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Dooyeweerd and Nicolai Hartmann

Nicolai Hartmann's 'strata' are very like Dooyeweerd's aspects. More so than the aspectual thinking of any other thinker. But there are differences. Here we compare Hartmann's notion of strata with Dooyeweerd's notion of aspects.


In his 'new ontology', Hartmann investigated 'levels' or 'strata' of being in a sophisticated manner, not only positing distinct categories as a host of thinkers have done, but discussing the relationship between them. Harmann's strata bear a marked resemblance to Dooyeweerd's aspects, in being irreducible to each other. He used the metaphor of rungs of a ladder for these different strata. A useful comparison between the two notions is given by Seerveld [1985], to whom I am indebted for much that follows.

Like Dooyeweerd, Hartmann eschewed both monism and dualism, and allowed a pluralistic account to emerge of the kinds of both being and becoming (which, as Dooyeweerd did ({D.4.3.becoming}), he saw as united). Like Dooyeweerd, being influenced by phenomenology, he wanted the diversity of reality to speak to us rather than being forced into predefined notions, and suggested there were at least four strata:

The parallel with Dooyeweerd's physical, biotic, sensitive, social and formative is clear. As Dooyeweerd did (theory of entities), he saw distinct basic types of thing (inanimate things, organisms, animals, humans). Just as to Dooyeweerd, things function in several aspects, so Hartmann's strata cut across these things.

Hartmann talked about many pairs of categories that pervade all strata - unity and multiplicity, inner and outer, identity and difference, form and material, concord and discord are mentioned by Seerveld. This is not unlike Dooyeweerd's notion that each aspect contains echoes of the others, with the pairs cited being, respectively, of the quantitative, spatial, analytic, formative and aesthetic aspects. It seems that Hartmann's dualities simply had to be taken on trust whereas to Dooyeweerd they can be accounted for as aspectual echoes.

What set Hartmann's proposal apart from most other categorial thinking is that he discussed the relationship between strata. As do Dooyeweerd's aspects, they form a linear order, in which lower strata 'bear' the higher, which depend on and cannot function without the lower. This 'bearer/borne' is very similar to Dooyeweerd's notion of inter-aspect dependency in the foundational direction. The lower strata are 'stronger' because they bear the higher, but this does not make the lower strata more important. Hartmann [1949:76] spoke of

"two types of ontological pre-eminence and two types of superiority. They are echeloned according to the same order but in opposite directions. The ontological superiority of strength decreases with the corresponding gain in height. ... The lower categories are superior only in strength. In structure they are poorer. They leave it entirely undecided whether or not something is above them and even more so what is to be above them. They are indifferent toward everything higher. They do not produce it nor do they hinder it. But if something is above them, they support it."

This is very similar to Dooyeweerd's notion of inter-aspectual dependency having an anticipatory as well as foundational direction. Hartmann talks about the higher strata having 'freedom', just as Dooyeweerd locates non-determinatism in the later aspects.


But there are differences between the two notions, partly because Dooyeweerd went further. While Hartmann proposed only four or five strata, Dooyeweerd proposed fifteen aspects and, as we have seen, this enabled him to locate dualities such as those found above within the aspects themselves while Hartmann was unable to find a place for them and had to let them float around like some mystical ether. The number of trans-aspectual things in Dooyeweerd's proposal is much smaller - functioning, knowing, being, time and the human self.

To maintain that all strata are of equal importance with two opposing tendencies (strength and height) is easy if there are only four or five of them. But using this strategy, of gradually increasing amount of one thing and decreasing amount of another, with fifteen, there would be a tendency to see the middle ones as less important or at least less interesting. But to Dooyeweerd, all aspects are important because each has a distinct role.

Despite strong similarities, Hartmann's movement towards height differs from Dooyeweerd's anticipatory dependency. While, to Hartmann, lower strata are "are indifferent toward everything higher", in Dooyeweerd earlier aspects 'anticipate' the later - probably reflecting a difference between an existence-orientation in Hartmann compared with Dooyeweerd's meaning-orientation. The full anticipatory potential is within the lower strata right from the start, though until this is discovered we cannot tell what it is, so lower strata might appear to us as 'indifferent' to higher.

A more radical way in which Dooyeweerd went further was to suggest that the aspects are spheres of law that enable functioning, enable existence, provide different ways of knowing and also provide norms. That aspects are law-spheres is Dooyeweerd's special 'insight' that makes his theory so valuable and shows how a full philosophy oriented towards Meaning can be possible. While Hartmann's strata are a ladder of Existence, Dooyeweerd's aspects are a spectrum of Meaning, like light refracted by a prism. These two metaphors speak. To Hartmann the ladder has rungs; the strata have boundaries. To Dooyeweerd, the aspects shade into each other just as blue shades into red though neither can be reduced to the other. Hartmann seemed to have no equivalent of Dooyeweerd's analogical inter-aspect relationships, which Seerveld [1985:59] describes as "a veritable isotopic interpenetration of each other."

While Hartmann might be called the prince of aspects, Dooyeweerd might be called the king. Dooyeweerd's aspects seem much more alive and aesthetic than Hartmann's strata. Perhaps this is due to their different religious presuppositions. While Hartmann saw the strata just as 'the way things are', Dooyeweerd saw the aspects as a love-gift from the Creator to his beloved Cosmos that enables the Cosmos to Be, to Do, in what C.S. Lewis [Gt Div] called Freedom, to delight in diversity and coherence, and to find its Destiny, fulfilment and home in Him. Thus, Seerveld [1985:60] puts it:

"The modal laws have authority and give good, single, multisplendored direction for every creaturely thing because modal laws are prismatic variations of God's covenanting Word which says, 'Love me above all, respect and build up your neighbour as yourself, and take care of all the creatures I have entrusted you people with until I come back to perfect my rule of shalom.'"

Table Comparison of Hartmann with Dooyeweerd

Hartmann Dooyeweerd
= Took ontology seriously.
Open to the diversity of reality.
= Strata Aspects
= Eschewed both monism and dualism.
Open to pluralistic ontology
= Being and becoming are tied up with each other.
# Four or five strata. Fifteen aspects.
# Rungs of a ladder. Spectrum of Meaning opened by prism of Time.
= Higher strata are 'borne' by lower. Later aspects depend foundationally on earlier.
= Linear order in the strata/spects.
= Higher strata have more 'structure'. Dependency in anticipatory direction.
~ Lower strata are 'indifferent' to higher. Earlier aspects 'anticipate' higher.
= 'Freedom' of higher strata. Non-determinism of later aspects.
# Dualities outside the strata that pervade all strata. Each aspect has echoes of all the others.
# Lots of dualities outside the strata. Few trans-aspectual things.
= All strata/aspects of equal ontological pre-eminence.
None superior to the others.
# Equal pre-eminence due to increase, decrease of two opposite factors. Equal pre-eminence due also to each aspect having its own important role.
# Existence-orientation. Meaning-orientation.
# - Aspects are:
# Arises from Nature-Freedom ground motive Arises from Creation, Fall, Redemption ground motive

Dooyeweerd Cites Hartmann

With his brother-in-law, Vollenhoven, Dooyeweerd studied Nicolai Hartmann's writings in the early 1920s. Both Dooyeweerd and Hartmann were influenced by both neo-Kantianism and phenomenology and Hartmann's notion of strata is probably the nearest that any other thinker has come to Dooyeweerd's aspects - though it seems they arrived at their ideas independently since Dooyeweerd claimed his idea of aspects was not influenced by Hartmann and that Dooyeweerd did not read Hartmann's Neue Wege der Ontologie [New Ways on Ontology], in which Hartmann elaborated his notion of strata, until after his own Wijtbegeerte der Wetsidee.

Here is what Dooyeweerd said about Hartmann in NC (drawn from his index entries under 'Hartmann' in volume IV):


Response by Roberto Poli

Roberto Poli (University of Trento, Italy), who has studied Hartmann in depth, has given the following email response to the above (as at 5 October 2005). I intend to amend the above in accordance with his comments, but at least for now I think it is useful to display his own text.

Dear Andrew and Johanna

The synthesis provided by Andrew between Hartmann and Dooye is very
helpful and deserves full discussion. However, some integrations are
needed in order to avoid undue simplifications concerning Hartmann's

Two initial remarks are worth an explicit mention: Hartmann developed
his "mature" ontology in 4 books published in the period 1935-1950ca.
Before them, he "experimented" his ideas in at least other three works
(one of them, his ethics, in three volumes). Each of the mentioned works
is spelled out in some 500 to 800 pages. In this sense, both Hartmann
and Dooye wrote prolifically (even too prolifically). Given this
framework, Neue Wege is an oversimplified, introductory presentation of
a tiny fragment of his ideas that cannot be taken as a real presentation
of his ideas unless supplemented by reference to other works.

Secondly, Hartmann adopts what I term a "descriptive" viewpoint. The
first task is therefore to collect information from the various sciences
and quarters of reality, than a suitable philosophical framework will
have to be elaborated. In order to concretize this task, a categorial
approach has to be adopted. When speaking about levels, strata, layers
or whatever, each of them should be understood in terms of their
categories (and of their mutual connections, again taken as categories
-- in this regard Andrew correctly stresses the relevance of the point).

The next steps may be sketched much quickly. Let me mention some basic
elements only: (1) one of the guiding  distinction is between "real" and
"ideal" being ("real" essentially means "temporal" and "ideal" means
"atemporal"); (2) real being is organized into four different strata,
the material, the biological, the psychological and the spiritual; (3)
categorially speaking, there are categories that apply to all the strata
(universal categories, like time and the oppositions mentioned by
Andrew), and there are categories that pertain to one or more strata
(analysis will say); (4) a whole bunch of rules (laws in Hartmann's
jargon) governs categories and their interactions (the difference
between force and high of a category is just one of them); (5) it is
correct that Hartmann (and apparently Dooye as well) defended the thesis
that strata comes organized in a linear fashion (this is a major
problem, see below).

Even if the picture above is still highly fragmentary, it may
nevertheless improve the otherwise helpful summary provided by Andrew.
Now the main point. 

It is well known (well, perhaps...) that (1) Hartmann was an atheist and
(2) a number of catholic thinkers have shown a deep interest in his
thought. At first these two pieces of information may come as something
strange. However, the guiding idea was that Hartmann's thought was taken
as a promising framework for attacking positivistic attitudes and more
generally reductionism. I think that this intuition was correct.
However, after a few years the interest for Hartmann faded away, the
main reason being that no way was found to improve his conceptual
framework in order to use it against reductionism without at the same
time being committed to an atheist viewpoint. For what I can see, the
main problem lies precisely in the "linear" order of the strata above
mentioned. The "triangular" architecture among the three main strata I
have devised my pave the way for reopening the discussion. From all this
you may better grasp why I am playing with such a different and in many
respect much less obvious architecture. To be even more explicit, if the
linear architecture is substituted by the triangular one, almost all the
laws formulated by Hartmann have to be rethought. One of the basic point
is provided by the different emphasis assignet to over-forming vs
building-above. A new and very likely possibility is that these two
relations may prove insufficient and that some new relations should
enter the picture, etc etc. There is room here of a number of appealing

Cheers, r
Dr Roberto Poli, PhD
Editor-in-chief of Axiomathes, Springer. 

Dooyeweerd's own response to comparison with Hartmann

The following was provided by Danie Strauss (18 October 2005), and used with permission. In it, Dooyeweerd first emphasises the root difference between his theory of modal aspects and Hartmann's theory of strata, but towards the end he then acknowledges some common thinking.

Dear Andrew

The section below come from Dooyeweerd's answer to Van Peursen in connection with Hartmann.


The misinterpretation of the theory of modal aspects as a "layer-theory" in the sense intended by Nicolai von Hartman

With this we arrive at the suggestion that a connection exists between the general theory of modal aspects and the metaphysical ontological theory of "layers" of Nicolai Von Hartmann, often made by others and also once again by Van Peursen. We have already seen that Van Peursen interprets the theory of modal aspects more or less as a metaphysical theory of "layers" in the spirit of Von Hartmann, even though he acknowledges that in their elaboration significant differences are present. How serious his misunderstanding is comes to the fore where he attempts to delimit his own view of the "meaning-sides of reality" in opposition to the understanding of the philosophy of the cosmonomic idea. He writes: "What is at stake is the question whether or not the meaning-sides of reality are all concentrically arranged around the human being (the view here defended), or whether there some in which the human being do not directly function and which form a hierarchical cosmos, even though the human being eventually once again is connected, amongst others by returning as an object for example of biotical subjects in higher aspects, in disclosure in the coherence of time, and so on."

For those who really understood the theory of modal aspects as it was developed by the Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea it must almost be impossible to recognize this theory in the second option of the dilemma raised by Van Peursen. Yet this misrepresentation of the view developed by the Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea becomes perfectly clear in the light of the "Schichten" theory of Von Hartmann. The latter concerns "material nature," followed by that of the living organism, the third is that of the "soul" (identified with the ontic layer of the psychical), and the fourth is that of the spirit. Every layer has its own principle, laws or categories.

In the layered structure of the universe the higher ones are always based upon the lower ones. In this sense they do not have an independent existence for they have what Von Hartmann calls a founded being ("aufruhendes Sein"), which means that the higher is dependent upon the lower. But the direction of this dependence is not reversible: one cannot say without life no matter, without consciousness no life and without spirit no conscious ness. It is contradicted by the facts. The one-sided relation of dependence amongst the higher and lower layer in Von Hartmann's theory corresponds with the direction of dependence in the "realm of categories." Lower categories return as "elements" in the higher ones which means that the higher ones are dependent upon the lower ones. They cannot break through their structure, but only constitute a superstructure or transform the lower one into a new structure. The lower categories are the stronger ones. Von Hartmann speaks in this context of "the law of the stronger" as the "law of categorial dependence." But this law finds its correlate in the law of the autonomy of the higher layers in spite of their one-sided dependence upon the lower layers. The first law entails that the lower ontic layers are fully determined by themselves independent of the higher ones. In respect of the lowest two ontic layers this leads to the metaphysical conception of a "thing in itself" which entirely exceeds the dynamics of meaning, because according to Von Hartmann the assignment of meaning find its origin in the creative spirit. It is therefore also not correct, as Van Peursen believes, that Von Hartmann acknowledges anticipating categories within the lower "ontic layers." For that would have meant the abolition of his entire hierarchical conception of the "ontic layers."

This whole ontological "theory of layers" indeed has nothing to do with the general theory of modal aspects as it is developed by the Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea. It is not at all a theory of modal experiential aspects, but a metaphysical view of entities ("what-nesses").

The basic thesis of the general theory of experiential aspects is that the entire modal diversity of our temporal horizon of experience finds its central point of concentration in the human self-hood, in the twofold central relations of the inter-human I-Thou relation and the relation of origin to God, with the human being created in the image of God. How is it then possible that the Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea could teach, as Van Peursen believes, that there are a number of law-spheres in which the human being do not directly function as subject and which in themselves form a hierarchical cosmos? Van Peursen here simply transformed the theory of experiential aspects according to the image of the ontic layers of Von Hartmann. And then it is of course without much effort possible to discern dialectical tensions between the thus formulated theory and its primary premiss regarding the central relatedness of our temporal experiential world to the human self-hood. But I hope that he would gain the insight that this is not the way of a critical approach of the Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea.

This philosophy indeed radically broke with the metaphysical conception of a cosmos hierarchically constituted by ontic layers as it was already developed by Aristotle. The discovery of the sphere universality of every modal experiential aspect from the very beginning excludes the metaphysical basic idea of Von Hartmann's hierarchical theory of layers.[[This applies equally to the theory of individuality-structures in the Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea, that is after all only comprehensible on the basis of the theory of modal aspects.]] By virtue of the sphere universality of every modal aspect of experience, in which the meaning-dynamics of the universal meaning coherence of our temporal horizon pregnantly comes to expression, is it impossible to speak about lower and higher functions without immediately relating the lower ones to the human self-hood.

The point of connection between the theory of experiential modal aspects and Von Hartmann's Schichtentheory is exclusively found in the lawful states of affairs lying at the basis of both theories. But it acquired fundamentally different philosophical interpretations

Does this now mean that the theory of modal law-spheres does not have any point of connection whatsoever with the Schichten theory of Von Hartmann? Of course not. But this point of connection, which already led five critical assessments of my work A New Critique of Theoretical Thought astray, is not to be found in corresponding philosophical total conceptions, but rather in some states of affairs in our temporal experiential horizon that indeed found fundamentally diverging philosophical interpretations. It is an undeniable lawful state of affairs in our temporal experiential horizon that organic life processes can only operate on the basis of physical chemical processes, and that phenomena of sensitive consciousness are founded in organic vital functions. just as the logical and post-logical functions can only reveal themselves on the basis of phenomena of sensory consciousness. The statement made by Von Hartmann, that the lower categories return in the higher ones, in its metaphysical philosophical formulation, rests on the same states of affairs upon which the Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea erected its theory that within the structure of all those experiential modes that have others preceding them in the temporal order, there appear retrocipatory or retrospective analogies, even though this latter statement has a meaning totally different from that found in the thought of Von Hartmann. That Von Hartmann here appreciated, in terms of his own standpoint, lawful states of affairs in our temporal experiential horizon that were lost sight of in diverse materialistic and idealistic conceptions of our world of experience can only be applauded, but I do not see how Van Peursen in his discussion of my work in the Nederlandse Theologisch Tijdschrift (Dutch Theological Journal) discerns here a reason for the Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea to come to critical self-reflection in respect of its antithetical attitude towards immanence philosophy. This suggestion simply indicates that he did not understand this antithetical attitude in its true meaning. But more about this later.

What a tantalizing ending!

This page is part of a collection of pages that links to various thinkers, within The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.

Copyright (c) 2004 Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.

Number of visitors to these pages: Counter. Written on the Amiga and Protext.

Created: 25 July 2003. Last updated: 5 October 2005 Roberto Poli's response. 18 October 2005 DS's Dooyeweerd own response. 5 March 2009 removed 'pre'.