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Three Types of Thinking, Theory and Practice

Expanding Dooyeweerd's ideas, Roy Clouser, in his book THe Myth of Religious Neutrality; An Essay on the Hidden Role of religious Belief in Theories (1991, Univ. of Notre Dame Press), highlighted three types of thinking that are involved in all our ways of functioning in the aspects: Understanding these has helped me, at least, to: In addition, Clouser, following Dooyeweerd, sets out the case that our thinking, especially our theoretical thinking, is founded on presuppositions.

Types of Thinking

Here is a summary table comparing the three ways of thinking. The text is below.

Type of Thinking Link to Context? Isolated? Aspects? Useful in .. Can use ..
Everyday Thinking Yes No Tacit Practice: Intervening in real-life situations; Doing. Lower Abstraction
Lower Abstraction Yes No Aware Understanding situations; reflecting on situations, problems, etc. Decision support. 'Research' into situations. Theories derived from higher abstraction. Also experience from everyday thinking.
Higher Abstraction No Yes Isolated Understanding laws; Scientific research to discover laws and express them as theories. Data from aspectually-constrained situations.

Everyday Thinking

(See Dooyeweerd's approach to everyday experience, functioning in everyday lifeworld, multi-aspectual functioning and discussion of abstraction for longer versions of this.)

In everyday living we function in all the aspects in a more or less integrated way, without being aware of any ot them. Whatever knowledge of the aspects we employ, we do so tacitly. Even though we might focus our attention on a single thing, we are open to and aware of the the context of that thing. For example, I might be trying to prune a rose in my garden, carefully because it is a rare variety, and getting ready for the visitors we are having tonight. My attention is on the rose and the pruning, but I am also awere of things around me such as my children playing down the garden or the state of the football match on the radio beside me, or I might also be aware that the visitors expected are experts on rose care and I want to avoid criticism.

Note that I am just *doing* all this, not often thinking about any particular aspect of the situation as such, and often not planning ahead. It is rather like what the philosopher Michael Polanyi called The Tacit Dimension (1967), in which we make use of tools or knowledge without realising it; they become 'part' of us in a very real way. The knowledge about how I am doing each piece of functioning has been 'compiled' (using a computing metaphor) into my mind and I function without awareness of the details of what I am doing.

That is everyday functioning. And it is more successful the more we integrate all the aspects in what we are doing and go with rather than against their laws. It can be allied to intuition. (See more on intuition.)

One important characteristic of this kind of thinking is that it is integrative. It integrates all aspects, and may be said to allow us knowledge of the whole, a holistic sort of knowledge, as opposed to abstractive forms of knowledge that 'parcel up' what we focus on. Many thinkers have recognised this, such as:

Lower abstraction

(See a longer version of this.)

Lower abstraction is when we are involved with something and aware of one or more aspects in which that something functions. Out in the garden, I might appreciate the beauty of my rose or its cost or its symbolism, for example. But appreciation of the aspect is still within the context.

Lower abstraction might be used when I want to understand a situation, for example. Why, I wonder, is the rose growing this way rather than that? I reflect on processes of the biotic aspect, which qualifies the rose as such. But I might decide, "Oh well, it doesn't matter; what really matters is that it looks nice" (which is perhaps viewing the rose from the aesthetic aspect).

In a more complex situation we can use lower abstraction to understand the situation and analyse it. We discern which aspects play an important part in the situation and in the functioning of the various entities involved, and link them together. Mike Winfield's MAKE (Multi-Aspectual Elicitation Method) is useful here.

Thus lower abstraction can be useful in those kinds of 'research', such as action research, where we investigate situations rather than investigating laws of aspects. It can make use of theories that derive from higher abstraction, and it might derive 'theories' of its own, but these are more propositions about things and their connections rather than true theories, which arise from higher abstraction.

Higher abstraction

(See a longer version of this.)

Higher abstraction, on the other hand, involves isolation an aspect from all the others (and from its context), and focusing our attention solely on that aspect. Isolation can occur of either the law- or the subject-side; only the former is abstraction. Isolation of the subject-side (entity-side) is what happens when I focus so intently on a thing or an activity that we forget the context, and it is usually detrimental. I might, for example, be so intent on the physical aspect of pruning (making the cut, the way the secateurs slice through material, etc.) that I forget the biotic aspect and cut the rose in the wrong place. Such isolation is often harmful, if allowed to occur in everyday living.

But isolation of an aspect occurs when I want to study and discover the laws of that aspect without my study being contaminated by other aspects: for example I want to study a chemical reaction in the test tube ( physical aspect) and believe that economic things like the cost of the reagants, nor biotic factors like what I had for breakfast, should not affect the outcome. So I isolate the aspect from all others (as far as I can). That is what is meant by higher abstraction.

Higher abstraction yields theories. Or, rather, it yields general theories that express laws of the aspect. It can do so because the effects that we observe as we study the material in front of us is an effect that arises solely in response to the laws of the aspect we are studying (together with any earlier aspects on which it might depend, of course). So we can derive knowledge about the laws of that aspect. Doing this is the essence of science.

Reiterate, however, that higher abstraction studies, not types of entity, but types of law. Thus, under Dooyeweerd's view, a science is not of a type of entity but of the laws of an aspect. Therefore, for example, anthropology, the study of Humankind, is really a study of the aspects in which Humankind functions (all of them!) and is thus a multi-science. Dooyeweerd argues that there can be no 'science of human behaviour' as such, for similar reasons.


Our theoretical thinking, in particular, is not neutral (as has been too often assumed by both intellectuals and public alike). It is based on presuppositions that are religious in nature in that they are commitments that are held without reason. Sometimes reason backs them up, but sometimes not, and reason on its own can never dislodge a presupposition. Dooyeweerd discussed several main types of presupposition that have emerged from four ground motives. The presupposition of Greek thought was that Existence is the primary property of temporal reality, and Entity is the main focus for theoretical attention - and we still presuppose this today, as A N Whitehead (1937: Adventures in Ideas) pointed out when he said "all else is a mere footnote to Plato". Such presuppositions determine what we conceive of as valid reasoning, ethics, worldview assumptions, etc. Dooyeweerd was not of 'Plato's footnote'. His presupposition came from the ground motive of Creation-Fall-Redemption and held that the primary property of all temporal reality is Meaning, and that the focus for theoretical attention is Law.

For more detailed discussion, see Choi's exposition of Dooyeweerd's view on presupposition. Also our outline of the ground motives.


Since each aspect provides a ways of knowing, there is a different science, or rather scientific area, aligned with each aspect. For example, physics of the physical aspect, social science of the social. See table of sciences.

The implications of this view are now spelled out. A further and different discussion of science is given in science.

Different Sciences have distinct methods and epistemologies

Different aspects have different epistemologies, different research methods and research criteria (as shown in the table above). For example, mathematics uses deduction etc., physical sciences use experiment, psychology uses a different type of experiment, using control groups etc., social sciences use surveys, interviews, and the like, to obtain people's interpretations and views. The methods of one science should not be forced on other sciences. When the experimental rigour of physical science was sought in the social sciences, it denatured the latter, and a reaction set in.

Gain a view of science that is not reductionist nor positivist

To assume the methods of the physical aspect could be applied to all sciences was the mistake the Vienna Circle (positivists) made. Though many academics have emerged from that misconception, the general public has not, and the term 'scientific' is too often used to mean 'rigorous to the point of being able to prove', and 'science' is seen to be modelled on physical science. These methods are suitable for aspects whose laws are determinative, but not for those whose laws are normative.

Since the laws of the later aspects are not determinative, and each has a different kind of normativity, we have a variety of sciences. Thus we escape both reductionist and positivist approaches to science, and yet we acknowledge the contribution of positivist approaches in some of the sciences.

Argyris, in his book Inner Contradictions of Rigorous Research (Academic Press, 1980) discusses the differences between everyday and theoretical thinking, especially in regard to the difficulty of attempting to use 'rigorous' methods in the social sciences. We aspire to state as precisely as possible the relationships between (usually quantitative) variables. Several problems identified:

On Everyday Thinking and Activity

See also Dooyeweerd's approach to everyday experience.

Understand the richness of 'real life'

(To be written more fully.)

This gives a good view on multi- or inter-disciplinary thinking, acting, research, teaching, etc. Inter-disciplinary does not just mean pushing two disciplines together; it means acknowledging one aspect in its proper context among the others.

Understand the pitfalls in technology transfer

(To be written more fully.)

The application of the results of scientific endeavour is not uni-aspectual; it is multi-aspectual. It is 'everyday' thinking and acting. If this is so then the methods and stances found in science are not appropriate to the application of our knowledge. That is why 'ivy-towered' academics are so often out of touch and are poor guides in the real world.

Doing Science as Everyday Activity

Now, of course, the actual process of doing science is not purely analytical, but involves all sort of other aspectual functioning too - lingual, historical, economic, religious, etc. So the progress of science in society is no purely logical process - as Polanyi and others made clear. This is discussed elsewhere.

Restore dignity to 'everyday', 'pre-theoretic' living

(To be written more fully.)

Dooyeweerd's and Clouser's view restores some dignity to 'everyday' thinking. For centuries - even millenia - 'pure' science (aspect isolation) has been seen as higher and more refined than 'applied' science. But, under this scheme, multi-aspectual thinking and acting is a far richer thing than is uni-aspectual science - and thus it is everyday living that is higher than scientific thinking.

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 from functioning.html Last updated: 27 April 2001. 17 July 2001 link to knowledge.html. 28 June 2002 #intuition moved earlier; link to ext/polanyi; iii; section on presuppositions. 24 October 2002 added references about holistic thinking and totality. 20 November 2002 moved make.html. 28 February 2003 Choi relinked, .nav. 3 March 2003 table of sciences moved to science.html; links to knowing.html etc. 7 March 2003 clearer explan. of higher abs. Links to now-longer version in abstraction.html. 22 April 2005 link to everyday. 10 May 2005 link to maf. 21 February 2008 link to knowing#intuition. 3 September 2015 corrected '../'; rid counter; new .nav, .end.