Monday, February 22, 2016

Dooyeweerd's Modal Theory: Hermeneutics in Action

By Dan Rudisill

This post is part of an ongoing symposium interacting with Lambert Zuidervaart's book Religion, Truth, and Social Transformation: Essays in Reformational Philosophy. For more responses to the book, see our table of contents.

Lambert Zuidervaart’s essay “Dooyeweerd’s Modal Theory: Questions in the Ontology of Science” is an examination of Dooyeweerd’s modal ontology with an emphasis on the role hermeneutics played in Dooyeweerd’s method of determining just what a mode is and how these modes fit into a modal hierarchy. This examination primarily aims at the second volume of Dooyeweerd’s New Critique of Theoretical Thought where his theory of modes becomes fully enfleshed.

The reason for the part of the title that reads “Questions in the Ontology of Science” demonstrates the importance of a modal ontology for the differentiation and non-reduction of the sciences, both within the humanities and in the so-called “hard” sciences. Zuidervaart discusses this in detail in both the introduction and post-script to the essay.

Zuidervaart takes as his guiding question, “What are the criteria that must be met during any analysis of the modes of a coherent, referential, and law-bound creation?” (83) There are four facets to this question which guide the bulk of the essay:
  • What are the criteria for describing the irreducible nuclei of the modes?
  • What are the criteria for distinguishing a mode not previously distinguished?
  • What are the criteria for eliminating an incorrectly distinguished mode?
  • What are the criteria for proposing a certain irreversible order of modes?

Zuidervaart identifies three criteria Dooyeweerd uses to identify modes:

I. The Theoretical Criterion

Zuidervaart writes that,
The theoretical criterion of any irreducible mode is the theoretically isolated general meaning of that mode. It is a concept capturing the unique functional coherence that the individual functions of things, events, acts, processes, or social relationships display within that mode. (86)
For Dooyeweerd, the theoretical criterion of a particular mode is determined by examining its function in light of its place in the temporal order of modes. Everything comes back to time (here one might consult Neal De Roo's contribution to this symposium on Dooyeweerd and time). In fact, Zuidervaart quotes Dooyeweerd as stating, “The idea of cosmic time constitutes the basis of the philosophical theory.” (84) Temporal order is the great brute fact of Dooyeweerd’s theory, and from this notion of temporal order comes the suggestion that, “in each of its modal aspects, [cosmic time] expresses itself as a specific modality of meaning with respect to temporal order as well as duration.” (84)

However, these modal aspects exist in coherence with one another – we do not experience modes as isolated unless we intentionally observe them via theoretical thought. It is in discussing modal coherence that Zuidervaart may tell us why he takes his investigation to be one of hermeneutics (rather than of philosophical methodology as such): “...intermodal coherence finds its expression within each mode by means of the intra-modal coherence of the analogies as they give expression to the nucleus of this mode.” (84)

Analogy plays an important role in Dooyeweerd’s philosophy. Very briefly, all modes refer to other modes via analogy either anticipatively (up the modal scale) or retrocipatively (down the modal scale.) This analogical referring is one way that intermodal coherence is expressed. Recognizing and articulating these analogies is primarily a task of interpretation – this seems to be why Zuidervaart takes himself to be asking questions about Dooyeweerd’s hermeneutics rather than his philosophical method specifically.

II. The Principle of Excluded Antinomy

Zuidervaart states,
One can include more than one way of functional coherence within one concept only at the expense of ignoring the cosmic temporal order and contradicting oneself. Theoretical antinomies result from all such self-contradictory attempts to include more than one way of functional coherence within one concept.....accordance with the principle of excluded antinomy is the primary cosmological criterion of transcendental theoretical truth. (86)
Thus, the principle of excluded antinomy allows the philosopher to preserve a univocity of meaning for each mode. Furthermore, following this principle allows for real diversity within the world and, according to Dooyeweerd, ought to point the philosopher back towards a notion of temporal order that, “guarantees the sovereignty of the modes in their intermodal coherence.” (86-7)

III. The Hypothesis of the Irreversible Order of Succession

Simply put, this hypothesis states that, “the idea of the coherent referential intermodal order of cosmic time requires that this order be an irreversible succession of prior and posterior.” (87) Zuidervaart argues that Dooyeweerd never defends this hypothesis in the New Critique but simply states it as a given.

Zuidervaart then goes on to give two modal “case studies” which demonstrates how these three hermeneutical criteria function for Dooyeweerd; the special mode and the juridical mode. I do not have the space to discuss these case studies here; the reader is encouraged to look at them when this essay is made available, as they do an outstanding job of proving that these three criteria do indeed serve as the guiding lights for the discerning of modes.

Zuidervaart’s Conclusions

The last part of Zuidervaart’s essay is an extended argument against the sufficiency of these three criteria for the formation of a robust ontological modal theory. In brief, Zuidervaart argues that, for Dooyeweerd, any investigation of a mode must begin with an understanding of the nucleus of that mode – the meaning at the heart of the mode that determines both its place in the modal order and the way in which it will analogically cohere with the other modes.

However, Dooyeweerd’s case for discerning the nuclei of the modes rests on an intuitionism that Zuidervaart finds problematic. For Dooyeweerd, intuition is the bridge in which the analytical function of thought is, “embedded in cosmic time” and is the matrix in which the full human self is living out its intermodally coherent existence. (98)

Furthermore, “Once the nucleus, retrocipations, and anticipations of a mode 'have been encompassed in the process of a correct theoretical synthesis of meaning, there is no longer any sense in asking a closer analysis of the nucleus of the [mode] analysed in this process' ([New Critique] 2:485).” (99) Thus, intuition is the beginning and the end of grasping modal nuclei – there can be no theoretical criterion for this activity because it is in itself pre-theoretical.

This is particularly concerning because it reveals that there can be no theoretical guarantee that our intuitions are correct. Moreover, Zuidervaart is concerned that, “naked appeals to intuition will not contribute to debate...In fact, such appeals serve only to cut off debate and to encourage a kind of scepticism.” (101)

Despite this concern, Zuidervaart does glean a list of criteria that Dooyeweerd appears to use when determining modal nuclei. (100-101, my paraphrasing)
  • Respecting non-theoretical givens. The description of modal nuclei should show that this explanation accounts for ordinary phenomena (cf the New Critique vol. 2, 579-580)
  • Principle of Adequacy – One must show that one’s way of uncovering modal nuclei really does its job – it isolates a certain kind of functional coherence.
  • Principle of univocality – One should find a conceptually clear description of the identity of a modal nucleus
  • Principle of scientific continuity – One ought to show how one’s understanding of a modal nucleus fits in with contemporary and historical scientific investigations of the subject
  • Principle of economy of thought – One’s descriptions of modal nuclei should account for modes in the most linguistically thrifty way.
  • Principle of sufficient evidence – One should give enough evidence to convince others of one’s description of a modal nucleus.
These principles can serve to norm intuitive insight into modal nuclei without rejecting the importance of intuition as such. This is an excellent way of preserving Dooyeweerd’s recognition that the human self first experiences the world through intuition while providing a way forward for Reformational modal ontology that is firmly rooted in Reformational ways of thinking.

Ontology and Epistemology in Zuidervaart’s Critique

Zuidervaart’s epistemological criticism of Dooyeweerd’s ontology brings up an interesting question: Does ontology really precede epistemology? If so, then one must argue that Dooyeweerd’s epistemological intuitionism identified by Zuidervaart must lie upon an ontological bedrock yet unearthed by the critique given in the essay. One might follow Jakob Klapwijk, who argues in the twelfth chapter of his book Purpose in the Living World? Creation and Emergent Evolution that Dooyeweerd’s concept of speciation (rooted in his concept of modality) is guilty of a kind of essentialism. His essay “Nothing in Evolution Makes Sense Except in Light of Creation” gives an excellent synopsis of the argument.[1]

Klapwijk argues that Dooyeweerd was committed to an ontological theory of “type” laws which determine the structure (essence) of an individual thing. Because these typical laws are not malleable, he believed in the persistence of “types” in nature (much like Lamarck) and, based on this philosophical position, did not believe that plant or animal evolution from one “type” to another was possible. If one were to study Dooyeweerd’s notion of “types” in volume 3 of the New Critique of Theoretical Thought, one would find that the entire volume is devoted to this notion of types and type-laws. He argued that species represent the most basic “type” of different plants and animals, eschewing questions regarding variations within species in a way that was very similar to his refusal to discuss precisely how insight into modal nuclei is gained other than by intuition.

If Klapwijk is correct in suggesting that Dooyeweerd was indeed an essentialist (a hotly contested claim), then it is possible that this essentialism provided an ontological bedrock for his epistemological intuitionism. It seems unlikely that intuitionism could provide an epistemological warrant for an essentialist position given the diversity of species of plant and animals in the world – recognizing what counts as a variation within a species rather than what counts as a different species altogether is no mean feat even with the highly sophisticated epistemic apparatus that is taxonomy. Rather, an essentialist position is a necessary to interpret current scientific data into an intuitionist framework.

From Klapwijk’s explanation of “types” as an essentialist move, one can see how Dooyeweerd’s concept of modal nuclei as “kernels” of meaning that define the mode and provide insight into how the mode relates analogically to the other modes (see the case studies mentioned above) represents another manifestation of essentialism. Yet, it would appear that essentialism, inasmuch as it is present within a modal ontology might not have the problematic consequences of an essentialism present within a theory of biological speciation as found in the third volume of the New Critique.

In his modal ontology, Dooyeweerd’s essentialist notion of the meaning-nucleus of the modes serves as a guide to the analogical anticipations and retrocipations which allow one to recognize the cohesion of the modes. Thus, the essentialist notion of the modal nuclei serves as a guide to the ways in which the modes interrelate rather than closing down possibility in the way that his essentialism regarding types does in preventing any possibility of evolution between types or perhaps even newly developed relationships between types.[2]

Therefore, the essentialism which Dooyeweerd exhibits in both his modal ontology and in his theory of types may be construed as a hermeneutical move that it not necessarily entailed by his commitment to a modal ontology. While the essentialist commitment of Dooyeweerd stems from the ontological question, “how can one articulate rightly the way the world is ordered” it is a hermeneutical decision on his part to apply essentialism to biological science. There are many Reformational philosophers of science and biologists such as Jacob Klapwijk, Jitse van der Meer, Uko Zylstra, and Jan Lever who accepted Dooyeweerd’s modal ontology (with its essentialist view of modal nuclei) while refusing his typical essentialism.

An Epistemological Retort

Of course, if epistemology does indeed have primacy over ontology, then we can leave Zuidervaart’s critique of Dooyeweerd’s intuitionism as it stands as a sufficient criticism of Dooyeweerd’s modal theory. But, as Zuidervaart himself points out at the beginning of the essay, while Dooyeweerd’s modal ontology is indeed a vital part of his philosophy, it is a foundation; not the entire edifice. Thus, it is always important to study Dooyeweerd’s modal ontology in light of his other commitments as in the case above of types and type-laws as such examinations can shed light on the construction of the upper levels of the structure and show that perhaps if we remove one tower, the entire building will not topple around our ears. In fact, such removal might mike way for some needed renovations of the structure which will allow it to continue to endure into the future.

A Word on Method

Zuidervaart’s essay represents an excellent example of the kind of immanent criticism that Dooyeweerd himself utilized. By a close reading of the text, Zuidervaart has immersed himself in the thought-world of Dooyeweerd and thus not only gives us a clear articulation of the theory and its attending problems but also provides a possible way forward out of the problems identified which is in many ways Dooyeweerdian. This represents the kind of creativity and clear argumentation which should be familiar to anyone who has read Zuidervaart’s work.

Yet, more than being merely Dooyeweerdian in style, this essay represents an example of the way in which immanent criticism in the Reformational tradition allows one to figure out how a philosopher argues and then from there uncover the trajectory of the philosophical argument throughout a text. This is much like being able to identify a river (and therefore to know whither it runs) by recognizing the way in which it flows. In fact, this allows us to bring out an argument implicit in Zuidervaart’s essay; philosophical methodology is always already a hermeneutic.


[1] Jacob Klapwijk, “Nothing in Evolutionary Theory Makes Sense Except in Light of Creation” Philosophia Reformata 77 (2012) 62-65

[2] An excellent discussion of this particular nexus of problems within the context of inter-human relations can be found in Hendrik Hart, “Creation Order in Our Philosophical Tradition: Critique and Refinement” in An Ethos of Compassion and the Integrity of Creation (Lanham, University Press of America, 1995) especially the section, “Philosophy and the Ethos of Order” beginning on page 69.

Rev. Dan Rudisill is a PhD Junior Member at ICS where he studies the philosophical and theological linkage between Reformational Ontology and Creation Order. He is the Dean of Word & Spirit Revival Training Centre in Mississauga, Ontario.​


  1. I need some help understanding how the 'intuitions explanation' of the nuclei of modes cuts off debate, or encourages scepticism. Thinking modally is to abstract aspects of reality from the whole. This is theoretical. But the thinking about these modes must have come from a somewhere that is not precisely theoretical. Who first considered number in isolation? Who investigated life first, and how? Where did psychology come from?

    Instead of a hidden ontology, I think Dooyeweerd roots intuition in the world of naive experience, or the lifeworld. When I think about aspectual exploration in human history, I think of the human propensity to tinker, to play, to fiddle. Our fascination with patterns of all sorts dates back to the neolithic peoples. I wonder if what is needed to answer the question of modal emergence in theoretical thought is to develop a "genealogy of modes", whereby modal intuition can be traced to its origins, whatever and wherever they may be. These primitive, magic-tinged, partial-birth intuitions may provide clues to how a developed modal analysis comes to be, and why it continues to develop.

  2. Thanks Jonathan. I agree entirely with your beautifully written comment. I'm not sure what Lambert would say today about Dooyeweerd's intuitionist explanation for modal nuclei (the original essay to which I was responding was written in 1973) but I believe that his original concern with this intuitionist explanation is that it may lead to a kind of epistemological relativism where truth is unable to find a proper grounding.

    I too wonder if a "genealogy of modes" is not a project that warrants undertaking. As a Reformationally-primed scholar who is very much interested in ontological law and its relation to Creation Order, it seems to me that a genealogy of modes might shed a whole lot of light on how we humans perceive God's ordered Creation and thus perhaps lead to a productive re-imagining of the notion of order.

    I personally believe that our basic modal intuitions as articulated by Dooyeweerd reveal the human call as "image bearers" of our Creator. If we are not endowed with the ability to intuit (imagine? See?) the order of Creation aright and thus organize our culture (and theory) making I am unsure what it would mean then to be "made in the image of God." Dooyeweerd recognizes something very important to human life when he grounds his modal ontology in intuition (inasmuch as he sees humans as made in the imago dei) and he's rejecting something just as important - the Neo-Kantian notion of the world as grounded within human-birthed ideas.

  3. It might be of use to set this discussion against the perspective Doyeweerd lays out in the 1922 paper “Normatieve Rechtsleer: een kritische methodologische onderzoeking naar Kelsen’s normatieve rechtsbescouwing” in which Dooyeweerd’s reconfiguration of the Kantian way of speaking about “modality” first emerges.

    Page 45: Het kritisch realisme behoort m.i. het volgende standpunt in te nemen: allereerst vooronderstelt hat een denkvreemden kosmos, omvattendnde gans de schepping Gods, het denken inbegrepen, geordend naar kategoriëen. Maar — en dit tegen het verwijt van idealistische zijde, dat het realisme zich aan een onlogische verdubbeling schuldig zou maken — deze kategoriëen zijn niet logische kategoriëen, maar kosmische, d.w.z. het zijn kategoriëen van het kosmisch eenheidsverband, waarin geen logische onderscheiding kan ingaan. Deze kosmische sfeer is de rechtsgrond voor Lask’s objectieve Gegenstandssfeer, waarbinnen de methode der wezensschouwing haar plaats vindt. Deze Gegenstandssfeer van den zuiveren zin, welke op zichzelve niet kenbaar, maar slechts schouwbaar is, biedt het materiaal voor het denken der zuivere logica, welke de zuivere grondvormen van het denken in haar oordeelen ontvouwt.

    [freely translated] In my view, critical realism should take up the following position: first of all, it presupposes a cosmos foreign to thought, encompassing the entire creation of God, including thinking, ordered according to categories. But — and this against the reproach from the idealist side, that realism renders itself guilty of an illogical duplication — these categories are not logical categories, but cosmic, that is to say, they are categories of a cosmic coherence (eenheidsverband), which no logical differentiation can disturb. This cosmic sphere is the determining ground (rechtsgrond: a legal term) for Lask’s objective Gegenstandssfeer, in which the method of the showing essences (wezensschouwing) finds its place. This Gegenstandssfeer of pure meaning, which by itself (op zichzelf) isn’t knowable but only beholdable (schouwbaar), supplies the material for purely logical thinking, which the pure primordial forms of thinking lay out or unfold in thinking’s judgments.

    Note especially the “rechtsgrond” sentence.

  4. Wow, this is a really interesting set of questions, Dan. Well done.

    It would be very interesting to see Dooyeweerd's notes on Heidegger's point at the beginning of Being and Time: namely, "Only as phenomenology, is ontology possible" (SZ, 35).

    1. Thanks Josh!
      I too would like to see Dooyeweerd's notes on Heidegger's statement. I'm currently working through R. Henderson's study of Dooyeweerd's early thought and Tony Tol's work on the early Vollenhoven. Both D and V seemed to be very happy with the phenomenological program developed by Husserl even if they disagreed with his ultimate conclusions. In Vollenhoven's Isagoge Philosophiae and in Dooyeweerd's New Critique (as Bob emphasizes in his comment) immediate experience of Creational diversity is fundamental to philosophical work. The question I am struggling with at the moment is: Does immediate experience directly lead to phenomenological reflection or to ontological insight? It seems to me that our interpretation of immediate experience vis-a-vis phenomenology presupposes an ontological structure functioning as a lens through with phenomenology is performed. So, ultimately, I agree with Heidegger - ontology may manifest as phenomenology but whether phenomenology can function as ontology is a different question.

  5. I wonder Daniel if "essentialist" really gets at the modes and their kernals. The invitation to be in this and that way which I take to be a way of speaking about the divine active and creative presence that calls a world of creatures into being and that gifts that world's creatures with capacities and possibilities that point it and them eschatonically is real in the sense that we do not make it up but it is not real in the sense of a philosophical realism: in the sense that it is not part of the concrete structure of this or that creature or of the cosmos as a whole. What that world is and is called and gifted to become is a response to the divine presence, the divine invitation, the calling and the gifting. When one identifies a modal kernal via theoretical intuition one is not in the presence of an essence--the intelligible gist that is at bottom that by which a creature is what it is, presupposing thereby that creatures in their existence are at bottom like a concept. Hows are not whats. Moreover, the meaning laid bare in a modal kernal is not contained by the intellectual crystallization of that meaning as theoretical notion. And this because one does not really belly up to any discrete how apart from all the other hows, so to speak. This is the analogical structure of the modes. At bottom modes are not the logical object functions of entities by which I mean the thought-handles by which we hang on to things in theoretical encounters. So I would say that Dooyeweerd's modalities involve no essences, no realism, and yet God's invitation, God's gifting and calling wind themselves everywhere in and through all creatures and indeed the cosmos as a whole to establish, uphold, push and take creatures home so to speak. There is not one iota of the creation and its creatures that is not enveloped by that invitation, real but not realist. And here is the pay off. Theoretical insight or intuition is a response to the invitational dynamic of creaturely existence. It is an encounter with creation and its creatures, an encounter of a particular kind, one that allows humanly appropriate access to the ways that creatures respond to the invitations to be in this or that way that suffuse creaturely existence, that make it possible, that guide it into itself and its pregnant possibilities. Such theoretical intuition builds upon our ordinary engagements with the world of creatures, is rooted in our ordinary modes of apprehension and understanding, bringing out a specificity and depth we rarely have time or inclination for but which deepens our corporate existence within God's world by virtue of the self-reflexivity it allows, that is, the intensity of the self-awareness it brings to pass, provided we do not lose sight of what we are doing in all theory including philosophy--taking up ordinary experience and understanding of our world for a closer and preciser because schooled or disciplined look-see. Anyway that would be my two-cents' worth here.

    1. Bob,
      Thanks for your wonderful and insightful comment. I agree that the intuitions behind the kernals of meaning behind the modes are rooted in our ordinary engagement with the worlds of creatures but it is surprising to me that ordinary engagement with creatures could generate the kind of intuitions which lie behind Dooyeweerd's notion of types and type-laws found in volume III of the NCTT. Perhaps Dooyeweerd's modal ontology is not ultimately essentialist but I believe a species of essentialism (perhaps colouring his intuitions?) creeps into his typology of creatures. Otherwise it seems difficult to explain his continued emphasis on a Lamarckian model of biological history in the face of evolutionary models which did not necessarily have to be Darwinian in character.

    2. Gpod point, Daniel. But . . . essentialism and structuralism are not the same althought the difference is subtle. Dooyeweerd is in Vollenhovian terms a pure cosmological thinker, or in Seerveld's adaptation, a structuralist thinker. He is interested in the things that perdure in the hurly burly of events that mark our passing throughtime. These are the things he moves to identify and tries to understand. It is what stays the same, not what changes that holds his philosophical attention. A structuralist orientation to our experience can express itself in an essentialism, IF we understand that things are at bottom like the concepts we use to define them. Such a position reduces things to their logical object functions. It seems to me that Dooyeweerd is not guilty of the latter position even while his orientation to human ordinary experience travels like an arrow from Robin Locksley's bow toward those dimensions of experience that stay the same beneath the "surface" of the changefulness that is inexorable within that same experience.