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On Existence

What is it to 'exist'? "Signs 'exist' only as the medium and outcome of communication processes in interaction." [Anthony Giddens, 1984, 31]

It has been said that while the Greeks and all since have presupposed that the primary property of anything is its Existence, Dooyeweerd presupposed that the primary property is its Meaning, and that this presupposition enabled him to develop his theory of aspects. This page looks more closely at Dooyeweerd's ideas about Existence and Meaning.

This version is a summary, that will be filled out at a later date. Zuidervaart [2004] summarizes Dooyeweerd's position: "Dooyeweerd ... rejects any metaphysical concept of being that includes both God and creatures as well as any Aristotelian concept of substance that disguises creaturely dependence on God."

Entity-Oriented Thinking

Entity-oriented thinking tries to explain everything in terms of entities and their properties and behaviour. These properties and behaviours are of the essence of the type of entity itself, inherent to it. Dooyeweerd calls this 'immanence thinking' - which is probably a better term since it also covers some Eastern ideas that deny the existence of entities. But we will stick with the term 'entity-centred' for now.

Entity-centred thinking postulates about laws, that

To illustrate: whence come the laws that govern human behaviour? Answer: from our DNA entities in response to our environment. Whence come social laws and norms? Answer: they arise merely from the operation, properties and needs of the entities that form the group within its harsh environment, and have done so over evolutionary timescales. In a different environment, or with different types of entities, the social laws might have turned out differently. Whence come the laws that govern the dynamics and makeup of DNA? Answer: from the entities that are atoms and molecules, each of which have their own tendencies depending on their type.

Notice the tendency here, in entity-centred thinking, to drive our focus of analysis to smaller and smaller entities or objects, and to assume that the properties and behaviour of the whole is to be explained by focusing on the parts.

Dooyeweerd puts it the other way round: laws are no mere results of entities but stand distinct from entities. As we see later, he holds that there can be no entities without laws, that Existence is founded in Meaning rather than the other way round. An subtle difference? Maybe, but with enormous significance.

Problems with Existence-Oriented View

What the Existence Presuppositions leads to

As with any deep presupposition, it affects the direction of our thinking, reasoning and other analytical efforts. It dictates where we put effort.

Problems relating to Types of Existence

It might seem obvious that a pebble on a beach exists. We can hold it in our hand and detect it via several senses, and it seems to be an entity that is easily and unambiguously distinct. Traditionally, entities were external to us, but a view built on such a presupposition, such as essentialism, runs into difficulties when considering things we create. Consider the following (I am indebted to a paper by Hirst, though I have added some things):

Note: Please also see the fuller list, with explanation of how Dooyeweerd overcomes these problems.

We can see that the notion of Existence, of Being, is not as simple as we thought. Some of those above are more about what we can make statements about than strictly existence (king of France, square circle).

Other Problems

Problems with knowing about existing things

Dooyeweerd's Meaning-Oriented Approach

Dooyeweerd said (1955, his italics),

"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."

This led him to presuppose that Meaning is the primary property of that is, and that Existence emerges from Meaning. (See page on Meaning.) This enabled him to identify a diversity of types of existing based on a diversity of types of meaning. Briefly (and with reference to things mentioned above) ...

Some Basics

Types of Existence and Becoming

Some Consequences of This View of Existence

This gives things a certain dignity. It is 'right' that things exist; we might almost say they have a right to exist, but only in relation to the law side and to other things.

This gave Dooyeweerd a way of understanding things and existence that allows things to be multi-layered as is being discovered in several areas of ICT as well as in other fields. His approach is intended to be sensitive to our everyday experience.

This account applies not only to discrete entities, but also to non-entitary existence (such the atmosphere -- in both its physical and its aesthetic senses), and even to things that are reifications. It can also account for Umwelten (environments within which we function).

Dooyeweerd's approach also makes it possible to discuss non-existent entities like 'the accident I prevented' or impossible 'the present king of France' or even 'a square circle' [see Hirst 1991]. Dooyeweerd explains the non-existence or impossibility in terms of laws of aspects; the latter two are impossible by virtue of the laws of the juridical and spatial aspects respectively. See how Dooyeweerd overcomes many of the Problems above cited by Hirst.

See also 'Implications of Dooyeweerd's Theory of Entities' for more.

The Special Case of Computers and Messages

With computers, though, we enter a different arena, and we also do so with the message, though we did not realise it.

Human Beings

For human beings Dooyeweerd had a different view.


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

Giddens, A. 1984. The Constitution of Society. Polity Press.

Hirst G, (1991), "Existence assumptions in knowledge representation", Artificial Intelligence, 49:199-242.

Newell A. (1982) "The knowledge level" Artificial Intelligence 18:87-127.

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 and Protext.

Created: 1 August 2002. Last updated: 20 November 2002 brought in portions of old 'entities.html'. 3 March 2003 .nav, links to gm.html. 25 July 2003 quote from Zuidervaart and problems Being-orientation gives. 21 November 2005 unets, new .nav. 24 June 2006 Link to ext/hirst. 28 March 2015 Giddens example of 'exist'. 10 December 2015 added consequences section and link to umwelt, and link to entities.