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Subjects, Objects and Things

Dooyeweerd's view of subjects, objects and the subject-object relationship is very different from that which pervades our Western culture. On this page, about subject-object relationships, we will

Dooyeweerd also has subject-subject relationships too.

Current Western notion of Subject and Object

We use the words 'subject', 'subjective', 'object', etc. in a variety of ways but Dooyeweerd gives them a very specific meaning that seems to integrate most of our common meanings. The ways we use these words includes:

As we can see, at least at first sight, there is a wide variety of meanings here and although we can link some of the meanings of 'object' with some of those of 'subject'.

However, we can perhaps detect three main groups of meaning of the word 'subject': to do with being subject to some rule, to do with being a free individual, and to do with a topic of study. If we ignore the third for now, we find something very curious: the first two meanings seem completely opposed to each other. Freedom would seem to be the opposite of being subject to rules! It is difficult to see how this can come about. But the Dooyeweerdian framework can help to integrate all the above meanings, because it takes a different view of what law is.

First, we review the traditional or common meanings and how they have come about. Then we look at Dooyeweerd's view, which manages to combine the two apparently opposed groups of meaning of 'subject'. Following that, we look at 'object', and then the third meaning of subject as topic.

The Traditional Views: Based on Epistemology

That list is based on Hart's list at the introduction of his section on The subject-object relation, though it adds to his list. He follows it with a discussion of some of the common meanings, mainly those that can be related to knowing: to knowers, knowings and knowns (things who do the knowing, the act of knowing, and things that are known). He shows, for example, that it is not possible to clearly distinguish objective knowledge from subjective knowledge. He suggests that the connotation of 'objective' as meaning 'not subjective' comes from Hellenistic thought, and leads to problems when we probe more deeply than we normally do. This division has led us to assume that the objective realm is largely physical while the subjective realm is mental, objective knowledge comes from science. He shows the confusion that this leads us into by citing Lakatos' "... articulated knowledge which is independent of knowing subjects" - which sounds like a pure contradiction! Referring to Köhler, he links knowing with experience.

We might also note that much of the view stems from Descarte's view of the subject-object relationship, in which the subject is the human knower or actor ("I think, therefore I am") while the object is non-human, or at least non-I.

Hart reviews the debate over the nature of science, as carried out by Popper, Kuhn, Laszlo, Lakatos, Hempel, and shows that in all these there are inherent problems. Polanyi, Hart claims, has a more helpful view, with 'Personal Knowledge', but he still doesn't escape all the problems. Hart then suggests 'An alternative view' that is based on the Dooyeweerdian framework.

Actually [added 16/1/15 without modifying the above], Dooyeweerd identifies four ways in which Immanence Philosophy has conceived of objectivity (see [NC, II, 367-9]) listed on p.369 (and I might have misunderstood his language):

All these ways of conceiving subject and object serve to "level out" the distinctions between the aspects. This can explain why most philosophy has had fundamental difficulties in trying to cope with diversity.

Dooyeweerd then says [p.369] "A radical break with this subject-object schema of immanence-philosophy is necessary, if we are to conceive the subject-object relation in the intermodal coherence of cosmic time [i.e. in a way that allows for irreducibly distinct aspects]."

We will now look at that view, though with less attention to knowing than Hart gives it. We will return to subject and object as such.

A Dooyeweerdian View

First, let us set out the basic steps of a Dooyeweerdian view of subject and object. Then we will show how the Dooyeweerdian view manages to integrate the two main meanings of 'subject', and why we have had difficulty with them. Then we will look at what 'object' means. Finally, some notes relevant to the whole website.

Any entity can function as object in any aspect. But not all entities can function as subject in all aspects, and the latest aspect in which an entity can function as subject defines what kingdom it is in. This provides a useful way of understanding the notion of kingdoms, though we will not discuss the matter further here. What we do provide is the following table, which shows how aspects can distinguish the four traditional kingdoms of physical things, plants, animals and humans. 'Yes' in a cell shows that the entity of this type can function as subject in this aspect. 'No' shows that it cannot. This table is, of course, not uncontentious.

Aspect Physical thing Plant Animal Person
(to do with quantity, amount)
(to do with continuous extension, space)
(to do with movement; flowing movement)
(to do with energy + mass)
(to do with life functions)
(to do with sense, feeling, emotion)
(to do with distinguishing )
No No Maybe some YES
(to do with history, culture, technology: shaping and creativity)
No No No YES
(to do with symbolic communication)
No No No YES
(to do with social interaction)
No No No YES
(to do with frugal use of resources)
No No No YES
(to do with harmony, surprise, fun)
No No No YES
(to do with what is due; 'retribution', rights and responsibilities)
No No No YES
(to do with self-giving love)
No No No YES
(to do with vision, aspiration, commitment, creed, religion)
No No No YES

Integrating the Meanings of 'Subject'

These two meanings of 'subject' and 'object' relate to all the meanings cited earlier, and enable us to obtain an integrated view of them all. Let us see how this can be.

The Idea of Proxy-Subject

What about a computer program that does something that ordinarily humans do, especially if it involved artificial intelligence? For example, the Prospector expert system discovered a mineral deposit in the 1970s - this involves functioning in the analytical and formative aspects at least, in addition to the physical. What about avatars (non-player characters) in computer games? Are they not subjects, functioning in the various aspects that humans function in? Given that the computer, as such, functions as subject only in the physical and pre-physical aspects, how can we account for this effect?

Basden [2008; 2018] suggests that we can explain it by allowing two kinds of functioning by the computer: strict subject-functioning, by which the computer is, strictly, functioning as subject only up to the physical aspect, and meaningful functioning, by which we include the user and computer together as a system. The computer can then function in all aspects, but as object, as tool of the computer user. That some of this functioning is not by the user as such but because of knowledge programmed into the computer by its designer (maybe indirectly in a machine-learning system), is a slight problem for Basden's explanation.

I (that same Basden!) now prefer Nick Breem's account. [Breems 2017] coined the idea of proxy-subject. A proxy-subject is an entity that seems to act as subject in various aspects, doing so by proxy, perhaps on behalf of human beings. All running computers with programs may then be seen as proxy-subjects. So might machines designed to do a particular job. For example, traffic lights control traffic and achieve traffic calming, which is proxy subject-functioning in the formative aspect. The idea of proxy-subject seems to me promising, and in need of further exploration and research. I hope that Nick Breems will publish a full philosophical discussion of it.


We said above that we, or all entities, experience a certain degree of freedom of response (even though that degree might be zero in some aspects). What do we mean? How can a plant 'experience'?

The notion of experience in a Dooyeweerdian framework is tied in with a notion of knowledge, and both notions are extended to all aspects. Different aspects provide us with the ability to experience and know in different ways (see different epistemologies, though here we are not restricted to scientific knowledge). So, for example, if we can function as subject in the sensitive aspect then we can feel the degree of freedom. If we can function as subject in the analytical aspect, we are able to clearly distinguish the freedom from non-freedom. If we function as subject in the ethical aspect of self-giving, then we can value that freedom and willingly die for it.

This would suggest that our total experience of freedom incorporates and is the integral of all the distinct experiences we in all aspects that we can be subject in. So human beings, who can be subject in all aspects, have a richer experience of freedom than, for example, animals might have. This is why we can use the word 'response' of even physical things: the genuineness of response does not depend on awareness of responding; even though such things cannot be aware of their response to (physical etc.) laws, it is nevertheless a genuine response.

So how we experience whatever degree of freedom we have, and our knowledge that we have of it, depends on what aspects we can function as subject in. This consideration adds to considerations of what degree of freedom we have, and thus makes the matter much more complex than we are accustomed to. It is a pointer to how research in this area might be carried out.

The Meanings of 'Object'

Now, to the term 'object'. The object is any entity that receives the repercussions of, or is otherwise involved in, the functioning of a subject in a certain aspect. So, for example, though a sheep cannot be an economic subject it can be an economic object when it is sold or when its owner measures out limited winter feed. We will briefly look at each of the meanings of 'object' above and see how they can fit within the Dooyeweerdian framework.

The Object-Side of Reality

All we have said above gives the picture of a passive object, with all the 'initiative' being made by the subject entity. Such a view is in danger of elevating the subject so that the object has no real meaning in its own right, as phenomenology, interpretivism, postmodernism and the like do. Under this view, the object-functioning becomes nothing more than the subject-functioning viewed from the other end, and the object, as object, has no verity.

Dooyeweerd did wish not to do this, but rather to give dignity to the object as object. He wanted to account for our sense of 'encounter' with things depending on the things themselves as much as on us. In Buberian terms, we can go beyond an I-It relationship with other entities, to some kind of I-Thou relationship (even if that is not fully possibly unless the entity is human). (And, in these days of environmental disruption, moving away from the elevation of subject to a recognition of the 'life' that is around us, would be no bad thing.)

So Dooyeweerd proposed that there is an object-side to our functioning that is more than the subject-side seen from the opposite direction. He contended that entities that function as object make a response, an object-response, to the subject functioning. That object-response an entity makes is centred on aspects, just like the subject-response is.

For example, suppose we are the subject, and our subject-functioning is analysing (functioning as subject in the analytical aspect). We are studying the entity that is the respiration of a certain type of animal (remember that the word 'entity' is used not only for physical things, but also event, processes, concepts, etc.; here the entity is a generic concept). Now, the respiration of animals is qualified by the biotic aspect. But we can analyse it because it (the entity that is generic respiration) makes an object-response in the analytical aspect to our analytical subject-functioning. A simpler way of saying that is that it is amenable to being analysed.

So the object-response an entity makes may be seen as its amenability to being an object in another entity's subject-functioning. In this way, Dooyeweerd restores dignity to object as object, which was lost under the elevation of subject, without resorting to a positivist outlook.

Two Kinds of Object

To Dooyeweerd [NC, II, 371], there are two ways to be an object in some aspectual functioning, which we will call 'prior object' and 'generated object' (Dooyeweerd did not give terms himself):

This might help us make sense of reifications, by which we regard abstractions or mental constructions as things. To reify is to function in the analytical aspect, of conceptualising something, the concept is the generated object of that. However, when we conceptualise we do so with respect to one aspect that we deem meaningful in the act of conceptualisation. For example, we conceptualise something economic as money, or something aesthetic as beauty. So each generated object that is a concept has two aspects: the analytical and another.


Dooyeweerd's subject-object relationship is very different from the standard Cartesian one. It gives dignity to both subject and object, without trying to force them together. This has helped us understand things in a number of ways.


Note 1: Where we usually speak of e.g. a pebble as a 'physical object' we should speak of 'physical subject'. Because the pebble is subject to laws of the physical aspect, making genuine responses to those laws. This underlines the difference a Cartesian and Dooyeweerdian view of the subject-object relationship.

Note 2: In taking his theory of subject and object further, in NC III:148, Dooyeweerd speaks about three subject-object modes in a post-formative thing like a work of art or (in our case, maybe) a computer program:


Basden A. 2008. Philosophical Frameworks for Understanding Information Systems. Hershey, PA, USA: IGI Global (IDEA Group Inc.). ISBN: 978-1-59904-036-3 (hbk), 978-1-59904-038-3 (ebk).

Basden A. 2017/2018. Foundations of Information Systems: Research and Practice. Routledge. ISBN: 978-1-138-79701-7 (hbk), 978-1-138-75748-3 (ebk)

Breems N. 2017. Subject-by-proxy: A tool for reasoning about programmer responsibility in artificial agents. Ethicomp, 5-8 June 2017, De Montfort University, U.K.

Duda R, Gaschnig J, Hart P, (1979) "Model design in the Prospector consultant system for mineral exploration" pp.153-167 in Michie D (ed.) Expert Systems in the Microelectronic Age, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.


I am indebted to Hendrik Hart's Understanding Our World for the main ideas behind this page, especially section 5.4.

This page, "", 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, in the style of classic HTML.

Created 14 February 2001. Last updated: 27 April 2001 corrected link. 3 March 2003 .nav. 5 March 2003 object-side section added, and other text modified to suit. 14 March 2004 corrected links. 22 March 2005 added contents and extra heading; added 3 S-O modes. 21 November 2005 unets. 16 January 2015 added Dooyeweerd's four immanence notions of object. 26 August 2015 Two kinds of object, reification, conclusion, better .end. 29 September 2020 proxy-subject; refces. 8 August 2022 subject-subject link; new .end,.nav, bgc, canon.