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Dooyeweerd's Theory of Aspects

According to Henderson [1994:37-38], Dooyeweerd recounted shortly before his death in 1977 how the shape given to his idea of aspects occurred to him:

"It does sound strange" he says, "but it is really true that the direction in which I worked out my philosophy and my encyclopedia of jurisprudence has no predecessors. I can still reconstruct how I got its basic idea. .. I enjoyed going for walks in the dunes in the evening. During one of these walks in the dunes I received an insight (ingeving) that the diverse modes of experience, which were dependent upon the various aspects of reality, had a modal character and that there had to be a structure of the modal aspects in which their coherence is reflected. The discovery of what I called 'the modal aspects of our experience horizon' was the point of connection."

To Dooyeweerd, the aspects fulfilled several philosophical roles and we could speak about their characteristics. This is what gave the notion its power and uniqueness.

This page contains an overview of Dooyeweerd's theory of aspects, in systematic as bullet point format. A more readable version of some of the theory, but much older, may be found in prose form, but it does not cover everything; we give links to the prose version below where they can be helpful. See aspects.html for a list and discussion of Dooyeweerd's suite of fifteen aspects.

What is an Aspect?

First, what is an aspect? It may surprise us to find that Dooyeweerd used "aspect" in its everyday sense, but gave it philosophical heft. In architecture, the east, south, west and north aspects of a building are ways of viewing the building that cannot be derived from each other. So, Dooyeweerd's aspects are ways of 'viewing' reality that cannot be derived from each other.

Just as the difference between aspects of a building are not mere subjective viewpoint but are of the building itself (and would be its aspects even if nobody ever viewed it), so Dooyeweerd's aspects are of reality itself and no mere human categorisation, and pertain even if nobody every 'viewed' (thought about, experienced) reality.

We meet aspects on the first page of Dooyeweerd's magnum opus, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, which begins with some "theses", summary statements that he will fill out throughout the work. We meet aspects that are encountered in everyday experience (he calls it "the pre-theoretical attitude of thought") but which we distinguish when we begin to think about our experience of life. He lists fifteen aspects and emphasises there is a fundamental coherence among them.

In a footnote he explains these are the how of reality rather than the what, reality's modes (of being, functionining, etc.) rather than what exists or functions. However, that how-what differentiation is to be taken as a stop-gap explanation so that the reader does not start off in the wrong direction.

Over on the second page, we meet Dooyeweerd's most fundamental view of reality: meaning. All being, and even selfhood, is meaning. (I prefer to call it "meaningfulness" to ensure it is not confused with the meaning of words, the meaning we ascribe to things, etc.) That makes sense because whatever if Created (as many religions believe all temporal reality to be), then all is meaningful by reference to the Creator and all expresses the Creator. (See page on Meaning.)

(Then Dooyeweerd goes onto his main topic, theoretical thought, but, it all starts from what he has written so far about, everyday experience and meaningfulness.)

This gives philosophical heft to the idea of aspects, without depending on architectural metaphors. An aspect is a "modality of meaning", which is a fundamentally distinct meaning-kernel. It is surrounded by a "constellation" of meanings that incorporate some of the meaningfulness of other aspects, so I call each aspect or sphere of meaning, a way of being meaningful, and a sphere of law, a way in which things can be good. It is also a mode of being and a mode of functioning (which emanate from meaningfulness and law in ways described below).

The aspects are diverse and yet they cohere. After long intuitive reflection, careful study and applying philosophical proofs, Dooyeweerd found fifteen aspects, which he lists on his first page.

"" [p.3]

All the aspects together constitute a framework, which Dooyeweerd called the law side of created reality. Having established that, we can now begin to undertand further all the the various things we have heard about aspects and modes. (But, as I have shown, Dooyeweerd said more about meaning(fulness) than about law: Basden [2019a].)

That the aspects are distinct from each other, and yet intertwined with each other, are what explain the diversity and coherence of everyday experience, and indeed the whole of human life. Dooyeweerd argued that aspects have a number of characteristics and roles that make them philosophically interesting.

Many thinkers speak of aspects to indicate distinct categories that should be considered separately (as for example in "IS evaluation must therefore take into account both the technical and social aspects" [Hirschheim and Smithson, 1999:402]). But Dooyeweerd went much further: aspects are much more than mere categories. They have philosophical roles and characteristics ...

Dooyeweerd's Suite of Aspects

Click Aspect name for its discussion page.

Aspect Its Kernel
Numeric Discrete quantity
Spatial Continuous extension
Kinematic Motion
Physical Energy and matter
Biotic Life and vitality
Sensitive Sensing and Feeling
Analytic Distinction
Formative Formative power
Lingual Symbolic representation
Social Social interaction and institutions
Economic Frugality
Aesthetic Harmony
Juridical What is due
Ethical Self-giving love; generosity
Pistic Faith, vision, commitment

On the basis of what we have below, a list of tips has been compiled to help identify aspects. See our discussion of why Dooyeweerd's suite of aspects may have advantages over those of others such as Maslow's hierarchy.

Aspects form a framework of Meaning for the Cosmos.

See also readable summary that expands on some of this.

Aspects are modes of Being

Aspects are levels of description.

See also readable summary that expands on some of this.

Each Aspect has its Own Role

Each aspect seems to have a distinct role in the Cosmos, without which something very important would be missing and things would not be able to function so well, if at all. For example:

Aspects are irreducible to each other.

All Aspects are Important

See also readable summary that expands on some of this.

Each Aspect Reaches out to the Others

No aspect exists for itself, but actively reaches out to the others (which fact links with all being important and no aspect being absolute). For example, the lingual aspect enables us to express meaning in symbols (lingual functioning), but that meaning can be of any aspect (reaching out). For example the word 'less' and the symbol '7' both express something quantitative, the word 'friend' expresses something social. Similarly, we can make distinctions and note similarities (analytical functioning reaching out) between amounts (quantitative), between words (lingual), between social roles, between religious beliefs, and so on. There can be amounts (quantitative reaching out) of rock (physical), living things (biotic), words (lingual), social roles (social) and religious beliefs (pistic). We can believe (pistic reaching out) things about numbers (quantitative), rock (physical), words and language (lingual) and so on.

Note, however, that Dooyeweerd himself does not seem to have discussed this, but rather seemed to take it for granted.

Aspects are Ordered

The aspects are ordered (from quantitative to pistic; see above).

Aspects are related - by analogy

See also readable summary that expands on some of this. See also how some of Hartmann's dualities might be seen as aspectual analogies.

Aspects are Related - by Dependency

See also readable summary that expands on some of this.

The Order of the Aspects

If the aspects are ordered according to inter-aspect dependency, several things follow.

Aspects provide an Account for Diversity and Coherence.

The aspects are a framework of Law

Note 1: this emphasis on the Law Side of the cosmos explains the rather clumsy name 'Cosmonomic' that was given to the philosophy. In fact, law is seen as boundary between God and the cosmos.

See also readable summary that expands on some of this.

The Aspects define and enable Meaningful Functioning

See also readable summary that expands on some of this.

Aspects account for Properties


Important Aspects

Normative and determinative functioning.

See also page on normativity, and a readable summary that expands on some of this.

Aspects provide a means for understanding repercussions

See also readable summary that expands on some of this.

Good and Evil


Harmony of the Aspects and the Shalom Principle

See also readable summary that expands on some of this.

The aspects provide ways of knowing

No aspect is absolute

Dooyeweerd's Aspectual Suite is not Given - but is Taken.

Some Practical Roles and Uses of Aspects

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: 3 March 2003, part 2 was cut-n-paste from summary.html. Last updated: 4 March 2003 aspectual visibility. 10 March 2003 split up reld section into analogy, dependency and order, with extra material, links to bem and ecis papers. 25 April 2003 quote about openness of asp.suite. 10 June 2003 some new sections added, to link with new material in aspects.html; added two directions of dependency. 10 July 2003 added link to Heidegger's 'worlding'. 25 July 2003 roles of aspects; minor changes, link to Hartmann. 28 July 2003 minor change to roles. 26 September 2003 link idasp. 14 August 2004 admin. 26 January 2005 link to intuition; rationality; suite tidied; added list of philosophical roles, characteristics. 1 April 2005 link to suite.html. 20 March 2006 inner link to knowing; way of relating; rid counter. 20 September 2008 link qualasp, and correct a link to qual.asp. 9 January 2009 fwm and lvl sorted. 17 March 2009 order. 4 August 2009 restored html version; added reachout. 28 September 2009 'harmony' label, some rewriting. 4 May 2010 corrected 3 links. 15 September 2010 small changes. 17 September 2010 more intro about what aspects are. 22 September 2010 Henderson quote and better Intro. 3 September 2015 corrected '../'; rid counter; new .nav. 21 June 2022 new intro.