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Dooyeweerd's Theory of Entities

Take any entity, any thing
- a bunch of keys, a thought, a bee, a solo, for example.

We give it a label or name and thereby denote its 'thingness'.

How do we understand its 'thingness'? By what right can we call it a thing, as opposed to a collection of other things? Does its thingness rest only in the mind of the beholder, in the thing itself, in some mix of the two, or where? What about changes?

If we look at our bunch of keys in different ways, we see a different thing - a load of metal bits, a device to secure house, car, etc. against unauthorised entry, etc. - how come? What is the relationship between the keys and the bunch, a singer and solo, a singer and orchestra? Is a bee in a cage the same as the bee in the open, pollinating flowers? Is the lost bunch of keys the same as the one in my pocket? Is the solo at rehearsal the same as the one at the Royal Command Performance?

Such questions are ones that Dooyeweerd faced, and tried to tackle, when he devised his Theory of Entities.

Dooyeweerd proposed that Meaning rather than Existence is the primary property in created reality. But he recognised that entities still exist, and so devised his Theory of Entities to account for entity and existing. To the traditional Existence-oriented thought, this was thought to be no problem since entities just 'are'. But, as we have shown, there are problems with this traditional thought. Heidegger is one who is famous for trying to question this, by drawing attention to the situatedness of existence. But Dooyeweerd goes much further.

Dooyeweerd's Theory of Entities seems rather more complex, but overcomes some of these problems. This page summarizes Dooyeweerd's Theory of Entities; for a fuller treatment, see Hart's Understanding Our World.

A useful example illustrating some of the points can be found in Margaret Thatcher's famous saying that there is no such thing as society..

Dooyeweerd's discussion of entities and their types is found in Volume III of his New Critique of Theoretical Thought [1958]. That treatise can be read in two ways, either as a textbook or as a discussion of ways to apply the idea of aspects to understanding entities, and of the advantages this might bring. Most Dooyeweerdian thinkers seem to treat it as textbook, but I believe Dooyeweerd meant it as illustrative discussion, which we have the responsibility to develop further.

The Aspectual Root of Entities

Entities come into existence because of aspectual functioning. For example, a poem comes into existence because someone (a poet) functions in the aesthetic aspect, a rabbit comes into existence because two other rabbits function in the biotic aspect.

Aspects also account for the stable state of existence of things. The rabbit exists as a rabbit only while it is functioning in the biotic aspect (and also the sensitive aspect). Once it stops functioning in the biotic aspect, dies and decomposes, its body might exist from the point of view of the physical aspect, but it is no longer a genuine rabbit. Its existence is governed not by the physical aspect but by the biotic (and sensitive). Likewise, the poem exists while aesthetic functioning is continuing - even if the paper etc. on which it was written was burnt. On the other hand, if the poem is written several times on several pieces of paper, it is still a single poem. Its existence is governed not by the physical aspect of paper but by the aesthetic, and perhaps lingual, aspect.

Likewise, Bruno Latour [1990, 55] says that for states, corporations, cultures, economies to exist, then have to be "summed up" somewhere. That is, they do not exist as some kind of innate Aristotlean substance, but only in relation to their meaningfulness.

In these ways we see that existence, or Being, is governed by meaning.

Types of Being

Each aspect gives a distinct type of Being. The physical aspect gives existence as a physical thing, the biotic as a living thing, the sensitive as a sentient thing, the formative as a designed thing, the social as a social thing, the juridical as a legal thing, and so on. And each aspectual type of existing is irreducible to (logically independent of) others.

This is why, for example, the poem can exist whether it is written on one, several or no pieces of paper.

Consider my hammer: it has had three new handles and two new heads over the last 20 years; is it still the same hammer? That is, what is its Being? An aspectual account of its Being can answer this as follows:

Thus we see that Being, or Existence, is no longer a simple, single phenomenon, but can be complex and multiple. A thing can be both the same and different, because it has several aspects.

Semi-manufactured Products

Trees are formed into planks of wood, which are formed into chairs. What kind of thing is a plank? "In modern life," said Dooyeweerd [1955,III, 129], "materials are technically formed into semi-manufactured products, before they are again formed into utensils." Dooyeweerd suggested that the leading aspect of utensils and artefacts is internal while that of semi-manufctured products is external, because their meaning awaits fulfilment, in the construction of something else. In ICT, graphics libraries are semi-manufactured products, used in writing a game like Minecraft. (Semi-manufactured does not indicate unfinished process, but external meaningfulness.)

It seems that Dooyeweerd did not finalise the idea [Dooyeweerd, 1984,III, 132], so it requires further research. For example, a graphics library might be used to create Minecraft's turn-to-the-right feature, but is not turn-to-the-right itself a generic ICT feature found in a software library, for use by ICT developers in writing full products? Minecraft itself expresses these stages: trees - blocks - planks - sticks - axes. Dooyeweerd believed the founding aspect of semi-manufactured products to be formative, but in software is it lingual?

Dooyeweerd's ideas call for research.

Aspectual Structure of the Thing

This leads us to Dooyeweerd's notion of the aspectual structure of a thing. A thing, as a meaningful whole, which exhibits a number of aspects (Dooyeweerd contended that all thigns exhibit every aspect). A meaningful whole is 'composed' of several aspectual beings, as we might call them, each aspectual being of a thing is defined (qualified) by a single aspect. For example, a computer, seen from the analytic aspect, is data; its analytic aspectual being is its data. Aspectual being is how the whole functions in a single aspect. Dooyeweerd did not himself use the term 'aspectual being', and in fact did not seem to use this concept much, but it is useful.

The concept Dooyeweerd did stress was that of 'individuality structures'. He also confusingly used that word to mean general laws of structure). The individuality structure speaks of how the thing exhibits every aspect, and Dooyeweerd held that it takes the form of a law.

(See Note on why Dooyeweerd used the term 'individuality structure' - because he wanted to emphasise the individuality rather than the type.)

Dooyeweerd gave the example of the marble sculpture of Hermes and Dionysis by Praxiteles [NC III:110-27]. It has a physical individuality structure - the marble of which is it carved - and an aesthetic individuality structure - the work of art. Likewise, my hammer has (at least) three aspectual individuality structures: physical, formative and juridical.

Thus we see a thing not as a single, simple thing but as something that can be quite complex, depending on how many individuality structures it has. This is rather different from our traditional conception of a thing.

Important: Individuality structures are not parts of the whole; rather, they are distinct ways of seeing the whole thing as meaningful. The whole hammer is meaningful from a physical point of view, the whole hammer is meaningful from a formative point of view, the whole hammer is meaningful from a juridical point of view. That is why we placed the word 'compose' above in inverted commas: the composition of the whole by its individuality structures is a different sort of composition from that exhibited by parts composing the whole. (Dooyeweerd treated parts and wholes differently, see below.)

Enkaptic Relationships

Dooyeweerd asked himself: what is the relationship between the individuality structures and the whole they 'compose'? He used the word 'enkapsis' for this - derived from biology but extended in meaning. He needed to coin a new word because his notion of things (wholes) as being several things (individuality structures) is rather different from our normal conception of things.

The individuality structures are said to be enkaptically bound together as the meaningful whole. This enkaptic relationship is not the same as a part-whole relationship. The things bound together by (this type of) enkapsis are different meaningful ways of seeing the same whole. Each of them covers the whole thing (in principle, at least).

This can help us understand a computer system, for example. The software cannot be said to be 'part of' the hardware, but rather it is enkaptically bound with the hardware to be the whole computer system. In fact, a computer system comprises not two but at least five individuality structures. Allen Newell discussed what he called 'levels' of computer systems - materials level, component level, bit level, symbol level, knowledge level - without any knowledge of Dooyeweerd's ideas. But each of Newell's levels can be seen as a distinct individuality structure that, enkaptically bound together, are the computer system. For discussion of this, see the paper, 'The knowledge level - a philosophical underpinning for the next twenty years'.

Likewise, this can help us understand the relationship between brain, mind, consciousness, etc. The intelligence, consciousness or mind are not part of the brain, but are enkaptically bound with the brain.

(In his Theory of Enkaptic Interlacements, Dooyeweerd did in fact identify five different types of enkaptic relationship, of which this is only one. The others are listed below.)


It would seem that the individuality structures of a whole are merely a restatement of the aspects in which the whole functions. Dooyeweerd's account of the sculpture of Hermes is like this. But we must add one further condition if we want to understand the entity appropriately: necessity. The individuality structures that compose the whole are those that are necessary to its full meaning, and exclude those that are merely contingent. For example, if the sculpture is sold, then it functions in the economic aspect, so does it have an economic individuality structure? The answer is 'No, not necessarily', because being sold is not necessary condition for the sculpture to exist with the meaning of a sculpture. Likewise, the juridical notion of ownership is not necessary, though it might be that the sculpture is owned by someone.

So, the aspects that define the individuality structures of a whole are those that are necessary to its full meaning.

However, the distinction between necessary and contingent aspects is not always hard and fast. Some sculptures are created with the express purpose of selling them, or of being owned, and in those cases the economic and/or juridical aspects are necessary. But then we tend to use different words to describe such things - e.g. 'garden ornament' - implying that their meaning is different from those of the sculpture of Hermes.

Unity of the Entity

So far we have talked about the diversity of the thing, the entity - of the many aspects that make it a meaningful thing. But what about its unity, its coherence? Diversity on its own can lead to fragmentation, but we experience entities as coherent things, so how does Dooyeweerd account for this? Also, what distinguishes entities of one type (e.g. a poem) from those of another (e.g. a bunch of keys) is tied up with the issue of unity. The answer differs, to some extent, on whether we talk about natural or artificial entities (see below), and for now we will consider only artificial entities like our bunch of keys.

The unity of an entity is to be found, not so much in the entity itself as in those (usually human beings) who give meaning to the entity - its creator, owner, user or other observers of it. But the unity arises in different ways for these different people. This is because the entity has different meaning for each of these people, and to each different aspects take on special importance (as qualifying or founding aspects).

(The observer is different from the others, in that, for the others the entity exists beyond the people whereas to the observer it need not do so. The observer creates the entity on the spot by the act of abstraction. Consider, for example, the child who tells you 'That's an elephant', pointing to a shadow on the wall.)

Thus an entity's unity might differ according to to whom it is meaningful. Each of the aspects that gives it meaning provides an aspectual individuality structure that is enkaptically bound into the whole. Thus we find that the entity could have a different set of individuality structures for each person.

However, the above account is not quite enough because there is something about the entity that transcends the people involved, at least once it has come into being. For example, the poem is different from the bunch of keys, and remains different, whatever use they are put to. What transends the human beings involves the durability of both its original meaning and the materials of which it is formed - which are the qualifying and founding aspects. Dooyeweerd seems to make a sharp distinction between original use and other uses to which the thing might be put, and there is a connotation in his writings that the latter somehow distort the entity. [This makes me feel that Dooyeweerd's account is not quite satisfactory.]

But Dooyeweerd does acknowledge changes in primary (qualifying) of an entity. He discusses the example of a cup used in religious rituals, centuries ago, which thereby originally had a pistic function and aspect. This aspect would be the purposive aspect for its creator and users. But today it is in a museum, and it no longer has that pistic aspect. Instead, as an historical artifact, it has a historical-formative aspect, important to both its current owner and those who observe it.

Parts and Wholes

The unity of an entity is expressed in the notion of the meaningful whole. Wholes can have parts, so how do we distinguish parts from wholes? Conventional systems theory holds that there is no fundamental distinction: each system (a whole) is not only formed from sub-systems (parts) but is itself part of a wider system. But to Dooyeweerd there is a fundamental difference. Wholeness is more than being the sum of parts and the 'more' involves extra meaning (systems theory agrees that whole is more than the sum of parts, but gives no account of what this 'more' is). Partness is also a distinct phenomenon.

Again, Dooyeweerd answered this question in terms of aspects. What is a whole is what is meaningful as a whole, and that meaningfulness is related to aspects. For example, the poem is an aesthetic whole. Now take one one line of it; usually this cannot stand alone as aesthetic wholes, and only has aesthetic meaning in relation to the poem from which is has been taken. On its own, a single line of a poem has very little aesthetic meaning, though it can retain lingual meaning. Take our rabbit, a sensitive whole. Its ear is part of the rabbit involved in helping it hear. It is the rabbit that hears, not the ear. From Dooyeweerd's meaning-oriented view, there is a fundamental difference between parts and wholes. Parts only express 'partness' when they are considered in relation to the whole.

However, each part can be considered as a whole in its own right when we think in terms of meaningful wholes. But to do this, we must consider the part without any reference to the whole of which is was once (or still is) a part. Remove the ear from the rabbit, and try to consider it without any reference to the rabbit: what is it? What meaning does it have apart from the rabbit? Without reference to the rabbit, it is no longer an ear, but only a physical device that happens to be shaped in such a way that air vibrations of a certain frequency are focuses. It has very little, if any, sensitive meaning. Its meaning as an ear pertains only in the context of the rabbit. In the same way, my heart is only a heart when seen as part of me, but when considered in its own right, it is merely a pump. Likewise, the line of the poem, taken without any reference to the poem of which it is part, and without even any reference to poetry at all, has very little aesthetic meaning; it has only lingual meaning.

However, partness is not always a simple notion. Take a longish poem (e.g. Tennyson's 'Morte d'Arthur') that is printed on paper. What are its parts? We can define partness differently for different aspects, and so the following questions become meaningful and able to be answered meaningfully:

Thus we see that even the part-whole relationship is not as simple as we might think.

Subject and Object Functioning

This can be made more crisp by reference to Dooyeweerd's notion of subject and object functioning. We define something to be a (meaningful) whole when we consider it as functioning as subject to laws of a given aspect.

For example, the rabbit, a sentient being, functions as subject to the laws of the sensory aspect. That means it can be thought of as a sentient whole. But its ear, on its own, can function as subject only in the physical aspect. So its ear is a whole only from the point of view of the physical aspect. The ear functions in the sensory aspect as object rather than subject.

Thus, for a rabbit at least, we see that parts are things that function as objects in an aspect in which their whole functions as subject. However, for a poem or bunch of keys, we must be rather more sophisticated in our thinking.

Natural and Artificial Entities

The rabbit is a natural entity while the poem is an artificial entity. The difference between them is that the rabbit functions as subject to the laws that define its existence while the poem functions as object. The aesthetic aspect is essential for the poem, as it is for Praxiteles' sculpture, but neither of them function as subject in this aspect. The aesthetic aspect gives the poem its primary type of meaning, even though it cannot function as subject therein.

Dooyeweerd used the term qualifying aspect to denote the aspect that gives a thing its primary meaning, whether or not the thing functions as subject or object in that aspect. In natural entities, the entity functions as subject in its qualifying aspect, while in artificial entities, it functions as object in its qualifying aspect. (However, the notion of qualifying aspect is not without its difficulties. The notion is discussed in greater detail elsewhere.)

It is not only human beings that create artificial things. For example, spiders create webs, birds create nests, snails create shells, etc. Dooyeweerd discussed many of these. Any theory of entities must be able to account for

Dooyeweerd's does so by reference to aspects, wholes, individuality structures and enkapsis. The relationship between a snail and its shell is yet another type of enkapsis.

Types of Things

What is the difference between a rabbit, a poem, a bunch of keys and Praxiteles' sculpture of Hermes? The type of a thing (a whole) is largely defined by its necessary aspects. This includes its qualifying aspect, but also what Dooyeweerd called its founding aspect.

Dooyeweerd then took this idea further to account for the different kingdoms, phyla, genera, species etc. of natural things. (It does not apply to artificial things.) At the top level, he could differentiate between non-living things, plants, animals and humans by which was the latest aspect in which they function as subject:

Kingdom of Natural Things Latest Subject-Aspect
Non-living things Physical
Plants Biotic
Animals Sensitive
Humans All aspects

(This might need refining. For example, the boundaries might not be as crisp as this simplified picture suggests. It has been suggested, for example, that some of the higher mammals function as subject in the analytical aspect. However, Dooyeweerd's suggestion merits further consideration.)

Dooyeweerd believed that, in general, the types of things that exist, or could exist, are governed by internal structural principles or type laws.

Types of Relationship

Entities relate. Dooyeweerd tried to identify the various types of relationship. He discussed the subject-object relationship, part-whole relationship and five types of enkaptic relationship:

Some might seem like part-whole relationships, but Dooyeweerd reserves that for situations in which the part has no meaning apart from its whole (as with my arm), while in these enkaptic relationships there is a degree of meaningful independence. In information technology the computer and its program would seem to have an enkaptic relationship - indeed, more than one.


To Dooyeweerd, the environment and society are not true entities. They are Umwelt, coherences of aspects in which normal entities fulfil their being, but they are also formed from the entities that exist within them. Some examples of Umwelt include: habitat, environment, society, cultural perspective, and the Internet. Dooyeweerd defined the relationship between an Umwelt and its denizens as correlative enkapsis, where these examples and others are shown in more detail.

Dooyeweerd makes the point that the environment cannot exist without the animals and plants that inhabit it, and they cannot exist fully without the environment. Similarly, society cannot exist without people, and people cannot be fully human when isolated from society.

But why did we say that Umwelter are 'not true entities'? Because we tend to see entities as qualified by a certain aspect, or at least as having certain aspects that are persistently important. But with the Umwelt this is not so; many aspects seem important, in a fluid and dynamic manner.

Implications of Dooyeweerd's Theory of Entities

See also 'Some Consequences of This View of Existence' on the 'Existence' page.

One implication is that Dooyeweerd turns things on their head. We tend to explain a whole in terms of its parts while Dooyeweerd explains the parts in terms of the whole.

We assume that the behaviour of the whole is (in principle) determined by the behaviour of the parts, as emergent properties of the interactions of the parts, while to Dooyeweerd the behaviour of the parts is determined by the behaviour of the whole. For example, we assume that our thoughts are emergent properties of the physical functioning of our brain cells, with the brain cells determining (to some extent) our thoughts, whereas to Dooyeweerd the physical functioning of our brain cells is determined by what we as whole human beings decide to think, say or do.

Another different implication is that Dooyeweerd can embrace social constructivism without denying an existence that transcends us. Because the (conceptual) entities are socially constructed - and may be of infinite variety - but always this is within the given framework of aspectual Law.

Entities have no 'essence'. Rather, they have meaning as qualified by various aspects.

Systems thinking is an attempt in conventional thinking to address relatedness and holism, especially relatedness to its environment, but it still sets too great a store on the part-whole relationship (a system is composed of sub-systems and is itself sub-system to the next higher system).

Difficulties in Understanding Dooyeweerd's Theory of Entities

Most of us find it difficult, at first, to grasp Dooyeweerd's theory of entities, but once we have grasped it, it becomes clear, useful and even elegant, and we wonder how we ever managed to make sense of anything without it. Here are some of the difficulties we have (more oo be written ====):


Latour B. 1990. Drawing things together. pp. 19-68 in Representation in Scientific Practice, ed. M. Lynch, G. Woolgar. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA.

This is part of The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.

Copyright (c) all dates below Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.

Written on the Amiga with Protext.

Created: 4 January 2003 (replacing another file of the same name, entities.html, the contents of which went into existence.html). Last updated: 27 February 2003 link to enkapsis.html, .nav. 7 March 2003 corrected html. 17 March 2003 more on non-entities, Umwelt. 14 November 2003 'aspectual being'. 10 March 2004 links to typelaws, label 'praxiteles'. 21 June 2004 link to examples/mtsoc. 25 April 2005 link to note on indiv strs. 3 November 2008 every aspect; clarified indiv structs v. aspectual beings. 21 May 2013 corrected an alignment problem. 19 November 2013 rewrote intro, with saying that NC III is not textbook. 27 August 2015 Latour; rid count. 3 September 2015 corrected '../', new .nav. 10 December 2015 link to umwelt and existence. 27 December 2016 SMPs.