Navigation: This page '' ---> Main Page. HELP. Contact. About Page.

Summary of Dooyeweerd's Cosmonomic Philosophy

This was originally a summary with special relevance to Information Technology. But it is being re-written to be a more general summary. In particular, it contains much of Dooyeweerd's Theory of Modal Aspects, that will one day be moved to a separate file. The I.T. oriented summary is still available. In addition, 'Dooyeweerd in Four Paragraphs' gives a different type of summary, that follows the sequence of Dooyeweerd's own argument as contained in his Magnum Opus A New Critique of Theoretical Thought.

Starting Point: Meaning not Being
Framework of Meaning: Aspects
Being: Theory of Entities
Knowing: knowledge, truth, science, etc.
Dooyeweerdian Integration
Other Work of Dooyeweerd

Note: This summary began its life 20 years ago, and needs reviewing. Though much of my understanding of Dooyeweerd remains as then, much has changed or become more nuanced. Andrew Basden. 11 March 2016.

Dooyeweerd's Starting Point: Meaning not Being

We all make assumptions about the nature of things; some call it our world-view ('Weltanschauung'). It arises from an even deeper pre-supposition we make about the nature of reality itself, called a 'Ground Motive'. Most modern Western thinking and acting and living is based on the ground motive of Determinism versus Freedom: things are either determined or free, never both. Such a ground motive is dualistic in nature: it pits two things against each other as irreconcilable opposites. In information technology, for instance, this dualism has given rise to two main camps: the rationalists and the interpretivists.

Of course, in real life, we find both deterministic and non-deterministic phenomena, so they cannot be completely irreconcilable. This troubled the mid-twentieth century philosopher, Herman Dooyeweerd, and he set out to get to the bottom of it. It took him back to the roots of our thinking, and the difference between Greek and Hebrew thinking.

This approach is not well known, but it is certainly interesting - and not just in an intellectual way. Having examined it for a decade, it seems to me to apply to information technology and systems at many points. Also to environmental sustainability. And, probably, to many other things. So, here is a brief overview of it, from the standpoint of information systems.

For a general description, see Clouser (1991), and for full theoretical treatment, see Dooyeweerd (1955) and Hart (1984). It has been applied to the design of IS by de Raadt (1991, 1994) and Grahn and Bergvall (1994). The clearest exposition of its relevance to systems design is by de Raadt (1994), and the following discussion will make copious references to it.

Law-Side and Entity-Side

There are two 'sides' to reality as we know it: The Entity Side concerns concrete, actual things and events, such as my computer, its program, my activity of writing, the polar ice cap, a rose, a government. The Law Side concerns modalities (aspects) in which entities operate, e.g. social, biotic, ethical, technical, aesthetic. The two sides can be seen as orthogonal: an entity crosses several modalities, and a modality crosses several entities. Dooyeweerd drew a clear distinction between the two sides and defined the relationships between them. Click here for more about the two sides.

Immediately we see a departure from Greek thinking, which we tend to hold to this day, and which gave priority to the Entity Side. Entity-centred thinking postulates that laws are merely results of entities, if they exist at all, and that there can be no laws without entities. But to Dooyeweerd, entities come into being because of law - see his theory of entities.

Meaning and Existence

As mentioned above, focusing on modalities reflects a radical shift in Dooyeweerd's thinking away from the 2,000 year old assumption that Existence is the fundamental property of things, towards one that takes Meaning as the fundamental property. Much follows from this apparently abstract notion. It seems to be a foundational reason why this philosophy approach can make an important contribution to such interdisciplinary areas as information systems, education, sustainability in farming, general sustainability, marriage, and so on.

Things, Entities and Systems

However, Existence is not denied. Rather, it is seen as essentially dependent and Meaning-bound. Dooyeweerd speaks about 'individuality structures' which operate within the Meaning framework of modalities; they can be seen as 'things' or 'entities'. De Raadt applies this thinking to Information System development, and equates 'system' with Dooyeweerd's 'individuality structure'. He distinguishes between natural systems (things) such as rocks, plants, animals and human beings, and designed systems (things) such as hospitals or families. There is also the transient entity (thing) that is, as we shall see, the result of human beings making distinctions and drawing boundaries.

According to Dooyeweerd, the environment and society are not entities in the same way, except in the last sense.

Entities (things, systems) can function, and, if the entity is a person, this functioning can include knowing, acting, believing, loving, communicating, worshiping, etc.

See Theory of Entities.


The root of Dooyeweerd's idea is that nothing in our experience, nothing in the cosmos, whether natural or cultural, is self-dependent. All refers beyond itself, both to other aspects and other things, but more importantly, to its Divine Source and Upholder who gives Meaning. Only this Divine Source is self-dependent. As we shall see below, what we take to be self-dependent is a religious presupposition that we all make, both as individuals and as a society. This issue is very well discussed and explained in Roy Clouser's (1991) book The Myth of Religious Neutrality; an essay of the role of hidden assumptions in science and theory.

The Subject-Object Relationship

Entities function as either subject or object within a framework of Meaning (below). A subject is the originator of the action while the object is the recipient of it; active and passive if you like, though that is misleading.

Take urban planning, for example; we have the urban environment, people who live there, people who work there, planners, animals, plants, etc. Which is the active subject and which, the (passive?) object? Hart (1984), in his elaboration of Dooyeweerd's novel approach to the topic, differentiates two meanings of 'subject' or 'subjective': to be subject to laws and norms, and to be a centre of action and volition (as find in the subject of a verb of a sentence). The common sense of opposing 'subjective' feelings and values to 'objective' facts comes from the latter meaning when it is divorced from the former.

But, as Hart shows, the two meanings of 'subject' are closely linked in Dooyeweerd. A subject acts because she, he or it is subject to laws and norms, not in spite of them. (Dooyeweerd's conception of laws or norms is not one of rigid constraint nor of abstract generalization, as in most conventional thinking, but one of enablers of action and guides to action. It is these laws that make any action possible; hence the term 'Cosmonomic' that he chose for his philosophy. This is an area in which Dooyeweerd's thought is orthogonal to traditional debate, but we will not explore it further here.)

Given a knowing and acting subject, there is also a known and acted- upon object and a knowing and acting. In built environmental planning the object is the built environment itself, including physical buildings, traffic, economy, populations, etc. The subjects are the planners, people who live in the built environment, people who work there, etc. (Note the difference between population as an object and people as acting and knowing subjects.) They are subject to the laws of several aspects, discussed below. Also the animals, plants, buildings, etc. are also subjects, but to more limited sets of laws.

We can see many of the problems of sustainability as emanating from the artificial (but time-honoured) separation of subject and object. Two main streams of philosophical and theoretical thought over the last 500 years - realism and nominalism - have emphasized one or the other, and these two are part of Dooyeweerd's longer term (3000 year) analysis of theoretical thinking.

Shades of Goethe's naturphilosophie here: we are part of nature, not separated observers.

More on the Subject-Object below.

The Aspectual Framework of Meaning

(This is Dooyeweerd's Theory of Modal Aspects; one day it will be moved to a separate file.)

Aspects (Modalities)

The modalities can be seen as the framework of Meaning in which all systems operate, and which thereby provide their individual meaning. They are often called Aspects or Spheres and are examined in more detail in Aspect Web Pages - which is a useful entry at present to Dooyeweerd's Theory of Modal Aspects. Fifteen modalities have been identified: numeric, spatial, kinematic, physical, biotic, sensitive, analytical, historical, lingual, social, economic, aesthetic, juridical, ethical and credal. Each modality has a nucleus that makes it meaningful and provides its 'hub', as shown in Table 1.

The names of both the modalities and the nuclei have a somewhat specialised meaning, some of which are elucidated in de Raadt (1994). Of particular interest to work in IS are the analytical, historical and lingual modalities. The analytical modality incoporates logic and modelling. The formative modality was called 'historical' and 'cultural' and 'technical' at various times by Dooyeweerd, and embraces technological and cultural activity, but we will refer to it as the formative modality. Since much use of IS requires the interpretation of symbols, the lingual modality is heavily involved in usage; for this reason, de Raadt labels this the 'informatory' modality.

Aspect Its Kernel
Numeric Discrete quantity
Spatial Continuous extension
Kinematic Motion
Physical Energy and matter
Biotic Life and vitality
Sensitive Feeling
Analytical Distinction
Formative Formative power
Lingual Symbolic representation
Social Social intercourse
Economic Frugality
Aesthetic Harmony
Juridical What is due
Ethical Love (self-giving)
Credal Faith and vision

Table of Aspects and their Kernels
Click Aspect name for its discussion page.

Aspects provide us with:

Elevation of an Aspect

Humankind tends to elevate certain aspects, one in one era and culture, another in another. This leads to distortions, as we well see below. Dooyeweerd called it absolutization, which is an extreme form of elevation that implies, if not says, that the chosen aspect is the only one that really matters, or really exists. This leads to different kinds of reductionism.

He investigated the elevation of two aspects in particular - analytical and formative. Absolutization of the analytical aspect gave us rationalism. Crucially, the analytical aspect is central to science and all theoretical thinking; we make distinctions to classify, to clarify and to argue. To do science we must make a clear distinction between the aspect of interest and all others, by isolating it and its laws from others. For instance in a test tube only physical laws are being studied and economic, social, ethical etc. effects are filtered out (they must of course come back in once we have discovered the physical laws). Reason also has distinction as its centre. Reason and science proved very powerful, not least because they removed personal interest from the scene. But some people saw in them a salvation from corrupt religion and feudalism and started to elevate them. So this aspect became absolutized, to rationalism. The whole of reality must then be subjected to Reason and Science; if not, it is no reality. Since personal human factors are removed, reality seen through spectacles of rationalism becomes depersonalized and harsh. All truth is rational in nature.

Absolutization of the formative aspect (Dooyeweerd at this point calls it the Historical or Cultural aspect) gives us various types of historicism, of which constructivism is one manifestation. This can be seen as an antithesis of depersonalized rationalism; it emphasises human creativity and construction. There is no truth; all truth is constructed.

But other aspects too can be elevated or absolutized.

Aspectual laws

Each modality is governed by its own set of laws, its own order. Thus we have laws of the quantitative aspect, which is much (not all) of mathematics. We have laws of the physical aspect, which is physics and chemistry. The laws of the analytical aspect include those that enable us to make distinctions and reason. The laws of the lingual aspect are those of good communication.

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

Note 2: Do NOT confuse aspectual laws with social norms, written rules or whatever.

Since all aspectual functioning is non-absolute, neither social norms nor written rules can be absolute, and will change with cultural context. However, aspectual law is a 'given' framework within which all life operates and, as we show below, we go against it at our peril.

Aspectual Descriptions

Each human culture has distinguished concepts and issues in aspects it finds important and developed vocabularies and idioms for them, the more important, the richer they are (with some being multi-aspectual). So each aspect can furnish us with a distinct way of describing an entity or situation. For example, I can be described biotically as a body with life functions, psycho-sensitively as an information processor, analytically as a reasoner, formatively as a goal-achiever, juridically in terms of rights and responsibilities, ethically as someone who needs to love and be loved, and so on, giving up to fifteen possible types of description of the entity. Each such description can make complete sense without any need to reference others.

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. 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.

Irreducible ontology

The laws of these fifteen modalities are irreducible to each other. That is, the nucleus and laws of one modality cannot be fully explained in terms of those of another; thus the multi-modal approach is not reductionist. Dooyeweerd calls this 'sphere sovereignty'. The laws of a modality are not emergent properties, and in particular are not 'socially constructed' (though knowledge about their laws might be). This gives the multi-aspectual approach a completely different flavour from those of the interpretive camp of information systems such as Hirscheim and Klein (1989), Vickers (1983), even though it agrees with the adherents of this camp that human interpretation and construction are real and important factors.

Inter-Aspect Dependency

However, the aspects are not a set but a list: there is a definite order amongst them. The laws of the later aspects depend on, and make use of, those of the earlier aspects. For instance, physical laws require and presuppose spatial laws. Biotic laws presuppose physical. And so on. It is part of Dooyeweerd's genius that he detected this ordering and dependency.

Inter-Aspect Analogy

However there is another kind of relationship among the aspects, that of analogy. Each aspect has within it echoes of all the others. For instance, feeling is from the sensitive aspect, but one can have a feeling for justice, a feeling of love, a feeling for logical correctness, and so on. Likewise, causality is of the physical aspect, yet we find echoes of it in other aspects, such as logical entailment, the act of retribution in cases of justice or injustice.

It is this analogical relationship that makes metaphor possible. Our ability to see similarities and communicate them is not due only to some fuzzy pattern matching algorithm in the brain but the activity of such an algorithm (if algorithm it be) rests on and presupposes this analogical relationship between the aspects.

Analogical relationships can occur to both earlier and later aspects, and these are called 'retrocipation' and 'anticipation'. For example, the theme of social connotation in linguistic pragmatics anticipates the social aspect. A page on anticipation has been started.

Normativity and Determinativity

But the laws are not all of the same type. Those of the earlier aspects (numeric, spatial, etc.) are mainly determinative in nature, but those of later aspects are largely normative. There is a progression from determinative to normative laws as we move to the later modalities (ethical, credal).

Normative laws can be transgressed; we can decide to be rude to people or to speak nonsense, or to refuse justice. But they can never be set aside. That is, they always pertain, even if we ignore or spurn them, and results will follow. this is the basis of Dooyeweerd's approach to success and failure.

I have started a page to discuss normativity in more detail


Back to entities: entities function in and across the aspects/modalities. For instance, while writing this I am functioning:

I am also functioning:

Dooyeweerd's proposal about entities is that in all we do in real life we function across all Law-Side aspects. Kalsbeek (1975) shows how a manned space flight involves all aspects.

Clouser (1992) outlines three types of functioning - everyday (pre- theoretic or 'naive') functioning, lower abstraction, and higher abstraction. The latter is central to science.

For an explanation of this and deeper discussion of these issues, see the page on Functioning.

We function either as subject or as object in each aspect. That is, I can push something (as subject in physical aspect) or be pushed (as object in physical aspect). I can keep to budget (subject in economic aspect) and I can be made redundant (object in economic aspect).

Successful Living

All human (and other) functioning is guided by aspectual laws, some of which are normative. That means we have freedom to go against those laws - but never to set them aside. All our functioning has its results. Dooyeweerd's proposal, based on the meaningfulness of the Law Side, is that if our functioning is aligned with the laws of the aspects then the result will be healthy, rich, sustainable living, but if we go against the laws of the aspects then our living will be harmful and unsustainable. (This difference is the essence of the Hebrew word, shalom.)

Note that the results of our functioning - with or against the laws, shalomic or harmful - affect not only us, individually, but also other entities around us. The effect might not be immediate; in fact it seems that the later the aspect the longer term is the effect. For instance, Communism is a pistic statement about the nature of things, but it took humankind as a whole nearly a century to recognise its harmful effects: only after a century could we say on the basis of experience that Communism goes against the laws of the pistic aspect.

One major way in which a culture (or a manager or even each one of us) goes against an aspect is to ignore the whole aspect - just to overlook it. Either to not realise its importance, or to semi-deliberately deny its importance ("Oh, that's for wimps!"), or to elevate another aspect. The ignored aspect still pertains, however, and eventually problems emerge from its ignoring. This is discussed in a little more detail below.

This view of success, shalom, health is one part of Dooyeweerd's approach to success and failure in applying information technology. Also of environmental sustainability. See Lombardi and Basden (1997). It is particularly useful when handling an inter-disciplinary situation, as these two are.

Modal necessity

A key tenet of the Dooyeweerdian approach to shalom is modal (aspectual) necessity. Modal necessity is a corollary of the irreducibility between the laws of different aspects. If the laws of the social aspect, for instance, were reducible to those of the physical, then there would be no need for the former to be explicitly stated. They could be derived from the latter when they were needed. But since the laws of the social aspect are not derivable from those of the physical aspect, if we attend only to those of the physical aspect we will transgress those of the social (albeit unwittingly), and thus our enterprise will come to harm. (A similar argument applies to any pairing of the aspects.)

Therefore an important proposition of the multi-modal approach is that if any modality is ignored during any functioning (e.g. system development and usage, e.g. land use planning and subsequent living) then the long term health and success of the system will be jeopardised, either because it is shelved before it should be or because it leads to unforeseen deleterious effects. As de Raadt and others have pointed out, system design is a continuing process, without a hard end-point, because usage of the system feeds back into its continuing development.

The laws of a modality are not emergent properties, and in particular are not 'socially constructed' (though knowledge about their laws might be). This gives the multi-modal approach to systems development a completely different flavour from those like Checkland's (1981) Soft Systems Methodology or Avison and Wood-Harper's (1990) MultiView methodology.

Taking all into account

A corollary of this is that the aspects (modalities) are put forward as a sufficient and necessary ontology to guide systems development. That is, a bold statement is made, that these modalities, if properly understood, are the ones, and the only ones, that need to be considered when predicting, planning for and evaluating the benefits, etc. of a system. As we discuss below, this offers a very useful (but very rich) checklist to use throughout design, development and use.

(Now, this bold statement must be qualified. It is not thought that the picture we have is the final one. The modalities need to be explored, and it might turn out, after due study and consideration, there are seventeen or twenty-five of them rather than fifteen. But the number is not likely to be very different from fifteen. Until proper study is undertaken, the fifteen proposed by Dooyeweerd seem at least to be a good starting point.)

More on the Subject-Object Relationship

(Introduction to the Subject-Object above.

The subject-object relationship is very important in Dooyeweerd's thinking, and takes on an unusual flavour since it is rooted in the Law Side rather than merely the Entity Side.

It brings together the three apparently separate meanings of the word 'subject' in the English language:

In Dooyeweerd's scheme, they merge. Subject-1 is the fundamental concept: I, an entity, am subject to the laws of the aspects. But, unlike Western thought, in which laws and conditions are seen as constraining our freedom, in Dooyeweerd's scheme, laws enable us to function (this echoes Giddens' statement "Structure must not be conceptualized as simply placing constraints upon human agency, but as enabling"). So, when I am subject to physical laws, say, I can act as physical subject-2; I can push. Thus functioning as subject-2 in an aspect is made possible by being subject-1 to its laws. Now, given that in later aspects some of the laws are normative rather than determinative, if I function as subject-2 in an aspect, being subject-1 to the laws of the aspect, and that aspect is normative, then my response to those laws is personal, unique to myself. That is, we can call it a subjective response. So, to summarize:

We return to the subject-object relationship later, when we discuss the differences between realism and nominalism.

Dooyeweerd's Theory of Entities

See entities.html for a fuller outline of his theory of entities.

But what are these entities that may be subject or object? To Dooyeweerd, Being arises out of aspectual functioning within the framework of Meaning, not the other way round. He says, "Meaning is the being of all that has been created" (NC, I, p.4). He expands on this: Meaning is the mode of being, the way(s) in which we can Be, and the ways we or things can Be corresponds with the aspects. Thus we can exist physically (as a mass of chemicals and materials), biotically (as a body), sensitively (as sentient beings), analytically (as thinkers), formatively (as creators and achievers), lingually (as communicators), socially, juridically, etc.

Logically speaking, Dooyeweerd first distinguishes natural from artificial entities. Natural entities include humans, animals, plants and non-living matter. Artificial entities are things fashioned by natural entities, such as bird nests, bird songs, poems, lectures, political parties, religions, fictional entities like Gandalf, etc. Dooyeweerd's theory of entities accounts for all these. In fact, it also accounts for impossible entities such as a square circle of the present king of France.

Artificial Entities

What is it to be be a bird's nest? A pile of sticks is not a nest. What is it to be a poem? A load of words is not a poem. What is it to be a word? A sound, or a mark on paper, is not a word. But a word involves mark on paper or sound. A poem involves words. A nest involves a pile of sticks. In similar vein, what is it to be a computer program, a character in a movie, a political party, and so on? Some of these things have a physical aspect while others do not, or not in the same way (e.g. compare a bird's nest with political party). How do we make sense of all this?

Dooyeweerd accounted for thing-ness of artificial entities in terms of meaningful wholes and aspectual structures. One of the examples he used was Praxiteles' sculpture of Hermes with Dionysus. He pointed out that the meaningful whole that is the sculpture comprises (at least) two aspectual structures:

Both aspectual structures (he called them 'individuality structures' but there are problems with that term; de Raadt for example misapplied it) are necessary to the Being of the sculpture, and both are ways of understanding the whole. They are decidely NOT PARTS of the sculpture. In Dooyeweerd's philosophy, there are three 'things' here, not one: the thing that is the meaningful whole, and the two things that are aspectual structures.

An alternative way of talking about this is simply to say that the meaningful whole that is the sculpture has two main aspects: the physical and the aesthetic. It is these two aspects that give it is meaning and that determine our responsibility for it (for example, respect its aesthetic aspect by placing it appropriately, and its physical structure by not exposing it to acid rain).

Dooyeweerd's example has two main aspects or aspectual structures. But most of today's artificial entities have more. For example, a poem might be seen to have:

The ancient statue would have had more aspectual structures when it was created (especially the economic and juridical), but they have lapsed over the 2500 years since then.

Note: What we call 'systems' are often complex artificial entities, often based on social structures.

Kingdoms of Natural Entities

Some entities can function as subject only in some of the earlier aspects. For instance, a sheep can be a biotic subject but only object in the economic aspect. The latest aspect in which an entity can function as subject is useful to classify entities into four major kingdoms: inert, plant, animal, human - though the boundaries are probably blurred.

Everything is Interconnected

Traditional Western thought, based on Greek ideas, emphasises the entity, as independent in its existence. Eastern thought denies entity, wishing to see everything like a drop in an ocean with no separate existence. Dooyeweerd emphasises relationships and interconnectedness. He acknowledges (some kinds of) entities as separate beings, but emphasises their dependence rather than their independence.

Western Eastern Dooyeweerd
Independent entities Denial of entities Entities in relationship
Competition Inactivity Responsible action

The ultimate dependence is on God, the Creator who is also Lover and Redeemer, and it is fundamental. It is so fundamental that God wrote it into the fabric of his Creation as inter-dependence or, as many now call it, interconnectedness. We are all caught up in the web of Meaning that is the modal aspects in which function. We do not just exist; we relate.

There are two types of relationship. There is the type that we form of our own will - for instance I am communicating with you as you read this - but these are transient and contingent. And there is the type that is necessary, necessary for whole and complete being - for instance, a snail and its shell; neither is complete without the other.

Dooyeweerd was intensely interested in the types of necessary relationship that pertain. For instance, there are subject-object relationships that we discussed above, and there are part-whole relationships (my arm is part of me). But there is also a third type that seems to be special to Dooyeweerdian thought: enkapsis.

Enkaptic Relationships

Consider a statue made out of a block or marble, and ponder the following questions. As the sculptor starts carving the marble, at what point does it cease to be a block of marble and becomes a statue? If the final statue is both marble and statue, what is the relationship between marble and statue? - it does not seem quite right to say marble is part of the statue.

Dooyeweerd's concept of individuality structure, especially as qualified by a leading modality, allows us to think of the marble and the statue as two distinct things, but necessarily closely linked by enkapsis. The marble is still marble, qualified by the physical aspect; the statue is statue, qualified by the aesthetic aspect. Two distinct individuality structures, but with an enkaptic relationship between them. 'Enkapsis' was a term Dooyeweerd took from a Swiss biologist and modified slightly. Dooyeweerd discusses several types of enkapsis:

Some might seem like part-whole relationships, but Dooyeweerd reserves that for situations in which the part has no meaning apart from its whole (as with my arm), while in these enkaptic relationships there is a degree of meaningful independence. In information technology the computer and its program would seem to have an enkaptic relationship - indeed, more than one.

The idea of enkapsis is so foreign to normal thinking that it can be difficult at first to see its significance, but it is an ideas that 'grows on you', and eventually you wonder how you could ever have worked without it.

New (27 February 2003) page on enkapsis. A good explanation of enkapsis can be found in chapters 35-37 of Kalsbeek's book.

Knowing: Truth, Belief, Knowledge, Theory, Practice and Science

See new page on Knowing.

Dooyeweerd's theory of knowledge is extensive and not always easy to grasp. He focused, not on knowledge itself, but on human knowing (Hart, 1984). There is no one aspect whose kernel meaning is knowing, but rather each aspect provides a distinct way of knowing (e.g. social knowing differs from analytical knowing). Epistemology is not one, but pluriform. (See the table on ways of knowing.)

However, Dooyeweerd recognised the special place that theoretical knowing, and its companion, science, have held in Western thinking. He discussed four main issues: the root of theoretical knowing within the analytic aspect of distinction, the human process of doing science as involving every aspect, how science is to be defined, by neither method nor outcome but by the (analytic) isolation of a given aspect (Gegenstand relation) (Clouser, 1991) and, therefore, that each aspect gives us a distinct area of science with its own methods and aims.

Nothing Fully Known

Dooyeweerd stressed that theoretical knowing cannot achieve full knowledge of anything, because of its inherent limitations (below). This is a popular theme today, and, as Hart points out, Dooyeweerd prefigured much of the debate by Polanyi, Kuhn and Habermas about the personal nature of knowledge. To know involves every aspect, not just the analytical.

But Dooyeweerd went further. Even when we allow for knowing to be multi-aspectual, tacit, knowing-how as well as knowing-that, personal, etc., we can never fully know. We can never fully grasp any thing. This sounds similar to what Kant was getting at in his claim that we can only know phenomena and never noumena, we can never know the 'thing in itself', the 'Ding an Sich', but Dooyeweerd gave a more satisfactory and richer account of this than Kant did. The reason is twofold:

But Dooyeweerd does believe there is absolute Truth - found in the Divine. See truth.html for an explanation of how Dooyeweerd brings relative and absolute truth together in harmony. See also Dooyeweerd's theory of ground motives.

Three Types of Thinking

One of Dooyeweerd's interests was the relationship between theoretical and everyday ('pre-theoretical') thinking and functioning, and an important contribution he made was to show how the two fit together, bridging two thousand years of separation. Expanding on Dooyeweerd's thought, Clouser (1991) makes a distinction between three types of thinking (see abstraction.html for more):

Science and everyday functioning

Scientific or theoretical thinking involves higher abstraction. In science, we seek to isolate, not a situation but an aspect; we isolate the aspect in order to study and discover its laws. Dooyeweerd expressed this as the analytic aspect being in 'Gegenstand' over against the aspect it is isolating. That is the role of science: to isolate and aspect in order to study its laws.

This gives science an interesting definition. Science is no longer defined by so-called scientific method, nor by rigour, nor in terms of the old battle between empiricism and rationalism, nor by a seeking after absolute truth (which is impossible), but by an attempt to study the laws of an aspect. It means that science does not primarily study things (the entity side) but aspectual law (the law side). Such things as scientific method and rigour are only means to studying laws. It might study things, but only as a means to studying laws.

However, this is not a positivist view of science. Each aspect delineates a distinct area of science - physics, biology, psychology, 'sciences of the artificial' (Simon), linguistics, social science, ethics, theology, etc. Dooyeweerd claimed that since each aspect has a different way of knowing, so each science has distinct methods and quality criteria that are proper to it and not to be imposed on others. Positivistic science might have some validity for physics, but it is totally inappropriate for social science.

Important Note: The actual doing of science is multi-aspectual human living; so religious presuppositions, economic constraints, lingual dissemination, etc. are all important.

There is a discussion about science which makes particular reference to Thomas Kuhn's work.


Technology might be the application of theories discovered from scientific research. But then it has to be used to form artefacts and systems for human use. And then those have to be used. While technology itself might be aspectually isolated, the artefacts are less so, and their usage is multi-aspectual. So, for example, policy about the latter should *never* be driven primarily by experts in the scientific fields.

Research into usage

(This is old; to be moved sometime)

It has often been assumed that information systems research is about improving the technology, and that usage issues are mere 'practicalities'. There has been research into development methodologies, and into psychological and sociological aspects of usage, but little research into usage as such, in all its richness. So practitioners lack guidance that is based on sound theory and researchers - and their peer-reviewed funding bodies! - do not see usage issues as worthy of research. This is unfortunate. Dooyeweerd's critique enables us to place real value on usage research, but warns that it is of a different kind: multi-modal, employing at most lower abstraction, rather than uni-modal. This confirms theoretically what is being found in practice: that action research is a valid research method.

Linking development to usage

(This is old; to be moved sometime)

By seeing scientific work as the isolation of a modality, we can begin to understand more clearly the relation between technology and its use. Exploration of the shape of a technology such as IT needs isolation: uni- modal functioning. Usage of a technological artefact such as a specific IS is an everyday activity and thus needs multi-modal functioning. Development of the artefact (the IS) links the two. Development and usage are not seen as essentially separate processes, but are linked through the set of modalities.

Sadly, information system development has been seen as a fundamentally technical activity, and thus developers have tended to isolate a single modality (whether deliberately or not), and the result is technology-centredness. But if the IS is designed for use, development should be multi-modal.

Dooyeweerdian Ideas as Integration


Traditional philosophical realism emphasizes the known and acted-upon object and de-emphasizes the knowing, acting subject. In extreme versions (such as positivist science) the relevance of the subject (e.g. the experimenter as person) is denied altogether, leaving only the object. Laws must then be deterministic rather than normative. This has always tended towards a narrowing of focus in scientific investigation and resultant action in the personal, economic or political arean, often resulting in a reductionism. A number of the more obvious reductionisms have been widely recognised - scientific investigation has been reduced to materialism and rationalism while action has often been reduced to technical matters or finance.

Approaches to anything in life (e.g. urban planning) that are based on realist philosophies have the danger of reductionism, resulting in ignoring salient aspects. It may not be absolute but shows itself in an imbalance, in which one aspect is given undue emphasis to the detriment of others. Doing so threatens sustainability of the environment or system we are dealing with.

In nineteenth century industrial Britain, for instance, emphasis was sometimes on provision of physical housing for human resources for factories, in the vicinity of the factory. Biological matters such as health and aesthetic matters such as beauty were seldom considered, resulting in slums that had to be cleared after World War II. In planning their replacement, open spaces, cleanliness and aesthetically clean lines were emphasised, while social issues and those of mobility, for instance, were ignored, resulting in dehumanizing schemes that were also energy- inefficient and expensive to maintain. These schemes are now being replaced, giving them an even shorter life than the slums they replaced, suggesting they were less sustainable. In urban planning, the imbalance in any culture depends on what is considered at that time to be the nature of the object that is the built environment.

Another problem with planning based on realist philosophy is that because the subject is de-emphasized the effects of the action and knowledge of the subjects are often ignored. A prime example of this is, of course, road-building, where the objects are the transport system and traffic volumes while the subjects are those who drive and those who plan journeys, and until recently the traffic generating effect of road-building has been ignored and even denied.


The opposite approach to the subject-object theme is based on nominalist philosophies, of which existentialism is an extreme form and, in information systems, constructivism is a common version. In these approaches the object is denied, leaving only the knowing and acting subject. (In fact, this approach also denies the law side.) This approach pervades post-modernity (Lyon, 1995) and, in scientific circles, constructionist and interpretivist paradigms. It claims to avoid the dangers of reductionism by acknowledging the views and wishes of all and sundry. While it has some success in this, there are three problems. No external reference point is acknowledged or even allowed, so there is no certainty that planning according to these subjective wishes will in fact lead to well-being or sustainability in the longer term. Second, when wishes and views of different people or groups appear inconsistent there is no standard by which to arrive at consensus. Third, there is the danger in practice that those who shout loudest get heard, while less articulate groups and those who cannot represent their right, such as animals or young children, tend to get ignored unless their cause is championed by others.

Therefore while less reductionist than approaches based on realist philosophies, there is still no guarantee of sustainability. There is not even any guarantee that sustainability will be greater than when adopting approaches based on realist philosophies. Approaches based on nominalism find integration and inter-communication, mentioned above, difficult.

Integrating Subject and Object

The philosophical approach of Dooyeweerd (1953) has been developed from a radically different starting point, which questions even assumptions made by the Greeks about existence and meaning. One of its claims is to integrate subject and object. Unlike nominalist approaches Dooyeweerd acknowledged an external reality that is independent of the acting and knowing subject. Because of this, Dooyeweerd originally thought himself a realist, but later distanced himself from realism (Henderson, 1994). This was because he clearly saw that we, acting and knowing subjects, are part of the external reality; it is independent of us but never separated from us. We are affected by it but also affect it and have views and desires concerning it.

We are concerned with sustainability at a time when it is clear that sustainability is threatened. Working more than fifty years ago, Dooyeweerd did not use that term but referred to the 'health' or well- functioning of a system and gave it a long-term meaning. His claim is that such 'health' or sustainability can only be achieved if we understand the nature and, he would say, meaning of the laws that govern both us and all external reality. Realist philosophy drives its adherents to reducing all types of laws to one, such as the laws of physics, of logic, or evolutionary biology, etc. Nominalist philosophy drives its adherents to a denial of all laws. Dooyeweerd wished to escape both dangers.

Presuppositions (more)

The problems with both realism and nominalism are deep-seated, found in their underlying philosophical presuppositions (assumptions). There is little hope therefore that they can be ameliorated just by fine-tuning. Though deep, and not immediately obvious, philosophical presuppositions always reveal themselves in time. Therefore, if we seek a well-founded approach to information systems, or to sustainability of the built environment, it must be one that is based on different philosophical assumptions, especially about the relation between subject and object.

In fact, Dooyeweerd takes the matter one step further, claiming that what seem at first to be philosophical presuppositions often turn out to be religious ones.

Religious Presuppositions

(See section about Religious Presuppositions in Dooyeweerd's theory of ground motives for more.)

A key element of Dooyeweerd's thought is that no sphere of life is 'neutral'. In particular, science and logical thinking are not neutral, a fact that we readily acknowledge today but when Dooyeweerd was active most assumed they were neutral. This non-neutrality was not just claimed but explained by Dooyeweerd - explained by saying that the human person always has religious pre-suppositions. 'Religious' does not mean to do with rituals and creeds, but rather with our view of what is self-dependent. (This is brought out clearly by Clouser (1992).) According to Dooyeweerd, all is dependent on the Living God, who alone is self-dependent. Even the laws of arithmetic and logic depend on him (which is why, perhaps, the argument between Christians on the one hand that God is three, and Jews and Muslims on the other that God is one, may be somewhat misdirected). He is the designer and creator of all laws and not subject to any of them - yet they truly reflect his character.

Ground Motives (more)

This means that the Ground Motives that were mentioned at the start are essentially religious in nature. They reflect what we most fundamentally believe about the nature of reality, including God. It so happens that while not everybody holds a given ground motive personally, certain ones prevail at certain times in history and guide the direction of theoretical thinking. Dooyeweerd suggests there have been four over the last 2,500 years:

All but the second are dualistic in nature, and thus result in temporal reality being split in two and dis-integrated. Click the above for fuller description of each ground motive; also see page on theory of ground motives.

Nature-Grace came from an attempt to merge the first two, this led to all sorts of oppressions and distortions, which led thinking people eventually to one of two reactions against it. One was the Reformation, which sought to recover some of the pure Creation, Fall, Redemption motive. The other was the Renaissance, which, assuming the problem lay with the God part, sought to remove it from the 'Grace' element, thus producing the Freedom element in the modern ground motive.

(Vollenhoven's analysis of the history of theoretical thought into three phases is similar: Pre-Synthesis, when the first two motives existed in separate communities, Synthesis, when they were merged, and Anti-Synthesis, which sought to break the synthesis.)

To have a dualistic ground motive actually goes against the laws of the pistic aspect. Hence, since we cannot set aside these laws, they will have an effect, a deep effect, a long term effect. And, since the pistic aspect is the last, it is, according to Hart (1984), open to God, the one which allows human contact with God. It is also the one that most deeply affects and influences our functioning in all other aspects. It does not mean that our functioning in other aspects necessarily goes against the laws of those aspects, but rather than it affects the sum total of our functioning and whole persons.

Thus Dooyeweerd maintained that it was important not only from a religious point of view but also from the point of view of healthy living in society and environment, and also from the point of view of healthy science, that we hold the Hebrew Ground Motive, which is seen through the revelation in the Bible. This will, of course, be unacceptable to many, and they will wish to reject at least this claim of Dooyeweerd's, and many, if they cannot have the rest of the system of thought without this claim will reject the whole system. But that just provides substantial evidence for the validity of Dooyeweerd's claim that all is ultimately religious.

This is why Clouser's (1992) book is entitled The Myth of Religious Neutrality.

An Attempt at a Christian Philosophical Framework

A major motivation behind Dooyeweerd's work was to form a philosophical framework that was Christian-Biblical, or at least not anti-Christian. Now, by this he did NOT mean a philosophy made up from biblical phrases or doctrine. Nor did he mean one that excluded all other religious thought such as secular, Islamic, Hindu, atheistic, etc.

What he meant was that the underlying presuppositions should be in line with what God has revealed via the Biblical revelation. Dooyeweerd was troubled by the fact that Biblical ideas do not seem to fit 'comfortably' with most theoretical thinking, yet he was not satisfied with the explanation given by both secularists and fundamentalists that religion has nothing to do with this world of science, technology, business and in particular thinking.

One example: as discussed above the Greeks assumed that the primary thing we can say about a thing is that it exists, and exists in its own right. Yet the Biblical revelation is that all is dependent on the Creator God, and cannot be truly known without reference to him. Therefore all attempt to 'know' a thing without reference to him is doomed to failure, however promising its start might appear. Another example: we experience meaning, and in a way that is integrated with our experience of things around us. Yet nobody has satisfactorily explained meaning in a way that integrated. Dooyeweerd believed that meaning is found in God.

He was convinced that there was a far deeper explanation, and gave his life to finding out what it was. First he went back to the start of theoretical thinking (Greeks) and worked his way forward, and compiled a careful critique; this is Volume 1 of his New Critique. But he did not want to just be negative. So he took the challenge of building an alternative framework, one that does not make God-avoiding assumptions right from the start, and one that is self-consistent. He wanted it to account for the unity and diversity that we experience. He wanted it to account for all sciences and knowledge. He wanted it to account for our everyday experience. And he wanted something that would speak into the intellectual debates in their own terms, and yet make God relevant thereto. He also wanted it to be able to address issues such as: what is the relationship between God and the cosmos that we experience and live in? The results of this work form Volumes 2 and 3 of his work.

I believe he succeeded in laying a useful foundation or starting point, though there is still much refinement to be done. Maybe there is a major flaw that will invalidate it all - but we will only find out by becoming immersed in it and exploring it for real.

(Some Christians are very hostile to Dooyeweerd's ideas. I believe their hostility is based partly on a misunderstanding, and partly on a pagan type of fundamentalism. I discuss this in a separate page.)

Some of Dooyeweerd's Other Work

Dooyeweerd also investigated certain aspects in some depth to come up with theories about those aspects. These may be thought of as Tier 3 proposals, that may be criticised and even rejected without threatening the main thrust of his philosophy outlined above.

Dooyeweerd's Theory of Social Institutions

The social aspect is concerned with social interaction and institutions. Dooyeweerd made a proposal for the latter seen as entities or systems. He was interested in what makes a marriage different from a state, a state from a business, a business from a church, a church from a social club and so on. Much of his proposal rests on which aspect qualifies the institution, but he also proposed a taxonomy of social institutions.

Dooyeweerd's Philosophy of History and Progress

Human knowledge and capability grow. Dooyeweerd was interested in what distinguishes progress from mere change, especially in the realm of science, and developed a theory based on the directionality of Time and aspectual opening. Each modality has potential which must be 'opened up' by human exploration of the modal orders. In primitive societies, for instance, such modalities as the legal are still closed and thus exist in an undifferentiated form. An example of the opening process can be seen for the physical and biotic modalities in the scientific activity over the last few centuries.

Dooyeweerd was motivated to put extra effort into this investigation because he lived through the Nazi era in Netherlands and wanted some grounds for saying that Nazism was evil; he suggested that it was evil because it was anti-progressive. However, his theory of progress has been criticised by Klapwijk as more "a speculative product of German idealist metaphysics of history" than as true to his own philosophy. And, in view of the problems that so-called progress (at least in its Western form) has given rise to since Dooyeweerd was active, maybe Klapwijk was right and Dooyeweerd's theory should be re-thought. An excellent, in-depth overview and discussion of Dooyeweerd's philosophy of history is found in McIntire (1985).


Carroll J M, (1990), "Infinite detail and emulation in an ontologically minimized HCI", in Chew J C, Whiteside J (eds.), "Empowering People: CHI'90 Conference Proceedings", New York, ACM Press.

Clouser R, (1992), The myth of religious neutrality in science and philosophy , University of Notre Dame Press.

de Raadt J D R, (1991), "Information and Managerial Wisdom", Pocatello, Idaho, Paradigm.

de Raadt J D R, (1994), "Enhancing the horizon of information systems design: information technology and cultural ecology".

de Raadt J D R, (1996), "What the prophet and the philosopher told their nations: a multi-modal systems view of norms and civilisation", accepted for World Futures.

de Raadt V D, de Raadt J D R, (1996), "A multi-modal and systemic critique to redesign the family", Proc. Swehol Working Conference, Maarssen, Utrecht, Netherlands, April 1996.

Dell P F, Goolishian H A, (1981), "Order through fluctuation: an evolutionary epistemology for human systems", Australian Journal of Family therapy, v.2, pp.175-184.

Dooyeweerd H. (1953-1955), "A new critique of theoretical thought", Vol. I- IV, Paideia Press (1975 edition), Ontario.

Grahn A, Bergvall B, (1994), "Performance indicators in Soft Systems Methodology", Proc. of 17th IRIS Confce (Information Systems Research seminar In Scandinavia), Oslo, Aug. 6-9 1994.

Giddens A (1993) New Rules of Sociological Method, Polity Press, page 169.

Hart H, (1984), Understanding Our World: An Integral Ontology , University Press of America.

Hirschheim R, Klein HK, (1989), "Four paradigms of information systems development", Comm. ACM, v. 32 (10), 1199-1216.

Kalsbeek (1975), Contours of a Christian Philsophy , Wedge Publishing Company, Toronto, Canada.

Polanyi M, (1967), The Tacit Dimension , Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Vickers G, (1983), "Human systems are different", Harper and Row.

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: 8 May 1998 Last updated: 8 June 1998. 24 September 1998 a bit more on neglecting aspects. 28 February 1999 altered re entity thinking and made link to new page there. 28 June 1999 link to new normativity page. 23 October 1999 links to God.cosmos.html. 24 November 1999 links to science. 7 February 2001 copyright, email. 19 September 2001 inserted Dependency heading; added anticipation and retrocipation. Started to move this summary away from I.T. Added paradox and antinomy. 28 June 2002 'more' link on presupp and gm. 8 July 2002 refce to Giddens. 4 January 2003 link to entities.html changed to existence.html. 6 January 2003 links to Theory of Entities in entities.html; note in intro that Th. Aspects will be moved one day. 12 January 2003 links to new page, anticipation. 18 February 2003 Major revamp. 27 February 2003 link to enkapsis.html; new title, .nav. 3 March 2003 links to gm. ground.motives, knowing.html. 14 November 2003 label:mb. 15 June 2004 heading replaces dimensions by sides; simplified 2 sides, with link to new page. 11 March 2016 'The main' - 'A major'; new .end,.nav; intro warning.