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Enriching Critical Theory

How Dooyeweerdian Philosophy might Enrich
the Critical Theory of Habermas

Andrew Basden,
I.S. Institute,
University of Salford, U.K.

This page is the extended abstract of a paper sent to the CMS3 Conference at Lancaster University, 2003. It is being placed here because it gives a useful overview of some of the similarities and differences between Dooyeweerdian and Habermasian thought.


Critical Theory, though rooted in the ideas of Jürgen Habermas, is no static structure of thought, but a dynamic and evolving framework for thinking. It is finding application in such areas as information systems design and theory [Lyytinen and Klein, 1985, Nissen, Klein and Hirschheim, 1991] and social planning [Ulrich, 1983], and has links with other streams of thought such as that of Adorno, Horkheimer, Marx and others [Ray, 1993]. But if it is to extend meaningfully beyond its roots in Habermas and grow like a living organism that develops but retains its integrity, it must be able to take in the ideas of other thinkers in ways that are commensurable with it.

A framework like Critical Theory can be extended or refined from three sources. Ideas derived from within the Critical community with little external input, can motivate more precise formulations of Critical Theory and open up new contexts of application, but they are unlikely to refine the Critical approach itself in significant ways. At the opposite extreme, ideas from frameworks that are incommensurable with the Critical approach, such as positivism, usually do little more than negate or confuse important elements of the Critical approach. But a framework that comes from a different tradition and yet can be argued to retain some commensurability with the Critical approach can perhaps stimulate us to critically examine the important elements, recognise their significance, inject them with new meaning and suggest new dimensions.

A Commensurable Framework: Dooyeweerdian Philosophy

In this paper we explore a framework of this third type, which might enrich Critical approaches: the cosmonomic philosophy of the late Herman Dooyeweerd (1895-1977). Though Dooyeweerd's philosophy, as outlined in his 'A New Critique of Theoretical Thought' [1955] has very different roots than those of most Western thinking, including that Habermas, it seems commensurable in a number of ways. Both thinkers recognised the importance of presuppositions that underlie theoretical thought. Both thinkers fundamentally criticise both positivism and the more extreme forms of interpretivism. Both thinkers recognise the importance of what Habermas calls the lifeworld. Both thinkers recognise the pertinence of some overriding and rich norm; 'emancipation' for Habermas and other thinkers in the Critical community, 'shalom' for Dooyeweerd. As Ray [1993] says, Critical Theory has sufficient courage that it "ties its fortunes to the objective movement of history"; so does the Dooyeweerdian approach. Therefore this paper explores how his ideas could be used to enrich those of Critical Theory.

Dooyeweerd's Theory of Presuppositions

Dooyeweerd's theory of presuppositions took shape within the context of a penetrating critique of 2,500 years of Western thinking, starting with the ancient Greeks, proceeding through the Roman and early Christian period, through mediaeval thinkers, through the Renaissance and Reformation, to the present day. He held that presuppositions underlie all thinking, especially theoretical thinking, and that these cannot be removed; in this he was similar to the line Habermas took in [1972].

The relevance for us is not only its commensurability with Habermasian thought, but its view of the nature of presupposition. Dooyeweerd examined the nature of these presuppositions, suggesting they are religious in nature, and that ideologies, polar ground motives and the what he called the Immanence presupposition (concerning what we presuppose to be self-dependent) constitute three distinct layers of presupposition in most Western thinking.

If this is so, then not only is analytical thinking unable to escape presuppositions, but so also is discourse, even it an 'ideal' form, which was Habermas' hope. As Wilson [1997] has argued, there are fundamental paradoxes in the Critical assumption of 'ideal discourse'. Dooyeweerd held that both analytical thought and discourse are rich gifts for our use, but that nothing in Created Reality, including these two, is absolute. His analysis might help the Critical community move towards a more effective form of discourse and ways of uncovering and handling presupposition.

Abandoning the Immanence presupposition of the ancient Greeks and most Western thought, and adopting one found in Hebrew thought Dooyeweerd developed a comprehensive philosophy with several major parts. One way of understanding his different slant is that, whereas most presuppose, with Aristotle, that Being is the foundation of reality, Dooyeweerd held that Meaning is the foundation. With this foundation, a very different philosophical edifice was constructred, that is uniquely able to handle matters of interdisciplinarity etc. Some of the parts of his philosophy are relevant to Critical Theory in the following ways.

Dooyeweerd's Theory of Modal Aspects

Dooyeweerd's theory of modal aspects is probably the best-known portion of his thought, and it is proving of interest to those involved in interdisciplinary areas of thought such as sustainability [Lombardi, 2001], systems science [de Raadt, 1997], information systems [Basden, 2001], etc. Starting from Meaning, we must first ask ourselves what types of Meaning there may be. He proposed that there are distinct aspects (he delineated 15 of them) which form a spectrum of Meaning, which, amongst other things:

Dooyeweerd made a proposal about what aspects there are; his suite, which will be explained in the paper, comprises fifteen aspects, each with a separate 'kernel meaning'. The earlier aspects are determinative in nature, in that we have little freedom in how we respond to their laws (e.g. law of gravity), while the later ones, which we might call human aspects, are normative in nature, offering us inherent freedom of response (e.g. lingual laws of syntax, semantics).

Human Multi-Aspectual Functioning

An important part of his theory of modal aspects is that all human activity, living, being, knowing, etc. is multi-aspectual in nature. Human needs and potential can be seen in this light: we each have biotic, psychic, social, economic, ethical, etc. needs and potential. In this way, a Dooyeweerdian framework is inherently sensitive to a wide range of issues of human living, not just because they happen to have been mentioned during discourse, but because they are founded in aspects that pertain whether we speak of them or not.

While most human activity involves all aspects, in many kinds certain aspects have special importance (Stafleu, 2000). It is interesting to compare Dooyeweerd's aspects with Habermas' (1986) action types.

However, we must never lose sight of the multi-aspect nature of human activity. For example, to Dooyeweerd, discourse cannot be fully effective unless it involves, not just language, but also the aesthetic aspect for harmony, juridical for fairness, ethical for generosity, pistic for trust and commitments, etc. If Dooyeweerd is right, then this has practical implications in providing guidelines for the conduct of high quality discourse.

Dooyeweerd's Theory of Theoretical Thought

Klapwijk [1987] held that, because he presupposed that Meaning is more fundamental than Being, Dooyeweerd was able to "ma[k]e the structure of theoretical thought transparent". In this view, theoretical thinking, of the scientific kind, is the mode of thinking in which the analytical aspect of making distinctions take prime place. Being only one mode of thinking amongst several, it has no a-priori priviledged place and is cannot be absolute. Dooyeweerd held it to be a mistake to assume that reason is somehow superior to everyday (naive, pre-theoretical) thought (see below).

Since theoretical thought is merely one mode, and also because it rests on presuppositions, it cannot be absolute and thus must always be fallible and limited - as Habermas also believed; both Habermas and Dooyeweerd talked of 'horizons' of analytical thought. Like Habermas, Dooyeweerd argued the need for critical self-reflection.

However, Dooyeweerd developed the notion of critical self-reflection in a different direction than Habermas did, linking it to what he called the human heart (ego, self), which is ultimately beyond the grasp of theoretical thought. This can give a different shape and direction to our self-reflection, and thus can make both practical and theoretical contributions to Critical approaches.

Dooyeweerd's Theory of Progress

An element that seems important in Critical Theory, especially Marxian forms thereof, is the notion of progress, as distinct from mere change. Dooyeweerd also differentiated progress from change, by suggesting the former is founded in the 'opening up' of the aspects by society. For example, though the laws of the physical aspect always pertained, only via the science of physics-chemistry was it opened up; the same is happening for the psychic-sensory aspect, the social aspect, etc. by their respective sciences.

However, Dooyeweerd always maintained that the doing of science is a human, multi-aspectual activity, not purely analytical, and thus involves all aspects, as seen in social interaction, communication, management, harmonizing, giving what is due to the areas of concern, and even religiously held commitments that emerge for example via paradigms.

The Shalom Hypothesis

The all-embracing notion of emancipation in the Critical approach has its equivalent in Dooyeweerdian thinking, of shalom. This is a rich state of well-being as contributed by each aspect when we work them in harmony (e.g. health: biotic, prosperity: economic, peace: aesthetic, self-actualization: pistic, etc.). When emancipation is needed, it is from dysfunction in one or more aspects (e.g. dysfunction in the juridical aspect of 'what is due' leads to suppression of rights and avoidance of responsibility). Note that, to Dooyeweerd, aspectual law is not primarily a constraint (as Western individualism seems to suppose) but an enabler, of meaningful functioning. Whereas the Critical community often seems to treat emancipation as a contentless, unquestioned norm, a Dooyeweerdian approach could invest it with rich meaning, which offers both critique and means of solution.

Critique and Solution

Critical Theory involves not only critique but also action to address problems thrown up by that critique. Critique requires norms. Action to address problems requires enabling, empowering. If the source of norms is different from the source of empowering, then we have two dangers. Either the norms become little more than unrealistic wishes or, worse, any action taken could work against its own criteria. This danger is realized when a framework does not openly acknowledge its norms - as Wilson (1997) shows can happen in parts of the Critical community.

However, as we have seen, Dooyeweerdian aspects provide both norms and enabling, from the same source. This could provide Critical Theory with a coherence between critique and solution to achieve the rich form of emancipation.

Dooyeweerd's Theory of Everyday Living

Dooyeweerd's notion of everyday living bears some similarities to Habermas' (1987) lifeworld, but is conceived in a different way. To Habermas, the lifeworld is 'colonized' (encroached upon) to Dooyeweerd, everyday living is a mode of living. In the everyday (naive, or pre-theoretical) mode, we function in multiple aspects in an integral fashion, not aware of the distinct aspects - similar to Polanyi's (1967) tacit dimension. While, to Habermas, the lifeworld and loses territory to the social, subjective or objectivized worlds, to Dooyeweerd, almost all human living is multi-aspectual and thus has something of the everyday about it. He would account for Habermas' worlds as modes in which the social, formative and analytical aspects have primary influence in directing our still multi-aspectual thinking. In this way, the Habermasian worlds could re-integrated with lifeworld.


We can see how a Dooyeweerdian approach might be able to enrich the Critical approach in ways that are commensurate with it. The paper will discuss how it can do so sensitively.


Habermas, J. (1972). Knowledge and Human Interests, tr. J.J. Shapiro, Heinemann, London.

Habermas, J. (1986). The Theory of Communicative Action; Volume One: Reason and the Rationalization of Society. tr. McCarthy T., Polity Press, Cambridge.

Habermas, J. (1987). The Theory of Communicative Action; Volume Two: Lifeworld and System; A Critique of Functionalist Reason. tr. McCarthy T., Polity Press, Cambridge.

Habermas, J. (1988). On the Logic of the Social Sciences, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Lyytinen, K. and H.K. Klein (1985) The critical theory of Jurgen Habermas as a basis for a theory of information systems. pp.219-231 in Research methods in information systems, (Mumford E., Hirschheim R., Fitzgerald G., Wood-Harper A.T., Eds.), North Holland.

Nissen, H-E., Klein, H. K., and Hirschheim, R. A. (eds.). Information Systems Research: Contemporary Approaches and Emergent Traditions, North-Holland, Amsterdam, 1991.

Polanyi. M. (1967). The Tacit Dimension, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London U.K.

Ray LJ (1993) Rethinking Critical Theory; Emancipation in the Age of Global Social Movements, Sage, london.

Ulrich W (1983) Critical Heuristics of Social Planning, Wiley.

Wilson, F. (1997) "The truth is out there: the search for emancipatory principles in information systems design". Information Technology and People, 10(2), 187-204.

This page is part of a collection of pages that compares Dooyeweerd with Habermas, which is within a subsite that links to various thinkers, in The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.

Copyright (c) 2010 Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.

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