A Practical Philosophy    
    for all Fields of Research

Andrew Basden

University of Salford, Salford, UK.

Paper presented to ECRM20:
European Conference on Research Methods, 19
Online in association with Aveiro University, Portugal,
18-19th June 2020.

Copyright (C) Andrew Basden 2020, All rights reserved.


Philosophy helps us understand research. Dooyeweerd's philosophy helps us understand research in a new way, from the perspective of everyday experience, diversity, coherence and meaningfulness. Whereas conventional philosophies might help us understand research in some fields better than others, Dooyeweerd's philosophy is useful across all fields of research, to help understand, guide and integrate them.

In this way, Dooyeweerd helps each field maintain and develop its own dignity, responsibility and destiny, and can improve interdisciplinary research. As an exemplar, the lingual fields are discussed in greater detail.

Keywords: Integration of research fields; Interdisciplinarity; Meaningfulness; Aspects; Dooyeweerd's philosophy.

1. Introduction

Very seldom is research, as such, discussed in a way that applies across all fields (mathematics, the natural, cognitive, design, social, societal sciences and the humanities) since their rationalities and interests vary enormously (Winch 1958), which makes such discussion seem fruitless. Yet Basden (2019a) attempts it.

Basden's attempt is only indicative; this article attempts to develop his initial suggestion. We follow Basden in employing a little-known philosophy, of Dooyeweerd (1955), as an integrating foundation. Dooyeweerd's philosophy is highly practical because its starting points are not extant philosophies but everyday experience in its diversity and coherence of meaning. Basden (2019a) believes that Dooyeweerd's philosophy respects what is meaningful in all those fields equally, which contrasts with most philosophies, most of which are applied only in certain fields (Habermas and Luhmann in the social, Marx in the societal, and Aristotle and Liebniz in natural sciences, etc.).

Without an overall view of research as such, reductions occur, often with arrogance. Economics is claimed to be the science of life (Knight 1924/2009) and evolutionist biology, psychology and sociology all claim to explain diverse human behaviours (language, culture, attitudes, beliefs, etc.), physics, to explain life itself and mathematics, to explain physics. Arrogance occurs. Carr (2003) shocked the information systems community with his claim that "IT Doesn't Matter" in business because it no longer offers competitive advantage, no more than street lighting and drains do. The implication in each claim is that we hardly need the other fields; their theoretical accounts can, in principle, be reduced to our favourite one. But on what basis may we discuss and critique reductionism?

Philosophy is the "discipline of disciplines" (Strauss 2009) and is thus the tool with which to paint a picture of all fields together. This paper develops one part of Basden's (2019a) use of Dooyeweerd's philosophy, that each field centres on a core aspect, and briefly discusses some practical implications.

2. Dooyeweerd

First, portions of Dooyeweerd's philosophy necessary and sufficient for our discussion are briefly recounted. Fuller accounts may be found in Kalsbeek (1975), Basden (2018; 2019a); relevant sections in Basden (2019a) are indicated, which contain critical discussion of Dooyeweerd's ideas.

2.1 Dooyeweerd's aspects

Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977) was an unusual philosopher. Unlike other philosophers, he began not with theoretical thought but with pre-theoretical ("nave") thought and the diversity and coherence of meaning we encounter in everyday experience (Chapters 2-4).

Against the tendency to reduce diversity, he explored it and found fifteen irreducibly distinct aspects, interplay among which begets the enormous diversity we experience. (Aspects, as in architecture, offer distinct perspectives that cannot be derived from each other.) Each philosophical aspect is a meaning-kernel, as shown in Table 1.

Most scientific areas tend to focus on a different aspect, for example the physical sciences on the physical aspect and the social sciences on the social, and pose different kinds of research question, examples of which are shown in columns 3 and 4 of Table 1. (Here, "fields" and "disciplines" are specialised within areas, each focusing on a core aspect, or several if interdisciplinary).

Table 1. Dooyeweerd's suite of aspects, and sciences that focus on each.
Aspect Kernel Typical Science / Discipline Example Main Research Question
Quantitative Amount Arithmetic, Statistics Is every even integer the sum of two primes (Goldbach Conjecture)?
Spatial Continuous extension Geometry Can an n-dimensional convex body admit an expansive homeomorphism? (Klee 1960)
Kinematic Movement Mechanics How can we get linear motion from rotary motion?
Physical Energy Physics What is the electric charge radius of the proton?
Organic-Biotic Life Life sciences How do cells determine what size to grow before dividing?
Psychical-Sensitive Sensitivity Psychology How does previous experience alter perception and behaviour?
Analytic Distinction Analysis, Logic What are the limits of understanding thinking as a form of computing?
Formative Formative power Design sciences How to optimally cut a cake so that every recipient feels they have a fair piece?
Lingual Symbolic signification Linguistics How does grammaticalization function?
Social Sociality Sociology Does social media make us lonely?
Economic Frugality Management science Why is it that individuals or institutions in many countries hold only modest amounts of foreign equity?
Aesthetic Harmony, delight Aesthetics What is the line between art and non-art?
Juridical Due, appropriateness Jurisprudence How may we compare Indian and Iranian laws?
Ethical Self-giving love Ethical theory Why do many people pursue hedonistic lifestyles?
Pistic Faith Theology What is the relationship between belief, commitment, courage and motivation?

Table 1 comes from Table 8.1 of Basden (2019a), where the alignment between scientific areas and aspects is noted. Basden (2019a) also suggests that, along with its core aspect each field or discipline tends to take account of neighbouring aspects to a lesser degree, as depicted in Figure 1.

Fields centred on aspects, 1136-1200

Figure 1. Disciplines centred on aspects

This paper takes Basden's suggestion further by examining what each aspect finds meaningful and the implications this has for research in its corresponding fields. Since full discussion is beyond this paper, exemplars are offered, especially in a fuller discussion of fields centred on the lingual aspect.

2.2 Dooyeweerd's ideas

Now we outline portions of Dooyeweerd's philosophy that are relevant to this paper.

2.3 Dooyeweerd and research

Dooyeweerd showed, via his transcendental critique, that theoretical thinking (research) is never neutral, because aspects are presupposed in three ways.

Research methods differ for each field because they collect data from different aspects (core and neighbours) and are informed by different aspectual rationalities (8-1.2). For example, linguistics takes account of the lingual aspect, the formative (sentence structure) and the analytic (in vocabularies) and, antecipatorily, the social (contexts).

Thus it is valid for a science to focus on one core aspect but harmful reductionism occurs when it presumes that aspect is the only one of importance, and/or that all else can be fully explained in terms of its aspect (3-2.3).

3. Aspects and their fields

This section discusses the meaningfulness of each aspect and what this implies for sciences, fields and disciplines centred on that aspect.

A full treatment of each aspect would include (a) what is meaningful as research focus, (b) links with other aspects, (c) which rationalities and methodologies are appropriate, (d) which fields or disciplines have this aspect as core, (e) philosophical discussion of what the field covers, (f) a review of the history of the (discourses in the) field seen through the lens of aspects as what each discourse finds meaningful. Space limitations however prevent full treatment so (f) is discussed only for the lingual aspect, to exemplify the rich capabilities of an aspectual perspective.

3.1 The mathematical aspects and their fields

The mathematical aspects, quantitative, spatial and kinematic, are pre-physical, needing no physical manifestation. Though often treated as conceptual, Dooyeweerd believes that mathematical things like prime numbers, shapes and movement exist without conceptualisation or physicality. Quantitative, spatial and kinematic are irreducible to each other, each offering a different constellation of meaningfulness.

The quantitative aspect concerns discrete amount, about which "more" and "less" are meaningful. Its rationality and functioning include the arithmetic operations. Arithmetic and statistics are quantitative fields. Research in this aspect can be about fractions, prime numbers, sequences, infinity and so on. What the amount is of (sand, cars, ideas, sides of triangle, etc.) is no concern of the quantitative aspect itself except as a target of its functioning.

The spatial aspect concerns continuous extension. It introduces simultaneity (for example the three sides of triangle must occur together). Its rationality is geometric and topological (trigonometry transduces spatial to quantitative). Length, distance and area are quantitative functioning targeting the spatial, whereas concepts like inside or surrounding are purely spatial. Spatiality is continuous.

The kinematic aspect concerns movement, making concepts like route, divergence and rotation meaningful. Mechanics and animation are kinematic disciplines, which antecipate the physical and psychical respectively.

Zeno's paradox (Achilles-tortoise race) occurs when we try to reduce movement to a sequence of spatial points.

3.2 The physical aspect and fields

The physical aspect concerns energy/mass, forces, causality and irreversibility. These are focal concepts in quantum and atomic physics, chemistry, materials, astronomy, geology, etc. All these depend retrocipatively on the kinematic, spatial and quantitative aspects, so it is no surprise that mathematics is heavily employed therein. Yet they cannot be reduced to mathematics, which knows nothing innately about energy or causality. Geology also antecipates biotic effects of plants. Except at the quantum level, physical laws are determinative and predictable.

3.3 The organic-biotic aspect and fields

The organic-biotic aspect concerns life - cells, organs, organisms and ecologies, with things like food, sex, respiration, which apply to plants as well as animals, but not to e.g. rocks. Disciplines include botany, biology, anatomy, ecology, health, surgery, agriculture, etc.

But what constitutes life? Evolutionist biology suggests reproduction, but Maturana & Varela (1980) argue for the wider notion of self-production (autopoiesis). This tries to explain organic-biotic functioning as physico-chemical but it 'smuggles in' meaning from the biotic aspect. Smuggling in meaning from later aspects is found in several fields. Dooyeweerd's idea of biotic functioning non-causally dependent on physical-chemical offers a sounder paradigm but it has yet to be explored.

3.4 The psychical aspect and fields

The psychical aspect, not reducible to organic-biotic, concerns sensorimotor stimulus and response, memory, recognition and animal feelings like hunger and fear. (Human feelings target later aspects e.g. wonder, the pistic). Fields include animal and behaviourist psychology. Gibson's (1979) ecological approach to psychology, of animals in environments and the notion of affordance, involves psychological targeting of organic and physical aspects (see discussion in Basden (2018, Chapter 7).

3.5 The analytic aspect and fields

The analytic aspect concerns distinction-making, e.g. in conceptualising, in attention-giving and in logic. Its key law and rationality is non-contradiction (Clouser 2005), so contradiction is seen as dysfunction to avoid. (Category errors, however, are not contradictions, but reductions of one aspect to another.) Its fields include logic, analysis and cognitive psychology.

3.6 The formative aspect and fields

The formative aspect concerns formative power as exhibited in achievement, manipulation, construction (and deconstruction), goals and means, planning, techniques, technologies, tools. Its negatives include laziness or wanton destruction. Dooyeweerd called it the cultural or historical aspect, but these have different connotations in English. The formative aspect is central in design, engineering, construction, 'sciences of the artificial', architecture, project planning, computer science, history (the study of human formative power), and in the study of failure. Each of these targets different secondary aspects, perhaps aligned with different things being formed, whether physical materials, spatial arrangements, ideas, intentions, data, etc.

3.7 The lingual aspect and fields

The lingual aspect's kernel is "symbolic signification", expressing meanings in symbols/signs (via writing, speech, engraving, etc.) that may be subsequently interpreted. The lingual aspect enables "pieces of meaningfulness" (Basden 2019b) to be externalised, so available to others - yet never fully clearly since all meanings cohere with all other meaningfulness. This makes context important in interpretation. It also explains why etymology is often used in philosophy (e.g. Heidegger).

The fields of linguistics, semiotics and hermeneutics have gradually arrived at a similar conclusion, as have those of information systems and knowledge representation (Basden & Klein 2008), from which some of the following overview is drawn. Frege, a mathematician, asking how and why mathematical symbols can stand for (signify, express) anything, highlighted the difference between sense and reference. However, he could never properly define sense, linking it vaguely to "thoughts". Chomsky saw language as a (supervening) property of mental states that develops in the individual as internal I-language. Though acknowledging an external, social E-language, he believed only the I-language to be worthy of study. Morris and Skinner reduced language to behaviour: as stimulus and response of individuals.

Piaget was interested in cognitive structures, such as cognitive maps, a major application of which happens to be to language. Like the Chomskian perspective, Piaget focused on the individual rather than the group, but unlike it, was interested in the reader/hearer as well as the writer/speaker.

Peirce, Austin, Searle and Wittgenstein were interested in what language 'does' in everyday life. Peirce explored the relationship between sign, object signified and the (human) signifier as a whole. Austin and Searle developed Speech Act Theory (SAT), especially in fostering social interaction. Wittgenstein developed the notion of language games. Speech act theory enables us to differentiate between defective and successful speech acts by means of normative rules.

Whereas SAT focuses on single acts and individual utterances, the key notion of the Language-Action Perspective (LAP) (Goldkuhl & Lyytinen 1982) is that utterances are part of on-going conversations and cannot be understood properly apart from social/ communal activity and shared understanding of meaning. Its roots lie in Habermas, whose Theory of Communicative Action explores the conditions that make good conversation possible (truth, sincerity and appropriateness) the links between lingual and social functioning, five kinds of social action) and how these affect each other and types of rationality. "Rational" social action may be undermined by inability to obtain proper information, by subjective bias (including lack of understanding) and by distortions due to conflicts of interest, power relations or unjust social conditions (lingual, analytic, social and pistic aspects).

The Linguistic Turn in philosophy applied lingual concepts to philosophy. Gadamer was concerned especially with the hermeneutic cycle involved in interpreting texts, Derrida, with relationships among texts (intertextuality) and Ricoeur, with engagement with others via texts. They began to recognise that, as Derrida famously put it, "All is text": all reality is meaningful rather than meaningless. It was with this wider meaningfulness that Dooyeweerd (1955) began and which he explored, and such lingual objects as texts, words, speech acts and conversations operate within an "ocean of meaningfulness" (Basden 2019b), which is the coherence of aspects in which all other functioning also operates.

Whereas the above fields study linguality itself, the information systems (IS) Field studies the application of information technology. While many held the field to be "socio-technical," Lee (2004) drew attention to the aspect between them: the lingual (information). Others try to work out what information (in computers) is. Checkland & Holwell (1992) are typical in differentiating information from, and relating it to, data, knowledge and 'capta', and Jennings (2000) brings in the social. The field of knowledge representation, and its companion, knowledge elicitation, struggles with the challenges of expressing meanings in symbols as precisely and fully as possible.

Disparate discourses have arisen from the work of each of these thinkers. Yet, instead of a fragmented picture, we may employ Dooyeweerd's aspects (as diversity and coherence of meaningfulness) to understand the validity of each discourse and some of the relationships among them. Each is concerned with a secondary aspect alongside the core lingual aspect; these are shown in Table 2. The reason for interest therein is given in column 3, and the kind of inter-aspect relationship involved, in column 4.

Table 2. Aspectual analysis of discourses around the lingual aspect
Thinker Aspect related to lingual Why Relationship between aspects
Frege Analytical What logical symbols mean Retrocipation
Chomsky Psychical with some analytical Language as supervening on mental states (psychical/analytical) Retrocipation
Morris/Skinner Psychical Language as behavioural stimulus and response Retrocipation
Piaget Analytical (with some organic) Cognitive concepts developing (and growth) Retrocipation
Peirce Lingual The lingual subject (human signifier), prior object (signified object), generated object (sign) The core aspect itself
Austin/Searle Social-formative How people use language among themselves (social) to achieve things (formative) Antecipation
Wittgenstein Social-formative How people use language among themselves (social) to achieve things (formative) Antecipation
Language Action Perspective
Social and some juridical in Habermas Conversation as socially-formed lingual process
Concern for emancipation (juridical)
Antecipation and retrocipation
Gadamer Multiple aspects Hermeneutic cycle takes account of meaningfulness of all other aspects Lingual targeting other aspects
Derrida Lingual, aesthetic The lingual functioning of a text harmonises with that of others Antecipation
Ricoeur Social with ethical Language as relating to, and giving oneself to, the other Antecipation
Information systems (Lee) Lingual with social and formative Socio-technical are the nearest-neighbour aspects of the lingual Antecipation and retrocipation
What is information Psychical, analytic, formative, social Retrocipation and antecipation
Knowledge representation Any aspect Language expressing meaningfulness precisely and fully Targeting

This picture of the field is not complete, but may be taken as an exemplar of how aspectual analysis of discourses in a field may be carried out. The depiction here is more complex than in Figure 1 because, though the neighbouring aspects are important, so too are others, in making our real-life lingual activity what it is. We see the discourses gradually opening up the "coherence of meaning" of the lingual with other aspects.

3.8 The social aspect and fields

The social aspect's kernel, Dooyeweerd expressed as "social intercourse": 'we', togetherness, agreement, company, community, etc. Roles, relationships, groups, organisations, etc. are meaningful in the social aspect. Fields include social psychology, sociology, organisational studies, community studies, etc.

As Habermas recognised, the social aspect depends foundationally on the lingual: very little social functioning can proceed without lingual activity. Habermas verged on reducing the social to the lingual, but Luhmann recognised the irreducibility of the social to the lingual.

The social aspect introduces the possibility of social structures, raising the question of how this affects and is affected by individual agency (the macro-micro issue). Giddens' Structuration Theory has therefore proven useful. Basden (2018) suggests that it may be affirmed, critiqued and enriched using Dooyeweerd, but that has yet to be worked out.

Many in the social sciences quietly presume that all post-social functioning can be explained in terms of the social, but Dooyeweerd argues that economics, aesthetics, juridicality, attitudes and faith, though depending on the social, cannot be reduced thereto but their "sphere sovereignty" must be respected.

3.9 The economic aspect and fields

The kernel of the economic aspect is neither capital, productive labour nor competition, but frugality - the management of resources treated as limited. Hence the field of management. Value and resource are concepts not explainable without the economic aspect. Treating anything as resource (minerals, trees, ideas, friends, artwork, etc.) is economic functioning that targets other aspects (respectively physical, organic, analytic, social, aesthetic).

Currency is lingual expression of quantitative transduction of value; hence banking and finance. Production adds a strong formative aspect. Yet it may be the field of conservation that most closely expresses the kernel norm of this aspect, which implies that a Dooyeweerdian view might become increasingly useful in a resource-limited future.

3.10 The aesthetic aspect and fields

The kernel of the aesthetic aspect, Dooyeweerd argued, is harmony (as in a symphony): playing together to generate something more than their sum. Seerveld (2001) and others argue that it is allusivity, delight, etc. and the debate continues. Its disciplines include the various arts (each depending retrocipatively on different aspects, e.g. spatial-psychical for painting, lingual for poetry), sports and leisure. The aesthetic aspect strongly retrocipates the formative.

3.11 The juridical aspect and fields

The juridical aspect concerns 'due', appropriateness or rightness. Topics meaningful therein include justice, rights, responsibility, proportionality, retribution (reward, punishment), impartiality, legality and their corresponding negatives. Dooyeweerd argues that the juridical aspect depends on the aesthetic to achieve impartiality. Its disciplines include the law, policing, politics (juridical structures in society), etc. Much critical research centred on emancipation is juridical in focus.

Dooyeweerd was himself Professor of Jurisprudence and developed an extensive philosophy of law. Chaplin (2011) argues that Dooyeweerd's ideas can clarify and enhance contemporary concepts of the state and civil society.

3.12 The ethical aspect and fields

The ethical aspect goes beyond right and law to goodness and self-giving love. Meaningful in this aspect are attitudes like generosity, self-sacrifice, vulnerability (hence trust), and their negatives, meanness, self-interest and self-protection. Buber's I-Thou relationship is self-giving. The field of 'ethics' is often juridical in nature (e.g. privacy) or conflated with religion. Some research based on Nietzschean or Foucauldian notions of power misunderstands the ethical aspect (see Basden (2019a, 160)).

3.13 The pistic aspect and fields

The pistic aspect concerns beliefs, commitments, aspirations, assumptions, presuppositions, motivations and ultimate meaningfulness. These range from those in religion and ideology to the tiny assumptions in everyday life such as sitting on a chair without testing it. Courage and faithfulness (and cowardice and disloyalty) are pistic functioning. Dooyeweerd argued that the pistic aspect opens us to the Divine, and that theology is the study of the pistic. That all sciences involve a pistic as well as analytic aspect is seen in reliance on axioms and/or paradigms. Good pistic functioning depends on ethical self-giving.

4. Discussion and conclusion

The above analysis has shown how a wide range of fields can be understood using the same suite of aspects, thus offering an integrative understanding. It has a number of practical implications for research.

1. It offers a basis for critique of claims made by fields, especially to reductionism, by clarifying the core meaningfulness of each field, and thus its limitations. Each reduction (to economic (Knight 1924/2009), evolutionist/biotic, sociological, mathematical aspects etc.) rightly draws attention to the meaningfulness of its aspect but needs to humbly acknowledge the equal importance of all others. Carr's (2003) claim that "IT doesn't matter" reveals (a) arrogant disregard for the dependency of the economic aspect on the lingual, (b) misunderstanding of the kernel meaningfulness of the economic aspect as competition rather than frugality.

2. It can reveal the value of ideas and where they fit. For example, Habermas' Theory of Communicative Action may be seen as an exploration of how lingual and social functioning depend on each other (antecipation and retrocipation) along with lesser dependencies on other aspects.

3. It helps researchers understand the relationship between their fields, in terms of core and neighbouring aspects. Example from above: Understanding the lingual aspect reveals a surprising link between linguistics and information systems. Cross-area fields like physiology have a twin-aspect core. Interdisciplinary research may be firmly grounded on common respect for the distinct meaningfulness of each aspect and on inter-aspect dependency.

4. The nature of mixed methods research might be clarified as aspectual qualifications of quantitative and qualitative methods (quantitative, analytical), both targeting the field's core aspect. This can clarify the role of each in research.

5. It can help researchers separate out the concepts they encounter, and understand the relationships among them. For example in Davis' (1989) classic research on technology acceptance, we can see the core formative aspect in usefulness, ease of use and intention to use, the economic aspect in productivity, the pistic aspect in attitude to technology, and the quantitative and analytic aspect in conceptualising, hypothesizing and statistically measuring and so on (see Basden (2019a)).

6. In several fields, objectivists and social constructivists have talked past, and denigrated, each other, to the overall detriment of the field. This may be explained by their arriving from different ends of the aspectual spectrum, along which predictability decreases, and complexity and normative implications increase, with each aspect. Understanding this can facilitate and encourage fruitful, non-traducing discourse between them.

7. It helps us understand the history of a field and how each of its discourses can contribute to the area's body of knowledge, in a way that integrates them. This has been illustrated for the lingual aspect.

Basden's (2019a) exploration of how Dooyeweerd's ideas apply across all fields may be seen as only a start, which this paper has begun to explore. It now behoves researchers and thinkers in all fields to critically take that exploration further. Taking account of the diversity and coherence of meaningfulness as expressed in aspects can help researchers not only clarify many things but also adopt the modest, self-critical, inclusive attitude that is conducive to improving the quality of research.


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See also

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