Resources for a Christian worldview



Newest Members


This paper was prepared by the request of the Centre for Philosophy, Technology and Social Systems in May 2007 for inclusion in their Proceedings. Its aim is to summarise the introduction to Dooyeweerd's philosophy found in the author's book 'Philosophical Frameworks for Understanding Information Systems', so as to provide a useful brief introduction. It has yet to be accepted for publication, so is being donated to the All of Life Redeemed website for the time being.

A brief overview of Herman Dooyeweerd's philosophy

Andrew Basden

1. Introduction

The purpose of this paper is to provide a useable summary of Dooyeweerd's philosophy, sufficient to tackle issues in fields like information systems (IS), sustainability, etc. It is a shortened version of chapters 2 and 3 of Basden [2007]. There are two main parts, each with a number of sections. The first part explains Dooyeweerd's critical approach to philosophy, explaining in general terms why his thought could be important in our fields, and introducing the notion of ground-motives. The second part, from §6 onwards, introduces Dooyeweerd's positive philosophy, beginning with his theory of modal aspects and using that to explain his approach to things, knowledge, ethics and human life.

2. Dooyeweerd as a Philosopher

Dooyeweerd was unusual as a philosopher. Whereas most philosophers have tried to construct theories about reality, and some have focused on deconstructing these, Dooyeweerd aimed, not to do either of these, so much as to "clear away all the things that keep us from seeing the structure of reality" (as Jim Skillen, President of Herman Dooyeweerd Foundation, put it). Dooyeweerd wanted us to critically respect the whole breadth and depth of reality as it presents itself to us in everyday experience. Dooyeweerd's way of thinking is immensely practical and what at first sight appears complex seems rather to express the complexity that is everyday reality.

What kinds of things prevent us seeing the structure of reality? The main thing, according to Dooyeweerd, is our presuppositions about what is meaningful. For example, IS in use can succeed and fail in many ways for many reasons: on what basis do we attempt to understand this? Here are some attempts that have been made:

  • on the basis of psychology - but this prevents us taking normativity seriously;
  • as costs versus benefits - this prevents us understanding the dynamics of use;
  • as subjective user satisfaction - we then often overlook those without a voice
  • as emancipation - this is rather too 'serious' to be applied to, for example, games and music software.

Each such attempt is based on a perspective that contains some genuine insight, but they all have narrowed or distorted our view of the reality of computer use. Any field of research and practice has a set of such perspectives, most of which narrow the focus. The reason for such narrowing, Dooyeweerd believed, is because we have presupposed that the theoretical attitude of thought is the best way to 'truth'.

Dooyeweerd believed that 2,500 years of theoretical, philosophical and scientific thinking have obfuscated rather than revealed the structure of reality -- from the Greek philosophers, through the mediaeval periods, through the Reformation, Renaissance and Enlightenment, into the modern period, up to the middle of the twentieth century. Yet he also believed that this obfuscation was mainly inadvertent rather than deliberate and he respected many thinkers as offering genuine insight. He believed that this whole 2,500-year-old river of thinking itself needed to be properly understood as part of reality.

Dooyeweerd prefigured many 'critical' thinkers in IS and management today who believe we see reality through a particular 'lens'. Being a true philosopher, he always applied his thinking to himself, openly declaring his own presuppositions and inviting critique. But he did not assume, as most do today, that all lenses must be deemed equally valid. He undertook a critical examination not only of the various 'lenses' on offer but also of what constitutes any lens, the lens that is the theoretical attitude of thought itself, going deeper than other 'critical' philosophers. As a result, there is reason to believe that the 'lens' he used is clearer and less distorting of the structure of reality than others are. This is the first reason for interest in Dooyeweerd.

3. Dooyeweerd's Critical Approach

If we want to use tools, we must first be sure they are suited to our task. Dooyeweerd was not convinced that theoretical thought as it has been understood and practised for 2,500 years is suited to understanding the complexity of reality as it presents itself to us in our everyday experience. This is the second reason for interest in Dooyeweerd: he prepared tools suited to thinking about everyday experience.

Dooyeweerd's main critical task was to determine what the conditions are that make a theoretical attitude in thought possible, as distinct from an everyday attitude. From this, its capabilities and limits may be understood so that we do not expect too much of it. To accomplish this, he undertook two types of critique: immanent and transcendental:

  • Immanent critique: This is when we try to understand a line of thinking from 'inside' it, i.e. in its own terms, sensitively understanding its motivations, concerns, historical context and its presuppositions. Though sensitive, it is still critique, because exposure of presuppositions often reveals deep inconsistencies (antinomies) which are usually only felt. The importance of immanent critique is that it provides a way of understanding a different line of thinking in a way that is sensitive and yet critical, with the results of which that line of thinking would be expected to agree. So the critique does not become a battle but rather throws fresh light onto the line of thinking which motivates new lines of thinking. Philosophers like Kant, Husserl and Habermas have used immanent critique. Dooyeweerd used immanent critique in his discussion of thinkers over the past 2,500 years to reveal in what ways their thought is "things that keep us from seeing the structure of reality".

  • Transcendental critique: This is when we try to determine the conditions that make something possible: what is needed for this thing to be? It is good for exploring critically what most people take for granted. The importance of transcendental critique is that it enables us to understand something without needing to form a theory about it first. Several thinkers, including Kant and Husserl have used transcendental critique. But, Dooyeweerd claimed, neither Kant nor Husserl were critical enough, since both took the theoretical attitude of thought for granted. He used transcendental critique to understand what lies at the root of the theoretical attitude itself, and it is surprising what he found.

4. The Religious Root of Theoretical Thought: Ground-motives

Dooyeweerd found, by not just one but two ways of doing transcendental critique, nicely described in Choi [2001], that theoretical thought cannot operate without religious commitment. By 'religious' Dooyeweerd did not mean relating to any particular religion or creed, explaining [1984,I,p.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 ..."

The religious commitment of Western theoretical thought has been to deeply-held presuppositions about the nature of reality (being, doing, knowing, good, evil, remedy, etc.) that dictate what it means to think theoretically, to recognise problems, to solve them, etc. Clouser clarifies Dooyeweerd's position, [2005,p.342]

"Our claim is not that all theories are produced or forced on us by some divinity belief ... The claim is that the nature of a theory's postulates is always interpreted in the light of what is presupposed as divine."

In his study of Western thinking, Dooyeweerd found that four basic religious presuppositions, which have been the "spiritual driving force that acts as the absolutely central mainspring of human society" [Dooyeweerd, 1979,p.9]. He called them 'ground-motives'. Four ground-motives have directed Western thought over the past 2,500 years, interacting with each other as shown in Fig. 1.


Figure 1. Development of Western thought

The Form-Matter ground-motive (FMGM) that dominated ancient Greek thought presupposes that all reality may be explained in terms of form and matter. Form is eternal, spiritual, reliable, unchanging, pure, while matter is temporal, material, decaying, changing, impure. Obviously, to most thinkers, form is 'higher' ('good'), with matter 'lower' or even evil. The highest form of life is purely conceptual, and theoretical knowing is superior. Because it involves matter, everyday experience is worthy of neither respect nor study. This led to many problems, including philosophical ones: Dooyeweerd argued that FMGM prevents us understanding how things can change and yet remain the same [1984,III], it forces us to give priority to either universality or individuality over the other [1984,II,p.417ff.]. In such ways, inherent in FMGM, we are prevented from fully understanding everyday experience.

The Creation-Fall-Redemption ground-motive (CFR) influenced the culture that had been informed by the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, and emerged from the Biblical idea that the Cosmos is separate from, created by, and depends on, a Divine being, God. In this view, all reality is intrinsically good, and may be enjoyed, whether things of matter or form, whether static or dynamic. Reliability is no longer founded on Form, but on a covenant-keeping God. Evil is located, not in one or other half of reality, but in the heart of humankind; not in the structure of the cosmos but in the response that we make within it. This was the ground-motive Dooyeweerd explored; see below.

Other thinkers besides Dooyeweerd have recognised those ground-motives, including Heidegger and Habermas; they are often called 'Athens' and 'Jerusalem'.)

The Nature-Grace ground-motive (NGGM) was a synthesis of the Form-Matter and Creation-Fall-Redemption ground-motives, which emerged around 500 AD when European Christian thinkers recognised the glories of ancient Greece. Grace refers to the realm of the sacred and nature to the secular. 'Problem' was seen as anything which interfered with sacred work or thought; remedy was to leave the secular life behind. Theoretical thought was seen as a servant to knowledge gleaned from Divine revelation. Nature and the secular life were not worthy of having such thought applied to them. After centuries, this ground-motive expressed itself in oppression, and two reactions occured. The Reformation sought to bring the whole of life under the gambit of Divine will. The Renaissance sought to remove God from the arena of theoretical thought, and this led to the fourth Western ground-motive.

The Nature-Freedom ground-motive (FNGM) emerged from the Nature-Grace motive, around 500 years ago, with God being replaced by the free human ego (Freedom pole). 'Nature' was redefined to refer to the non-free and non-human, to that which is determined, to mechanism, control, causality, rationality. What Dooyeweerd called the Ideal of Science became opposed to the Ideal of Personality, and Dooyeweerd traced the interesting story of how Western thinking about nature and humanity has swung back and forth between these two poles [1979:148-206]. Under this ground-motive we are forced to see reality either in terms of control of deterministic processes or in terms of freedom, never both together. As a result Is and Ought (being and normativity) have been driven apart (by Hume and Kant), and so have Thought and Thing (by Kant) and so have Subject and Object (by Descartes). The battles raging between interpretivism and positivism, and postmodernism and modernism, for example, may be seen to emerge from the NFGM. In these, and other, ways discussed below NFGM has prevented us seeing the structure of reality.

The importance of the ground-motives is that we can detect their distorting effect even today. For example, the AI question of similarity between computer and human is different under different ground-motives:

  • FMGM: as physical versus mental,
  • NGGM: as sacred human spirit versus secular machine,
  • NFGM: as determined versus non-determined behaviour,
  • CFR: as fulfilling God's cosmic purposes, which are spoiled by humanity.

It is important to avoid assuming any of the ground-motive presuppositions are a 'truth'; we always see through a 'lens'. That control and freedom are fundamentally incompatible is a presupposition, not a truth.

That control and freedom are fundamentally incompatible is a presupposition, not a truth. As G.K. Chesterton once pointed out [1908,p.35], "The ordinary man ... has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also." That is the 'everyday' view; but the NFGM arrogantly denies it and leads us to attempt to explain away, usually in terms of reductionism or mysticism. Dooyeweerd rejected such an approach and offered philosophical grounds to support Chesterton's lifeworld observation by arguing that the NFGM is merely a pre-theoretical presupposition, and Dooyeweerd proposed a deeper understanding in which both control and freedom can co-exist and all the fractures can be healed.

Dooyeweerd explored the CFR ground-motive. Philosophically, this was for one good reason: all three of the dualistic ground-motives (FMGM, NGGM, NFGM) rest on a yet deeper presupposition, which he called the immanence-standpoint or immanence-philosophy. This presupposes that the basic, self-dependent Principle that explains and generates all else may be sought within temporal reality itself. Clouser [2005] explains this more clearly than Dooyeweerd does. The strands of thinking that we, in the 21st century, believe to be radically different -- such as positivism and interprevitism, Cartesianism and Existentialism, modernism and postmodernism -- are all in the same camp, to Dooyeweerd, variations of immanence-philosophy: the only difference between them lying in what each takes to be self-dependent. For example, [Dooyeweerd, 1984,I]:

"The age-old development of immanence-philosophy displays the most divergent nuances. It varies from metaphysical rationalism to modern logical positivism and the irrationalist philosophy of life. It is disclosed also in the form of modern existentialism. The latter has broken with the Cartesian (rationalistic) 'cogito' as Archimedean point and has replaced it by existential thought, conceived of in an immanent subjectivistic historical sense." [p.13]

This matters because, Dooyeweerd argued, the immanence-standpoint inevitably leads to reductionism and many '-isms' [Dooyeweerd, 1984,I,p.46], leads to "unmethodical treatment of the coherence between the normative aspects" [II,p.49], making a genuinely interdisciplinary research extremely difficult, drives apart meaning from reality, contrary to our everyday experience [II,p.25,26], and prevents us positing the problem of concept formation correctly [II,p.50] so that any concepts included in a framework are likely to be out of kilter with everyday life at some point.

In view of this, Dooyeweerd presupposed the CFR ground-motive. Some examples of the kinds of philosophical implications of presupposing CFR compared with those of immanence-philosophy are set out in Table 1 (Dooyeweerd's own longer and philosophically-oriented comparison is found in [1984,I,p.502 ff.]). If they are valid, then these may be taken as reasons for IS researchers and practitioners to take the CFR ground-motive seriously; some will be referred to in formulating frameworks for understanding IS.

Table 1. Philosophical implications of CFR
CFR Immanence Philosophy
The whole cosmos has dignity Half is Good, the other half Evil or inferior
Nothing in cosmos is absolute (including Reason) One aspect is absolute, self-dependent
Diversity coheres; Coherence is diverse. Focus either on diversity or coherence
Self and world cohere with each other Kantian gulf between Self and world
The foundation of all in cosmos is cosmic meaning-and-law Foundation is either Being (process) or Autonomous ego
World reveals itself Can never know 'Ding an sich'
We can let everyday experience speak to us Everyday experience is reduced to a theory
Theory has religious root Theoretical thought is absolute
Hope and Destiny' Towards death' (Heidegger)

What Dooyeweerd did was to work out the philosophical, not theological, implications of CFR, in terms of what it allows us to 'see' of reality. (Example: if the cosmos is created, then we find it easier to acknowledge irreducible diversity that coheres.) This enabled the author to at least tackle all the issues relevant to 'the whole story that is IS'.

5. The Different Flavour of Dooyeweerd's Approach

As a result, Dooyeweerd was able to offer a positive philosophy that has a very different flavour from most others. We will consider four of these.

5.1 Everyday Attitude and Life

In saying "Given the difficulty of doing philosophy (i.e. escaping from the natural attitude which constantly seeks to reassert itself) ..." Moran [2000,p.146] was repeating the centuries-old assumption that the everyday attitude is inferior to the theoretical attitude and should be fled. But Dooyeweerd held the everyday (or 'naïve' or pre-theoretical) attitude in respect. Other thinkers do so, but Dooyeweerd went further.

Some see everyday life as a topic worthy of reflection and study - but they apply theoretical thought to undertake that study. In doing so, they often reduce everyday experience to a single aspect. Often it has been equated with (reduced to) sensory functioning, as in Bertrand Russell. The American pragmatists reduce it to the formative aspect of achieving things. Dooyeweerd believed that we should not equate everyday experience with any particular aspect.

Such thinkers take the theoretical attitude as given. As we have seen, Dooyeweerd rejected that presupposition, and made it a critical problem for philosophy. Rather, he took the everyday attitude as 'given', though he also proffered an understanding of what it is.

Husserl recognised the precedence of everyday attitude over scientific work, arguing that it provides a stock of shared meanings without which scientific work would be impossible. Again, the immanence-standpoint tends to reduce this 'lifeworld' to the social or lingual aspects, but even where it does not, it role beyond making theoretical discourse possible is given scant attention. But Dooyeweerd believed that everyday life itself is important and should be taken seriously as such.

Most discussion of the lifeworld have assumed it to be the generator of meaning, that is all meaning is ascribed by us. As seen below, while there is ascribed meaning, Dooyeweerd questioned this assumption, believing that Meaning is primary and pervades all.

Dooyeweerd believed that philosophy (including phenomenology) has fundamentally misunderstood the nature of everyday experience. He took it, rather than the theoretical attitude, as his starting point; he began his Volume I of his magnum opus [1984] with "If I consider reality as it is given in the naïve pre-theoretical experience, ..." He kept referring to it throughout his work, not as a source of individual empirical facts, but rather as a corrective that keeps on resetting our direction of thought. And he provided a positive means of understanding its nature. He paid attention to the structure or nature of naïve experience more than to its content; the latter is contingent and varies with personal and cultural history.

5.2 Religious Root

Contrary to long centuries' assumption, that God is irrelevant to theoretical thinking, the eminent systems thinker, C. West Churchman, once said "'Does God exist?' is the most important question in systems thinking" [1987,p.139]. Dooyeweerd believed it to be important to all philosophy, because if God's Existing has an impact on the content of our philosophy, then that should be taken into account. He rejected treating the Divine as an object about which to philosophise, such as is done by treating God as a First Cause, or by formulating Scholastic (NGGM) arguments for God's existence. Rather he sought to work out the philosophical implications of what it means that the cosmos is Created rather than 'just is'.

The central one is that nothing is without a religious root. Dooyeweerd seems to have discussed four types of religious root:

  • The faith aspect of what we do and are (see theory of aspects) helps account not only for traditional religious experience but also for the tenacity with which we commit to, and defend, positions.

  • Life-and-world-views (Weltanschauungen) and perspectives to which a group of people are committed are often centred on an aspect; this helps us understand and analyse tenaciously-held perspectives in IS as well as elsewhere.

  • Presuppositions that are religious in nature, such as ground-motives and the immanence presupposition, which underlie the way we assume reality to be, can explain why some of the debates in IS have taken the shape they have.

  • The orientation of the human self towards the true Absolute, or a pretend one, can help us understand religious dysfunction, in terms of absolutization, and its possible remedy.

Recognising these can help separate out various issues in our own fields.

5.3 Meaning

If the cosmos is created, then its very existence is Meaning. Dooyeweerd held that Being must be understood as Meaning [1984,I,p.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 'exist' by virtue of their meaningfulness in certain different ways. Things do not have meaning, as a kind of property, they are meaning. For example, a mouse pointer 'is' by virtue of pointing and has no other existence as mouse pointer apart from that.

But what is Meaning? Meaning is 'referring beyond' [Dooyeweerd, 1984,I,p.110]. A clearer explanation might perhaps be found in the Appendix of Dooyeweerd [1999]:

"Meaning -- Dooyeweerd uses the word 'meaning' in an unusual sense. By it he means the referential, non-self-sufficient character of created reality in that it points beyond itself to God as Origin. Dooyeweerd stresses that reality is meaning in this sense and that, therefore, it does not have meaning. ... 'Meaning' becomes almost a synonym for 'reality'."

So, any thinking that is based on Dooyeweerd will focus on Meaning rather than Being or Process. Unfortunately, the word 'meaning' has many meanings. It is useful to differentiate four uses of the word:

  • Cosmic meaning: This is Dooyeweerd's use, by which the very existence and occurrence of all in the cosmos is meaning and is made possible by meaning. Cosmic meaning makes all concrete reality possible, including the types of meaning that follow.

  • Attributed or ascribed meaning: We subjectively attribute concrete meaning to things; it might not be conceptualised. This is how Descartes, Weber, Hoffman etc. used it, and how it is used in subjectivism and much phenomenology.

  • Signified meaning: This refers to the meaning-content of symbols in discourse. It is how thinkers influenced by the linguistic turn, such as Habermas and Foucault use 'meaning'.

  • Conceptualised meaning: We form a concept of meaning, e.g. that of justice (cosmic meaning). Whenever we are aware of meaning we have already conceptualised it. Lack of awareness of meaning does not imply meaninglessness, it is simply that it has not been conceptualised.

Recognising cosmic as well as other types of meaning helped the author approach many troublesome issues in IS in new, fruitful ways.

5.4 Law and Subject

If the whole cosmos is created, and is separate from the Creator (as the Bible rather than pantheism holds), then philosophy can pose the question, "What is it that enables the cosmos to Be and Occur with the dignity of being separate from the Creator?" Various answers have been offered, for example Kant suggested: space, time, reason. Dooyeweerd suggested: Law.

We will call it 'cosmic law' to distinguish it from concrete rules, social norms, laws, and the like. Cosmic law transcends us and pertains whether we are aware of it or not, and even whether we exist or not. It does not constrain so much as enable, and it has the character of promise rather than authoritarian demand: contrast "Keep to the syntax of the language you use!" with "If you keep to the syntax of the language you use, then people will understand you better." For this reason, we will often refer to this kind of law as 'law-promise'. Law-promise is so shaped as to direct us (everything in the cosmos) towards what is meaningful. Thus this cosmic law-promise might be seen as a love-gift of the Creator to the cosmos to enable it to Occur and Be with Meaning and in dignity.

(To liberal Western individualism, law is seen as constraint or oppressor, but to Dooyeweerd, aspectual Law is an enabler, without which nothing would be possible. However such a view is not unknown in mainstream thought; see for example Giddens [1993,p.129ff/B2].)

This is important because it helps us reconcile Is with Ought, and recognise the inherent normativity in situations where ordinary theoretical thought tries to add it as an afterthought.

Law presupposes subjects (things that are subject to it). Temporal reality thus has two sides: the law side and the subject side, shown in Fig. 2:

  • The subject side, also called entity side or fact side, comprises all that is subject to cosmic law: all that exists or occurs in the cosmos, as concrete reality, past, present, future and potential. All the concrete meanings (ascribed etc.) and laws (rules, etc.) are of the subject side.

  • The law side comprises the framework that enables the entire subject-side cosmos to exist or occur. Dooyeweerd differentiated two ways in which things are subject to law:

  • Functional law (called aspectual law below) governs how things occur and behave.

  • Structural law (what Clouser [2005] calls type laws) governs the structure of things.

Figure 2. Law and subject sides

The novel way in which Dooyeweerd understood law, subject and object has helped the author untangle several knotty issues in the field of IS, including the AI question, the multi-levelled nature of computers, and various issues concerned with use of computers in human life [Basden, 2007]. This is because, as Wolters states [1985,p.17], "the law-subject correlation ... bears new and important philosophical fruit, pointing a way which can break through such dilemmas as natural law versus historicism and substance versus function."

5.5 Escaping Descartes and Kant

Western thought has been deeply influenced by Descartes' view of subject and object, accepting it uncritically or reacting against it (e.g. existentialism or feminism), both thereby mistakenly allowing it to set the agenda for debate. But Dooyeweerd offers a radical alternative to all these views, in the form of a fundamentally different notion of subject and object. See Fig. 3. To Descartes the subject is a human, thinking about or acting upon an external object-in-itself. To Dooyeweerd being active subject (agent) is constituted in being subject to law; Dooyeweerd brings together the two meanings of the English word, subject. And to function as object is to be involved in some agent's subject-functioning. Whether something is subject or object depends not on innate properties but on the role it plays in responding to law. While to Descartes, a pebble is a physical object, to Dooyeweerd it is a physical subject. This gives such things a dignity not available under the Cartesian system.


Figure 3. The relationships between subject, law (promise) and object

(Heidegger tried to dissolve the subject-object distinction, and thus provides no basis for critical distance, but Dooyeweerd saw Heidegger as still trapped in the immanence-standpoint [1984,IV,p.88], and overcame the Cartesian problem in a way that retains the possibility to be critical.)

Kant's 'Copernican revolution' put the human mind at the centre, making it impossible for the world to be known if the human knower is free. This drove Thought and Thing apart; ontology and epistemology can no longer live together. Kant thereby exposed a major problem at the root of NFGM. Kant's insight into human freedom is important, but the thought-thing rupture denies our everyday experience that we know things at least to some extent. Dooyeweerd's approach to knowing in terms of law-subject-object (see later) retains Kant's insight but without denying everyday experience.

'Is' and 'Ought' (being and normativity) were also driven apart by Kant, having been separated explicitly by Hume. This is problematic because in the everyday attitude, built into the question of what something (e.g. and information system) is, is the question of what is a 'good' or 'true' one: what it ought to be. In Dooyeweerd, 'Is' comes from cosmic meaning and 'Ought' from cosmic law-promise and both coincide; so Dooyeweerd provides a basis to recognise what everyday experience already knows.

Kant's 'Copernican revolution' posed problems, which various 'turns' in philosophy have tried to tackle. Dooyeweerd's approach might make these turns less necessary because he provides a different way of tackling the same problems. No longer is a phenomenological turn (Husserl) necessary to tackle the relationship between science and lifeworld, no longer is an existential turn (Heidegger) necessary to understand situatedness of being, no longer is a linguistic turn (Wittgenstein) necessary in order to understand intersubjective meaning and social life, no longer is a critical turn (Frankfurt School) necessary in order to reinstate normativity. Dooyeweerd himself discussed the first two turns in depth, but not the latter two. (But, it should be stressed, Dooyeweerd believed that such thinkers introduced genuine insight.) The author's belief about these latter two is based on his investigations into how these turns have been referred to in IS and how Dooyeweerd has helped him formulate alternative frameworks for understanding IS.

The remainder of this article introduces Dooyeweerd's positive proposals, which not only obviate the need for these 'turns' but also provides practical tools for understanding our areas of research and practice from an everyday stance.

6. Dooyeweerd's Theory of Modal Aspects

Consider a bunch of keys (I am indebted to Gareth Jones for this example). They exhibit several aspects -- a spatial aspect is important in that each key must be a certain shape, and a physical, because the metal must not wear or bend. There is a lingual aspect, in that each key bears its maker's name. But the most important aspect is the legal one, in that each key is designed to protect against theft or trespass.

A situation likewise exhibits aspects, for example if you were to reflect on reading this book, you would most probably agree that there is a lingual aspect to what you are doing. You would probably agree there is also a biotic aspect -- you are breathing, digesting food, etc. Generosity in your reading, overlooking the mistakes in style, grammar or spelling you might encounter might be yet another aspect.

Such everyday experience leads us to ask several questions; to each, Dooyeweerd provided an answer:

  • What aspects might there be? Dooyeweerd delineated 15.
  • How can we know? To address that, we must understand what knowing is.
  • What are aspects? They are distinct facets (or 'spheres') of cosmic meaning and law-promise by which the cosmos Is and Happens.
  • How do they help us? Aspects account for all being, doing, knowing, concrete meaning, normativity, and everyday experience.
  • What are aspects like? They are irreducible yet intertwined in their meaning.

All but one of these will be now discussed. A longer discussion of this may be found in Basden [2007].

6.1 Dooyeweerd's Suite of Aspects

Dooyeweerd delineated fifteen aspects of our everyday experience. The first page of his [Dooyeweerd, 1984,I] has:

"A 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."

Though Dooyeweerd defended this list, he was usually cautious about presenting it systematically, for reasons discussed later. But we will do so, for clarity and for later reference.

Dooyeweerd was not consistent in the names he gave the fifteen aspects in his suite, so the following list gives the names used throughout this work. Each aspect is a sphere of meaning, centred on a kernel meaning:

  • Pistic aspect, of faith, commitment and vision.
  • Ethical aspect, of self-giving love, generosity, care
  • Juridical aspect, of 'what is due', rights, responsibilities
  • Aesthetic aspect, of harmony, surprise and fun
  • Economic aspect, of frugality, skilled use of limited resources
  • Social aspect, of respect, social interaction, relationships and institutions
  • Lingual aspect, of symbolic signification
  • Formative aspect, of formative power and shaping, in history, culture, creativity, achievement and technology
  • Analytical aspect, of distinction, conceptualizing and inferring
  • Sensitive (or psychic) aspect, of sense, feeling and emotion
  • Biotic (or organic) aspect, of life functions, integrity of organism
  • Physical aspect, of energy and mass
  • Kinematic aspect, of flowing movement
  • Spatial aspect, of continuous extension
  • Quantitative aspect, of discrete amount

6.2 Other Suites of Aspects / Knowing the Aspects

Many others have delineated suites of aspects; whenever we delineate a set of things that should be taken into account separately from each other and not reduced to each other, we have compiled a suite of aspects. But some thinkers have compiled lists more formally and published them; some of these are compared with Dooyeweerd's suite in Table 2.

Table 2. Some suites of aspects
See Growing tables of suites in Dooyeweerd Pages

Which should we adopt and apply in our analyses? It may be noticed that most are subsets of Dooyeweerd's, so Dooyeweerd's suite seems more complete. However, Dooyeweerd clearly stated that no suite should be taken as an absolute truth, including his own [1984,II,p.556]. So suites should not be seen as 'given', but rather 'offered', and then 'taken' by us when we use them for analyses.

This author has found Dooyeweerd's suite the best because it has other advantages over others, beyond completeness: to Dooyeweerd, aspects are more than categories and have a modal character; Dooyeweerd reflected long on the very notion of aspects, which will be summarised below; Dooyeweerd took account of everyday life and reflections of thinkers throughout different cultures over the past 2,500 years; Dooyeweerd's suite is geared to everyday experience rather than to theoretical approaches.

6.3 What Aspects Are and How This Helps Us

Aspects are the diverse facets of the functional law side. Each is a sphere of cosmic meaning-and-law-promise which is distinct from all other such spheres. It is everyday examples like the above that we become aware of the diversity of the law side, though such awareness is always indirect, as explained below. Thus, for example, the lingual aspect provides us with cosmic laws such as that if we structure our utterances according to the syntax of the language we are using then people will more readily understand us, and by reference to the lingual aspect such things as sentence, spelling, signification are meaningful to us and may be studied.

However, from what Dooyeweerd has discussed, aspects have a number of roles, knowledge of which can assist our research and practice:

  • Aspects are ways in which things can be meaningful. For example a key can be meaningful to us in the legal, spatial and physical aspects especially, as exemplified above. This gives us distinct categories of meaing, useful during analysis. Also for understanding people's perspectives (Weltanschauungen), which are often centred on different aspects (e.g. those of the legal and finance departments).

  • Aspects are different ways in which things make sense: so they provide different kinds of rationality (c.f. Winch's [1958] differentiation of physical from social rationality.

  • Aspects are modes of being. For example a poem is a piece of writing (lingual thing), a structure (formative thing), a collection of concepts (analytical), a happy or sad (sensitive) thing, marks on paper when written or vibrations in air when recited (physical), a bonding experience (social thing), and a waste of words (or a superb example of elegance) (economic thing). But none of these capture the central meaning: a poem is a poem qua poem by virtue of the aesthetic aspect: it is primarily an aesthetic thing. All things exist in every aspect, even if sometimes only latently, but usually one aspect leads it. See Dooyeweerd's notion of things below.

  • Aspects are different basic kinds of property. For example the poem has lingual, aesthetic and other properties, which cannot be explained in terms of each other. This aspect of aspects is well explored by Clouser [2005].

  • Aspects provide distinct ways of relating: for example physical, logical, social, legal relationships.

  • As spheres of law-promise, aspects enable distinct ways of functioning (or acting, behaving). For example, as you read this, you are functioning in the biotic aspect (e.g. breathing), sensitive (seeing the marks on paper), lingual (understanding what is written), juridical (giving the topic its due). Human life (see below) is multi-aspectual functioning.

  • Because aspectual law-promise pertains (see below) functioning has repercussions: in each aspect. This enables us to understand the diversity of impacts that our activity has, including unexpected, indirect and hidden ones. Very useful in tackling environmental issues.

  • As spheres of law-promise, aspects define distinct types of normativity: ways of being Good and Evil. Table 3 provides some examples. This helps understand situations where there is both benefit and detriment.

  • Aspects provide different ways of knowing, including theoretical, intuitive, etc.; see below.

  • Each aspect defines a distinct special science; see below.

Table 3. Aspectual normativity
Biotic aspect vitality, health vs. disease, threat to life
Sensitive aspect sensitivity vs sensory overload or deprivation
Analytical aspect clarity vs. confusion, illogicality
Formative aspect forming, creating, achieving vs. destroying
Lingual aspect conveying truth, understanding vs. deceit and misunderstanding
Social aspect friendship, respect vs. enmity, disrespect
Economic aspect care, frugality vs. waste, squandering resources
Aesthetic aspect harmony, fun vs. disharmony, boredom
Juridical aspect justice, giving due vs. injustice, denial of what is due
Ethical aspect generosity, giving, sacrifice, hospitality vs. selfishness, taking advantage of others, competition
Pistic aspect loyalty, trust, orientation to true God vs. disloyalty, cowardice, idolatry.

It is because both being and knowing are founded on aspects (see below) that Dooyeweerd was able to bridge the Kantian gulf between Thought and Thing (ontology and epistemology), and because both being and normativity are founded on aspects that he was able to bridge the Humean gulf between Is and Ought.

6.3 Characteristics of Aspects

Dooyeweerd's discussion highlights various characteristics that aspects have:

  • Aspects transcend us and their laws pertain throughout all cultures and times. Few thinkers today acknowledge this, but it means that repercussions occur even if we don't recognise them, helping us understand unexpected repercussions.

  • Aspects are irreducible to each other in respect of their meaning. Most aspectual thinkers acknowledge this. This means none can be ignored during analysis.

  • But the aspects are in harmony. For example being ethical need not make a company uneconomic, nor vice versa: the laws of the ethical and economic aspect are in harmony, not conflict.

  • No aspect is absolute, in the sense of being self-dependent. All aspects refer beyond themselves to all the others in mutual echo and dependency and reaching out - and then beyond, to their Divine Source. No functioning in any aspect can be perfect (e.g. language can never fully express what we mean to say).

  • Mutual echoes: Each aspect contains echoes of the meaning of all the others: the analogical inter-aspect relationship, which helps us acknowledge metaphor etc. Few acknowledge this, assuming metaphor is purely created by human imagination.

  • Mutual dependency: Aspects are inter-dependent for their actualization in the subject-side. Functioning in later aspects depends on that in earlier (e.g. social functioning depends on lingual, which depends on structuring (formative), etc.); many thinkers (e.g. Hartmann) acknowledge this. What few acknowledge is that earlier aspects also depend on later ones, for full realization of their meaning. These two directions are called foundational and anticipatory. Inter-aspect dependency is important in implementation of e.g. information technologies.

  • Aspects also 'reach out' to each other. For example, the quantitative aspect reaches out to all others in that things of any aspect can be quantified, the lingual reaches out in that words can express all kinds of meaning.

  • While later aspects are normative, allowing latitude or freedom of functioning, earlier aspects are determinative, allowing no latitude; this is useful because it means that physical laws at the supra-quantum level are deterministic.

  • Finally, the cosmic meaning of aspects are grasped by the intuition, never by theoretical thought - this is why it is impossible to be fully confident that we know what all the aspects are.

A very important corollary of this is that Dooyeweerd's aspects are very useful in interdisciplinary research and practice, because they allow us to take seriously the diversity we encounter without denying or denaturing any of it, and yet avoid fragmentation, because the harmony of aspects provides a basis for coherence.

7. Dooyeweerd's Approach to Things

Dooyeweerd believed that a full understanding of thingness should be able to account for all kinds that we might experience with the everyday attitude - the complexity and yet unity that is inherent in each thing, the diversity of types of thing, the fact that things change and yet usually remain the same thing - and yet sometimes are destroyed - and diverse types of relationships between things.

He rejected naïve realism, which assumes (theorizes) that the nature of a thing is nothing more than as we directly experience it through our senses. He rejected substance concepts, such as postulated by Aristotle. He rejected Platonic notions of ideal types. He rejected reductionism, such as physicalism, extreme social constructionism, etc. Not because these are a priori wrong, but because they obscure rather than reveal the nature of things as experienced in the everyday attitude. For example, how can we account not only for fictional as well as real things (e.g. Gandalf), the hammer which has had five new handles and two new heads and yet is the same hammer, the ontic status of e.g. a mouse pointer, the relationship between being and becoming. when a block of marble ceases being such and is a sculpture, how a piece of music performed by different orchestras is the same piece, how trees, insects, etc. relate to the forest they are in and yet form, the structure of social institutions, and many more.

"As far as I know," he concluded after his survey of 2,500 years of philosophy [1984,III,p.53], "immanence philosophy, including phenomenology, has never analysed the structure of a thing as given in naïve experience." Dooyeweerd did attempt this, starting from the presupposition that cosmic meaning is more fundamental than existence, and making use of his theory of modal aspects to understand being. As a result, Dooyeweerd could address all the above conundrums, and more.

7.1 Being as Meaning

"A bird's nest is not a 'thing in itself', which has a specific meaning in the bird's life." said Dooyeweerd [1984,III,p.108], "It has as such no existence apart from this meaning." Likewise a poem does not exist as a poem (as distinct from as a piece of writing or vibrations in the air) apart from its meaning in the aesthetic aspect.

Meaning is something we are, not an attribute we have. Conventionally, we might say each key in the bunch is a piece of metal with properties like a certain shape, strength and protective purpose (spatial, physical and juridical properties). Dooyeweerd puts it the other way round because they have no existence as keys (as opposed to lumps of metal) apart from the spatial and juridical meaning. Each aspect, being a distinct sphere of meaning, thus provides a different mode of being, a different possible way in which a thing can exist. Most things thus exist in multiple ways, because they function in multiple aspects. For example:

  • bunch of keys: spatial, physical and juridical
  • sculpture: aesthetic and physical
  • poem: aesthetic and lingual
  • landslide: physical and spatial
  • bird's nest: physical, biotic and sensitive
  • kennel: physical, biotic, sensitive and formative
  • greyhound racing track: spatial, kinematic and aesthetic
  • skeleton in a museum: biotic, physical and formative (historical)
  • ring: social and physical
  • kiss: ethical and social
  • speed limit: juridical and kinematic
  • Gandalf: lingual, social, cultural, also pistic and aesthetic
  • the computer (running software): physical, psychic, analytic, formative, lingual (and other aspects)
  • the mouse pointer: sensitive, analytic.

We can also treat events or processes as things:

  • the race: kinematic, social, aesthetic
  • the act of programming: lingual, formative
  • the war: juridical, social, formative, pistic.

7.2 Becoming and Change

This helps us understand change, with which question Dooyeweerd actually began Volume III of NC. My hammer, which has had two new heads and five new handles, is a different thing according to the physical aspect, but is the same according to the formative aspect (it is still a tool) and the juridical (it is still mine). This can help us in considering when a literary piece, computer program, organisation or project changes and develops: in one aspect the thing changes but in another it remains the same.

But Dooyeweerd helps further. In a short section headed 'Reality as a continuous process of realization' Dooyeweerd said [1984,III,p.109]:

"For the reality of a thing is indeed dynamic; it is a continuous realization in the transcendental temporal {i.e. anticipatory aspectual} direction. The inner restlessness of meaning, as the mode of being of created reality, reveals itself in the whole temporal world."

A thing's being also changes with time because of our continued involvement with it. A poem, which at first is merely an aesthetic-lingual thing, becomes the rallying point for a movement, hence realizing its potential to be a pistic thing too. In that aspects are spheres of possibility, Dooyeweerd provides the basis for understanding the way things develop even in unexpected directions.

7.5 Types of Things

The question of whether a thing such as a hammer or an IS remains that same thing presupposes a notion of type. Traditional approaches to types, based on Plato or Aristotle, generate problems and so there has been a reaction against typology in some current philosophical thought, simply ignoring types is no solution because we cannot escape types in everyday experience. So Dooyeweerd tackled the issue.

Dooyeweerd held [1984,III,p.76-79] that "the factual temporal duration of a thing as an individual and identical whole is dependent on the preservation of its structure of individuality." 'Structure of individuality' refers to the ways a thing is meaningful in the various aspects and it is what enables it to be that particular individual despite changes. It is also referred to as 'internal structural principle' and as type law by Clouser [2005].

In most structures of individuality one aspect is of primary important in determining its meaning: the qualifying aspect. Thus, for example, a poem is qualified by the aesthetic aspect, a hammer by the formative. But both poems and paintings, for example, are qualified by the aesthetic aspect; the difference between them lies in secondary aspects - often the lingual for a poem and the psychic for a painting. Dooyeweerd actually discussed three levels of type: radical types, geno- or primary types, and pheno- or variability types [Dooyeweerd, 1984,III,p.93]. Some examples of radical types (by qualifying aspect) are given in Table 4.

Table 4. Types of thing by qualifying aspect
Aspect Example things
Quant'tive Amount, proportion
Spatial Shape, Distance, Angle, Direction
Kinematic Path or route, Flow
Physical Energy, Waves, Particles, Material, Fields, Forces, Rock
Biotic Plants, Organism, Organ, Tissue, Cell
Sensitive Animals, Sound, Colour, Feeling, Emotion, Excitation
Analytical Concept, Distinction, Deduction, Awareness
Formative Goal, Achievement, Forming, Will, Tool, Skill
Lingual Word or sentence, Book, Writing, Utterance, Diagram, Index
Social Friendship, Institution, Status, Respect
Economic Resource, Limit, Production+consumption, Money, Management
Aesthetic Music, Sculpture, Cuisine, Humour, Fun, Sport, Nuance
Juridical Responsibility+rights, Reward+punishment, Laws
Ethical Self-giving love, Generosity, Sacrifice
Pistic Faith, Trust, Loyalty, Worship, Commitment, Ritual

Because this being-of-a-type is grounded in the theory of aspects, it cannot escape the normativity thereof. So the structure of individuality also helps define what is a 'good' thing of that type.

Dooyeweerd recognised at least two special kinds of type. One is the semi-manufactured product (SMP, such as a plank of wood, the potential meaning of which is only realized when it is used to construct a final product for use in human life. While normal in normal types the qualifying aspect is internal to the thing, in SMPs it is external. The other is the Umwelt, or environment, which is constituted of the very denizens that inhabit it (such as a forest made of trees, fungi, birds, insects, etc.), and it does not have a clear qualifying aspect.

7.3 Relationships

"In veritable naïve experience," said Dooyeweerd [1984,III,p.54], "things are not experienced as completely separate entities." Dooyeweerd agreed with existentialism that we can never understand a thing without reference to its context, but Dooyeweerd differentiated two contexts, law and subject side, while existentialism largely conflates them. Relationships a thing has with the law side take the form of law-subject relationships, discussed earlier, in which the subject responds to law-and-meaning that enables. Subject-side relationships are where a thing relates to other things.

Dooyeweerd explored several types of such relationship, providing philosophical accounts for each. The well-known part-whole relationship is not as simple as it sounds: for example, it is meaningless to say the paper on which a poem is written is 'part of' the poem. So what is such a relationship? Dooyeweerd used the term enkapsis for such, and discussed five types:

  • Foundational enkapsis is that which occurs between meaningful wholes and the same thing viewed from a particular aspect, such as the sculpture and the block of marble from which it is made. It is useful for understanding, for example, the structure of a computer or of an organisation.
  • Subject-object enkapsis is exhibited by a hermit crab and its shell.
  • Symbiotic enkapsis is exhibited by clover and its nitrogen-fixing bacteria.
  • Correlative enkapsis is the relationship that exists between an Umwelt and its denizens. It is useful in understanding the interaction between technology and society.
  • Territorial enkapsis is the relationship between, for example, a city and its university, orchestra or football team.

This understanding of relationships can help us avoid confusion, especially in systems thinking, which tends to over-emphasise the part-whole relationship.

8. Experience, Knowledge and Assumptions

Dooyeweerd was working in an era in which it had long (for 2,000 years) been assumed that theoretical thought can be neutral and is superior over everyday experience as a route to knowledge. He challenged this, not in the way some relativists do today, but transcendentally, but his two transcendental critiques mentioned earlier. That is, theoretical thought cannot be other than rooted in religious presuppositions. So, what is good knowledge if it is not primarily theoretical in nature?

Compared with his approach, objectivism and relativism (such as are assumed to oppose each other in the Burrell-Morgen model and in much IS thinking since then) are in fact in the same camp. Objectivism focuses on the things to be known and ignores the knower, and relativism focuses on the knower and ignores the knowns, but both presuppose the same Kantian gulf between knower and known. Kant showed that knower and known cannot be reconciled - but that was only from the immanence-standpoint, claimed Dooyeweerd.

8.1 The Knower-Known Relationship

Dooyeweerd, with his transcendence-standpoint, showed how it is possible to reconcile knower and known, and thereby also the insights of both objectivism and relativism. That is, we can have true knowledge of things and yet also our knowing can be meaningful as knowing, and not just a set of physical processes. Geertsema [2000,p.101] said, of Dooyeweerd's view:

"Knowledge and understanding do not start with the subject as if knowledge has to bridge an original [Kantian] gulf between the two. ... To do so we have to ignore that in actual life we experience ourselves in coherence with the world around us. There is no original gap that needs to be bridged. Knowledge presupposes that we are in a relationship already."

The relationship is the law-subject-object relationship outlined earlier. I as knower know by virtue of being subject to aspectual law-promise and what I am knowing relates to me as object.

Our knowing functions in all aspects from the physical onwards. Table 5 gives a number of aspectual ways of knowing.

Table 5. Aspects or ways of knowing
Aspect Ways / aspects of knowing
Physical Physical knowing is persistent change of physical state resulting from some functioning in the physical aspect. This is the physical 'implementation' of all other types of knowing (e.g. computer memory chips have a persistent electric charge).
Biotic / Organic The way things have grown, etc. e.g. plant bent towards light 'knows' where the light is. Also the growth of nerve connections.
Psychic / Sensitive a) Memory. Receiving stimuli and holding a memory of them in the nervous system.
b) Recognition of a pattern (seen or heard)
c) Instinct (of the animal kind).
Analytic a) Making distinctions between things.
b) Conceptualizing.
c) Making inferences from those distinctions; reflection; what is deducible from what I already know.
d) Theorizing.
Formative a) Knowledge of structure; 'knowing my way around'.
b) Skills: knowing how to achieve things.
Lingual a) Discourse, debate that sharpens and disseminates.
b) Stuff set down in symbolic form, e.g. 'knowledge' stored in books, libraries, records, archives, web sites.
Social a) Buber's 'I-Thou' encounter, but see Ethical aspect.
b) Shared cultural knowledge, assumptions.
c) Networks of knowledge.
Economic Managing limits on knowledge (personal and communal memories, etc.). assumptions.
Aesthetic Harmonizing what we know with what else is known, and with what we experience in life. That what we know 'fits comfortably'. That insight. Example: Habermas' triples all harmonize.
How an artist helps us understand reality.
and communal memories, etc.).
Juridical Giving due weight to various pieces of knowledge and to the whole; proportion and a sense of 'perspective', an informed sense of the essence of things.
Ethical A complete 'entering in' to the other person, in Bergson's sense, is only possible with complete self-giving. Hebrew in Genesis 4:1 the word "he-knew" for 'have intercourse with'. Buber's I-Thou relationship contains at least an element of self-giving.
Pistic Certainty. Committing to a belief, both the little commitments in everyday living and the large commitments for which we might lay down our lives. Also prejudice etc.

It should be noted that we are not, here, talking about the diversity of what we can know about but about knowing itself. Some ways of knowing are what we often call experiencing. All the ways of knowing in coherence could be what is often called intuition.

8.2 Theoretical Knowledge, Science and Philosophy

But what about theoretical knowing? Dooyeweerd did not reject that, but saw it as a special form of knowing, centred on the analytic aspect. It involves distance between knower and known, which is enabled by the analytic aspect (kernel meaning: distinction). But it is more than the everyday analytical distinctions we make between things. It inevitably involves what Dooyeweerd called a Gegenstand relationship, a 'standing over against' some aspect of the things we are thinking about. But in so doing, we isolate that aspect and sever its relationships with other aspects. Clouser [2005] explains this very clearly (and does not use the word Gegenstand).

This isolation might allow us to obtain very specialised theoretical knowledge. But rather than being superior to everyday ('naïve') thinking it is in fact inferior, because of the ignoring of other aspects. Everyday thinking is superior because all aspects of things are taken into account, in harmony. Dooyeweerd's view is akin to Polanyi's [1967] that all knowledge is 'dwelling' but he makes it more specific.

Science is the process surrounding theoretical thinking, aimed at coming to know the laws of an aspect through studying the types of being, functioning, etc. which the aspect enables (see above). Each aspect delineates a distinct arena of science, as indicated in Table 6.

Table 6. Sciences centred on aspects
Aspect Science Research methods
Quant'ive Arithmetic, Algebra, Statistics Deduction, theorem proof
Spatial Geometry, Topology Geometric proofs
Kinematic Kinematics, Fluid dynamics Infinitesimal calculus
Physical Quantum physics, physics, chemistry, mechanics, materials science Laboratory experiment with physical reasoning
Biotic / Organic Physiology, life sciences, biology Greenhouse experiments, field studies, taxonomic analysis
Psychic / Sensitive Psychology, Sensory sciences, Cognitive sciences, Stimulus-response trials, Control groups
Analytic Logic, Analysis Logical proof, Some as for cognitive science
Formative 'Sciences of the Artificial' [Simon], History Game playing, puzzle-solving, model building, forensics
Lingual Linguistics, semiotics Hermeneutics, cognitive studies, model building, theorizing
Social Social science Surveys, questionnaires, interviews, model building
Economic Economics, management science Statistics, model building, As social science
Aesthetic Aesthetics As social science
Juridical Juridics, Legal science Review of cases and histories, Reflection, legal deduction
Ethical Ethics Attitude surveys
Pistic Theology, Some anthropology Reference to sacred writings, hermeneutics, theorizing, anthropological studies, dogmatics

"The theoretical object of scientific thought can never be the full or integral scope of reality" [Dooyeweerd, 1999,p.93], so scientific research finds it very difficult to be interdisciplinary in the sense of embracing several aspects. It is, rather, the role of philosophy to reflect on this integral scope, which is why philosophy is found useful in addressing the interdisciplinary areas of IS.

8.3 Limits to Knowing

Dooyeweerd very explicitly stated that, even in the ideal, "There is no truth in itself" [Dooyeweerd, 1984,III,p.577]. Whereas subjectivism questions the notion of truth, Dooyeweerd questions 'in itself'; i.e. self-dependent and able to stand as truth without reference to anything else. It is not that there is no truth, but there is no truth 'in itself', because all meaning refers beyond itself to its Origin. "Hypostatized 'truth' is a lie," he said [Dooyeweerd, 1984,II,p.561], "there is no selfsufficient partial truth," and so "2 x 2 = 4 becomes an untruth if it is absolutized into a truth in itself" [Dooyeweerd, 1984,II,p.572].

This means that "our insight is fallible" [p.574]. This follows from knowing being a kind of aspectual functioning, which is non-absolute (see earlier). So knowing can never be absolute, not even if we take all the aspects together (full intuition). This echoes the notion of some distance between knower and known, but not an infinite Kantian gulf. Modern and postmodern views assume the world might hide itself from our knowledge, and we can never be sure it is not fooling us. But Dooyeweerd believed the world to be friendly to our knowledge, revealing rather than hiding itself, even if never perfectly or absolutely. We can trust our aspectual knowing, though never fully. Non-absoluteness is not an imperfection, but rather a stimulation to humility.

Dooyeweerd agrees that we always interpret the world through a lens, but unlike interpretivism, which simply presupposes lenses, Dooyeweerd provides a useful understanding of lenses as an aspectual perspectives or world-views. For example, from the economic aspect we view the world in terms of resources, from the pistic aspect we view it in terms of faith and commitment, from the formative aspect we view it in terms of formative power (the lens of power relations). What aspectual lens a person views the world through will sometimes depend on the role they assume within an organisation (e.g. company lawyer: juridical aspect). Whereas phenomenology sought to remove the lens through which we view the world, Dooyeweerd argued that the 'lens' cannot be removed and is religious in nature.

8.4 Types of Intuition

Intuitive knowledge of subject-side reality (things, processes, etc.) is multi-aspectual ways of knowing in harmony, involving law-subject-object relatonships. But our intuitive grasp of aspectual meaning (mentioned earlier) and our awareness of self cannot be known in the same way because they cannot be objects in a law-subject-object relationship. Grasp of aspectual meaning, of, for example, justice, amount and signification (as kernel meanings of the juridical, quantitative and lingual aspects), always exceeds any attempt to think about them analytically, such as to define them. Contrary to what many believe, this kind of intuition cannot even be reduced to feeling. Awareness of self is even more mysterious, not even involving the aspects because the human self (according to Dooyeweerd) is not only trans-aspectual but supra-temporal and not just that but a religious orientation towards either the true Divine Absolute or some pretend, false absolute.

9. Human Living, Ethics and Destiny

Now we have enough to understand human living. As alluded to above, all human activity involves a functioning in all aspects: multi-aspectual human functioning. This does not refer to different parts of our behaviour, but to different ways in which it occurs meaningfully. Table 7 shows (some of) the functioning in all the aspects while creating a book.

Table 7. Multi-aspectual functioning in writing book
Aspect Functioning in writing book (examples)
Quant'tive Word count
Spatial Size of diagrams
Kinematic Movement while drawing, writing
Physical Paper jams in printer!
Biotic Stuffy air hinders thinking
Sensitive Moving my fingers. Seeing what I've written.
Analytical Differentiating between ideas that seem similar
Formative Structuring my sentences and diagrams
Lingual Writing and drawing to convey what I intend
Social Obtaining support and critique
Economic Size limit on document, Keep backups. Manage time carefully
Aesthetic Ensure the work integrates; Pleasant style of writing
Juridical Do justice to topic, readers, publishers.
Ethical Write generous prose that gives more than is due
Pistic Ways I see myself.

Understanding the multi-aspectual nature of human activity gives a richer view than uni-aspectual views such as those offered by psychology, linguistics or economics. It is also more 'true', in that everything is interconnected, and the meaning of any aspect of our functioning cannot be discerned properly without reference to all the other aspects. Multi-aspectual functioning is not just a bundle of aspectual functionings brought together, but a coherence prior to its being analysed into separate aspects; Dooyeweerd coined the term 'systasis' for this. The coherence is made possible by the inter-aspect relationships and the inter-aspect harmony mentioned earlier.

Philosophers since Husserl have explored the notion of lifeworld. Dooyeweerd can make a contribution to this debate, not only underpinning what others have found but also providing a basis for recognising the diversity and coherence of the lifeworld. Basden [2007] discusses this in some depth.

The multi-aspectual approach could inform our ideas of what it means to be 'fully human', to enjoy that rich, multi-faceted well-being to which the Hebrew word shalom refers. Each aspect, as sphere of law, defines a distinct good and evil. What might be called the shalom principle states that good is when our functioning is in line with the laws of all aspects, (and conversely, evil is when it is against aspectual laws. Since the laws of aspects are in harmony, it is possible in principle to achieve full shalom - though human sin in practice prevents this.

This provides a view of ethics which can be integrated with ontology and epistemology rather than held as something to be bolted onto them. It can also acknowledge and enrich conventional views of ethics. Briefly (see Basden [2007] for more):

  • Deontological ethics, based on obeying laws: The aspects define what these laws most deeply are.
  • Functional ethics, based on results: The aspects define types of repercussion that result from our activity.
  • Virtue ethics, based on the quality of the person: The aspects as normative modes of being can define what a 'good' person is.

MacIntyre's [1985] notion of eudaimonia is not unlike shalom, but Dooyeweerd provides a basis for understanding its diversity and coherence.

But what about the long-term? For example, on what basis do we discuss whether the Internet is good or evil as such? Some suggest that technology itself is an evil which it would be better to avoid. Can Dooyeweerd help us tackle such issues?

Dooyeweerd developed a view of time which differs radically from most others, for example in exhibiting various aspects. What is of interest here is that his view included a view of Time as a whole, from beginning to future end, as seen from God's point of view. The whole story of the cosmos including humanity is meaningful and, as such, has Destiny and normative direction.

The mandate of humanity is to open up the aspects, actualizing their potential. The human project that is science has opened the analytical aspect's potential to provide detailed knowledge of the aspects. The human project of democracy has opened up the juridical aspect. The human project of technology has opened up the formative aspect. And the human project of writing, printing, and information technology has opened up the lingual aspect. Under this view, progress is defined as aspectual opening, and anything that attempts to close down aspects (such as Nazism did, according to Dooyeweerd) is retrogressive and against the mandate given to humanity. But the opening up of any aspect should never be guided solely by the norms of that aspect (for example, technology should never be developed for technology's own sake), but should be guided by the norms of all other aspects. In this way, the opening up of each aspect is in service of all the others. No aspect is meant to be more important than all the others; each is to be the servant of all. This provides a much deeper kind of harmony between the aspects that is almost alive.

10. Critique of Dooyeweerd

Basden [2007] reviews various critiques of Dooyeweerd. He differentiates between superficial and substantial critiques. Superficial critiques include attacks by Christians on theological grounds who do not understand the difference between theology and philosophy, critique that reflects more the committed stance of the criticiser than any real weakness in Dooyeweerd, critique on followers of Dooyeweerd rather than Dooyeweerd himself, and failure to address certain issues. Most critique so far as been superficial, because too few mainstream thinkers have sought to truly understand Dooyeweerd and apply and test his work.

But a few substantial critiques have been offered. There has been some attempt to critique Dooyeweerd's suite of aspects, refining it. His transcendental critiques of theoretical thought have come in for criticism. His notion of supra-temporal self has been criticised for being too like Plato's realm of Forms. Dooyeweerd's view of progress has been criticised for too conveniently supporting contemporary Western culture. Fuller discussion of these and other criticism are found in Basden [2007].

Dooyeweerd himself welcomed and sought critique. But real substantial critique of Dooyeweerd is a project that has yet to materialise. It cannot get fully underway until there is a substantial community which is applying his thought and engaging with other thought.

11. Conclusion

This is why it is so important that we properly understand and apply Dooyeweerd: to assess whether he really has something to offer. This is why I wrote 'Philosophical Frameworks for Understanding Information Systems' [Basden, 2007], as a contribution to this process. Other attempts to apply his work are also emerging, such as Strauss [2006] and Strijbos and Basden [2006].

Dooyeweerd does not provide answers. He does not even primarily provide questions. Rather, he provides the basis on which we can formulate good questions. That is why, in Basden [2007], I attempted to use his philosophy to formulate frameworks for understanding five areas of research and practice in information systems. As far as I know, his is the only philosophy which enables us to do that, because most strands of philosophy ignore at least one of ontology, epistemology and normativity. And Dooyeweerd's is almost unique in the facility with which it enables us to honour the diversity and richness of everyday experience in each area, and have a way of understanding 'the whole story that is information systems'.


Basden, A. (2007). Philosophical Frameworks for Understanding Information Systems. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Chesterton, G. K. (1908). Orthodoxy. London: The Bodley Head.

Choi, Y.-J. (2000). Dialogue and antithesis: A philosophical study of the significance of

Churchman, C. W. (1987). Systems profile: Discoveries in an exploration into systems thinking. Systems Research, 4(22), 139-146.

Clouser, R. (2005). The myth of religious neutrality: An essay on the hidden role of religious belief in theories (2nd ed.). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Dooyeweerd, H. (1979). Roots of Western culture: Pagan, secular and Christian options (J. Kraay, Trans.). Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Wedge. (Original work published 1963).

Dooyeweerd, H. (1984). A new critique of theoretical thought (Vols. 1-4). Jordan Station, Ontario, Canada: Paideia Press. (Original work published 1953-1958)

Dooyeweerd, H. (1999). In the twilight of Western thought: Studies in the pretended autonomy of philosophical thought. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press.

Geertsema, H. G. (2000). Dooyeweerd's transcendental critique: Transforming it hermeneutically. In D. G. M. Strauss, & M. Botting (Eds.), Contemporary reflections on the philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd (pp. 83-108). Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press.

Giddens, A. (1993). New rules of sociological method. Cambridge, England: Polity Press.

MacIntyre, A. (1985). After virtue: A study in moral theory. London: Duckworth.

Moran, D. (2000). Introduction to phenomenology. London: Routledge.

Polanyi, M. (1967). The tacit dimension. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Strauss, D. F. M. (2006). Reintegrating social theory. Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany: Peter Lang.

Strijbos, S. & Basden, A. (2006). In search of an integrative vision for technology: Interdisciplinary studies in Information Systems. New York: Springer.

Tarnas, R. (1991). The passion of the Western mind. Pimlico, London: Random House.

Winch, P. (1958). The idea of a social science. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Wolters, A. M. (1985). The intellectual milieu of Herman Dooyeweerd. In C. T. McIntire (Ed.), The legacy of Herman Dooyeweerd: Reflections on critical philosophy in the Christian tradition (pp. 1-19). Lanham, NY: University Press of America.

Created: August 2007
Copyright (c) Andrew Basden. 2007

Last updated: 12 December 2007