Navigation: This page '' ---> External Thinking ---> Main Page. HELP. Admin. Contact.

Plantinga's Early Critique of Dooyeweerd's Idea that Meaning is the Being of All that has been Created

In 1958, not long after Dooyeweerd's New Critique came out, Alvin Plantinga discussed Dooyeweerd's statement that

"Meaning is the being of all that has been created and the nature even of our selfhood." [NC,I, 4]

This is probably the best-known sentence that Dooyeweerd wrote, and is treated as radically new and philosophically deep.

Along with it, Dooyeweerd stressed that things do not have< meaning but are meaning. (Have meaning, in the sense of a prior thing bearing it or having a property called "meanign").

Plantinga's criticism [Plantinga 1958] was fairly harsh and he might nowadays distance himself from much that he said then. However, the criticisms he made then deserve to be aired and themselves discussed; as far as I know, they never have been. There seems to be four main points of criticism.

I outline these and comment on each. At the end, I suggest where Plantinga might have misunderstood Dooyeweerd.

1. What Does It Mean? Unintelligble or a Truism

What does "Meaning is the being of all that has been created" actually mean? Plantinga points out that Dooyeweerd ascribed being only to God and that all created reality does not have being but only meaning.

1.1 Plantinga recognises that Dooyeweerd is NOT saying that created reality does not exist, but that Dooyeweerd raises questions about the mode of existence.

1.2 Plantinga suggests that meaning is a property we ascribe to sentences and events, such as the French Revolution. Since the meaning of a sentence is not the same thing as the sentence itself (e.g. we can express the same meaning in different words), MiB cannot be referring to the identity of the thing and its meaning.

Comment: Plantinga is limiting himself to significations and to attributed meanings, treating each like a discrete entity. I believe that Dooyeweerd meant something different, meaningfulness that surrounds us.

1.3 "Though I can talk about the meaning of the French Revolution," Plantinga continues, "if I were to insist that the French Revolution itself juat is meaning, you would be justifiably mystified."

Comment: This is a good point. It challenges us to be clearer about what Dooyeweerd did intend, and I try to outline that below. But I believe that P misunderstood, since he constantly speaks of meaning as though it were a discrete entity.

1.4 Concepts we attach to meanings (precision, clarity, delicacy, etc.) cannot be applied intelligibly to things and events. Vice versa, "It seems nonsense to talk of a meaning as six foot long or travelling at thirty feet per second."

Comment: True. But again, P is treating meanings as discrete entities. Maybe Dooyeweerd intended something else.

1.5 Dooyeweerd linked MiB with the belief that all created reality depends on God and refers (points) to ("presumably") God. Only God is self-sufficient and only God is being; all created reality is meaning. Plantinga interprets this as "So the evidence for the assertion that creation is meaning is the fact that creation is not self-sufficient and that in come way it refers to, or points to, its Creator." If this is all Dooyeweerd intended, then "it adds nothing". It "becomes (at any rate within the Christian community) a truism rather than a new and startling analysis of created being." (Plantinga does acknowledge that Dooyeweerd probably meant much more, especially since dependency and reference could be accommodated under a substance idea, which Dooyeweerd rejects.)

Comment: This is a good point. Maybe it does turn out to be a truism, if that is all Dooyeweerd intended by this statement. However, I see it as related to the statement but not identical with it. The statement MiB, in my view, says much more. See below.

1.6 Created reality is rather than has or bears meaning, since if it did, there would be another mode of being that is not dependent on God. Being and meaning are thus separated, which Dooyeweerd wanted to prevent, because it is, for him, an error in the Immanence Standpoint. Plantinga suggests however that this is a "specious difficulty" since "The proper way to skirt this pitfall is not to deny that created reality has being, but instead to avoid thinking of the meaning of a thing as another thing somehow joined to it."

Comment. Dooyeweerd did not deny that created reality has being but that its being is not being-in-itself, but always refers beyond itself. P, I think, misunderstood.

Comment. Here I think P's argument is itself weak, whether or not he misunderstands Dooyeweerd. P says "Avoid thinking of meaning and being as separate!" But on what basis does he prescribe this? Surely, if meaning and being are unseparable, then he should argue why this is so, and explain what the relationship is between them. Is meaning a property borne by a substance, and if so how are they necessarily inseparable? (He has already shown the nonsense of equating meanings with entities.) In MiB, Dooyeweerd is doing exactly this: explaining the relationship between meaning and being: Being depends on, and arises from, meaning.

1a. What Dooyeweerd Meant by Meaning

I insert my own understanding here of what Dooyeweerd meant by "meaning", because I have promised it several times above.

I believe that when Dooyeweerd stated "Meaning is the being of all that has been created ..." he was referring to meaningfulness rather than what we might call meaning. We may differentiate at least five meanings of "meaning":

The first three are like discrete entities, i.e. the meaning of this sentence, the meaning of that pile of feathers, the meaning of that vase. These are the kinds of meanings that Plantinga seemed to be assuming. The first three meanings arise from the activity of a human self (and possibly an animal, for whom a plant 'means' food, but that is arguable).

The meaning of life might be a kind of meaningfulness, though not quite. It cannot arise from the self because the self want to refer to something beyond but, like the first three, it is discrete, specific to this life or that life rather than life in general. Life-meaning could be seen as a kind of value or importance of purpose.

Meaningfulness speaks of meaning that is non-specific, rather like an ocean in which we swim and live, and which does not arise from us. Polanyi & Prosch [1975] have a similar idea: meaning is something in which we "dwell". Meaning applies a "gradient" to reality, which makes reality work itself out in one direction rather than another. Merleau-Ponty also differentiated signification-meaning from meaningfulness. In a forthcoming paper (Phil. Ref. 2019), I discuss this in greater depth.

All five types of meaning refer beyond themselves, the first three to the meaning-giving self, the fourth, life-meaning, refers beyond the self whose life it is, either to society or to meaningfulness. Meaningfulness refers beyond itself to the Divine Creator.

The being of things is then made possible, according to Dooyeweerd, by the 'ocean of meaningfulness' rather than by any independent substance. This makes sense to me, insofar as it offers a more satisfactory account of (a) the being of complex things, (b) their changing, (c) their normativity, which is no longer separated from being (is from ought), (d) problems in existence such as the present king of France or square circle. Dooyeweerd's aspects are irreducibly distinct spheres of meaningfulness.

Examples: The being of things like computers is multi-levelled, each level relating to one of Dooyeweerd's aspects. Similarly, the being of documents [Burke & Basden 2004]. The being of a tool, qua tool (rather than piece of metal) cannot be understood apart from the formative aspect (sphere of meaningfulness); my hammer, which has had 5 new handles and 3 new heads is still the same hammer from the formative aspect but a different assemblage-of-wood-and-metal from the physical aspect. The present king of France is impossible because of the juridical aspect, but not the biological aspect.

2. Substance Ideas: But what is Wrong with Substance?

"Substance," says Plantinga [p.12], referring mainly to the Thomistic-Aristotlean version of it, "is a unit of being; a relatively independent and persisting entity which may have attributes but is not itself an attribute of any other being." Its attractiveness is that it provides a nice account of "freedom, causality, activity, personal identity, the unity and integrity enjoyed by the things of common experience, and the like." Most Christian philosophers have subscribed to it. Why, asks Plantinga, does Dooyeweerd reject it? Plantinga discusses three reasons, the first of which is general, while the other two are relevant only to Christians.

2.1. About everyday experience. Dooyeweerd's general objection is that substantialist doctrine cannot account for the unity of everyday experience. Plantinga cites Dooyeweerd in saying that substance implies complete independence of things, in themselves, from human consciousness and thus of possible sensible perception or thought. This, says Dooyeweerd, makes the subject-object relationship of everyday experience impossible. Plantinga interprets Dooyeweerd as objecting to "the doctrine that knowledge makes no difference to what is known" and he asks rhetorically "If I hold that trees, for example, are independent of my knowing them, how does this exclude them from the subject object relationship? How does it break up the unity of my experience?" Plantinga also rhetorically asks about unknown facts in the past, for example what Caesar had for breakfast before crossing the Rubicon. He states that Dooyeweerd's idea has its root in Kant.

Comment. I think P has a point about Dooyeweerd's own argument here; I too find Dooyeweerd's reasoning obscure. However, I think that P misunderstands Dooyeweerd yet again. Dooyeweerd does not take Kant's view of the sovereignty or centrality of human consciousness. See below.

2. About idolizing something created. Dooyeweerd's second objection is that substance notions create a resting-point for thought within created reality rather than in God, because they absolutize some aspect. Plantinga questions whether this is necessarily so, in that "The self-sufficiency of a created substance is not self-sufficiency of a over against God, but over against other created beings."

Comment: This seems to me a useful point. I have no answer to P at this point, but I do feel that P misunderstands and misrepresents Dooyeweerd here. I am not sure that Dooyeweerd says that it is substance notions that elevates created reality to a Divine resting-point, but rather it is the more general problem of the Immanence Standpoint that does so. Clouser [2005] is perhaps useful on this.

2.3 Ground-motives. Plantinga interprets Dooyeweerd as tying the substance idea to the Form-Matter ground-motive, which he agrees with Dooyeweerd is contrary to Christian thought. Thus "to employ the notion of substance is in some way to compromise one's Christianity." Plantinga finds this argument unconvincing. He questions whether employing substance notions necessarily entails taking a Greek Form-matter ground-motive.

Comment. Again, he has a good point.

2.4 I'm not particularly convinced by the two points that Plantinga says are of interest only to Christians, partly because, though a Christian myself, my interest is in the philosophical problems of Dooyeweerd's ideas rather than any theological ones. However, I do think, however, that idolization is not just of interest to Christians but to anyone. For example, several have referred to the notion of idolisation as a reason for the failure of e-government projects [Krishnam-Harihara & Basden 2009].

2a. My Understanding of Everyday Experience

Plantinga does not see how a substance notion prevents us understanding everyday experience. To my mind, it is not the substance notion per se which Dooyeweerd believes causes the problems in understanding everyday experience, but the Immanence Standpoint, which is more general. It posits that the fundamental principle on which all else depends is within the realm of created reality itself and not in any Divine creator (it does not deny a Creator God, but treats at least that portion of reality is not dependent on God).

However, Dooyeweerd's view of reality is that both the thinker and the world are part of the same reality, made possible by the 'ocean of meaningfulness'. Meaningfulness is diverse and coherent, and everyday experience is of this meaningfulness.

Meaningfulness has the character of law, which is what provides meaningfulness with its dynamism. Whereas meaningfulness by itself can account for the structure of beings, and probably for the good, it cannot itself account for functioning nor agency. However, law and meaningfulness are two sides of the same coin: law presupposes meaningfulness and yet it is law that gives meaningfulness its dynamicity. To Dooyeweerd, law is what enables functioning and subjectness. Law accounts for the list of things that Plantinga said could be explained by substance: things are subject to the various laws of aspects, and to be subject, i.e. agent, is constituted in being subject to aspectual law. See pages on functioning, law and the subject-object relationship.

3. Weaknesses of "Meaning is the being ..."

Plantinga then turns his attention to certain weaknesses in the MiB proposal itself. Though Plantinga uses argument by scorn, some of these are useful points that deserve thoughtful response.

3.1 MiB has difficulty in accounting for action, movement and causation. "How can a meaning or a group of meanings be causally active?"

Comment. Notice how P is still trying to treat meaning as discrete entities. As I have briefly sketched above, what Dooyeweerd is referring to is meaningfulness within which we operate, and which in its form as law, enables action and causality.

3.2 "I caught the square root of two when fishing" is nonsense.

Comment. The nonsensicality of this can be explained not by substance or meaning as such but by its placing two aspectual meanings together, quantitative and formative or biotic.

3.3 "But what could be meant by saying that a meaning remembers?" "Meanings are the objects of judgements; they are not themselves judgers."

Comment. Again, P is still making the mistake of thinking of meanings as discrete entities. However there is something more: Here he is talking about subjects functioning. It is nonsensical to treat a subject as 'a meaning'. However, there is a challenge here for us: What is the relationship between subjects and meaningfulness? In answer, I suggested above that meaningfulness has the character of law that enables functioning, and it is the law-subject relation that enables and indeed constitutes functioning. With a pure substance idea how can we account for law etc.? I would challenge P with the question, what is judging? What is remembering? He would not, I believe, be able to answer that without reference to the meaningfulness that is remembering or judging, which made meaningful by the psychic and juridical aspects, or possibly others.

3.4 "Again, we maintain that in some sense the self is free. But how can freedom be predicted of meanings?"

Comment. But what is freedom? Please define it, before we can even discuss that question. I would define freedom as meaningful possibility - and each aspect offers a different kind of possibility and thus a different kind of freedom: economic freedom, psychic freedom, pistic freedom, etc. Without meaningfulness there can be no freedom in any real sense. Meaningfulness is not just the root of being but of functioning and of freedom. In such a way I think I might have actually indicated how P's rhetorical question may be answered, though with "meaning" rather than "meanings". The relationship between meaning and freedom needs further discussion.

4. Reality as merely the Mind of God?

4.1. The criticism here is that if all being of temporal reality is meaning then this opens the door to the view that all temporal reality is merely the thoughts of God. Such a view is seen by most Christian theology as heretical (i.e. Bad and To-be-avoided). Therefore, is Dooyeweerd suspect on this account?

Comment: This criticism assumes that mind is necessary for meaning. In this temporal creation, pieces of meaning that are significations, attributions are indeed formed by minds, have no 'independent' existence of their own, and this criticism presumes that minds are the only and necessary source of meaning. To Dooyeweerd, these assumptions are misleading, limited and even false. The meaningfulness that Dooyeweerd writes of is not a product of mind but of God, and is somewhat 'independent' of God.

4.2 What about sin? If MiB, then we must say that meaning sins, and surely this makes no sense.

Comment: Again P is treating meaning as discrete subjects, rather than as the transcendental condition for subjectness. The nonsense arises not because of meaning but because of treating meaning as discrete subject. If we say "Being sins" that is likewise nonsensical. Being, like meaning, is not a discrete subject. Sin presupposes law, but P ignores law and its relation to meaningfulness. Law is the manifestation of meaningfulness that makes functioning possible.

5. Conclusion

Plantinga has raised some very salient possible criticisms of Dooyeweerd's view that "Meaning is the being of all that has been created ...". many of them are based on a major misunderstanding of what Dooyeweerd intended, and may thus be dismissed. It may be noticed that several times, Plantinga says "I think", "I suppose", "I take it" in his interpretation of Dooyeweerd. A major misinterpretation was to treat meaning as a discrete entity and especially a discrete subject, whereas for Dooyeweerd meaning is a transcendental condition for being. Plantinga might have changed his mind now, but the criticisms he made then need to be faced.

Some of Plantinga's criticisms, however, are valid and these require further discussion. The ones that are valid, in my opinion, are as follows. Note that I use the word "meaningfulness" rather than "meaning" because this is, I believe, what Dooyeweerd intended.

So, though Plantinga's early paper contains much that need to be ignored, it contains some useful challenges.

For other critiques of Dooyeweerd, see the list on the Main Page


Burke M, Basden A. 2004. Towards a philosophical understanding of documentation: a Dooyeweerdian framework. Journal of Documentation, 60(4), 352-370.

Clouser R. 2005. The Myth of Religious Neutrality; An Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Belief in Theories. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, USA.

Col Plantinga A. 1958. Dooyeweerd on meaning and being. The Reformed Journal, October 1958, 10-15.

This page, '', is part of a collection of pages that links to various thinkers, within The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.

Written on the Amiga and Protext.

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

Created: 8 June 2018. Last updated: