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How Dooyeweerdian Thinking might complement Soft Systems Thinking

This is a page for those who are coming from SSM/SST towards Dooyeweerdian philosophy, rather than the other way round.

Peter Checkland showed some interest in Dooyeweerd's framework of thought, and asked that I write a short position paper on it. In what follows I discuss how it might complement Soft Systems Thinking. But, I also discuss some parts of the framework, partly to address some issues that P.C. asked me about. In particular, he asked whether Dooyeweerd's proposal was ontological or epistemological. I briefly replied "Both", and towards the end I discuss this elusive answer to that question, and find that a number of salient points about the framework emerge. There seem to be several points at which Dooyeweerd's thinking might be relevant to SST, sometimes to enrich some part of SST itself and sometimes to complement it, addressing areas which it does not.

Dooyeweerd's Framework

Herman Dooyeweerd (1955) proposed a new framework for theoretical thinking in his A New Critique of Theoretical Thought. One of the most visible and usable parts of this framework is his suggestion of fifteen aspects of reality, as aspects of our functioning and aspects that we must keep in balance if that functioning is to be 'wholesome', 'sustainable', 'beneficial', 'healthy' or whatever word we care to use. He claimed that:

A summary of this thought relevant to information technology can be found at summary.html.

Complementing Soft Systems Thinking

When a change is made in a human situation (system), there are three things that must be considered: Many who value Soft Systems Thinking (SST) assume that it covers all these, but it itself claims only to address the process of change. That is, it admits its own limitations and its need of other things to fulfil it.

In addressing the process of change, SST (SSM) 'gets involved in' and 'gets responsible for' the direction of that process. That needs to be consciously managed, and SSM has resulted as a particularly useful, mature and robust tool for doing this. Dooyeweerdian thinking can perhaps SSM by making detailed suggestions that come from a different perspective. For instance, the Five E's of SSM, which are normative criteria for evaluating a system or a change, seem to be a subset of the fifteen aspects, so we might fruitfully ask, "Can we extend the number of E's by considering the aspects to see which Es might be missing?" However, I do not discuss such detailed applications here.

A second way in which Dooyeweerdian thinking might enrich SST as a whole is to critique the presuppositions that lie behind it, and behind most attempts to deal with the three parts of the triple above. This critique would be substantial, and would apply the argument Volume 1 of Dooyeweerd's A New Critique of Theoretical Thought. It would go back to the presuppositions underlying the Form-Matter, Nature-Grace and Nature-Freedom ground motives, the fundamental assumptions made by the Greeks and all the Western thinking based on them ("All else is a footnote to Plato", Whitehead). In particular it would stand outside the dualisms and dialectics we encounter, e.g. the Ideal of Control versus the Ideal of Personality. But the visible impact of such a critique on SST and in particular SSM would not be huge (since, in Dooyeweerd's way of thinking, much that is built on flawed presuppositions can still be still valid, in spite of the presuppositions). So I do not discuss these here either. That can be discussed on another occasion.

The main way I discuss here in which Dooyeweerdian thinking might enrich SST is to complement it, by addressing the two parts of the triple that SST does not - and especially the user's functioning in the situation. If Dooyeweerdian thinking is to enrich SST in this way, then it can either address user and situation independently of how SST addresses process, or, better, it can address them in a way that explicitly complements SST.

Possible Application to CATWOE

The latter is a possibility if, for example, we consider CATWOE analysis; the Dooyeweerdian aspects speak to each element, usually as a kind of checklist. If you like, consider a two-dimenstional table in which there are six columns, C,A,T,W,O,E, and fifteen or more rows, one for each aspect and a couple of other Dooyeweerdian issues that go across all the columns.

At the very least, therefore, Dooyeweerd's aspects might make CATWOE analysis more efficient and effective by virtue of structuring the discussion without overly distorting or constraining it. But it is also likely that they can have a stimulatory effect, as Winfield found below. (Anita Mirijamdotter reports this efficiency, saying "I was happy with the richness I found in quite a short time (very efficient) by this approach." But she also reported that aspectual analysis sometimes made the discussion longer if all fifteen aspects were examined in detail; there is much to learn about using them.)

(It will be noticed that here we are treating the fifteen aspects as a checklist to be applied in real life, and thus are treating them ontologically (i.e. "Here is the nature of reality"). The validity or otherwise of doing this is discussed below, but it is treated ontologically for-all-practical-purposes here.)

Aspectual Analysis Methods

Winfield has developed a MAKE methodology (Multi-Aspectual Knowledge Elicitation) in which such enhancements of analysis have been demonstrated, together with the added benefit of stimulating the participants to recall oft-omitted factors, and to the explication of some tacit knowledge. The method, briefly, is to:

  1. Ask the participants which aspects they think are most important,
  2. Ask them to obtain concepts and relationships in those aspects,
  3. Then ask them to consider all fifteen aspects in turn, to see if they are relevant,
  4. Perform (2) on each of the aspects.

    Winfield has found that this approach is very natural to people, because, instead of just presenting the participants with an aspectual checklist, it starts with what is uppermost in their mind, directing them to build a rich-ish picture of that, and then links the other aspects to this growing picture in meaningful ways. He has found that lay people find the aspects very intuitive (confirming Dooyeweerd's claim that the aspects are intuitively grasped; see below).

    Ontology and Epistemology

    Above we have been treating Dooyeweerd's set of aspects ontologically, that is, the way Reality is. This is not quite correct. Here we discuss this issue.

    1. With regard to his framework of aspects, Dooyeweerd is making both an ontological and an epistemological statement.

    However, his view of both ontology and epistemology is different from the normal view, so it requires a lengthy explanation.

    2. The reason why proposing a particular set of aspects is epistemological rather than ontological is because theoretical thinking has no privileged position but is merely part of one of the aspects in which we function. Theoretical thinking is not the key to knowing, as has been assumed from the Greeks onwards. An epistemology that is centred on theoretical thinking is by definition limited and always relative. (Is there an epistemology that is not centred on theoretical thinking? I think Dooyeweerd might point to one, but here I will use the term 'epistemology' mainly in relation to theoretical thinking since most other thinkers do most of the time.)

    3. Knowing Reality? Unlike those who would divorce epistemology from ontology, Dooyeweerd believes them to be integrated and harmonious. That is, Reality does not hide itself from us, play tricks on us, but tends to reveal itself to us, in all its aspects. We can know the 'Ding an Sich' - but never via theoretical thought. Rather, we grasp things with our intuition. Theoretical thinking can aid our (intuitive) knowledge, however, and is not inimical to it. (Even intuition is never a perfect way of knowing, but it is better than theoretical thought; see below.)

    4. Dooyeweerd maintains that the aspects themselves can be intuitively grasped, and that is a way of knowing them much better than with theoretical thought.

    5. Intuition and theoretical thinking. Dooyeweerd recognizes (at least) two modes of thinking, theoretical and a-theoretic (or 'everyday' or 'intuitive'). Theoretical thinking, he maintains, is merely part of our functioning in the analytical aspect, whose kernel meaning is distinction (that is, separating something out meaningfully from its background, often for study or manipulation.). All aspectual functioning is relative and limited, and can never of its own arrive at the ultimate; hence so is theoretical thinking. For this reason, if no others, it cannot be the fundamental key to knowing as has been assumed for millennia.

    6. Dooyeweerd might agree with Kant and his ilk that we can never know the 'Ding an Sich' - by means of theoretical thought. Not because of some innate separation between noumena and phenomena, as Kant suggested, but because of the innate aspectual limitation of theoretical thinking itself. Dooyeweerd would then go on to claim that there is a higher, better form of knowing by which we can know the 'Ding an Sich', and that is via intuition.

    7. Neither intuition nor theoretical thinking can ever be perfect, in the sense of something that we can depend upon absolutely for our knowledge. The only absolute on which (Whom) we can depend is God himself. Both intuition and theoretical thinking can be trained, and can be distorted. However, intuition is a richer, fuller way of knowing than is theoretical thinking. In (well trained, undistorted) intuition our knowledge spans all aspects, usually tacitly, because the aspects are inherently intertwined even though they are distinct in their kernel meanings. But theoretical thinking, being functioning in a single aspect, and peeping out at the cosmos from the position of one single aspect, can gain only a partial and limited view.

    8. However, analytical (theoretical) thinking is not itself divorced from intuitive (a-theoretic) thinking, but can aid it. By means of analytical thinking we can pull out things for special study, by isolating them to some degree, either lower or higher abstraction. Clouser (1991) discusses this. Doing so provides conceptual structures that can aid and guide intuitive thinking and doing.

    9. Knowing the aspects? We can 'know' anything, even the aspects, in both ways. If we apply analytical functioning to the aspects then we can start to distinguish them from each other, and if we go further we start to isolate one or other of them, often for special study - which is science - and can thus get to know something of the aspects in detail. However, Dooyeweerd maintains that the aspects can never be truly known in this way; rather, their kernels are to be 'intuitively grasped'. This does, of course, place them forever beyond definition, but that does not invalidate our naming them and employing our checklist of them to aid analysis, such as we have discussed above.

    10. Science. Such special study of an aspect by isolating it is Science. If we have fifteen aspects then we have fifteen special sciences (or coherent scientific areas), ranging from mathematics and physics through social science to theology. Since each aspect has its own distinct epistemology, so each science has its own methods of research. (The implication of this is that we can and should accept different research methods in the different sciences - which Bob Galliers and others are keen on doing.) (Clouser (1991) and Stafleu (1987) discuss this.)

    11. Reduction. The tendency among scientists is to reduction - because, having isolated an aspect and given all their attention to it, there is a temptation to forget other aspects. There is also a tendency to hope that one's chosen aspect can explain more than in fact it can.

    12. (The following is conjecture, but was stimulated by P.C's comments, and concerns why it is that reduction is both possible and likely among scientists. It can be skipped.

    In any case, the scientists feel they are being successful in encompassing Reality with their aspect, and that they have found the 'key' to understanding reality. A good feeling. When challenged, they reply, "All we need is time, and we will explain all." It is not that we meet obvious gaps and thereby omit things - though sometimes we do that - rather, we manage to explore all areas but reduce everything we meet.)

    13. Why trust Dooyeweerd's set of aspects? That is, to what extent can we treat his set of fifteen aspects as an ontological as well as epistemological statement? While no strong ontological claim is made for Dooyeweerd's set of aspects, but only for the framework, I believe his set will prove reasonably accurate and can be trusted for most practical purposes. Various reasons for this trust are given in which will not be rehearsed here, but we can say that, if Dooyeweerd is right in believing ontology and epistemology to be integrated, and that the aspects can be intuitively grasped, then, given his lifelong thinking within, and operationalizing of, the framework, his proposal is likely to be pretty good. He did not seem to have any vested interest in promoting one aspect over another; quite the contrary; so the likelihood that he has conflated two aspects that should be separated is low. Notice, by way of additional evidence, how many proposed sets of aspects, such as Ackoff's nine, turn out to correlate with Dooyeweerd's set, usually as a subset.

    14. Therefore, we can, for the practical purpose of complementing Soft Systems Thinking, assume his set of aspects to be an ontological statement. Once we have understood how the complementation works, then we can revisit that assumption.


    Thanks to Anita Mirijamdotter for making suggestions on a draft version of this, during a particularly busy time in her teaching schedule. I have incorporated some of her ideas.


    Clouser R (1991) The Myth or Religious Neutrality: An Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Belief in Theories Univ. Notre Dame Press.

    Dooyeweerd H. (1953-1955), A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, Vol. I-IV, Paideia Press (1975 edition), Ontario.

    Stafleu M D, (1987), Theories at Work - On the Structure and Functioning of Theories in Science, In Particular During the Copernican Revolution, University Press of America.

    This page is part of a collection of pages that compare the ideas of the late Herman Dooyeweerd with those of Peter Checkland's Soft Systems Thinking, as part of an attempt to link Dooyeweerd's thought to that of various other thinkers. It is part of The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.

    Copyright (c) 2002 Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.

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    Created: 8 January 1999 Last updated: 6 February 1999. 20 November 2002 corrected links, and a few changes. 17 June 2010 .nav, rid unet. 1 February 2018 added label for 5.e.