Resources for a Christian worldview



Newest Members


This paper was submitted to a special issue of the Information Systems Journal in August 2004 but was not selected. It takes the notion of emancipatory information systems and explores how Dooyeweerd might account for this idea, and critique and enrich it.

Emancipation as if it mattered

- A Dooyeweerdian account of emancipatory information systems

Andrew Basden, Informatics Research Institute at Salford, University of Salford, U.K., and The Centre for Philosophy, Technology and Systems, Free University of Amsterdam, Netherlands.


Critical Theory focuses on emancipation, yet in much practical experience with information systems other aspects often seem more important than emancipation. Moreover, emancipation seems to have taken on the role of a super-norm that is accepted uncritically, a rather ambiguous notion that has lost much of its meaning and ends up in antinomy. This paper traces the problems to absolutization within the nature-freedom ground motive and suggests a reconceptualization of emancipation within the ground motive adopted by the philosopher, Herman Dooyeweerd. This provides a means of understanding emancipation as a diverse normativity that may be both positive and negative in direction and that is sufficiently detailed to be able to guide the design of information systems in practice.

Keywords: Emancipation, Information systems, Habermas, Dooyeweerd, Ground motives, Aspects, Critical Theory.


Emancipation has always been a central aim of the Critical approach based on the Frankfurt School. It has been applied by Ulrich (1983) to systems and social planning in general and to information systems (I.S.) by Hirschheim and Klein (1994) as emancipatory I.S. development (EISD). It is the emancipatory norm, especially directed at imbalance in power structures, that primarily distinguishes Critical approaches from phenomenological and other interpretivist ones such as Checkland's (2081) soft systems methodology (SSM) (Jackson, 1991).

But what is emancipation? How would we go about designing an I.S. to be emancipatory rather than oppressive? Are any guidelines available to help us design the technical artifact and the human structures that relate to it? It is even questionable whether emancipation is an appropriate concept to use when considering I.S. as we experience many of them today. Whereas the notion of emancipation was relevant to the behemoth systems of the 1970s, such as the Puget Sound Health System studied in Ulrich (2083), much computer usage today is not primarily characterised by either oppression or emancipation. Even though I might be glad to be emancipated from the domination of Microsoft, by using a different word processor for composing this paper (Protext on the Amiga platform), I am not primarily aware of being emancipated. Rather, I feel enabled. The word processor allows me to both set down thoughts already structured as a linear stream and undertake non-linear dynamic reinterpretation of what I have already set down. I find certain features of the software important - immediate spell checking, macro insertions, auto-correction (tailored to expand my own favourite abbreviations), as well as features I take for granted (e.g. ability to move around the text quickly) - and a feature of myself - ability to type with ten fingers. I feel similarly enabled, as I employ Deluxe Paint to create an animation, but by different features, such as ease of altering the palette of colours, moving among the animation frames and defining animation trajectories.

These two examples are, of course, of application of technology by someone who happens to be in control, where emancipation of the traditional kind might not be an issue. When technology impinges on me without my control or consent, do I not wish to be emancipated? In fact, I do not think primarily of emancipation, but rather of the need for more responsibility in commissioning, design and use of technology. I find this view prevalent among 'ordinary' people.

On the surface, emancipation appears to be of limited value as a notion we can apply to I.S. Moreover, there seems to be problems with the notion of emancipation itself. Wilson (2097) has detected an antinomy in EISD, in that it can lead to the paradox of enforced emancipation. Various authors have argued that there are inherent weaknesses or inconsistencies in the underlying Habermasian philosophy or in its outworking in Critical Theory (CT), such as Alvesson and Willmott (2092), Fuenmayor (2090), Mouw and Griffioen (2093) and Geertsema (2092).

This paper argues that this need not be the case. After reviewing some problems related to our current understanding of emancipation, during which we incrementally build up a picture of what type of understanding we need for I.S., it suggests that a clearer and richer understanding of it, one that is more in line with people's day to day experience of information systems as well as the social structures around them, may be based on the philosophical thought of the late Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977), a Dutch critical thinker of the mid twentieth century.


2.1 General Criticisms of Critical Theory

A number of criticisms of CT and Habermasian thought in particular have been made. Fuenmayor (2090) criticises CT from the stance of phenomenology, arguing that phenomenological critique is both necessary and sufficient and this renders CT unnecessary. Alvesson and Willmott (2092) review three major criticisms of CT, of intellectualism, essentialism and negativism, especially citing the poststructuralist dislike of 'grand' schemes. Mouw and Griffioen (2093) argue that Habermas' desire for a society which exhibits both solidarity and differences is inconsistent with his affirmation of human self-transcendence, and that though Habermas holds universal communication as an ideal in fact he 'excommunicates' certain groups of people. Geertsema (2092) argues that though Habermas tried to overcome the subject-object scheme that lay at the root of Weber's and Marx's thought, in fact he remained entrapped in the same scheme, that Habermas' solution to system encroaching on lifeworld will in fact not work, and that Habermas might be inconsistent in his view of modernity as the subversion of tradition by means of critical reflection since criticality requires the context of tradition.

Whatever the merits or otherwise of these criticisms, few of them have any direct bearing on emancipation, with the possible exception of Alvesson and Willmott's (2092), whose work we examine below. Therefore we will not discuss them any further, but turn directly to discussions of emancipation itself.

2.2 Emancipation as a Diffuse Concept

In Knowledge and Human Interests (2072), Jürgen Habermas suggests there are three types of science, each with its own 'interest'. Empirical-analytic sciences seek technical control and operate by experiment and deduction, historical-hermeneutic sciences seek consensus in the practical situation and operate by interpretation (e.g. of texts), and critical sciences seek emancipation and operate by self-reflection. Three major perspectives on information systems align with these three types of science: hard systems thinking, which sees information technology as a way to gain control, soft systems thinking, which acknowledges interpretation and 'appreciation' (Checkland, 1981), and critical systems thinking, which sees information technology as a route to emancipation (Flood and Ulrich, 1990).

It is clear, from both the text and the way it is written, that Habermas saw the emancipatory interest as the highest of the three, and was the interest that set the Critical approach apart from the historical-hermeneutic. The emancipatory interest was an important motivation behind the development of his theory of communicative action (Habermas, 1986, 1987). And yet in none of these books is emancipation clearly defined, nor does it appear in the indices (of the English versions). It seems that emancipation is taken for granted as a good and important thing, without question and without definition.

In similar vein, we find the climax (especially the final two pages) of Apel's (2098) discussion of a transformation of philosophy appeals to a presupposed 'strategy of emancipation' as though emancipation were a fundamental norm that needs no critical examination. With very few exceptions, this appears to be the case throughout the Critical community, both the original thinkers (first and second Frankfurt School) and those who employ their thought in I.S., management and elsewhere.

Three of the exceptions are Ulrich's (2083) Critical Heuristics of Social Planning that Jackson (2091:187) believes to be "the greatest achievement of emancipatory systems thinking to date", Alvesson and Willmott's (2092) article entitled 'On the idea of emancipation in management and organization studies' and Wilson's (2097) discussion of the antinomy of what amounts to enforced emancipation in EISD.

Ulrich (2083) tries to work out a practical Critical approach to planning systems, and demonstrates its use in two detailed cases. Emancipation is seen as a source of legitimation for a system, alongside sources of motivation, control and expertise. Two elements of his approach stand out. One is the use of a number of categories of system drawn from Churchman, but it is not clear how these are linked to, or grounded in, the Critical approach and emancipation. The other is more directly relevant to emancipation: he draws a distinction between those involved in making change and those affected by it. Emancipation is especially relevant to the latter. Though Ulrich identifies a "very insufficient list" of problems experienced by those affected (p.251), he does not discuss emancipation from them in a way that would help us.

In their discussion of emancipation as such, acknowledging the validity of certain types of criticism, especially those from the post-structuralist camp, Alvesson and Willmott (2092) propose (p.422) that we "reformulate the grand enterprise of emancipation in to a more modest project, scaled down in terms of scope and ambition." They propose 'microemancipation' (p.448), "in which attention is focused on concrete activities, forms, and techniques that offer themselves not only as a means of control, but also as objects and facilitators of resistance and, thus, as vehicles for liberation."

Microemancipation relies on the inherent ambiguities and contradictions within management, especially loopholes within power structures, that "can trigger suspicion, resistance and critical reflections" and thus may be exploited "as a potential source of critical thought and emancipation" (p.446). They propose a useful categorization of distinct types of emancipation - questioning, utopian and incremental - and different foci for it - on ends, means and social relations - though the different types and foci are not to be seen as representing emancipatory intentions but rather as a framework for guiding critical reflection about intentions, and they warn the researcher against assuming a single type or single focus. They are aware that microemancipation in in danger of 'myopia', and open to criticism by traditional Critical Theorists for too easily accommodating to existing larger-scale bureaucratic structures or organizational goals.

But the main problem for us is that, while Ulrich and Alvesson and Willmott discuss mechanisms like loopholing and general purposes of emancipation like questioning and utopias, they do not discuss in any useful detail from what people may validly hope to be emancipated, that is, the actual targets of concrete instances of emancipation. What targets there may be is completely unclear; we return to this below.

2.3 Negativity in the Meaning of Emancipation

Alvesson and Willmott (2092) discuss the 'negativism' of CT, by which it is pervaded by a negative attitude towards the conventional wisdom that fails to acknowledge its benefits coupled with an arrogance that takes the authority of its own criticisms for granted. In some ways, this failing is always a danger in any approach that takes normativity seriously. But there is also another kind of negativity that is particularly visible in the variant of microemancipation, which, though connected with this, is distinct.

Microemancipation is to be actualized by looking for loopholes. It is thus always defined in terms of what it wishes to critique and never as a positive norm in its own right. One danger of this is that if there are types of oppression or other problems that are not recognised (perhaps because of a narrow political agenda among the would-be emancipators) then neither will the relevant loopholes be. This is especially important when considering environmental issues, where what Ulrich (2083) calls the affected have no voice, so it is more difficult for loopholes to be found. It would seem preferable if emancipation could be actualized even where loopholes have not been detected and even where no tangible target is visible. We want a positive notion of emancipation that speaks of what we are to be emancipated to as well as emancipated from.

2.4 The Antinomy of Emancipation

Alvesson and Willmott (2092) admit that emancipation, as it is understood, exhibits paradoxes and costs. They discuss briefly the costs of emancipation, such as "women emancipating themselves from dominant socialization patterns and gender roles [who] may reduce their interest in, and capacity for, caring" (p.447), and the paradoxes of emancipation, such that, for example (p.448) "Critique and liberation from old dogmas is then followed by new dogmas."

Wilson (2097) discusses one particular paradox within emancipatory I.S. design (EISD) at greater length, that emancipation becomes enforced. I.S. are to be developed that will move dialogue and mutual understanding closer to Habermas' ideal communication. He argues (p.21) that there is an inherent antinomy in the idea: "Indeed, if EISD is anything, it is the self-description of a persuasive agenda that dare not speak its name, for if it were to do so and acknowledge itself as merely another system of partiality and restricted interests, it could no longer claim the purity that supposedly marks it off from every other form of coercion and constraint." His argument is that though we are supposed to be emancipated from positions that constrain us, to judge whether a system is emancipatory or not presupposes a position from which to make such judgements. He asks (p.15) "How do the proponents of EISD know that what they urge is in the service of all mankind and not merely a function that they themselves happen, at the moment, to desire?" He points out (p.20, with Wilson's references removed) that, in EISD as recommended by Hirscheim and Klein (2094), "the use of facilitators to ensure 'that everyone contributes and is listened to' takes on slightly menacing overtones when it is suggested that their deployment of 'emancipatory methodology' will be used to overcome 'wilful unresponsiveness by an individual'."

We might not be able to find a notion of emancipation that does not exhibit paradoxes, but at least we might seek a framework for understanding emancipation within which to tackle them so that paradox does not become antinomy.

2.5 Emancipatory Information Systems ?

What we call an emancipatory information system is one that, when in use, helps to emancipate its stakeholders in some way, preferably without the paradox just mentioned. Ulrich (2083) mentions a number of things from which we might wish to be emancipated, what we might call targets of emancipation - oppression (p.111), the objectivist illusion (p.50), vested interests (p.410,414), special interests in political planning (p.314), unjustified domination in society (p.126), the premises and promises of experts (p.308-10). But these are very general, and it is not clear how they can be relevant to I.S. In several places, Alvesson and Willmott (2092) also mention a number of targets of emancipation., which fall into three main categories as expressed in the following quotations:

  • "Critical theorists work within the Enlightenment tradition - a tradition originally dedicated to changing institutions such as the divine right of Kings, the church, feudal bondage, and prejudiced and superstitious ideas." (p.435).

  • "Emancipation describes the process through which individuals and groups become freed from repressive social and ideological conditions, in particular those that place socially unnecessary restrictions upon the development and articulation of human consciousness." (p.432)

  • "liberation of people from unnecessarily restrictive traditions, ideologies, assumptions, power relations, identity formations, and so forth, that inhibit or distort opportunities for autonomy, clarification of genuine needs and wants, and thus greater and lasting satisfaction." (p.435).

With the possible exception of prejudice, most of the problems in the first type are related to mediaeval situation in Europe and are seldom present today (as Alvesson and Willmott admit), so they are unlikely to be useful targets when designing I.S. today.

The second type of target appears to be somewhat relevant, and several writers have commented on the "repressive social ... conditions" that some information systems bolster. For example, while Robey and Jin (2004) suggest that such technologies as teleworking liberate workers from specific places and times, Jenkins (2004) has shown that the flexibility ushered in by teleworking can be restricting for part-time female workers. Daniels, Lamond and Standen (2001) show more generally that despite a number of benefits, teleworking results in several repressive conditions. But though such critique is quite common, very few I.S. are explicitly designed and built to help in the actual emancipation of people from repressive social structures. Ulrich (2083) discusses the case of one such system, Beer's Cybernet, but concludes that it would not accomplish emancipation as fully as was hoped.

While the second type of target relates to social conditions, the third type can relate more to individuals, and appears even more relevant. Some I.S., especially those under the label of Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), help users in groups to surface their assumptions and recognise those of others, leading (sometimes) to greater mutual understanding, consensus and collaboration. Emancipation, in such applications, is largely from hidden assumptions. But, as Fuenmayor (2092) has pointed out, this use of the word 'emancipation' is largely robbed of its social aspect and, as such, may be based on individualist philosophies like phenomenology rather than on CT.

However, the majority of I.S. today do not fall into any of these categories - emancipation from mediaeval conditions, repressive social conditions or hidden presuppositions. The majority of I.S. help human beings in their various tasks (or fail to do so), which tasks do not primarily emancipate or oppress their users but rather enable or hinder them in what they want to do; two examples were given earlier.

It is to this majority that I want to apply the notion of emancipation, if possible, because otherwise CT might always remain a minority interest in I.S. The question is: how? The challenge is to find a framework by which we can understand emancipation that may be relevant to all types of I.S. and yet not relinquish the critique of social structures. If we are to use information systems for emancipatory purposes (whether micro or 'grand' emancipation), we need some notion of the valid targets of emancipation - the specific types of 'oppression' from which it is reasonable to expect an I.S. to be able to emancipate its users.

2.6 Emancipation as a Guide to I.S. Design

We also want the notion of emancipation to be a guide to I.S. designers and developers because otherwise there is the danger that what is delivered to the users will hinder rather than help emancipation.

The notion of emancipation, perhaps with the embellishments proposed by Alvesson and Willmott and Ulrich, could certainly inform the discussion of overall aims and purposes of an I.S. For example, the aim of many expert systems of the 1980s was assumed to be to deliver expertise (by means of a knowledge base that contains a representation of expert knowledge over which inferences are made), but Ulrich's view is that the affected should be emancipated from "the premises and promises of experts", and Alvesson and Willmott (2092:452) believe that "the idea of emancipation, .. is to open up, challenge and transcend constraints". So perhaps expert systems could be designed instead to encourage the user to question and override the inferences ELSIE made. The ELSIE expert system (Brandon, Basden, Hamilton and Stockley, 1988), with which the author was involved, was designed specifically with facilities do just this, and thus could be called emancipatory.

(The ELSIE system will be used as an exemplar throughout the rest of this paper because, since the author was intimately engaged with it, he can report on factors will emerge that are not usually reported in the literature but are nevertheless important in the lifeworld. At the time of its construction, late 1980s, the author did not know about 'emancipation', but his decision to insert these features that, in retrospect, could be seen as emancipating the users from "premises and promises of experts" was guided by an intuition that they would be helpful, even though not within the specification. He expended effort on them because of a certain type of attitude that is discussed later.)

Setting high-level emancipatory aims is easy. But I.S. design and development involves making detailed decisions about what features to build into the software and what shape the human structures of the I.S. should take. How does the notion of emancipation help us here? If it does not, then the actual design is unlikely to fulfil any high-level emancipatory aims that might have been set for the I.S. For example, the features that enable the questioning and overriding of inferences had to be built into ELSIE, and this involved quite detailed decisions and complex programming.

Therefore our understanding of emancipation needs to enable us to discuss what the users and other stakeholders of the I.S. are to be emancipated from (or to) in sufficient detail that its designer can select and develop facilities that, when used, will bring such emancipation about. The very general targets such as are found in Ulrich and Alvesson and Willmott above are likely to be too vague in meaning to be of use in guiding the designer of the I.S.

In addition, software features and the shaping of human structures of the I.S. can exhibit the paradox of emancipation mentioned above. For example, in designing a word processor, a decision must be made on whether to include a spell checker and, if so, what type it should be, how easily the user should be able to override it, and so on. This may be seen in terms of emancipating the user from spelling errors. However, even this does not solve the problem completely because we can see emancipation in two ways. Not only does the spell checker emancipate from spelling errors, but it itself might impose 'unnecessary restrictions' when the user tries to enter a word not known to it. Then we might see the spell checker itself as a source of 'repression' from which the user needs to be emancipated. How does the designer resolve such issues?

If the notion of emancipation is to be useful in I.S. design at this level, we need to find a framework on the basis of which the actual targets of emancipation can be discussed at this level of detail and related to specific facilities that may be encapsulated within the I.S. (whether in the software or in the human structures), and also in which it can be recognised that such facilities might both facilitate and impede emancipation. Emancipation strongly implies normativity, and even critique does so since, as Alvesson and Willmott (2092:450) point out, "critique implicitly assumes a possible superior state or emancipatory change of direction." What we need, therefore, is a framework of normativity that can support discussion at the appropriate level of detail and recognise the countervailing possibilities in any facility.

2.7 The Super-Norm of Emancipation

One response to this might be to simply undertake a collective project within the CT community to define emancipation to the required level of detail. But such a project is unlikely to be successful because it implies an authority with which the community would be uncomfortable. But there is also a deeper reason why such a project might not be successful, and indeed a reason for believing that, because of the way emancipation is currently conceived, it is unlikely ever to supply the kind of normative framework needed: emancipation has become an unquestioned super-norm within the community.

While emancipation can be very meaningful to those in a concrete situation of oppression who need it, in much of the CT literature the abstracted notion of emancipation seems to have lost most of its meaning and become mere connotation - connotation of some kind of freedom that has a social aspect. Whereas there has been debate about how to achieve emancipation (Ulrich) or how to find a variant that is more acceptable to the poststructuralist community (Alvesson and Willmott), there has been very little critical examination of the inner nature of emancipation as such. Emancipation presupposes something to be freed from or freed to, that is, targets of emancipation. But, as we noted above, any targets that have been mentioned were either from the mediaeval era or are too general to be of much help.

Emancipation is seldom defined. Most accounts that speak of what we are to be emancipated from, fall back on words like 'repressive', 'unnecessary restrictions', 'inhibit', 'distort', the meaning of which is not always clear without reference to a particular type of target. If we agree that our activity is situated, one could argue that everything restricts, inhibits or distorts to some extent. It is then left to the individuals who are carrying out the I.S. design or evaluation to decide, subjectively, what constitutes 'unnecessary' or 'repressive' - and what is so to one individual can be 'necessary' and 'liberating' to another. Thus the claim of Critical Theory to go beyond subjectivism (Jackson, 1991) is undermined.

Emancipation has taken on the role within the CT community of what might be called a super-norm, an overriding norm that is self-evident, taken as given, never questioned, seldom analysed, never defined. All other norms derive from it. In Alvesson and Willmott (2092:438) we find,

"In this section we explore further .. three types of problems with critical theorists' ideal of social science as a facilitator of emancipation. ... At the heart of Critical Theory is an assumption that human reason is an emancipatory force ..."

Emancipation is both the ideal that gives direction to social science and the force that motivates our use of human reason. Likewise, we saw earlier how it is an unexamined motivation and goal for Apel. Paradoxically, though it has lost much of its meaning, emancipation has been absolutized into being the basis from which all else in Critical Theory is assumed to obtain its normative meaning. The only discussion that is possible about emancipation is how to best facilitate it - such as in Ulrich and Alvesson and Willmott's proposals - or whether it contains paradoxes - as discussed by Wilson.

The normative framework we seek needs to be richer and more precise than this, even if not precisely defined. And, so that emancipation does not become emasculated, the normative framework must not be limited to individual or functional normativity, but must acknowledge social structures without reduction. We will examine how Dooyeweerd's philosophy, as set out in his A New Critique of Theoretical Thought (1055) and The Roots of Western Culture (2079) might be able to provide this. First, we look at how Dooyeweerd's thought can provide an account of why emancipation is important, in a way that is commensurate with Critical Theory, and can enable us to critically examine its status as a super-norm. Then we discuss how Dooyeweerd's theory of modal aspects can provide the rich normative framework of the type we need for I.S.


Both the origins of the need for emancipation and its development into a super-norm can be understood by reference to Dooyeweerd's theory of ground motives.

3.1 The Ground Motive of Mediaeval Thought

The original target for emancipation was problems that arose during the mediaeval era - church hegemony, feudal conditions, myths, and the like. While Dooyeweerd would agree with Habermas and other Critical Theorists that emancipation from these involved critical questioning of validity claims, his explanation of both the problem and the emancipation was more deeply rooted, in the notion of the religious ground motive of the mediaeval era, that of nature and grace.

Dooyeweerd traced the emergence of the nature-grace ground motive to a synthesis around 500 AD of the Greek motive of form-matter and the Hebrew motive of creation-fall-redemption, which arose a thousand years earlier. The nature-grace motive was itself transformed into the modern ground motive of nature-freedom around 1,500 AD by the Renaissance and Enlightenment. These ideas are, of course, not unique to Dooyeweerd, but his contribution was to explain their relationships and dynamics in religious terms. (Habermas (2002:157) speaks, for example, of synthesis between 'Athens' and 'Jerusalem'.)

Ground motives ('grondmotieven') are long-term "spiritual driving force[s] that acts as the absolutely central mainspring of human society" (Dooyeweerd, 1979:9). They are supra-theoretical presuppositions that we make about the nature of reality, including that of theoretical thinking itself. (This means that, to Dooyeweerd, theoretical thinking could never be neutral, but always has a religious root.) Ground motives are 'religious' in the sense that, firstly, society take something to be a self-dependent ground for all else (ontologically, as the ground of all being, epistemologically, as the valid explanation for everything, and normatively, as the ultimate definition of Good and Evil) and, secondly, it commits to it without question. Everyone makes such religious presuppositions, he believed, which must be laid bare for genuine dialogue to occur between streams of thought.

In the dualistic ground motives (those of matter-form, nature-grace and nature-freedom) it is one or other poles of the dualism that we commit to and treat as self-dependent. As a result, reality becomes divided in half, one half Good and the other half Evil.

Many problems result from this over a long period. European thinkers of the mediaeval period (500-1500 AD), working within the nature-grace ground motive, generally presupposed an unbridgeable gulf and polar opposition between nature and grace, between secular and sacred, and that the grace pole was the higher. The higher pole of a ground motive provides society with its super-norms that defined all other norms and were seldom questioned. Thus, for example, during the mediaeval era,, one was justified - even obligated - in torturing the body for the overriding good of the soul and, while it was valid to reason about secular things, it was not valid to critically question religious things.

Since a ground motive defines for society what rationality is, we cannot escape it by reason alone; the only way to escape a ground motive is to adopt a different one. A desire for emancipation from both the oppressive social and religious structures resulting from the nature-grace ground motive and the restraining of reason grew gradually, until a new ground motive of nature-freedom emerged.

3.2 The Nature-Freedom Ground Motive

The humanist ground motive of nature and freedom is still the "driving force" today. On one side, 'nature' speaks of determinism, control, mechanical processes and what Habermas and others call 'disenchantment' while, on the other, 'freedom' speaks of the free human ego and what is Habermas (2087) referred to as meaning and normativity in the lifeworld. Dooyeweerd discussed the nature-freedom ground motive at length, including the history of science and rationalism, its climax in Kant, along with subsequent developments in historicism and phenomenology. (Being a little too early for it, this part of his work does not refer to CT.) The nature-freedom dualism is reflected in various oppositions like nature-culture, fact-value, and the positivist-interpretivist stances in I.S.

The two poles of a dualistic ground motive might start as a duality but over time they become absolutized and form an implacable opposition, in which one pole is deemed higher (Good, meaningful) and the other, lower (Evil, meaningless). This becomes a starting-point. Different communities of thought support different poles in various ways at various times, resulting in a dialectic. Various thinkers, such as Hegel, see what is happening and try to combine the poles, but Dooyeweerd's comment (2055,I:64-5, his emphasis) was that:

"Every philosophical effort to bridge such a religious antithesis in the starting-point by means of a theoretical logical dialectic is fundamentally uncritical. This was the way, however, of all so-called dialectical philosophy, from Heraclitus up to the Hegelian school, in so far as it aimed at an ultimate synthesis of its opposite religious motives. The theoretical syntheses ... are subjected to the intrinsic law of all religious dialectic, that is to say, as soon as philosophy returns to the path of critical self-reflection, they are necessarily dissolved again into the polar antithesis of their starting-point. Against Hegel's synthetical dialectic which attempted to think together the antithetic motives of nature and freedom, Proudhon directs the verdict, earlier pronounced by Kant and later repeated by Kierkegaard: 'L'antinomie ne se résout pas' (The antinomy cannot be solved)."

It is impossible to formulate a sustainable, self-reflective philosophical position in which elements of both poles enjoy equal status, because they are presumed to be mutually exclusive and eventually one pole will become dominant. This is why positivism and interpretivism cannot be sustainably reconciled under the nature-freedom ground motive.

Emancipation is almost completely identified with the freedom pole of this ground motive and, as such, it has become absolutized. So anything associated with the opposite pole - such as elements of control - is treated with suspicion and even rejected. And yet, in any serious attempt at emancipation an element of control and planning is inevitably involved, simply in order to bring it about. Habermas himself (2087) seems to recognise this, in that he believes modernism - which entails large elements of control - should not be readily rejected.

3.3 Absolutization

Dooyeweerd argued that absolutization is not a valid option for philosophical thought; if we absolutize something then problems will inevitably eventually result because of the very nature of philosophical thought itself. He demonstrated this with a study of 2,500 years of Western thought.

His argument may be summarized as follows, and is clearly set out in Clouser (2091). All reality that we can experience, including the experiencing itself, is created by and dependent on a Divine Source that stamps all reality as Meaning. (Meaning, to Dooyeweerd, was not merely subjective attribution but rather a 'referring beyond self to another', and eventually and ultimately to the Divine Source.) Only the Divine Source is self-dependent, the true Absolute. To absolutize anything is to treat it as Divine and thus as self-dependent ground for all else, including all normativity, explanation and being.

The deep problems that occur are the result of absolutizing that which is not absolute. (We might note with interest that Habermas has also recently (2002) been speaking in such terms, in 'A Conversation About God and the World', when he says (p.158) "subjectivity run amok transforms everything around it into objects, elevating itself into an Absolute, and thereby running up against the true Absolute".) One problem is that, because absolutization is religious commitment at root, the absolutized thing (in our case, one pole of a ground motive) becomes impervious to theoretical thought. Another is that, in a dualistic ground motive, half of reality is denied any meaning or validity, except insofar as it can be reduced to that of the absolutized pole. (An example of this within the nature-freedom ground motive may be found in the artificial intelligence or cognitive science communities as attempts to explain human freedom in terms of deterministic brain processes.) Another problem is that antinomy results, because the reduced pole retains its distinct meaning in our despite and refuses to remain silent. A fourth problem is that the thing that is absolutized as the centre and ground of meaning, in fact, loses its meaning because the relationships of 'referring beyond to another' that are necessary for meaning are destroyed. The problems are especially pertinent when we absolutize an abstracted notion because the very act of abstraction itself is affected, and often defined, by the absolutization itself.

This Dooyeweerdian view can account for the problems we have discussed with the abstracted notion of emancipation as encountered in the CT literature. Being identified closely with a pole of a dualistic ground motive, it is presupposed as a self-dependent source of meaning and normativity for all else. It thus becomes something that we do not theoretically analyse, something that we accept without question as an overriding norm, a super-norm, from which all other normativity derives. We presuppose that control is the very antithesis of emancipation and so we end up denying any validity to control. This has led to the antinomy of 'enforced emancipation' that Wilson (2097) commented upon. Finally, the loss of meaning that is inevitable in an absolutized pole is evident in the way that 'emancipatory' is used, without definition, for its connotation and its motivating force among the community that absolutizes it.

3.4 Dooyeweerd's Solution

The remedy Dooyeweerd would propose is to reconceptualize emancipation within a framework of meaning within which it is no longer absolutized. We will see that the framework he offers, based on the creation-fall-redemption ground motive, in which freedom and nature/control are not presupposed to be polar opposites, might provide the kind of normativity that we need.

In our discussion here we focus mainly on the creation part of this ground motive. If the cosmos is indeed created, then the thinker has the philosophical freedom to conceive of diversity without recourse to dualism and of coherence without recourse to monism. On this basis, Dooyeweerd developed his theory of modal aspects.

3.5 Dooyeweerd's Theory of Modal Aspects

Dooyeweerd's theory of modal aspects is an attempt at such a theory of diversity in coherence. At root, to think aspectually is to propose there are irreducibly distinct aspects of life that must be taken into account. Many thinkers do this, especially in the systems community. Also, Habermas' action types are an example. But Dooyeweerd's insight (Henderson, 1994) was that the aspects of our experience have a modal character and that they are not just irreducibly distinct but cohere via certain types of inter-aspect relationships (dependency and analogy). Aspects are both spheres of Meaning - in that they enable things in the cosmos to be meaningful - and spheres of Law in which Law enables things to function meaningfully. Their modal character is exhibited in the philosophical roles Dooyeweerd's aspects are called upon to play, as:

  • distinct ways in which things may be meaningful (and therefore distinct ways in which things may be described),

  • distinct rationalities and ways in which we exclaim "That makes sense!",

  • distinct ways in which things can exist or come into existence (e.g. a pebble exists by reference to the physical aspect, a poem, by reference to the aesthetic aspect, a right by reference to the juridical aspect),

  • distinct ways of knowing, so that each aspect has a distinct epistemology and distinct criteria for scientific validity (so scientific areas such as physics, psychology, sociology or theology centre on specific aspects) and that the methods or validity criteria of one should not be imposed on another,

  • distinct spheres of law (both normative and determinative),

  • distinct ways in which things function, enabled by such aspectual laws,

  • distinct basic types of property (e.g. physical mass, aesthetic rhythmic scheme),

  • distinct types of repercussion to our functioning (e.g. physical causality, logical entailment, social response),

  • distinct clusters of norms inherent in aspectual law (e.g. the lingual norms of clarity and truthfulness, the ethical norm of self-giving).

Much emerges from these philosophical roles. For example, Dooyeweerd's theory of entities is founded on the notion that aspects are modes of being and becoming. Those we need for this discussion will be explained later.

The notion of aspectual law differs from our conventional notions of law in two important ways. One is that aspectual law must not be confused with rules, regulations or social norms. Aspectual law is the framework that enables meaningful existence and functioning. Whereas social norms, though possibly based on aspectual law, are socially constructed in and for specific situations and contexts. Rules and regulations are made explicit, usually in verbal form, whereas aspectual laws can never be thus fully explicated. The other is that whereas in conventional liberal Western thinking normative law is seen primarily as constraint or authoritarian demand, to Dooyeweerd aspectual law is enabling and has strong connotations of promise. (For example, the lingual aspect does not so much tell us, "Keep to the laws of syntax!" as, "If you obey the rules of syntax of the language and community you are communicating with, then they will understand you better.") This is why aspectual law-promise - as we shall call it now, partly to distinguish it from social norms and codified laws - is what enables meaningful functioning as mentioned above and as discussed below with respect to emancipatory I.S.

3.6 Dooyeweerd's Suite of Aspects

Such a theory of aspects implies that there is, in reality, a suite of aspects with complete coverage over the meaning and law-promises of reality. It takes courage to make a proposal for a suite of aspects that aims at complete coverage because it can so easily be dismissed as authoritarian and essentialist. But it is a challenge that all mature philosophy must eventually face. As a result of a lifetime of study of the reflections that have taken place under the influence of all four ground motives, together with his own sensitive reflection on his everyday, intuitive experience, Dooyeweerd composed a suite of fifteen aspects. Because his suite is a product of his reflection, Dooyeweerd was chary about drawing up too systematic a list or defining them in precise terms. Nevertheless, to facilitate our discussion, it is useful to compile a systematic list of Dooyeweerdian aspects, with an attempt to express their kernel meanings, from his writings together with reflection by those who have employed them in the context of information systems:

  • The quantitative aspect concerns discrete amount.
  • The spatial aspect concerns continuous extension.
  • The kinematic aspect concerns flowing movement.
  • The physical aspect concerns energy and mass.
  • The biotic aspect concerns life functions and the integrity of organisms.
  • The sensitive aspect concerns sensing, feeling and emotion.
  • The analytical aspect concerns distinction, abstraction, and logic.
  • The formative aspect concerns deliberate shaping and achieving; history, culture, technology.
  • The lingual aspect concerns symbolic meaning and communication.
  • The social aspect concerns social interaction, relationships, roles and institutions.
  • The economic aspect concerns frugality, skilled use of limited resources.
  • The aesthetic aspect concerns harmony, surprise, fun.
  • The juridical aspect concerns 'to each, their due': rights, responsibilities, restitution.
  • The ethical aspect concerns self-giving love, generosity.
  • The pistic aspect concerns faith, commitment and vision of who we are.

The apparent simplicity that the kernel meaning of each aspect in such a list implies is misleading. Within the sphere of meaning of each aspect is a whole constellation of meaningful concepts that are objects, relationships, properties, events, processes, goals, constraints, freedoms, norms and the like. The expression of the kernels above is not precise - it never can be because of the fundamental limitations of language - but rather indicates something near the centre of the constellation.

The aspects are ordered in that later aspects depend on earlier ones for their facilitation while earlier ones depend on later ones for their full meaning. Thus, for example, post-social aspects cannot be understood properly without acknowledging their social nature and the importance of social structures, while the social aspect itself does not gain its full meaning until it anticipates frugality, harmony, justice, self-giving and faith or societal vision.

It is important to realise that Dooyeweerd believed his suite - and any other suite - can never be an absolute truth. In a section entitled 'The system of the law-spheres is an open one', Dooyeweerd said (1955, II:556):

"In fact the system of the law-spheres designed by us can never lay claim to material completion. A more penetrating examination may at any time bring new modal aspects of reality to the light not yet perceived before. And the discovery of new law-spheres will always require a revision and further development of our modal analyses. Theoretical thought has never finished its task. Any one who thinks he has devised a philosophical system that can be adopted unchanged by all later generations, shows his absolute lack of insight into the dependence of all theoretical thought on historical development."

In this paper we simply accept Dooyeweerd's aspects as a basis on which to discuss emancipation in relation to I.S., and leave it to another occasion to question them.


4.1 Aspectual Functioning

Dooyeweerd held a non-Cartesian view of subject and object, in a way that brings the two main English-language meanings of 'subject' together. He held that to be a subject is to be subject to aspectual law-promise. To function as subject, being an initiator of some meaningful activity, is constituted by being subject to the laws and promises of an aspect. It is not necessary to be human to be subject. To function as object in an aspect is to be involved in some other entity's subject-functioning.

(The Dooyeweerdian notion of subject and objects correlates closely with Ulrich's (2083) notion of the involved and the affected. His "very insufficient list" (p.251) includes entries under the broad categories of socio-political, socio-economic and socio-ecological costs, and these correspond directly with the juridical, economic and aesthetic aspects respectively. We might be able to extend his list by including entries under other aspects - for example the ethical aspect suggests society's attitudes, and the pistic, society's morale and vision.)

As human beings all our activity and human life is constituted of functioning as subject in every aspect. For example as I write this paper I function lingually in attaching meaning to symbols, physically as I hit the keyboard, but also juridically in that I am trying to give the reader what is their due. Since the aspects are irreducible, how I function in one aspect does not determine, and is not determined by, how I function in another. But most human activity is qualified by one aspect that gives it its main meaning, and Habermas' instrumental and communicative action types, for example, may be seen as qualified by the formative and lingual aspects (though his notion of ideal discourse involves every aspect).

4.2 Normativity and Freedom

While the earlier aspects (at least up to the physical) are determinative, the later aspects (at least from the analytical) are non-determinative and, instead, are normative. This means that the subject can function with meaningful freedom in those aspects and law-promises of those aspects provide norms that define what is meaningful functioning. Each aspect provides a different type of freedom and normativity. Thus, whereas under the nature-freedom ground motive freedom is often a unitary given (e.g. to Marx "Freedom is so much the essence of man that even its opponents realise it" (MacIntyre, 2004:203)) to Dooyeweerd freedom was not a unitary given, but is constituted of meaningful response to diverse aspectual law-promise.

We not only have freedom of response within an aspect but also freedom to act in an anti-normative way - that is, to go against the laws of an aspect or to reduce its meaning. We might act normatively in one aspect, anti-normatively in another, as for example when we tell the truth (lingual norm) to take advantage of another person (against ethical norm).

Since the aspects are promise as well as law, there are always repercussions to our functioning. When we function in line with the laws of an aspect, benefit will result, but when we go against those laws, then harm will result. The aspects thus provide a normative meaning-framework that transcends us and enables us to operate and exist meaningfully, not unlike Foucauldian regimes of power that permeate us. The benefit and harm are of varied types, depending on the aspect. In particular, in the pre-social aspects the direct repercussions are usually individual while in the last six aspects, while the concrete functioning is undertaken by individuals the reperussions of that functioning is social and thus might not directly rebound on the functor but rather spread throughout a community or society, depending on the social relationships and structures that exist. In this way the Dooyeweerdian framework that we are proposing inherently includes social as well as individual normativity.

Finally, as a result of presupposing the creation-fall-redemption ground motive, Dooyeweerd held that the aspects are in harmony with each other, in that fulfilling the norms of one aspect never necessarily entails going against the norms of another. As van der Kooy (2074) has pointed out, this implies a 'simultaneous realization of norms' is possible. Any appearance to the contrary (such as that ethical business is necessarily less profitable) may be accounted for by undue elevation of an aspect or by misunderstandings of its meaning. The Dooyeweerdian view is not unlike the Hebrew notion of shalom, a rich well-being, health and peace in which all the aspects are in balance and our functioning in every aspect is positive. Whenever we go against the law-promise of any aspect, shalom is jeopardised.

4.3 Emancipation as Shalom

Our basic proposal in this paper is that emancipation might be understood as related to, if not identical with, shalom. The negative side of emancipation, that is what we are to be emancipated from, is anti-normative functioning in the aspects, and repercussions thereof. For example, we may wish to be emancipated from:

  • religious oppression (pistic aspect)
  • competitive attitude in society (ethical aspect)
  • injustices (juridical aspect)
  • routine, mind-numbing work (aesthetic aspect)
  • inept and wasteful management of resources (economic aspect)

and, for our example of the design of word processor software above,

  • spelling errors (lingual aspect).

The positive side of emancipation, that is the 'utopian' state that we aspire to, may likewise be discussed by reference to normative aspectual functioning and the repercussions thereof, such as:

  • to build fulfilment and hope (pistic aspect)
  • to engender a collaborative, generous attitude in society (ethical aspect)
  • to ensure each receives their due, whoever or what they are (juridical aspect)
  • interesting, varied work (aesthetic aspect)
  • skilled, frugal management of resources (economic aspect)
  • perfect spelling as intended (lingual aspect).

It was noted earlier that whenever an attempt is made to explain emancipation, we fall back on words like 'repressive', 'unnecessary restrictions', 'inhibit', 'distort', whose meaning is not always clear. We may now clarify the meaning of these by reference to the aspects and their norms. 'Distort' implies anti-normative in any (normative) aspect. 'Inhibit' and 'unnecessary restrictions' implies a reduction in meaning of an aspect. 'Repressive' is most appropriately applied to the post-social aspects.

Thus reference to Dooyeweerd's aspects can both sharpen up our notion of emancipation and also suggest a variety of types, many of which are social while some may be individual. Since each aspect is a constellation of meaning, the precise normativity in each aspect in one concrete situation will differ from that in another.

Since later aspects depend on earlier ones for their facilitation, and since the formative aspect precedes all the communicative and social ones, an element of formative functioning will be found within any attempt to emancipate within these aspects; this is the aspect in which control is meaningful and made possible. This can account for the paradox noted earlier that most emancipation inevitably involves a measure of control to bring it about. Thus we see how, whereas under the nature-freedom ground motive no such account is possible, under the ground motive adopted by Dooyeweerd, it is possible to conceive of some measure of compatibility between emancipation and control.

The problems and oppressions that have traditionally been the targets of emancipation are seen as arising, not from constraints or controls, but as from anti-normative functioning in aspects, especially post-social aspects. For example, if we consider the mediaeval condition, under the nature-grace ground motive, we can see the ethical norm of self-giving being replaced by the anti-norm of Aristotelian monarchianism and by self-seeking and competition among the aristocracy, the juridical norm of "to each their due" being replaced by the favoured position of the church, nepotism and by oppression of ordinary people, the aesthetic norm of harmony and balance being transgressed by an over-emphasis on religious motives in art, and so on. This is not to say that the mediaeval situation was wholly detrimental, and even in the aspects mentioned one can discern positive normativity. But since each aspect is intertwined with the others, all were affected by the absolutization of the religious aspect as a pole of the nature-grace ground motive.

It should thus be clear that the equation of emancipation with shalom means that we can extend it to all (normative) aspects, not just those whose laws were most visibly transgressed during the mediaeval period. In particular, we can begin to apply this to information systems.

4.4 Emancipatory Information Systems

To Dooyeweerd, the usage of information systems is, like any human activity, a functioning in all the aspects, and all the law-promises of all the aspects pertain. Usage of information systems is, therefore, seen not just as a technical matter but also as a diversely normative matter, which includes both personal and social normativity. Basden (====) discusses how all aspects are important in I.S. usage, which may be usefully discussed in terms of shalom. If we equate emancipation with shalom then we may define an emancipatory information system as one that either helps those involved better fulfil the aspectual norms and/or better avoid either transgressing or reducing aspectual norms, with particular emphasis on the post-social social aspects.

We can then employ an analysis of the aspects of its (potential) use as an aid to designing it. The designer (with other stakeholders, both involved and affected (Ulrich, 1983)) would identify the aspects of the situation in which the I.S. is to be incorporated, perhaps using a method like Winfield's (2000) 'Multi-Aspectual Knowledge Elicitation'. From this, an analysis may be made of which aspectual norms are being most ignored or transgressed in the current situation, and therefore require particular support. In practice, it is often the later post-social aspects that do so. The specific aim of the I.S. can then be defined in terms of either reducing anti-normative functioning or facilitating normative, in line with the desired purpose of the I.S. This, in turn, can indicate which features are likely to be needed in an I.S., especially over the longer term.

As discussed at greater length in Basden (2005), for each aspect certain features become important - spelling and grammar checkers for lingually qualified tasks such as writing papers, spatial manipulations for spatially qualified tasks, trajectory designers for kinematically qualified tasks, currency conversion for economically qualified tasks, etc. A particular benefit of aspectual analysis is that it enhances the ability to recognise aspects that are frequently overlooked, and thus to include features that are important but often omitted.

Most usage of an I.S. presupposes a deliberate purpose in such use, and thus (in Dooyeweerdian terms) functioning in the formative aspect. The features are designed to facilitate this. Therefore, like the spell checker, each feature may be seen as facilitating either emancipation or restriction. Indeed, it is the very restriction inherent in the design of the feature that enables emancipation. This presents a paradox for the designer, which may be resolved in practice by ensuring that every aspect is attended to, especially the aspect of self-giving which contains within it the paradox well expressed in the words of Jesus Christ (NIV, 1979), "Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap." Every feature, designed to emancipate, will restrict less when designed with generosity.

4.5 An Example

An example of this may be seen in the ELSIE knowledge based system mentioned earlier (Brandon, et. al., 1988). A study of its use was reported by Castell, Basden, Erdos, Barrows and Brandon (2092). This author was involved in both the design and the evaluation of ELSIE.

ELSIE was used by quantity surveyors at an early (pre-design) stage in the construction process. It consisted of four modules, the main one of which was designed to assist in setting a budget for an office construction project. The use of ELSIE changed the way surveyors worked when compiling estimates of the cost of new office buildings on behalf of clients. Instead of receiving the client's specification and spending typically two weeks making calculations based on their judgement of what was appropriate, a two-step process ensued. First, ELSIE would be run with the client on the end of the phone and, after three dozen questions, an initial estimate would be available that could be fed back to the client. Second, client and surveyor met and, together, worked through the case, using ELSIE's explanation facilities to examine the reasons for the estimate made, and making changes or overriding ELSIE's reasoning. As a result of this interaction, the client's requirements were clarified in a way that would not have been possible otherwise. The relationship between surveyor and client changed, from that of expert and novice, to two equal partners working towards a shared goal. Rather surprisingly perhaps, from a power-relations viewpoint, the surveyors were very pleased with this 'loss' of power, because it created a stronger relationship with their clients.

Though the Dooyeweerdian suite of aspects was not known to the author at that time, in retrospect, the use of ELSIE by quantity surveyors clearly exhibited at least the following aspects, for some of which it is easy to identify various types of emancipation:

  • Quantitative aspect: The calculations made were accurate. (No clear emancipation.)

  • Analytical aspect: Different factors important to setting the budget were distinguished, so that the client's requirements could be clarified. Emancipated client from unclear objectives.

  • Formative aspect: ELSIE helped structure the process of helping the client form a budget. Emancipated both from aimless process.

  • Lingual aspect: Explanations of the resulting estimate calculated by ELSIE were communicated and facilitated discussion between surveyor and client during step 2. Emancipated both from misunderstandings.

  • Social aspect: The relationship with the client changed to a more socially healthy one. Emancipated both from unbalanced power relationships. Emancipated client from the "premises and promises of experts" (Ulrich, 1983).

  • Economic aspect: The process of arriving at a budget was more efficient. Emancipated both from wasteful process.

  • Aesthetic aspect: The process, involving both parties, exhibited a greater harmony and complementarity, and was less of a mere task to be carried out. Also, ELSIE had a pleasant, aesthetic feel to it when in use (despite being based on text-only screens). (No clear emancipation.)

  • Juridical aspect: The budget arrived at was more appropriate to the client's real needs, and the surveyors found ELSIE invaluable to ensure they did not overlook any important factor. Emancipated client from undue costs or cost-cuttings. Emancipated surveyor somewhat from risk of litigation on grounds of flawed advice.

  • Ethical aspect: That the surveyors welcomed a loss of power with respect to the client (from expert-novice to equal partner relationship) had something of the self-giving that is the norm of the ethical aspect. (No clear emancipation.)

We can see that ELSIE made a contribution to helping the users better fulfil the norms of a number of aspects. ELSIE was certainly deemed a success by many of its users (400 copies sold per year and backed by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors), and by means of this aspectual analysis we can perhaps understand why. By considering each of the aspects of I.S. use in such a manner, a range of factors come to light that might often be overlooked.

The features that were designed into ELSIE to facilitate the fulfilling of these aspectual norms include:

  • Quantitative aspect: Correct algorithms.

  • Analytical aspect: An effort was made to ensure that knowledge base entities represented concepts that had simple meaning in the domain, and any concept that felt like a composite was broken down.

  • Formative aspect: There was a structure to the sessions when ELSIE was used, involving the answering of questions, an opportunity to review and override reasoning, a declaration of results, explanation and exploration of results, and 'what iffing'. But flexibility was built in, so that the user could vary this sequence at almost any time. The sequence of questions recognised that the user's thoughts would be structured by the process.

  • Lingual aspect: In contrast with most work in expert systems at the time, when reasoning mechanisms were made the centre of research and development effort, in ELSIE, the wording of screens, and the links between screens, were given considerable effort.

  • Social aspect: The change in relationship was not specifically designed for, but came about as a result of what one commentator at the time saw as the 'general friendliness' of ELSIE. Specifically, a decision was made that the level of detail at which ELSIE worked (in its selection of entities about which to reason, together with how these were expressed on screen) would be that which the client would be able to understand, and this enabled surveyor and client to sit at the screen together. This was one of the major benefits offered by inference net technology at the time, when compared with PROLOG on the one hand or linear programming or neural nets on the other.

  • Economic aspect: The efficiency at which a budget was arrived at was one of the design objectives. To achieve this, expertise from a number of acknowledged partner-level surveyors, that could be relied upon by senior surveyors, was incorporated in the knowledge base. Moreover, at attempt was made to ensure the knowledge base did not become bloated, by making careful judgements (see juridical aspect) about what entities and relationships should be included.

  • Aesthetic aspect: The harmony between client and surveyor was not envisaged in the original objectives, but came about as a result of the change in social relationship. The pleasant feel of ELSIE arose partly from the responsiveness of ELSIE to user input. The expert system software used (Savoir) automatically updated the entire knowledge base whenever an input changed, which meant that the users could depend on the results screens being always in harmony with the information they had just entered.

  • Juridical aspect: A decision was made that the knowledge base would cover not only the main construction options, but also a number of exceptional conditions and complexities in the construction process, such as atriums and that a mansard roof means less wall area. After a time, ELSIE became trusted as 'knowing' the complexities of office construction.

  • Ethical aspect: The change in relationship, and apparent loss of power on behalf of surveyors, was not envisaged in the original objectives - and would probably have been resisted if it had been. It came about mainly because of the attitudes of the surveyors and only marginally through any software feature. But the designer always tried to be generous in design, giving more than was required by the specification, such as the features to allow users to question and override the inferences made by ELSIE. It is a characteristic of both self-giving and selfish attitudes that they tend to spread in unseen and unexpected ways.

The author, who designed this module of ELSIE, was not aware of Dooyeweerd's aspects at the time. Though the above account has been rendered through the lenses of Dooyeweerd's aspects, it is as true an account as can be given and all the statements made above express what the author remembers aiming at at the time, either intuitively or explicitly. This confirms an important claim of Dooyeweerd, that human life involves all the aspects whether we are aware of them or not.

One benefit an awareness of the aspects can bring is to be able to make what is intuitive explicit enough to be communicated to others. Not only he, but also Winfield (2000) and Lombardi (2001), have found the aspects intuitive to grasp, such that using them becomes second-nature.

Since becoming aware of Dooyeweerd's aspects, the author has employed them, with great benefit, in both the evaluation and the design of information systems for a number of years; for example, he has used the aspects to formulate guidelines for the design of websites (Basden, 2003). But it was decided to report here on the ELSIE project because that was the last time the author was employed formally in the role of system designer, and thus directly engaged in the design process rather than observing it from a distance, and because there was no attempt, conscious or otherwise, to fit the development process into a Dooyeweerdian template. Despite the passage of time, he still has clear memories of the project.

4.6 Discussion

There are a number of ways in which a Dooyeweerdian approach to emancipation might be beneficial more widely within the CT community.

It will be noticed that one major aspect of emancipation has not been given much heed here, namely that of critique, doubt and questioning of assumptions. This is partly deliberate. To Dooyeweerd, all aspects are of equal importance, and none deserve, a priori any special consideration over others. However, it is acknowledged that the analytic aspect has historically had a special place within Western thought as the aspect that enables distinction and critical distance. It was in fact in regard to this aspect that Dooyeweerd formulated his two transcendental critiques of the necessary preconditions for the theoretical attitude of thought. One precondition is the religious root or ground motive, which defines what criticality and rationality are. Another is that since 'making sense' takes on a different form within each aspect, so also does rationality. For example, reasoning in mathematics, geometry, physics, linguistics, economics and theology (to select a few aspects) take on different forms. Therefore when critique is required as part of emancipation then this should not be assumed to be monolithic but should be carried out with due respect to each aspect.

The paradox to which Wilson (2097) drew attention may be resolved under a Dooyeweerdian scheme because there is no longer a presupposition that control and freedom are diametrically opposed. To Dooyeweerd, control is constituted by functioning in the formative aspect - method, including setting goals (whether formal or informal), planning, and controlling processes in order to achieve them - and all the later aspects depend on it. Therefore, emancipation related to most of these later aspects requires some measure of formative functioning which might be experienced as control. The 'slight menace' that Wilson spoke of ("deployment of 'emancipatory methodology' used to overcome 'wilful unresponsiveness by an individual'") is not that there is some element of control (whether called 'coercion' or not) but whether, in such control, dysfunction in the juridical aspect occurs, by which the 'unresponsive' person is deprived of what is due to them, or in the ethical aspect, when that person is treated harshly, or themselves treats others harshly.

We also noted that the focus in microemancipation on finding loopholes is a rather negative way of looking at things, always defined by that which it opposes rather than taking the initiative to define the situation itself. The Dooyeweerdian approach might allow us to think of microemancipation more positively, because of its claim that the aspects pertain whether we recognise them or not. Considering the aspects in turn can bring opportunities for emancipation to light that might otherwise be overlooked, so that they may be discussed.

Instead of a strategy of finding loopholes we can act more positively. Shalom implies that all aspects are functioning well and, in principle, this is so even in a management system. Instead of seeking loopholes per se we analyse how well or poorly the system functions in each aspect, and seek to remedy all areas of detrimental functioning discovered. Most likely we will find more areas of detrimental functioning than are obvious as loopholes in the later aspects, especially the last three, which are too often overlooked. Aspectual analysis helps avoid focusing on the more obvious or technical issues and those that are annoying but relatively unimportant.

The suite of aspects tends to be generally agreed as reasonable. This means that we can challenge even the most entrenched power structures about anti-normative behaviour or structures - though we should do so gently, as the ethical aspect demands of us.


We have argued that the notion of emancipation may be reconceptualized from the standpoint of a different ground motive. Under the current nature-freedom ground motive, emancipation is more or less absolutized as a super-norm since it it closely tied to the freedom pole, and, as a result, it loses its meaning and exhibits antinomies that Wilson (2097) and others have noted. We then used Dooyeweerd's philosophy that is not based on the nature-freedom ground motive to gain new insights into emancipation.

Trying to resolve problems of antinomy and loss of meaning within the ground motive from which they have arisen usually culminates in a fruitless argument between two camps that cannot understand each other. By contrast, switching to a different ground motive can often bring some resolution because it brings new insights not possible under the original ground motive. While, in principle, it might be possible to resolve the problems of emancipation that have been outlined here from within the form-matter or nature-grace ground motives, the creation-fall-redemption ground motive adopted by Dooyeweerd is particularly useful in this case. Especially in Dooyeweerd's formulation of it, it allows us to separate normativity from the problem of Evil and reconnect it with ontology (thus healing the centuries-old breach between Ought and Is) and epistemology. The inherent and positive normativity of emancipation is seen as part of the creation element, while oppression as anti-normativity is seen as part of the fall element and subject to redemption. Emancipation is thus seen as diverse, able to be discussed in terms of aspects in a positive manner, without always having to be linked to known structures of oppression. (Note that one need not be a Christian or any other particular kind of religious believer to employ Dooyeweerd's ideas, because he meant them as philosophical and not theological ideas - though perhaps those who share Dooyeweerd's faith will be better able to grasp their full meaning, of which only a small part has been outlined here, than those who do not.)

Under this ground motive, and especially employing Dooyeweerd's theory of modal aspects, we have developed a notion of emancipation, which:

  • may still be used as an overriding norm, equivalent to the Dooyeweerdian notion of shalom, but no longer an absolutized one,

  • may be positive, in reaching for positive norms ('utopia'), as well as negative, in seeking to remedy deleterious effects of reducing or working against aspectual law-promise,

  • exhibits a diverse normativity of specific broad types (derived from modal aspects), that extend the meaning of emancipation into new areas, both social and pre-social,

  • is no longer the automatic antithesis of control but may involve some valid measure of control in its realization,

  • provides an alternative understanding of many of the traditional targets of emancipation - oppressive social structures - in terms of absolutization and of transgressing important norms of the juridical, ethical and pistic aspects in particular,

  • is detailed enough to be used in I.S. design, and even provides a framework within which we can discuss what facilities are likely to be needed in an I.S.,

  • acknowledges the special nature of social normativity, of emancipation from repressive social conditions, and can provide us with a framework within which to discuss not only social structures but repercussions that are mediated socially and indirectly over the long term.

Notice what we have done. We have not rejected the CT notion of emancipation and tried to replace it with an alternative. Rather, we have acknowledged its importance, tried to understand it within the context of CT rather than from another stance such as poststructuralism or phenomenology, laid bare the roots of problems, and then enriched it by reconceptualizing it within a new ground motive.

But this does rather stretch the notion of emancipation beyond its original roots in the Enlightenment as a reaction to the mediaeval ground motive, and its traditional meaning as liberation from oppressive social structures. It aligns emancipation with shalom, a rich, multi-faceted well-being. It is now the responsibility of the Critical Theory community to debate this and decide whether it wishes to enrich the notion in this manner.

Nevertheless, this proposal offers a way forward for emancipating emancipation itself from being a meaningless, unquestioned super-norm used mainly for its connotative value, to become a notion that may be employed practically during the design, development and subsequent evaluation of information systems. It might also provide means whereby the CT community can overcome the negative and intellecualist image it has accrued over the past few decades (Alvesson and Willmott, 1992), and to develop new approaches that are more commensurate to solving practical problems and making useful transformations, rather than merely discussing them and offering critique.


Alvesson, M. & Willmott, H. (1992) On the idea of emancipation in management and organization studies. Academy of Management Review 17<(3):432-64.
Apel, K-O. (1998) Towards a Transformation in Philosophy. tr. Adey G, Fisby D. Wisconsin, USA: Marquette University Press.
Basden, A. (2003) Levels of Guidance. pp. 23-7 in Jacko J, Stephanidis C (eds.) , Human-Computer Interaction: Theory and Practice (Part 1). Proc. HCI International 2003, Crete, 25-27 June 2003.
Basden, A. (2005, in press) Knowledge representation informed by aspects of human practice., in Strijbos S, Basden A (eds.) In Search of an Integrative Vision of Technology: Interdisciplinary Studies in Information Systems. Kluwer.
Brandon, PS., Basden, A., Hamilton, I. & Stockley, J. (1988). Expert Systems: Strategic Planning of Construction Projects. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, London, UK.
Castell, AC., Basden, A., Erdos, G., Barrows, P. & Brandon, PS. (1992). Knowledge Based Systems in Use: A Case Study., Proc. Expert Systems 92 (Applications Stream). British Computer Society Specialist Group for knowledge based systems.
Checkland, P. (1981). Systems Thinking, Systems Practice. Wiley, New York.
Clouser, R. (1991). The Myth of Religious Neutrality; An Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Belief in Theories. University of Notre Dame Press.
Daniels, K., Lamond, D. & Standen, P. (2001) Teleworking: frameworks for organizational research. J. Management Studies 38(8):1151-85.
Dooyeweerd, H. (1955) A New Critique of Theoretical Thought. Vol. I-IV, 1975 edition. Paideia Press. Ontario.
Dooyeweerd, H, (1979) Roots of Western culture; Pagan, Secular and Christian options. Wedge Publishing Company, Toronto, Canada.
Fuenmayor, R. (1990) The boundaries between critical systems thinking and interpretive systems thinking: critical comments on Flood and Ulrich's 'Testament to conversations on critical systems thinking'. Systems Practice, 3:585-591.
Geertsema, H. (1992) He Menselijk Karakter van ons Kennen (The Human Character of our Knowing). Buijten en Schipperheign, The Netherlands.
Habermas, J. (1972) Knowledge and Human Interests. tr. J.J. Shapiro, Heinemann, London.
Habermas, J. (1986) The Theory of Communicative Action; Volume One: Reason and the Rationalization of Society. tr. McCarthy T, Polity Press.
Habermas, J. (1987) The Theory of Communicative Action; Volume Two: The Critique of Functionalist Reason. tr. McCarthy T, Polity Press.
Habermas, J. (2002) Religion and Rationality; Essays on Reason, God and modernity. Polity Press, Cambridge, UK.
Henderson, RD. (1994) Illuminating Law; the construction of Herman Dooyeweerd's philosophy. Free University, Amsterdam.
Hirschheim, R. & Klein, HK. (1994) Realizing emancipatory principles in information systems development: the case for ETHICS., MIS Quarterly 18(1):85-109.
Jackson, MC. (1991) System Methodology for the Management Sciences Plenum Press, New York.
Jenkins, S. (2004) Restructuring flexibility: case studies of part-time female workers in six workplaces. Gender, Work and Organization 11(3):306-33.
Lombardi, PL. (2001) Responsibilities towards the coming generations: forming a new creed. Urban Design Studies. 7:89-102.
MacIntyre, A. (2004) A Short History of Ethics. London: Routledge.
Mouw, RJ. & Griffioen, S. (1993). Pluralisms and Horizons Wm. B. Eerdmann's, Michigan, USA.
NIV. (1979). Gospel according to Luke., Holy Bible; New International Version. ch.6 v.38. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
Robey, D. & Jin, L. (2004) Studying virtual work in teams, organizations and communities. in Whitman, ME, & Woszczynski, AB. (eds.), The Handbook of Information Systems Research. Idea Group Publishing, London.
Ulrich, W. (1983) Critical Heuristics of Social Planning. Wiley.
van der Kooy, TP. (1974) De gereformeerde wereld en de sociologie., AR Staatkunde No.2, pp.37-56.
Wilson, FA. (1997) The truth is out there: the search for emancipatory principles in information systems design. Information Technology and People 10(3):187-204.
Winfield, M. (2000) Multi-Aspectual Knowledge Elicitation PhD Thesis, University of Salford, U.K.

Created: 2004
Copyright (c) Andrew Basden. 2007

Last updated: 12 December 2007