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Science, a Dooyeweerdian Perspective

What is science? What is 'scientific method'? What is it to 'be scientific'? Should we even hope that the methods of the physical sciences can be applied to social science? Or vice versa? These are questions that face us today. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Philosophy says that, while science might tell us what is true, philosophy tells us what is truth and what is science.

This page starts to convey some of Dooyeweerd's philosophy of science. He made many observations on and proposals about science -

These should be read in combination with material about science in other pages:

Eventually, those portions will be brought here, but at this time I am merely starting this page as a discussion of how Dooyeweerd's views of science relate to others.

The Mission of Science

I start it by reference to Thomas Kuhn's famous work on The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and in particular to his Postscript contained in the 1996 edition, in which he comments on the debate that his earlier editions aroused. Kuhn not only put forward his now famous notion of paradigms, but, I believe, had a significant insight into the nature of science beyond that notion, and it is this insight that I compare with Dooyeweerd's ideas here. The notion of paradigm itself is discussed in the page on Ground Motives.

On the mission of science, Thomas Kuhn, pointed out that:

Kuhn believes that the latter cannot be achieved: "There is, I think, no theory-independent way to reconstruct phrases like 'really there'; the notion of a match between the ontology of a theory and its 'real' counterpart in nature now seems to me illusive in principle." (p.206). Therefore he would presumably limit the mission of science to that of puzzle-solving.

Dooyeweerd, however, believes that the mission of science does include a search for what is 'really there' - but in a way that is different from that which most of us would expect. Since Dooyeweerd himself said "there is no such thing as truth in itself," his search is not that of positivist science, which he roundly criticises. For elaboration of this, see the pages on Truth and Ground Motives. An excellent exposition of this can be found in Clouser's book, The Myth of Religious Neutrality.

What I have portrayed of Kuhn's ideas is, of course, oversimplified and highly selective. For example, I have not discussed the main thrust of his work, paradigms, and nor have I mentioned what he often refers to, namely the apparatus and techniques by which scientists are enabled to 'see' what is invisible, such as tracks of alpha particles. But, perhaps shortly, I will extend this discussion to encompass the important concept of paradigms.


Therefore Dooyeweerd would say there are fifteen specific areas of science, centred on the fifteen aspects. Each being irreducible to each other, each has a different way of knowing and hence different research methods and criterion for quality of research that cannot be forced upon other areas of science.

Each aspect delineates the proper boundary of each science. For example, the proper boundary of the biotic sciences is life functions and organism, not sentience. But sentience has a biotic aspect that supports it, such as the special type of living and repair found in nerve cells. Specifically, no science should reduce the notions of another science to it. Social science is in particular danger of doing just that: abrogating to itself the sciences of all post-social aspects, seeing things like economics, juridics, ethics and religion as emerging purely from social interaction and institution. Ethics has something that is important that is beyond the very vision of social science, for example. Religion is not purely a means of social cohesion or division.

However, those who use Dooyeweerd's aspects as a guide to what the sciences are, and what their boundaries and research methods are, should be modest, because, as we have seen, we can never fully know the kernel of the aspect. So we should not arrogantly tell scientists "You should be working in that way, not this". Rather, we should suggest that their scientific endeavours will be more fruitful, especially in the long term, if they consider certain things that are now being overlooked. Remember that scientific endeavour itself helps us understand the kernel of the aspect better, and thus the aims and limits of that science - a circular and iterative rather than linear process.

Here is a table of sciences and some of their research methods.

Aspect Kernel Meaning Science(s) Research Methods
Quantitative quantity, amount Arithmetic, Statistics, Algebra Deduction and theorem proof
Spatial continuous extension, space Geometry, Trigonometry Geometric trigonometric proof
Kinematic movement; flowing movement Kinematics, Mechanics ?
Physical energy + mass Quantum physics, physics, chemistry, materials science, mechanics. Laboratory experiment, with physical reasoning.
Biotic life functions Life sciences, physiology, biology. Greenhouse experiments, field studies, taxonomic analysis
Sensitive sense, feeling, emotion Psychology, Sensory sciences. Stimulus-Response trials, control groups, etc.
Analytical distinguishing Logic, Analysis. Logical proofs; some overlap with the above, esp. for cognitive science.
Formative history, culture, technology: shaping and creativity 'Sciences of the Artificial' [Simon]. Design science; history, technology Game playing, puzzle-solving; Construct + test; Model building. Forensic methods.
Lingual symbolic communication Linguistics, Semiotics. Cognitive studies; Model building; Hermeneutics.
Social social interaction and institution Social sciences, sociology Surveys, questionnaires, interviews analysed hermeneutically; Model building
Economic frugal use of resources Economics, Management science. Surveys etc analysed statistically; Model building
Aesthetic harmony, surprise, fun Aesthetics. Interviews, theorizing
Juridical what is due; 'retribution', rights and responsibilities Juridics, Legal science. Theorizing; review of cases and long term histories.
Ethical self-giving love Ethics. Anthropological studies with emphasis on attitude
Pistic vision, aspiration, commitment, creed, religion Theology, also some of anthropology. Reference to sacred writings, hermeneutics, theorizing, anthropological studies.

Dooyeweerd's proposal gives us a means of delineating the 'proper' boundary, or at least the core, of each science. In this way, it fulfils the statement in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, that, while science might tell us what is true, philosophy tells us what is truth and what is science.

Study of Humanity

Note: Dooyeweerd maintained there is no science of human behaviour as such. This is not a negative statement, but a positive one, in that human behaviour is multi-aspectual and very rich. There is no science of human behaviour, but there is study of human behaviour - many sciences are needed if all its richness is to be studied. In similar vein, anthropology is not a single science, but a multi-aspectual study. It thus has some affinity with philosophy.

To Dooyeweerd, philosophy shares with science its analytical approach, but whereas science is centred on a single aspect, philosophy is multi-aspectual, trying to understand the nature of science as such, knowledge as such, truth as such, good and evil, and the like.

The Process of Scientific Endeavour as Everyday Activity

As Polanyi did [Personal Knowledge], Dooyeweerd pointed out that the actual process of doing science is not purely analytical, but involves historical, economic, religious, etc. functioning too. This was also the strong contention of Edgar Arthur Singer, who held that "Every science is to be found within every other.". So what we see as the various sciences today are often an amalgam of interests from several scientific areas because they are a result of historical as well as logical development and many do not completely centre on a single aspect; e.g. as we have just remarked, the so-called science of anthropology, the study of Man, is actually a rich multi-science, covering almost every aspect in which human beings function.

Therefore, though the core act of science is to isolate, the process by which science is done by human beings is multi-aspectual everyday activity. This is why, for example, a scientist's economic status, social standing or religious commitment can affect her/his science - as can his/her ability to communicate scientific ideas via papers, conferences, etc. and to network with others. But it also means that though these things do affect a person's doing of science, that person can still do good quality science irrespective of these factors - that is, even a poor communicator with poor social skills can still do excellent science, even if their peers do not think so; and this is a particular problem when this poor communicator is working in a new paradigm which peers do not see the value of. [One in the eye for peer review processes!]

Relationship Between Sciences

Dooyeweerd's proposal also gives us a framework for discussing the relationships between sciences (or, rather between distinct scientific areas). It can be useful in working out how various fields of investigation relate to each other, what should be taken into account, and how it should be.

An example may be found in the debate between Chomsky and Dummett about the nature and study of language. Chomsky held language to be 'internal' to the speaker, that is, a (supervened) property of the language system in the human mind/brain. So 'a language' can be nothing more than the property of an individual's language system. As the language system develops, so the language of that individual develops. Against this, 'externalists' like Dummett [1986, cited by Bezuidenhout, 2006] argue that this does not do justice to issues like the suppression of minority languages by dictators, where the language is independent of any particular speaker, nor can it easily recognise the possibility that we can be mistaken about the meanings of words in our language. Language is a social thing and 'a language' is something that cannot be considered purely internally. But Chomsky replied [2000:49]:

"The concept of language that Dummett takes to be essential involves complex and obscure sociopolitical, historical, cultural and normative-teleological elements. Such elements may be of some interest for the sociology of identification within various social and political communities and the study of authority structure, but they plainly lie far beyond any useful inquiry into the nature of language or the psychology of users of language."

He then gave examples of linguistic features (specifically the binding of pronouns) which cannot be accounted for from a social viewpoint.

Both Chomsky and Dummett seem to make valid points, which seem to contradict each other; how can they be reconciled? Dooyeweerd might help us. First, Chomsky was concerned solely with how language may be studied scientifically, holding that such external factors make scientific study impossible. Affirming this, Dooyeweerd would hold that the 'scientific' study of language focuses on the lingual aspect, abstracting it from the rest of the meaning of reality. Secondly, the issues important to Dummett are of other aspects, and thus cannot be studied by the science of linguistics directly in the way lingual factors can be. But Chomsky disregards them as "obscure" - and Dooyeweerd would censure him for doing this. Those in a particular science should be humbly aware of issues from all other aspects, because of the inherent inter-aspect relationships, especially anticipatory ones. In particular, unless linguists take post-lingual issues seriously, they cannot account for a host of linguistic phenomena.

Thus, Dooyeweerd can help us address the very practical matter of what should be taken account of in any science.

Here are a few extra, earlier notes:


Bezuidenhout, A.L. (2006). Language as internal. pp.127-39 in Lepore, E. & Smith, B.C. (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Language. OUP.

Chomsky, N. (2000). New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind. UK, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dennett, DC (1989, 1998) The Intentional Stance, Bradford Books, MIT Press, Mass, USA.

Dummett, M. (1986). A nice derangement of epitaphs: some comments on Davidson and Hacking. pp. 459-76 in E. Lepore (ed.) Truth and Interpretattion: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson. Oxford: Blackwell.

Lepore, E. & Smith, B.C. (2006). The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Language. OUP.

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 15 October 1999. Last updated: 24 November 1999 major rewrite. 7 February 2001 copyright, email. 14 February 2001 label 'diffnt.epist'. 27 April 2001 better intro and link to thinking.html. 19 December 2002 added link to Knudsen. 16 February 2003 added 'no truth in itself' and Sciences section. 3 March 2003 Filled out never.fully.known; added table of sciences, and section of relationships between sciences, new intro, section on human studies, .nav. 7 March 2003 made links relative. 16 April 2005 E.A. Singer. 12 February 2008 Chomsky+Dummett. 26 November 2014 better table entries. 3 September 2015 corrected '../'; rid counter; new .nav.