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The Formative Aspect

Dooyeweerd called this the 'cultural' and sometimes the 'historical' aspect, but included technology within its scope. He defined the kernel meaning as 'formative power'. I have taken the liberty of naming the aspect 'formative' because both 'cultural' can have connotations high art and city life in U.K. English (e.g. "a cultured person") and 'historical' can focus the mind too much on the time element. From the number of people who use this name nowadays, it seems not inappropriate.

However, apart from the name, I have tried to keep close to Dooyeweerd's actual meaning of the aspect - formative power - and to elaborate it and explore its implications. There is something odd, to Western thinkers, of technology and culture being placed together; see below. Stafleu calls this the technical aspect.

Briefly ...

We experience the formative aspect as deliberate creative shaping of things, usually with some end in mind. All kinds of things can be shaped: clay into pots, concepts into arguments, words into phrases, sentences, paragraphs, people into performers, social relationships into institutions.

Meaningful in this aspect are human activities like:

designing, constructing, developing, processing, controlling, achieving; things like purposes, goals, means, ends, plans, skills, craft, techniques, structures, tools and technology; properties like simple, complex, well-finished, innovative.

What is shaped, constructed or planned? Can be anything, of any target aspect: clay into pots (physical), bricks into a building (formative), words into sentences (lingual), lines into shapes (spatial), roles in an organisation (social), and so on. We can shape beliefs (pistic). It is interesting that the same area of the brain (frontal lobe?) is activated in both manipulating shapes and forming speech, suggesting that the formative process is the same in those different target aspects.

Relationships between things or concepts, such as between nut and bolt or as are found between data in programming languages, are of the formative aspect, though concepts themselves are of the analytic (and relationships between people are social). And they seem all to be two-way, reciprocal (or more). e.g. when we screw a nut onto a bolt this entails that the bolt screws into the nut; when we make a reference from concept X to concept Y in a data structure, then we also imply the reverse one from Y to X. (It may be that this reciprocality is in fact of the analytical aspect; that needs to be thought out.)

History and culture, as in agriculture, are of this aspect, and Dooyeweerd called it the 'historical' or 'cultural' aspect. His discussion of this aspect is in [1955,II, 68-69,192-217] with lengthy discussion of many other views, continuing to page 298 in discussing links with other aspects, the history of humankind, and of progress as humanity's 'opening up' of aspects.

The good possibility that the formative aspect introduces to temporal reality is achievement and innovation. We create tools to achieve more effectively, we repair and maintain things. We train and develop skills. We create technologies to help all this, and institutions and infrastructure to enable us to live in ways not possible before. This is progress.

Formative good can be hindered by laziness or destruction (not deconstruction). Refusal to innovate is not always negative because refusal might itself be a formative act aimed at overcoming injustice.

Defining the Aspect x

Kernel x

rather than:

See McIntyre's excellent discussion of the kernel of this aspect below, to get a good jist of its meaning, including what it is not.

Some central themes x

Common Misconceptions x

The Aspect Itself

Shalom - Contribution x

Harm x

Some evils that are meaningful by reference to the formative aspect. It is this aspect that shows they are harmful.

Idolisation, or over-elevation, of the formative aspect is harmful, even when not going against its norms. "Planning to the Nth degree" - too much planning is useless. "You're trying too hard" - too much emphasis on formative power is counter-productive. When this goes to the extreme, we have made the formative aspect of life an idol.

An idol not only destroys life as a whole but delivers the opposite of what it promises. Paradox. Idolising innovation kills innovation. Think of the (digital) information technology sector, where innovation is almost worshipped. To get innovation, we are told, requires more and more money, and huge corporations to fund it. So they choose the innovations that will seem successful and suppress all the others. Often via patent law. So only a narrow range of innovations actually occur, and all the others are prevented. Because we idolised innovation.

Non-Absoluteness x

Patel Versillio said:

"Every technology possesses its own accident."

It may be a fundamental law of the formative aspect that every artefact will one day go wrong and fail. This seems true whatever kind. Material artefacts like levers go wrong because their material wears out. Mental or conceptual artefacts like heuristics go wrong because they cannot embrace the entire diversity of reality. Social artefacts like clubs or institutions go wrong because formed roles and relationships cannot fully express social realities. And so on.

Special Science x

Institutions x

Contributions from the Field x

"History is not a succession of events; it is the links between them." [E.E. Evans-Pritchard, Anthropology and History (Manchester 1963)]. But what kind of events are meaningful in this and, especially what kind of links? Which aspect most makes the links meaningful so that they are considered, while other kinds of links (such as physical) are ignored. Primarily, I would argue, it is formative links that are most considered, with some lingual and social too.

The Aspect Among Others

All humanity seems to feel the same: It's lovely to have a piece of technology that people admire: car, camera, mobile phone, or cooker, spear, knife, or whatever. This links the formative aspect strongly with the pistic.

Law-dependencies x

For example:

This means that all human activity in the post-formative aspect has a deliberate element, a technical element and an historical element. But it also means that all post-formative human activity is susceptible to historicism.

Analogies x

Antinomies x

Common Reductions x

Notes x

McIntire's Discussion of Kernel of Aspect

C.T. McIntire (1985), in his chapter on Dooyeweerd's view of history - of which this aspect is the qualifier - explained nicely Dooyeweerd's thoughts about the kernel meaning of this aspect, as follows ...

"According to Dooyeweerd's theory, the crux of the historical aspect, what he characteristically called 'the nuclear moment' of the aspect, he identified as follows. The key word, strictly speaking, is 'power' in the sense of control and mastery. This he amplified as 'the controlling manner of moulding (or forming) the social process,' all of which he associated with the word 'cultural'. This he amplified still further as 'the cultural process of development of human society' (cf. NC 2:68-69, 194-201, Twi, 90-93. Putting it all together, Dooyeweerd summarized his designation of the historical aspect:

Mastery or control, in its original modal sense, elevates itself above what is given and actualized after a fixed pattern apart from human planning. It pre-supposes a given material whose possibilities are disclosed in a way exceeding the patterns given and realized by nature, and [are] actualized after a free project of form-giving with endless possibilities of variations.
It always seeks new roads in such a way that what precedes fructifies that which follows, and thus a certain continuity is preserved in cultural development. NC 2:197-98)


The English term 'power' was Dooyeweerd's own choice as a translation of the Dutch words macht or beheersing which correspond with the German words Macht or Beherrschung. He wanted to avoid senses of the term 'power,' such as ability, or effectuating capability, or energy, or force. To do this he added the words 'control' or 'mastery'. What comes to mind is craftsmanship and technique. The image his words conjure is that of a potter who, as a master craftsman, works expertly with clay (the material) to produce a pot. The potter is not like a spider, Dooyeweerd observed, who can make only webs. As a craftsman he can form first a pot, then a plate, and next a ceramic sculpture. The possibilities are all there in the clay. As the potter freely changes his plan, he forms new varieties of products. This, indeed, seems to be the model from which Dooyeweerd derived his designation of the historical aspect. This is what he depicted by the words 'forming' or 'moulding', and what he meant by the word 'cultural'.

... nonhuman physical material like clay ... the control farmers have over their crops, but that control lasts only as long as the economy and the weather are fine ... the control a good speaker has over a crowd, but that delicate relationship lasts only as long as the crowd consents to listen ... such control and planning are fragile even in the best of times ...

We may be sure that Dooyeweerd wanted us to consider 'power' with respect to even the most complex matters, for he added the words 'social process' to his designation of the historical aspect and he returned to the theme of power in his theory of social structures. ... "


An important concept is introduced with this aspect: semi-manufactured products, such as wooden boards, nails, screws, etc. that have little meaning in themselves but whose meaning is to be used in the manufacture of complete artifacts. It is likely that this concept, now introduced, has analogies in later aspects; for instance, it might be that letters are the semi-manufactured products from which we form words in the lingual aspect.

Perceptual Control Theory

Taylor (1998: Int. J. Human Computer Studies) proposed Perceptual Control Theory in which "People act to bring about the conditions they desire - to perceive their world as they wish it to be. They control their perception." This is formative functioning in regard to people's own perceptions.

Creativity vs. Control ?

How come creativity and control are in the same aspect? How come 'culture' and technology share the same aspect? It seems rather odd to Western thinking. Creativity seems somehow to be an opposite of control, art the opposite of technology. After all, creativity is to do with human freedom, while control, especially by the 'authorities' and the rationalists, stifles creativity.

A long-standing presupposition in Western thought is that there is a dualistic opposition and even antagonism between determinism and freedom. This works itself out in the way we think when we oppose rationality to intuition, in our view of knowledge when we oppose fact to value, and in the way we do things when we oppose control to creativity. It lies at the root of the world-view clash between modernism and post-modernism.

Dooyeweerd however did not share that presupposition, seeing all the temporal reality that we experience as created by a good Creator, and hence never really at odds with itself (though often marred by evil). To him there is an element of determinativity and normativity in most of the law-spheres in which we function, and if human logic cannot reconcile them, this just shows the limitations of reason.

In the formative aspect we find this mix of detminative and normative ingredients of formative power. Control is more determinative while creativity is more normative.

But even when exercising control in real life we meet some normativity. This is because of the multi-aspectual nature of real life: we are not just excercising control, but are doing so for some integrated, multi-aspectual purpose. So we must do so responsibly, ethically, economically, with regard to social relationships, etc.

This brings us back to whether 'culture' and 'technology' are different things. In both, the central functioning is formative power, creativity, achievement, design, etc. Imagine an opera singer: s/he is most admired when the performance is under control yet with that added element of controlled creativity (what we sometimes call 'interpretation'). Similarly while in creating a new piece of technology we control some medium, what we see as a good piece of technology has a strong element of creativity. (As a personal note, way back in my undergraduate days I saw some similarity between 'engineering' and 'art': both were creative in their different ways.)

The difference between 'culture' ('art') and 'technology' ('engineering') lies in our expectations of them, that art should be heavily influenced by aesthetic considerations while technology is more influenced by economic considerations.

So it does seem more natural now to place culture and technology, control and creativity, together in a single aspect.

Comments Received x

Discussion with A.M.

(An email discussion with A.M. I've added various html formattings etc. but retained original wording and spelling.)


The historical aspect is problematic. I really do not wish to call it historical because that word is too limited. This aspect concerns everything that forms us, things that restrict but also develop us. It focuses on defining the framework within which we can operate, it keeps things together but it also restrains and prevents. So systems or situations characterised by this modality can be many, e.g. technology, culture, things/systems we design. Our historical past is also a part of this modality.

However, when talking about history people seldom see the link to today. I experience that history is not often used as a source of knowledge for the present. It is often argued that today is so different from how things functioned just 30-40 years ago so theories and knowledge from those days are not applicable today. Further, since happenings in history forms us it also somewhat decides our future (at least it should, that would be logical). History and future are in a way the same, united in the present.

However, I prefer to put future in the credal (pistic) modality, pointing to visions and that we are not all predestined due to our past but can choose direction. But, if future and history is the same, the historical past does not at all belong to the credal modality, does it? I also think of Dooyeweerd’s discussion of time and if that can put some light on my confusion. However, what I have read so far does not make understand more (rather less). Perhaps I should try to differentiate the time aspect from the shaping aspect? The problem is then semantic; what word conveys the shaping aspect in everything including the past without drawing attention to past times?

A final comment, I do not see the link between this modality and its preceding, nor to its succeeding, as clear as e.g. between the sensitive and the logical, between the biotic and the sensitive, between the kinematic and physical etc. An exception is when I think of this modality in the form of creating and designing things, and where e.g. strategy is a result, then I see the close connection to logics. (Perhaps strategy belongs to the logical modality and the act of creating it to the forming (historical) modality?)


Until the last few lines that was a good description of what I call the formative aspect (though your use of the word 'shaping' is maybe even better?). I don't think you are as confused as you think you are.

One thing that might help is something Donald pointed out once. There is a difference between 'production' and 'design'.

I think that this aspect is to with the latter (design) and that production is either to do with another asepct or is a distorted, limited, version of true creative formation.

On the (dependency) links links with pre and post asepects. To form creatively (as opposed to merely mechanically produce) we need to make distinctions. Hence the need for the analytical aspect. Then, to communicate symbolically (lingual) we actively form sentences that we speak and actively form interpretations when we listen. So lingual requires formative.


Yes, you are right when you put it like that, i.e. emphasize the formative, but there are so many things that forms us. Also, I can find the links, but I have to look for them, I don't glide as nicely to the lingual as I do when I talk about sustaining life (biotic) and how that also requires a will to life (sensitive). Or how the sensitive and logical give different aspects of psychic experience. Now I see! perhaps the 'solution' is yet another modality. Donald's idea of operational is not a bad one. That would take care of a lot of problems that I experience with this modality.

The historical aspects puts the limits, the boundaries, and thus forms us. It gives us the limits in which to operate. Like the musician, he or she is 'reduced' to the musical scale and operates within this boundary. Technology and design I then put in the operational modality (which builds on the forming modality). Technology has its focus on operational methods and skill and have strong relations to determinative aspects as well. Design consists of operations and managing the operations in the light of aesthetics (at least I think it should consist of these elements). Production is also in the operational and needs to be managed, but this type of system is not as strongely related to the historical.? And definitely not to aesthetics, I think the logical aspect is strong in this system.

Thank you for your comments. They have been very helpful both in confirming my understanding and in bringing my thoughts forward.


I feel uneasy about two things in that paragraph.

1. You focus on what forms us, including in a previous para. But I see the formative aspect as us doing the forming. That is, your emphasis seems to be on humans as objects, to whom action is done to, while I understand Dooy's thrust to be that we are actors, subjects, who do things. (It is this that sets Dooy apart from functionalist, positivist, etc. ideas, and gives him much in common with interpretive, constructivist ideas, though he retains a strong ontology and belief in Reality which they do not.)

I think that thinking about 'what forms us' can be unhelpful. In particular, the musicion is not 'reduced' to the muscial scale. The piano is, but not the violin etc. Even if we allow that the current musical scale is somehow the 'best' approach to music (which I do not; I believe the music of other cultures is not inferior), this is not determined by thr formative modality but rather by the laws of the aesthetic.

2. I don't like the easy proposing of new aspects such as the 'operational'. It *might* indeed be another aspect, and the perceived difference between technology and art (both formative) could be a motivation for separating them. But I think there are stronger reasons for keeping them together in the same modality, and also that there are cultural reasons why art and technology have been separated, that are not ontologically fundamental.

Hope that makes sense.

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.

Written on the Amiga with Protext.

Created: 1997?. Last updated: 28 March 1997. 30 August 1998 rearranged and tidied. 27 June 1999 Simon. 28 June 1999 Manufacture, semi-man'd products. 7 February 2001 copyright, email. 5 March 2001 shalom added and moved earlier. 25 June 2001 PCT added. 19 September 2001 Versillio accident. 27 September 2001 kalsbeek quote. 14 March 2002 better themes and kernel; semi.manuf 1 November 2002 More on kernel meaning from McIntyre. 28 April 2004 maintenance, .nav, .end. 24 August 2005 nav link to aspects, new .end. 12 December 2005 repair. 5 January 2006 'technical'. 19 August 2008 deps + historicism. 14 October 2008 Hevner's 'Design Science'. 26 February 2009 admire technology=pistic; spelling: mcintire. 21 April 2010 newness, and the harm of control. 22 September 2010 Dooyeweerd's and Basden's kernel. 3 September 2015 removed link to chapel; new .end, better .nav. 21 September 2016 briefly. 22 April 2020 target aspects, same area of brain. 24 August 2020 Artefacts go wrong; small. 3 October 2020 Failure. 29 December 2020 goals. 15 January 2021 relationships. 19 April 2021 field: history is links. 9 February 2022 "failure" and other things in both top list and Harm section. 7 October 2022 evils meaningful. Innovation paradox.