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Dooyeweerd's Four Ground Motives

Ground motives ('grondmotieven') are Dooyeweerd's word for the "spiritual driving force that acts as the absolutely central mainspring of human society" [The Roots of Western Culture: 9], and in particular the theoretical thinking that transpires in society. In this guise, ground motives are very deep views of reality that drive thinking forward over a long period. They are deep views shared by a whole set of cultures (e.g. Western modern culture, Mediaeval European culture). Specifically, a ground motive:

Worldviews? Nay! a ground motive is even deeper than that. As Dooyeweerd said [ibid.]

"It [a ground motive] thus not only places an indelible stamp on the culture, science, and social structure of a given period but determines profoundly one's whole world view. If one cannot point to this kind of leading cultural power in society, a power that lends a clear direction to historical development, then a real crisis looms at the foundations of culture. Such a crisis is always accompanied by spiritual uprootedness."

Dooyeweerd identified four ground motives that have driven Western thought and culture forward over the last 2,500 years:

Briefly, the first two emerged in Greek and Hebrew cultures around 500 BC. The third, NGGM, arose as an attempt to synthesize them, around 500 AD, but this led to many problems and culminated in reactions against it around 1500 AD. From one of these reactions, the Renaissance, the fourth ground motive, NFGM, developed, and it still drives much of our thinking today.

These ground-motives are not unique to Dooyeweerd. For example, both Heidegger and Habermas speak of 'Jerusalem' versus 'Athens' referring to the first two, and many know of nature-grace duality. What Dooyeweerd did was to see them as motives for thought and to explore how they relate to each other historically. (Vollenhoven's made a similar historical analysis of Western theoretical thought, but he focused on three phases rather than four ground-motives: 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.) It seems to me very similar (if we ask "What was synthesised?").

This page describes the four major ground motives that Dooyeweerd identified, discusses other ground motives, especially those of Korean culture. Elsewhere, we look at what role ground motives play in our thinking and culture, and the extent to which the notion of ground motives might be recognised by others.

Dooyeweerd's Four Ground Motives

Dooyeweerd introduced the four ground motives in his New Critique but in The Roots of Western Culture he painted more of a portrait of them, in the guise of a history of Western thought. The portrait he paints is much more sophisticated and interwoven than the over-simplified picture we sketch here, and Roots is well worth reading. It is also a good read - cogent, clear, dynamic and interesting (at least I found it so).

FMGM - The Form-Matter Ground Motive

The Matter-Form Ground Motive was that which drove the thinking of the ancient Greeks, as a dynamic tension between the supposed opposing poles of matter and form. Dooyeweerd traced its origin in the coming together of the (pre-)Greek nature religions which deified a formless, cyclical stream of life and blind fate, Anangke, with the culture religion of form, measure and harmony. But it was not an arbitrary alliance. "At this point," said Dooyeweerd [Roots: 18], "where both religions united in the theme of Moira, the culture religion revealed an indissoluble, dialectical coherence with the religions of nature." The ground motive itself emerged as Greek thinking became more organised and the great names of Greek philosophy appeared on the scene - Plato, Aristotle, and the like.

Because they presupposed the primacy of Being over Meaning, these Greek thinkers were interested in trying to account for the nature of things. Oversimplifying somewhat, they presupposed that all things were composed of matter and form - e.g. a pencil is made of wood and graphite, and its form is that of a six-sided cylinder of wood into which the graphite rod fits snugly. Mud is almost pure matter without form. A thought is almost pure form without matter. Initially, matter and form were seen as two principles that could explain most phenomena, a duality.

But, over a period of time, duality becomes dualism. Duality says there are two equal principles, different but equal. Dualism says that one is 'higher' than the other, one is to be sought, the other avoided, one is Good, the other Evil. This happened as matter and form became associated, for example, with ways of life and cultures. Here are some of the things associated with the two:

Matter Form
Matter changes and decays. Form is static.
Matter is impure. Form is pure.
Delights of the flesh. Delights of the mind.
Passion: drunkenness, orgies. Reason: logic, self-control.
Barbarian. Civilisation.
Doing. Thinking.
Body. Mind.
Physical. Spiritual.
Work with the Hands - workers. Work with the Mind - managers.
Passing. Eternal.
Unreliable. Reliable.
Earth. Heaven.

The Matter-Form ground motive is one of the dualistic ones. Its dualism is, argued Dooyeweerd, a direct result of it making the Immanence presupposition, which presupposed that we can find the Divine within our experience. Which you think is good depends on your point of view. Mostly, the form side was seen as good, but some reacted and saw the form side as evil, as boring, etc. much as drunkards today might despise thinkers.

Thus evil is located in one half of reality. Therefore the solution to evil is to eschew, avoid, escape from, destroy the evil half, and to welcome, seek, enter and build up the good half. To many Greeks this meant having as little to do with Matter as possible, and as much to do with Form. Sexuality was of the Matter side, so abstinence (rather than sexual faithfulness) was a high virtue.

It was Aristotle who explicitly referred to matter and form as two principles, but Plato also held to it in a different manner (note: so-called Platonic love or friendship). This motive drove thought forward in many ways from their time up to the time of Jesus Christ and the growth of the Christian Church. Its influence is with us to this day, however. Whenever we oppose body and spirit, or mind and brain, we are driven by this ground motive.

Dooyeweerd argued that any dualistic ground motive inevitably leads to major problems since it divides reality in two and tried to deny the validity of one half. In the case of the ancient Greeks, we can see this in that Greek civilization was built on slavery. In more modern times, we can see the Form-Matter divide echoed clearly in the classes of English society. Its influence in the Christian church is seen in a negative view of sexuality.

So, one major problem with a dualistic ground motive is that we effectively stifle half of reality and restrict our joy in life - for a period, after which a reaction sets in (dialectic), and the other half gets stifled. Sometimes, in a given society we find two communities holding opposing views of what is the 'good' pole of the dualism, and they cannot communicate with each other because they fundamentally value different things.

In Roots Dooyeweerd added the Roman Imperium as yet another driving force shaping European and Western worldviews. Dooyeweerd seems to have brought it under the banner of the Matter-Form ground motive, maybe veering towards the Matter side of action in the real world, rather than the more contemplative Form, though it has elements of both. He traced its emergence in the Macedonian empire of Aristotle's pupil, Alexander, which, since it reached to India, allowed Eastern ideas such as the divine ancestry of monarchs to infiltrate Greek thought. Though it may in fact be a different ground motive, and its notion of Imperium has influenced Europe ever since, we will treat it as part of the Greek motive, as Dooyeweerd did.

CFR - Creation-Fall-Redemption Ground Motive

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The Creation-Fall-Redemption ground motive came out of the Hebrew view of things, as shaped by their Scriptures. These Scriptures told of a transcdendent God who created all that we experience and pronounced it all Good. That is the import of the Creation element. Therefore, all reality is good, and may be enjoyed. In particular, both body and soul are Good, both matter and form, both change and stasis. It is no coincidence that the Jewish religion is the most materialist religion there is. Jewish humour is also affected by this ground motive. So is the Judeo-Christian view of justice for all in Creation, even the down-trodden. (Reliability is no longer attached to Form, but to God, who is faithful and expects faithfulness from us too.) See also Martin Buber's understanding of this ground motive.

Evil is located, not in one or other half of reality, but in the heart of humankind; evil is not found in the structure of the cosmos but in the response that we make. Humankind was itself created good, but 'fell' (hence the Fall element) by its deliberate choice to turn away from God its creator and lover. The solution to evil in human life and society is, therefore, not to be found in turning away from one half of reality to the other, but in obedience to God's laws and in repentance and turning to God.

The Redemption element says that God, when we turn to him, will 'redeem' us, will forgive us. God alone has the power to save us from evil, and - we find this a running theme in the Hebrew Scriptures - he is proactive in doing this. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the epitome of God's redeeming love and power - and that this redemption is available to all humankind (and even the whole Creation, though that message got swamped by the Nature-Grace ground motive). This, together with the Scriptural view of justice for society, was extremely attractive to all kinds of people, with the result that for 300 years the Christian Church grew enormously, and this ground motive grew in numeric influence amongst thinkers, especially Europe.

Dooyeweerd himself employed this Creation-Fall-Redemption ground motive. Partly because of his own Christian commitment. But also, and as a result, he found it is the one ground motive that can account for the diversity we experience around us, without ending up in fragmentation. It is probably no coincidence that he is rare amongst thinkers in postulating a theory of irreducible aspects - that theory makes little sense unless we first presuppose a transcendent Creator who invests his creation with Meaning.

David Hanson made a very helpful comment in an email (29 March 2010): "Xxx's observation: 'The fundamental opposition is now between Creator and creation' (though he rightly qualifies it) has been and still is a tragic motto in all kinds of (evangelical) gnosticism. I thank Keith Sewell for the aphorism: We have no need to repent of being creatures, in his Summer WYSOCS lectures last year. Once that's understood and accepted, Jon's further problem-identification (the assumption that the creature can have full knowledge of his Creator) becomes more malleable. The creature can have true (creaturely, responsive) knowledge of the Creator - and that's enough to be going on with. The birds in my garden right now exhibit a true (bird-brained) knowledge of the Creator - and it's mainly to do with His provision of mates for them. A part of my true (human, creaturely) knowledge of the Creator has to do with persuading those birds to use the feeders I've strung up. The daffodils have 'known' truly for some weeks (even mysteriously while underground) that day length is calling them to emerge. Those 'great lights' appointed 'for times and for seasons, for days and for years' continue to be God's voice to them, and their nature is (unlike mine, generally) to obey."

In fact, opposing creator and creation arises more under the Nature-Grace Ground-motive, which we consider next.

NGGM - Nature-Grace Ground Motive

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The Nature-Grace ground motive was a synthesis of the Matter-Form and Creation-Fall-Redemption ground motives. Around 300 years after Jesus Christ, thinkers in Europe were looking back 800 years to ancient Greece and, aware of its glories, suggested that what was good in it should be brought in - an integration was made made. There are two ways this synthesis could occur:

It was that latter that occurred, and the result was that impersonal Form was morphed into semi-personal Grace, the realm of God, the Sacred. Matter was morphed into the realm of Nature, of this world, the Secular. In the process, various shifts occured. For example, Reason, which used to be in Form, now became part of the Nature realm; the type of knowing that we find in the Grace realm is Faith. The Grace side incorporated some of matter, especially in its doctrine of sacraments and the Mass (though this latter was heavily influenced by Aristotle's notion of substance and accidents). At first, Grace and Nature were seen as two principles in a duality but, as happened with Matter-Form, the duality became a dualism in which one was Good and the other Evil. As with the Matter-Form ground motive, a host of issues clustered around the two poles of the dualism:

Nature Grace
Realm of this world. Realm of God.
Secular. Sacred.
State. Church.
Being a Ploughman. Being a Priest.
Reason. Faith.
Other sciences. Theology as Queen of sciences.
Body. Soul / Spirit.
Bodily health. Spiritual health.
Work. Worship.
Playing. Praying.
Earth. Heaven.

Notice the similarities and the differences with the Matter-Form table. The Nature-Grace ground motive was more than a re-labelling of the Matter-Form motive; it gave a wholly different view of reality and so things were seen in a different way, and different things were valued. There was less interest in the nature of things as such, less of a desire to account for types of things, and more interest in scoring 'brownie points' before God. But similarities remained, for example the mediaeval Roman Catholic view that sexuality was somehow inferior and virginity was to be exalted.

Being a dualism, this ground motive rent reality in twain, so that thinkers would focus on one or the other. Obviously, most people took the realm of God to be Good, so the realm of Nature became Evil in some way or another. However, because of the continuing influence of the Creation-Fall-Redemption motive, evil was not entirely located in Nature but still somewhat in the heart and response of human beings. Nevertheless, Nature was deemed 'lower', less important, and a hindrance, so that to be a priest was seen as a higher calling than to be a ploughman, praying was a more profitable use of time than playing.

A particular problem occured because the logic of the polar ground motive was that one could torture the body if by doing so it would lead the sinner to recant and thus save his soul. This was the thinking behind atrocities like the Inquisition. More widespread, was the general oppression by the church of the poor. As a result, a reaction set in and, around 1500 AD, two movements occurred in Europe, the Reformation and the Rennaisance. These saw the problem in different ways, and proposed different solutions.

The Reformation believed the problem to lie in the synthesis, and sought to remove the Greek elements. In parts, it succeeded, but Protestant Christianity today has reverted to much of the Nature-Grace ground motive (e.g. as seen in much American-led Christianity focusing on spiritual things like worship rather than on issues of the world). The Rennaisance believed that God was the problem, and sought to change the Grace pole into something similar but without God: Freedom.

Some reductions under this ground motive:


According to a Domincan I met recently (as at 12 September 2005), the above view of Nature and Grace is not that of the Roman Catholic theology, which it holds that both Nature and Grace are good and that Grace 'completes' or 'perfects' Nature. When I asked him what this means (because I had reservations, below), he said it means that Nature needs God to continually uphold it. If this is what it means, then this is very close to the CFR ground motive. Let us consider this.

First, the words 'complete' or 'perfect' imply much more than 'upholds'. They strongly imply that Nature is incomplete and imperfect, not only in eternal terms but in this dispensation (i.e. before the Eschaton). If this is so, then Nature is somehow lesser, and what is 'lesser' is at best a hindrance to what is 'greater' and at worst actually opposed to it as evil is opposed to good. If we fill part of our lives with what is lesser when we could fill it with what is greater, is this not an evil? Thus, if we take the implications of 'completes' and 'perfects' at face value - as most would do who hear them - then we end up in the view of Nature opposing Grace that we have above.

However, if these words really do mean 'upholding', in that Nature cannot exist or happen by itself without God, then this is very similar to the Creation motive, namely that what is created depends utterly on its Creator. The Dominican expressed this clearly by drawing attention to the difference between Western (Roman) and Eastern (Orthodox) views of the relation between God and Creation:

My own belief is that Dooyeweerd's view, based on CFT, is a mix of the two. He was adamant that Creation utterly depends on God and cannot exist or occur without his continual upholding - and he proposed that the upholding was by means of the law-framework. But the law-framework enables the entity-side of Creation to have real Existence and Occurrence, rather like the Eastern view. (However, if the Eastern view is that of a substance-concept, then Dooyeweerd would be utterly opposed to it.)

However, this may be, from a practical point of view throughout Western thought, it would seem that Nature and Grace have always tended to end up opposed to each other as two poles of a dialectic or dualism, and this held in its very core the next ground-motive that emerged: Nature-Freedom.

NFGM - Nature-Freedom Ground Motive

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The Nature-Freedom ground motive emerged from the Nature-Grace motive by the process of replacing God by humanity as the centre of the Grace pole. Thus also the Nature pole had to be redefined as its opposite, the non-human. The Nature-Freedom ground motive became the driving motive about 500 years ago and still holds sway, being the predominant ground motive of today. Under this ground motive, Nature is to do with that which is determined, with control, with causality, with rationality, and what Dooyeweerd calls the Ideal of Science, while Freedom is to do with the Ideal of Personality, the human ego, with human freedom and will, with creativity, with art, and so on.

Again, it is a dualistic motive, and around its poles many issues cluster. Over the past 500 years people have been struggling with the relationship with nature (control) and freedom, and our place in relation to each, and this struggle has taken on many different forms in various areas of life:

Nature Freedom
Determined behaviour. Free choice.
Non-human. Human.
Nature. Culture.
Causality. Teleology.
Ideal of Science. Ideal of Personality.
Material. Free spirit.
Body. Mind.
Science. Art.
Physics, Mathematics. Social Science.
Being managed. Managing others.
Controlling others in order to achieve good. Hoping that allowing others freedom will achieve good.
Keeping the Law. Breaking the Law.
Totalitarianism. Libealism.
Strong state. Strong democracy.
Constraint, Emancipation.
Positivism. Constructivism.

In Western thinking today, of course, the Freedom pole seems more attractive, but, in the 500 years in which this ground motive has been the driving force, the Nature pole has sometimes been dominant in Western thought - such as in the heyday of scientific discovery in the physical sciences. Theories of humanity and society based on the deterministic sciences belong mainly to the Nature pole.

Notice the last two: much discussed in the field of information systems today. We can see the influence of this polar dualism, for example, management styles: achieve your goals either by control of others or by getting them to express themselves in freedom. But neither seem to be the total answer.

The struggle of thought is never-ending because it is carried out under the presupposition that Nature and Freedom are diametically (and dialectically) opposed, and yet the everyday attitude makes a different presupposition, that there is a relationship between control and freedom. Under NFGM, and indeed any dialectical ground-motive, the theoretical attitude which presupposes dialectic is at odds with the everyday attitude, which does not (at least not so much).

Each ground motive places importance on different things. We can see several unique characteristics of the Nature-Freedom ground motive:

Dooyeweerd analysed this ground motive in great depth. He showed that it contains a deep paradox. Humanity wants to be free, for example from the constraints that Nature places on it (e.g. plague, hunger, weather, darkness>), and wants to bring Nature under its control. It does so by means of science and technology. But then science and technology come to dominate humanity, and enslave it.

Reductions under this ground motive:

View of These Four Ground-motives

Each ground-motive brings a distinct 'flavour' to theoretical thought and even everyday life during its dominion. Three are dualistic in flavour, while CFR is pluralistic. In an email on 27 March 2010 Jeremy Ive made the very interesting suggestion that the poles of the three dualistic ground-motives are related to distinct aspects:

He then continued, "Each ground-motive is, as it were, a hammock with two hooks, and those two hooks are located variously in different combinations of the modalities. In principle, it would be possible to identify a whole lot of other apostate ground motives, arising from the absolutisation of other modal combinations and resulting in other dualisms. For example, there is the power-law dualism (centred on the cultural-formative and juridical modalities) which dominated Roman imperial culture (See Roots, pp.22-28)."

The CFR ground-motive, however, "does not try hook into different aspects of the created order (i.e. the modalities), but it expresses our dependence upon the Triune God's transcendent action in the world as our Creator and Redeemer (and I would add, the One who transforms us and the world)."

The Situation Today

Though, in the Western world today, it is the NFGM that is most prevalent, the older ground-motives still have influence. We can see this, for example, in the artificial intelligence debates over whether computers can be like human beings. The way in which the debates are conducted aligns with at least three of the ground-motives:

These are discussed at greater length in chapter VI of 'Philosophical Frameworks for Understanding Information Systems' [Basden, 2008], and CFR is also included.

We may also see the influence of NGGM at least in Pentecostal Christianity, and similar, which downgrade the importance of the secular life. Especially among persecuted Christians the NGGM is quite prevalent, because NGGM is attractive for those for whom this world is painful.

Other Ground Motives?

Those who study Dooyeweerd tend to stick with the four ground-motives explained above. But are there other ground motives? Jeremy Ive's email (see above) continued, "There are questions to be asked about how comprehensive Dooyeweerd's account of the Western ground-motives is & how applicable to other contexts. There are also questions about how the ground-motives fit in systematically to Dooyeweerd's overall thinking, and there are important shifts his own systematic thinking over time." Dooyeweerd himself mentioned another one: that of the Zoroastrian religion. In Roots [p.112] he said:

"In the hellenistic period it was not difficult to combine the Greek ground motive with the dualistic ground motives of the near-eastern religions with which the Greeks had already made acquaintance. The ground motive of the Persian Zoroastrian religion consisted of a battle between a divine principle of light and an evil principle of darkness. Thus one could easily identify the Greek form motive with the zoroastrian motive of light and the Greek matter motive with the evil principle of darkness."

We also suggested above that the Roman notion of Imperium bears the signs of a separate ground motive even though closely bound to the Greek one, and seen by Dooyeweerd as part of the latter.

Choi makes a study of Korean religious ground motives using a Dooyeweerdian approach. He identifies the following:

A study of these - Choi paints a good portrait of each - reveals considerable overlap with the four Western ground motives.

In recent times in Western liberal thought other dualistic schemes that exhibit some of the characteristics of religious ground motives have emerged. A notable one is the gender perspective. This is not now simply a matter of 'women's rights' but a whole outlook on life (especially what Adam [1996] calls 'eco-feminism'). We have, then a dualism between masculinity and femininity, in which the former is harsh, thrusting, goal-directed, linear, rationalistic while the latter is caring, accepting, responsive, non-linear, intuitive, and the like. The dichotomy even affects our view of the brain (right versus left). It has a religious root in that there is commitment to one or other side. Whether this should be seen as a distinct ground motive, or a tributary of the main Nature-Freedom motive has yet to be debated.

Given Jeremy Ive's suggestion above that dualistic ground-motives attach themselves to two aspects, it would be feasible to see myriads of possible ground-motives, by selecting any combination of pairs. Which ones actually emerge, however, is part of the historical process.

The Role that Ground Motives Play

As we discuss on the accompanying page, the notion of ground motives is one of several levels within Dooyeweerd's theory of religious presuppositions and knowledge:

That page explains these roles in some detail and discusses where ground motives occur in the writings of others.

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: 27 February 2003. Last updated: 4 March 2003 Buber. 19 May 2003 links to choi corrected to 'papers/'. 15 July 2004 added brief list of roles of GMs. 14 August 2004 contact; new title. 23 August 2004 reductions under GMs. 12 September 2005 RC view of Nature and Grace. 20 February 2009 Today. 26 February 2009 nfgm as a struggle r.t. presupposition. 31 March 2010 Jeremy Ive's linking gms with aspects, and David Hanson's explanation of creation. 1 November 2010 label fmgm. 9 January 2013 correction. 3 September 2015 corrected '../'; rid counter; new .nav.