Letter to the Editor


Another Perspective on Dooyeweerdian Social Theory

Russ Heddendorf
Covenant College
Lookout Mountain, GA  30750

From Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 43 (September 1991): 231
As a "soft science," sociology has little trouble with the idea that philosophy often assumes a prominent role in its development. Historically, philosophy has provided some of the most important stimuli for the shaping of new sociological paradigms. Even today, popular and highly regarded sociological theories
are deeply rooted in philosophical traditions.

What is of concern for the sociologist is the tendency for philosophy to bring an air of exclusivity to a science. When philosophy advances its claims without adequate empirical safeguards, then social scientists may justifiably be concerned about possible ideological biases creeping into the discipline. It is only when philosophy is balanced with a proper concern for the "facts" of the case that philosophy fits well into a social science.

The distinction between "philosophical sociology and empirical sociology" made by MacLarkey (June 1991 Perspectives) is useful in the sense that it recognizes that the Dooryeweerdian approach to sociology is not a "complete" sociology. Since it is not empirical by intent or in method, Dooyeweerdian social theory is not clearly a science and is open to ideological bias. And while it may contribute to the development of "a distinctively Christian sociology," it certainly cannot claim to be that sociology.

Having said that, it is helpful to note that Dooyeweerdian theory does provide a rich conceptual scheme for analysis of social structure. Unfortunately, much of this scheme is esoteric and reminiscent of an earlier day when the sociologist developed his own terms to refer to social phenomena. Witness, for example, the use of the
term "enkapsis" to refer to "the interwovenness between two or more social structures to form a more complex social whole." Even with that definition, are we any more able to locate, describe, and measure such cases of
interwovenness? Lacking clear referents for those concepts in society, the theory remains more an object of faith than a search for fact. I think MacLarkey is faithful to this characterization and doesn't claim more for Dooyerweerdian theory than he should.

Nevertheless, there is little attempt to relate Dooyeweerdian theory to the world as we know it. As one theorist has said about another social theory: "It's all scaffolding and no building." Since the theory relates to God's created structure and order, no distinction is made between modern and earlier social forms or even among individual societies. The sole concern is with social reality as God intended it and not as we experience it daily. Consequently, social reality cannot be measured or compared, except in terms of God's law.

If scripture were used to outline God's law as a basis for the theory, one could be more comfortable that there is some objective basis for the theory. In fact, this is not clearly the case. Usually, Dooyeweerdian philosophy itself and not scripture is the starting point for any social analysis. As MacLarkey states, "every theory must have some fundamental assumptions," and these are always Dooyeweerdian in origin.

There are times when Dooyeweerdian theory is reminiscent of structural-functionalism, a traditional and well-regarded sociological theory. But functionalism always has high interest in empirical studies and uses concepts with clarity and some precision. As a result, it contributes to social scientific knowledge, especially as that describes the stability and complexity of social structures. Like Dooyeweerdian theory, functionalism has a high regard for continuities in social structure and seeks to explain them in terms of social needs to be met. And like Dooyeweerdian theory, functionalism is less concerned with the individual and a description of his or her actions.

Here is where Dooyeweerdian theory is sorely lacking; it fails to explain (or even to consider) the place of the person in the dynamics of daily social life. This anti-individualism is not surprising when one realizes that the theory has its roots in the collectivism of Dutch social thought. It even offers a refreshing balance to the compulsive individualism of contemporary American thought. Nevertheless, Dooyeweerdian theory provides a biased view of social reality with its omission of human interaction and its relation to human problems.

On the plus side, Dooyeweerdian theory offers a distinct and, perhaps, solitary alternative to current sociological assumptions that all social realities are constructed through human interaction. The claim is that social reality is created by God and not merely constructed by man. This is the most important and redeeming feature of Dooyeweerdian theory, a feature that needs reaffirmation in any Christian social theory. But it is also a feature that needs to be tested as well as measured. Unless this can be done, Dooyeweerdian theory will remain more of a philosophy than a science and will continue to be vulnerable to the charge of ideological bias that has been directed at it.