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Dooyeweerd's Immanent Critique of Theoretical Thinking

Dooyeweerd employed both immanent and transcendental critiques in his attempt to understand theoretical thinking in sciences and philosophy. These are not opposed to each other, but work with each other, having different roles. [Note 1]

This page outlines Dooyeweerd's immanent critique of theoretical thinking over the past 3000 years. There is a separate page on Dooyeweerd's transcendental critique of theoretical thought.


What is Immanent Critique?

Immanent critique is opposed with transcendent critique (note: without "al"). Immanent critique aims to understand someone's thinking from the inside of rather than outside. That is, we should seek to understand it in its own terms, especially its motivations and what it sees as the problems with previous thought that it itself critiques. During immanent critique, we try to put ourselves in the shoes of the other; we take a position of humility rather than arrogance.

(Transcendent critique, on the other hand, criticises from the outside, in terms that might be meaningful to the criticiser but might not be to the critiqued [See note on the difference between them].)

Immanent critique is valuable when trying to understand other cultures and other times. It focuses first, not on what we might wish to find wrong with other thought, but on understanding what is meaningful to it, what its motivations were, what is sees as problematic and why, what it proposes as solutions and why.

This implies, of course, some common meaningfulness shared between the critiquer and critiqued - so they can properly understand each other. Standard philosophy might find this a challenge, whether of an objectivist, subjectivist or intersubjectivist nature, because none of these provide any sound foundation for shared meaningfulness that is sensitive to the other. Dooyeweerd's philosophy does provide such a foundation, in that it presumes that there as certain deep level of meaningfulness that underlies us all, and hence is useful across cultures. (This is a restatement of Dooyeweerd's claim that the immanence standpoint in philosophy divorces meaning from reality and is the only link that 'immanent critique' might have with 'immanence standpoint'.)

Does that imply that immanent critique cannot find flaws in other thought? Not at all; it finds the deeper flaws, rather than the surface flaws. Immanent critique uncovers unspoken assumptions on which the other thought depends, and hidden presuppositions that shape it and how it develops. It is by doing this that it is able to show flaws in other thought: by uncovering the assumptions or presuppositions, in a way that the other thought would accept, it then can show how those assumptions or presuppositions might work against achieving what motivates it. This is the way Dooyeweerd operated.

Dooyeweerd's Use of Immanent Critique

Dooyeweerd along with other thinkers, such as Habermas [1987], employed immanent critique to undertake a new and penetrating examination of what thinkers have written over the past 2500 years. Since they were from different cultures, it was philosophically wrong to judge them from our own standards, because then we would lose much what they were trying to do and say. Instead, it is necessary to judge them from 'inside' their own minds and cultures as far as possible. As a result, Dooyeweerd was able to demonstrate that theoretical thought has never been neutral but always driven by ground-motive presuppositions. What immanent critique is good at, is uncovering the original motivations behind an insight and the presuppositions that have underlain its development.

Let us look at his actual critique.

Dooyeweerd's Immanent Critique of the History of Western Theoretical Thought

Dooyeweerd has written hundreds of pages on the history of theoretical thought [1955,I,II; 1979], mainly in Europe and the West (though he also mentions the thought of some other cultures, and Choi [====] adopts Dooyeweerd's approach in discussing the ground-motives of Korean thought). This arose from his immanent critique (see §§dsp-immctq) of over 2,500 years of philosophical thinking, which included the Greek period and the parallel Hebraic period (500 BCE to 500 CE), the mediaeval Scholastic period (500 - 1500 CE) and then up to the present day. (Many who discuss the history of theoretical thought skip the Scholastic period, e.g. Klein [====].)

As Volume IV of his New Critique shows, Dooyeweerd is probably one of the most widely read philosophers the world has known. His reading covered:

Interestingly, his discussion of American Pragmatists like Peirce or James is almost non-existent -- a major gap. He was of course too early to read thinkers prominent today, like Habermas, Giddens, Foucault, and Bourdieu, so with such philosophers we must ourselves apply his methods if we find them useful.

Many of the thinkers were philosophers, some were social, legal or political theorists, and many were originators of paradigms in various specific fields. As far as possible, he read these thinkers in their original languages -- Greek, Latin, German, French, English, as well as Dutch. Trying to ascertain what was meaningful to each thinker, what motivated them, what they saw as problematic in previous thought, and what they proposed as solution, and sometimes came up with new insights into their thought, which are scattered throughout his New Critique. In particular, he tried to expose assumptions made by each thinker and the presuppositions on which their thought was based, as mentioned above.

The Result of Dooyeweerd's Immanent Critique

His treatment of these thinkers was not uniform, but depended on where he was referring to them. Nevertheless, an overall picture emerged that spoke clearly about the nature of theoretical thought as it has been practised down through the centuries, and across all the aeons, showing the problems listed in the page on Immanence Standpoint.

It showed that theoretical thought has never been neutral and cannot be treated as absolute, even though for most of the history of philosophy it has been treated as both. As Dooyeweerd said,

"Immanence-philosophy in all its nuances stands or falls with the dogma of the autonomy of theoretical thought. ... Not only traditional metaphysics, but also Kantian epistemology, modern phenomenology and phenomenological ontology in the style of Nicolai Hartmann continued in this respect to be involved in a theoretical dogmatism." [p.35]

The picture showed that theoretical thought has tended towards elevating one aspect to which other aspects are reduced, and even towards 'isms', in which the favoured aspect is absolutized. As a result, theoretical thought has often ended up in antinomy, a well-known example of which is Xeno's paradox of hare and tortoise. A more recent example can be found in the notion of emancipatory information systems development [Klein, ===], in which Wilson [1997] detected sinister elements of "enforced emancipation".

Dooyeweerd's main finding however, was that philosophy has, in the main, tended to develop merely by swinging between poles of the ground-motive currently in force -- between the primacy of matter and form under the Greek ground-motive, between the primacy of nature and grace under the Scholastic ground-motive and between nature and freedom under the Humanistic ground-motive. Dooyeweerd demonstrated that, when responding to earlier thought, most thinkers would both diagnose the problem and propose a solution in terms of the polar opposition of the dualistic ground-motive then in force. Only the Biblical ground-motive did not result in endless dialectical swings and antinomies.

It was not by a process of pure logical induction that Dooyeweerd explored these ground-motives (nor can it be, because the way logic works is dictated by each ground-motive), but rather a process of throwing fresh light onto what has already been recognised by other thinkers. Dooyeweerd's immanent critique of the thinkers above provided new and deeper insight into the nature of the ground-motives and into the historical and other relationships between them. In particular, as Geertsema suggests [2000, 85], "The main aim of his philosophy has always been to show how the religious starting point controls philosophical and scientific thought, both in relation to humanistic and Scholastic thinking and in relation to his own reformational conviction."

The Need to Continue with Transcendental Critique

Since many of the deep problems in philosophy spring from unquestionably presuming that theoretical thought is autonomous (neutral and of ultimate authority), such an historical finding is of immense significance. Dooyeweerd, however,
"is not satisfied with an argument that shows that in fact philosophy always has been influenced by religious convictions." [Geertsema 2000, 99].
"He wants to show that it cannot be otherwise, because it is part of the nature of philosophy or theoretical thought. For that reason he called his critical analysis a transcendental critique."

Transcendental critique is an attempt, used especially by Kant, Husserl and more recently by Bhaskar, to understand the "necessary and universal conditions" that make theoretical thought possible [Clouser [2005] in a way that is less influenced by presuppositions from various ground-motives or the 'isms' that became fashionable.

For Dooyeweerd's transcendental critique(s) of theoretical thought, to try to understand it more deeply than these thinkers have done, see the Page on Transcendental Critique.


Note 1. Immanent and transcendental critiques have no connection with immanence and transcendence standpoints in philosophy. Standpoints are religions presuppositions about what is Divine or the Origin of all, and Dooyeweerd has demonstrated that taking an immanence standpoint has led most philosophy into endless fruitless antinomies. See page on the Immanence Standpoint in philosophy. However, there is one indirect link between immanence standpoint and immanent critique, an advserial one: As argued above, immanent critique presupposes shared meaningfulness at a deep level, while the immanence standpoint denies this or restricts it to certain aspects.

Note 2, on the difference between immanent and transcendent critique: Immanent critique aims to understand someone's thinking from the inside of rather than outside. Transcendent critique, on the other hand, criticises from the outside, in terms that might be meaningful to the criticiser but might not be to the critiqued. It tends to be arrogant and care little for what the critiqued find meaningful.

An example: When socialism criticises capitalism for not promoting justice for the poor, this it transcendent critique, because justice to the poor is of little interest to capitalism. What is of interest is the running of good market. So, if socialism were to criticise capitalism on the grounds that, by ignoring justice for the poor, it was closing down its possible markets, then that would be immanent critique. One can also formulate an example of this difference the other way round.

As our reactions to such an example might show, transcendent critique is adopted when we want to defeat the other rather than understand them.

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: 6 October 2015. Last updated: