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Dooyeweerd's Transcendental Critique

Dooyeweerd was convinced that theoretical thinking is neither absolute nor even neutral. In this, his thought parallels that of thinkers like Polanyi, Habermas, Adorno and Kuhn. Polanyi spoke of personal knowledge, Habermas of 'human interests' and then power relations that distort ideal discourse, and Kuhn of paradigms. But Dooyeweerd was, perhaps, more radical than many thinkers in his critique of theoretical thought. This page looks at his 'Two Ways' of Transcendental Critique of theoretical thought.

What is 'transcendental critique'? It is a term employed by, for example, Kantian philosophers, to mean a discovery of the conditions that are necessary for the thing under scrutiny to operate or to be - in this case, what is necessary for theoretical thought to operate? While many thinkers presuppose theoretical thought and do not ask this question, Dooyeweerd did not presuppose it and did ask the question.


On the Non-Neutrality of Theoretical Thinking

With Habermas, he believed that theoretical thinking 'distorts' our picture of the state of things but, while the implication of Habermas is that this distortion is an evil brought about by something external to rationality themselves (viz. by power relations), Dooyeweerd believed that it is in the very nature of theoretical thought to distort and that this distortion is not evil. As Clouser has suggested, it is like a thermometer placed into a liquid that changes the temperature of the thing it measures. Habermas had a notion of ideal rationality and ideal discourse which might never be realized but which emancipates us from the distortion, but Dooyeweerd believed that theoretical thinking would 'distort' knowledge even in its ideal.

With Polanyi, Kuhn and others, Dooyeweerd believed that our personal viewpoint affects the process of our theoretical thinking, but he made a positive proposal that the nature of this viewpoint has a religious root, and is not merely logical or social in origin. Human beings, he believed, are inescapably religious beings (indeed, the whole of reality, even the mud in which trees grow, has a religious root). Our religious side is not, as positivists believed, something to suppress, but something to welcome and take account of. It is this that forms the basis of his transcendental critique.

'The First Way of Critique'

(For a fuller explanation of this, see Choi's account of the First Way.)

The First Way of Critique is made on the basis of what philosophy is. On this basis, Dooyeweerd argued as follows:

Since (or if we assume) science depends on philosophy, then it follows that scientific theoretical thinking also has a religious root.

(Note: The human self and self-reflective critique also have a place in Dooyeweerd's argument, but they seem to have no clear part to play in this First Way, and perhaps this moved Dooyeweerd to find a 'second way of critique'. Choi includes them in his explanation of Way 1.)

One can find elements of this in other thinkers. For example Bourdieu [Outline of a Theory of Practice, 1977], coming from anthropology, which will be faced with varied spheres of meaning, refers [p.2] to "limits inherent in his [the anthropologist's] point of view". However, the rest of Dooyeweerd's argument was criticised for taking one view of what philosophy is. So he sought a different way of transcendental critique.

Need for Another Way of Critique

Dooyeweerd published his First Way of critique in his (1930s) WdW. But critique of WdW led him to rethink and seek another way of critique, which led to his Second Way of critique below, which was published alongside the First Way in his (1955) NC. As Bruce Wearne put it in an email, "Dooyeweerd in NCTT admits that he had to refine his transcendental critique after WdW lest his philosophy simply endorse a dogmatic anti-dogmatism." However, before looking at his Second Way, it may be instructive to read a step-by-step reasoning he set out for the need for a another way of critique. This is Magnus Verbrugge's 1980 translation of what Dooyeweerd wrote in Part Three of the Reformatie en Scholastiek in de Wijsbegeerte, the first volume of which was published in 1949.

How is philosophic thinking possible as theoretic thinking?

[para 1] Our Cosmonomic Philosophy opens its transcendental critique with this question. But it directs itself to every possible philosophy - it is not restricted to a reformed philosophy. Thus this question first of all confronts current philosophy with a fundamental problem, since this philosophy starts from the assumption that theoretical thought is autonomous vis a vis faith. This is a "transcendental" problem since it concerns the boundaries of philosophy. It touches the pre-existing structure of theoretical philosophic thinking which first makes this thought possible.

[para 2] Now this pre-existing structure itself cannot again be of a philosophic character. It is an idionomic[1] framework upon which all philosophic thought-activity rests. Philosophic thought must move within this framework if it is to maintain its philosophic character. As we have remarked earlier, such a framework is aprioristic. It is given beforehand and has general validity ie it rules philosophic thinking, regardless of the subjective starting point of the thinker.

[para 3] Still, we can only examine this universally valid structural law of philosophic thought in the theoretical-philosophical attitude of thought. We may start out believing in its existence. But that does not yet disclose its real character to our scientific[2] insight. And that is exactly what we need.

[para 4] We must discuss the question whether scientific[2] thought can indeed function without being bound to such a belief. But such a discussion is only possible if we give a scientific[2] account of the nature of philosophic thought. Thus, if philosophy wants to go to work critically it must start with directing its enquiry towards its own presuppositions.

[para 5] In this enquiry we may not parade the dogma of the autonomy of theoretical reason as if it were a self-evident consequence of the structure of philosophic thought. For that would amount to a dogmatic elimination of the basic critical problem we formulated at the onset of this section.

[para 6] Nor may we demand of the believers of this dogma to begin with abandoning it. For that too would amount to eliminating the transcendental problem of philosophy with a magic formula. That would simply replace the dogma of the autonomy of theoretical reason with the dogma that reason is determined by supra-theoretical presuppositions of faith. And, in that case, our critical insight into the nature and structure of philosophic thought would not be enriched in the slightest. We would merely end up with a confrontation of dogmatic points of view.

[para 7] No, when we begin our critical enquiry, we may demand of no thinker that he abandon any dogmatic conviction. We may only postulate one strict condition for a truly critical attitude of thought. The enquirer must be prepared to put aside the dogmatic presupposition postulating the autonomy of philosophy to be of a purely theoretical, scientific[2] character. For only this prejudice stands in the way of a critical investigation of the basic problem we have formulated. It merely passes a dogma, a religious conviction that cannot be reasoned, for a scientific[2], theoretical judgement.

[para 8] The Cosmonomic Philosophy does not claim that we could begin a transcendental critique of philosophic thought independent of a dogmatic religious conviction. For if it did, we ourselves would have to start with accepting the autonomy of theoretic reason as a purely theoretic prejudice. It would then pass that for a criterium as to whether further enquiry is scientific[2] or not. To the contrary. it openly admits that our philosophy starts its transcendental theoretical critique from the Christian religious standpoint. But it does remain critical in this. For it sharply distinguishes its religious conviction from any essentially scientific[2] judgement from the start.

[para 9] In other words, it does not camouflage its starting point. It rather begins with a sharp, critical distinction between theoretic judgement and supra-theoretic prejudice. Thus no-one can become the victim of an artfully camouflaged trap in following our enquiry into the transcendental problems that underlie philosophy. One can be confident that no religious judgement will be paraded here as an essentially scientific [2] thesis. This transcendental critique serves just this very purpose - it forces the thinker to account to himself of the true nature of the prejudice he starts with.

That is, it seemed that the argument in the First Way depends to some extent on accepting certain presuppositions or dogma, whereas in the Second Way Dooyeweerd was seeking a way of understanding philosophy that could apply to philosophers of any kind, whatever their religious starting points.

'The Second Way of Critique'

(For a fuller explanation of this, see Choi's account of the Second Way. For a clarification by Dooyeweerd of his notion of Gegenstand, as a response to criticism by Strauss, see Glenn Friessen's translation of Dooyeweerd's last publication. Also, I now understand Dooyeweerd's second way of Critique in a different way and so my original rendering contains what I now believe are some faults, nevertheless, I retain my original rendering below.)

The Second Way of Critique is made on the basis of the very nature of theoretical thought itself. It employs neo-Kantian ways of thinking and, to some extent, the neo-Kantian view of what theoretical thinking is. (Though he disagreed with the neo-Kantians on content and presuppositions, Dooyeweerd believed that they did at least ask the right questions.) Another explanation of this 'second way' is given by Clouser, which some find easier to understand.

Dooyeweerd argued [NC, I,p.34ff.] that to justify taking a theoretical attitude a philosophy must face three basic (transcendental) problems, for each of which he posed a question and provided an answer, which makes the next problem necessary. This revealed that theoretical thought is inescapably religious at its root, rather than neutral - and that what religious presupposition we make determines the way we treat theoretical thinking and work it out.

By 'religious' he did not mean relating to any particular religion or creed, explaining [I,p.57]:

"To the question, what is understood here by religion? I reply: the innate impulse of human selfhood to direct itself toward the true or toward a pretended absolute Origin of all temporal diversity of meaning, which it finds focused concentrically in itself."

Here is his three transcendental basic problems in tabular form.

Basic Problem More Question Answer
1. Concerning theoretical versus pre-theoretical attitude of thought [NC,I,p.38-44] Theoretical attitude involves Gegenstand, an antithetic attitude in which we stand over against the world we are studying and 'abstract' from it that which is meaningful to us [NC,I,p.39]. The pre-theoretical attitude knows of no Gegenstand [NC.II,p.431]; we are engaged within the world and all ways of being meaningful. "What do we abstract in the antithetic attitude of theoretic thought from the structures of empirical reality as these structures are given to na´ve experience? And how is this abstraction possible?" [[NC,I,p.41]" We abstract an aspect of the world, one way in which what we study might be meaningful to us. One aspect of our functioning as human beings provides us with data which we set against the analytical aspect of our functioning. [NC,I,p.54]
Note that Dooyeweerd criticised Kant and others for restricting the generation of data to our sensitive functioning, and opened up the possibility that functioning in any aspect could do so.
Whichever aspect generates the data (sensitive or other) the aspects have been split asunder. This raises the next transcendental problem:
2. Concerning the human thinker who reunites aspects [NC,I,p.45-52] The aspects have been set apart, especially the analytical aspect and another aspect (its Gegenstand). We must be sure that this is valid and possible, so must understand the relationship between them. If aspects X and Y have a Gegenstand relationship then there is no over-arching framework that can bring them together when the relationship is activiated. And it is not valid for this to be done by either X or Y. For example, why do we assume that what our sensory or emotional functioning generates can be validly manipulated by analytical activity? This is a problem that Kant recognised, and he called the theoretical synthesis. "From what standpoint can we reunite synthetically the logical and the non-logical aspects of experience which were set apart in opposition to each other in the theoretical attitude?" [NC,I,p.45]
Note that 'logical' means 'analytical' and 'non-logical' refers to the Gegenstand aspect.
It is only the human being who thinks who can determine how the two aspects are brought together.
This means that all good philosophies must include an account of the human being who thinks - and this account must be consistent with all the rest of the philosophy. Specifically, it is not enough for a philosophy to have an account only of theoretical thought in the abstract and an ontology of the world. Older philosophies failed in this regard; more recent philosophies such as by Foucault and Habermas (as well as Dooyeweerd) include an explicit account of the human thinker.
3. Concering the Origin of Meaning [NC,I,p.52ff.] Above the portals of philosophy is written "Philosopher, know thyself". Such self-knowledge must include an account of both the human self as that which can integrate different aspects, and human functioning in the world. It is not enough to provide a psychological or sociological account of the activity of human thinking, for example. Habermas' account of the human is limited in this regard: to social theory. There is a need for critical self-reflection. "How is this critical self-reflection, this concentric direction of theoretical thought to the I-ness, possible, and what is its true character?" [NC,I,p.52] Two parts to answer:

1. Critical self-reflection requires concentration upon what we conceive of as the Origin of Meaning, because "self-knowledge in the last analysis appears to be dependent on knowledge of God" or of something that we treat as God [NC,I,p.55]. This is religious rather than theoretical knowledge.

2. This religious self-knowledge is not just individual but super-individual, pervading a community. Community belief is guided by a ground-motive. When a proposal for new generic knowledge, on the basis of the first two questions above, is to be critiqued by the community, their basis for critique is what they find meaningful, and when what one person finds meaningful is critiqued by another, then that critique is judged by reference to what everyone tacitly agrees is the Origin of Meaning.

So theoretical thought cannot escape having a religious root because it presupposes an Origin of Meaning, in order to reunite aspects that were set apart in the antithetical Gegenstand relationship. Thus theoretical thought has been guided at a deep level by four ground-motives of Western thought; these have determined what we count as basic reality, what we deem to be 'proper' ways of thinking, and the process of that thinking.

Second Way of Critique in Science, especially Social Science

This has implications for both philosophy and scientific research (in all the sciences). In the social sciences, Dooyeweerd reinterpreted the three transcendental questions as [NC,III,168]:

Communal Version of Second Way of Critique

My own interpretation of the third transcendental question in my own field, the sociological field of information systems, is that the third transcendental question is best thought of as the community's activity in discussing, critiquing and refining the findings offered by the operation of questions 1 and 2. This does not concern itself with an individual's critical reflection on I-ness -- which I have always found unhelpful because most of my theoretical thought is carried on without it and if these are transcendental conditions for theoretical thought then I would expect to find myself doing it.

Think about on what basis this communal critique is done (or, if you prefer, self-critique). Typically, the researcher will publish their findings in a journal and thereby invite critique and further refinement, which is itself published as subsequent papers. A conversation ensues. Much critique is related to transcendental question 1, such as "In their survey, the author has asked only a limited range of questions, and in a restricted context; here is a larger study in a different culture, and it broadens out their theory." Some critique is related to transcendental question 2, such as "The author does not analyse correctly; here is a better analysis."

All critique, however, presupposes meaningfulness. A critique must be deemed relevant by the community, and a defender of the original finding might argue, "But that criticism is irrelevant." Then a debate arises, about what kinds of critique are relevant. Here is a fictitious but plausible sequence of a debate about a particular finding. The first critic of the original paper might question the very approach taken by the researchers:

"The authors take a positivist approach, which ignores meaning, values and norms; they ought to take an interpretivist approach, which is sensitive to these."

The original authors or those who support them might reply, defending their original research by reference to something normative or meaningful to research itself:

"But an interpretivist approach cannot give rigorous results; only a positivist approach can do that."

To which the critic might respond by questioning the meaningfulness of their norm:

"But rigour without relevance is meaningless. Only an interpretivist approach can give full relevance, because of the diversity of factors that are meaningful."

Then another discussant might enter the debate with a deeper philosophical opinion, which tries to embrace both sides of the debate:

"It is well-known that there is an incommensurability between rigour and relevance; you cannot have them both."

Here the debate has reached a point that almost nobody in the community would question, a shared agreement about some fundamental 'fact'. This 'fact' is what gives meaning to the entire debate. In this example, the rigour-relevance incommensurability is an expression of the Humanist ground-motive of Nature-Freedom, which is what Dooyeweerd would think of as an Origin of Meaning.

(Note, his Origin of Meaning is not God the Creator, but rather what we presuppose to be an Origin of temporal diversity of meaningfulness, which itself has its origin in God. By Origin of Meaning, here Dooyeweerd means the communally agreed starting point at which all arguments ultimately stop. The innovation Dooyeweerd made was to suggest a different ground-motive as an alternative Origin of Meaning, the Biblical ground-motive of creation, fall and redemption.)

Enriching Critical Discourse with CFR

So, for example, further progress may be made in the above debate by adopting a different ground-motive, which opens up to the community different kinds of presuppositions. For example, a Reformational Scholar might use Dooyeweerd to contribute the following (note, it's longer because it needs to introduce things that are new to the community of thought):

"The incommensurability between rigour and relevance is only apparent, not real. It is based on a common but fruitless presupposition of the opposition between nature and freedom found in the Nature-freedom ground-motive. If we instead take Creation-Fall-redemption ground-motive, as Dooyeweerd [1955] does, then we are able to recognise distinct aspects which are spheres of meaning and law, and thus better able to cope with diversity of meaning. This enables us to welcome all kinds of meaning (relevance) and yet to separate them out and treat each kind in a rigorous way, according to the kind of rigour suited to it."

(Note: the quoted pieces above are not the actual text of the debate, but a very brief summary of entire papers published.)

This, I believe, is something Dooyeweerd was meaning when he formulated his third transcendental question, at least in the context of doing science rather than philosophy. Such debate rests on presuppositions and commitments of a religious nature.

Basden [2011] has tried to employ this view of Dooyeweerd's transcendental questions in an attempt to find a basis for integrating positivist, interpretivist and socio-critical approaches.

Discussion of the Two Ways of Critique

First, we can thank Dooyeweerd for coming up with two ways of critique, not just one. Most thinkers present only a single thread of argument in support of their beliefs, but Dooyeweerd presents us with two. Two witnesses are always better than one:

both independently point to the religious root of theoretical thought, and that theoretical thinking is fundamentally non-neutral. This means that even if we find Way 1, based on a notion of philosophy, does not suit us, then we might find Way 2 better, based on a notion of what theoretical thinking itself is. And vice versa.

But, as we might expect, both Ways exhibit problems. One problem with the First Way of Critique is that it depends on Dooyeweerd's view that philosophy is concerned with totality of Meaning. It is widely agreed that philosophy is concerned with totality, but not totality of Meaning. Most presuppose Existence rather than Meaning. Dooyeweerd's First Way was published first in the 1930s, and in response to acknowledging this supposed weakness, and various other criticisms, Dooyeweerd developed Way 2. Various criticisms made of Way 1 are outlined by Choi.

There have also been criticisms of this Second Way of Critique, again as outlined by Choi. Whether we agree with them or not, it is useful at least to notice that Way 2 presupposes two things. One is the notion of aspects that are 'non-logical', but this is not an unreasonable assumption. The other is the neo-Kantian assumption that logical thinking operates by way of a Gegenstand, i.e. it creates an antithesis that must be synthesized. Way 2 is also more difficult to understand than Way 1.

One problem that arises from Way 2 is that it seems to preclude any theory about theory itself, since logical thinking involves an opposition between the logical and non-logical. At first sight, at least, it is self-obviously not the case that we cannot have theory of theory; surely we can and do! Dooyeweerd explicitly says that the logical cannot be Gegenstand for itself (e.g. NC II:463). But, in other places, he does talk about theory of theory and assume that such is possible (e.g. NC I:40). This seems an unresolved problem. But the problem seems to stem from the neo-Kantian assumption rather than how Dooyeweerd uses it. So, if we can replace the neo-Kantian assumption, perhaps Dooyeweerd's Way 2 still stands.

Alternative Versions

One way of doing this is Clouser's alternative exposition of Way 2; it seems to overcome this problem. In place of Gegenstand, Clouser speaks of isolation of an aspect, the severing of ties with the other aspects, as the inevitable result of logical thinking (he calls it higher abstraction). Since nothing - neither an aspect nor any entity - can be fully nor truly understood without reference to all others, this isolation inevitably results in loss of meaning and thus distortion. If this is the source of the problem, then there is no difficulty about having a theory about theory.

Another attempt has been made by Strauss [1983]. He proposed that theoretical thinking is little different from the logical subject-object relationship that we find in everyday living, that is analytical functioning. But it is not clear that this is adequate since it confuses theoretical thinking with analytical distinction-making.

Geertsema [2000] has suggested, after discussing both Ways of Critique, that a modified version of Way 1 is preferable. He modifies Way 1 to give the central place to the human thinker rather than to philosophy itself.

My Original Rendering of 2nd Way of Critique

[I originally explained TC2 as follows. I now believe it contains some misunderstandings of what Dooyeweerd was trying to get at, but I retain it in case it is my current understanding that is flawed! A.B.]


Basden A. (2011). Enabling a Kleinian integration of interpretivist and critical-social IS research: The contribution of Dooyeweerd's philosophy. European Journal of Information Systems. 20, 477-489.

Geertsema H (2000) "Dooyeweerd's Transcendental Critique: Transforming it Hermeneutically", pp. 83-108 in Strauss DFM, Botting M (eds.), Contemporary Reflections on the Philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd, The Edwin Mellen Press, New York.

Strauss DFM (1983) "An analysis of the structure of analysis (The Gegenstand-relation in discussion)" Philosophia Reformata 49:35-56.


[1] Verbrugge ftn: "Wetmatig" in the original. I cannot find an existing English word for it. Prof P A Verburg proposed the use of idionomic - idios: particular or peculiar, and nomos: law). [NB BCW regular, or regulative seems preferable].

[2] Here 'scientific' seems to mean 'theoretical' in general rather than being of any particular scientific area, which is what we meant at the end of Way 1.

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: 16 May 2003. Last updated: 10 June 2003 corrections from comments by Henk Geertsema. 2 August 2004 link to Glenn F's translation. 28 June 2005 new section 'need.another' and quot'n from RSP; contents. 2 July 2009 Bourdieu. 10 July 2010 Revamped tc2, shifting older one to alternatives. 7 August 2012 name-labels on the 3 transcendental questions. 24 March 2015 added section about TC in social sciences and science in general, explaining TQ3 as the debate. 20 April 2015 critique presupposes meaningfulness; rewrote previous entry a bit. 3 September 2015 corrected '../'; rid counter; new .nav, .end. 17 September 2015 added missing ending to answer to TQ3.