What is it to 'exist'?
Examples: The meaning of my career might be having-made-money, having-developed-a-killer-app or having-done-good. Things might be multiple in their meaningfulness; they might be several things as once. The vase my grandmother gave me is both container-to-display-flowers and my-precious-object simultaneously; this double being occurs because of two spheres of meaningfulness, probably the aesthetic and relational respectively. Each word or phrase not only carries its semantic and pragmatic signification but cannot exist as a word apart from that signification. Even a bird's nest "is not a 'thing in itself', which has a specific meaning in the bird's life. It has as such no existence apart from this meaning." [Dooyeweerd 1955,III, 108]. Dooyeweerd did not restrict this to humans or sentient being, but extended it to all being, including physical. Rock exists, qua rock, by virtue of the physico-chemical sphere of meaningfulness and, as discussed in §§ft-3.4, qua climbable-thing for an animal. As my grandmother's vase, this double existence arises from two spheres of meaningfulness. "Signs 'exist' only as the medium and outcome of communication processes in interaction." [Anthony Giddens, 1984, 31]
It has been said that while the Greeks and all since have presupposed that the primary property of anything is its Existence, Dooyeweerd presupposed that the primary property is its Meaning, and that this presupposition enabled him to develop his theory of aspects. This page looks more closely at Dooyeweerd's ideas about Existence and Meaning.
This version is a summary, that will be filled out at a later date. Zuidervaart  summarizes Dooyeweerd's position: "Dooyeweerd ... rejects any metaphysical concept of being that includes both God and creatures as well as any Aristotelian concept of substance that disguises creaturely dependence on God."
Entity-oriented thinking tries to explain everything in terms of entities and their properties and behaviour. These properties and behaviours are of the essence of the type of entity itself, inherent to it. Dooyeweerd calls this 'immanence thinking' - which is probably a better term since it also covers some Eastern ideas that deny the existence of entities. But we will stick with the term 'entity-centred' for now.
Entity-centred thinking postulates about laws, that
- laws are merely properties or results of entities, if they exist at all, and
- there can be no laws without entities.
To illustrate: whence come the laws that govern human behaviour? Answer: from our DNA entities in response to our environment. Whence come social laws and norms? Answer: they arise merely from the operation, properties and needs of the entities that form the group within its harsh environment, and have done so over evolutionary timescales. In a different environment, or with different types of entities, the social laws might have turned out differently. Whence come the laws that govern the dynamics and makeup of DNA? Answer: from the entities that are atoms and molecules, each of which have their own tendencies depending on their type.
Notice the tendency here, in entity-centred thinking, to drive our focus of analysis to smaller and smaller entities or objects, and to assume that the properties and behaviour of the whole is to be explained by focusing on the parts.
Dooyeweerd puts it the other way round: laws are no mere results of entities but stand distinct from entities. As we see later, he holds that there can be no entities without laws, that Existence is founded in Meaning rather than the other way round. An subtle difference? Maybe, but with enormous significance.
As with any deep presupposition, it affects the direction of our thinking, reasoning and other analytical efforts. It dictates where we put effort.
It might seem obvious that a pebble on a beach exists. We can hold it in our hand and detect it via several senses, and it seems to be an entity that is easily and unambiguously distinct. Traditionally, entities were external to us, but a view built on such a presupposition, such as essentialism, runs into difficulties when considering things we create. Consider the following (I am indebted to a paper by Hirst, though I have added some things):
- It focuses our analytical efforts on distinguishing types of things, and trying to draw clear and unambiguous definitions of things.
- It leads us into trying to force distinctions between types of things, such as when a fetus becomes a human being, or whether a person who had gained a transition certificate is a man or woman.
- Much legal argument hinges on such distinctions. Including whether a man who raped two women and, after being arrested, decided to transition to being a woman, should be placed in a female or male prison [a case in early 2023 in Scotland]; all the argument is about whether that person is a man or woman, but what they did is, in a Dooyeweerdian view, more important. Is-thinking often misleads or judgments.
- In everyday life, as well as in academic life, it often leads us into fruitless arguments of the type, "But that's not a *real* expert system!" "Yes it is!" "No it's not!"
- It also makes us want to account for what it is to be human (e.g. Descartes), rather than how human beings should live. It led Descartes and Kant to divorce 'Is' from 'Ought', so that ought and normativity are treated as mere add-ons that are optional.
- It diverts our analytical effort away from Meaning and Norms, so that they do not receive the effort they should, with the result that these are assumed to be 'mere' products of opinion.
- Similarly, existence-orientation can divert us from considering our responsibility for the future. I recently (8 February 2022) heard the argument: given two scenarios, one where climate change (or some other disaster over which we have some control) happens and one where it does not, then in future the people who are alive ('exist') will be different, because the circumstances for sexual conception will differ, so we cannot say that our causing climate change now will harm those people, because 'those people' won't exist. This merely obfuscates the issue with philosophical speculation. It is better to consider our functioning now that causes damage (or good), bringing in ought as well as is.
- It has led academics in many communities into an impoverished essentialism (which assumes each thing has its own 'essence') and, as a reaction, anti-essentialism.
- It robs us of valid replies. When Margaret Thatcher famously said "There is no such thing as society", there were no grounds for unpicking that; either you were for or against her. The existence-oriented view gives no grounds. (A meaningfulness-oriented view, such as Dooyeweerd's, below, does give grounds, since it recognises distinct modes of existence.)
- It leads us to presuppose that the being of God and being of creatures can be conflated into a higher metaphysical type of Being. Heidegger tried explicitly to presuppose this. But there is no justification for making the presupposition if God is a genuine Creator who brings all things and all possibility into being.
Note: Please also see the fuller list, with explanation of how Dooyeweerd overcomes these problems.
We can see that the notion of Existence, of Being, is not as simple as we thought. Some of those above are more about what we can make statements about than strictly existence (king of France, square circle).
- What about coming-into-being; how do we account for it? For example, split the pebble in two, and what now exists? Two pebbles? Two half-pebbles? In what sense does the original pebble exist?
- The problem of process, of becoming, rather than being.
A hammer that, during its life, has had two new heads and five new handles: is it the same hammer?
Any living organism will, over its life, exchange most of its chemicals with its environment; is it the same organism? An organism grows and changes; is it the same organism?
- Human existence; how do we account for it? Are we mere bodily organisms? Do we have a soul? What does it mean to be 'truly human'?
- How do we account for Meaning? If Existence is primary, how does Meaning 'emerge' from existence? Many proposals have been made, but all so far have ultimately failed because they are unsatisfactory and cannot account for what we really experience of meaning in life. For example, to say that what we experience as meaning in life is nothing more than feelings engendered by chemicals in our brains might satisfy some scientists who are committed to a physico-reductionist view of reality, but they do not satisfy the majority of us.
- Related to that, in artificial intelligence, the big question is: can a computer ever be truly intelligent, or morally responsible, or loving, or conscious?
- If we take Aristotle's view that everything has a 'substance', it presupposes independent and self-dependent existence of each thing. This makes relationships difficult to talk about, especially necessary relationships (such as the lung is not truly a lung in and of itself, but only in relationship to the animal of which is part). In particular, it disguises the most fundamental relationship of all, the utter dependence on God (or whatever we take to be Divine) of each thing.
Dooyeweerd said (1955, his italics),
"Meaning is the being of all that has been created and the nature even of our selfhood. It has a religious root and a divine origin."
This led him to presuppose that Meaning is the primary property of that is, and that Existence emerges from Meaning [Note 1]. (See page on Meaning.) This enabled him to identify a diversity of types of existing based on a diversity of types of meaning. Briefly (and with reference to things mentioned above) ...
- Existence emerges from Meaning, not the other way round. Meaning is given to the cosmos (by its Creator) as a framework in which it operates and exists.
- Specifically, the framework is a framework of law which provides guidance for how all entities function.
- There is a number of distinct aspects, each of which has different laws. Those of earlier aspects (e.g. the physical) are determinative laws, while those of later aspects (e.g. the lingual or ethical>are normative, allowing some freedom.
- In view of this, there is therefore no need to 'account for meaning' because meaning is presupposed.
- Things come into being by aspectual functioning. For example, the message I sent came into being by my functioning in the (at least) lingual aspect. Sibelius' Fifth Symphony came into being by his functioning in (at least) the aesthetic aspect.
- This means that the message exists by virtue of being lingual meaning and the symphony exists by virtue of being aesthetic meaning. (Note: not "having lingual/aesthetic meaning" as a property, but "being lingual/aesthetic meaning".)
- Therefore, the message and symphony would be deemed to exist even if the paper they are written on were burnt.
- Note: 'exist' here has a different meaning than 'exist' of a pebble. 'Exist' is always from the point of view of a particular aspect. Thus, for example, the message exists lingually, but what exists physically is not the message as such but the materials of which the paper and ink are made.
- The pebble exists by virtue of being physical meaning.
- But if we split the pebble, by physical functioning (bringing heavy object to impact on pebble), then, from the point of view of the physical aspect, we have two of them. But from the point of view of the formative aspect of deliberate creating and shaping, we have two half pebbles.
- In the same way, a number 'exists' by virtue of the quantitative aspect, a concept or thought exists by virtue of functioning in the analytic aspect, and fictional characters exist by virtue of functioning in the formative aspect.
- Now we can see that impossible things are impossible because they are made impossible or meaningless by the laws of their relevant aspects, such as the juridical aspect for the Present King of France and the spatial aspect for the square circle.
- It was said that things come into being by virtue of aspectual functioning. This accounts for process and becoming as well as Being, because most such functioning is continuous rather than discrete.
- The hammer is therefore seen to be the same thing from the point of view of the formative aspect of human intention and shaping, but a different thing from the point of view of the physical aspect. Likewise, an organism is the same biotically though different physically or chemically.
Some Consequences of This View of Existence
This gives things a certain dignity. It is 'right' that things exist; we might almost say they have a right to exist, but only in relation to the law side and to other things.
This gave Dooyeweerd a way of understanding things and existence that allows things to be multi-layered as is being discovered in several areas of ICT as well as in other fields. His approach is intended to be sensitive to our everyday experience.
This account applies not only to discrete entities, but also to non-entitary existence (such the atmosphere -- in both its physical and its aesthetic senses), and even to things that are reifications. It can also account for Umwelten (environments within which we function).
Dooyeweerd's approach also makes it possible to discuss non-existent entities like 'the accident I prevented' or impossible 'the present king of France' or even 'a square circle' [see Hirst 1991]. Dooyeweerd explains the non-existence or impossibility in terms of laws of aspects; the latter two are impossible by virtue of the laws of the juridical and spatial aspects respectively. See how Dooyeweerd overcomes many of the Problems above cited by Hirst.
See also 'Implications of Dooyeweerd's Theory of Entities' for more.
With computers, though, we enter a different arena, and we also do so with the message, though we did not realise it.
- The lingual aspect is to do with meanings attached to symbols. It is, in a way, a tiny reflection within the aspectual system of the totality of Meaning.
- Things that are lingually qualified, that is communications, messages, descriptions, representations, etc., are two types of Meaning.
- First, they are communications and thus are lingual meaning.
- But also the symbols themselves carry some meaning - their content - and this is meaning from other aspect. For example, a message about ownership of a piece of land has juridical content. A conversation about plant species has biotic content.
- With computers, the case is similar, in that most computing nowadays involves representation of knowledge or information, which is directly equivalent to the writing a message on a piece of paper. That is, computers also have two main types of meaning: lingual meaning as representations of some content, and meaning of the aspects of the content.
- But with computers a third type of meaning becomes visible and important: that of the computer itself. The computer itself is physical in that it can act as subject only up to the physical aspect. (The paper on which a message is similarly physical, but this fact does not receive our attention because it is not active in the way a computer is.)
- This third meaning is due to the computer being a general purpose device, on which representations of many sorts may be written.
- This throws light on the artificial intelligence question: can a computer be intelligent, loving, etc.? Can a computer know anything? A Dooyeweerdian answer would be in three parts, according to the three types of meaning:
- The computer of itself is only physical, and hence cannot be intelligent, loving, knowledgeable, etc. It is deterministic in its operation precisely because it is subject only up to the physical aspect. Moreover, the physical aspect contains no notions of knowledge, love, etc.
- But as a lingually qualified entity, and from the point of view of the lingual aspect, the computer 'is' symbols with attached meaning. This was the argument in Allen Newell's famous paper The Knowledge Level. However, the lingual meaning the computer has is as lingual object rather than subject, and it is the human beings involved (the programmer, the knowledge engineer, the user, etc.) who interpret the physical functioning of the computer as carrying lingual meaning. This is discussed at length in Basden's paper that compares Newell's levels with Dooyeweerd's aspects. On these grounds, we can attribute to the computer various lingual functions such as a type of knowledge and intelligence, though strictly it is we users who function in these post-physical aspects. However, we cannot attribute love to the computer, even as a lingually qualified object, since the ethical aspect of self-giving love is later than the lingual aspect.
- The content of the symbols can be of any aspect, even the ethical. But now we have a double attribution: we attribute content to the symbols, and we attribute symbolic functioning to the physical computer.
For human beings Dooyeweerd had a different view.
- Human beings, he claimed, are not qualified by any aspect, though they may function as subject in any aspect.
- It means that Dooyeweerd disagrees with Descartes' "I think therefore I am".
- To be 'fully human' means to be functioning well in all aspects - to be
- biologically healthy,
- sensitive and with emotions well developed yet under control,
- clear in thinking and reasoning,
- effective in achieving and shaping things,
- articulate and an able listener in communication,
- with good social interactions,
- exercising care and skilled frugality in management of resources,
- bringing harmony with surprise and fun into life,
- always understanding and giving what is due,
- going beyond what is due to be generous and self-giving,
- and committed to a proper vision of who we are and who God is.
- However, existence of the human being cannot be completely accounted for by means of such aspects.
- The human 'heart' transcends all aspects, being something in human beings that reaches the Divine. Dooyeweerd claims this 'heart' is beyond the grasp of theoretical thought, so no theory may be made about it.
- (Personally, I find that a little unsatisfying because it smacks of the dualisms that Dooyeweerd sought to avoid, but perhaps because I do not yet fully understand what Dooyeweerd was getting at.)
Note 1. Strictly, Dooyeweerd says "Meaning is the being of all that has been created ...", which implies the possibility of uncreated existence, the being of which is not meaning. This could, of course, be God, the Divine Creator. However it could be argued to also refer to some of the reality around us. Though poems are created by humans and nests by birds, are not mountains uncreated, or if not mountains, electrons? But are they not created - that is brought into being? Mountains are certainly brought into being by virtue of functioning in physical laws. It may be that electrons were also brought into being during the sub-second after Big Bang. In both, their being is physical meaningfulness. So, what about numbers? Many used to believe that numbers are uncreated; they just are, and have never been created. But were they not brought into being? The quantity, seven, may be said to exist insofar as there are seven things, and before there were seven things that quantity would not exist; it could only potentially exist. Of course, seven exists, so imagine a quantity for which there is, and has been, nothing in the entire cosmos the amount of which is that quantity. For example: take the number of elementary physical particles in the entire universe, add 1 to it, square it or raise it to some other power, even itself. That quantity does not (yet) exist, but only potentially exists. If such an argument is valid (someone judge, please) then there is nothing of our actual or potential experience that is uncreated (except the possible Divine, for those who accept that possibility). Therefore all being is created. Therefore all being is meaning.
Dooyeweerd H. (1955), A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, Vol. I-IV, Paideia Press (1975 edition), Ontario.
Giddens, A. 1984. The Constitution of Society. Polity Press.
Hirst G, (1991), "Existence assumptions in knowledge representation", Artificial Intelligence, 49:199-242.
Newell A. (1982) "The knowledge level" Artificial Intelligence 18:87-127.
This page, "http://dooy.info/existence.html",
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: 1 August 2002.
Last updated: 20 November 2002 brought in portions of old 'entities.html'. 3 March 2003 .nav, links to gm.html. 25 July 2003 quote from Zuidervaart and problems Being-orientation gives. 21 November 2005 unets, new .nav. 24 June 2006 Link to ext/hirst. 28 March 2015 Giddens example of 'exist'. 10 December 2015 added consequences section and link to umwelt, and link to entities. 27 December 2016 new .nav; examples in intro. 12 November 2018 possibility of uncreated being. 12 April 2019 Thatcher "society". 8 February 2022 obfuscates the issue. 10 February 2023 trans persons; bolded problems; canon, bgcolor; new .end,.nav.