage with 'secular' fields of thought as being just as 'sacred' as theology or ethics. The two fields in which I engage, primarily information systems (IS) and secondarily environmental sustainability, have both benefited from an understanding and application of the philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd, and it was for these reasons that I began to explore his thought in the early 1990s; the fact that Dooyeweerd shared my Christian faith was a bonus, and not a reason for exploring his ideas. At first it was only his theory of modal aspects that interested me but, as I began to understand his thought - not having trained as a philosopher - I began to find many portions that attracted me, especially his attitude to everyday (naïve) experience, his theory of ground-motives, his theory of entities, his attempting a philosophical rather than theological approach to issues of creation, fall and redemption, and perhaps above all the deep honesty and mercifulness of his critical approach, which was immanent-transcendental in nature. It is through the Dooyeweerdian ability to do justice to both diversity and coherence that I have subsequently come to understand and value the thought of other thinkers, such as Jürgen Habermas.

This is a paradox, even in Dooyeweerd's own terms: how can the thought of other thinkers have real value if it is founded on a ground-motive that is antithetical to what he claimed is the Christian one? I reflect on why that may be at the end. But I wish to focus on my actual experience. In my field of IS I have employed Dooyeweerdian ideas to enrich thought in many areas, some of which are explored below. In this field there have been three philosophic turns: positivist in the early period (up to the 1980s), interpretivist in the 1980s and 1990s, and criticalist from the 1990s onwards. Though each of these turns is incommensurable with the others, I have found Dooyeweerdian thought to be commensurable with all three and able to both enrich and offer useful critique to all. Why this may be so is discussed at the end.

In this paper I explore four specific cases in which I have found Dooyeweerdian thinking enriching, the first three representing the positivist, interpretivist and critical approaches, and the fourth a possible reinterpretation of philosophic thought, that of Hegel. This will be followed by reflective discussion on what I have found and why it is that Dooyeweerdian thought seems able to sensitively engage with and critically enrich other thought.

My approach in each case is not to first and foremost seek to identify what is wrong with the thinking, but first to try to (a) fully understand (b) then to enrich the insights in their thinking. Only then do I reflect on the effect of their thought being influenced by a different ground-motive. I will assume that participants here are all aware of Dooyeweerd's notion of the spheres of Meaning (modal aspects) and of his four religious ground motives, even if only at a cursory level.


Our first case comes from a positivist stream of research in IS, namely from the field of artificial intelligence and computer science as they were constituted in the early 1980s. Allen Newell [1982] published what was to become the most-cited paper of this key figure in the field, 'The knowledge level'. He argued that a computer system 'has' several distinct levels -

  • Device level, whose medium is electrons and magnetic domains in physical materials
  • Circuit level, whose medium is voltages and currents in electronic components
  • Logic level, whose medium is bits in computer memory and registers
  • Symbol level, whose medium is symbols in data structures
  • Knowledge level, whose medium is knowledge.

(Note: Some of Newell's terminology comes from the fields of electronics science and computer science: 'device' refers to such things as semiconductor P-N junctions, 'logic' is not analytic but electronic logic, i.e. digital electronics in which what is meaningful is not the voltage but whether it is 'on' or 'off', '1' or '0'; these levels are better called the materials and bit levels.)

He worked out his notion of levels to some detail. Each level provides a set of concepts and vocabulary for discussing a system that includes [Newell, 1982:95] "a medium that is to be processed, components that provide primitive processing, laws of composition that permit components to be assembled into systems, and laws of behavior that determine how system behavior depends on the component behavior and the structure of the system". Different levels describe the same system, not different parts thereof, and do so in equally valid ways - e.g. "The Prospector system found molybdenum deposits" (KL) and "The Prospector system used probabilistic reasoning" (SL). "Neither of these .. definitions of a level is the more fundamental. It is essential that they both exist and agree." [ibid.:95] A description at a level is complete, in the sense of not leaving gaps that must be filled in by reference to descriptions from other levels.

"It is noteworthy," said Newell [ibid.:95-6], "how radically the levels differ. The medium changes from electrons and magnetic domains .. to current and voltage .. to bits .. to symbolic expressions" .. to knowledge. On the other hand, "some intricate relations exist between and within levels." That between levels is one of dependency: lower levels are necessary to higher levels. For example, knowledge is implemented in (represented by) symbols, symbols are implemented in bit patterns in memory, bits are implemented by voltages and currents held by conductors and components, which are implemented in (manufactured from) physical materials. Each level defines a distinct technology.

If a system has a description at one level then it will always be possible to describe it at the next lower level and, though the sequence of levels, to realize it as a physical system. But the reverse in not always the case. "Computer systems levels," said Newell [ibid.:97], "are not simply levels of abstraction. That a computer has a description at a given level does not necessarily imply it has a description at higher levels."

Newell's main concern was to explore the intuitive distinction between knowledge and the symbols that hold it (in computer systems and - by extension from an artificial intelligence standpoint - in the human mind) and discussed especially the ways in which these two levels differ. He sought to tackle the fundamental questions "What is knowledge?" "How is it related to representation?" "What is it that a system has when it has knowledge?"

The reader might already have detected the similarity between Newell's levels and some of Dooyeweerd's aspects:

  • Device level = physical aspect, 'logic' (bit, signal) = psychic aspect, symbol = analytic and formative, knowledge = lingual; these equivalences are argued elsewhere).
  • The levels and aspects occur in the same sequence, and
  • Both levels and aspects exhibit both irreducibility of meaning and inter-aspect/-level dependency.
  • The description at a level, like that from an aspect, is of the whole thing, not of a part.
  • What Newell calls system might be Dooyeweerd's enkaptic structural whole.
  • Levels, like aspects, involve laws.
  • Just as each level defines a distinct technology, so each aspect defines a distinct area of science.
  • Newell's exploration of the knowledge level might be seen as his exploration of the lingual aspect as it relates to computers.
  • Newell developed the idea that the role of a symbol is 'distant reference'; this has echoes of Dooyeweerd's idea that meaning is 'referring beyond' (when we realise that it is the role of a symbol to carry our intended meaning).

Two further similarities may be found. Newell claimed that his levels are not derived from a priori theory but derived primarily from years of practice in artificial intelligence [ibid.:92]; Dooyeweerd's aspects are derived from years of reflection on everyday life. In addition, Newell made a strong ontological claim for his suite of levels:

"They [levels] are not just a point of view that exists solely in the eye of the beholder. This reality comes from computer system levels being genuine specializations, rather than being just abstractions that can be applied uniformly." [ibid.:98]

"Nature has a say in whether a technology [and therefore a level] can exist." [ibid.:97]

"To repeat the final remark of the prior section: Computer system levels really exist, as much as anything exists. They are not just a point of view. Thus, to claim that the knowledge level exists is to make a scientific claim, which can range from dead wrong to slightly askew, in the manner of all scientific claims." [ibid.:99]

Likewise, though Dooyeweerd held that his suite of aspects should be subject to criticism and refinement, they also imply some kind of ontological claim as being 'not just a point of view'. (We might note that what Newell would call a 'scientific' claim, we might call a philosophical claim, but we can let this pass because Newell was not primarily a philosopher.)

The differences between Newell and Dooyeweerd arise from their respective presuppositions and philosophical assumptions.

One is that, as was fashionable in the AI community of the 1970s, Newell presupposed that, as far as knowledge and symbols are concerned, computers and human beings may be treated as equivalent; Dooyeweerd would differentiate between the symbols in a computer as object-functioning and those in our cognitive apparatus as part of our human subject-functioning. Newell presupposed that such things as bits, symbols, knowledge are self-dependent entities, while Dooyeweerd locates them in human subject-functioning. While, to Dooyeweerd, meaning is central, Newell did not mention it even once, talking only of things and activities. But none of these differences seem to be central to Newell's theory.

Newell noted that behaviour, when described at the knowledge level, is non-determinate, but this gave him a problem because (he claimed) behaviour at the symbol level is determinate. He cited Stockton's [1895] story of the Lady and Tiger:

The lover of a beautiful princess must choose between two identical doors, one of which, he has been told, leads to a tiger, the other to a beautiful lady. The princess finds out which leads to which, and by surreptitious signal indicates which door her lover should open. However, the princess had found out that the lady door would lead not to herself but to her chief rival. Which door did she tell her lover to open? Did she send him to death or to life with her rival?

"Our knowledge-level model of the princess," said Newell, [1982:104], "even if it were to include her complete knowledge, would not tell us which she chose. ... That she resolved it is clear, but that her behavior in doing so was describable at the knowledge level does not follow." After a rather tortuous argument about how the ability to predict behaviour is lost between the symbol level and knowledge level, which most find difficult to understand, he concluded rather weakly that the knowledge level is 'radically incomplete' and if we want a prediction we must add description from the symbol level. His solution is unsatisfactory, because it depends on a definition of knowledge that is completely at variance with everyday and even normal theoretical definitions (viz. as the logical closure of all knowledge that is actually represented in the symbols an agent holds) and because it depends on holding the knowledge level to be inescapably 'incomplete' as a level of description. It seems Newell was forced into this position because his ideas were worked out under a presupposition that a level's behaviour emerges from that below.

But a Dooyeweerdian account overcomes these and goes further. By allowing that the later aspects are non-determinate, non-determinacy needs no explanation and may be welcomed. Paradoxically, we can do better than Newell did in prediction by reference to normative aspects like the ethical; knowing whether the princess is self-giving or selfish gives us strong indication which door she will open.

Towards the end of his paper Newell briefly attempted a philosophical grounding for the knowledge level, based in Brentano's [1874] concept of intentionality and Dennett's [1978] application of this to artificial intelligence as the intentional and subpersonal stances, which Newell saw as equivalent to the knowledge level and symbol level. But there are significant differences in detail, and Newell called for closer analysis [1982:123].

Dooyeweerd might provide a sounder philosophical foundation for Newell's notion of not only the difference between the symbol and knowledge levels but also for his whole theory of levels. Founding Newell's levels in Dooyeweerd's aspects can help us to understand the nature of the levels more clearly, accounting for those things that are similar. Dooyeweerd's notion of inter-aspect dependency and analogy can provide a rich account of the relationships between levels. Because Dooyeweerd's theory is richer (e.g. his notion of enkapsis) this gives us ways of extending and refining Newell's theory. Since Dooyeweerd accepted non-determinacy in the later aspects there is no need for convoluted and counter-intuitive arguments for the non-determinacy of the knowledge level. Newell also had trouble [1993] with a split within his symbol level that he could not account for (and indeed tried to deny), but which might be explained by the difference between the analytic aspect of distinction and the formative aspect of structure and formation. Finally, because Dooyeweerd's suite contains more aspects than Newell's set of levels, this suggests that there might be other levels above the knowledge level - and indeed, Jennings [2000] has argued for a social level.

In short, Dooyeweerd fulfils Newell. The reason he does so may be explained if we consider that what Newell was aiming at was what Dooyeweerd offers: a philosophy based on a created cosmos in which meaning rather than being or process is fundamental, and in which the coherence of diversity is presupposed and needs no explanation (which has so far been impossible to find within the immanence standpoint).

There is an increasing recognition of the irreducible levels we experience, for example, Bunge's system levels, Boulding's levels and Hartmann's strata. Humanist thinking seems to reaching for a meaningful, cohering diversity, but has yet to recognise clearly that this is the case. Though the detailed work has yet to be carried out, it seems that the Dooyeweerdian notion of aspects is able to account for and enrich these theories and provide a sound philosophical foundation for them.


Breaking away from a long positivist tradition in systems analysis, Checkland proposed 'soft systems methodology' (SSM) [1981] for analysing 'human activity systems' in which human appreciation is a crucial factor. SSM has several phases: finding out about the system or situation, modelling it, deciding action, taking action. In the modelling phase the participants abstract from the situation so that new ideas might be generated. The aim is to form a 'rich picture' of the situation, compared with the narrow, thin pictures often generated by traditional systems analysis methods. The rich picture is expressed in a single 'root definition', and experience led Checkland to suggest that a good root definition contains at least the following six elements:

  • C - customers: "beneficiaries or victims affected by the system's activities"
  • A - actors: "agents who carry out, or cause to be carried out, the main activities of the system, especially its main transformation"
  • T - transformation process: "the means by which defined inputs are transformed into defined output" (where input is current situation and output is desired situation)
  • W - Weltanschauung: "an outlook, framework or image that makes this particular root definition meaningful"
  • O - ownership of the system: "some agency having a prime concern for the system and the ultimate power to cause the system to cease to exist"
  • E - environmental constraints: "features of the system's environments and/or wider systems which it has to take as 'given'."

For example [Checkland and Scholes, 1990:37] a house-painting system is "A householder-owned [O,C] and manned [A] system to paint a garden fence [T], by conventional hand painting, in keeping with the overall decoration scheme of the property [E], in order to enhance the visual appearance of the property [W]."

SSM is widely used in business since the 1970s. Usually such analysis is carried out in a group and several Ws, Os, Cs and Ts are tried, leading to several alternative root definitions from which alternative courses of action might be chosen. CATWOE has remained essentially the same all this time, suggesting it 'works'. But it does not work as well as it might, suggesting it could be improved [Bergvall-Kåreborn, Mirijamdotter and Basden, 2004].

While various authors have made practical or ad-hoc improvements, more principled improvements may be made by reference to Dooyeweerd's philosophy. Mirijamdotter and Bergvall-Kåreborn [2006] discuss how SSM as a whole might be enriched using Dooyeweerd. Basden and Wood-Harper [2005] have suggested how Dooyeweerd might be used to enrich CATWOE in some detail. To summarize:

  • T: See T as multi-aspectual human functioning; this allows T to be rich and yet not impossibly complex.
  • C: Consider repercussions of functioning in each aspect to identify beneficiaries and victims, especially those usually overlooked such as the environment.
  • E: Considering each aspect in turn can suggest constraints that are often overlooked.
  • W: Each aspect yields a different perspective or Weltanschauung.
  • A: Acting to bring about T involves multi-aspectual competence.
  • O: Focus on responsibility within each aspect.

Overall, then, Dooyeweerd's aspects provide a framework for analysis which greatly enriches CATWOE analysis.

Such enrichment is possible because the six elements fit very snugly into Dooyeweerd's theory of human activity as aspectual functioning that is lawful and therefore has repercussions, and that is meaningful and therefore provides perspectives, and since law and meaning are both inherently of aspects, they can be expected to cohere.

But there is a serious question about the validity of using Dooyeweerd to enrich SSM, despite its obvious utility in doing so. SSM is unashamedly based on an interpretivist view of reality [Checkland, 1981], which, as Eriksson [2006] argues, is based on the Freedom pole of the Nature-Freedom Ground Motive (NFGM), while Dooyeweerd's ideas are based on the Motive of Creation, Fall and Redemption (CFRGM). Our answer is, firstly, that the ground motives are more important in theoretical thought than in everyday living, so since both SSM and Dooyeweerdian philosophy are oriented towards 'real-world situations', the difference in ground motive may not be troublesome, secondly, that Checkland's claim that SSM is based in interpretivism may be questioned, especially seeing the central place given to meaning in SSM in the shape of W, of which Checkland [1981:18] says "This concept is the most important one in the methodology", and thirdly that distinctions between ground motives are, after all, abstractions from the reality of human activity.


We now turn to more practical areas: environmental sustainability on the one hand and the success and failure of information technology on the other. Our treatment must be brief. As Lombardi and Basden [1997] have argued, these two major issues are alike in being both widely interdisciplinary and intrinsically normative.

Both may be understood by means of Dooyeweerd's theory of aspects. The irreducibility of aspects accounts for why there are so many factors that can jeopardise sustainability: physical effects like global warming, biotic factors like destruction of rainforest, social factors like vendettas in communities, economic factors like waste and debt, juridical factors like injustice and oppression, ethical factors like whether a self-giving or a selfish, competitive attitude pervades society, and pistic matters like the morale of a community and the type of religious faith that prevails. Likewise, many factors jeopardise the success of an information system: physical matters like power cuts, psychic matters like ergonomics, formative matters like its goals, lingual matters like the accurate and clear expression of information, social factors like cultural connotations of information content, economic factors like the tendency to waste time doing too much of what the system makes convenient, juridical factors like the ignoring of detrimental impacts on some stakeholders, ethical factors like whether the use of the IS often makes us more self-focused, pistic factors like our belief in technology as the solution. Examples of both are given in Lombardi and Basden [1997].

As Brandon and Lombardi [2005] have shown, Dooyeweerd's aspects can be used as a practical tool for evaluating urban sustainability, and Basden [2002] has discussed how it may be used to evaluate the quality of an information system.

The IS evaluation community has moved away from cost-benefit analysis, through an interpretivist phase to embrace critical theory and especially the notion of emancipation. Information systems should emancipate rather than oppress. But what is emancipation? It tends to be assumed as a super-norm, it is seldom made the topic of critical examination. Basden [2003] has argued that the notion of emancipation may be understood usefully in terms of Dooyeweerdian aspects.

The Dooyeweerdian approach to these issues brings with it a structured and yet flexible framework of distinct aspects that may be used as criteria of evaluation, prediction or design. Humanist thinking ordinarily assumes that (where it allows for aspects) aspects might work against each other - as, for example, indicated by the statement "If you want your business to succeed, you cannot afford the luxury of ethics". But, because of Dooyeweerd's presupposition that the cosmos is created by a Creator who loves it, the norms of the economic, ethical or any other aspects do not inherently work against each other, and there may be what Van der Kooy [1974] called simultaneous realization of norms. Others have used the word shalom to express the idea of the integrated functioning of all the aspects, leading to a rich well-being, prosperity, harmony, joy. The notion of multi-aspectual shalom can provide the basis for both understanding and practically addressing sustainability, emancipation and the success and failure of information systems.


A fourth way in which I have found it useful to enrich humanist thought is by reinterpreting the ideas of a philosopher. Some years ago [Basden, 1999] I published a proposal that Hegel's notion of dialectic - his insight that everything contains its antithesis - may be understood in terms of the "inner indissoluble coherence" [Dooyeweerd, 1955,I:3] of diverse modal aspects, and that the dialectic process of thesis - antithesis - synthesis may be seen in terms of elevating one aspect, separating it from the others, it losing its meaning thereby, a reaction setting in and another aspect being seen as important. I illustrated this process by noting how several cycles in Green thought may be explained by reference to Dooyeweerd's specific suite of aspects, thus giving a practical form to Hegel's insight.

However, in doing so, I also noted Hegel's grand theme that the Divine Spirit actualizes itself by means of the outworking of long cycles of the dialectic process might also be understood in a different way. If we replace the label 'Divine Spirit', which Hegel gave it and which Christians react against emotively, with 'The Whole of Created Reality' which has both law side (aspects) and subject side, then we find that much of what Hegel says we might agree with, at least if we adopt a view from Dooyeweerdian philosophy.

We see two examples here of transplanting to a new ground motive. The first replaced Hegel's mere dogma of inner antithesis with a new understanding in terms of cohering diversity of Meaning. In the second, using Dooyeweerd's thought helped me to see behind the seemingly-offensive label to the insight behind. It now seems to me that what I was trying to do was an immanent critique - trying to understand the insight in its own terms rather than in terms antithetical to it.


6.1 Review of approach

I have no formal education in philosophy. Rather, I have found Dooyeweerd's ideas useful mainly to help me enrich current thought in five main ways, of which four have been discussed above:

  • In the first, I took a conceptual framework for understanding computers (Newell's levels), one which I had found useful over the years, and gave it a philosophical foundation that it lacked and gave its parts new meaning. In doing so, it became much stronger and richer as a framework. In like manner I have been able to forge useful frameworks for understanding other areas of research in information systems - not only the nature of computers, but also the diverse shapes of information technology, the I.S. development process, the usage, benefits and detrimental impacts of I.S., and living in a technologically-shaped and information-rich society. Moreover, Dooyeweerd has given me a basis for addressing what might be called the whole story that is information systems, which includes all these disparate areas.

  • In the second, I took a methodology for analysis (CATWOE) that is widely used and found useful and robust for nearly 30 years, but which exhibits some problems and has little philosophical basis, and reinterpreted its elements in aspectual and other terms, and at the same time provided a theoretical justification for why each element is included. In doing so, I believe I got closer to the real value and underlying aim of the methodology - which was centred on meaning - than was possible under the freedom motive and systems thinking on which the methodology had been based. In other work in which I am involved [Winfield, Basden and Cresswell, 1996] we have created a methodology directly from Dooyeweerd's aspects rather than enriching existing methodology.

  • In the third, I took two complex problems that exhibit the widest form of interdisciplinarity and provided a basis by which that interdisciplinarity might be understood, namely Dooyeweerd's irreducibly distinct aspects that provide not only meaning but norms. In doing so, I was also able to provide rich meaning to the often empty and merely connotative notion of emancipation.

  • In the fourth, I reinterpreted a major idea attributed to a philosopher, that of dialectic of Hegel, in aspectual terms and was able to account for its insight. But in doing so I had to distance myself from the words that Hegel employed (viz. 'the Divine') and which tends to offend Christians, and give it different meaning. In a similar way, I have found it possible to understand the broad movements in thinking that inform my area, such as positivism, interpretivism and critical theory. I have found it possible to give due respect to the ideas of each thinker I encounter, while at the same time recognise the specific limitations of their thought (often they omit certain aspects and/or they adhere to one or other poles of a dualistic ground-motive).

  • There is one further way in which I find Dooyeweerd's thought enriches humanist (or any) thinking. In the practical act of analysing or discussing a situation, it is often the case that it feels one-sided or narrow. With an intuitive grasp of the aspects that Dooyeweerd proposed I find I can be sensitive to which aspects are being over-emphasised and which are being overlooked, and thus being able to steer the discussion away from the former and towards the latter. This is particularly useful in interdisciplinary situations and those in which diverse normativity is important but is often indirect in its outworking.

6.2 Which portions of Dooyeweerd's thought

What is it about Dooyeweerdian thought that enables these enrichments?

The portion of Dooyeweerd's thought that I find most useful in practical situations is his suite of aspects. This is because it provides clear delineation of distinct spheres of Meaning that fits any situation, but with an assurance that this meaning coheres.

The second portion of Dooyeweerd's thought that I have found useful is his general notion of aspects (as opposed to his particular suite), as being a framework that enables the cosmos (including computers etc.) to be and occur.

The third that I have found useful is the priority of Meaning over Being. Many of today's issues in I.S. revolve around meaning, in the Dooyeweerdian sense as well in the semiotic and subjectivist senses.

The fourth portion of his thought that I have found useful is his treatment of religious presuppositions and root, which helps me understand in what ways the insights that others have may be resting on shaky foundations, and so one might see my attempts at enrichment as transplanting insights from the barren soil of the nature-freedom ground motive into the more fertile soil of the creation-fall-redemption ground motive, so that they can flourish and bloom.

I find that the notion of creation, fall and redemption is useful philosophically, rather than theologically, in encouraging me to welcome diversity without sacrificing coherence, in seeing where the root of evil lies, and in escaping the dead-end of hoping for ultimate solution by human means.

6.3 Transplanting to Different Ground-Motive

I have found that most thinkers' ideas seem to be able to be transplanted from the ground-motive on which they are built into the motive of creation, fall and redemption. This involves maintaining a critical distance from the words they use, and the precise formulation of the positive proposals they make, to see their underlying concerns and the general thrust of their proposals. It is these that can be transplanted without distorting or damaging their original thrust, and it is these that seem to flourish in the new, more fertile soil, of CFR.

Why should this be possible, if - as many reformational thinkers maintain - there is a deep antithesis between Christian and non-Christian thinking? The only answer I can give is that, if the cosmos is indeed created, fallen and being redeemed by God, then the thinking based on other ground motives will still have some elements of genuine insight because it is itself part of creation, and its fallenness cannot totally obliterate that, and is subject to redemption. The creation and redemption of God is deeper and more fundamental than any supposed antithesis. Further, the effect of dualistic ground-motives is most clearly visible in theoretical thinking. The ground-motive is a construction, not a truth. While thinkers appeal to one or other poles thereof, much of their actual thought does not fit the ground motive so easily. (For example, Checkland sought to ground his SSM in phenomenonology and interpretivist stances, but there is much in SSM that contradicts this, especially much of its richness and usefulness.) We all operate in the diversity and coherence that is the cosmos, and a flawed ground-motive will simply not fit even though it might be appealed to.

While Dooyeweerd attempted to create a Christian philosophy, I have found that it is non-Christians rather than Christians that have valued and been attracted to his thought. By contrast, most Christians seem doubtful about it. Why is this? In my experience it is because nobody else provides a basis for interdisciplinarity and rich complexity that is able to address the real problems we face today. In addition, some find the centrality of Meaning attractive, while others find the ground-motives useful.

My approach is to seek to identify the insight in humanist thinking, getting behind the words used, and seeking to recognise and conceptually isolate the effect of the flawed ground motives. Then to re-conceptualize the insight by transplanting into the more fertile soil of a variant of the creation, fall, redemption ground motive. By this means I have found the humanist insight to have been enriched while still retaining much of the original thrust and intention of its source.

6.4 Pitfalls

What might be the pitfalls in, or problems with, this approach? Since the approach is new, it is too early to give any definite answer to that. However, we might note the following problems.

One is that taking this approach is very hard work. One must properly understand Dooyeweerd, but also at the same time properly understand the thought of the other thinker, together with its underlying aims, motivations, hopes, and what previous problems it is trying to overcome. And one must understand it in its own terms (that is, immanently) rather than in Dooyeweerdian terms in the first instance. Then there must be a period of reflection in which these underlying components are linked sensitively with Dooyeweerdian concepts, without any attempt to force. This process is not just an analytical one but has a certain aesthetic and justice in it, together with an ethical aspect of self-giving.

Another is the danger of forcing the other thought into Dooyeweerd.

A third danger is arrogance, or coming across as arrogant. If Dooyeweerdian thought is indeed able to provide a foundation for much other thought, then it would seem more complete than all other thought. The implication then is that all we need is Dooyeweerd and we can simply ignore other thought. This is a mistake, for several reasons. One is that there are large gaps in Dooyeweerdian thought that need filling; for example, while Dooyeweerd formulated a comprehensive theory of the State, he did not produce a full theory of discourse. So it may be that Habermas' insights about ideal discourse can be used to enrich Dooyeweerd. Another is that there are parts of Dooyeweerdian thought needs to be questioned and rethought. Dooyeweerdian thought is not to be treated as another version of Scripture. Some Dooyeweerdian thinkers have made these mistakes in the past, resulting in a counter-reaction.

A danger that I find myself prone to is that my motivation is often to explore how Dooyeweerd can be used to solve a particular problem rather than to solve the problem as such. When I realise this, I can draw back. But it requires constant vigilance on my part.

Attempting to combine Biblical and non-Biblical thought can be dangerous. If we see mediaeval thought and its nature-grace ground-motive as resulting from an attempt to synthesize the Greek and Hebrew motives, then we can note that, rather than converting pagan thought by transplanting its insights into the creation-fall-redemption ground motive, the latter thought was 'paganized' by having its insights transplanted into the Greek ground motive of matter versus form. A smaller, more recent example is that De Raadt [1991] combined Dooyeweerdian aspects with the Viable Systems Model of Stafford Beer, to produce Multi-Modal Systems Thinking. The result was a little uncomfortable, because De Raadt accepted Beer's focus on entities and boundaries, and Eriksson [2006] reports Strijbos as suggesting that MMST is partly based on the nature-freedom motive.

Will such a danger beset this attempt to enrich humanist thinking? Can we escape, or at least guard against, such dangers with Humanist thought? The danger of adopting existing thought is that it is limited. So we need at least to ensure that we do not lose sight of the implications of the notion of creation, such as that no entity or substance has being or meaning in itself, and that Meaning rather than Being is the more fundamental.


The use of Dooyeweerdian thinking has enabled me to insert a colourful cohering diversity into grey humanist frameworks which not only enriches the framework itself but also makes it more practical to apply. There are dangers in this approach, but the opportunity is that Dooyeweerdian thought can become known and properly explored, that it can be linked into others, and that valuable feedback can be given that would help keep Dooyeweerdian thought engaged with the mainstream of academic thought and practice.


Basden A, (1999), "Engines of Dialectic", Philosophia Reformata, v.64, n.1, pp.15-36.
Basden A (2002) "A philosophical underpinning for I.S. Development" pp. 68-78 in Wrycza S (ed.) Proceedings of the Xth European Conference on Information Systems, ECIS2002: Information Systems and the Future of the Digital Economy. University of Gdansk, Poland, 5-10 June 2002.
Basden A (2003) "Enriching Critical Theory", CMS3 - Critical Management Studies 3, University of Lancaster, UK, 7-9 July 2003.
Basden A. and Wood-Harper A.T. (2005). A philosophical discussion of the Root Definition in Soft Systems Thinking: An enrichment of CATWOE. System Research and Behavioral Science, 22:1-27. (ch.11)
Bergvall-Kåreborn B., Mirijamdotter A., and Basden A. (2004). Basic principles of SSM modeling: an examination of CATWOE from a soft perspective. Systemic Practice and Action Research, 17(2):55-73. (ch.5)
Brandon PS, Lombardi P (2005) Evaluating Sustainable Development in the Built Environment. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Science.
Brentano F., (1874) Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, Duncker and Humboldt, Leipzig.
Checkland P, (1981), Systems Thinking, Systems Practice, Wiley, New York.
Checkland P.B. and Scholes J. (1990). Soft Systems Methodology in Action. John Wiley & Sons, New York.
De Raadt J D R, (1991), Information and Managerial Wisdom, Pocatello, Idaho, Paradigm.
Dennett D.C., (1978) Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology, Bradford, Montgomery, VT.
Dooyeweerd H. (1955), A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, Vol. I-IV, Paideia Press (1975 edition), Jordan Station, Ontario.
Eriksson D.M. (2006). "Normative sources of systems thinking: an inquiry into religious ground-motives of systems thinking paradigms". Towards an Integrative Vision for Technology, Strijbos S., Basden A. (eds.), pp.211-227.
Jennings N.R., (2000) On agent-based software engineering, Artificial Intelligence, 117(2):277-296.
Lombardi P, Basden A, (1997), "Environmental sustainability and information systems: the similarity", Systems Practice, v.10, n.4.
Mirijamdotter A, Bergvall-Kåreborn B. (2006) "An appreciative critique and refinement of Checkland's Soft Systems Methodology" Towards an Integrative Vision for Technology, Strijbos S., Basden A. (eds.), pp.70-102.
Newell A. (1982) "The knowledge level" Artificial Intelligence 18:87-127.
Newell A., (1993), "Reflections on the Knowledge Level", Artificial Intelligence, 59:31-38.
Stockton F.R., (1895) A Chosen Few: Short Stories, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.
Van der Kooy TP (1974) "De gereformeerde wereld en de sociologie", AR Staatkunde No.2, pp.37-56.
Winfield M J, Basden A, Cresswell I, (1996), "Knowledge elicitation using a multi-modal approach". World Futures 47:93-101.

Copyright (c) Andrew Basden 2005.

Last updated: 10 August 2005