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NFGM, the Nature-Freedom Ground-Motive

The Nature-Freedom ground-motive (NFGM) emerged from the Nature-Grace motive, around 500 years ago, and Dooyeweerd believed it was an inevitable outcome of NGGM. In the main, the two poles of NGGM were redefined:

What Dooyeweerd called the Ideal of Science became opposed to the Ideal of Personality.

From within this ground-motive, the tension or antinomy between Nature and Freedom can never be resolved, and yet the human spirit and the everyday attitude cries out for its resolution. As a result Western soceity's thinking, fashions and movements have swung dialectically and often violently over the past 500 years or so between Freedom and Control.

Dooyeweerd traced its effects on Western thought and culture in pages 148-206 of [Roots:148-206], showing many interwoven strands, all of which are driven by an unresolvable antinomy between Nature and Freedom. An early expression of Freedom was desire for emancipation from church hegemony and feudalism, leading eventually to such things as the French Revolution. But this then became absolutist (Nature pole). Another was a desire for freedom from natural disasters and diseases, to which end the natural sciences were co-opted. Science was immensely successful and, as Dooyeweerd [Roots:150] put it:

"Modern man saw 'nature' as an expansive arena for the exploration of his free personality, as a field of infinite possibilities in which the sovereignty of human personality must be revealed by a complete mastery of the phenomena of nature."

But [p.153]

"When it became apparent that science determined all of reality as a flawless chain of cause and effect, it was clear that nothing in reality offered a place for human freedom. ... Nature and freedom, science ideal and personality ideal -- they became enemies. ... Humanism had no choice but to assign religious priority or primacy to one or the other."

This has led to many lines of fracture in philosophical thinking, including material body versus thinking soul and autonomous thinking subject versus non-autonomous object (Descartes), being versus morality (Hume), science versus faith, public versus private and thought versus thing (Kant), and so on. Dooyeweerd examined variants in various fields like law, politics and sociology.

The Nature-Freedom Ground-motive Today

Here are some ways in which NFGM manifests itself today or in recent history. Each different way seems, to me at least, related to a different state concept or focus. It manifests itself in a wide variety of types, not necessarily directly, and not always fully.

Associated with Nature Pole Associated with Freedom Pole State of Affairs
Naturalism, Cubism Impressionism, Expressionism Art
Natural sciences Humanities C.P. Snow's Two Cultures
Rationalism Romanticism Movements
The World The Human Types of being
Objectivism Subjectivism /
Fact Value Beliefs
Positivism Interpretivism Epistemologies
Critical theory Interpretivism On transcendent normativity
Predestination Free will Theology
Consensus Conflict Social structures
Predictability Unpredictability

It is not that these are all watertight compartments. Since a ground-motive is a religious rather than logical phenomenon it does not necessarily abide by the laws of logic. Rather, when some thinkers are dissatisfied with existing thought or ways of life, the way they come up with a new way of thinking tends to be a reaction that is guided by the Nature-Freedom polar opposition. Then, later, there is a counter-reaction back to the original pole, but in a new way (or, as Hegel might say, to a new and higher level: thesis, then antithesis, then synthesis).

Basden [1999], discussing the Hegelian view in more depth (which holds that everything contains its own negation, which underlies and is the engine of that process), has suggested a different interpretation based on Dooyeweerd's aspects. It proceeds in stages:

Thinkers tend to react in a dialectical fashion, rather than a pluralist recognition. Under the NFGM, the old aspect is associated with one pole and the new aspect with the other; indeed it is often something in the pole that leads to the discovery of that particular aspect.

The Genesis of the NFGM

Dooyeweerd saw the NFGM as a natural eventual outcome of the Scholastic Nature-Grace Ground-motive, which already contained the seeds that would germinate as the Humanistic NFGM. This view finds support in Taylor [2005:x in Martin, 2005]:

I believe that one should see the secular modern West as the product of one such large-scale incursion, that of Latin Christendom, which in the later Middle Ages embarked on a long series of reforms (including but not confined to the Reformation) that ended up creating the disciplined, productive, pacified, rights-affirming world we live in , within the intellectual framework of a clear natural/supernatural distinction unique in human history hitherto. It is in fact the very nature of Christian faith to produce such transformations of the world, such secular expressions, one might say, and then to recover the Christian language in which to live them and speak to them in a stance of benign-but-critical non-identity .

[==== more to be written]

Unsustainability of NFGM

But everyday experience does not recognise these splits, and the human spirit eventually reacts against them. So we find Hobbes reacting against Descartes into materialism, Marx against the being-morals split into absolutism, Husserl against the thought-thing split into phenomenology, Heidegger against the subject-object split into existentialism, and so on.

But then further fractures would appear, because the NFGM cannot allow Nature and Freedom to integrate. According to Dooyeweerd [NC,I:64-65], Hegel tried "think together" the two poles but ultimately failed because "this antinomy cannot be resolved". (For a possible Dooyeweerdian reinterpretation of Hegel, see Basden [1999].) The influence of NFGM today can also be seen in dialectical movements from positivism to interpretivism or constructivism in research, and modernism to postmodernism in society's world-views.

But, perhaps more ominous, is the destruction of nature and planetary environment. Some early environmentalists tried to blame Christianity for this, but a Humanism under the NFGM must take the lion's share of the blame because, while 'Christianity' under NGGM did at least have a motive of responsibility-to-God to curb its excesses, the Humanistic notion of complete Freedom of the human ego does not, and allows - indeed urges - humanity to do whatever it likes with Nature.

We should not be surprised that we who are trapped in NFGM fail to see things that are visible under other ground-motives, or perhaps that we deem completely unimportant and meaningless what is important under other ground-motives. For example, from the point of view of CFR, the ground-motive Dooyeweerd worked within these include:

Yet even those trapped in NFGM 'feel' these things and reach for them because they are involved in everyday life as well as in theory. So we are always struggling to account for such things. And these things come through in the writings of many groups, especially those on the margins or those with an pioneering or campaigning agenda, such as:

Usually, being trapped in NFGM, these thinkers attempt accounts based on either Nature of Freedom, but these do not work. For example, critical-social theory tries to bring together the 'nature' pole of an over-arching normativity (emancipation) with the 'freedom' of human attribution of meaning to things; the result if 'enforced emancipation'! [Wilson, 1997].

Escaping NFGM

How can we escape? Various thinkers, especially of the twentieth century, in particular have recognised or felt some of these problems, and tried to escape NFGM. Here is a summary of some of them.

But it is arguable that none of these genuinely escape NFGM. They express an awareness of the deep antinomy in NFGM, but still are reluctant to give up autonomous freedom of some kind, so are always in the end driven back to one pole or the other. ==== more to be written.

Escaping NFGM via Dooyeweerd

One way is to use Dooyeweerd's notion of aspects, as distinct yet interrelated spheres of normativity and meaning. Normativity and meaning come together in Dooyeweerd, rather than being separated. In most aspects created subject-side reality have some latitude (freedom) of response to the law of that aspect. This gives a picture of

With this picture, constraining (guiding law is what enables meaningful freedom, rather than being antithetical to it. Here are some examples of freedom and constraint in most aspects:

Aspect Law / Constraint Freedom (Evil)
Physical The physical law that is expressed in Schoedinger's Wave Equation But it is non-determinism at quantum level
Biotic / Organic Plants need light. But how they respond to light, etc. in different ways.
Psychic / Sensitive
Analytical We are always distinguishing and conceptualising. What we distinguish from background (and thereby conceptualise) is up to us.
Formative We plan, construct, achieve, and are always doing so. Our decisions on what to construct, and how we plan, are not determined.
Lingual We signify using symbols. What we choose to signify, and how we express it, is up to us.
Social We relate to people. With whom we relate, and how, is up to us.
Economic We take care. What care we take is up to us.
Aesthetic We harmonise, and we like fun and enjoyment. How, is up to us.
Juridical We give others their due (or not). What is due to each is agreed in society, and the individual has the ability to act differently.
Pistic / Faith


Basden A, (1999). Engines of Dialectic. Philosophia Reformata v.64, n.1, pp.15-36.

Taylor, C. (2005) Foreword, in Martin, D. (2005) On Secularization: Towards a General Theory by David Martin (2005) Ashgate Publishing, Aldershot.

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 with Protext.

Created: 3 May 2007. Last updated: 9 October 2010; table and Basden 1999. 27 October 2010 more at end, incl. aspects. 20 November 2010 started attempts to escape.