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Truth: Relative and Absolute

On this page we examine Dooyeweerd's view of Truth. While Kant and other thinkers focus on our knowledge of truth rather than truth itself, Dooyeweerd focuses on both Truth and our knowledge of truth, and links them. Therefore the notion of Truth, as known, is tied up with those of belief and knowing.

It will be noticed that Dooyeweerd seems very post-modern in his stance, in contending that there is no "truth in itself" while at the same time contending that absolute Truth is to be found (in the Divine). He also accounts for how it is that our partial, relative knowledge of truth relates to Truth and is not totally random: because of Divine Revelation from a God who will not cheat or deceive us. But that is Dooyeweerd's commitment, and he makes it explicit. Briefly, his view is:

To compile this page, which requires considerable more writing, I have typed out Dooyeweerd's own index under 'Truth' in his New Critique of Theoretical Thought Volume IV, selected all those that indicate his own view, and grouped them under his major beliefs. Later, I will write an exposition and give examples and links to the thinking of others, but for now his own sentences must suffice. The number after each refers to the page in Volume III where the idea is expanded.

1. Our Experience of Truth: There is no 'truth in itself'.

Here Dooyeweerd speaks of our knowledge of truth, and 'truths' as they exist in our experience as individual entities such as in propositional form. This is what many thinkers talk about when they discuss 'truth': our experience of truth.

If our experience of truth is not absolute, it must be relative to something; if so, to what is it relative?

Relative to the Framework of Modal Aspects

Our experience of truth, our knowing, is relative to the framework of aspects in which we function. Dooyeweerd's index statements about this are:

So our experience of truth comes about by virtue of our aspectual functioning.

(Note: The words 'subjective' and 'subjectivism' are used above. By 'subjective' Dooyeweerd usually meant 'being subject to aspectual law' and not 'personal and arbitrary' as we often assume it to mean, whereas by 'subjectivism' he meant the elevation of the personal to a pretence that personal views and perspectives are sovereign. The latter, he argued, is an outworking of Cartesian dualism of mind and body, and 'I think therefore I am', with which Dooyeweerd profoundly disagreed.)

Relative to our Religious Commitments

This does, of course, mean that theoretical analysis and logical thinking can never be 'neutral'. Behind any theoretical thinking lie assumptions and presuppositions that are extra-theoretical in nature. Not only is it extra-theoretical in general terms (e.g. as instinct might be; the Kantian 'a priori'), but specifically it is religious. Our very activity of theoretical analysis, and what we take to be valid theory and valid logic, require a "a sure ground for the thinking process, which can only be found in the Absolute" [CPMH:46] and are thus founded in our religious commitment to a view of what we presuppose to be Divine and self-dependent, and what, non-Divine and dependent.

Dooyeweerd's index statements relating to this are:

See discussion of religious presuppositions and ground motives for more.

Absolute Truth

While Dooyeweerd agrees with post-modern thought and constructivism that our experience of truth is relative and fallible, he still believes there is absolute truth. Dooyeweerd did not say 'there is no truth' but 'there is no truth in itself'. The 'in itself' is important, and relates to his fundamental proposal that nothing in this cosmos nor in our experience is self-dependent. He believed that there is absolute Truth - located in God, in the Divine, to whom all else refers.

(This is not a Kantian gap between phenomenon and noumenon - Kant claimed we can never know the 'Ding an Sich', 'thing in itself', but only as it appears to us - because that notion presupposes absolute truth is to be found in the 'Ding an Sich'. Dooyeweerd's theory of entities, of Being, as rooted in the aspects, all of which are non-absolute, precludes this. Dooyeweerd's account of the Kantian gap lies in his proposal that each aspect provides a distinct way of knowing while Kant restricted all knowing to theoretical knowing.)

What is the relationship between our experience of truth and the absolute While positivism hopes to identify one with the other, and interpretivism severs all relationship between them, Dooyeweerd says they are distinct but there is a relationship between them. As one index-statement says, we can have some knowledge of absolute truth:

The relationship between Truth and our experience of truth rests on two things: revelation and orientation. The Divine proactively reveals Truth to us in ways we can engage with, and we orientate ourselves either towards or away from the absolute Truth. Therefore, though Dooyeweerd rejects the positivist idea that we can in principle seek and attain absolute truth (and that there is no such thing as Divine Revelation), he does not thereby sink into a hopeless aimlessness that characterises much post-modernism. This explains why religious presupposition is so important: our presuppositions are tied up with the degree to which we are orientated towards absolute Truth.

Readily acknowledging his own personal religious commitment to Christ, and refusing to pretend that theoretical thinking could ever be 'neutral' in this respect, he spoke about absolute Truth as follows:

The need for Divine Revelation

If absolute Truth is in God, and our experience of truth is always fallible, then the Divine needs to take the initiative in revealing itself to us. The Divine transcends us. Dooyeweerd's statements about this are:

(Note, however, that though Word-Revelation was important, Dooyeweerd also believed that God revealed himself via the natural order that he had created, so that even those without the written 'garb' could orientate themselves towards God. However, this is only hinted at in his index.)

3. Improving our Experience of Truth

However, unlike Scholastic thought that places all emphasis on Divine Revelation, Dooyeweerd believed that science and reason have an important part to play. While they cannot lead us to absolute Truth, they can at least improve our experience of truth. His index-statements about this are:

(His statement, "special sciences handle different criteria of truth, but only seemingly so," requires elaboration. Elsewhere we have seen that each aspect gives a distinct science and distinct way of knowing. So the "special sciences do handle different criteria of ..." but not criteria of truth; they handle different criteria of quality of research. That is why he adds "only seemingly so"; not to say that all sciences handle the same criteria of truth, but that the different criteria they handle are not of truth but of ways of knowing.)

The Christian Notion of Truth

Finally, a couple of statements that Dooyeweerd made about the Christian notion of truth:


The latter statement is interesting because it links with Dooyeweerd's belief that truth is not primarily something we know, but something we do and are. As in an arrow that is true when it is as straight as it is meant to be, and in the statement "You are a true friend." Truth, to Dooyeweerd, is tied in with Meaning rather than correspondence etc. It is possible that it is only in his Meaning-oriented framework that we can have both absolute and relative truth in harmony.

Zuidervaart's Critique of Dooyeweerd's Conception of Truth

In 2008 Lambert Zuidervaart wrote a critique of Dooyeweerd's conception of truth, entitled 'After Dooyeweerd: Truth in Reformational Philosophy'. I cannot find where it is published. After a very detailed and technical explanation of Dooyeweerd's idea of truth, he makes the following critiques:

In short, I think the problem lies in Dooyeweerd's poor explanations rather than in his actual ideas. However, I think Z's critique must be seriously understood and answered. My quick responses to it above are tentative.

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: 18 February 2003. Last updated: 3 March 2003 link to ground.motives#relig. 10 March 2003 ditto plus quote from CPMH. 21 November 2005 unets. 28 April 2012 Zuidervaart's critique of dy's notion of truth.