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Truth: Relative and Absolute: Dooyeweerd's Discussion

On this page we examine Dooyeweerd's view of Truth. While Kant and other thinkers focus on our knowledge of truth rather than truth itself, Dooyeweerd focuses on both Truth and our knowledge of truth, and links them. Therefore the notion of Truth, as known, is tied up with those of belief and knowing.

It will be noticed that Dooyeweerd seems very post-modern in his stance, in contending that "there is no truth in itself", while at the same time contending that absolute Truth is to be found (in the Divine). He also accounts for how it is that our partial, relative knowledge of truth relates to Truth and is not totally random: because of Revelation from a Divine who will not cheat or deceive us. But that is Dooyeweerd's commitment, and he makes it explicit.

Contents of Page:


In his section '3 The Perspective Structure of Truth', [NC,II,565-82], Dooyeweerd first reviews three main philosophical ideas about truth, that of "realistic metaphysics" (pre-Kantian and Aristotlean), that of Kant and that of Phenomenology. He provides a succinct, though sometimes unreadable, summary of each and an indication of their limitations and inner antinomies. Each, Dooyeweerd argues, is limited by its Cosmonomic Idea (its fundamental idea of how reality is and can be). What Dooyeweerd sought to uncover was the presuppositions, made in each, about knowledge and what makes true knowledge possible.

Truth in (pre-Kantian) realist metaphysics [NC,II, 566-7]

Truth is seen as "agreement between thought and being": an adequatio relationship. That is, when our thoughts / knowledge agree what actually is, then we have truth (i.e. true as opposed to untrue knowledge). The components of this view are:


Limitations (not only from Dooyeweerd:

Truth according to Kant [NC,II, 567-9]

Kant accepted the idea that truth is an agreement (adequatio relation), but instead of between thought and being, it is between cognition and its object. ("The nominal definition of truth, that it is the correspondence of cognition with its object, is assumed as granted; the question asked is as to what is the general and sure criterion of the truth of any and every cognition." [Kant, Critique Pure Reason])

The slight difference (being, object) comes from his asking how adequatio is possible, and seeking to understand the criteria for truth. (He differentiated transcendental truth from empirical truth, which is relative within the horizon of transcendental truth; it is transcendental truth that we are concerned about here.) The components he came up with, which he believed are a priori ('built-in') to all sensing and thinking, are:

Thus synthetical judgements are "source of all truth", prior all experience. This led Kant to a highly subjectivist epistemology, in which knowledge depends on the human thinker not on the world (Kant's "Copernican revolution", which placed the human ego rather than the world at the centre). "In KANT the 'transcendental subject' itself is the indubitable immanent seat of transcendental truth" [NC,II, 569].


Problems and Limitations:

Truth according to Phenomenology [NC,II, 569-70]

Whereas Kant saw the natural sciences as aiming for objective truth, Husserl argued that this is impossible because the meaning of all concepts used in scientific activity rest on the lifeworld (shared background knowledge derived from everyday experience). Husserl called for a more radical subjectivism than Kant did. For Husserl, truth is also an adequatio relationship: the "coalescence" of what the act of phenomenological reduction intends with that which is given by intuition of essence. Its components help us to understand that:

It seems to me that whereas Kant emphasises the diversity of meaningfulness of knowledge and sciences, Husserl emphasises the coherence of meaningfulness therein. It seems to me, using Dooyeweerdian ideas, that Husserl is aware that both thinker and world function in the same 'ocean of meaningfulness', the same set of aspects.


Limitations and Problems:

Overview and Dooyeweerd's Comments

It seems that all three presuppose theoretical thought as the way to 'truth'. Also, that truth is a property of the thing called knowledge (as an adequatio relationship between knowledge and known), rather than of what we do (in that sense, Pragmatism critiques all three). Despite Husserl's promising notion of lifeworld, none of them adequately understands everyday experience nor the pre-theoretical attitude of thought.

In each case, I find that Dooyeweerd addresses, or helps me address, what each takes for granted:

Thus we have three main problems with the three (1) they consider only theoretical truth and ignore pre-theoretical truth and especially truth-of-doing, (2) two of them at least assume that input to knowledge can come only via the senses, (3) they all take things for granted that are actually important philosophical problems.

Note: Those are general philosophical criticism of the three, as adequate for a philosophical understanding of truth, which I believe Dooyeweerd can overcome. He holds truth to apply to both pre-theoretical and theoretical thought and knowledge, and to be multi-aspectual; he posits a "perspective structure of truth", i.e. truth incorporates perspectives (which are made possible by aspects as modalities of meaningfulness).

Dooyeweerd also adds a religious criticism, that none of them are adequate for a Christian understanding of truth. He is particularly critical of Phenomenology, insofar as he sees it as not allowing the religious world a special place (is Dooyeweerd there guilty of scholastic elevation of grace over nature?). Because Christian doctrine holds that Christ is The Truth, and the One in Whom all things cohere, Dooyeweerd would like to understand how that idea relates to an adequately philosophical idea of truth. As a Christian believer myself, I find Dooyeweerd's addressing of this interesting, but I wish to keep it conceptually and motivationally separate from a philosophically adequate understanding of truth.

Dooyeweerd's Notion of Truth

In view of the limitations above, Dooyeweerd argued [p.571] that:

A few pages later Dooyeweerd gives a definition of (transcendental) truth in general, which, like the others rests on an adequatio relationship, but between different things, and it adds something else. It has three parts (I insert numbers):

"According to its transcendental a priori dimension truth is: the accordance between [1] the subjective a priori knowledge enclosed by the temporal horizon, as expressed in a priori judgments, and [2] the a priori structural laws of human experience within this temporal horizon. [3] The latter is open (as to its law- and subject-sides) to the light of the transcendent Truth in Christ." [NC,II, 573, original all in italics]

This is truth in its fullest sense including both pre-theoretical and theoretical functioning and knowing. For theoretical truth, Dooyeweerd gives a more specialised definition, which has several (numbered) portions:

"the correspondence of
[1] the subjective a priori meaning-synthesis
[2] as to its intentional meaning
[3] the modal structure of the 'Gegenstand' of theoretical thought.
[4] This synthesis is actual in our apriori theoretical insight,
[5] and is expressed in theoretical apriori judgments.
[6] The modal 'Gegenstand' is included
[7] in its all-sided inter-modal coherence within the temporal horizon.
[8] This coherence exists both in the foundational and in the transcendental direction of time
[9] and is dependent on the transcendent fulness of the meaning of Truth." [NC,II, 575, original all in italics]

"This somewhat lengthy description is indispensable," remarks Dooyeweerd, "if we do not wish to omit a single moment in the transcendental structure of theoretical truth." We might note the following. [1] incorporates Kant's insight of the importance of the knowing-subject. [2] allows for Husserl's insight about intentionality. [3] makes it clear that theoretical truth is to do with Gegenstand (what our analytical functioning stands over against in the world, and abstracts certain aspects which it sees as meaningful; see Dooyeweerd's Transcendental Critique of Theoretical Thought). [4] and [5] say more about our theoretical synthesizing. [6] points out that the Gegenstand is not arbitrary but always within the ambit of, and referring to, aspects (modalities of meaning, being and functioning), so, it seems to me, even transcendental truth is always relative to an aspect as a sphere of meaningfulness. [7] emphasises the multi-aspectual nature of the 'horizon' of all possible knowledge, in my view affirming Husserl's recognition of 'worlds': each 'world' revolves around one main aspect, including the 'religious' world around the pistic aspect. [8] emphasises that truth, even when relative to one aspect, needs to take all aspects into account, both those before it (on which it depends foundationally) and those later than it (which infuse extra meaningfulness). [9] links theoretical truth with the transcendent Divine, who alone is Truth, and which makes meaningfulness of truth possible.


To compile this part, which requires considerable more writing, I have typed out Dooyeweerd's own index under 'Truth' in his New Critique of Theoretical Thought Volume IV, selected all those that indicate his own view, and grouped them under his major beliefs. The number after each refers to the page in Volume II where the idea is expanded.

The following was written 15 years earlier than the above, so might not fully answer the above. I intend to rewrite it so that it does answer the above.

1. Our Experience of Truth: There is no 'truth in itself'.

Here Dooyeweerd speaks of our knowledge of truth, and 'truths' as they exist in our experience as individual entities such as in propositional form. This is what many thinkers talk about when they discuss 'truth': our experience of truth.

If our experience of truth is not absolute, it must be relative to something; if so, to what is it relative?

Relative to the Framework of Modal Aspects

Our experience of truth, our knowing, is relative to the framework of aspects in which we function. Dooyeweerd's index statements about this are:

So our experience of truth comes about by virtue of our aspectual functioning.

(Note: The words 'subjective' and 'subjectivism' are used above. By 'subjective' Dooyeweerd usually meant 'being subject to aspectual law' and not 'personal and arbitrary' as we often assume it to mean, whereas by 'subjectivism' he meant the elevation of the personal to a pretence that personal views and perspectives are sovereign. The latter, he argued, is an outworking of Cartesian dualism of mind and body, and 'I think therefore I am', with which Dooyeweerd profoundly disagreed.)

Relative to our Religious Commitments

This does, of course, mean that theoretical analysis and logical thinking can never be 'neutral'. Behind any theoretical thinking lie assumptions and presuppositions that are extra-theoretical in nature. Not only is it extra-theoretical in general terms (e.g. as instinct might be; the Kantian 'a priori'), but specifically it is religious. Our very activity of theoretical analysis, and what we take to be valid theory and valid logic, require a "a sure ground for the thinking process, which can only be found in the Absolute" [CPMH:46] and are thus founded in our religious commitment to a view of what we presuppose to be Divine and self-dependent, and what, non-Divine and dependent.

Dooyeweerd's index statements relating to this are:

See discussion of religious presuppositions and ground motives for more.

Absolute Truth

While Dooyeweerd agrees with post-modern thought and constructivism that our experience of truth is relative and fallible, he still believes there is absolute truth. Dooyeweerd did not say 'there is no truth' but 'there is no truth in itself'. The 'in itself' is important, and relates to his fundamental proposal that nothing in this cosmos nor in our experience is self-dependent. He believed that there is absolute Truth - located in God, in the Divine, to whom all else refers.

(This is not a Kantian gap between phenomenon and noumenon - Kant claimed we can never know the 'Ding an Sich', 'thing in itself', but only as it appears to us - because that notion presupposes absolute truth is to be found in the 'Ding an Sich'. Dooyeweerd's theory of entities, of Being, as rooted in the aspects, all of which are non-absolute, precludes this. Dooyeweerd's account of the Kantian gap lies in his proposal that each aspect provides a distinct way of knowing while Kant restricted all knowing to theoretical knowing.)

What is the relationship between our experience of truth and the absolute While positivism hopes to identify one with the other, and interpretivism severs all relationship between them, Dooyeweerd says they are distinct but there is a relationship between them. As one index-statement says, we can have some knowledge of absolute truth:

The relationship between Truth and our experience of truth rests on two things: revelation and orientation. The Divine proactively reveals Truth to us in ways we can engage with, and we orientate ourselves either towards or away from the absolute Truth. Therefore, though Dooyeweerd rejects the positivist idea that we can in principle seek and attain absolute truth (and that there is no such thing as Divine Revelation), he does not thereby sink into a hopeless aimlessness that characterises much post-modernism. This explains why religious presupposition is so important: our presuppositions are tied up with the degree to which we are orientated towards absolute Truth.

Readily acknowledging his own personal religious commitment to Christ, and refusing to pretend that theoretical thinking could ever be 'neutral' in this respect, he spoke about absolute Truth as follows:

The need for Divine Revelation

If absolute Truth is in God, and our experience of truth is always fallible, then the Divine needs to take the initiative in revealing itself to us. The Divine transcends us. Dooyeweerd's statements about this are:

(Note, however, that though Word-Revelation was important, Dooyeweerd also believed that God revealed himself via the natural order that he had created, so that even those without the written 'garb' could orientate themselves towards God. However, this is only hinted at in his index.)

3. Improving our Experience of Truth

However, unlike Scholastic thought that places all emphasis on Divine Revelation, Dooyeweerd believed that science and reason have an important part to play. While they cannot lead us to absolute Truth, they can at least improve our experience of truth. His index-statements about this are:

(His statement, "special sciences handle different criteria of truth, but only seemingly so," requires elaboration. Elsewhere we have seen that each aspect gives a distinct science and distinct way of knowing. So the "special sciences do handle different criteria of ..." but not criteria of truth; they handle different criteria of quality of research. That is why he adds "only seemingly so"; not to say that all sciences handle the same criteria of truth, but that the different criteria they handle are not of truth but of ways of knowing.)

The Christian Notion of Truth

Finally, a couple of statements that Dooyeweerd made about the Christian notion of truth:


The latter statement is interesting because it links with Dooyeweerd's belief that truth is not primarily something we know, but something we do and are. As in an arrow that is true when it is as straight as it is meant to be, and in the statement "You are a true friend." Truth, to Dooyeweerd, is tied in with Meaning rather than correspondence etc. It is possible that it is only in his Meaning-oriented framework that we can have both absolute and relative truth in harmony.

Zuidervaart's Critique of Dooyeweerd's Conception of Truth

In 2008 Lambert Zuidervaart wrote a critique of Dooyeweerd's conception of truth, entitled 'After Dooyeweerd: Truth in Reformational Philosophy'. I cannot find where it is published. After a very detailed and technical explanation of Dooyeweerd's idea of truth, he makes the following critiques:

In short, I think the problem lies in Dooyeweerd's poor explanations rather than in his actual ideas. However, I think Z's critique must be seriously understood and answered. My quick responses to it above are tentative.


Abela P. 2002. Kant's empirical realism. PhilPapers, 2002.

This page, "", 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: 18 February 2003. Last updated: 3 March 2003 link to ground.motives#relig. 10 March 2003 ditto plus quote from CPMH. 21 November 2005 unets. 28 April 2012 Zuidervaart's critique of dy's notion of truth. 16 August 2018 new .end,.nav, a few word changes. 16 August 2018 added discussion of three views of truth. 17 August 2018 Dooyeweerd's notion and definitions of truth. 29 August 2018 added contents, and tidied up. 29 March 2019 Made a few changes, mainly reorderings.