Science in Christian Perspective



Robert D. Knudsen, Ph.D.

From: JASA 12 (September 1960): 87-89.

The following contribution fulfills a long-felt desire for this column, to offer a glimpse of the work of Professor D. H. Th. Vollenhoven of the Free University of Amsterdam in developing a Christian approach to the history of philosophy. The contributor, Dr. Calvin Seerveld, recently completed his doctorate in philosophy under the supervision of Professor Vollenhoven. He is at present a professor of philosophy at the newly founded Trinity Christian College near Chicago.

Philosophical Historiography

The significant contribution of Professor D. H. Th. Vollenhoven of the Free University, Amsterdam, to the historiography of philosophy is practically unknown in America. This is especially unfortunate for the evangelical Christians here because Vollenhoven has much help to offer us in the studying and teaching of philosophy. To make him more than a name that rhymes with Dooyeweerd for those who read no Dutch, I should like to sketch briefly the basic idea -of his method for writing the history of philosophy.

Working in terms of the Christian perspective developed by himself (Calvanism and the Reformation of Philosophy, 1932), Dooyeweerd (Philosophy of the Law-Idea, 1935),' and subsequent Reformed scholars in the Netherlands, Vollenhoven let certain ,ideas guide his approach to the historiography of philosophy: (1) The philosophical analysis of all men is concerned with and bound by the same actual reality. Since (2) reality is actually the ordered work of the Creator-God, a world dominated in time by fallen man, who along with his activity is able to be saved in Jesus Christ, therefore (3) all philosophical theory in its analysis of reality cannot help assuming some kind of stand toward the crucial matters of the structure, Origin, troubled state, and meaning of everything together "under the sun." (4) In the -stand that various philosophies take on these fundamental matters lies the key to a critical understanding and comparison of their various contributions to the analysis of reality.

As this working hypothesis was already beginning to order his judgments of the many philosophies under his observation, Vollenhoven one day was struck by the similarity in certain conceptions of Eddington, Einstein, and Archimedes. Why were they so closely alike? Soon the idea occurred to him that maybe there were definite types of philosophial conceptions, certain systematic philosophical interpretations of reality, which kept recurring throughout the history of thought. Vollenhoven went to find out empirically. So as not to get caught in the Hegelian trap of reading modern concepts and subsequent developments of thought back into earlier history, Vollenhoven began his investigation at the simple beginnings -of early Greek philosophy. What do these pre-Socratic Greek philosophers analyze reality to be? Naturally he ordered what he found an individual philosopher had to say around what that philosopher said concerning the structure, Origin, troubled state, and meaning of reality; for these matters--this is the thesis hidden in Vollenhoven's working hypothesis-constitute the crux of a philosophy.

Two things gradually developed from Vollenhoven's pre-Socratic studies: (1) the main categories he has used to expound and judge Greek and all subsequent philosophy of Western civilization; and (2) unmistakable evidence that there are a number of basic philosophical positions which have won adherents generation after generation since the very beginnings of philosophical reflection.

One carefully defined category Vollenhoven works with is "Monism" and "Dualism." He discovered that these pagan, pre-Christian philosophers always eventually decided -that reality was basically One or basically Two: one world, one stuff, or one pair of contrasts-in which diversity had to be explained; or at bottom two worlds, two stuffs, or two initially separate and independent realms-whose connection had to be explained. And he found that this decided Monism or Dualism -of a philosophy determined to a surprising extent what kind of cosmology, anthropology, and theory of knowledge developed. This sounds somewhat like William James, who said that if you know whether a man is a monist or a pluralist, you probably know more about the rest of his -opinions -than if you classify him any other way. But Vollenhoven's "Monism" and "Dualism" penetrate much deeper than James's loose pragmatic ideas of the one and the many, mere mathematical analogies in social intercourse. To hold to Monism or Dualism, explains Vollenhoven, is to hold to a distorted view of reality. How so? Since these Greek philosophers did not know the faithful Creator-God, who rules the universe by the law of His sovereign will, and since Jesus Christ in whom everything created must live and move and 'have its meaning was not known to them, these Greek philosophers (who by nature were also inescapably and restlessly religious creatures) sought the Origin and meaning of things within the cosmic structure of reality which cosmic structure their observation could not escape. But because -they sought and found within created reality what actually is not there, these Greek pre-Christian philosophers distorted the very cosmic reality they were trying to obs4~rve. Invariably they absolutized some part or aspect of created reality and made it the permanent Origin which gave meaningto all life and thought; and just as invariably, that part or aspect of created reality which did not get absolutized became disqualified and was considered the troubling factor to life and thought, i.e., something evil. The Dualists, for example, idolized a divine spiritrealm of transcendence and lamented any captivity to the non-transcendent material realm, while Monists, for example, found their fragile cosmos constantly threatened with chaos 'by antagonistic -higher and lower forces within the one world. And such a pagan schizo-fragmentized reality plagued Greek anthropology and theory of knowledge no less severely than Greek cosmology.

Vollenhoven's specialty is showing from the texts that a given monistic or dualistic philosophy occurs again and again throughout all history, sometimes due to the direct influence of -one thinker upon another, sometimes arrived at independently a hundred years later, always modified by the peculiar personali,ty of the new thinker and -the changed spirit of a later era, but at bottom the sameold attempted monistic or dualistic philosophical interpretation of reality. For example, the materialistic monism of Tbales is a philosophical position essentially held by Leucippus and Democritus, Aristippus, Epicurus, Lucretius, and othersall the way down to Gassendi and Sartre.2 Again, a certain severe dualistic habit -of thought first simply developed by Xenophanes has been virtually shared bysuoh varied thinkers as Parmenides, Marcion, Arnobius, William of Ockham, and Karl Marx. Before one protests such results-there are, of course, other carefully delineated monistic and dualistic lines of thought extant-let him examine the convincing evidence Vollenhoven has assembled.

Ueberweg and other good historiographies. of philosophy are mostly a series of responsible, incisive monographs. Windelband indeed attempted to trace the relation, show the influence, and suggest the kinship of various philosophies; but unfortunately he dealt principally with epistemological concepts, which are less basic to philosophies and are therefore less significant for their interrelation than the ontologies With which Vollenhoven works. In contrast, it seems to me that the terms Dooyeweerd uses in his historiography of philosophy-form-matter, nature-grace, nature-freedom-are more characteristic of a thinker's Zeitgeist than the peculiar systematic structure of his philosophical conception. The forte of Vollenhoven's method of writing the history of philosophy thus is this: the structural inheritance of a thinker is made embarrassingly clear upon laying bare his underlying position toward those few, crucial perennial problems of philosophy; and that same thinker's relation to contemporaries of different lines of thought can be shown precisely. Indeed, it can be almost graphically plotted.

As for the Christian shock in Vollenhoven's thorough method? His point is that without the forming light of God's Word-Revelation upon a man's philosophical conception, that man's philosophy always has and necessarily shall miss the glories of creation and distort reality in one of various reasonable ways. Also, Christian philosophers who seek to mediate and accommodate themselves to one or another of these distorted interpretations of reality must settle for a Christianized distortion and forfeit the insights and praise that a philosophy shaped and re-formed by revealed Truth affords, For example, evangelicals who profess to hold to a "contingent dualism" must face up -to the possibility that they may be somewhere in the traditional-, orthodox Roman Tomistic line of thought, where God gets pulled down into man's theoretical patterning of reality and where created reality itself is distorted into the ambiguously begrudged material matters" below "the finer things in life." Such is the exact and critical historical consciousness Vollenboven's historiography fosters.

1. The revision of this work has been published in English translation by the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, with the title, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought. (Ed.)

2. It is impossible here to go into the complex qualifications which would do justice to the richness and circumspection of Vollenhoven's historiographical analysis. Also, the temporary misjudgment of a certain thinker's thought would not invalidate the worth of Vollenhoven's method.