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This paper was submitted to a special issue of Information Systems Journal in 2006-7, but was not considered suitable. It looks at the notion of lfieworld as understood by Husserl, Schutz, Heidegger and Habermas, and argues that Dooyeweerd's notion of naïve experience can enrich the debate, especially in the context of information systems use and development. It is currently being reformulated into a more substantial paper for another journal, but is presented here as an indication of what might be said. Note that the author's understanding of extant views of lifeworld has improved since this version was written, though this version holds most of the main ideas.

Information systems as a life-world

Andrew Basden I.S. Institute, University of Salford, Salford, UK.


This paper discusses how information systems research and practice may be enriched by viewing IS as life-world rather than system. It outlines extant understanding of life-world and identifies a number of extra requirements that it would be useful for our notion of life-world to fulfil for IS research and practice. It then discusses how a radical philosophy might provide these extra requirements and assist research and practice that treats IS as life-world.


The dichotomy of system and life-world is a major theme in Habermas' theory of modernity. Information technology (IT, or ICT: information and communication technology) and information systems (IS) are surely part of modernity, so it would seem likely that this dichotomy might be useful in understanding them.

ICT and IS tend to be treated as system, especially since the systems of money and power are mediated through ICT [O'Donnell and Henriksen, 2001]. This may suit the older types of IS, large systems that are driven by formal rules and require formalized data entry supplied by armies of personnel, and provide formalized data output, which is used mechanically to make operational decisions or take actions such as print train tickets. But increasingly IS are part of our life-world, both in business life and in the home. Three examples:

  • Many applications now are life-world-orientated; for example, email and computer games.
  • Even the large, apparently formalized business systems become part of life-world of their users and other people; for example, rail ticketing systems [Mitev, 2001].
  • Legacy systems, in use for a long time and modified continually in response to changing needs of its users and organisation, has not only become life-world but has that life-world inscribed within it.

Undertaking research in IS that is sensitive to life-world issues of diversity and engagement requires that we understand IS as life-world. Doing so also supports IS practice. (Note, I did not say 'the life-world of IS', because in most treatments, the life-world is of a human being and not of a technical device; rather, IS is increasingly part of the life-world of people, both that of the users and other stakeholders, and of the IS developer.) So the main question this paper addresses is: what are the necessary conditions for IS to be meaningfully and practically researched as life-world?

This paper has emerged from a long-term tendency of the author to treat IS as life-world (see for example, Basden [1983]), coupled with a long-term research programme to explore in what ways the radical philosophy of the late Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977) might help us understand 'the whole story that is information systems'. Dooyeweerd critically analysed many issues that relate to life-world and so might make a useful contribution to seeing IS as life-world.

This paper does not, however, merely present positive proposals because the questions of what it means to see IS as life-world, whether there is any value in doing so, and what would be demanded of the notion of life-world by IS research, have not yet been adequately addressed. Therefore, in this paper, we first critically formulate these questions without reference to Dooyeweerd, and only then do we explore the potential of Dooyeweerd's thinking in this area.


The life-world is "the world as immediately or directly experienced in the subjectivity of everyday life, as sharply distinguished from the objective 'worlds' of the sciences" [Encyclopedia Britannica, 1975,VI:214]. In IS research and practice, as well as in philosophy and all other human living, we can adopt either a life-world attitude, in which this immediacy is fully acknowledged and respected, or a theoretical attitude, where we take the position of an observer, maintaining a critical distance from the world and usually focus on certain things, often in a formalized way.

We can discern three main strands to understanding the life-world, which we may dub alliteratively as Husserlian, Heideggerian and Habermasian. Husserl was one of the first to draw attention to the life-world, and his phenomenology seeks to discover the phenomena of the life-world, to show how the worlds of science originate in the life-world, and account for how life-world experience is possible by analysing time, space, body and the givenness of experience [ibid.]. "It is the individual's personal world as directly experienced, with the ego at the centre and with all of its vital and emotional colourings" [Encyclopedia Britannica, 1975,14:273]. The Heideggerian strand, existential phenomenology, focuses on the relationship between self and world. The Habermasian strand stresses the link between life-world and communicative activity. We will accept all strands, rather than trying to judge between them. The life-world has proved to be such a useful concept that our understanding of it has developed, and many thinkers have contributed insights about it. Perhaps the most comprehensive study of the life-world is that by Schutz and Luckmann [1973, 1989].

We give a very brief overview of a number of aspects of the life-world that IS researchers might meet: life-world as collective mental life, living through life-world, thinking about life-world, and meaning and normativity in the life-world (and lack of them in system).

2.1 Life-world as 'Collective Mental Life'

Traditionally, the life-world is not the world as such but our stock of experiences of it, built up over years, and what we experience or do now is in the light of it because it provides the 'horizon' within which all is meaningful for us.

As a stock of experiences, the life-world has always been assumed to be 'mental' (or at least sensory) in nature. But Rogers [1998] criticises phenomenological approaches to the life-world in particular for placing too much stress on the mental nature of the life-world to the detriment of other aspects, and thereby downplaying the agency of the world. Feminist thought also emphasises other types of experience.

Important to all strands is that life-world experiences are shared, which allows shared understanding. Each of us is in the life-world of the other [Straus, 1958]. The life-world is thus a collective mental life, a common stock of experiences. Life-world's building up over time involves a strong cultural element, and our interpretation and action within it cannot be understood without reference to culture. Habermas [1987] developed this social and cultural nature of the life-world as part of his theory of communicative action, and used that theory to account for the social formation of the life-world over time, especially that it may be systematically distorted by ideology.

For phenomenology, this provides an account of how intersubjectivity is possible despite each person being free to interpret what they experience in a radically different way. To Habermas, the social life-world provides a basis on which validity claims may be critiqued.

2.2 Engagement: Living Through the Life-world

To Merleau-Ponty, life-world is something we 'live through' rather than 'think about'. Life-world is what makes our living possible, so the life-world attitude is one of engagement rather than distancing of self from world.

Rogers [1998] traced the development of discussion of the nature of our engagement with the world. After briefly drawing attention to insights afforded by Dewey and others about organisms in their environment, he turned to the relationship between the human self and life-world. Though centred on the ego, the way the ego interprets and acts in the world is grounded in the life-world, but also the world with which we engage is itself changed by our engagement with it. Shotter [1984] believes this circular relationship is not just one of experience but one of mutual agency (the world forms us as we form the world). Rogers criticises phenomenology for treating the life-world as something passive and largely ignoring its agency in our lives.

As we engage with the world, we do not experience self before or after the world, but we experience both at the same time Straus [1958]. Awareness of self and world presuppose each other, linking to Heidegger's notion of Dasein. Existential phenomenology sees them as inescapable correlates, with a circular relationship. Buber saw it as two 'movements' of, of distancing self from world and relating them.

Engagement implies treating that with which we are engaged as ontically real, rather than maintaining a critical or reflective distance from it. So there is a givenness about the life-world and Husserl noted the ontic certainty implied by our engaging. "Everyday life" said Schutz and Luckmann [1989:1] "is that province of reality in which we encounter directly, as the condition of our life, natural and social givens as pregiven realities with which we must try to cope."

Most life-world thinkers have tried to escape the Cartesian subject-object relationship, which sees the subject as active, human thinker-observer distant from the object, which is a passive world. But questions have been raised how successful they have been. Rogers [1998] suggests Schutz and Luckmann end up in a Cartesian split between mind and body, and Geertsema [1992] argues that though Habermas tried to overcome the subject-object scheme that lay at the root of Weber's thought, in fact he remained entrapped in the same scheme. As we indicate later, difficulty in escaping might be due to a presupposition of an autonomous self.

2.3 Thinking About Life-world

But when thinking about the world we maintain a critical or reflective distance. It 'faces us' and thus becomes visible to us, even though we are part of it [Straus, 1958].

When we think about it, we must treat the life-world as a totality. Straus notes that we experience the life-world as aspects, but stressed that these are aspects of a whole rather than being separable fragments. Any attempt to "take it up piece by piece", Habermas is reported to have said [Honneth, Knodler-Bunte and Windmann, 1981:16], leads to it "dissolving" in front of us. Merleau-Ponty believed that our relationship with the world cannot be clarified fully by analysis.

2.4 Meaning and Normativity in Life-world

All strands recognise life-world experience as one of meaning and/or normativity, and the Habermasian strand contrasts this with our experience of 'systems', which operate by norm-free, formal rules and seem to rob modern life of meaning.

To Husserl, how things appear in the life-world gives their meaning. To Schutz and Luckmann [1973] this meaning-context exhibits distinct provinces of meaning (awake, absorbed, dreaming, etc.), which require a 'leap' from one to another. They also discuss 'relevance' and suggest [p.183] "the relevance problem is perhaps the most important and at the same time the most difficult problem that the description of the life-world has to solve." (They accept the life-world as meaningful in [1973] but Rogers [1998] points out a possible inconsistency when they say, in [1989:3], that "encounters still have no real meaning.")

But what is the source of this meaning of life-world? Different thinkers have proposed several answers:

  • Schutz and Luckmann [1989:3] believe that encounters "obtain meaning only in reflexive, subsequent performances of consciousness".
  • Rogers [1998] disagrees, pointing out that a tree blocking the road we are driving along and suddenly meet round a corner has immediate meaning without any reflection: its meaning arises from the inability of one massive body to pass through another, whether we are aware of it or not.
  • To Straus [1958] life-world meaning and worth are mediated through others.
  • To Weber the pre-modern life-world exhibited meaning by virtue of myth and tradition, but this is being displaced by systems of modernity based on mechanical rationality.
  • To Habermas meaning in modern life-world arises not from myth and tradition, but from communicative action.

Weber and Habermas suggest that the apparent meaninglessness of modern life arises from it being increasingly dominated by 'systems' that operate by formal, mechanical rules, which are devoid of both normativity and meaning. To Adorno this implies that if we want to retain meaning in life we must eschew modernity. But Habermas [1987:303ff] wanted to rescue modernity from the curse of meaninglessness and believes that modern life still has life-world with meaning and normativity. He believes that Weber failed to differentiate instrumental rationality, which does indeed destroy life-world meaning, from communicative rationality, which generates meaning by critique of validity claims. Modernity may subvert tradition by means of critical reflection but it does not subvert life-world.

To develop this theory further, Habermas employed Parsons' attempt to explain stability in society by means of four functions, known as AGIL, adaptation (economy), goals (polity), integration (norms), and pattern maintenance (value commitments), by noting that IL may be seen as life-world and AG as the systems of economics and politics respectively, which "technicize the life-world" [Habermas, 1987:277] and rob it of meaning unless validity claims are critiqued.


Now we look at a number of ways in which information systems could be (part of) life-world, ranged according to the life-world themes above. For each, we briefly illustrate why IS should be treated as life-world and then suggest what IS research requires of the way we view the life-world as a concept.

3.1 IS as 'Collective Mental Life', 1

Possibly nothing exemplifies life-world as collective mental life more obviously than organisational knowledge, and attempts have been made to build IS to store and manage it for more than a decade under the heading of knowledge management (KM). It contains both explicit (recorded) and tacit knowledge, of diverse types, meant to be shared within the organisation and is recognised as vital to the 'life' of the organisation. How it is understood, relied on and used depends on, and is part of, the culture of the organisation, as well as the wider culture of society. Newell, Robertson, Scarborough and Swan [2002:ix] seem to emphasise the life-world character of such knowledge:

"Whereas management fads often treat knowledge and learning as if they were something abstracted from the way people work, our concern here is to put knowledge back into work - to show that knowledge work ultimately depends on the behaviours, motivations and attitudes of those who undertake and manage it. The idea that knowledge can be managed simply through the right process design or by codifying it in information and communication technology (ICT) systems is, we argue, illusory."

Alvesson [2004:237-238] expands on this, listing some key characteristics of knowledge-intensive firms: "the downplaying of organizational hierarchy ... the use of ad hoc, adaptable organizational forms ... extensive communication for coordination and problem-solving ... idiosyncratic client services ... subjective and uncertain quality assessment ... a high level of ambiguity ... 'reality' in the form of everyday life experiences and client expectations sometimes break with the 'ideologies' expressed in public and corporate discourses." It is clear that to undertake research in such areas requires the researcher to treat IS as life-world rather than as system.

But why is this? It is because theoretical frameworks split everyday life up into aspects of interest to special sciences like psychology, sociology, linguistics or economics, narrow down, and cannot embrace the whole richness and diversity that Alvesson and others find in knowledge work. We must avoid reducing life-world to any theory, so we must adopt a philosophical approach.

We need one that is sensitive to life-world as life-world. We would expect the three strands of understanding life-world to be sensitive, but there is a problem. They all, to a greater or lesser extent, impose a philosophical burden on the notion of life-world, demanding of it that it fulfil the philosophical role of enabling us to account for more than simply everyday immediate life. In phenomenological approaches the notion of life-world is called upon to account for intersubjectivity. Habermas adds to this burden that of providing the basis for critique of validity claims:

"As we have seen a life-world forms the horizon of processes of reaching understanding in which participants agree upon or discuss something ... The interpreter can tacitly presuppose that he shares ... world-relations with the author and his contemporaries. ... Only to the extent that the interpreter grasps the reasons that allow the author's utterances to appear as rational does he understand what the author could have meant." [Habermas, 1986:131-132]

The life-world might well play a part in accounting for intersubjectivity or critique but if we always tend to interpret what it says about itself with these philosophical purposes in mind, then we are in danger of not letting it 'speak' to us about itself as it presents itself to us. In IS research, intersubjectivity and critique of validity claims are only two issues among many and we need an approach to the life-world that is free of such philosophical burdens, 'listening' to the life-world as it 'speaks' to us.

3.2 IS as 'Collective Mental Life', 2

Another 'collective mental life' is found in the virtual worlds such as in multi-player computer games (MUDs, multi-user dungeons, and MMORPGs, massively multi-player online role playing games). Being virtual, their world is 'mental life', and being multi-player, it is 'collective'.

Some have taken this further to suggest that cyberspace as a whole is a world composed entirely of mind - again 'collective' and 'mental' life. Barlow [1996], in his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, relies on this stance to claim that traditional legality and morality no longer apply to Cyberspace. How do we judge such claims and implications, and how do we research them?

Turkle [1997] suggests that a major reason for playing MUDs is to establish an identity, but in most cases players also retain their real identities since the "their {the games'} influence extends into the real world, and therefore the real world extends into them." [Bartle, 2004:65] But how do we research this?

If we see life-world as nothing but 'mental life', an adequate basis for distinguishing between real and virtual worlds and meaningfully relating them may be difficult to find. So the philosophical approach that underlies research into games, virtual worlds and cyberspace must presuppose neither that the virtual and real worlds are fundamentally the same, nor that they are so different that they cannot be related to each other.

3.2 Engagement With and 'Living Through' IS

Computer games and other virtual reality give us, perhaps, the most obvious example of 'living through' IS as life-world. The IS provides a virtual world in which players or users are 'immersed' and with which they engage. We have already noted we need a basis for differentiating real and virtual worlds, but two other issues arise when we consider 'living through'.

In immersion we see the circular relationship of 'co-presence', of player changing content of game and game, player, or simultaneous awareness of self (character played) and world. So research of either requires seeing the IS as life-world rather than system.

In most cases, it is important that the virtual world in which the user or player is immersed is 'realistic'. What does this mean? Obviously the virtual world must be diverse and coherent. But some types of reality matter more than others. Non-real entities abound - hobbits, dragons, swords with magical properties, and so on - but this does not cause a problem. What matters is when, for example [Bartle, 2004:66], "If what you see looks and behaves like reality, you feel you're 'there' more than if it looks and behaves like a gridwork of platonic solids." Research into quality of virtual worlds requires a life-world approach that supports us in addressing coherent diversity but also gives us a basis for differentiating these types of reality.

In immersion, the human being is 'part of' the IS, but in what Laurel [1986] calls 'direct engagement', the IS is 'part of' the user (in Polany's [1967] sense of being proximal to, rather than distal from, the user). For example a web browser or word processor can become 'part of' us as we seek information or write. Large legacy systems in an organisation, which people have become used to, lie somewhere between immersion and engagement.

An important issue in such systems is how they affect people's lives, even those who know nothing of them. Latour's [1986] Actor-Network Theory in which IS are seen as 'actants' along with people, has been useful in studies of this. But if, as Rogers (above) suggests, phenomenology tends to downplay the agency of the world, we need to modify our notion of life-world.

Whether immersion or engagement the user 'lives through' the IS, though perhaps only for a specific task, so such use should be seen as life-world. In their classic work [1986], Winograd and Flores develop this by reference to Heidegger's ideas, in which the IS is ready-to-hand, and contrast them with a Cartesian view in which the user is set over against the IS. But Winograd and Flores were criticised by Spaul [1997] on the grounds that such engagement implies acceptance of the status quo and inability to critique social structures. Spaul suggested that critique of social structures requires a critical distance, and advocated the need for distance between tool and user and a combining of the Heideggerian and Cartesian views.

While Winograd and Flores, and Spaul, offer important insights, they perhap miss an important point. Norman [1990] once said:

"The real problem with the interface is that it is an interface. Interfaces get in the way. I don't want to focus my energies on an interface. I want to focus on the job."

We must differentiate between engagement with the IS as such and engagement with the 'job'.

Basden and Hibberd [1996] cite a case in which it was the engagement with the IS that enabled the user to critique the status quo. The status quo was writing construction contracts by amending standard forms, often followed by an adversarial process of seeking to exploit ambiguity where the standard contract did not quite fit the requirements of the parties. The critique was to try to write each contract from scratch by applying sophisticated general principles of contract to the specific requirements of the parties, providing a contract that more closely reflected their points of agreement. To make the complex inferences this would require practical, a knowledge based system was created, in which knowledge of the principles was represented. But such principles were not available, and had to be elicited by critical but sensitive, immanent reflection on life-world practice in the construction industry. It was found that the very activity of representing an idea would stimulate others, fleeting thoughts that had to be set down before they fled the mind. So as not to interrupt and lose such thoughts, the knowledge representation tool must be highly proximal, allowing the user to focus on 'the job' of thinking about this new knowledge rather than on the interface. A point-and-click user interface would have been too distal, so the Istar tool [Basden and Brown, 1996] was designed to allow the thoughts to be drawn directly on screen immediately they arise. In this way, it was the very proximal engagement with Istar that made critique of status quo possible.

This means that, for IS research and practice, we need a more sophisticated view of the life-world that enables us to differentiate between engagement with the IS and engagement with knowledge represented in the IS. We need a basis for understanding the relationship between engagement and critical distance, and for knowing what it is useful to critique and what should be accepted and relied upon.

3.3 Thinking About the IS as Life-world

In IS research, and also in design, development and evaluation of IS, we need to 'think about' IS as life-world. We want to be able to do this without our picture completely 'dissolving' into pieces - though what we mean by this in IS research and practice might not be precisely what Habermas was referring to. What seems to be needed is the ability to explore, uncover and understand richness of the life-world without either ignoring important factors or being forced by our analytical framework into reducing factors to each other, so that something of its totality is retained. When developing IS, a multi-view needs to be taken [Avison and Wood-Harper, 1990]. In knowledge elicitation "One needs to have as broad a knowledge base as possible. It is the outer parameters that one must have knowledge about" [Jacob and Ebrahimpur, 2001:78]. Johannessen, Olaisen and Olsen [2001] note that a company that does not emphasize the entire knowledge base will lose competitive advantage. When evaluating or analysing IS in use, we need a framework that opens up for us the diverse totality of ways in which an IS may be used, by a variety of stakeholders, on a variety of timescales.

All of this resonates with life-world as totality. How much of this totality is encapsulated within the computer and how much remains with the stakeholders may be discussed elsewhere. But because of this rich totality, those engaged in IS development, knowledge elicitation, usage and evaluation all need to take something of a life-world attitude as they think and research.

The challenge is to find ways to analyse life-world without losing richness. The practical side of this challenge is to ensure that all stakeholders participate, including those often overlooked or without a voice, and that we consider not just the direct, short-term factors but also the indirect, long-term ones. The philosophical side of the challenge is that some factors might not yet have been articulated, and yet be relevant.

3.4 Meaning and Normativity in IS as life-world

Habermas' identification of technicization with meaninglessness implies that technology is inherently meaningless; can we accept this? At least some of our experiences suggest otherwise. What is this meaning? Obviously, when corresponding by email, the symbols I send and receive hold meaning of a linguistic kind. But the main issue for Habermas, Weber and others is broader: the meaningfulness or otherwise of my doing this. We can identify at least two further ways in which such ICT may be meaningful:

  • Meaning-to-us: what our engagement with this IS means to us, now. Using the same IS might mean, for example, to get a job done more efficiently, to do new things, or to curry favour with senior management as an 'innovative' employee. These (especially the latter) might not be explicit. Playing a computer game might mean relaxation, stimulation, etc.

  • Meaningfulness: More generally, abstracted from such concrete situations, we might say, for example, that the meaning of email is communication, that of geographic information systems is management of spatially referenced knowledge, and that of computer games is fun.

We need a framework that enables both to be explored without confusion. If, as Schutz and Luckmann [1989] suggest, encounters with the life-world have no meaning as such, then we might have a problem. But Gadamer's call for a fusion of conservative and subjective horizons might be informative here.

Meaning-for-us is closely allied with the issue of repercussions of IS usage - beneficial and detrimental impacts - which, as we have seen, may be indirect, unexpected and long-term as well as direct, expected and short-term. It has been increasingly recognised that we cannot limit the study of IS impact to formal comparisons against some set of prior objectives (though doing so has a place), but must take into account the diversity of ways in which IS repercussions can be meaningful. For example, Mitev's [2001] account of the Socrate rail ticketing system shows economic, social, legal, moral, as well as technical repercussions.

The IS community's interest in IS impact presupposes not only diversity but also normativity, which sets benefit on one side and detriment on the other. Mitev's description of

"Impossible reservations on some trains, inappropriate prices and wrong train connections led to large queues of irate customers in all major stations. Booked tickets were for non-existent trains whilst other trains ran empty, railway unions went on strike, and passengers' associations sued SNCF."

cannot be read as anything other than presupposing a diverse normativity.

To research IS repercussions, we need a notion of life-world that inherently supports diversity of both meaning and normativity. Most extant treatments of life-world allow for this. But they are not much help to the IS researcher or practitioner because they provide no basis for differentiating between the different normativities manifested in that statement and, because they give no defence against those who respond to statements like Mitev's with "So what!", they offer few grounds for analysing such responses. Schutz and Luckmann's [1973, 1989] 'Structures of the Life-World' might offer some such grounds but their proposal is rather too general to be of direct use here. They discuss stratifications (e.g. dream v. fantasy), knowing, society, action and boundaries, but not the structural diversity of the life-world as such. But a discussion of structural diversity of the life-world is what we need to be able to analyse situations like those above.

Finally, since we are dealing with a modern phenomenon in IS, we must take seriously Habermas' and Weber's views on modernity. Otherwise, we will have no basis on which to resist either those who accept technology or those who refuse it, uncritically.

3.5 Overview

So far we have opened up the issue of how it is useful to treat IS as life-world: IS development, knowledge elicitition, evaluation of IS usage and impact of IS. We have found that such research would benefit if our notion of life-world meets a number of requirements:

  • If it is freed from bearing the philosophical burden of having to account for intersubjectivity, critique, meaning or normativity then we can more sensitively 'listen' as the life-world 'speaks' to us about itself.

  • If it is set in a wider context of a real world, of which it itself is part, then we can more soundly differentiate between the virtual world and real world of the user or player, and also research the agency of the world, especially that which is unexpected.

  • If our notion directs our gaze towards the coherent diversity of the life-world, then we can more adequately take into account the richness of IS in their development, use and repercussions, and more completely research the quality of virtual worlds.

  • If it provides a basis for understanding the relationship between engagement and critical distance, for knowing what it is useful to critique, and for differentiating engagement with the IS itself from engagement with application content, then we can more richly consider use of IS in ways that question social structures.

  • If it provides a basis for coming to know and think about the life-world in its integrality, and can account for its 'dissolving', then we might find ways to study IS that exposes its richness without undue distortion.

  • If it contains in-built incentive to recognise and consider unarticulated factors, then 'outer parameters' will not be so often overlooked and our IS development and evaluation will be more robust.

  • If it enables meaningfulness and meaning-to-us to be differentiated and explored, then our research into IS usage especially might be enhanced.

  • If it provides a basis for analysing structural diversity of meaning and normativity, then the normative aspects of IS can be more sensitively researched.

  • If it yields research that drives IS practice towards ameliorating rather than exacerbating the problems of system, without denying system or modernity, then it will have contributed to a better future.

These requirements deserve further elaboration - and indeed there may be others aspects of IS that we have not discussed, and all Gadamer's insights need to be brought in. But now I want to move on to considering how we might fulfil them. To meet most of the requirements, we need to understand the transcendental conditions that make life-world possible. As far as I know, most who have discussed the life-world have not made it a critical problem for philosophical thought. Rather, most assume it (even though they might describe it at length [Schutz and Luckmann, 1973, 1989]) especially as the presumed source of intersubjectivity, critique, meaning or normativity. That which is assumed is hard to question, especially as to what transcendental conditions make it possible.

The Dutch philosopher, Dooyeweerd [1955] argued [1955,II:433-4] that what he called immanence philosophy - which covers the strands outlined earlier - is fundamentally unable to make the life-world a critical problem due to its presuppositions. Like phenomenology, he started from the 'naïve' or 'everyday' attitude of thought as that from which the theoretical attitude must be differentiated, and within which our understanding of the theoretical attitude must be situated, but he did not assume the life-world uncritically and made critique of phenomenology. So it is possible that a transcendental understanding of life-world may be possible via Dooyeweerd. To undertake such a transcendental critique is a task for philosophers, and not for this paper. Instead, we will explore the way Dooyeweerd might offer a life-world approach to IS research. Certainly, this author has found in practice that a Dooyeweerdian approach to IS research is very much in the spirit of life-world rather than of system, taking into account collective mental life, engagement, knowing, meaning and normativity.


Dooyeweerd proposed A New Critique of Theoretical Thought [1955], a radical attempt at both a critical and a positive philosophy. In his critical philosophy, presented mainly in Volume I but present throughout, he sought to uncover the necessary (transcendental) conditions that make a theoretical attitude of thought possible. To achieve this he surveyed Western thinking over the past 2,500 years, adopting immanent critique (as did Kant and Habermas), which seeks to understand each line of thought in its own terms, uncover presuppositions and reveal inherent inconsistencies. His positive philosophy arises from presuppositions that differ radically from those of most Western thought, and comprises a theory of modal aspects, knowledge, rationality and science, in Volume II, and a theory of entities, relationships, typology and social institutions in Volume III. He also set out a theory of Time, supra-temporality and our relationship with the Divine, as well as specific theories of history and progress. Here we will introduce only that which is relevant, with some interpretation directed towards our needs. In this section we will show how Dooyeweerd can account for most of the characteristics of life-world outlined in section 2; in section 5 we will discuss implications for IS research.

Dooyeweerd did not use the term 'life-world', partly because his main concern was elsewhere, but rather terms like 'naïve', 'everyday', and 'pre-theoretical', coupled with 'attitude', 'stance' and 'experience'. However, such terms are also to be found in Schutz and Luckmann [1973], liberally associated with the notion of life-world, and there is no doubt that what Dooyeweerd was discussing is closely related to extant discussions of life-world and might throw useful light on the topic.

4.1 The Root of Theoretical Thought

Though Kant and Husserl took a 'critical' approach, Dooyeweerd believed that neither had been critical enough:

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

Likewise, it would seem that most extant discussion of the life-world, while it might discuss its nature and implications, assumes it as "an axiom which needs no further justification".

Dooyeweerd posed the question of what are the necessary (transcendental) conditions that enable us to adopt a theoretical attitude as such, and developed two separate transcendental critiques. Both concluded not only that theoretical thought is never neutral (as is now widely acknowledged, though it was not at the time) but that this non-neutrality is religious in nature. All human thought, and indeed all human activity, is grounded in religious motives. He explained [1955,I:57]:

"To the question, what is understood here by religion? I reply: the innate impulse of human selfhood to direct itself toward the true or toward a pretended absolute Origin of all temporal diversity of meaning, which it finds focused concentrically in itself."

A religious ground-motive is a "spiritual driving force that acts as the absolutely central mainspring of human society" [Dooyeweerd, 1979:9], and it generates in us supra-theoretical presuppositions that we make about the nature of reality, and about theoretical thinking itself. He showed how four ground-motives have driven Western thought over the past 2,500 years: the Greek ground-motive of form-matter (FMGM), the Judeo-Christian ground-motive of creation, fall and redemption (CFR), the mediaeval Roman Catholic motive of nature-grace (NGGM), which arose from a synthesis of them and itself gave rise to the humanist ground-motive of nature-freedom (NFGM), within which arose the Science Ideal and the Personality Ideal as dialectically opposing poles. See Fig. 1.


Figure 1. Development of Western Thought

Habermas seems to have understood something similar when he speaks [2002:157] of synthesis between 'Athens' and 'Jerusalem', and has remarked [1992:12]:

"I do not believe that we, as Europeans, can seriously understand concepts like morality and ethical life, persons and individuality, or freedom and emancipation, without appropriating the substance of the Judeo-Christian understanding of history in terms of salvation. And these concepts are, perhaps, nearer to our hearts than the conceptual resources of Platonic thought, centering on order and revolving around the cathartic intuition of ideas."

Nearer our hearts, perhaps, but not nearer our minds. Dooyeweerd wanted to change this.

Dooyeweerd argued that even the so-called Christian mediaeval philosophies, e.g. of Augustine and Aquinas, were not based on creation, fall and redemption, but rather presupposed a dialectic (nature-grace), as did FMGM and NFGM. He argued that these three dialectical ground-motives adopt what an immanence standpoint, which presupposes that, as far as philosophy is concerned, the basic Principle on which all else depends and which itself is self-sufficient, is to be sought within the realm of reality as we can experience it (Clouser [1991] explains this more clearly than Dooyeweerd did). Holding life-world to be the self-sufficient ground for intersubjectivity, meaning and normativity may be one example of this. Dooyeweerd demonstrated that immanence philosophy has inevitably led to restrictions being placed on philosophic thought, driving it to dualism or monism, to the supremacy of theoretical thought over naïve experience, to the Cartesian subject-object split, or to the reaction against this, and to a presupposition that the world is 'radically illegible' [Tarnas, 1991], rather than that the world might reveal itself. It is the immanence presupposition itself that makes it impossible to properly frame critical questions about the life-world [Dooyeweerd, 1955,II:433].

In view of this, Dooyeweerd began from CFR, not theologically but in an attempt to work out its philosophical implications, to see if what is "nearer to our hearts" might draw near to our minds.

4.2 Naïve Experience and the Pre-theoretical Attitude of Thought

An important strand in both Dooyeweerd's critical and positive philosophy was dignity given to the everyday (naïve, pre-theoretical) experience and attitude of thought, which Schutz and Luckmann called the natural or life-world attitude . So he opened Volume I of [1955] with:

"If I consider reality as it is given in the naïve pre-theoretical experience, ..."

Throughout his work, in developing both his critical and his positive arguments, he kept on returning to everyday experience. For example:

"To all of these speculative misunderstandings {made by philosophers,} naïve experience implicitly takes exception by persisting in its pre-theoretical conception of things, events and social relationships." [1955,III:28]

In his discourse, Dooyeweerd treated naïve experience, not so much an empirical source of individual 'facts', but as something he could share with readers of diverse cultural and religious backgrounds - that is, as a 'collective mental life'.

However, naïve experience is not absolute, self-dependent, and should not be treated "as an axiom which needs no further justification." It cannot be penetrated by theoretical thought but that does not prevent its characteristics being described (as Schutz and Luckmann did) nor it being accounted for within philosophy. Having started from naïve attitude in order to identify the conditions necessary to the theoretical attitude, he could then give an account of the naïve attitude itself. The key to this understanding is his proposal that meaning is foundational rather than emergent, and that (created) reality has two sides, not just one.

4.3 Meaning and Being

"The horizon of experience is not a subjective cadre within which reality appears to us only in a phenomenal shape ... and behind which the fundamental inexperienceable dimensions of some 'thing in itself' ('Ding an sich') are situated." wrote Dooyeweerd [1955,II:548] "It is rather the a priori meaning structure of our cosmos itself in its dependence on the central religious sphere of the creation, and in subjection to the Divine Origin of all things." This is why he made clear at the outset [1955,I:4]:

"Meaning is the being of all that has been created and the nature even of our selfhood. It has a religious root and a divine origin."

Things do not 'have' meaning, they 'are' meaning; their very existence is meaning, and derives from meaning. Meaning is what makes being, occurrence, knowledge and all else in the cosmos possible - including Schutz and Luckmann's [1973:241] S, E, H, R: situations, experience, actions, results. What 'is' a poem, for example? A piece of writing? A work of art? Vibrations in the air (when recited)? A means of making money? In naïve experience it 'is' each of these, and more, and all of them together, though possibly one more than others.

Dooyeweerd concluded an extensive review of attempts to understand thingness from Greek metaphysics through to the 20th century [1955,III:3-52] with:

"As far as I know, immanence philosophy {see 4.1}, including phenomenology, has never analysed the structure of a thing as given in naïve experience." [1955,III:53]

Dooyeweerd criticised several thinkers for reducing naïve experience to a particular theory, e.g. Russell, to sensation [III:27]. Schutz and Luckmann's treatment of provinces of reality exhibits this tendency, and, perhaps as a result, founds them on 'tension of consciousness' [1973:25], whereas Dooyeweerd contended that naïve experience exhibits no such tensions [1955,II:431].

A new approach was needed. Dooyeweerd argued that we cannot recognise the diversity of ways a thing presents itself to us in naïve experience and, at the same time, maintain its unity as a thing without reference to spheres of meaning. The poem is all those things above by virtue of the lingual, aesthetic, physical and economic spheres of meaning. The remainder of Volume III of Dooyeweerd [1955] was then spent discussing this Meaning-based nature of things and types, from trees, chairs, sculptures, to social institutions, the state, and the various relationships they have with each other. We can apply this approach to the diverse modes of being of information systems as they present themselves to us in their integrality in naïve experience.

All is meaning. So, fundamentally, life-world is inherently meaningful and meaning no longer has to be 'obtained' "only in reflective, subsequent performances of consciousness" [Schutz and Luckmann, 1989:3] nor by social nor communicative processes (Straus, Habermas). (Later, however, we allow for some 'obtaining'.)

4.4 Spheres of Meaning: Dooyeweerd's Theory of Modal Aspects

Dooyeweerd developed his theory of modal aspects (as he sometimes called spheres of meaning) in Volume II of [1955]. The possibility that there are spheres of meaning leads naturally to the question of what spheres there may be. Dooyeweerd introduced a suite of aspects on the first page of Volume I:

"A{n} indissoluble inner coherence binds the numerical to the spatial aspect, the latter to the aspect of mathematical movement, the aspect of movement to that of physical energy, which itself is the necessary basis of the aspect of organic life. The aspect of organic life has an inner connection with that of psychical feeling, the latter refers in its logical anticipation (the feeling of logical correctness or incorrectness) to the analytical-logical aspect. This in turn is connected with the historical, the linguistic, the aspect of social intercourse, the economic, the aesthetic, the jural, the moral aspects and that of faith."

The point Dooyeweerd was making was not what aspects make up the suite (various names have been used for the aspects, in particular, pistic for faith, cultural or formative for historical, and he did not claim his suite was 'correct'), but that the diversity we experience in the naïve attitude coheres, and the coherence we experience is diverse. The aspects are irreducibly distinct yet intertwined with each other and have been useful in understanding, for example, sustainability [Brandon and Lombardi, 2005].

As spheres of meaning, each aspect provides a distinct way in which a thing, event or situation can be meaningful. For example, when researching an IS, within the linguistic sphere of meaning we can focus on it as symbols (i.e. a program), within the analytic sphere of meaning we can focus on its logic, within the social sphere of meaning we can focus on how the IS affects relationships between its users and other stakeholders, within the juridical sphere of meaning we can focus on how the IS might either emancipate or oppress, and so on. This may be similar to Schutz and Luckmann's 'relevances', but since to Dooyeweerd this is based on spheres of meaning rather than on the activity of the person, meaning does not necessarily involve reflection. Rogers' encounter with the tree blocking the road has immediate physical meaning.

Many thinkers refer to aspects as fundamentally distinct categories, for example Habermas [1987:303], Maslow's hierarchy of needs, or Bunge's [1979] systems levels. But Dooyeweerd's insight was to treat the aspects as thought they have a modal character [Henderson, 1994:38], enabling the entire cosmos to be and occur.

For instance, aspects provide different ways in which things can 'make sense', and thus distinct bases for critique of validity claims. It may be, therefore, that Dooyeweerd provides resources to distinguish types of validity beyond Habermas' triple of expressive authenticity, normative rightness or factual correctness. Note that to Dooyeweerd even instrumental rationality bears meaning - that of the formative aspect. But, as we discuss later around modernity, no aspect has meaning in itself, but only by "referring beyond".

4.5 Types

But in the life-world things are of types, subtypes etc. Schutz and Luckmann [1973:229 ff.] held that types arise by experiencing 'similarity' which itself "rests on the set of types in the stock of knowledge." Dooyeweerd took a different line in his theory of entities (Volume III of [1955]), accounting for types by reference to aspects that are most important in the meaning of the (type of) thing. For example, all institutions are qualified by the social aspect, and this is what differentiates them from, say, beliefs or plants (respectively qualified by pistic, organic). But different types of institution are further qualified by other aspects: law court, sports club, mosque, by juridical, aesthetic, pistic respectively. IS are qualified by the lingual aspect, but may be further qualified according to their type: word processors are lingually qualified, geographic information systems are spatially, etc.

This allowed Dooyeweerd to be able to differentiate parts from 'wholes', which cannot be part of anything. Wholes may be structurally related to other wholes via 'enkaptic' relations, of which he identified six types [Kalsbeek, 1975]. One in particular interests us: the relation between a user and their world is correlative enkapsis.

Thus we see generic aspectual inscribed in types of software as its qualifying aspect. This is what we called meaningfulness. Meaning-to-us is the meaning attributed by a particular person as they use it in a particular situation, for example a word processor to a poet has strong aesthetic meaning. The third type of meaning is that carried in symbols processed by the IS, which is symbolic signification, enabled specifically by the lingual aspect. This latter provides the basis for differentiating between virtual and real worlds.

4.6 Interwoven Aspects

Though the aspects are irreducible to each other in their meaning, they are also a coherent totality of cosmic meaning (fulfilling Straus' warning against fragmentation). This is because meaning, to Dooyeweerd, has the character of 'referring beyond'. Each aspect refers beyond itself to other aspects, and together they refer beyond themselves to their Source.

Their coherence is seen in three ways. First, every thing or occurrence - and every situation, experience, act and result (S, E, H, R) - exhibits every aspect. All human living is multi-aspectual, and this accounts for the richness of the life-world experience. Second, the aspects are intertwined with each other by relationships of analogy; in each aspect there is echoes of all the others. Third, each aspect depends on the others, on those before it for its facilitation and on those after it for the opening up of its full meaning.

The aspects 'resist' any attempt to isolate them. Problems occur in our approach to things (in both research and practice) when we elevate one or two aspects and suppress others because we sever their relationships of 'referring beyond' each other, and thus constrict their meaning. In the extreme, when we absolutize an aspect (treating it as the only one of importance, or the self-dependent source of all the others) then, paradoxically, it loses its meaning completely.

We may thus characterize the life-world attitude as that in which we are open to all aspects in their interwoven coherence.

4.7 Spheres of Law

The spheres of meaning are also spheres of law. Each aspect provides laws that guide the functioning of (the thing in) the cosmos. Each aspect provides a different idea of the Good, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Normativity of various aspects
Aspect Norm
Physical Persist
Biotic Thrive
Psychic Sense and respond
Analytic Be clear, logical
Formative Be diligent
Lingual Express truthfully
Social Respect others
Economic Be frugal; manage
Aesthetic Harmonize; enjoy
Juridical "To each their due"
Ethical Give of self
Pistic Be faithful

The laws of earlier aspects are determinative in character (e.g. physical laws like gravity) while those of later aspects are normative (e.g. lingual laws like those related to syntax and semantics). Normative laws enable meaningful freedom (e.g. in the syntax we choose), even the freedom to go against their laws (e.g. going against the laws of syntax of the language we are using). But aspectual law pertains and, though we might go against such laws, repercussions occur (e.g. when I follow the laws of syntax the hearer understands but when I don't, s/he doesn't) whether anyone knows of them or not. In post-social aspects, the repercussions - whether good or harmful - might be mediated via others and felt by others, and affect culture and society itself.

As part of their coherence mentioned above, there is no inherent antinomy between laws of different aspects, and we may, in principle, achieve 'simultaneous realization of norms' [van der Kooy, 1974]. Any apparent clash between aspects (e.g. ethical and economic) is due not to something intrinsic in the aspects but to human beings misconstruing the laws of normative aspects.

Aspectual law, to Dooyeweerd, is not to be confused with authoritarian force ("Do X!"); rather it takes the form of promise ("If you do X then Y will result"). Nor is aspectual law in any way the same as social norms (such as the specific laws of syntax of any particular language); social norms are concrete social constructions. The distinction between them is to be understood by reference to two side of reality.

4.8 Law and Entity Side

In a radical turn, Dooyeweerd differentiated two sides of created reality, law and entity side.

  • The law side includes the aspects as spheres of meaning-and-law, and is the framework of law and meaning that makes all possible.

  • The entity side comprises all that has been, is and will be, all of concrete reality - entities, events, processes, relationships, concrete norms, concrete meanings, concrete possibilities, and the like, all situations, experiences, acts, results (Schutz and Luckmann) - the entire cosmos, human and non-human, physical, conceptual, social and moral, past, present and future.

This implies two horizons rather than one. The entity-side horizon Dooyeweerd called the plastic horizon, because it forever changes and develops - and so games players are not unduly upset when 'unreal' creatures like hobbits abound. The law-side horizon does not, though our knowledge of it might, and it provides the meaning beyond which we have no inkling.

It also implies two types of givenness. Entity-side givenness is concrete actuality, and is plastic. Law-side givenness is the transcending pertaining of aspectual law.

It implies two types of meaning: law-side meaning that transcends all, and entity-side concrete attributions of meaning enabled by the law side. Dooyeweerd's discussion of meaning was primarily concerned with law-side meaning, while extant treatment of the life-world mainly refers to entity-side meaning.

Likewise normativity: law-side (i.e. aspectual) normativity transcends all and is universally applicable, while entity-side normativity comprises concrete rules, social norms, formal laws and the like.

4.9 Subject and Object

Law presupposes subject and calls for response. But also, to Dooyeweerd, subject presupposes law, and the two English language meanings of 'subject' together: to be an acting subject is constituted in being subject to aspectual law. The entity side, the entire cosmos, is subject to the law side (and thus is sometimes called 'subject side') and it is in the very responding to law, a continual responding, that the entity side 'is' and occurs. An object is something involved in the subject-functioning of some subject. For example, as I write this, I am subject to the laws of the lingual aspect (among others) and responding to those laws, while what I write is the lingual object. In place of the conventional subject-object relation Dooyeweerd offers a law-subject-object relation. This has a number of implications for understanding our relationship with the world.

It enables us to escape the Cartesian subject-object relation because Dooyeweerd's subject-object relation is very different in three ways.

  • The Cartesian subject is an active, thinking human self, with the object a passive, thought-about other, while for Dooyeweerd, any entity may be subject (both a rock and I are subject in the physical aspect), not by virtue of any innate property of each entity but by the relation in which it stands to aspectual law.

    (However, only human beings may be subject in all aspects; non-living things may be subject only up to the physical aspect, plants up to the organic and animals up to the psychic aspect. In all later aspects they can function only as object.)

  • The Cartesian subject-object relation implies a separation, while the Dooyeweerdian subject-object relation implies close engagement (except in the analytic aspect; see below).

  • The Dooyeweerdian relation between two things has many aspects, in each of which things might relate differently. With my computer I have a different subject-object relation in several post-physical aspects but a subject-subject relation in the physical aspect; see Table 2.

The notion of subject-subject relation is enabled by this transcending law-framework: both things are subject to the same aspectual laws. Subjects 'equal before the law' in a given aspect may genuinely interact. A subject-subject relation does not have to be between humans, but could be for instance the wind blowing against me, where both I and the wind are physical subjects.

Like the wind, the keys of the keyboard exerts force against my fingers because they are physical subject. So in the physical aspect, both computer and I are subjects and this provides the basis for interaction, but in post-physical aspects, the computer can only function as object. Our physical interaction has meaning in those aspects. Note that all the aspectual descriptions of what goes on should not be seen as temporally sequential, but as different meaningful descriptions of the one activity. Note also the inclusion of the social subject-subject relation, which my interaction with the computer enables.

Table 2. Multi-aspectual relationship between user and computer
Aspect ... of human self (user) Rel ... of 'world'
Physical ... and falls on back of my eye, making it electrically-chemically active. S-S Computer's subject-funcioning: Light emitted by screen ...

... comes towards me ...
Biotic My nerve cells respond, and ... S-O -
Psychic ... I experience shapes, colours, textures, spatial arrangements, etc. ... S-O Computer displays shapes, fonts, colours at various positions.
Analytic ... some of which take on meaning as letters, words, indentations, etc. ... S-O Computer displays words, etc.
Formative ... that are taken by me to be structured text ... S-O Computer displays text.
Lingual ... that means something ... S-O Computer displays content.
Social ... to both myself and others. S-O Computer helps us communicate
.... and thus we (humans) may discourse. S-S Human being (not computer)

This might give us a clear basis for understanding and maintaining that agency of the world which Rogers [1998] found lacking in phenomenology. It also gives a basis for accounting for intersubjectivity, in that we are all subject to the same meaning-framework, and for Schutz and Luckmann's [1973:306] 'reciprocity of perspectives' and their assumption that "fellow-men are 'essentially' similar to me".

4.10 'Living Through' the Life-world

The subject functions, acts, even lives, by continuous responding to aspectual law. Without aspectual law there would be no meaningful functioning. Therefore it may be said that we 'live through' the aspects. Furthermore, experiencing, to Dooyeweerd, is constituted in this aspectual functioning and cannot be separated from it. As we thus live, engaged with the law side, we also engage with denizens of the entity side, as objects or other subjects in the variety of aspects. Our life-world is thus constituted in a multi-aspectual engaging with both law and entity sides in continuous, immediate responding to aspectual laws. That is our life-world.

Because our living involves every aspect, life-world is rich and diverse, each aspect contributing something different. For example, because of the social aspect, our 'living through' is inescapably social in nature. Because of the formative aspect, we plan in the life-world. Because of the pistic aspect, we experience ontic certainty. Also it is the pistic aspect that enables consensus to be distorted by ideology. Because of the analytic aspect we experience distinction, not just between entity-side analytic objects, but between ourselves and the world. This in no way contradicts pistic certainty since they belong to different aspects, between which there can be no contradiction; rather it is like Buber's twin movements, of distancing and relating.

We engage with IS in at least three ways. First, my interaction with the computer as such via the user interface is multi-aspectual subject-object and subject-subject relation, as shown above. This is how the proximal interaction with the Istar software (above) may be seen.

Second, in my everyday multi-aspectual living, the IS is an object of my functioning in various aspects. The more aspects of my subject-functioning of this living in which the IS functions as object, the more 'useful' it is likely to prove. Istar (see earlier) is such a tool, and Table 3 shows aspects of its use in developing a contract knowledge base. Many legacy systems have also come to function as objects in many aspects of their organisation's functioning, which might partly explain why they are indispensable.

Table 3. Some aspects of using Istar to write contract KB
Aspect .. of creating KB
Analytic Distinguishing important factors
Formative Relating them
Lingual Representing this in Istar
Social Social discourse about contracts
Economic Occam's Razor: do not proliferate concepts
Aesthetic Harmonize the whole KB
Juridical Do justice to what a contract is in construction lifeworld
Ethical Give yourself to the task
Pistic Vision: to enable better contracts

The third type is between the first two, and involves engagement with the content represented in the symbols processed by the IS, which is mediated to the users by their functioning in the lingual aspect. Typically, the virtual world of games will model (express in machine-processable symbols) laws of various aspects to enable us to interact with the virtual world. Table 4 shows some aspects modelled in a typical 'dungeon' game. It is this multi-aspectuality that gives such games their richness.

Table 4. Examples of aspects of virtual world of game
Aspect ... of virtual world
Quantitative Amount of gold I have
Spatial Maze of corridors, rooms
Kinematic Running away fromenemy
Physical Cannot run through walls
Biotic Need food, healing
Psychic Seeing other characters
Analytic Distinguish enemy from friend
Formative Completing quests
Lingual Conversing with other characters
Social Guilds
Economic Buy, sell equipment
Aesthetic Fun, humour
Juridical Fairness in fighting
Ethical Generosity to other players
Pistic Devotion to deity in game

4.11 Knowing the Life-world

What is knowing the life-world? First, we must differentiate knowing law and entity sides, then we must understand Dooyeweerd's treatment of 'the epistemological problem', which he discussed in [1955,II:529-595].

Most ways of knowing are constituted of aspectual functioning directed towards the thing we know, which is the object of that functioning. For example, 'thinking about' something involves analytic functioning with the thought-about thing as analytic object, knowing a person involves social functioning. Table 5 suggests various aspectual ways of knowing. In the everyday attitude our knowing involves all these ways in mutual coherence, and usually without our being aware of any one of them.

Table 5. Examples of aspectual ways of knowing
Aspect Way of knowing
Biotic Plant bends towards light
Psychic Memory
Analytic Theory
Formative Skills
Lingual Records
Social Cultural connotations
Economic Manage limits on knowledge
Aesthetic Harmonize with existing knowledge
Juridical Sense of perspective
Ethical Vulnerability
Pistic Certainty

Knowing by aspectual functioning can only be directed towards the entity side. But the law side cannot be an object of any functioning, so we cannot know or think about aspectual meaning in such ways. Rather, we 'grasp' the kernel meanings of aspects by an immediate intuition, which Dooyeweerd characterized [1955,II:473] as "bottom layer {of our thinking} ... cannot be theoretically isolated ... has a continuous temporal character ... continuous meaning-coherence ... behind all theoretical conceptual limits." For example, we intuit what justice is, though we might never be able to define it. It is this intuitive grasp of aspectual meaning that embeds our concrete aspectual functioning in time.

Thus our knowledge of the life-world involves both all the interwoven aspectual ways of knowing, founded on intuitive grasp of aspectual meaning.

Historically, the analytical way of knowing is important because, having been priviledged over other ways of knowing in Western cultures for two millennia, it has been keenly developed as theoretical, scientific and philosophical thought. There are different ways of functioning in the analytic aspect, discussed clearly by Clouser [1991].

In everyday thinking we make distinctions between things in the world, seeing them in their multi-aspectual context. This is an analytical subject-object relationship and it allows a form of 'thinking about' life-world while still engaging with it.

At the next level, we engage in lower abstraction, where we distinguish an aspectual property of a thing from the thing itself (e.g. the efficiency of an information system), but we are still open to the entity-side context of other things and situations and the law-side context of other aspects.

In higher abstraction, we focus on the aspect in isolation from the thing (e.g. efficiency as such). Dooyeweerd argued that this was no longer a subject-object relation but a Gegenstand relation between the analytical aspect of our functioning and the aspect on which we focus. (Gegenstand is a neo-Kantian term that Dooyeweerd adapted to his own needs to express our 'standing over against' the world, reminiscent of Straus's 'facing us'.)

This is the theoretical attitude of thought, central to science, which may be seen as studying the laws of single aspects, each science being centred on an aspect (e.g. physics, psychology, linguistics, sociology). (But, agreeing with Latour [1986], Dooyeweerd held the human activity of doing science is still multi-aspectual, involving, for example, aesthetic beauty of a theory, pistic commitment to a paradigm.) The more we narrow down in this way, the less we take account the totality of other spheres of meaning and other entities, and thus the life-world as such dissolves.

However, even a naïve attitude, in which all aspects are given due respect, has limits. Dooyeweerd's explanation for this lies not, as in Kant and phenomenology, in a gulf between the experiencing self and the experienced world (a gulf that Dooyeweerd bridged, as we saw above), but in a fundamental non-absoluteness of all aspectual functioning, including the various ways of knowing.

This means that our knowledge of what aspects there are is limited. We devise our suites of aspects by various means, including intuition, reflection, collected experience, coupled, in Dooyeweerd's case, with a check for antinomy. Dooyeweerd was adamant that [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."

But these limitations do not justify full-blown skepticism, a presupposition that the world is 'radically illegible' [Tarnas, 1991], because Dooyeweerd believed that the world reveals rather than hides itself. Our intuitive grasp of aspectual meaning, while culturally conditioned and sometimes distorted, can often be valid enough to be useful in engaging with the world. It is this that gives us hope that we can research IS as life-world, and yet a cautious hope because nothing in created reality is absolute.

Thus Dooyeweerd offers us a more nuanced view than is customary, in which we recognise multiple ways of knowing, intuitive grasp of aspectual meaning and different degrees of moving away from the life-world attitude towards theoretical thought. This offers hope of being able to analyse the life-world without it completely dissolving, as we discuss in the next section. But we need to understand the limits of knowing.

4.12 Life-world and System

Higher abstraction can often lead to absolutization of an aspect, treating it as the only one of importance (as in rationalism). As mentioned earlier, absolutization of an aspect robs it of meaning because connections that 'refer beyond' are severed. In modernity we have a number of such absolutizations, such as technicism, scientism, economism [Goudzwaard, 1984], which can partly explain the perceived loss of meaning in modernity. But it does not explain modernity as such.

For this we turn to Dooyeweerd's theory of history and progress. History, Dooyeweerd believed, has a normative direction. The 'normative task' of humanity is to 'open up', 'unfold' or 'dislose' the aspects and their potential especially in relation to other aspects. In our current state of modernity humanity has 'unfolded', among other aspects, the analytic aspect via development of science and critical thought, the historical aspect via technology and technique, and the social aspect via institutions. What Habermas means by system may be seen in Dooyeweerd as functioning of institutions in the formative mode of getting things done.

Like Habermas, Dooyeweerd saw no incompatibility between modernity and life-world.

"The naïve attitude cannot be destroyed by scientific thought. Its plastic horizon can only be opened and enlarged by the practical results of scientific research." [1955,III:31]

But there is a normativity to modernity and what has actually happened might not be what should happen [1955,II:275]:

"The subjective individual dispositions and talents intended are not themselves to be viewed as the normative standard of the disclosed process of cultural development. They ought to be unfolded in accordance with the normative principles implied in the anticipatory structure {of the historical law-sphere}."

That is, progress must never be for its own sake, but for the sake of other aspects, especially for example those of justice and ethics.

Problems of modernity arise from 'closing down' rather than opening up aspects and their relationships, and colonization of life-world by system may be seen as the 'closing down' of the life-world around the historical aspect (instrumental functioning). Relationships with other aspects are severed and meaning reduces. The historical aspect is elevated above others and what 'simultaneous realization of norms' [van der Kooy, 1974] is prevented.

A strong implication of this is that those who contribute to 'progress' - and this includes all who research and develop IT and IS - should live in the light of this multi-aspectual responsibility, in which the aspects are opened up rather than closed down. That is, taking a life-world attitude in our research and development is no mere option, but essential to humanity's task in researching and developing IS, ICT. Therefore, in the next section we briefly review how this Dooyeweerdian approach can satisfy the needs we identified earlier and discuss how it can usefully guide our research and practice in IS.


5.1 Fulfilling the Need

We have seen how a Dooyeweerdian approach to life-world can at least account for, accommodate and satisfy the basic criteria of, life-world; Table 6 summarises this.

Table 6. A Dooyeweerdian account of life-world
Extant life-world Dooyeweerd
Collective mental life Naïve experience in shared law-framework
Lifeworld attitude Engaged in all aspects
Theoretical attitude Analytical Gegenstand
Lifeworld as horizon Two horizons: law, entity side
Stock of experiences Aspectual functioning constitutes experience
Meaning, normativity Spheres of law+meaning are what makes cosmos possible
Living through lifeworld Living is continual responding to all aspectual law: S-S, S-O relationships
Thinking about lifeworld Functioning in analytical aspect: three degrees
Givenness of lifeworld Law side pertains;
Entity side actuality
Modernity Opening up of aspects
System Institution in formative mode;
Danger of closing down aspects

It can also take our notion of life-world forward in a way that fulfils most of the needs we identified as desirable for IS research and practice.

We wanted to free the life-world from the philosophical burden of having to account for intersubjectivity, critique, meaning or normativity, so that we could 'listen' to it as it 'speaks' to us. This is achieved in the Dooyeweerdian approach because the life-world is no longer assumed to be a self-sufficient foundation for these but is itself founded, along with these four, on the law-meaning-framework that is the aspects, as shown in Fig. 2.

  • Life-world is made possible by our integrated functioning and experiencing in all the aspects.
  • Intersubjectivity is made possible by our common intuitive grasp of the meaning of each aspect.
  • Critique is made possible by our analytic functioning being Gegenstand for other aspects, each of which offers a different type of rationality.
  • Normativity, as experienced, is made possible by the innate normativity of the aspects.
  • Meaning, as experienced is made possible by the meaning that is the aspects.


Figure 2. Foundations

We wanted to be able to differentiate between mental-conceptual virtual worlds and the real world, and have a strong view of the agency of the world. In Dooyeweerd, the difference between real and virtual worlds may be understood as a difference between aspectual meaning and symbolic signification, i.e. meaning carried by symbols processed by the IS. The agency of the world arises from the subject-subject relationships, which themselves are made possible by the transcending law-framework.

We wanted a notion of life-world that directs our gaze towards the coherent diversity of the life-world, to expedite research in use and development of IS and in the quality of virtual worlds. The Dooyeweerdian notion of distinct, interwoven spheres of meaning provides this. That games players more readily accept 'unreal' entities than unreal behaviours may be accounted for by there being two different sides to created reality, law and entity, of which the former is more fundamental.

We wanted a basis for understanding the relationship between engagement and critical distance, and for differentiating engagement with the IS and with its application content. Engagement comes from our being subject to multi-aspectual law, and Dooyeweerd's subject-object relation is radically different from Descarte's. Critical distance arises, not from an a priori Cartesian subject-object relation, but from our functioning in the analytical aspect, which is one of the aspects of our engagement, and so can be harmonised with it. No longer need Winograd and Flores [1986] avoid Cartesian view nor Spaul [1997] advocate it. Given this, Dooyeweerd's notion of wholes then enables us to differentiate between the IS as such and the 'world' represented via it, and to differentiate our engagement with the IS, which is a multi-aspectual subject-object relation, from our engagement with the world, which is correlative enkapsis.

We wanted a basis for thinking and knowing about the life-world, during research and evaluation. This is provided by the Dooyeweerdian notion of multi-aspectual ways of knowing, especially in the mode that Clouser [1991] calls lower abstraction. If, as Dooyeweerd believed, the world tends to reveal rather than hide itself to us, then even though all knowing is less than absolute, we can rely on our knowing to be a reasonable guide if it is not unbalanced. The 'dissolving' of the life-world when we "take it up piece by piece" is what would be expected from the severing of inter-aspect relations by analytical abstraction.

We wanted an incentive to recognise and consider factors not yet articulated. Since aspects form a transcending law side and pertain even though not articulated, reflection on their meaning (which is possible because we can grasp their meaning intuitively) can often yield fresh, unexpected insights. This has been useful in enriching Soft Systems Methodology by Mirijamdotter and Bergvall-Kåreborn [2006] and Basden and Wood-Harper [2005].

We wanted to be able to explore both meaningfulness and meaning-to-us. To Dooyeweerd, generic meaningfulness of an IS is related to the sphere of meaning that qualifies it, while meaning-to-us is related to the sphere(s) of meaning that most characterize the particular use made of it by a particular person.

We wanted a basis for analysing structural diversity of meaning and normativity. That aspects are irreducibly distinct spheres of both law and meaning provides this. We may see the earlier excerpt from Mitev [2001] as exhibiting the normativity of the formative, economic, juridical, psychic, analytical and physical aspects.

We wanted a notion that drives or IS practice and research towards ameliorating rather than exacerbating the problems of system, without denying system or modernity. This might be provided by Dooyeweerd's affirmation of the normative task of humanity to 'unfold' the aspects by expanding their kernel meanings and in particular the inter-aspect relationships (which has to some extent happened in modernity). Systemic problems arises from a closing-down of aspectual meaning.

Some of the above suggestions have been worked out and used in practice. Others are still rather tentative ideas, which have yet to be worked out.

5.2 Aspectual Analysis

But is such an approach to life-world practical? Dooyeweerd's ideas are increasingly being applied in various fields, such as sustainability [Brandon and Lombardi, 2005], management [de Raadt, 1991], analysis [Mirijamdotter and Bergvall-Kåreborn, 2006], transport [van der Stoep and Kee, 1997]. In all cases, the benefit experienced by using Dooyeweerd is that a richer picture has been obtained, in which 'outer parameters' are not overlooked. In all these Dooyeweerd has facilitated something of a life-world attitude.

But if we are to adopt the Dooyeweerdian approach to life-world in IS research, development or evaluation, then we need a method for aspectual analysis of situations or of the knowledge held by people, which respects both diversity and coherence. So far, four types of aspectual analysis have been attempted, each suited to a different need.

The first is to employ aspects to explain a situation, especially its unexpected factors. Eriksson [2006] does this to explore in detail how the installation of an IS into a vegetable wholesaler not only failed to reap the expected benefits but led to unexpected problems.

The second is, more formally, to employ the suite of aspects as a checklist, considering the situation from each aspect in turn. This has the advantage of being straightforward and ensuring that no aspect is overlooked. But it can deteriorate into mere slot-filling or, conversely, mushroom into immense complexity.

The life-world is totality, involving all aspects of all things, so how can we ever have time to undertake useful research? The third helps address the practical problem of complexity, by recognising that the aspects seldom work independently in a thing, but most serve the qualifying aspect. This can lend focus to our analyses. Bergvall-Kåreborn [2001] discusses how the notion of qualifying aspect might be employed in IS development.

The fourth, MAKE, Multi-Aspectual Knowledge Elicitation, devised by Winfield [2000], and briefly outlined and discussed in Winfield and Basden [2006], was designed to elicit salient interdisciplinary knowledge from domain experts, which might then, for example, be represented in a computer to construct an IS. MAKE has proven highly versatile, effective in uncovering 'outer parameters' and even tacit knowledge, and easy to learn. A version being developed by Kane [2006] for eliciting aspirations has been found surprisingly liberating for the interviewees, especially enabling them to give voice to embarrassing issues. That aspectual meaning is intuitively graspable makes all these methods easy to learn.

All these depend on adopting a suite of aspects. Why have we used Dooyeweerd's suite? Could we adopt another suite, such as Maslow's hierarchy of needs or Bunge's [1979] system levels? There is no reason in principle why not, as long as the suite was formulated as sensitive to the rich diversity of life. However, there are reasons for believing that Dooyeweerd's suite may be more useful than most others: others can be seen as a subset of Dooyeweerd's, Dooyeweerd's suite has a more carefully worked out philosophic foundation, and Dooyeweerd explicitly set out to be sensitive our everyday experience rather than to establish categories as such. Other reasons are discussed in Basden [2002].


We have discussed how we might treat information systems as life-world in our research and practice. We outlined extant views of the life-world but found that research into 'IS as life-world' is likely to impose extra demands on the notion of life-world on which we base our research. Then we explored how Dooyeweerd's thinking might provide insight into the nature of the life-world in such a way as to meet some of those requirements. Some of the proposals here have been tried in the field, but some are still speculative.

His approach is characterized by a deep respect for everyday experience, the primacy of meaning over being or occurrence, a way of understanding coherent diversity, a recognition of two distinct sides to reality, law and entity side, and a non-Cartesian notion of subject and object, which allows of multi-aspectual engagement and experience ('living through' the life-world) in harmony with certain versions of 'thinking about' it. This, it was suggested, paves the way to ways of researching IS as life-world that, while they cannot ever fully explicate it, can at least do it some justice as to its richness and the engagement between self and world. This Dooyeweerdian approach might be the key to what Schutz and Luckmann [1973:183] called "the most important ... most difficult problem that the description of the life-world has to solve".

We have not sided with any one view of life-world, whether Husserlian, Heideggerian or Habermasian, but rather taken all as contributing insights towards a useful picture of life-world. Nor have we sought to replace their insights by Dooyeweerd, but rather have explored how most of the insights can be accommodated within the Dooyeweerdian understanding of everyday experience, and then perhaps enriched. We have found that Dooyeweerd is able to bring together insights from what seem to be incompatible streams because he began with radically different presuppositions, in which certain supposed incompatibilities disappear.

However, Dooyeweerd made a deeper claim, that philosophy based on an immanence standpoint fundamentally misunderstands everyday experience and does not treat it aright, and cannot even formulate the critical question appropriately with respect to it. This bold claim deserves immanent critique by philosophers and is not the task of this paper. But we have found that a Dooyeweerdian approach might indeed provide a useful philosophical foundation for research and practice that treats IS as life-world. While philosophers must work on the notion of life-world and test Dooyeweerd's deeper claim, IS researchers can at least explore the application of his ideas.


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Created: 2006
Copyright (c) Andrew Basden. 2007

Last updated: 12 December 2007