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On Rene van Woudenberg's Understanding of Aspects

This page comments on Rene van Woudenberg's discussion of Dooyeweerd's idea of aspects and Vollenhoven's idea of functions, as contained in his paper 'Aspects' and 'Functions' of Individual Things, Philosophia Reformata, v68(1), 2003. There is of course much more van Woudenberg has published, which are not commented on here. This response is as it was written in 2003 and though most of what I wrote then I still hold, some things I might put differently now.

Warning: there is strong language in what follows, or at least strong concepts and emotions! I am afraid I am not going to be kind to Rene van Woudenberg. He does a demolition job on (what he thinks is) Dooyeweerd's notion of aspects. Maybe I do a demolition job on his arguments? [This paragraph was originally the second paragraph of my comments below.] .


Van Woudenberg ['Aspects' and 'Functions' of Individual Things, Philosophia Reformata, v68(1), 2003] compares Dooyeweerd's notion of aspects with Vollenhoven's notion of functions. He explains Vollenhoven's notion well, making it attractive. Unfortunately, he seems to misunderstand and misrepresent aspects in fundamental ways. It is no surprise that he preferred Vollenhoven's notion to the poor and distorted notion of aspects that he put forward. Here I try to highlight those areas where I believe he has misunderstood, and open up his arguments to scrutiny. I will follow the sections of his essay.

1. Van Woudenberg (vW) discusses that Dooyeweerd "has more affinity with bundle theory than with the substratum theory." (A thing is nothing more than the bundle of its properties, versus it is something that happens to have properties.) But, in my view, to make this the only choice is misconceived. In particular, he seems to presuppose the primacy of Being over Meaning, and does not show that he appreciates the significance of Dooyeweerd's view that Meaning is primary over Being.

vW seeks to define what aspects are. But he seems largely to overlook the central idea that aspects are the framework of Meaning in which all things can Be, Do, Know, etc. In missing this point, his discussion is thereby limited to pilfering round the edges of Dooyeweerd's thought r-ather than engagi ng with the core of it. Hi S who l e di SCIJSS i on centres on, and presupposes, things (Being) rather than Meaning, and sees aspects as something that things have.

I will return to this point later, in section 9.

2. He is correct in clarifying that "an aspect is not part of an individual thing."

3. He argues than an aspect is not a property of a thing. His argument is OK but rather shallow.

4. A diamond has 15 aspects, meaning sides. But a modal aspect is not a side. OK, but again a bit shallow.

5. With the question, "Should we .. say that having a physical aspect is having a certain sort of quality, namely a physical quality?" he seems to get near to Roy Clouser's notion that an aspect is a basic type of attribute. But he continues

"In the philosophical tradition 'quality' is mostly used as a synonym for 'property'. But, as indicated, according to the CP adherent, a modal aspect is not a property. If a quality is not a property, however, it remains unclear what a quality is. Therefore it cannot be used to explicate, or shed light on, 'modal aspect'"

It is clear that he conflates 'sort of quality' with 'quality' itself, a fundamental mistake. Sadly, he approaches a door which would let him into the core of what an aspect is, but turns away before even knocking on it.

In the same section, he then considers aspect as 'mode of being' of an individual thing, rejecting it without any reasoning on the flimsy grounds that "But again, by my lights 'mode of being' isn't any clearer than 'modal aspect' and hence unfit to explicate its meaning."

It seems to me that he does not even try to understand 'mode of being'. Once one has understood the primacy of Meaning, aspects as a mode of being are reasonably easy to understand. For example, we can say that a poem is both a written/spoken thing (lingual mode of being) and a work of art (aesthetic mode of being). Maybe the problem is that vW has only considered natural entities, mainly physical, and not considered artificial entities such as poems. (See also in section 9.)

6. He then discusses whether "having a physical aspect" might mean lilt is composed of physical material." He rejects this, not on the valid grounds that being composed of physical material is only one way of having a physical aspect, but on completely spurious grounds of identifying "material" with "parts" and thinking that the phrase "having physical aspect" is synonymous with "having physical parts."

7. He then discusses whether "having a physical aspect" might mean lilt is subjected to physical laws, such as the Law of Gravitation." His discussion here is of better quality, and more detailed.

First, he introduces a new statement, "All individual things have a physical aspect," which he accepts without question and takes without asking what it might mean. He does not, for example, consider whether it means things have a physical aspect all the time or some of the time, necessarily or contingently, actually or potentially. And, on the basis of this unexamined statement, he proceeds to argue why "having a physical aspect" cannot mean "being subject to physical laws".

He points out that we cannot say that a family is subjected to the law of graviation on the grounds that members of a family are subject to it, because this is a fallacy of composition. "I am not inclined to conclude from this that .. a family, in contrast with the sum of its members, is subject to the Law of Gravitation. II I agree.

He recognises that a family may be subject to other physical laws than that of gravity, and considers the idea that families are subject to the physical laws of DNA. But he claims this too is a fallacy of composition. I do not agree. It is not a fallacy of composition, not in the same way at least, because inheritance is intrinsically part of (most) families, and DNA gives a physical aspect to inheritance.

But vW does not consider this, and, since he does not consider any other possibility, he rather too readily rejects the idea that a family can be subject to physical laws.

(Recently, on ThinkNet, Roy Clouser has given good reasons for believing that a family can indeed be subject to (at least some) physical laws, for example, a family travels together or occupies space, and he explains this via enkapsis rather than the part-whole relationship and so does not fall foul of the fallacy of composition.}

vW does not see how a family can be subject to physical laws, and on the grounds of his unexamined newly-introduced claim that "all things have a physical aspect" he proceeds to reject the idea that "having a physical aspect" means "being subject to physical laws".

Moreover, he does not here consider object-functioning in an aspect, where a thing has an aspect but is not subject to its laws.

The sad thing is that vW so nearly reaches an important and primary part of the theory of aspects, namely that "having an x aspect" means being subject to (or object in) laws of x aspect, but he veers away from this on the basis of accepting as an unexamined dogma a very secondary part of that theory, namely that "all things have a physical aspect".

B. He now surveys the arguments so far, noting that he has been able to find very few positive characterizations of what an aspect it. So he now considers the possibility that aspect might be a primitive and unanalyzable notion that defies definition, much like 'good' is.

However, he immediately rejects this possibility on the grounds that "This reasoning, however, seems defective. For primitive and unanalyzable notions need to wear their meaning on their sleeves, so to speak. Their meaning (intension) needs to be clear."

This could have been an excellent point, but he continues "But this, I claim, is not the case with laspect', at least not when it is used in sentences other than 'The diamond has 15 aspectsl and the like."

All I can say to this is that he has not been reading very widely!

In my own field, writers who have never heard of Dooyeweerd often use word laspect', and equally often the idea of aspect under a different word, more or less in the way that Dooyeweerd used it: as irreducibly distinct basic kinds of properties of situations, ways in which situations can be, or ways of looking at situations. (I will try to find examples if people wish.)

It is very significant that they use the word without defining it, and obviously assuming the readers with grasp its intuitive meaning. To these writers the notion of aspect does indeed wear its meaning on its sleeve.

9. Now he switches to considering that having an aspect means functioning in that aspect, and aspects are a kind of context in which such functioning and indeed existence can take place. Specifically, "X functions in aspect A means A constitutes a context in which X can exist (or: A is a necessary condition for XiS existence)."

Ah, thought I, this is more like it. vW is approaching the core of aspectuality a third time; will he reach it this time?

Unfortunately not, partly because he added that part in brackets.

The first flaw in his argument is to assume that "constitutes a context in which X can exist" is identical in meaning to "is a necessary condition for XiS existence." (Think about the words "can ' and "neces s ary ", as well as some of the other words.) However, even if we allow the words Inecessary condition' to hold this is not the main problem.

vWls second flaw is deeper. He presupposes the primacy of existence over aspects, even though he almost grasped the meaning of aspects as context in which things can exist. He presupposes that 'existence' is a simple, unitary, unabalyzable notion, but this is precisely what Dooyeweerd denied.

To Dooyeweerd, existence is not simple, not unitary, and it may be analyzed if we see it as emerging from Meaning. Dooyeweerd's notion is that things exist (and come into existence) by something functioning in an aspect, and the type of existence is different for each type of aspect. Thus, for example, the existence of number 7, of square, of flowing, of a pebble on the mountainside, of a poppy, of a panda, of a distinct concept, of a structure or goal, of a sentence, of a friendship, of resources, of a poem, of rights and responsibilities, of a sacrifice and of a commitment, are all different.

Consider the following statement that vW makes [p.6-7]:

" ... the implication would be that e.g. the moral aspect is a necessary condition for the existence of a stone, or a tree .... This is not to deny, of course, that trees may have what Dooyeweerd calls an 'objective function' in the moral aspect: in a certain circumstances it may be immoral to chop down a particular tree, for example. But we can't say that the moral aspect is a necessary conditions for the tree's existence."

But what does vW conceive as lithe tree's existence"? He does not define 'existence', and so from the tenor of his writing we can only assume that he takes the tree's physical, and perhaps biotic and spatial, existence to be its 'real' existence, and finds that the moral aspect has no part to play in this.

Of course it does not. The tree's physical, biotic and spatial existence is due to its functioning in the physical, biotic and spatial aspects. But its functioning in the moral aspect would give it a moral existence.

Therefore, to say lithe moral aspect is a necessary condition[s] for the tree's existence" is beside the point, because the moral aspect is only a necessary condition for the tree's *moral* existence. It is the physical aspect that is necessary for the tree's physical existence.

This, to me, is vW1s deepest and most serious flaw, amongst all the others. vW does not seem to have any inkling of what it meant for Dooyeweerd to presuppose Meaning as prior to Being, and of the ways in which Dooyeweerd analysed Being as diverse and exciting.

10. Finally, vW traces the roots of some of Dooyeweerd's concepts. For example, laspect, I as a point of view from which the thing can be considered, is found in neo-Kantianism. (He seems to imply that sharing a notion with neo-Kantianism is a Bad Thing - an implication that at least needs to be questioned.)

He first asks what a point of view is, with:

" ... atom, molecule, electron, mass, charge and impulse. What is it that makes these concepts physical concepts? The question cannot be answered because physics and 'the physical' are defined by these concepts .... price, market, value, production, labor, frugality. What is it that makes these concepts economical concepts? The question cannot be answered because economics and 'the economical I are defined by these concepts."

In response, I would first point out that Dooyeweerd did suggest kernel meanings for each aspect, such as energy and matter for the physical aspect and frugal management of limited resources for the economic. We can indeed see how an atom is meaningful when considering energy and matter, and how price is meaningful when considering limited resources. Second, I would remind us that Dooyeweerd claimed that the kernel meanings of aspects can never be defined, only intuitively grasped.

Third, notice I said "is meaningful when considering". This, to me, is the key. Concepts like price and market have no meaning from the point of view that is offered by the physical aspect. But they do have at least some meaning when we are thinking about Ifrugal management of limited resources. I It is not so much a matter of definition as of clusters of concepts that all have meaning with respect to a kernel meaning of an aspect. The questions that vW posed can indeed be answered, and in a non­ circular way, because of intuition and meaning.

vW does in fact conclude that an aspect is a point of view that a

person can take. But he believes there is an inconsistency in this.

"For if an aspect is a point of view of a thinking or analysing subject then it cannot, at the same time, be something of the object. II [p. 7] .

But this is only so under presuppositions that Dooyeweerd rejected. Firstly, it was Descartes, not Dooyeweerd, who separted thinking subject from object. Secondly, an aspectual point of view does not presuppose the subject is "thinking or analyzing". Rather, a point of view is often an unthought, unanalyzed, tacit assumption, something that is more of a commitment or basic vision (pistic aspect) than something thought out (analytic aspect). Thirdly, it was key to Dooyeweerd that the subject is not separated from the object, and he saw subject and object in a different way.

vW continues, "If an aspect is a point of view of a subject, then stones, trees etc. cannot have aspects." This is not so, for the simple reason that we should not say that an aspect *is* a point of view. Only that one of the things an aspect offers us is the ability to take a meaningful point of view. It also offers us (denizens of the Cosmos) other things, one of which is to have properties of a certain type. The point­ of-view-holding subject is functioning as subject in the aspect that the stones and trees are functioning as object in, and it is the aspect that enables both.

Part of the problem is that vW seems to presuppose a Cartesian-like notion of the relationship between subject and object. (If I remember, 1111 attach a diagram that I recently composed to show the difference.)

Finally, vW ends with a quip "- which is as antirealist a position concerning properties as one can get." The way this is phrased seems to suggest that antirealism is a Bad Thing. But I would question that. As Henderson points out, Dooyeweerd initially sided with the realist camp, against the anti realists, but he then distanced himself from the realists, on the grounds that realism presupposed a detached observer (of the Cartesian type) and he did not. But he did not join the antirealists. Because of his very different presuppositions, he proposed a third option that is unlike both and yet like both. But, if one presupposes the primacy of Existence and a Cartesian view of subject and object, then realists will find Dooyeweerd horribly antirealist, while antirealists find Dooyeweerd horribly realist.

Maybe this is one reason why Dooyeweerdls ideas have not gained the respect and interest they deserve. Maybe another reason is because those who purport to know his thought so deeply misunderstand and misrepresent it to be something nonsensical.

Andrew Basden.

9 August 2003.


This page, 'http://www.dooy.info/ext/vwoundeberg03.cmts.html', 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: 25 September 2017 from OCR'd paper of 9 August 2003, to which I added an introduction suitable for the Web. Last updated: