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Aspectual Knowing

Dooyeweerd spoke first about knowing (a process, a human activity) rather than knowledge (a commodity or concept). As Hart put it, there are:

Knowing, like living, is multi-aspectual human functioning.

We normally believe epistemology is one, that there is just one type of knowledge, of knowing (and that one is reason). But Dooyeweerd claims that each aspect has a different way of knowing. For example social knowing is different from analytical knowing, and the psychology of human memory seems yet another type. Dooyeweerd proposed that knowing occurs because of our functioning in the aspects, and each aspect gives us a distinct way of knowing. Several things follow from this:

Distinct Aspects, or Ways, of Knowing

Here is the central idea of Dooyeweerd's approach to knowing: Knowing involves many aspects. Each aspect points to, and enables, a different meaningful way of knowing, or rather an aspect of what it is to know. Here is a table with suggestions. Against each aspect and its kernel meaning, it shows the way of knowing from the biotic onwards, along with a distinction about knowledge that is meaningful in this aspect.

Aspect Kernel Meaning Process of Knowing Main Distinction
Quantitative quantity, amount
Spatial continuous extension, space
Kinematic movement; flowing movement
Physical energy + mass The fact that things stay in the state they were in until some physical force acts on them. What gives knowledge its persistence.
Biotic life functions The way things have grown, etc. e.g. plant bent towards light 'knows' where the light is. Embodied v. conceptual
Sensitive sense, feeling, emotion Receiving stimuli and holding a memory of them. The basis for instinct (of the animal kind)? Remembered v. forgotten
Analytical distinguishing Making distinctions between things, conceptualizing, and making deductions therefrom. Theoretical v. pre-theoretical
Formative history, culture, technology: shaping and creativity Skills: knowing how to achieve things. Skill v. head-knowledge
Lingual symbolic communication Stuff set down in symbolic form, e.g. 'knowledge' stored in books, libraries, web sites. Explicit v. tacit
Social relationships and roles; agreement Networks of knowledge, shared cultural knowledge and assumptions.
For a belief to be accepted as 'knowledge' rather than mere opinion there must be social agreement that it is knowledge.
Culture-specific v. cross-cultural
Economic frugal use of resources Managing limits on knowledge (personal and communal memories, etc.) Efficient v. superfluous
(Occam's razor)
Aesthetic harmony, surprise, fun Harmonising what we know with what else is known, and with what we experience in life. Harmonious v. fragmented
Juridical what is due; 'retribution', rights and responsibilities Giving due weight to various pieces of knowledge and to the whole; proportion and a sense of 'perspective', an informed sense of the essence of things. Relevant and accurate v. irrelevant, inaccurate
Ethical self-giving love A complete knowing of the other person? Hebrew in Genesis 4:1 the word "he-knew" for 'have intercourse with'. Generous v. parsimonious
Pistic vision, aspiration, commitment, creed, religion Certainty. Committing to a belief, both the little commitments in everyday living and the large commitments for which we might lay down our lives. Also prejudice etc.
Beliefs determine what counts as knowledge, often hidden; See Dooyeweerd's transcendental critique of theoretical thought. cf. Foucault's archeology of knowledge.
Momentous v. trivial
Certain v. uncertain

Note: this table is of aspects of the Process of Knowing, rather than types of knowledge. That is, it suggests aspectual functioning that needs to be undertaken for a full-orbed knowing to take place.

It is clear from the table that what we call theoretical knowing is only one of many aspects of knowing, which we usually relegate to a shadowy thing called 'intuition'. But to Dooyeweerd, intuition is by no means shadowy.

Intuition, Intellect and Instinct - and Tacit Knowing

Those who are in the process of seeking an 'alternative' or 'opposite' to the dominance of intellect in Western, tend to latch onto either or both of intuition and instinct, and tend to confuse the two. But Sytse Strijbos differentiated them with a useful rule-of-thumb distinction that between intuition, intellect and instinct:

We will deal with intellect below, and focus on intuition first.

Polanyi's defined 'tacit knowing' as knowledge that cannot be explained, distinguished from explicit knowledge. This distinction is much referred to, and seems to be a intuitive notion that was awaiting a label. But the distinction is now criticised from some quarters. Dooyeweerd's notion of aspectual knowing provides a much richer account of tacit knowing.

Explication involves the analytical and lingual aspects. Since functioniing in these is not absolute, explication can never be complete, so there will always be a tacit element. However, sensory-psychic knowing is particularly difficult to explicate (e.g. riding a cycle), so is much more tacit. So is pistic knowing. In these ways, we can see that Dooyeweerd accounts for the less than sharp distinction between tacit and explicit knowledge.

Intuition of Two Types

There seems to be two types of intuition in Dooyeweerd, linked to there being two 'sides' to reality:

Subject-side intuition is multi-aspectual in two ways, which are expanded upon below. It involves every aspect of our knowing-activity working in harmony, and it is open to every aspect of the known thing, again harmonised.


Dooyeweerd's notions enriche the notion of what others call the lifeworld, our shared background understanding. It suggests there might be two types or sides of lifeworld: law-side and subject-side lifeworlds. Subject-side lifeworld is what most thinkers have meant by lifeworld: our background understanding of things or situations. Law-side lifeworld is our background shared intuitive grasp of the kernel meanings of the aspects. The subject-side lifeworld or intuition is specific to culture. The law-side lifeworld transcends cultures, in that all humanity grasps the kernel meanings of all aspects by law-side intuition (though this can be modified or suppressed by culture).

Habermas [1987:121], in discussing lifeworld, says that it is "The background of a communicative utterance is thus formed by situation definitions", and he illustrates this with an example of a junior worker at a construction site in Bavaria being sent for beer during a morning snack break. The validity of this situation rests on three types of concrete assumptions [p.122]: "element[s] of the objective world", such as that either the nearby shop is open on Mondays or the junior has a car, a "normative component of the social world", such as Bavarian cultural values (mid-morning beer would be totally unacceptable in anglo-saxon society), and a "private element of a subjective world", such as degree of thirst. All these elements of the background understanding are concrete (subject-side), and Habermas seems to take this for granted throughout his discussion of the lifeworld in [1987]. But we can also see law-side lifeworld. Behind the assumption that the junior worker goes for beer lies the aspectual norm of respect, a kernel norm of the social aspect. But in the Bavarian construction industry it takes the specific form of junior-older respect. In other cultures it might take a different form, but we all have an intuitive grasp of the importance of respect in social situations (even if we dislike it).

But he made clear that even intuition is not absolute - because nothing in created reality is absolute. Nor is it universal (across all cultures and times) because our intuition is affected by our culture, our world-view (which aspects we elevate and treat as important) and our ground motive. In this way, Dooyeweerdian intuition is not the same as Reid's notion of self-evidence.

See more on Dooyeweerd's approach to everyday life and lifeworld, and especially comparison with other view of lifeworld.

Multi-Aspectual Knowing and (Subject-side) Intuition

Traditionally it has been assumed that the best way of knowing is via the intellect: analytical, logical, theoretical. For example this type of knowing (of which these three are various forms) can yield more precise knowledge than, for example, intuition or instinct, and is thought to yield more reliable knowledge. Thinkers for 2,500 years have assumed this to be the 'real', reliable, true type of knowing.

But, to Dooyeweerd, good knowing is not just analytical. Analytical knowing is only one valid way of knowing among others; there are different types of knowing. Analytical-logical-theoretical knowing is knowing in which the analytic aspect predominates. But there are other ways of knowing in which other aspects predominate, such as social knowing (knowing a person rather than knowing about them), centred on the social aspect, and instinct, which is centred on the sensitive aspect, and many others. In this Dooyeweerd was saying in the 1930s - 1950s what various feminist writers are now saying: welcome the various other ways of knowing beside the analytical.

But Dooyeweerd was perhaps more precise than many of today's writers, in two ways. One is that he looks at knowing as a whole, our knowing that is of our everyday living and 'na´ve' experience. Our knowing, in everyday living, is one integrated whole, but it has aspects. We could use the term 'intuition' for this multi-aspectual knowing. This would at least move 'intuition' out of the realm of mystery into something rich and tangible and yet ultimately beyond our full understanding. But there is more to intuition than this; see above.

The other is that he did not abandon or reject analytical-theoretical knowing. He saw it as valid (even though he criticised our absolutization of it). It is that type of knowing that is precise and lends clarity and distinction, and that enables logic and theory. Indeed, his theory accounts for the part that we find analytical knowing and thinking plays even in our intuitive knowing.

Links with Literature

We can find a number of them cited in literature. For example, consider the following text about knowledge, from an anonymous paper recently sent to me. It contains a number of concepts that all relate to knowledge, which have been emphasized:

"We can continue to discuss the relationship between knowledge [multi-aspectual] and reality. ... I take the stance [pistic] that it is not possible to perceive [aesthetic] reality directly (Bateson, 1979). ... Thought [formative] can be about pigs or coconuts, but there are no pigs or coconuts in the brain; and in the mind, there are no neurons, only ideas [analytic] of pigs and coconuts. ... The name [lingual] is not the thing named, and the idea of pig is not the pig. (Bateson, 1979, p. 205). .. The indirect relationship between ideas [analytic] in a wide sense and reality can also be described in terms of the infological equation that .. states that information [lingual] is the result of an interpretation process in which data [analytic] is interpreted using the frame of reference [pistic] of the person making the interpretation. ... The frame of reference consists of the total experiences [multi-aspectual] and knowledge held by the person."

Heron [1996] also made a differentiation of types of knowledge similar to Dooyeweerd's, though more limited:

Distinct Epistemologies

Different ways of knowing means that epistemology is not one, but manifold. There are not only different ways of knowing in everyday living and knowing, but also:

It may be that Foucault's Regimes of Truth are similar to Dooyeweerd's aspects in this respect.

This is discussed at greater length in the page on Science.

The Special Place of Analytical (Theoretical) Knowing

Since the early Greek thinkers, analytical or theorietical knowing ('intellect') has been given special place, to the point of being elevated to the 'only' 'true' way of knowing, so that everyday knowing was seen as a deficient form. Dooyeweerd criticised this view strongly and, as argued elsewhere restored dignity to everyday knowing.

But Dooyeweerd did acknowledge the special place that theoretical knowing has played, and recognised that it was a special way of knowing. He tried to account for the way in which it is special. It is special in that, when we function in the analytical aspect, we make things clear and distinct, and so can focus on them. It is special too because when we adopt an analytical stance or attitude we place the analytical aspect 'over against' the aspect of study; Dooyeweerd called this 'Gegenstand'. This is what Clouser refers to as higher abstraction, and the isolation of an aspect. Dooyeweerd developed much of his theory of theory and science by reference to this word, 'Gegenstand'. The 'standing over against' creates a 'tension' in reality, because the aspects 'resist' being pulled apart. However, Dooyeweerd's theory is not easy to understand, probably because the terms he uses are metaphors (which is why they have been placed in quotes above: 'stand over against', 'tension', 'resist'.)

Knowledge is Relative

All aspects are non-absolute. Therefore all knowing is non-absolute. We cannot, even in principle, aspire to absolute knowing, absolute truth. All knowing, all knowledge is relative, and "there is no truth in itself" [NC II:577]. See Truth - Relative and Absolute.

But that does not mean there is no absolute truth as such, it is just that there is no 'truth in itself'. Rather, truth, absolute truth, is in God, and God alone. This is different from Kant's claim that we cannot know the 'Ding an Sich' (thing in itself), because to Dooyeweerd, there is no 'thing in itself'. All thingness, as well as all knowing, is relative, because both arise from the aspects (see pages on entities and existence).

Not only can we never fully know a thing, but we can never fully know the kernel of an aspect. However, Dooyeweerd tells us, the kernel of an aspect may be grasped with reasonable accuracty by means of intuition.

Grounds for Certainty

However, this is no recipe for universal scepticism. In everyday living, in which we are no longer maintaining a sceptical theoretical stance, we are continually making little commitments. This is the pistic aspect of our living, and in the act of making each commitment, we are treating that thing in some way as absolute for and to us at that moment. This applies equally to knowledge. We commit to what we know or believe when we make what we know or believe part of our everyday living. Sometimes we commit 'to the best of our knowledge', sometimes 'for all practical purposes', and so on, but we commit. It is not our knowledge that is has the quality of being absolute, but our pistic functioning.

We experience certainty. The real basis of certainty is therefore not statistics and reason, but certainty comes only when we make the pistic commitment. All that statistics and reason can do is to point us in the direction of certainty.

Habermas [1972] threw light on this pistic aspect of knowing, when he spoke about 'knowledge and human interests'. In a work very like Dooyeweerd's before him, he emphasized the extra-theoretical nature of human knowledge. He gave the name 'interests' to this; Dooyeweerd spoke about religious presuppositions (note: the pistic aspect has much to do with religion). We discuss Dooyeweerd's view of the religious basis for knowing in his theory of ground motives.

Paradox and Antinomy

Because the aspects are irreducible to each other, so issues and concept of one aspect cannot be described meaningfully from the standpoint of another aspect. To attempt to do so often leads to paradox. Conversely, when we encounter a paradox, this in an indication that we are trying to talk in terms of the wrong aspect. For example investment in information technology continually increases, but proven return on investment remains low [Thorpe et. al., 1998]. This is stated in concepts and terminology of the economic aspect, and seems to be a paradox. But if we think of it as a pistic commitment to I.T. the paradox disappears. For an example where we analyse five paradoxes in this way, see my letter to Leslie Willcocks.

Antinomy is an even deeper than paradox, something that cannot even be explained by theoretical thought. Dooyeweerd was particularly interested in antinomy, and held it to be one means of distinguishing aspects from each other to determine whether a candidate aspect is a true aspect or not. Antinomy arises when we conflate two aspects, that is try to merge them. The famous example is the Hare and Tortoise.

Learning: Coming to Know

What of the process of coming to know? i.e. learning. It is an irreversible or at least time-directed process in that we learn we cannot unlearn (though we might forget or change our minds). But how do we understand learning as such?

If we think of what we include within learning, we find: coming to experience, coming to understand, practicing, the storing away of information, the storing away of memories, memorizing, the taking in of new information and linking that meaningfully with what we had there before, being transformed in various ways, changing our habits, changing our attitudes, changing our world views, and many other things.

There seem to be many aspects of learning:

This is, of course, very similar to the idea that there are many aspectual ways of knowing, above.

Elsewhere, we discuss whether learning is a separate aspect.

Knowing Aspectual Kernel Meaning

The kernel meaning (or meaning kernel) of each aspect can never be grasped by theoretical attitude of thought, but can only be grasped with the intuition when we engage with the aspect as sphere of meaning and law. Two reasons support this view. First, aspects as such cannot function as objects of our knowing, not even our multi-aspectual ways of knowing. Second, to know an aspect means we function 'inside' it, engaging with it and experiencing directly and immediately its meaning and normativity. Here is how I understand coming to know aspectual meaning (as far as I am aware, Dooyeweerd has never set it out systematically in such a way, so I might have misunderstood him) ...

Coming to know the kernel meaning and normativity of an aspect might take several forms:

Because of the fallible (non-absolute) aspectual functioning involved in getting here after the immediate engaged experience of the aspect, none of our aware intuition or informal understanding can be treated as in any way an absolute truth.

Theoretical understanding of aspectual meaning is even more fallible. It involves formalised processes of theoretical thought, in which we first differentiate objects from background, differentiate aspects from the objects that exhibit them, and then abstract an aspect as such from any and all objects. (Clousers's 'higher abstraction'). All these processes involve not only fallible analytical functioning in several stages, but also a Gegenstand relationship. (For more on this, see Dooyeweerd's transcendental critique.) The upshot of this is that theoretical understanding of aspectual kernel meaning and normativity must always be treated as very tenuous.

Possible Research

1. I am not aware of any debate on aspects of knowing; that is research that needs to be carried out).


Habermas, J. (1987) Theory of Communicative Action, Volume II.
Thorpe J, (1998) The Information Paradox, McGraw-Hill.


Thanks to Chris van Haeften for reading an earlier version of this page and giving comments that led to my rewriting bits of it (11 July 2005).

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 from knowledge.html (17 July 2001) and asp.epist.html (10 July 2001). Last updated: 7 March 2003 made links all relative. 10 March 2003 added paradox and antinomy from asp.prose.html. 17 March 2004 example text re aspects of knowledge. 16 April 2004 learning. 26 January 2005 more on III, and added name-label 'intuition'; intuition non-abs. 22 April 2005 link to everyday. 11 July 2005 rewrote and rearranged in response to comments by Chris van Haeften, acknowledged. 21 February 2008 moved iii to front, and rewrote it to cover two types of intuition, and two sides to lifeworld. 19 March 2008 link to Reid. 10 July 2009 Heron 96. 12 October 2010 new headings + contents + kernels section. 23 October 2010 social agreement about knowledge; link to Foucault; ways or aspects. 9 October 2012 added distinctions about knowledge in each aspect, and placed table of ways of knowing first. 3 September 2015 corrected '../'; rid counter; new .nav.