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Dooyeweerd's Theory of Time

Dooyeweerd tried to account for what Time and temporality are, and what they do. He recognised that time is not restricted to what can be measured by clocks, planetary movements or atomic nucleii, and that we have a feeling of time, but he went much further, and saw time in every aspect. In this page, we provide a brief overview of Dooyeweerd's account of time.

Our experience of time is deeply embedded, widely permeating and highly varied. Consider the following (which are some of the time-related matters that Dooyeweerd sought to account for in his theory of time):

Dooyeweerd's notion of time ('cosmic time') enables us to address all these - and probably more. I do not know of any other philosopher whose notion of time can do so - and their views may be seen as subsets of Dooyeweerd's view, and be situated therein.

These issues arose from reading three papers that set out Dooyeweerd's theory of time recently (14 October 2008, when they were in process of being edited towards publication in English). The text that follows was created before I did so, and contains only a partial (and probably misunderstood) version of Dooyeweerd's theory. I intend to replace or rewrite it according to my new understanding once some questions that I have have been addressed.

Contents of Page:

1. Dooyeweerd's View

Under a Dooyeweerdian approach, we might have a choice about how we may see such a thing as time: either as an aspect of our functioning or as something that crosses all aspects, just as being, doing, knowing, norms and meaning are. Some think the former, but Dooyeweerd chose the latter, and we spend most of our time on his views.

(If you wish an initial taster, Danie Strauss has sent a brief explanation of Dooyeweerd's approach to time and eternity.)

1.1 The Development of Dooyeweerd's Notion of Time

(I am indebted to Danie Strauss for this explanation.)

Now we will look at several specific points - which were written before the above, so might be slightly at variance with it.

1.2 Two Sides of Time

To Dooyeweerd, time is the 'bottom layer of reality'. The two sides of reality - law-side and a factual-side (a synonym for the entity-side, but more appropriate when talking about time) - give us two basic component concepts about time. The law-side gives us temporal order - before and after - and the factual side, duration.

The law-side provides a law that what is 'after' cannot precede what is 'before' - we shall see below how this is exhibited in the various aspects. The factual-side is duration, and all entities have their own specific duration that differs from that of other entities of the same type. For example, in the biotic aspect [NC I:28], the temporal order of birth, maturing, adulthood and dying pertains for all biotic entities ("No man can come into this world as an adult"), but each has a different lifespan.

1.3 Aspects of Time

Time has aspects. We experience time via its different aspects. In most aspects there is a notion of before and after, and of duration. Dooyeweerd mentioned many of them by way of example:

This idea of the diversity of aspects or types of time is uncommon. However, Berger and Luckmann [p.40ff], in emphasising that "the temporal structure of everyday life is exceedingly complex", speak of "levels of temporality", and give examples of what seem very like Dooyeweerdian aspects of time:

Dooyeweerd's set and examples are preferred over Berger & Luckmann's because (a) it is more exhaustive, covering more aspects (b) it is more wide-ranging in how time is manifested.

But the wide range of manifestations of time is also problematic in coming to a systematic and clear notion of time. Dooyeweerd's examples seem more illustrative than systematically thought-out. As a result, the examples that Dooyeweerd used, but they leave me unsatisfied because it seems a rather ad-hoc set. It gives no clear picture. We find examples of: before-and-after (analytic), simultaneity (spatial), experience of duration (psychic), appropriateness of gap (lingual), decision whether or not to say something (social), and sundry others (esp. ethical and faith). I find many of his examples weak, almost as though he was grabbing time-related issues in each aspect just to fill the slots.

For example, politeness. Arriving on time for a meal is inappropriate (in UK it is impolite to be early or on time for a meal; one should be 10 minutes late!) suggesting that it is not a transcendental law but rather a concrete cultural construction. Some of the examples of politeness could be seen better as the keeping of a kind of social contract, rather than primarily a matter of time as such. For example, the duration of gap between speech acts is only a duration from the point of view of physical time, not the lingual, where it is merely a delimiter rather than a duration; what is more important in speech acts is, for example, that reply is necessarily after what it replies to. And so on.

So I offer the following as possibly more systematic and understandable.

1.4 A Better Aspectual View?

I would find a more systematic set of examples useful. To this end, I have tried to compile a set, based on involves two things about cosmic time which we can experience aspectually: What I mean is *necessary* BA (i.e. what must occur after what in this aspect) and *necessary* S (i.e. what must occur at the same time in this aspect), rather than contingent. (Some are from Dooyeweerd's examples, while others I add from my knowledge of the science and practice of that aspect.) The entries are compiled by asking two questions:

Necessary Before-and-after and Simultaneity in each Aspect
Aspect Necessary Simultaneity Necessary Before-and-after
Quantitative -
(no two numbers are the same)
pure BA
Spatial pure S
(the dimensions and the multiplicity of distances must occur simultaneously)
Kinematic BA and S together
Physical that the laws of physics are field laws: those occurring without boundary (in contrast to biotic) causation and persistence of what is caused
Biotic/Organic equilibrium of organism in environment (which is a process of autopoeisis when seen from the physical aspect) stages of growth
Sensitive/Psychic memory and pattern recognition stimulus + response
Analytical logical predication
(it was the elaboration of this aspect that set me off on finding BA and S for each aspect)
logical analysis
Formative that parts coexist in and with the whole progress, means & ends, construction and destruction
Lingual the (elements of) the utterance, which all must be present at the same time (in the mental awareness of speaker and hearer) for the utterance to mean as intended sequence of utterances and subsequent interpretation or reply
(Possibly also the build-up of message, story or argument, but this is necessary to speech and reading (psychic) rather than lingual)
Social people in a social situation;
the lifeworld (shared background knowledge)
social intercourse
(note I believe that social status is not true social before-and-after, despite Dooyeweerd's use of it as example)
Economic conservation of resources (as expressed e.g. in double-entry book-deeping) production, distribution, consumption
Aesthetic several things together contribute to the harmony (whether BA or S according to clock time) their actual interplay, e.g. development then final resolution of tension in music,
timing that is so crucial to comedy
Juridical law applies at the time and in the context of the action retribution
Ethical ? ?
Pistic Alpha and Omega Creation, fall, redemption and consummation
Maybe BA and S become so intertwined with each other that they become one.

Note: This is only my interpretation of Dooyeweerd; it might be wrong.

1.5 Some Implications

However, with all its deficiencies, Dooyeweerd's notion of cosmic time can throw light on a number of issues. For example, the time dilation spoken of in Einstein's theories of relativity is a dilation of the physical aspect of time rather than of time itself. Time pressure is meaningful only in the sensitive aspect. Recent reactions against 'clock time' with a move to 'personal time', such as in Jonsson [====], may be seen as an aspectual dialectic ({D.6.5.5}), involving the physical and sensitive aspects.

Because of his novel notion of subject and object, Dooyeweerd held that [NC I:28] "objective duration can never actually exist independently of the subjective in the subject-object-relation. This is of essential importance for the problem of the 'measurement of time'." That is, there can be no 'absolute' measure of time, and, by implication, the assumption that physical aspect of time is somehow the most fundamental is false. So is the reaction against it. "Consequently," he continued, "the polar opposition between subjectivistic and objectivistic conceptions [that we might detect in Johsson] is also meaningless from our standpoint."

Strauss [2003] uses it to understand two notions of eternity and how we may place them with respect to each other and to ourselves. In one, eternity is seen as timelessness - a-temporality, often identified with the timeless present (Parmenides, Plotinus). In the other, eternity is viewed as an endless duration of time, which view has recently gained prominence with historicism. Strauss suggests that the first is a spatial aspect of time, as simultaneity, while the second is a quantitative aspect, as succession. Dooyeweerd's notion of time as multi-aspectual helps us avoid both confusion between these two notions, as well as the assumption that we are forced to choose between them.

In a broader way, it enabled Dooyeweerd to survey the ways in which time has been seen by thinkers throughout the ages. The Ionian notion of time as the dissolver, the Aristotlean notion that time is within the soul, the Thomistic notion of time as the numerical measure of motion in the soul, the physicalistic notion of time oriented to mechanical motion, Bergson's notion of time as psychic duration, a vitalistic notion of time, an historicist notion of time, Kant's notion of time as a form of intuition of sense experience, Einstein's spatial notion of time as the fourth dimension. After reviewing a number of such ideas, Dooyeweerd commented [NC I:27-8],

"In all these philosophical discussions of the subject, it strikes me again and again that time is unwittingly identified with one of its modal aspects or modalities of meaning. As long as philosophical thought proceeds from a dialectical ground motive and is caught in a religious dualism, an integral conception of time is excluded."

1.6 Cosmic Time

But what is this 'integral' conception of time that Dooyeweerd sought? He went further than just identifying the aspects of time as above, to make several interrelated proposals. He often used the term 'cosmic time' when referring to the integral conception. In developing his view of time, Dooyeweerd was influenced by Heidegger's Being and Time, though arguably he went further than Heidegger did.

The second volume of his New Critique starts with a terse summary of the philosophical roles Dooyeweerd believes cosmic time plays:

"In the Prolegomena we discovered the cosmic order of time, which, as the limit to our eartly temporal cosmos, determines the structure of reality in its diversity of meaning, both as regards its modal and typical laws and its subjectivity, including its subject-object-relations." [NC II:3]

It is the limiting horizon beyond which we cannot peer nor think nor function. It determines the aspectual laws. It determines the type laws (internal structural principles). It determines (though maybe non-determinatively!) what actually happens. All being subject to aspectual law, and all objects involved in that being subject, and the relationship between them, are bound within cosmic time.

A central claim of Dooyeweerdian philosophy is that the aspects cohere ({D.3.2.8}). But wherein lies this coherence? On what is it based? Continuing after the above passage, he said,

"The specific modal sovereignty of the different aspects of reality (with their various modal law-spheres) appeared to be founded in this cosmic order and at the same time made relative by it. Founded: for the specific modal sovereignty proved to be only possible in the temporal splitting up of the religious fulness of meaning, which in its turn is only given in the transcendent root of our cosmos. Made relative: for the modal law-sphere as a specific aspect of the meaning of temporal reality, proved to have no independent existence it itself, but rather to be interwoven with the temporal coherence of meaning. Cosmic time overarches the different aspects as order, and streams through their boundaries as duration."

Thus the coherence between aspects, their relationship with each other, and their relativity, is not arbitrary but arises from cosmic time, the 'temporal coherence of meaning'. Every aspect is an aspect of time, of temporality, rather than merely an aspect. Cosmic time is the 'medium' through which the meaning totality is broken up into a modal diversity of aspects. [NC I:16] Dooyeweerd used the simile of a prism that splits light up into distinct colours; time is the prism that splits meaning up into distinct aspects.

This means that the order of the aspectual sequence, from quantitative to pistic, may be explained by cosmic time. The aspects reflect the cosmic order of succession. As tentative support for this, Dooyeweerd pointed to the course of human history, in that the order in which the aspects have been opened up in significant ways is largely that in which they occur. (However, an alternative explanation for both order and the opening process may be inter-aspect dependency in the foundational direction.)

"The entire empirical reality in its overrich diversity of structures," said Dooyeweerd [NC I:29], "is enclosed and determined by universal cosmic time. ... the modal aspects are bound by cosmic time in an order of before and after ..." That is, with one exception below, there is nothing outside time, and all that happens or exists in temporal reality does so within time. Both the structures of the aspects, and of the type laws, are bound within time. (Thus, for example, if Dooyeweerd is correct, then time travel as assumed in science fiction, may be impossible.)

Therefore time is not like the other trans-aspectuals like Being, Functioning and Knowing, that gain their concrete shape via the aspects; Functioning and Knowing are nothing if not functioning and knowing in an aspect. Cosmic time seems to stand behind the aspects as well as taking aspectual shape for us.

We can perhaps understand this if we were to ask ourselves what would happen if we had only the aspects, and no Time. We would have only the law-side and potentiality, but nothing would happen, nothing would come into being. The entity-side would be empty. Time may be seen as what translates aspectual potentiality into actuality. "Cosmic time is the intermodal bottom layer of reality." [NC IV:242]

(Note that Berger & Luckmann refer [p.40] to "cosmic time". But it is not clear whether they mean (approximately) what Dooyeweerd was meaning, or to physical time of the material cosmos.)

1.7 Brief Comparison with Heidegger

In this sense, Dooyeweerd's notion of time is not unlike that of Heidegger, for whom time is the horizon for the understanding of Being. As Dooyeweerd, so Heidegger recognised the diversity of aspects of time. As Heidegger, so Dooyeweerd held that we are within time, though for Dooyeweerd, this being-in-time (Heidegger's 'within-time-ness', BT:382/333]) is mediated via the aspects, the spheres of the law-side while for Heidegger it is direct because he had no concept of a law-side. As with Heidegger, so with Dooyeweerd, time is continuous, irreversible.

As Heidegger, so Dooyeweerd also believed our everyday experience of time is important to understand. Heidegger said [BT:457/405]

"Everyday Dasein, the Dasein which takes time, comes across time proximally in what it encounters, within-the-world as ready-to-hand and present-at-hand. The time which it has thus 'experienced' is understood within the horizon of that way of understanding Being which is the closest for Dasein; that is, it is understood as something which is itself, somehow, present-at-hand."

Dooyeweerd had a similar view, though he used different terminology and introduced the aspects into the equation, [NC I:33]:

"In the naive pre-theoretical attitude of experience, we have an immediate integral experience of cosmic time in the uninterrupted coherence of all its modal aspects, inclusive of the normative ones, and in concentric relatedness to the selfhood. If I hasten to my work and look at my watch, then time has for me not only an abstract objective aspect of movement, but I experience it in the continuous coherence of its aspects of number, space and movement, with the stream of organic life, duration of feeling and the normative social aspects. ..."

The strong similarities between the ideas of the two thinkers might come from Dooyeweerd's intensive study of Heidegger, but he would not have adopted Heidegger's ideas if they had not been commensurable with his own. In one important point, however, their views of time diverged.

1.8 Eternity in the Human Heart

The one important point, and the one exception mentioned earlier, is that the human selfhood transcends time. Dooyeweerd quoted the Hebrew book of poetry, Ecclesiastes [Eccl. 3:11]: "He has also set eternity in the hearts of Men." In "the religious centre of our existence" [NC I:24] we can transcend time.

In this regard Dooyeweerd differs from Heidegger, who believed the essence of selfhood to be historical time itself. Both see the selfhood as transcending, but in different ways. As Dooyeweerd understood Heidegger [NC II:525], "The transcendence of the selfhood then remains of a temporal character. It is only the transcendence of the temporal finite human 'Dasein' above the 'Vorhandene' (the sensible things that are given), but it is not an ideal transcendence above time itself. Time as 'pure intuition', as 'pure self-affection' is the essence of the finite human selfhood."

But Dooyeweerd is not satisfied with this. Human beings reach beyond time into eternity. The consequence of Heidegger's philosophy is that our being is 'toward death', whereas for Dooyeweerd human beings - and indeed the entire cosmos - has a Destiny, a Destiny beyond time. As we have seen [==== will see], the human self is ultimately religious, and it is this "religious selfhood" that enables us to transcend cosmic time.

We transcend time, even while most of our being and functioning is gloriously within time. Being within time is not to be seen, as some Greek thought assumed, as a deficient state, but as how we are meant to be. That is why I used the word 'gloriously' above. Our ability to transcend time is to be seen as just one important ability we have as human beings but in no way as superior, a priori, to our functioning within time.

Cosmic time, for Dooyeweerd, is no mere stream. It is part and parcel of our having been created. Cosmic time is, thus, closely tied in with Meaning, which refers beyond itself to its Divine Source and Destiny. Cosmic time is the coherence within created reality, and also its diversity, and, with Meaning, points to the Divine Origin.

If Kantian and much post-Kantian thought has found it difficult to conceive of the human transcendence above cosmic time, Dooyeweerd laid the blame squarely at the door of the "prejudice" we have entertained of the self-sufficiency of theoretical thought [NC II:525]. Because, as we have seen, Dooyeweerd questioned this, his philosophy was able to conceive of our transcending time in our religious selfhood.

This brings us to the topics of the human selfhood and the religious root of not only our selfhood but of the whole of created reality.


See separate page on Progress

2. Other Views

2.1 On the Possibility of a Temporal Aspect

We cannot say, a priori, whether time (or anything else) is an aspect or not. The proposal needs thorough testing and working out, to see if it 'works', especially alongside other aspects (though these could be modified if necessary).

The possibility of time being an aspect has its supporters, and there is much to recommend the idea. But if time is an aspect - a temporal aspect - we must identify its kernel meaning; the notions of succession (before and after), irreversibility, change and happening have been suggested, with the latter two being the most likely. It time is an aspect, we must be able to say what (aspectual being) is subject to the modal laws; what is it that obeys the laws of succession, of irreversibility, or change or happening. For change, the answer might be states of affairs. If time is an aspect, then we must place it in the aspectual sequence, such that later aspects depend on it and it depends on those earlier than it; though some conflate it with the kinematic aspect, the consensus of opinion seems to be that it would be the first aspect, before the quantitative (with the quantitative notion of numeric order now being a retrocipation to the temporal aspect). If time is an aspect, we must, in principle, be able to identify analogies in all the other aspects; this is not difficult, as the list of aspects of time below shows. If time is an aspect, there will be a special science that studies the aspect; this is not so easy.

As we can see, it is possible that we should see time as an aspect. But there are difficulties in doing so, that start to become apparent only after we have explored the possibility at some length. One is that time seems to be too variegated to be captured in the kernel meaning of a single aspect. Its presence in each aspect seems to be stronger than an analogical echo. Other indications include the observation that although every other aspect seems to have been absolutized at one time or another, this seems never to have included the temporal aspect (note that historicism absolutizes the formative aspect).

But, perhaps the main problem with seeing time as an aspect is that it would then no longer fulfil a number of philosophical roles that Dooyeweerd believed it would fulfil. To Dooyeweerd, as we shall see, time is tied in with eternity, with the mystery of human selfhood, with coherence of the aspects, with createdness, and with our relationship to the Divine. It is possible that something else could fulfil these roles, but Dooyeweerd's proposal does have a certain elegance that makes it attractive, even though it is sometimes hard to comprehend.

Dooyeweerd's Index Entries

For those who wish to study Dooyeweerd's arguments in detail, here are Dooyeweerd's index entries under the heading of 'Time' [NC IV:242]:


Berger P, Luckmann T (1966) The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Penguin, 1991.

Dooyeweerd H (1955) A New Critique of Theoretical Thought.

Heidegger M (1962/1927) Being and Time, tr. Macquarrie and Robinson. (page numbers in Macquarrie and in Heidegger's original). Blackwell.

Bodil Jonsson (====) Ten Thoughts About Time - A Philosophical Enquiry.

Danie Strauss (2003) Personal communication via email.

This is part of The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Questions or comments are very welcome.

Compiled by Andrew Basden. You may use this material subject to conditions.

Written on the Amiga with Protext.

Created: 3 March 2003. Last updated: 2 July 2003 link to, some links and cosmic. 20 September 2003 Dooyeweerd's index entries. 23 September 2003 Wrote first version of main text. 10 October 2003 added about time transforming to the potential of the aspects. 20 August 2005 Major addition: development of Dooyeweerd's notion of time. 26 August 2005 minor corrections from D.Strauss. 29 July 2008 Berger-Luckmann's time. 14 October 2008 Added new Intro and issues re. time. 16 December 2008 small changes. 13 August 2009 Better aspectual view; rid about 'my older view'. 17 December 2009 two qns for table. 25 July 2015 some spelling mistakes corrected; contents entry on progress. 3 September 2015 corrected '../'; rid counter; new .nav, .end; gave title. 14 September 2017 spatial time. 5 March 2020 lingual before-after as utterance before interpretation.