Andrew Basden

Information Systems Institute, University of Salford, Salford, UK

Copyright (c) University of Salford, 2002, All rights reserved.


Whilst investment in information technology has reached an all-time high (1.5 trillion US $ per year), the world is not seeing this amount of benefit from that investment. Many - technologists as well as sociologists, economists, etc. - recognise that there is something deeply wrong. How do we understand what is wrong? And what do we do about it?

This paper suggests that philosophy can help us answer both of these. We identify four areas of concern - in both technology itself and in its use in real life - all of which must be addressed. Philosophy is employed to give us frameworks for understanding these areas of concern, from which methodology can then be generated to help address the problems themselves. We discuss how the philosophy of Dooyeweerd can help us build the frameworks for understanding that we need.


1.1 The Story of Information Systems

Present estimates are that the current worldwide spend on information and communications technology (ICT) runs at $ 1,500 billion per year. But it is doubtful whether the world obtains 1.5 trillion dollars worth of benefit - especially if we ask ourselves whether that money (and the human resources that it represents) could be better spent.

There are many reactions to this. Many of us simply ignore it, enjoying (we think) the fruits of information technology. Some reject technology altogether. Some try to fix things with yet more technology and yet more money. For example, the wordlwide spend in ICT in 1989 was $300b, a fifth of what it is today. And yet the reported failure rate has remained relatively static at between 50-70% (Gladden, 1982, Lyytinen and Hirschheim, 1987, Cotterill and Law, 1993, Butterfield and Pendegraft, 1996).

This paper seeks a different type of reaction: to throw light on the problem and suggest a way forward based on philosophy. We will identify four major areas of concern in Information Systems (I.S.):

These four areas are explained below. All four are part of the whole story that is information systems, together give rise to the overall problem.

There are many who have sought to bring philosophy to bear on one or other of these areas. For example Lyytinen and Klein (1985) base their approach to I.S. development on the philosophy of Habermas, while Newell (1982) links Brentano's intentionality to the technologies of artificial intelligence. But there have been few attempts to keep all the four areas of concern in mind at the same time. For example, technical and human/social concerns are often kept in different compartments. The danger of such compartmentalization is that research and practice in one area is found to be incommensurate with that in others, and each area undermines its peers. So, for example, technologies generated by laboratory research ill serve the development of useful artifacts, or the perspectives we hold about technology prevent certain fruitful avenues of research and development from being opened up.

In this paper, we try to remain aware of all four areas, and to find a philosophy that can underpin our understanding of each within a coherent picture. This paper is a broad sweep across all four areas, so much is left out that should be discussed, and the intention is not to solve the problems of I.S. but to stimulate the reader to see things in new ways. The philosophy we employ is that of Dooyeweerd (1955). After a brief explanation of the role philosophy might play in helping us address these issues, we look at each area of concern and, as we do, introduce those parts of Dooyeweerd's philosophy that are relevant to the area.

1.2 Why Philosophy?

Philosophy does not normally directly solve our problems. Nor does it normally directly provide methods, taxonomies or theories which we can apply to solve our problems. Rather it gives us frameworks of understanding the broad areas we are concerned with; Kuhn's (1970) paradigms are one type of such frameworks; world views are similar to frameworks that we hold in everyday life. In our frameworks we can ground our methods, theories and taxonomies and then in turn address our problems; Strijbos (2000) illustrates this process. See Fig. 1. Our frameworks for understanding an area of concern are founded on our presuppositions about the nature of reality, and it is philosophy that gives us the tools to think about these and the frameworks that arise from them. This is why philosophy is important. Whereas science focuses on a single area of meaning, philosophy reflects on the totality of meaning, all the diversity of everyday living, and the best philosophies are informed as much by everyday life as by the deliberations of thinkers.

Fig. 1. The role of philosophy.

So in this paper we look to see how (Dooyeweerd's) philosophy can help us first understand each of the four areas of concern, perhaps in new or richer ways, then briefly indicate how this understanding can lead to theories, methods or taxonomies that we might use in facing the real life of information systems.

Dooyeweerd's philosophy has Christian roots, and indeed is claimed by many of its adherents to be a Christian Philosophy (hence the title of this paper). However, it is 'Christian' in very specific ways. It does not quote many biblical texts, nor does it try to make the secular side of life subservient to the sacred, as mediaeval European thinkers tended to do. To do so would be at the top two levels in Fig. 1. Rather, working from presuppositions that are consistent with the Biblical revelation about the essential goodness of all Creation, human responsibility and fall, and the proactive work of God to redeem, it proposes a comprehensive framework with which to understand unity and diversity, theory and practice, entity and law, time, and much more. This framework throws new light on what has driven the I.T. enterprise at both individual and global level towards the problems we face.

In his major work, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought (1955), Dooyeweerd first sought to lay bare the presuppositions of Western thinking, painstakingly showing their roots in early Greek thought and demonstrating how most Western thinking even today is constrained by them. He argued that this is not just of historical interest to academic philosophers, but has serious negative consequences for both theory and practice and the relationship between them. However, having demolished one framework, Dooyeweerd then accepted the challenge of designing and erecting his new framework in its place, and started to demonstrate (Dooyeweerd, 1986) how this could be worked out in detail.


2.1 Overview of Issues of Concern

By technical artifacts we mean anything constructed from information technology that human beings use for some purpose. For example, we use a payroll program to print employees' wages, a 'mind mapping' tool to assist in formulating strategy, a text search package to obtain information, animation software to create films, game software, word processors, email packages, web browsers and the like. The artifact is often more than a simple, local tool: the usefulness of a web browser lies not in itself but in the web pages that it acts as a window onto, so the word 'artifact' can have a wide meaning.

There are two main issues in this area: ease of use and usefulness. Ease of use, which has been well researched over the last 20 years, involves the disciplines of psychology, learning and the technologies and standards for user interface design, and is better considered in the section on the shape of technology. Usefulness, on the other hand, is centred on human purpose in using a technical artifact. The features of the artifact are inserted into our working situation and we make use of them to help us in our tasks. Whilst we hope for (and software sellers promise) benefits from this, more often use of the artifact hinders rather than helps our tasks.

A well known example of this was the London Ambulance System (Lee, 1992). Ambulance scheduling used to be performed manually until the 1980s, allocating available ambulances to incoming calls depending on where they were in relation to the call. A computer system was introduced, which was supposed to log the calls and also, by a geographic routing system, decide which ambulance was most accessible. But the routing algorithm did not know about transient traffic congestion spots, and ambulances became stuck in traffic. Moreover, if the number of pending calls exceeded 25, calls were lost. The ambulance schedulers found their task was made more difficult, of poorer quality and less satisfying. After one particularly busy day, when many calls were lost, the system was abandoned.

Not only might the artifact hinder the user's direct task that it was designed to aid, but the problems can be compounded by:

Some of these impacts will be positive, some negative. Sometimes one stakeholder benefits while others are negatively affected. It is not uncommon for there to be short term benefit but detriment in the longer term, or for there to be visible benefit but detriment that is less visible. Considering all these complexities, it is not surprising that negative impacts often outweigh the positive.

There are several main issues that arise from this picture. One is evaluation and prediction of information systems: what do we take into account, and how? Another is design of information systems - which we deal with later. Another is the neutrality or otherwise of information systems: do negative impacts come solely from the ways human beings use it, or from the technology itself? We allow for both possibilities, but the latter is discussed in other areas of concern. But, whichever issue we address, we are faced immediately with three main questions that cut across all these:

To answer these we turn to philosophy, that of Dooyeweerd.

2.2 Aspects of I.S. Use

To construct a framework for understanding use of I.T. artifacts using Dooyeweerd's philosophy, we begin with his notion of modal aspects. He proposed these are distinct spheres of law in which we function. His best proposal for what the aspects are is:

Each aspect has a kernel meaning, placed after the name of the aspect above, which is part of the totality of Meaning.

What makes Dooyeweerd's proposal a foundation for diversity is that the aspects are irreducible, so that none can be derived from the others; he called this 'sphere sovereignty'. But sphere sovereignty on its own can lead us to fragmentation. Dooyeweerd also stressed 'sphere universality': that the aspects are closely intertwined with one another, leading to a coherence and harmony among them which takes three forms. First, later aspects depend on earlier ones for proper functioning, though they add something to them. Second, there are relationships of anticipation and retrocipation among the aspects, so that each aspect contains echoes of the others. For example, causality is a physical phenomenon, yet something like causality occurs in other aspects, e.g. logical, social, legal. Third, entities integrate the aspects in their everyday functioning; see below.

(Note that Dooyeweerd did not claim ontological validity for these fifteen aspects, because, as we shall see below, even the act of distinguishing the aspects is the result of fallible human functioning. But he did claim ontological validity for the concept of aspects. Also, for practical purposes, he would make a (pistic) commitment to his fifteen, employing them in his everyday living and defending them against detractors. Likewise, for the practical purposes of this discussion we will assume an ontological validity for these fifteen aspects.)

This provides us with a framework for understanding the diversity we experience when we consider use of I.S. Further, the aspects provide a way of clarifying the differences in perspectives, goals, values, etc. between stakeholders: each is often centred around one or two main aspects. Since the aspects cannot be reduced to each other, it is not normally valid to give one stakeholder's views a-priori priority over those of another.

2.3 I.T. Use as Human Functioning

Usage of an artifact, like all human living, is seen by Dooyeweerd as a functioning in all (or most) of the aspects. For example, as I write this using my word processor I am functioning lingually (symbolic communication), biotically (e.g. breathing), economically (length limit on this paper), juridically (in attempting to provide what is due to the readers, pistically (in seeing myself as a responsible human being rather than a robot), and in the other aspects. Earlier aspects support the lingual functioning, later ones give it shape.

More precisely, aspectual functioning is a response by an entity to the laws of aspects to which it it subject. Each aspect has its own set of laws, to which entities respond. Those of the earlier aspects are mainly determinative while those of the later aspects are mainly normative. Human behaviour, then, is a complex functioning in many aspects all at the same time, and it is the human being that is the integration point for the diverse modes of functioning.

Thus the specific type of human activity that is usage of I.T. artifacts can only be adequately explained by reference to all the aspects. This contrasts with reductionism, which seeks a single aspect from which to explain all else (e.g. evolution (biotic), brain activity (sensitive), reason (analytical), language games (lingual)). But much of the functioning is tacit (Polanyi, 1967), and hence not always easy to discern in the concrete situation. From this we can proceed to discuss impact arising from use.

2.4 The 'Shalom' Hypothesis

The normative aspects (at least from the analytic aspect onwards) have laws that are not determinative, so we have freedom how we respond to their laws. We have freedom both within the laws of an aspect, and also to go against the laws. But, however we respond, the laws still pertain. Positive repercussions occur when we function in line with the laws of an aspect, negative occur when we go against the laws. Therefore repercussions can be analysed with respect to each aspect in which we function.

Human activity - most of which is multi-aspectual - will generate a host of repercussions that depend on how the human responds to the laws of each aspect. This leads to what we might call the shalom hypothesis, that an overall 'shalom' or well-being, peace, prosperity, etc. is possible as long as we function in line with the laws of every aspect. Therefore if in using an artifact we respond positively to the laws of certain aspects, we can expect positive repercussions - benefits - from such use, but if we respond negatively to aspectual laws then we can expect negative repercussions - detrimental impact - in those aspects. This explains why use of an artifact can provide a mix of benefits and detriment.

Since the aspects are irreducible to each other, we cannot assume that good functioning in one aspect always implies good functioning in another. There is therefore an imperative on us to seek to understand all the aspects and align our functioning to each of them. Note that this shalom hypothesis rests on an assumption of a Good Creation, in which every aspect will yield positive repercussions if its laws are obeyed. In this we see, perhaps, a distinctively (Judeo-)Christian root of this philosophy. As Dooyeweerd said (NC:363), "Holy and without any inner contradiction is the world order." What Christians call human sin is of many forms, each of which can be seen in terms of going against the laws of an aspect. Table 1 is a speculative suggestion of the negative functioning in various aspects:

Table 1. Negative Functioning in Various Aspects

The traditional view found in Christianity emphasises the pistic and ethical aspects but this opening up of the diversity of types of negative functioning ('sin') can perhaps aid our understanding of the overall problem of I.S. use.

2.5 Implications for I.S. Use

The shalom hypothesis has implications for use of information systems. It explains the many points at which information system might fail, beyond technical faults, and it suggests that use of an information system can be beneficial in some aspects while detrimental in others. An aspectual analysis of the London Ambulance System (Lee, 1992) illustrates these.

As we can see, even this over-simplified aspectual analysis can help clarify a situation and identify what is important. Some of the relationships between the aspects can be clearly seen in the above examples. Note the link with the next area of concern, I.S. design, from which the flawed lingual and spatial features arose, though negative impact only materialized when those features came into use.

2.6 The More Complex Impacts

We can now account for the complications listed earlier:

The Dooyeweerdian notion of functioning gives a grounding for understanding usage of the artifact, as one of human functioning. Hart (1984) summarizes it as "functors functioning in relationship", and Basden (1994) has delineated three layers from this for information systems usage and three distinct types of benefits: features (which enable us to function), tasks (carried out by functors) and roles (defined by relationships). This framework for understanding usage has led to the proposal to employ the aspects as a flexible taxonomy to guide the evaluation and prediction of I.S. usage (Basden, 1996, Basden, 2001).


3.1 Overview of Some Main Issues

If we are to use artifacts, they must first be created - that is, conceived, designed, engineered and got ready for use. We call this process information systems development (ISD). It involves developing not only the technical artifacts but also the human context into which it will be inserted. This might involve changes to organizational structures and professional roles and the training of users.

If, as discussed in the previous section, usage of technical artifacts is diverse in its human functioning and repercussions, this must be recognised during ISD. Developers must possess three types of expertise: that of using general technologies to develop specific artifacts, that of looking forward to its future, potential use and thinking about the inherent diversity therein, and that of relating the two so that the technical features of the artifact serve the proposed tasks and roles of the people who use it. Two main issues meet us in this area of concern: ISD methodology to be employed, and attitude of developers.

Of the two, ISD methodology has been studied the most, and, over the last forty years, its central driving idea has changed several times (Basden, Watson and Brandon, 1995). The earliest methodology was technology-centred. From the 1970s, organization-centred ISD has focused on formal specification and project management as linear sequence aimed at delivering technical products. A special form of the organisation centred approach is the risk-centred approach, typified by Boehm's Spiral Model (Boehm, 1988), which tries to reduce risk of not delivering. Mumford and Weir's (1977) ETHICS approach can be seen as a reaction against an overweening organization-centred approach, in which the individual is submerged within the organization so that his/her needs are ignored, and centres on job satisfaction. User-centred system design (Norman and Draper, 1986) acknowledges the needs of the primary user. Taking a different direction, Avison and Wood-Harper (1990) recognised that many of the centres for these are not so much wrong as merely too narrow, and proposed a multi-centred approach, which tries to acknowledge many aspects. Basden, Watson and Brandon (1995) argued that even this has problems, and proposed what he called a client-centred approach, which focuses on responsibility of human actors under the leading of the project client. Along with these changes has come a shift from linear to iterative styles of method, as situations to which I.T. artifacts were to be applied became ill-defined, ill-structured and subject to change (Partridge and Wilks, 1986).

Whatever methodology is used, the attitude of the developers can make the difference between eventual success and failure (Kuosa and Basden, 1999). Two areas may be discerned in which attitude is important: to people and to knowledge. Are developers open, welcoming and keen to understand and serve the users, or are they merely doing a job? Are they open to discover all the important aspects of the situation into which the artifact is to be placed, and understand the relationships between them? The latter is particularly important in knowledge-intensive applications such as knowledge based systems. Relatively little has been researched or written about the issue of attitude.

However, the Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) (Checkland, 1981) deserves special mention since, although ostensibly a methodology, it can also be effective in engendering a more open attitude among those involved in ISD. SSM has become widely used as a means of enhancing the quality and richness of user requirements analysis and specification, and for making hidden perspectives and assumptions explicit. It is, in fact, a way of thinking and, though it has faults (especially in having little philosophical underpinning (Mingers, 1992)) it has stimulated the emergence of other systems approaches, including Critical Systems Thinking (Flood and Jackson, 19), Multi-modal Systems Thinking (de Raadt, 19), Disclosive Systems Thinking (Strijbos, 2000).

3.2 Employing Aspects in ISD

Just as Dooyeweerd's notion of usage as human functioning in a diversity of irreducible aspects could provide a framework for understanding usage of I.S., it can do likewise for this second area of concern. It provides a framework for understanding what is important for developers to consider during ISD, and why.

If the shalom hypothesis is correct, that, in principle, every aspect is important in determining the eventual benefits that use of the artifact might generate, then I.S. developers must take every aspect into account, both in looking forward to potential use and in designing the features of the artifact that is to be so used. Ignoring an aspect during ISD is no longer a mere unfortunate omission, but could actually lead to detrimental impacts, especially in the longer term. So the design of the artifact must be sensitive to every aspect of its use. Sometimes, such as in knowledge bases, knowledge from many aspects must be explicitly encapsulated, but at others a design decision can be made to restrict the aspects embodied. For example, a scientific calculator embodies knowledge from the quantitative and physical aspects. In the latter case, the artifact becomes more like a traditional tool. However, such design decisions should be made in full awareness of all the aspects of the situation of use.

We have a double problem in that it is the later aspects that tend to get overlooked in ISD, but it is those very aspects that have the most powerful and longest-lasting repercussions. So, the framework we are developing here for ISD would include a recognition that identifying and understanding the relevance of the later aspects is doubly important.

If we examine the use of the more mature methodologies in practice, we find some of them provide checklists of factors to take into account. Avison and Wood-Harper's (1990) Multiview lists five, and Checkland's (1981) SSM has two lists: CATWOE, which is six things that should be defined about a system, and Five E's, which provides five norms or criteria for design. Such lists are often found to correspond with some of Dooyeweerd's aspects, though they usually lack the wide coverage and the precision of Dooyeweerd's suite. It may be that extant methodologies could be enriched by incorporating some of Dooyeweerd's thought, as is suggested for SSM by Basden, Bergvall-Kåreborn and Mirijamdotter (in prep.).

Dooyeweerd's fifteen aspects can also provide a useful basis for new methodologies. Winfield (2000) has defined a Multi-Aspectual Knowledge Elicitation (MAKE) method directly on the basis of Dooyeweerd's aspects, for analysing a situation to identify all the relevant aspects thereof. His research has not only shown that MAKE encourages broader thinking, but also stimulates those involved to consider new avenues, and helps them highlight who the stakeholders of an I.S. might be. Further, he demonstrated that the aspects are easily grasped by lay people - which was a claim Dooyeweerd made. MAKE not only provides a methodology but also engenders an attitude of openness to knowing and discovering all aspects of the future usage situation.

3.3 I.S.D. as Human Functioning

Dooyeweerd's philosophy can also underpin ISD in a different way. We can see that the formative aspect plays an important part in the development of an information system (both of the artifact and of the structure of social relationships and human roles within it), and also that it is not the only important aspect in any specific development project. That is, development is always formative but other aspects become important depending on the application. This explains, perhaps, why methodology, which is of the formative aspect, is always an important issue in ISD. Seeing ISD as formative yet multi-aspectual means three things.

One is that to understand and undertake ISD properly, we must understand the formative aspect and follow its laws, whatever the application. Therefore, our general understanding of this aspect can help in setting the direction for the ISD process.

The second is that if ISD is not purely formative but, like all human activity, is multi-aspectual in nature, then attending to every aspect will enhance its quality. For example, communication (lingual aspect) amongst members of the development team and between them and the clients, users, etc., good social functioning, careful and imaginative management of resources, all contribute to the success of the development project. Harmony (aesthetic aspect) of the whole project is essential. The project should deliver what is due (juridical aspect) to all stakeholders. Alluded to earlier as the attitude of the developer, the ethical aspect of self-giving, and the pistic aspect of loyalty to the project, are particularly important. All these aspects cluster around the formative, to support it and ensure a good, successful development project. Few methodologies explicitly consider all these aspects.

The third is perhaps the most important. The formative functioning, with its supporting aspects, that we have discussed above are aspects of the ISD process. But none of these is to be the master, but the servant. They should serve the aspects that are important in the application itself. For example, the project might provide the development team with technical excitement, good social cohesion and great fun, in addition to remuneration, but these should not be - even tacitly - what drives the project. Rather, the attitude to people adopted by developers should one of self-giving: attitude is an issue centred in the ethical aspect of self-giving.

We can see that technology loses part of its neutrality because the developed artifact embodies flaws or excellences arising from a distorted ISD process. In such ways Dooyeweerd's thought might make a contribution to enhancing the ISD process, and thus to the overall story of information systems. But serious research has yet to be carried out to determine its real potential to do so.


4.1 Overview of Some Main Issues

If I.S. developers are to develop artifacts they need mature technologies from which to fashion them. For example, an expert system designed to give advice about tax affairs requires that knowledge based system technology has been researched, developed and brought to some degree of maturity. Technical standards and protocols are needed as well, for example, the effectiveness of the World Wide Web depends on standards like HTML (Hypertext markup language, in which all web pages are written). A veritable plethora of technologies, and associated protocols and standards, has emerged and is emerging from the research and development laboratories of universities and technology companies: multimedia, virtual reality three dimensional modelling, spreadsheets, word processors, geographic information systems, computer music, knowledge representation, and many more. To distinguish those who shape technologies from I.S. developers, we will call them researchers, even though much of their activity involves development of software to pass to the I.S. developers.

Each technology has its own distinct 'shape', which has emerged from a research community that is interested in it. This shape is an idea of what the technology should be and do, and is implemented in software and, where appropriate, as standards with which we comply. The problem is that too often the shape of any given technology is such that it does not fit the real world very well. So, I.S. developers must either expend unnecessary effort to create an artifact appropriate to the human situation of use, or distort that human situation to suit the constraints arising from an impoverished technology. In yet another way, technology loses its neutrality.

The point at issue here is one of appropriateness, which Basden (1993) has discussed more widely in the context of knowledge representation formalisms, or its companion, affordance (Gibson, 1977), which states that certain phenomena 'afford' certain meanings. For example, while it was common to treat spatial objects as quantitative (x-y coordinates) or conceptual (spatial relationships) objects, Funt (1980) suggested a form of spatial reasoning that manipulates bitmaps directly as spatial objects. Greeno (1994) has applied affordance to the design of user interfaces. The challenge facing researchers who shape the technologies and their associated protocols is to make them appropriate.

Basden discusses how inappropriateness in knowledge representation formalisms makes ISD more difficult, by forcing the artifact developer into more unnecessary detail that is a source of errors. If the situation of use demands that the artifact embodies many aspects of that situation, then its developers will require a similarly wide range of available technologies with which to create it.

4.2 Aspect-Shaped Technologies

Dooyeweerd's notion of aspects can perhaps provide a framework for understanding the shaping of technology. We can see each distinct technology as an embodiment in software of the general laws of an aspect. For example, facilities for spell checking, grammar checking, finding similar words via thesauri, etc. as well as those for structuring text according to sentences, paragraphs, cross references, etc., are all an embodiment of laws of syntax, semantics and pragmatics of the lingual aspect. But these would be of little use in a geographic information system, which is aligned with the spatial aspect, and requires spatially meaningful facilities are important, such as area buffering, map stretching, overlaying, etc.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Basden (1993), when he discussed appropriateness, spoke of four 'aspects of knowledge':

These, he said, were irreducible to each other (in that though one could program one in terms of the other, to do so led to problems and errors). It can be seen now that these four correspond approximately with four of Dooyeweerd's aspects: analytic, quantitative, spatial and formative. If we now consider others of Dooyeweerd's aspects, this leads us into other 'aspects of knowledge', such as text (lingual aspect) and animation (kinematic aspect).

We can apply this thinking not only to overall shape of a given technology, but to implementing it in software tools that I.S. developers will use to create artifacts. For example,

How these facilities are actually implemented within the software as data structures, procedures, functions, etc. (beneath the surface in Fig. 2) is not our primary concern to us here; we are interested only in what aspect-oriented facilities are available to the I.S. developer, at the surface in Fig. 2.

Fig. 2. Aspectual Facilities Available at the Surface of the Software Tool

4.3 The Human Process of Shaping Technologies

Technologies are shaped by human functioning. Because of this, the process by which this it carried out shows certain similarities to the ISD process discussed earlier. The technologies produced could be seen as artifacts to be used by I.S. developers, and so methodology and attitude of the researchers become important. There are however a number of differences, mainly in emphasis. The multiple aspects of eventual artifact use are more distant, and only relevant via appropriateness. The shaping of technologies has a higher component from science in which Dooyeweerd claimed the analytic aspect to be central (Clouser, 1991).

In yet another way, technology loses its neutrality. Which technologies are prepared by researchers, and the shape they are given, depends on the human process of research and laboratory development. This, in turn, is strongly influenced by the perspectives held by researchers and those who fund their research. This leads us into the fourth main area of concern.


5.1 Overview of Main Issues

There are two main issues in the area of overall perspectives on information systems, and both are treated at the level of society. One is that technology - its use, development of artifacts and shaping of technologies - affects society's view of life. The other is that the perspectives held in society (or by groups within society such as the researchers and the funding bodies we have just mentioned) affect the way technology is shaped, the way artifacts are developed and the way they are used (Kuosa and Basden, 2000).

The first issue is addressed by e.g. Noble (1997), who suggests "the present enchantment with things technological ... is rooted in religious myths ..." which is surprising in his eyes because technology is "the very measure of modern enlightenment" which tried to sideline religion. Goudzwaard (1984) discusses the idolatry of technology, and this can explain why we continue to invest so heavily in I.T. when there seems to be so little beneficial return. Earlier writings in this vein include McLuhan's (1964) famous dictum that the medium is the message.

The second issue - how technology shaping, ISD and artifact use are deeply influenced by our perspectives - concerns how assumptions we hold about the nature and role of information technology, the nature and meaning of life, ourselves, God, etc. influence what we see as problem and what sorts of solutions we might allow. Our perspective affects the decisions we make as users, developers or shapers, usually tacitly, so that we are unaware of the assumptions and expectations that it causes us to make. Discussion of perspectives is often conveyed in terms of interacting dimensions. Kammersgaard (1988), for example, forms four perspectives out of the individual-collective and expression-content dimensions, and Lyytinen (1987), out of individual-group and technical-social dimensions. But these perspectives are perhaps more like stances than fundamental perspectives.

More fundamental types of perspective are often linked to philosophy. For example, Winograd and Flores (1986) argued that our approach to information systems had been too rationalistic, too concerned with control and assuming 'hard' data and logic, and suggested that we should move towards a perspective based on Heidegger's existentialism. The move from a rationalistic or positivistic perspective to an interpretivistic, constructivistic one can be detected in many quarters of the informations systems community, and can explain the popularity of Checkland's (1981) SSM. There is a dialectic process underway, from an assumed philosophical realism with deterministic view of reality to a philosophical nominalism based on human interpretation. The limitations of a rationalistic reductionism are now well known, but the limitations of what dialectically replaces it (constructivism) are recognised by only a few. One community that does so (the Critical Systems community criticises its blindness to power) bases its ideas on the philosophical stream arising from Habermas (Lyytinen and Klein, 1985). But this perspective also has limitations, being rather too narrowly concerned with power and emancipation. Wilson (1997) has made some pungent criticisms of it.

An awareness of different perspectives can be a useful corrective, and means to wisdom if we understand how they relate to each other. But there is also two main problems. One is that the dialectical reaction by which each new perspective emerges is never-ending and gives no hope of ever finding a full perspective that will enable us to address the whole problem of information technology. The other is that fundamental perspectives are often held religiously, so that the holders of one do not often welcoming the enrichment that another might bring. The notion of the religious nature of perspective brings us back to the first issue of how technology affects society.

5.2 The Religious Root

How do we account for such perspectives and their relationship with technology? Dooyeweerd proposed that theoretical thought - and all that derives from it - rests on a religious rather than logical foundation. Presuppositions that are held as extra-theoretical commitments, take the form of ground motives that drive thought forward in a particular direction over centuries. Dooyeweerd identified four that have influenced us over the last 2,500 years. The early Greeks, including Plato and Aristotle, assumed the Form-Matter motive, from Hebrew culture came the motive of Creation-Fall-Redemption, the mediaeval Roman Catholic thinkers like Aquinas combined the two to obtain the Nature-Grace motive, and the thinkers of the Renaissance and Enlightenment replaced this with Nature-Freedom. These four are, of course, not unique to Dooyeweerd; his contribution was, perhaps, to link them and show how the three dualistic ones (Form-Matter, Nature-Grace and Nature-Freedom) lead to fundamental problems and antinomies.

Ground motives are generators and explainers of worldviews. The dualistic ground motives lead us to presuppose two 'poles' that are fundamentally mutually exclusive, and worldviews based on them commit to one pole or the other. Much of the history of Western thought can be seen as a dialectic process in which worldviews of the thinking community swing between opposing poles of the prevailing ground motive. Dooyeweerd traced these dialectic swings, and Tarnas (1991), who was unaware of Dooyeweerd's work, paints a similar picture. The current ground motive is that of Nature-Freedom, which opposes determinism and freedom to each other. It has led, over the last 500 years, to swings between scientific rationalism and Romanticism in philosophy, positivism and interpretivism in science, fact versus value in business and politics, predestination and free-will in theology.

There is currently much interest in worldviews in the arena of information systems. The shift from positivist to interpretivist perspectives can be explained as worldview commitments to the poles of the current ground motive, seeing information technology as bringing us either control or empowerment. So can Winograd and Flores' (1986) proposed shift from rationalistic to existentialist views, and Winograd's (1995) shift from 'constructor's-eye-view' to 'designer's-eye-view'. In artificial intelligence the opposition of brain to mind or consciousness can correlated with the Greek Form-Matter motive as well as the current Nature-Freedom motive.

5.3 Integrating Polar Opposites

Dooyeweerd contended, however, that the dualistic ground motives are false and unhelpful, leading inexorably to antinomies and bifurcations in thinking. They cannot be reconciled by means of traditional theoretical thought because it has always presupposed such a ground motive and thus the polar opposition at its heart.

However, an integration can be effected in everyday living - in the practices of I.S. (use, development, shaping). In everyday living we are able to hold determinism and freedom together. In using computers, for example, we can hope for both reliability of working in computers, and that their use can be varied and meaningful and need not be dehumanizing. Experienced I.S. developers integrate 'hard' and 'soft' aspects without much trouble.

Dooyeweerd proposed, however that the poles may also be reconciled in theoretical thought as long as it presupposes the integrative ground motive of Creation-Fall-Redemption. The argument behind this is too detailed to recount here, but we can glimpse it by considering how he might integrate interpretivistic / constructivistic with postivistic perspectives: the interpretivist claim that human interpretations are important and not determined is upheld by reference to the (normative) lingual and analytical aspects especially, while the positivist claims are upheld by reference to the earlier (determinative) aspects. The reliability of computers rests on its being, in itself, subject only to the (determinative) laws of the physical aspect.

5.4 The Artificial Intelligence Debate

The latter statement links, of course, with the debate in artificial intelligence about whether computers can be truly intelligent, conscious, etc. Searle (19) contends that computers can never be truly intelligent or conscious because they are not biological. Newell (1982) contends that, though determinate in their activity at the lower levels, computer systems are non-determinate at the knowledge level. He tries to argue this on the grounds of what he calls radical incompleteness of the knowledge level. Though ingenious - and hard to understand - his argument is insufficient to bridge the gulf between determinate hardware and non-determinacy at the knowledge level.

However, Dooyeweerd's philosophy might perhaps provide a more successful explanation, because of its claim that the dualisms are a false opposition. For this we must understand Dooyeweerd's notion of subject and object. An entity can function in an aspect either as subject or object (our earlier account of functioning was solely subject functioning). A computer system, of itself, as subject, cannot function in any aspect later than the physical. But it can function as object in later aspects when its human user is functioning as subject in those aspects. This leads to the possibility of different ways of describing the same entity (computer system), from the viewpoint of different aspects. For example, though the computer screen emits light (description from the physical aspect) this light can have meaning as the shape of a symbol (sensitive aspect). This approach is found not only in Dooyeweerd but in writers like Newell (1982); his computer system levels correspond quite closely with Dooyeweerd's aspects from the physical to the lingual, and even more closely with Dooyeweerd's notion of enkaptic structural wholes composed of a number of aspectually-qualified individuality structures.

The non-determinacy of the knowledge level (lingual aspect) is accounted for, in Dooyeweerd's framework, not by reference to the computer system itself, but by reference to the human user who is interpreting the light emitted by the screen (physical aspect, materials level) as shapes of symbols (sensitive aspect, bit level), as symbols themselves (analytic aspect, symbol level) and as what the symbols refer to (lingual aspect, knowledge level). Though the physical functioning of the computer hardware is determined and reliable, the human interpretations are not. However, though this Dooyeweerdian explanation shows promise, it remains to be tested.


"All else is a footnote to Plato," said Whitehead (1937), explaining how most subsequent Western thought derives from the basic presuppositions made by Plato and others or his era. We have looked very briefly at an interesting philosophical framework that is not part of Plato's footnote, in that it makes different presuppositions. The main protagonist of this stream of thought, Dooyeweerd (1955), not only showed the fundamental limitations and antinomies in Greek-based thinking, but constructed an alternative philosophy.

We have seen how various portions of this philosophy can help us build new frameworks for understanding four areas of concern: the use of I.T. artifacts, the development of information systems (including both artifact and human beings), the development of technologies, and perspectives on information systems. Table 2 summarises the relevance of Dooyeweerd to each. As these frameworks become worked out, they can be used to formulate methodologies, taxonomies and theories that can, in their turn, be used in practice to solve or ameliorate the huge problems we face in information systems today.

Table 2. Summary of Relevance of Dooyeweerd to Areas of Concern
Using Artifact I.S. Development Shaping Tgy Perspectives
Diversity and Coherence Yes Yes Yes
Functioning Yes Yes
The Shalom Hypothesis Yes Yes
Ground Motives Yes
Integrating Poles Yes
Subject-Object Yes Yes
The issue of the neutrality or otherwise of technology was briefly alluded to above. We can now see that both sides in the debate might be right. First, in using technical artifacts, the blessing or harm that arises would seem to be accounted for mainly by the functioning of the users, so that the technology is largely neutral. However, what artifacts are used is a result of the methodology used by, and the attitude assumed by, the I.S. developers. Thus the artifact embodyies deficiencies and excellencies in the development process. Likewise, it can also embody what is appropriate and inappropriate about the underlying technologies used in its development. Finally, information technology as a whole can be tainted by our perspectives, especially when it is made an idol. Nothing in created reality, including technology, can withstand the pressure of being absolutized.

I am aware that Dooyeweerd's ideas are almost unknown. Those who stumble across them from a non-Christian background often dismiss them because they are labelled 'Christian' or 'neo-Calvinist'). Many Christians completely ignore them because of their assumption that philosophy is irrelevant and even contrary to the gospel, and that some of the few Christians who are aware of his ideas have turned away from them in embarrassment because his ideas were hyped-up and mis-applied forty years ago. I hope I have shown that his ideas are worth a second look, whether by Christians or non-Christians because they can help us understand at least four areas of concern in the wider story of information systems. It seems, the issues that are being raised in information systems as we enter the twenty-first century are the very ones that Dooyeweerd might help us address. His ideas won't solve our problems, but they can provide frameworks for understanding that might help us do so.


My thanks to those who gave comments on this paper at the CPTS 2002 Working Conference, notably Albert Vlug, who suggested ways of completely rewriting it that I have gratefully adopted.


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