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Dooyeweerd's Theory of Ground Motives and Religious Presuppositions

Dooyeweerd's concept of ground motives was an attempt to understand the deep motivating forces that have steered or influenced Western thinking over the last 2,500 years since the days of the early Greek thinkers. Inspired by Kuyper's view of world views, he identified four (click on them for detailed exposition of each):

These developed from each other, as explained on the accompanying page that describes the four. Briefly, Form-Matter and Creation-Fall-Redemption were developed around 500 BC or earlier. Nature-Grace arose from the result of trying to merge these two; from 500 to 1500 AD/CE. Nature-Freedom developed from Nature-Grace during the Renaissance and Enlightenment by leaving God out and redefining the two poles accordingly. All but the second are dualistic in nature, and thus result in temporal reality being split in two and dis-integrated.

A fuller account of these four is given elsewhere, together with suggestions over other possible ground motives.

This page explains Dooyeweerd's theory of religious presuppositions and what ground motives are and the part they play in driving culture and thought forward over long periods. It also points to a number of places where other writers have recognised something similar to ground motives.


Five Layers; The Role Ground Motives Play

Ground Motives reflect what we most fundamentally believe about the nature of reality, including God, the physical cosmos, the cultural or conceptual universe, and all that we experience. They are deeper than reason, being a commitment to a view of reality that reason cannot open up. Indeed, our ground motives dictate what we believe reason to be. Not everybody is aware of holding a given ground motive personally; ground motives act at the level of the culture and thinking within a society as a whole.

Popular thought assumes there is a single abstraction of two levels: from concrete reality to theory. Recent academic thought suggests three levels: worldviews, theories, concrete reality. But Dooyeweerd's theory has several levels:

Religious Commitment

In Roots of Western Culture: 7-9 Dooyeweerd gave an excellent brief overview of the relation between theory and what he claimed to be its religious root. His argument is, in brief, that theory (or rather, theorizing) is relative, and can never claim to be absolute, and that "The absolute has a right to exist in religion only." As human beings, we seek absolutes on which to base our living (including our thinking and theorizing). (This may be seen as part of our pistic functioning in life.)

Dooyeweerd pointed out that Hegelian view of antithesis ("logical opposition of what belongs together in reality") always acknowledges a higher synthesis, which is itself a thesis for which there is yet another antithesis. "When used correctly," Dooyeweerd said, "the method [of thesis-antithesis-synthesis] illustrates that nothing in temporal life is absolute." Then he contrasted this 'theoretical antithesis' with 'religious antithesis', in which we do make absolute claims and so there is no possibility of a higher synthesis. We all make a religious commitment to something absolute, and this is either to the True God, or to something than is not God. What our religious commitment is determines our type of ground motive.

We are not talking here about personal commitment involving the will, but about what might be called an orientation, and one that is communal rather than merely personal. Dooyeweerd discussed two possible religious orientations, but Clouser suggested there were three:

Note 1: 'Cosmos' means not that which physically exists but all that we experience and all the law-framework by which we exist, live and experience - covered by both of what Dooyeweerd called law-side and entity-side.

Note 2: In the Biblical presupposition, Creation of the Cosmos by the Divine is a vital element. If Cosmos is uncreated, standing as a kind of eternal alternative principle to the Divine, then we have merely a variation of the Pagan or the Eastern views.

Ground Motives

From such religious views come our ground motives.

The Immanence Standpoint leads inexorably to dualistic ground motives. This is because if we presuppose that what is Divine is a subset of reality, then that subset will be 'higher' than the rest, more real, more meaningful, more reliable, to be aspired to, to be loved, and the route to true knowledge. The rest of Cosmos is non-Divine and thus 'lower'; dependent on the Divine, less real, less meaningful, less reliable, and to be avoided as far as possible because it is a hindrance to good living and to true knowledge. Not only is the Divine subset 'higher', but, in the end, it is absolutized. This involves pistic commitment, as Dooyeweerd said [CPMH:46],

"Every absolutization, including every one of those in philosophy, is ultimately an act of faith and can never be explained in purely theoretical terms. It is an act of faith because it proposes a sure ground for the thinking process, which can only be found in the Absolute."

A ground motive must deal with Good and Evil as well as with Being, Doing and Meaning. In dualistic ground motives, we have an obvious way of doing so: one pole of the dualism is Good while the other is Evil.

Exactly what we deem Divine within the Cosmos depends on many things, but we have seen that the Greek thinkers took Form to be 'higher', the mediaeval thinkers took Grace to be 'higher', and today's thinkers tend to take Freedom to be 'higher' while a century or so ago, thinkers took Nature to be 'higher'. From the following table, which shows characteristics of Divine and non-Divine, we can see how dualistic ground motives might arise.

Divine Non-Divine
Being: Exists in itself Exists only because of Divine
Relationship: Self-dependent Depends on Divine
Reliability: Completely reliable Do not trust it
Values: Good, to be sought Hindrance to Good
Good and Evil: Good Evil
Importance: Vital, Absolute Lesser; unimportant
Knowing: Seek to know Ignore

We can now see why the Creation-Fall-Redemption ground motive is not dualistic in this way. This is because it comes from the third religious presupposition, namely that the Cosmos is Created by the Divine. Because it must be Created, all Cosmos is good, and probably interrelated, and thus cannot be divided into two parts to form a dualism. This can account for Meaning, Being and Doing. But such a ground motive must have a different way of accounting for Good and Evil, and for how Evil may be overcome. It is the Fall and Redemption elements of this ground motive that do this. Fall refers to the belief that Evil is the human heart oriented away from the True God, in pride, rebellion and idolatry. Redemption refers to the proactive work of the Divine in reaching out to 'redeem' humanity and all the Cosmos, and the response of repentance that humanity makes.

Note 1: this is not simply a view of relevance to theology, but inscribes itself on life. For example, whenever we contend that some good may be found in every situation or person, that there is something interesting and of value in all things around us, whenever we say "I was wrong, I'm sorry", and whenever we truly forgive another, we are living out, in a tiny way, this Creation-Fall-Redemption ground motive, even if in the next instance we live out something of another ground motive. On the contrary, whenever we assume that freedom and control are completely incompatible we are living out the Nature-Freedom ground motive, and whenever we assume that either secular or sacred things are of of much higher importance than the other, we are living out the Nature-Grace ground motive.

Note 2: Dooyeweerd did not say that every thinker in a period dominated by a ground motive would be completely trapped by it. Some would try to overcome the inherent dualism, feeling that it was false. For example, he acknowledged that Hegel tried to do this by means of his doctrine of antithesis. Dooyeweerd merely maintained that most thought was driven in its development over time by the ground motive.

World Views and Paradigms

Most world views may be seen as the bunch of unwritten assumptions and agreements made by a community that is committed to one pole of a dualistic ground motive. Most recent world views may be associated with either the Nature or the Freedom poles of the Nature-Freedom ground motive.

For example, modernism values rationality (Nature pole) and eschews personal opinion (Freedom pole), while for postmodernism the opposite is true. In a similar way, Romanticism and Rationalism were the outworkings of the two poles in an earlier age.

World views are mainly religious in nature; they are visions, they are commitments, which are both of our pistic functioning. We can see religious roots of world views manifested in various guises, when:

In the realm of theoretical thought and science, the situation is similar. Not all debate Dooyeweerd said [ibid:9] "The point of departure for science is governed by a religious ground motive; science is thus never neutral with respect to religion." Dooyeweerd believed that each aspect provides the core of distinct sciences, so within a science we might expect a coherent view. But that is not so. Within the community of each science distinct paradigms exist and play out competing parts. Scientific paradigms, a specialized variant of world views, have a religious (pistic) aspect, of commitment, and of vision of what is. This need not necessarily mean that acrimomy exists between thinkers in different paradigms - though in the history of most sciences that is exactly what has occurred.

Often, the paradigms within a scientific area happen to be aligned with the poles of one or more of the ground motives. In the main, since it is the Nature-Freedom motive that is most dominant in Western culture, the camps in a science tend to cluster around poles of Freedom and Nature, but this tendency is most marked in the sciences of the normative aspects - for example, in history, linguistics, social science, economics, etc. we find paradigms exhibiting elements of either Freedom or Determinism and Control. In physics, the science of a determinative aspect, Freedom does not play a large part (though an echo of it may be seen in things like chaos theory), and some divisions might be around poles of the Matter-Form ground motive - the old particle-wave duality of light? Because of their religious root, inter-paradigm debates are not resolved by means of theoretical debate. However, as time wears on, the religious commitments might soften, and a theoretical synthesis might be possible, as has happened in physics.

Aspectual World Views and Dialectic

World views may also centred on elevated aspects. If an aspect is elevated in importance, even absolutized, then this can be a world view that blinds its holders to any other way of seeing things. For example, materialism in science (elevation of the physical aspect) meant that, for example, sensory or social or religious (pistic) phenomena were of zero interest, unless they could be reduced to the physical. A common world view outside academic is that centred on the economic aspect.

Since reality is multi-aspectual, any absolutization of an aspect leads to suppression of others, and problems occur (the shalom hypothesis). This can lead to what might be called an aspectual engine of dialectic (described in Basden [1999]:

After a time of suffering the problems caused by aspectual elevation, thinking people recognise the problems and seek their cause. They start to realise some aspect has been suppressed, and start to believe that if we were to pay attention to it, then the problems would be ameliorated. Gradually the community comes to agree, and steps are taken to give due attention to this aspect. But people go too far, starting to see this new aspect as the only important one, and elevating it in its turn. This becomes absolutized, and the cycle continues.

This puts a new light on Hegel's notion that everything contains its own negation. Because the aspects are interwoven, any aspect contains echoes of and reference to all the others. The 'negation' of an aspect might be seen as 'all the other aspects', in the sense that this is the sum total of meaning with a gap at the given aspect. Dooyeweerd put it this way: "the absolutization of special aspects which are relative, evokes the correlata of the latter; these correlata claim an absoluteness opposed to the deified aspects; thus arises a religious dialectic in the basis motives of such views" [NC IV:1, I:63-4] This idea of aspectual dialectic is discussed, along with Dooyeweerd's notion of polar dialectic, in [Basden, 1999].

Classifications, Theories and Methodologies

Classifications, theories and methodologies are conceptual devices by which understand and achieve things in concrete reality of our everyday living. Their content and style is influenced by the paradigms or worldviews we have some commitment to. As has been frequently argued by others, our scientific paradigms determine what theories arise within a field of science, because they determine the questions it is deemed valid to ask and the methods deemed appropriate by which to answer them. In methodology, general world views are often more active than are scientific paradigms, because of their more practical relevance.

The influence of religious commitments is weaker than in world views, but it may often be detected, especially when driven by dualistic ground motives. For example, one methodology is highly structured (Nature pole) while another in the same area involves interaction between people in which the structure is much more flexible (Freedom pole). It will often be found that those who devised each methodology were driven by the respective poles.

Concrete Life and Reality

Ground motives drive culture. But their effect is lessened as we approach everyday living and concrete reality. This is partly because they tend to be more troublesome in abstractive thought. Little more will be said here at present.

Other Recognition of Ground Motives

But does Dooyeweerd's theory stand up? Do others speak of similar things?


Tarnas [1991:375] speaks of "a complex bifurcation of the Western outlook," elaborating it by [ibid.:366]:

"From the complex matrix of the Renaissance had issued forth two distinct streams of culture, two temperaments or general approaches to human existence characteristic of the Western mind. One emerged in the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment and stressed rationality, empirical science, and a skeptical secularism. The other was its polar complement, sharing common roots in the Renaissance and classical Greco-Roman culture (and in the Reformation as well), but tending to express just those aspects of human experience suppressed by the Enlightenment's overriding spirit of rationalism."

This sounds very like Nature and Freedom poles, Dooyeweerd's Ideals of Science and Personality.


In the very different field of development studies, we find Agrawal, p.421 saying:

"But neo-indigenistas [those who advocate the preservation etc. of indigenous knowledge] remain committed to the same kind of dichotomous classification that dominated the world view of the modernization theorists, in spite of their seeming opposition to the idea that indigenous institutions and knowledge are obstacles to the march by the Angel of Progress. Both groups of theorists seek to create two categories of knowledge - western and indigenous - relying on the possibility that a finite and small number of characteristics can define the elements contained within the categories. This attempt is bound to fail because different indigenous and western knowledges possess specific histories, particular burdens from the past, and distinctive patterns of change." [our bold, his italics]

Though Agrawal does not use the term, ground motive, and though this does not, at first sight, seem to speak of Nature-Freedom, we see several characteristics of dualistic ground motives here:

We can, if we wish, see how these western/scientific - indigenous/primitive poles correspond with the Nature-Freedom poles (respectively), especially when we refer to Dooyeweerd's other characterization of the ground motive in terms of the Ideal of Science and the Ideal of Personality. But the correspondence is not total (indigenous speaks more of community of persons than of Personality). So it might be that the ground motive that Agrawal has identified can be used to refine our understanding of Dooyeweerd's ground motive.


Martin Buber, the Jewish religious philosopher, "embraced .. the notion of encounter [between God and humankind], which presupposes and preserves their separate existence" - which is the same as the Biblical Presupposition. He held that "God, the great Thou, enables human I-Thou relations between man and other beings" - which sounds very like Dooyeweerd's notion that God created the Law-side as a framework that enables the Cosmos to function.

Ground-motives of Korean Thought

Dooyeweerd studied the ground-motives of Western thought. Yong-Joon Choi made a study of the ground-motives of Korean thought, using the method that Dooyeweerd has set out. He found four:

What is very interesting is that while most Western ground-motives are dualistic, Korean Shamanism and Buddhism (as well as Christianity) are not dialectical. Choi believes Dooyeweerd's dialectical assumption is too simple.

Some Practical Uses of This

Dooyeweerd demonstrated how his belief that the dualistic ground motives are false can help critique certain historical theories with "This philosophical critique must fail inasmuch as it started from the Kantian separation between empirical facts and norms, which dualism is rooted in the dialectical humanistic motive of nature and freedom in its critical conception." [CPMH:56].

He adopted the motive of Creation, Fall and Redemption, and worked that out philosophically (not theologically). See discussion of some of the philosophical implications of presupposing Creation. In my own experience, I find it is possible to take existing ideas that have emerged under a Nature-Freedom or other dualistic motive and reconceptualize them from within CFR. The result of doing this is interesting. It need not obliterate the original idea, but instead tends to enrich and develop it. For example see how this has been done for CATWOE analysis in Soft Systems Methodology [Basden, SRBS] and for the Habermasian notion of emancipation, as well as Hegel's notion of Spirit. The reason this seems to be possible is that how things can be under the proposes idea and are intended by their originators to be, how things are problematic and how these problems may be overcome are separated out conceptually (into Creation, Fall, Redemption) and thus may be analysed separately, and the first allows us to consider all the potential and richness of the idea separately from how things can go wrong.


In "Meta-theoretical controversies in studying organizational culture" Joanne Martin [2001] says

"Cultural researchers have several options at this point. We could prolong the culture wars by continuing to take sides in these battles. ... We could try to build consensus about the 'right' answeres (an unlikely outcome, given the depth of conviction on these disputed issues). Or, we could, whatever our positions on these issues, learn about viewpoints other than our own, read research conducted in accord with these viewpoints, and see, open-mindedly, how these divergent ideas could enrich our own."

Many thinkers today recognise the 'meta-theoretical', conviction-led nature of paradigms and 'culture wars', just as Dooyeweerd did 50 years earlier. And Dooyeweerd did try to "learn about viewpoints other than [his] own .. open-mindedly".

But, as a true philosopher, he could not take for granted what 'open-mindedly' meant, and had to account for this in his philosophy. He found it had to be grounded in a religious presupposition about Origin, Diversity and Coherence, a religious ground motive about what are good, evil and redemption, and in aspectual functioning that is never absolute. On that basis, he devised and used what he called his 'immanent critique' in which he sought to understand a system of thinking in its own terms, rather than his terms, but to understand it so far that its presuppositions are laid bare. Once these presuppositions are laid bare, then he and the other thinkers have a basis for genuine discourse. Dooyeweerd has a lot to offer today's thinkers.


Alternative idea and wording

DB (Prof. David Booth) sent me an email from which the following is extracted. They are included here as an alternative view from the one presented above. First, he provides a different way of understanding CFR:

"You said that we agree (or come very close) on taking the "presuppositions" made by the biblical writers and using them to engage with academic thinking.  However, for me, creation, fall and redemption are the direct teaching of the writers that I'm trying to work into the presuppositions of the human sciences (professionally) and areas of the humanities and practitioner professions (amateurly), e.g. historical theology, Anglo-American 'linguistic' philosophy, health services, to name a few! ;-)"

Then he suggested different wording than 'ground motive':

"Also, "motive" is the wrong translation of the Dutch (or German) word for CRR; better is "motif."  Also (my previous paragraph) CFR and NF are not backGround motifs of the Bible and western thought respectively but are groundING (foundationational) motifs.  I believe that the latter is what the Reformationists themselves mean by the 'ground' of Ground-Motif.

"The English is important because there is no question that CFR motivates CAN's approach to academic work and all work by Christians.  (Sue misunderstood my interrupted question to Phil Jackman: of course all work can be work for God, "spiritual" in that wide sense.  However, Steve Douglass was talking about the specific spiritual work of evangelism and equipping evangelists.. A cash teller and a car builder and repairer are not evangelising anybody in what thery are paif to do and could rightly be sacked for doing so - and thereby failing to glorigy God and to use His creation to exopres His love as He intended us to do with our whole life here on earth = CFR.)  What I was going to suggest is that an academic job is different from many jobs (though not unique in this respect) by the job being highly comptabilism with fulltime Gospel ministry.  The tension in Douglass is that physically one-to-only-one evangelism is Agape staff's fulltime mininstry and mission meetings, distributions of Gospels, tracts etc. are secondary.  He say nothing about virtually one-to-one (of many) evangelism - which is what a throughgong incorporation of CFR into a academic (multi)disciplene truly is in my understanding."

Then he suggested that, as far as CFR at least is concerned, it acts more visibly than as a presupposition:

"The Good News of Christ's redemption of fallen creation IS preached in the sciences of engineered systems and acculturated-neurogenetically developed systems (for examples) by working from the historically confirmed explicit wording of the Bible, understood as a whole 'narrative', plus the theological doctrines taught ad hoc to situations by Jesus himself and by the universally acknowledged followers of Jesus in the pages of the NT.  Christian theology itself has to be "always reforming" as "new light breaks forth from God's Word" (Richard Baxter), in ways acknowledged to be true to the text by up-to-date literary historians of NT and OT, and informed by missionary, revival and charismatic experience, political and social change, scholarly adances in the humanities, sciences and research-based practitioner professions (engineering, medicine, law, lots of others less securely) and God's other ways by the Spirit in Common Grace and Christian faithfulness (not "supernaturally": that is not a biblical category)."


Agrawal A (1998?) "Dismantling the divide between indigenous and scientific knowledge", Development and CHange, 8?

Basden A, (1999), "Engines of Dialectic", Philosophia Reformata, 64(1):15-36.

Basden A, Wood-Harper AT [2005: in preparation] "A philosophical enrichment of CATWOE", Systems Research and Behavioral Science (in preparation).

Basden A [2005: submitted] "Emancipation - an underpinning and enrichment based on Dooyeweerdian philosophy" Submitted to Information Systems Journal.

Martin J (2001) "Meta-theoretical controversies in studying organizational culture" in Tsoukas H, Knudsen C (eds.) Organizational Theory as Science: Prospects and Limitations. London: Oxford University Press.

Tarnas R (1991), The Passion of the Western Mind, Pimlico, Random House.

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: 1 March 2003. Last updated: 4 March 2003 name link for rp3, etc., section on Buber. 6 March 2003 hegel. 10 March 2003 Practical section started. 19 August 2003 added concln; added contents, and changed some headings. 23 September 2003 section on aspectual world views and dialectic. 14 November 2003 blocked a quotn. 14 August 2004 contact. 7 October 2004 How CFR enriches; also relabelled Engines from #basden to #hegel. 5 November 2010 DB's alternative idea, more in contents. 3 September 2015 corrected '../'; rid counter; new .nav. 18 August 2023 Choi; canonical, bgc; DB.