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Multi-Aspectual Functioning in Human Living

An example:

I was writing a note in the margin of an article I was reading. In both reading and making the note, I was functioning primarily in the lingual aspect. But while doing that I found I was using a shorthand notation of my own making. This was not for lingual reasons but for spatial and economic reasons: there was not much space in the margin and shorthand was spatially smaller. The decision I made, to use shorthand, was not dictated by lingual purpose of the primary aspect, nor for example by psychological purpose, but specifically by spatial and economic meaning. Yet it was not unconnected with the lingual, but served the primary lingual purpose. Likewise, in other places I also use shorthand even when there is plenty of space available. In such cases, it is likely to be the sensitive aspect of my feeling for a quick squiggle, or maybe the economic aspect of my own time. Then, in a letter to another person I will not use shorthand, a decision that is brought about by the juridical aspect of what is due to the reader. As I make my margin note I often put clear spaces between the letters; this is for the sensitive reason of being able to see and recognise the letters and the analytical reason of making clear distinctions between them.

In that example, we see that even an activity that is clearly primarily lingual in nature is nevertheless multi-aspectual, involving several other aspects, both earlier and later than the lingual. These aspects give shape to my writing by influencing the decisions I make as I perform it.

A collection of other examples can be found in the Examples section of this site.

But notice something about the decisions in the above example:

The decisions I make are seldom of the planned, considered variety, but are usually on the border of tacit thinking. It is not unconscious activity, since I have some control over what I do and the style I choose. I am conscious at the time, in the immediate performing of the activity, of the decisions I am making, so they are not totally tacit, but they do not involve deliberation or analytical choice. Not only are such choices made in the immediate act, but they are usually made without being aware of the different aspects.

This is the nature of much multi-aspectual functioning: it is near-tacit, but not totally so, and it occurs without any clear awareness of the aspects being necessary. That is, we function in the aspects (in this case, spatial, economic, juridical) even though we might not be aware of them. However, we can be aware of the aspects; this would be what Clouser calls lower abstraction.

This page briefly discusses the notion of multi-aspectual human functioning, especially:

See also general page on functioning.

Human Activity is Multi-aspectual

Human activity involves functioning in a variety of aspects (usually all of them). Dooyeweerd believed that all human activity does so, not just some of it. The example of reading and writing clearly demonstrates this. So do mundane things like eating a meal right up to major phases of life like being married. Even sleeping involves all aspects; for example, the social aspect can be very much present when we snore!

Multi-aspectual human activity can refer to two things. The less important one refers to disinguishable parts of behaviour - for example reading the label on a shirt (lingual activity) as part of the activity of washing it (biotic activity). It is more important, however, to recognise that each human activity is meaningful in many different ways. For example the activity of washing clothes might be primarily biotic (for health reasons), but it also makes the clothes smell fresh (sensitive aspect), it ensures the clothes last longer (economic aspect), it makes the clothes look better (aesthetic aspect), and can give the wearer confidence (pistic aspect).

Multi-aspectual functioning is not just a bundle of aspectual functionings; there is a coherence of meaning in it, made possible by the inter-aspect relationships and the inter-aspect harmony. It is not only richer than a uni-aspectual view of functioning such as those offered by psychology, linguistics or economics (which focus on a the sensitive-psychic, the lingual and the economic aspects respectively), but also more 'true', in that everything is interconnected, and the meaning of any aspect of our functioning cannot be discerned properly without reference to all the other aspects. This multi-aspectual richness of meaning is important in understanding everyday life.

Interweaving of Aspects

Note that multi-aspectual functioning is not the integration or synthesis of originally-separate aspectual functionings. Rather, it is a whole that is meaningful in a variety of aspectual ways. It is originally integral but may be conceptually separated by reference to aspects. Dooyeweerd used the term systasis to denote such integrality-prior-to-separation-into-aspects.

There is more to said here about this, but for now see the following pages:

The systems thinker, Ackoff (1963), also made this point about original integrality.

Norms for Multi-aspectual Human Activity

The shalom principle says that if we function well in every aspect then things will go well in all aspects and all together; that state of health, well-being, satisfaction, joy, prosperity, justice, peace, etc. is what is meant by the Hebrew word shalom or the Arabic word salaam. It also holds that if we function poorly in (going against the norms of) any one aspect then shalom is jeopardised or at least lessened.

Methods for Aspectual Analysis

How can we analyse a situation and find all the relevant aspects? There are several methods available. For more, see our fuller discussion of aspectual analysis.

The Checklist Method

One obvious one is to use the suite of aspects as a checklist - for each aspect, find something in the situation that fits it. Usually such a method is not only unhelpful, but downright misleading, not only because of the danger of forcing the situation into boxes, but, less obviously, because we often end up getting aspects from different functionings in a situation. Once we have found something of an aspect, there is little incentive to look for more. This method is not recommended.

The Christmas Tree Method

Better is the Christmas Tree method. Look at the situation in terms of the quality of functioning in each aspect, positive and negative. Whether it is positive or negative, and by how much, can be roughly indicated by the visual device of a double-sided bar chart, which gives it the name of Christmas Tree.

Aspectual Christmas Tree

This is often useful for comparative studies, analysing changes to a situation, such as for finding out the benefits and detriment when an information system is introduced. If the functioning in an aspect improves in several ways, then add that number of pluses, if it deteriorates, add that number of minuses.

The interpretation of such a chart should NOT be as a quantitative measure. Rather, we look for patterns and then use those patterns to indicate where we should direct effort to rectify things. In the above example (a hypothetical analysis of introducing an information system, or of predicting impact of an information system) , we find a number of things:

As can be seen, if used well, this simple visual device can stimulate quite interesting ideas and discussions.

A Method for Finding the Aspects of a Situation

But there an even better method - MAKE, Multi-Aspectual Knowledge Elicitation. This is a method that helps someone who has some degree of expertise of a situation discern not only the aspects that are important but also important concepts in those aspects, and relationships that occur. This builds up a network like the following:

Aspect Map

MAKE is useful not only for obtaining a map of aspects of a situation, but is especially useful for stimulating people to be aware of things they usually overlook, for explicating certain types of tacit knowledge. More details on MAKE page.

Often Only Three Aspects!

It is all very well for an analyst to undertake a study of the aspects of a situation; it is a very different thing for there to be general recognition of multiple aspects within a cultural group, such as of C programmers or of accountants. Such recognition is not an analytic so much as pistic phenomenon, in that it involves the group's vision of what such situations are like, and this vision changes only gradually. Even when presented with an analysis, many, though acknowledging the multiple aspects, will still, in their hearts, believe that certain aspects, or even a certain aspect, is the 'real' one.

Recognition of multiple aspects comes but slowly, and in stages. Often a group will start with their vision centred on a single aspect (plus, maybe, the aspects that facilitate it); engineers might start with the formative (technical). After some time (maybe a couple of decades) it becomes plain that there is another aspect that not only is important but should be taken into account; software engineers, at least, start to recognise the social aspect. Such a shift in vision is sometimes accompanied by change of name of role, e.g. from software engineer to system developer. Then a third aspect might be recognised. Especially when the aspects form a sequence, the community recognises a central aspect, a lower one and a higher one.

Often the process stops there, because people feel satisfied with such a tripartite division. The widening from one, to two to three aspects should motivate people's curiosity as to whether there are others - but it seldom does, so that the number of tripartite frameworks in current use across a wide variety of disciplines is enormous. For example, Dahlbom and Mathiassen [2002:123-4], when discussing information systems applied to nursing, identify three (which they call aspects) "The first is the official and formal aspect of methods and procedures. ... The opinions of the nurses are the second aspect of their organizational practice. ... Finally we can consider the actual behavior of the .. nursing managers and the deeply rooted assumptions governing their behavior." One might ask on what grounds they deem the third to be 'final', for they give no reason.


Ackoff, RL. (1963) General Systems Theory and systems research: contrasting conceptions of systems science. General Systesms, 8: 117-24.

Dahlbom B, Matthiassen L (2002) Computers in Context - The Philosophy and Practice of Systems Design Blackwell.

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 August 2002. Last updated: 19 June 2004 types of analysis. 4 August 2009 Partly rewritten, with missing info supplied; link to using/aspanal and examples/maspl. 3 September 2015 corrected '../'; rid counter; new .nav.