Monday, February 01, 2016

Generative Problems or Dynamic Limits? Retrieving Dooyeweerd's Transcendental Critique of Theoretical Thought

by Jazz Feyer Salo

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.

"The Great Turning Point," the first chapter in Lambert Zuidervaart's Religion, Truth, and Social Transformation, stands as an object lesson in the spirit of critical engagement practised at the Institute for Christian Studies: at once a fidelity to the tradition out of which it emerged and a critical eye and ear toward the Creation that tradition holds in such high regard. The result of such a critical engagement is what Lambert calls "critical retrieval" -- whereby we acknowledge valid objections to the philosophies local to our tradition and, in light of such objections, provide a redemptive critique. The impetus behind such a critical engagement is a non-oppositional cross-pressure between a firm commitment to the goodness of Creation and the recognition that all claims rest upon an ontology that is never all-together apparent to those making the claims. This cross-pressure is the catalyst for what should be called a "faithful divergence" not only by the subsequent generations but by figures within the generations themselves.

In "The Great Turning Point", we see this "critical retrieval" being practised in a focused discussion of Herman Dooyeweerd's (henceforth HD) Transcendental Critique. The question being addressed is the relationship between faith and philosophy in HD's thought. However, as Lambert makes clear, this question is ill-equipped to address the subtlety with which HD addresses this problem. Lambert proceeds by correcting those who read HD in light of this simplistic distinction between faith and philosophy and the misreadings it propagates. Only after correcting these invalid objections and making clear HD's philosophical positions and their merit does Lambert move on to the objections to HD that "warrant criticism". These objections are summarised by Lambert in the closing paragraphs of the essay:

Any attempt to salvage Dooyeweerd's project must address both the logical slippage in his transcendental argument and the conceptual confusion in his account of religion. [...] These puzzles merit the attention of anyone who thinks seriously about the relation between faith and philosophy. They remain generative challenges for the tradition of reformational philosophy that Dooyeweerd helped create. (47)

How appropriate it is for a Reformational philosopher to close an essay that explicates the "puzzles" or "challenges" of his philosophical tradition with a claim that those very puzzles or challenges constitute the productive power of the tradition itself. Such a closing is a crystallisation of the cross-pressure mentioned above.

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For the remainder of this post, I would like turn our focus to the first of the two "generative challenges" identified in the latter half of Lambert's essay. As we saw above, first of these problems is the logical slippage or self-referentiality of HD's transcendental argument. Lambert respectfully dismisses two attempts by figures in the Reformational Philosophy tradition to recast HD's transcendental critique. The first being the "transformational" approach developed by Jacob Klapwijk and the second being the "hermeneutical" approach developed by H.G. Geertsema. Both of these approaches, while undoubtedly helpful, miss the mark as to the true crux of the problem. Rather, for Lambert, the problems identified stem from the neo-Kantian influences in HD's thought. While there are many ways one can construe the limits of theoretical thought, HD insists that there is a principled distinction between theoretical thought and "that which is not theoretical" whereby that which grounds theoretical thought cannot be theoretically grasped. This particular formulation gets HD in some trouble, in that if transcendental critique is made possible by those very things he has claimed are not graspable theoretically, then he is essentially articulating in theory what his 'theory of theory' has prohibited. This circularity leads Lambert to insist that:

The only way to salvage some version of Dooyeweerd’s transcendental critique, it seems to me, is to redescribe the structure of theoretical thought, recognizing that every theoretical attempt to declare something beyond the limits of theory has already surpassed those limits. (44)

Now, Lambert lets his readers know at the outset that it is not the purpose of nor does he have the space in this essay to articulate a substantial alternative to both HD's circularity and the two aforementioned attempts. How fortunate we are, however, to be participating in a blog event such as this so as to prompt the author, as well as the other event contributors, to be more liberal with prescriptions than one is willing or able to be in formal publications! In light of this new found freedom, I would like to propose that the "transformational" approach developed by Klapwijk, while growing out of a concern over the problems surrounding the antithetical/synthetical self-understanding of Christianity's relationship to philosophy, may nevertheless offer possible ways forward with regards to the deeper philosophical problem in HD of thinking the limits of theoretical thought.

Consider this passage from one of Klapwijk's earlier formulations of "transformational philosophy":

If we accept the idea of transformational philosophy as the critical appropriation and incorporation into Christian reflection of systematic conceptions from the general history of philosophy, then the dynamic character of this general history must influence the Christian reflection in some way. [...] The progress of Christian philosophical thought is determined not only by the internal dynamics whereby Augustine learned from Ambrose and Origin, Calvin from Bonaventure and Augustine, Dooyeweerd from Kuyper and Calvin, and so forth. The progress of Christian philosophical thought as transformational philosophy is also determined by an external dynamics, say by the developments that have lead from Plato to Wittgenstein. I mean, Augustine was about as able to ignore the platonist idea of a diversity of levels of being in his thought as we are to ignore Wittgenstein's notion of a diversity of lingual fields.[1]

Now, if we were to take this excerpt as the sole articulation of Klapwijk's proposal for transformational philosophy, we would be compelled, as Lambert was, to respectfully dismiss this proposal as a possible solution to the problem of the limit of theoretical thought. Insofar as the dynamics of "transformation" here occur already at the level of theoretical thought, not at its boundary. (Although, if we were to take the implications of the last sentence seriously, something would have to be said regarding ones ability or inability to "ignore" the social and cultural conditions that both make Plato or Wittgenstein possible and pertinent as a thinker at a given time.)

If, however, we fast forward to one of Klapwijk's later essays regarding the relationship between evolutionary theory and Reformational Philosophy, we see a more expansive use of the term "dynamics" than the previous usage:

God created "in the beginning" a becoming world in the sense that the cosmos universe, the earthly forms of life, and the world of human beings would reveal themselves subsequently in phases in a temporal process. God's creating acts thus did not result in a ready and finished product but in a dynamic reality, a world in progress. Creation is a driving force, a ground motive that propels the world from its origin to its final destination. [...] Without the propelling motive of creation, time would come to a halt, evolution would stagnate, emergent novelties would fail to appear, and the world would miss its final destiny.[2]

If we, bracketing for now Klapwijk's commitments regarding the particular eschatology and modality he has in mind here, take the latter use of dynamics regarding a fundamental ground motive underlying and propelling creation as an extension of his use of dynamics regarding the history of thought, then "transformational philosophy" in this extended sense could, if not provide the tools, at least prepare the ground for the fashioning of tools that could "salvage" an articulation of limit that does not result in circularity. For, in the same way that the dynamics of transformation engender a 'dialectic' between lingual fields internal and external to Christianity throughout history, so too could it (among other implications) engender a 'dialectical' relationship between theoretical thought and "that which is not theoretical".

In many ways, Klapwijk's extended articulation of dynamics moves Reformational Philosophy away from those neo-Kantian influences flagged by Lambert in the beginning of the section and closer to the Hegelian corrective he implies at the end. In the same way that Hegel took Kant's 'problem' of the antimonies and reconceived them as the very motor of history by temporalizing the transcendental dialectic itself, so too may Klapwijk's extended articulation of dynamicity take HD's neo-Kantian understanding of the limit of theoretical thought and reconceive it as a dialectical pilgrimage to the Kingdom of God.


[1] “Antithesis, Synthesis, and the Idea of Transformational Philosophy.” Philosophia Reformata 51 (1986): 16.

[2] “Nothing in Evolutionary Theory Makes Sense Except in the Light of Creation.” Philosophia Reformata 77 (2012): 59.

Jazz Feyer Salo is an MA student at the Institute for Christian Studies, focusing on philosophy of language and American pragmatism.

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