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Modifying Dooyeweerd's Ideas

There has been several critiques of Dooyeweerd's ideas. How far can we modify Dooyeweerd's ideas without de-naturing them? That is a question that we must face from now into the future, if the Dooyeweerdian approach is to grow and adapt to new circumstances and debates of which Dooyeweerd himself had little knowledge. For example, when he died computers were lumbering big number-crunchers, and the desktop PC and palmtop were nowhere. The Internet was a specialized laboratory network in the USA dreamt up to retain some integrity in the event of nuclear Cold War strikes.

Failure to differentiate what is fundamental from what is less so has probably been the cause of some of the misuses of Dooyeweerd's thought in recent decades.

It seems to me that it might help us to see Dooyeweerd's ideas as of four tiers of importance and certainty. The highest tier is the most important as it contains his major framework notions, and should only be modified after considerable efforts have been made to thoroughly understand the whole of Dooyeweerd's thought. The lowest tier can be open to considerable criticism and modification. The three tiers would include, for example:

Those are just examples. It could be useful to differentiate 'Dooyeweerd's ideas' from 'Dooyeweerdian ideas': the former include tiers 1,2,3 while the latter include tier 1 and perhaps tier 2. Major modifications at tier 3 can still result in Dooyeweerdian ideas, though not those of Dooyeweerd himself. However, we shall not be so precise in our usage as this, especially as some disagreement with Dooyeweerd over some elements in tier 1 can still arguably be Dooyeweerdian.

Below follows a more detailed suggestion for what lies in each tier - but it is far from comprehensive.

Tier 1: Major Framework

Tier 1 is Dooyeweerd's main framework, and is where his radically different presuppositions are most important. Tier 1 contains largely abstract ideas of a philosophical nature. Tier 1 transcends all cultures and times. It includes such things as:

Tier 1 ideas can be criticised on the basis of inconsistency and on the basis of the underlying presuppositions. But it needs high quality philosophical thinking to do so. In most cases, attempts to criticise or change tier 1 ideas are likely to end up with something that cannot be said to be Dooyeweerdian in nature, and might even introduce antinomies. For example, a positivist version that denies the inescapability of presuppositions in knowing would be a distorted version of his thought, and its tendency to absolutize the analytical aspect would lead to deep antinomies in that version.

The list of what is at tier 1 above is, of course, my own, and I am open to argument about what is at tier 1.

Tier 2: Positive, Trans-Cultural Development of Tier 1 in Light of Human History

The notions in Tier 1 are largely abstract and general. Many thinkers are content to remain there. But Dooyeweerd took the challenge of making positive proposals about how the notions in tier 1 can be worked out, in light of human history and experience. Development of tier 2 requires a bolder ontological commitment, and, in Dooyeweerd's case, was carried out on the basis of an open attitude to life in all its richness and a broad knowledge of the writings of thinkers from the early Greeks onwards. It is this tier where we see important influences from such thinkers as Kant, the phenomenologists, etc., because Dooyeweerd respected them, believed that many of the issues they addressed were important, and that they had come up with valid ideas. In tier 2 Dooyeweerd tried to be sensitive to empirical and historical reality, but at the same time transcend cultures.

Perhaps the most obvious inhabitant of this tier is ...

but there are many others:

Tier 2 ideas can be criticised but we should not be over-hasty to overturn what Dooyeweerd has proposed at this level, because it is a product of long reflection and experience, but one who was well aware of cultural influences and presuppositions. Before we criticise tier 2 ideas, we should first:

It is common for people to suggest alterations to Dooyeweerd's suite of aspects, and some such attempts have been collected and discussed.

Tier 3: Working out Tier 2 in Specific Cultural Contexts

Working out Tier 2, often in light of particular cultural contexts, such as Dooyeweerd's attempts to explore in more detail the kernels of various aspects, leading to, for example, his theory of social institutions, his theory of progress, etc. Ideas of this tier are usually influenced, knowingly or not, by the cultural context in which Dooyeweerd worked, such as mid-20th-century Europe that was being damaged by Nazism. Here are a few parts of what I consider Dooyeweerd's tier 3 to be:

Because of the cultural influences at this tier, it is more valid to criticise Dooyeweerd's ideas, and propose alternatives.

For an example of why and how we might modify Dooyeweerd's thought at this level, take his notion of progress. It was very useful, in his historical setting when Nazism threatened to overcome the world with evil and terror, to point to fundamental reasons why it is evil, and Dooyeweerd did so via his notion of progress. And, in those days too, scientific, technical and artistic progress seemed almost wholly good in its ability to lessen some of the suffering in life. But today we see things differently, and what most call progress has itself led to great problems. Moreover, there are other fundamental ways of showing the evil of Nazism (e.g. via aspectual norms for human living).

Note, however, that though these things might invite modification, we should still treat them with great respect and avoid being over-keen to modify them. For example, Dooyeweerd's theory of progress still holds some value for us. This is because they are the product of the man's own thinking, and who best knew the thrust and intentions of Dooyeweerd's approach than Dooyeweerd himself - and he knew it intuitively and tacitly in a way we seldom attain. Therefore, we should feel free to criticise and modify but recognise that what Dooyeweerd said at this level holds some important validity for us.

Tier 4: Quoted Passages

I include this tier in recognition of the fact that the writing a work like the New Critique is a process, during which the author's ideas are refined by the very act of writing. This means that it is likely that what Dooyeweerd wrote later might contradict or modify what he had already written. Moreover, by Dooyeweerd's own theory, the very activity of lingual functioning is inherently non-absolute, so the meaning he intended can never be wholly expressed via his words.

When he wrote, Dooyeweerd did so for a particular purpose, and subjected to particular pressures on the one hand and joys on the other. Also, though sometimes the wording was carefully chosen and expresses well something from tier 1, at other times they are mere speculations and suggestions. A good example of the former is his famous sentence, "Meaning is the being of all that has been created, and the nature even of our selfhood. It has a religious root and a divine origin." An example of the latter - that has prompted much dislike of Dooyeweerd's ideas among those who do not distinguish tier 4 from tier 1 - is his attempt to address the racial problems in places like South Africa.

Therefore, while it is useful to quote passages of his work, no single passage should be taken as an authoritative statement of what Dooyeweerd was trying to get at. This means that even when Dooyeweerd's words are quoted, there might still be room for disagreement.

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.

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

Created: 10 June 2002. Last updated: 17 September 2002 major expansion of the theme of the tiers with discussion of what differentiates them and how we can respond to them. 18 September 2002 Dooyeweerd's and Dooyeweerdian. 3 March 2003 changed link, .nav. 21 November 2005 unets.