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Summary of Aspectual Framework of Meaning - Prose Format

This introduces Dooyeweerd's Theory of Modal Aspects in prose format. It is an old introduction, yanked at present from summary.html. I intend to rewrite it, but for now it should provide a readable introduction to some main issues in Dooyeweerd's theory of aspects. For a more complete overview of Dooyeweerd's Theory of Aspects, see the Systematic Summary.

Aspects (Modalities)

The modalities can be seen as the framework of Meaning in which all systems operate, and which thereby provide their individual meaning. They are often called Aspects or Spheres and are examined in more detail in Aspect Web Pages - which is a useful entry at present to Dooyeweerd's Theory of Modal Aspects. Fifteen modalities have been identified: numeric, spatial, kinematic, physical, biotic, sensitive, analytical, historical, lingual, social, economic, aesthetic, juridical, ethical and credal. Each modality has a nucleus that makes it meaningful and provides its 'hub', as shown in Table 1.

The names of both the modalities and the nuclei have a somewhat specialised meaning, some of which are elucidated in de Raadt (1994). Of particular interest to work in IS are the analytical, historical and lingual modalities. The analytical modality incoporates logic and modelling. The formative modality was called 'historical' and 'cultural' and 'technical' at various times by Dooyeweerd, and embraces technological and cultural activity, but we will refer to it as the formative modality. Since much use of IS requires the interpretation of symbols, the lingual modality is heavily involved in usage; for this reason, de Raadt labels this the 'informatory' modality.

Aspect Its Kernel
Numeric Discrete quantity
Spatial Continuous extension
Kinematic Motion
Physical Energy and matter
Biotic Life and vitality
Sensitive Feeling
Analytical Distinction
Formative Formative power
Lingual Symbolic representation
Social Social intercourse
Economic Frugality
Aesthetic Harmony
Juridical What is due
Ethical Love (self-giving)
Credal Faith and vision

Table of Aspects and their Kernels
Click Aspect name for its discussion page.

Aspects provide us with:

Elevation of an Aspect

Humankind tends to elevate certain aspects, one in one era and culture, another in another. This leads to distortions, as we well see below. Dooyeweerd called it absolutization, which is an extreme form of elevation that implies, if not says, that the chosen aspect is the only one that really matters, or really exists. This leads to different kinds of reductionism.

He investigated the elevation of two aspects in particular - analytical and formative. Absolutization of the analytical aspect gave us rationalism. Crucially, the analytical aspect is central to science and all theoretical thinking; we make distinctions to classify, to clarify and to argue. To do science we must make a clear distinction between the aspect of interest and all others, by isolating it and its laws from others. For instance in a test tube only physical laws are being studied and economic, social, ethical etc. effects are filtered out (they must of course come back in once we have discovered the physical laws). Reason also has distinction as its centre. Reason and science proved very powerful, not least because they removed personal interest from the scene. But some people saw in them a salvation from corrupt religion and feudalism and started to elevate them. So this aspect became absolutized, to rationalism. The whole of reality must then be subjected to Reason and Science; if not, it is no reality. Since personal human factors are removed, reality seen through spectacles of rationalism becomes depersonalized and harsh. All truth is rational in nature.

Absolutization of the formative aspect (Dooyeweerd at this point calls it the Historical or Cultural aspect) gives us various types of historicism, of which constructivism is one manifestation. This can be seen as an antithesis of depersonalized rationalism; it emphasises human creativity and construction. There is no truth; all truth is constructed.

But other aspects too can be elevated or absolutized.

Aspectual laws

Each modality is governed by its own set of laws, its own order. Thus we have laws of the quantitative aspect, which is much (not all) of mathematics. We have laws of the physical aspect, which is physics and chemistry. The laws of the analytical aspect include those that enable us to make distinctions and reason. The laws of the lingual aspect are those of good communication.

Note 1: this emphasis on the Law Side of the cosmos explains the rather clumsy name 'Cosmonomic' that was given to the philosophy. In fact, law is seen as boundary between God and the cosmos.

Note 2: Do NOT confuse aspectual laws with social norms, written rules or whatever.

Since all aspectual functioning is non-absolute, neither social norms nor written rules can be absolute, and will change with cultural context. However, aspectual law is a 'given' framework within which all life operates and, as we show below, we go against it at our peril.

Aspectual Descriptions

Each human culture has distinguished concepts and issues in aspects it finds important and developed vocabularies and idioms for them, the more important, the richer they are (with some being multi-aspectual). So each aspect can furnish us with a distinct way of describing an entity or situation. For example, I can be described biotically as a body with life functions, psycho-sensitively as an information processor, analytically as a reasoner, formatively as a goal-achiever, juridically in terms of rights and responsibilities, ethically as someone who needs to love and be loved, and so on, giving up to fifteen possible types of description of the entity. Each such description can make complete sense without any need to reference others.

Paradox and Antinomy

Because the aspects are irreducible to each other, so issues and concept of one aspect cannot be described meaningfully from the standpoint of another aspect. To attempt to do so often leads to paradox. Conversely, when we encounter a paradox, this in an indication that we are trying to talk in terms of the wrong aspect. For example investment in information technology continually increases, but proven return on investment remains low. This is stated in concepts and terminology of the economic aspect, and seems to be a paradox. But if we think of it as a pistic commitment to I.T. the paradox disappears. For an example where we analyse five paradoxes in this way, see my letter to Leslie Willcocks.

Antinomy is an even deeper than paradox, something that cannot even be explained by theoretical thought. Dooyeweerd was particularly interested in antinomy, and held it to be one means of distinguishing aspects from each other to determine whether a candidate aspect is a true aspect or not. Antinomy arises when we conflate two aspects, that is try to merge them. The famous example is the Hare and Tortoise.

Irreducible ontology

The laws of these fifteen modalities are irreducible to each other. That is, the nucleus and laws of one modality cannot be fully explained in terms of those of another; thus the multi-modal approach is not reductionist. Dooyeweerd calls this 'sphere sovereignty'. The laws of a modality are not emergent properties, and in particular are not 'socially constructed' (though knowledge about their laws might be). This gives the multi-aspectual approach a completely different flavour from those of the interpretive camp of information systems such as Hirscheim and Klein (1989), Vickers (1983), even though it agrees with the adherents of this camp that human interpretation and construction are real and important factors.

Inter-Aspect Dependency

However, the aspects are not a set but a list: there is a definite order amongst them. The laws of the later aspects depend on, and make use of, those of the earlier aspects. For instance, physical laws require and presuppose spatial laws. Biotic laws presuppose physical. And so on. It is part of Dooyeweerd's genius that he detected this ordering and dependency.

Inter-Aspect Analogy

However there is another kind of relationship among the aspects, that of analogy. Each aspect has within it echoes of all the others. For instance, feeling is from the sensitive aspect, but one can have a feeling for justice, a feeling of love, a feeling for logical correctness, and so on. Likewise, causality is of the physical aspect, yet we find echoes of it in other aspects, such as logical entailment, the act of retribution in cases of justice or injustice.

It is this analogical relationship that makes metaphor possible. Our ability to see similarities and communicate them is not due only to some fuzzy pattern matching algorithm in the brain but the activity of such an algorithm (if algorithm it be) rests on and presupposes this analogical relationship between the aspects.

Analogical relationships can occur to both earlier and later aspects, and these are called 'retrocipation' and 'anticipation'. For example, the theme of social connotation in linguistic pragmatics anticipates the social aspect. A page on anticipation has been started.

Normativity and Determinativity

But the laws are not all of the same type. Those of the earlier aspects (numeric, spatial, etc.) are mainly determinative in nature, but those of later aspects are largely normative. There is a progression from determinative to normative laws as we move to the later modalities (ethical, credal).

Normative laws can be transgressed; we can decide to be rude to people or to speak nonsense, or to refuse justice. But they can never be set aside. That is, they always pertain, even if we ignore or spurn them, and results will follow. this is the basis of Dooyeweerd's approach to success and failure.

I have started a page to discuss normativity in more detail


Back to entities: entities function in and across the aspects/modalities. For instance, while writing this I am functioning:

I am also functioning:

Dooyeweerd's proposal about entities is that in all we do in real life we function across all Law-Side aspects. Kalsbeek (1975) shows how a manned space flight involves all aspects.

Clouser (1991) outlines three types of functioning - everyday (pre- theoretic or 'naive') functioning, lower abstraction, and higher abstraction. The latter is central to science.

For an explanation of this and deeper discussion of these issues, see the page on Functioning.

We function either as subject or as object in each aspect. That is, I can push something (as subject in physical aspect) or be pushed (as object in physical aspect). I can keep to budget (subject in economic aspect) and I can be made redundant (object in economic aspect).

Successful Living

All human (and other) functioning is guided by aspectual laws, some of which are normative. That means we have freedom to go against those laws - but never to set them aside. All our functioning has its results. Dooyeweerd's proposal, based on the meaningfulness of the Law Side, is that if our functioning is aligned with the laws of the aspects then the result will be healthy, rich, sustainable living, but if we go against the laws of the aspects then our living will be harmful and unsustainable. (This difference is the essence of the Hebrew word, shalom.)

Note that the results of our functioning - with or against the laws, shalomic or harmful - affect not only us, individually, but also other entities around us. The effect might not be immediate; in fact it seems that the later the aspect the longer term is the effect. For instance, Communism is a pistic statement about the nature of things, but it took humankind as a whole nearly a century to recognise its harmful effects: only after a century could we say on the basis of experience that Communism goes against the laws of the pistic aspect.

One major way in which a culture (or a manager or even each one of us) goes against an aspect is to ignore the whole aspect - just to overlook it. Either to not realise its importance, or to semi-deliberately deny its importance ("Oh, that's for wimps!"), or to elevate another aspect. The ignored aspect still pertains, however, and eventually problems emerge from its ignoring. This is discussed in a little more detail below.

This view of success, shalom, health is one part of Dooyeweerd's approach to success and failure in applying information technology. Also of environmental sustainability. See Lombardi and Basden (1997). It is particularly useful when handling an inter-disciplinary situation, as these two are.

Modal necessity

A key tenet of the Dooyeweerdian approach to shalom is modal (aspectual) necessity. Modal necessity is a corollary of the irreducibility between the laws of different aspects. If the laws of the social aspect, for instance, were reducible to those of the physical, then there would be no need for the former to be explicitly stated. They could be derived from the latter when they were needed. But since the laws of the social aspect are not derivable from those of the physical aspect, if we attend only to those of the physical aspect we will transgress those of the social (albeit unwittingly), and thus our enterprise will come to harm. (A similar argument applies to any pairing of the aspects.)

Therefore an important proposition of the multi-modal approach is that if any modality is ignored during any functioning (e.g. system development and usage, e.g. land use planning and subsequent living) then the long term health and success of the system will be jeopardised, either because it is shelved before it should be or because it leads to unforeseen deleterious effects. As de Raadt and others have pointed out, system design is a continuing process, without a hard end-point, because usage of the system feeds back into its continuing development.

The laws of a modality are not emergent properties, and in particular are not 'socially constructed' (though knowledge about their laws might be). This gives the multi-modal approach to systems development a completely different flavour from those like Checkland's (1981) Soft Systems Methodology or Avison and Wood-Harper's (1990) MultiView methodology.

Taking all into account

A corollary of this is that the aspects (modalities) are put forward as a sufficient and necessary ontology to guide systems development. That is, a bold statement is made, that these modalities, if properly understood, are the ones, and the only ones, that need to be considered when predicting, planning for and evaluating the benefits, etc. of a system. As we discuss below, this offers a very useful (but very rich) checklist to use throughout design, development and use.

(Now, this bold statement must be qualified. It is not thought that the picture we have is the final one. The modalities need to be explored, and it might turn out, after due study and consideration, there are seventeen or twenty-five of them rather than fifteen. But the number is not likely to be very different from fifteen. Until proper study is undertaken, the fifteen proposed by Dooyeweerd seem at least to be a good starting point.)

This is part of The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Questions or comments are very welcome.

Compiled by Andrew Basden. You may use this material subject to conditions.

Number of visitors to these pages: Counter. Written on the Amiga with Protext.

Created: 10 March 2003 from asp.html, from older summary.html 1997. Last updated: 23 November 2005 unet. 4 November 2009 Clouser corrected to 1991.