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Two Sides of Reality: Law-Side and Entity-Side

What is reality (assuming reality exists at all)? Those who believe there is a reality usually assume that reality consists of the things that exist and events or processes that occur, whether past, present or future. But to Dooyeweerd, reality has two sides, a law-side and an entity-side.

NOTE on terminology: 'Entity side' is not a good name because some things that exist or occur are not entities. But no good name has yet emerged. Dooyeweerd sometimes called it the subject side, but there are objects too. Dooyeweerd sometimes called it the fact side, but as Stafleu [forthcoming, 2014] points out, "a fact [is] an objective expression of human knowledge. Within a certain discourse, something is considered a 'fact' (as opposed to a 'hypothesis') if everybody {1} concerned agrees with it." Stafleu suggests we call it subject and object side.

Dooyeweerd drew a clear distinction between the two sides and defined the relationships between them. The two sides can be seen as orthogonal: an entity crosses several modalities, and a modality crosses several entities. Universals cannot be found within the entity-side (nor can they be derived therefrom as various historical forms of empiricism hoped) but only in the law-side. Only entity-side is directly observable and experienced; the law-side is a framework within which even our observing and experiencing is made possible. To be aware of the law-side we must engage in some measure of theoretical or abstractive thought, because the law-side is not directly observable.

To Dooyeweerd, law is more like promise than authoritative demand: "If you do X then Y will result" rather than "You must do X". Law is that which enables rather than constrains. It is God's gift to the cosmos that enables its freedom, actuality and separate existence, the 'boundary' between what is Divine and what is not. We discuss the nature of Law, as Dooyeweerd saw it, elsewhere.

In recognition of these two sides, Dooyeweerd proposed two main 'theories' (actually frameworks for understanding, rather than scientific theories): a Theory of Modal Aspects and a Theory of Entities.

Difference from Traditional Thinking

We can immediately see the difference from traditional thinking. While to Pierce [1898] "the first germ of law was an entity", Dooyeweerd reversed this, making the law-side the origin and enabler of the the entity-side. Entity-centred thinking postulates that laws are merely results of entities, if they exist at all, and that there can be no laws without entities. But to Dooyeweerd, entities are the results of (response to) aspectual law; there can be no entities without law.

Dooyeweerd view enabled him to postulate a theory of entities that overcomes many of the problems concerning 'existence' that have arisen.

In everyday living the entities stand to the fore, as it were, and the Law Side recedes into the background, but in science the Law Side comes to the fore while the entities recede. That is, when we analyse reality and seek to give universals we should study the Law Side rather than entities and happenings. We can indeed take the behaviour of entities as empirical data, but we should look behind it to distinguish the aspect of the behaviour that interests us and its laws. It is the Law Side that expresses the fundamental Meaning, and it is the Law Side that enables entities to 'exist'. Entity-centred thinking assumes that entities stand to the fore in both everyday and scientific thinking; it makes the assumption that science must of necessity take the same stance as everyday life.

Comparison of Law- and Entity-Side

Entity-Side Law-Side
Reality that exists or happens Reality that pertains
Things, events, procsses Law-promises that enable things to exist or occur
Subject to law The law itself
('the law of God for the cosmos')
Beings, Doings, Knowledge Meaning, Normativity
Actuality Possibility
Directly observable Only seen by means of theoretical thought.
Only individuals - things Universals - Types of thing
Derived, emergent Given, enabling emergence

... more to be written


The proposal of the two sides was a stroke of genius on Dooyeweerd's part. It resolves a number of tricky issues, such as:

Two sides to lifeworld

In addition, this notion of two sides can help enrich the notion of lifeworld.

This is part of The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Written on the Amiga with Protext. Questions or comments are very welcome.

Compiled by Andrew Basden. You may use this material subject to conditions.

Created: 15 June 2004. Last updated: 13 September 2004 link to law.html. 23 November 2005 unets. 2 March 2006 Added lifeworld. 4 October 2013 note on terminology.