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Clouser on Dooyeweerd's Transcendtal Critique

I received this explanation of (Way 2 of) Dooyeweerd's Transcendental Critique, Dooyeweerd's idea that nothing, not even logic, is absolute, but that all is affected by the religious presuppositions we make), and I thought it so good that I asked his permission to reproduce it here. I have taken the liberty of adding headings. There is also an outline of Dooyeweerd's own 'two ways' of transcendental critique.

Read on ...

Dooyeweerd's Contributions: Primary and Secondary

Dooyeweerd distinguished sharply btw his positive theories and the critique by which he exposed the religious presuppositions of theory making. "My theories may all need to be revised", he once said to me, "but the transcendental critique is a permanent contribution to philosophy that cannot be ignored." I think he was right about that, but a great many who admire his positive theories don't.

I believe that's because they've not understood what was supposed to count as the transcendental critique (hereafter: T.C.). I had a lot of trouble understanding what he meant myself, so I sympathize with the confusion. (And no one has ever accused D of crystal clarity in his writing.) But i'd like to give the thinknet readers a summary of what it turned out he did mean.

Transcendental Critique

The T.C. is NOT itself a theory (a hypothesis), so it's not an epistemology or a "theory of theories". It's a descriptive analysis of the act of abstraction involved in theory making. D's claim is that the act of abstraction can serve as a criterion for theories formed because no theory can be justified if it's claims are suct that they: 1) couldn't be true, or 2) couldn't be known to be true, given the involvement of abstraction in their formation.

Illustrative parallel: if i want to know the temperature of water in a beaker and put a thermometer in that water to find out, then because the thermometer could have changed the temperature I can't claim to know what that temp was prior to my putting the thermometer into the water.

Just so, if i abstractively separate kind X of properties-and-laws ("aspect" X) from the things that exhibit X properties, i can't then claim to know that the properties of type X can really exist independently of all the other kinds of properties from which X has been abstracted. The apparent independence of X is - so far as I can tell - the product of my having separated it. So even if I happened to hit on the aspect that could exist independently from the others, I could never be justified in claiming to know I'd hit it right.

Another way of putting the same point is what I call in MYTH a "Gedanke" - an experiment in thought. (D also states the point this way himself in vol. III of the NC.) Try to conceive of any aspect apart from all the others and see what you get. The result is that once we abstractively strip from any aspect all references and connections to the others, we are left with exactly nothing; thus "independently existing X" is something we can't so much as conceive, and when we talk of it we literally don;t know what we're talking about. We can know what X means, and we can know what "independently existing" means, but when we put them together we no longer have anything at all - just as we know what "square" means and we know what "circle" means, but when we combine them into "square circle" we no longer have anything intelligible at all.

Critique of 'isms'

THAT, and that alone is the T.C.. That is what shows why all the isms of metaphysics rest on an unjustied ascription of divinity (independent reality) to some aspect of creation. They are therefore one and all examples of one or another pagan religious presupposition to theory making. And the T.C. does this without making or assuming any hypotheses. We need form no theory about abstraction in order to describe the activity. This is what D means when he says the T.C. is "theoretically neutral", i.e., neutral with respect to theories. (This is what Van Til, e.g., could never get straight. He constantly confused "neutral with respect to hypotheses" with "religiously neutral"!) Moreover, the correctness of the description is subject to review by each and every thinker. As D says often: This can be confirmed in each thinkers self-reflection.

The theory of the modal aspects, the supra -temporality of the human heart, the theories about types of individuals, the natures of artifacts, and the theory social institutions, are all parts of D's positive theories; they are not the T.C..

Difficulties with Dooyeweerd's Transcendental Critique

So are there any difficulties with the T.C.? I think so. When I first met my friend Danie Strauss we were both surprised to find that we had each rejected (part of) D's description of the gegenstand relation (the relation between the act of abstraction and the object of abstraction) for the same reason and that we had both proposed the same solution. With this one change, I think the T.C. is a brilliantly conceived criterion for theory making to which I have as yet heard no good rebuttal.

The move that Strauss and I suggest is that the gegenstand should not be described as the opposition of (only) the logical aspect of our thought to the aspect being abstracted, but simply as the new, exaggerated difference between our thought in all its aspects and whatever is being abstracted. To be sure, the act of abstraction includes and emphasizes the logical laws of noncontradiction, identity, and excluded middle; those have to be conditions of abstracting any aspect (or any particular property within an aspect). But they are not alone; the act itself is multi-aspectual.

With that correction I think the T.C. is, in fact, a knock-down argument for the religious conditioning of all theories of reality.

Added Note: On the Human Heart

As to the supra-temporality of the human heart: I can see why you might think I'd downplayed this in my book. But in fact that's not so. Early in our discussions Dooyweerd said about the heart being "supratemporal": "I'm sorry I ever wrote that. Nothing has caused more misunderstanding or controversy than that expression. All I wanted to maintain is that there is more to the human self than all its modal functions." So that is the view I allowed to come forward in MYTH.

There are a number of other points at which MYTH also differs from the NC. Some are my own attempts to clear things up, but most of them are the result of my conferences with D. After all, it's not as though he stopped thinking in 1955 after the NC was published, and my conferences with him were over the summer of 1967 and 1971.

I hope this is some help,


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

Copyright (c) Roy Clouser 2000.

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

Created: 12 November 2000. Last updated: 16 May 2003 file renamed 'ctc.html' because 'tc.html' is used for Dooyeweerd's own critique, to which a link is made. 21 November 2005 unets.