Science in Christian Perspective



Herman Dooyeweerd's Contribution to the Philosophy of the Social Sciences
Dordt College
Sioux Center, Iowa 51250


From: JASA 31 (March 1979): 20-24.

Herman Dooyeweerd, the Dutch Christian theorist who died in 1977, made an unusually wideranging contribution to the philosophy of the social sciences. His Christian standpoint led him to reflect seriously on the foundations of law, society, economics, and politics. Perhaps his most important contribution to the social sciences was in clarifying the difference between the various "hows" of human social existence-the modes or functional dimensions such as the legal, economic, moral, linguistic, social, etc.-and the actual things that exist ("what" exists) such as states, families, churches, labor unions, industries, friendships, etc.
The crucial requirement for any social science is that it not functionally reduce the life of man to one mode or "how" of existence, and that it give an account of the particular nature of its own modal outlook in relation to other modal sciences as well as of the real social "what?' that it will be examining abstractly from its own particular viewpoint.


With the death of Herman Dooyeweerd on February 12, 1977, the scientific world has lost one of its most distinguished twentieth-century Christian contributors. Dooyeweerd was Professor of the Philosophy of Law at the Free University of Amsterdam, and a Fellow of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences. More than fifty years ago he received his doctorate in jurisprudence at that same University which was founded by the noted Christian educator, theologian, journalist, and statesman, the former Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Abraham Kuyper. Before accepting the teaching post at the Free University, Dooyeweerd served as manager of the Abraham Kuyper Foundation at the Hague, a research organization for the Anti-Revolutionary political party that Knyper had organized, during which time he established the political quarterly, Anti-Revolutionaire Staatkunde. In addition to his scholarly labors, Dooyeweerd also held several public posts in the Netherlands.

In the Foreword to his main systematic work, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought,1 Dooyeweerd admitted to the strong influence in his student years of NeoKantian philosophy and Husserl's phenomenology. But the strongest influence in his life remained Christianity-the reformed Christianity of Dutch Calvinism. Together with D. H. Th. Vollenhoven, Professor of Philosophy at the Free University, Dooyeweerd inspired a new school of Christian philosophical and social thought. Members of this "school" have held chairs at the Universities of Utrecht, Leiden, and Groningen, the Technical School of Delft, and the School of Economics in Rotterdam; and students of Dooyeweerd and \Tollenhoven are professors in several institutions in South Africa as well as in this country at a number of colleges and seminaries. Recently students of this "school" founded the graduate Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

The occasion of Dooyeweerd's death is certainly a proper time to consider some of his contributions, and it is the intention of this article to look at one of those contributions that has been little noticed, but which is related to a very lively discussion in the social sciences today, especially as a result of the widespread interest among social scientists in Thomas Kuhn's book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.2

Ethics and Law

While pursuing his study of jurisprudence, Dooyeweerd became more and more convinced that the problem of the relation between ethics and law was the most crucial one for the science of law. The seriousness of this problem, he felt, lay in the fact that the relationship between the "legal" and the "moral" could not be determined solely from the viewpoint of one side or the other without the reduction of the one to the other. This problem led him to reflect critically on the foundations of juridical science, for he became convinced that a "deeper" or "higher" standpoint was necessary from which the relationship between law and ethics (as well as between law and economy, law and aesthetics, law and faith, etc.) could be determined. An understanding of this deeper standpoint, he concluded, was absolutely essential for the preservation of legal science itself, yet by its very character it was a standpoint which had to transcend the special realm or aspect of "law" as such.

Without attempting to elaborate Dooyeweerd's methodical critique or his conclusions,3 I will simply point out that this search for the foundations of the various special sciences (vakwetenschap pen) is what he means by critical philosophy (critische wi/she geerfe). Philosophy is not an independent, metaphysical speculation about ultimate reality which is then brought to bear on the sciences as an "outside" determiner. Rather, each science, by the very nature of its attempt to abstract and isolate a special field, should be driven back to reflect on its own foundations. If a science is to remain critically scientific and not degenerate into the mere repetition of frozen dogma, it must continually ask the question of its own character and of its relation to all other special fields. This critical reflection begins to reveal to any scientist that there are basic suppositions of a totality character (Dooyeweerd calls them philosophical) which underlie, precede, and make possible the special scientific investigations that are already under way.

It is impossible to establish a line of demarcation between philosophy and science in order to emancipate the loner from the former. Science cannot be isolated in such a way as to give it a completely independent sphere of investigation and any attempt to do so cannot withstand a serious critique. It would make sense to speak of the autonomy of the special sciences, if, and only if, a special science could actually investigate a specific aspect of temporal reality without theoretically considering its coherence with the other aspects. No scientific thought, however, is possible in such isolation "with closed shutters."4

Although Dooyeweerd is concerned with all the sciences, not just the natural sciences, his point about philosophical presuppositions is related to Thomas Kuhn's insistance that in natural science

effective research scarcely begins before a scientific community thinks it has acquired firm answers to questions like the following: What are the fundamental entities of which the universe is composed? How do these interact with each other and with the senses? What questions may legitimately be asked about such entities and what techniques employed in seeking solutions?5

Equally important in this critical reflection, according to Dooyeweerd, is the question of the character of scientific thought itself. It has long been assumed in

In place of the scientific wars among the proponents of various "-isms" who seek to reduce concrete reality to one or another absolutized modal function, we can enter into closer cooperation out of concern for the multi-faceted analysis of this reality which is common to us not only as creatures but also as scientists.

Western philosophy and science that theoretical thought, or "scientific reason," (theorctisch denken) is
an autonomous, self-sufficient starting point. But, says Dooyeweerd, this assumption has not been justified by a "really critical investigation of the inner structure of the theoretical attitude of thinking itself."8 There is good reason, on historical ground alone, for calling this assumption into question, because the Greeks, the Scholastics, and the modern Humanists, for example, each meant something different by "reason." If this assumption were truly unproblematic, then it would seem that real differences could be solved in a purely theoretical way.

But, as a matter of fact, a Thomist has never succeeded by purely theoretical arguments in convincing a Kantian or a positivist of the tenability of a theoretical metaphysics. Conversely, the Kantian epistemology has not succeeded in winning over a single believing Thomist to critical idealism.
In the debate among these philosophical schools, one receives the impression that they are reasoning at crosspurposes, because they are not able to find a way to penetrate to each other's true starting-points. The latter are masked by the dogma concerning the autonomy of theoretic thought.7

Dooyeweerd's discussion at this point is rather like Kuhn's when the latter is digging into the character of pre-theoretical "paradigms." The reasons for accepting a new paradigm and rejecting an old one, says Kuhn, "do not derive from the logical structure of scientific knowledge."8

To the extent . . . that two scientific schools disagree about what is a problem and what a solution, they will inevitably talk through each other when debating the relative merits of their respective paradigms.
In a sense that I am unable to explicate further, the proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds . . . . The transfer of allegiance from paradigm to paradigm is a conversion experience that cannot be forced.9

In the context of this critical examination of the foundations of science, it appears to me that Dooyeweerd's contribution to the philosophy of the social sciences is twofold. In the first place, he engages in a deeply historical analysis of the development of philosophy and science which helps to show why there have been different schools of thought, even with regard to the same subject matter, and, in the second place, he presents some unique systematic arguments that aid in the distinguishing and classifying of social sciences.

Dooyeweerd's Historical Analysis

Regarding the first half of this contribution, Dooyeweerd offers a penetrating critique of philosophy and some of the sciences by studying their historical development with a view to the pre-theoretical "perspectives," "motives," and "world views" which drive and mold them. In this critique he penetrates to what he calls the "religious basic-motives" (religious grondt-motieven) of theoretical thought.10 The word "religious" must be understood here not in the narrow sense associated with theological dogma and cultic practices, but in the sense of the deepest driving spirit and frame of reference which encompasses a community of human beings in all their activity, including their scientific study. By "motive" Dooyeweerd does not mean simply what some would call the personal biases or psychological motivations which an individual scientist brings to the work of an otherwise "objectively neutral" science. Rather he believes that with this word "motive" he is pointing to the real basis and encompassing framework that constitutes the communal enterprise of philosophical and special scientific study itself. Every science, says Dooyeweerd,

presupposes a theoretical view of reality, including an idea of the mutual relation and interconnection which exists among its various aspects. And this idea, in turn, is intrinsically dominated by a central, religious motive (le motif religieur central de la pensde).11

He attempts to show, for example, how the basic "form-matter" framework of Greek thought arose through the "encounter of the older pre-Homeric Greek religion of life (one of the different nature-religions) with the later cultural religion of the Olympic gods."12 Though the Greek philosophers set out to free theory from religious myth, yet, Dooyeweerd contends, their philosophies were not freed from the central motive which was born out of the encounter of these two religions. The medieval, philosophical-theological framework of "nature-grace" appears for Dooyeweerd to be rooted fndamentally in the attempted synthesis of the Christian and Greek basic-motives.13 And modern science and philosophy reveal, for the most part, the dialectical religious dynamic of "nature-freedom" which arises from the secularization of the Christian Idea of creation and freedom, emancipating human personality from its religious dependence upon the God of revelation.14

It is not my intention to try to display or summarize any of Dnnyewcerd's critical, historical study here. A sufficient amount 0f his work has been written in or translated into English so that anyone interested in following his critique can do so. The point to be made here, however, is that Dooyeweerd's method yields especially valuable insights at the key transition periods in Western thought, and any social scientist will find valuable material in his writings since he has done considerable research not only in law but also in sociology, history, polities, and philosophy.

Dooyeweerd's Systematic Approach

Allowing his historical critique to speak for itself, then, I would like to concentrate on the other dimension of Dooyeweerd's contribution to the philosophy of the social sciences. Naturally since he has been trying to
expose the fundamental motives and philosophical presuppositions of the various sciences, he has been driven to the clarification of his own religious basic-motive and philosophical assumptions.15 It is in connection with his philosophical theory that I would like to point out something of special significance for the social sciences and their historical development.

Dooyeweerd contends that the various natural and social sciences, both in their successes and in their failures, have revealed the need for distinguishing between the modalities (rnodi, wi/zen, modaal aspectcn) of existence and the concrete things, events, persons, institutions, etc., which function according to these modalities. By "modality" he means the "how," the manner, or the mode of existing realities. For example, human beings in society exist and function in at least the following ways: numerically, spatially, physically, biotically, psychically, logically, historically, linguistically, socially, aesthetically, juridically, morally, and pistieally (by faith)." These modes of human existence, Donyeweerd believes, have been discerned and abstracted by special scientific analyses, and it should be the continued concern of these sciences to differentiate, clarify and describe these modes of existence more fully. The scientific enterprise, however, is one of theoretical abstraction. That is to say, the power of analytic thinking which differentiates a modal field for concentrated logical attention, does not grasp reality in its concrete and full actuality. Science gets at these modal "bows" of existence through theoretical abstraction, but to do this it depends presuppositionally upon what actually existsmen, women, and children, schools, businesses, hooks, buildings, governments, churches, families, and so forth. These concrete realities or identifiable entities, says Dooyeweerd, reveal themselves precisely by the fact that they actualize or function in (concretiseren, actualiseren) all 0f the modalities at once. Businesses and industries, for example, may display an "economical" leading qualification, but they concretize all modalities simultaneously.17

This distinction between "modality" and "concrete actuality" can, I think, provide some important and helpful insights for the historical study and contemporary development of the social sciences. It can help us in our attempt to discern the historical process of differentiation of the various special sciences as well as help us to perceive new problems in the relationships and differences between special fields. It can lead to a new, pre-theoretical (pre-scientific) carefulness in giving attention to the real persons, things, events, and institutions from which we are abstracting legal, moral, or economic principles and generalizations. In place of the scientific wars among the proponents of various "isms" (psychologism, historicism, moralism, ecnnomism, etc.) who seek to reduce concrete reality to one or another absolutized modal function, we can enter into closer cooperation out of concern for the multi-faceted analysis of this reality which is common to us not only as creatures but also as scientists. This distinction can lead to greater precision in discovering the limits of any single modal analysis-limits which arise from (1) the character of theoretical thought, from (2) the other modalities which are irreducible to one another, and from (3) the multi-faceted concreteness of reality which is not finally reducible to modal analysis at all.

Modes of Experience

With some of these interests in mind, let me attempt to develop Dooyeweerd's theory here in slightly more detail. Considering first the meaning of "modalities," Dooyeweerd describes them as "transcendental" modes of our experience. With the word transcendental he is not pointing towards a supranatnral order above reality, but in the direction of an underlying "law" or circumscribing "norm" which makes experience possible."' The law or norm of any modality never exists apart from the real subjects and objects for which it holds and vice versa. They are integral components of one another and together constitute modal meaning. The scientist is always seeking to discover the exact way in which such law holds for reality. In the various natural sciences the conviction is born that these laws hold in a deterministic fashion. Even humans have no choice when it comes to "gravity." The problem in the social sciences at this point has been twofold. On the one hand, some have sought and are still seeking laws which govern human affairs after the pattern of natural, deterministic laws. On the other hand, there are those who want to insist that there is no heteronomous determination for people when it comes to uniquely human activity-i.e., where humans are free decision-makers.

Dooyeweerd has attempted to answer this problem regarding the modes of human experience by showing that human freedom is always a freedom made possible by the transcendental norms which call people to action. In other words, people are not just free in a vacuum; they are free only to be human. They are free to think logically or illogically, to speak and write grammatically or ungrammatically, to pursue their businesses economically or uneconomically. In everything, however, their actions are made possible, as well as judged, by the various modal norms.19 These are not "natural laws" which hold for reality deterministically, for one may think illogically if one so chooses. But in either case, a person cannot avoid thinking. And at the same time, one cannot choose to do something which being human does not allow; people are not free to be either Martians or angels. The transcendental norms describe and circumscribe, require and make possible human experience and action. In this sense they are heteronomous. They are not first posited by individuals and groups; they are only
cretizcd or actualized by humans. Nor do these norms exist above the "facts" of reality in a fashion that would make possible a scientific grasp of the "social facts" apart from the "norms" which call the actual human circumstances into existence.

In connection with this transcendental, modal meaning and structure of reality Dooyeweerd did considerable work with the problem of "analogical concepts ."20 The problem here concerns the group of elementary basic-concepts which scientists use, often without giving an account of their peculiar meaning and mutual connections. For example, consider the concept of space. The physical scientist speaks of physical space, the biologist talks of life-space, the logician refers to logical extension, and the legal theorist speaks of juridical space, i.e., the domain of applicability of legal norms. Or as another example, there is economy of thought, economy of speech, legal economy, and so forth. More is involved here, according to Dooycweerrl, than merely an unfortunate use of words or an inescapable and hopeless ambiguity. The very way in which the special scientists qualify analogical concepts by their own field of investigation reveals the interrelation of the various modalities as well as their distinct irreducibility. What we need, Dooyeweerd has suggested, is a much more careful analysis of these elementary concepts in connection with the continuing scientific effort to delimit and clarify the modalities of experience from which these analogical basic-concepts are derived.

Concrete Constituents of Reality

When we turn, in the second place, to Dooycweerd's idea of the concrete persons, things, events, institutions, etc., which constitute reality, we find that he is concerned with that for which an adequate account cannot he given simply by modal analysis. These concrete "things," says Dooyeweerd, must he accounted for in terms of their own "individuality structure" (individualiteit-struetnnr). He explains this with an example in the juridical aspect.

In the juridical aspect of reality, all phenomena are mined in a jural-functional coherence. Viewed according
to the norm-side of this aspect, this means that constitu-tional law and civil law, internal ecclesiastical law, internal trade law, internal law of trade-unions and other organizations, international law, etc., do not function apart from each other, but are joined in a horizontalfunctional coherence, a coherence guaranteed by the modal structure of the juridical aspect itself. When we view only this universal functional coherence between the various sorts of law, we abstract it from the internal structural differences which the latter [i.e., civil law, church law, trade law, etc.] display.
This general functional viewpoint is highly abstract; it only teaches us to recognize the modal functions within the juridical aspect apart from the typical structures of individuality which are inherent in reality in its integral character [i.e., in state, church, trade organization, etc.]. It is absolutely impossible to approach the internal structural differences between the typical sorts of law, solely with a general juridical concept of function. Therefore, it must be clear that the general modal concept of law can never contain the typical characteristics of state-law.21

Dooyeweerd and Political Theory

I have suggested that Dooyeweerd's contribution to the study of the social sciences is twofoldboth a critical method for recognizing and uncovering the basic ground motives of theoretical thought as well as a positive insight into the difference between the universal modalities and the concrete individuality structures of reality. Keeping both of these in mind, there are many questions of a social scientific character which can now he asked in a fresh and penetrating way. Let inc suggest one line of questions by way of conclusionquestions which turn back on Dooyeweerd himself and which were of concern to me in a study of Dooyeweerd's own place in the development of Calvinistic political theory in the Netherlands.22

How has the religious basic motive of biblical Christianity influenced the development of the science of polities? What peculiar insights of a theoretical character have been contributed to political thinking from this viewpoint which could not have arisen from another perspective? Soon after the time of Calvin, Johannes Althusius made an effort to distinguish the special field of investigation for political science.23 In fact, Dooyeweerd sees in Aithusius the first recognition of the principle of "sphere-sovereignty." But why did Calvinism lead to the peculiar line of thought developed by Althusius, Groen van Prinsterer, Abraham Kuyper, and Dooyeweerd on the Continent while it led to a somewhat different conception of politics in Scotland, England, and the United States? Was the Calvinism more influential in one place than another? And has the admittedly religious character of Dooyeweerd's presuppositions contributed to a greater objectivity in his empirical investigations, or has his Christianity only blinded him to certain "obvious realities" which others have seen?

With these questions it is clear that we have already transcended any special scientific or methodological viewpoint. In order to ask historical questions about political science one is driven back to some basic philosophical and pre-theoretical assumptions about the meaning of history, of government, and of human creatures which are founded in a basic religious conviction about the meaning of reality in its totality. These presuppositions, I believe, must be admitted and developed even while one attempts a more and more critical analysis of political (or any other) science and its historical development in relation to other social sciences. Dooyeweerd's work in precisely this regard is of significant importance. We can be thankful that his labor bore so much fruit during his lifetime and that we have the continuing opportunity to put it to the test ourselves in our various scientific disciplines.


1Translated by David H. Freeman, H. de Jongste, and William S. Young, 4 vols. (Philadelphia and Amsterdam, 1953-58). 

2(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

3In addition to the systematic presentation of his philosophy in A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, shorter introductory expositions are presented in In the Twilight of Western Thought (Philadelphia, 1960), pp. 1-61; and Transcendental Problems of Philosophic Thought (Grand Rapids, 1948). For an extensive bibliography of Dooyeweerd's works and of numerous secondary sources see L. Kalsbeek, Contours of a Christian Philosophy, edited by Bernard and Josine Zylstra (Toronto: Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1975).

A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, vol. I, p. 548.

5Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, pp. 4-5.

Dooyeweerd, A New Critique, vol. I, p. 35.

7lbid., p. 37.

8Kuhn, op. cit., p. 94.

9Ibid., pp. 108-9, 149, 150.

10Dooyeweerd, A New Critique, vol. I, pp. 52-93. His use of "religious motive" as distinguished from, and even prior to, "theology" is clarified in his discussion of "Philosophy and Theology," in In the Twilight of Western Thought, pp. 113-172.

11"La Sbcularisation de la Science," La Revue Reformee, V, p. 149 (1954).

12A New Critique, vol. I, p. 62.

13Ibid., pp. 65-6.

lbid., pp. 501-506. One could compare Dooyeweerd's work at this point with that of E. A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (New York: Humanities Press, 1952), or Ernst Cassirer, Das Erkeuntoisx-problem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit, 3 vols. (Berlin, 1906-20), or B. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972).

15Dooyeweerd confesses a Reformation Christian world and life view as the basis of his theoretical thought. It is helpful to note his comparison of this religious basic-motive with that of modern humanism: A New Critique, vol. I, pp. 501-508. Cf. also the chapter "What is Man?" in In the Twilight of Western Thought, pp. 173-195.

16A New Critique, vol. I, p. 3. Dooyeweerd's modal theory is elaborated in vol. II of this work.

17Dooyeweerd elaborates this conception of concrete realities
and their structure in vol. III of A New Critique.

A New Critique, vol. II, pp. 3 ff., and 414 ff.

19lbid., pp. 237 ff.

Ibid., pp. 55 ff. See also "Dc Analogisehe Grondhegrippen der Vakweteosehappen en hun Betrekking tot de Structuur van den Meoselijken Ervaringshorizon," Mededelingen der Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie eon Wetenschappen, afd. LetterKunde, New Series, vol. 17, no. 6, 1954.

21A New Critique, vol. I, p. 553.

22J. W. Skillen, "The Development of Calvinistic Political Theory in the Netherlands, with special reference to the thought of Herman Dooyeweerd" (Ph.D. Dissertation, Duke University, 1974).

See Frederick S. Carney, Translator, The Politics of Johassnes Althusiu.s (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964).