Philosophy of the Cosmonimic Idea: Herman Dooyeweerd's Political and Legal Thought - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Philosophy of the Cosmonimic Idea: Herman Dooyeweerd’s Political and Legal Thought

Herman Dooyeweerd (1894–1977) was born in Amsterdam, where he spent almost all of his life as a student and scholar.1 He grew up in the neo-Calvinist circles strongly influenced by Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), the highly influential churchman, journalist, political leader, and educator, who founded the Free University of Amsterdam, edited a daily newspaper, organized Europe’s first Christian Democratic political party (the Antirevolutionary Party), and served as Prime Minister of The Netherlands from 1901 to 1904. Kuyper is known in North America primarily through his Stone Lectures2 at Princeton University in 1898 and through his influence at institutions of the Christian Reformed Church and Reformed Church of America, particularly Calvin, Dordt, and Hope Colleges in the United States and the Institute for Christian Studies and Redeemer University College in Canada.

A serious student and musician, Dooyeweerd completed his undergraduate and graduate studies at the Free University, writing his doctoral dissertation in 1917 on the role of the cabinet in Dutch constitutional law. After that, for a period of about six years, he served in local and national government posts in the northern province of Friesland, the city of Leiden, and The Hague. In 1922, he then accepted appointment as assistant director of the Kuyper Institute, which had just been founded in The Hague as the policy research center for the Antirevolutionary Party. Four years later, he became professor of law at the Free University, where he served until his retirement in 1965, and where he, with philosophy professor D.H.T. Vollenhoven, organized an association for Christian philosophy whose journal, Philosophia Reformata, is, in 2003, in its 68th year of publication. In 1948, Dooyeweerd was made a member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Science. On the occasion of his retirement, the president of the Academy, Prof. G.E. Langemeijer, wrote that Dooyeweerd was “the most original philosopher the Netherlands had ever brought forth.””

The first years of the twenty-first century serve as an opportune time to introduce the work of Dooyeweerd, because his Collected Works are now being translated into English under the general editorship of D.F.M. Strauss and published by the Edwin Mellen Press (Lewiston, New York) on behalf of the recently organized Dooyeweerd Centre at Redeemer University College in Ontario and the Herman Dooyeweerd Foundation. The first volume of Dooyeweerd’s never-before-translated five-volume work, Encyclopedia of the Science of Law, edited by Alan M. Cameron, was, in fact, just released in 2002.

From the beginning of his research and writing at the Kuyper Institute on the crisis of modern political and legal thought, Dooyeweerd began to move in the direction of developing a comprehensive Christian philosophy as the necessary foundation for legal and political science. As Bernard Zylstra, one of Dooyeweerd’s students, explains, Dooyeweerd realized early on that the most important questions of any special science, including the social sciences,

are consciously or unconsciously answered in terms of underlying philosophical systems. As a result, Dooyeweerd’s career from that time [the early 1920s] had two related but distinct points of orientation: first, the development of a general Christian philosophy; and, second, the testing of that philosophy by a careful consideration of theoretic questions in the special sciences.3

As Dooyeweerd puts it, “”For the special jural science, the entire method of theoretical concept formation is dependent upon the philosophic ground-idea from which it takes its point of departure.””4 By “”ground-idea,”” Dooyeweerd means the overarching or comprehensive idea of reality with which one starts when abstracting particular fields or modes of that reality for special study. An adequate conception of law, for example, can never be achieved without an idea of how the legal or jural aspect of reality coheres with all other aspects.5

Moreover, according to Dooyeweerd, at the root of every basic ground-idea is a “”religious basic motive””6 or orienting drive that directs ones life and thought. “”The great turning point in my thought,”” Dooyeweerd explains, “”was marked by the discovery of the religious root of thought itself….””7 Consequently, as he continued his philosophical quest, Dooyeweerd realized that the long-standing western assumption of the autonomy and neutrality of philosophical thought had to be recognized as a fundamental error, because all thought is dependent on pre-theoretical assumptions and religious basic commitments. Henceforth, he sought in a conscious, critical fashion to ground all of his philosophical work in the Christian ground-idea, which he summarizes with the phrase, “”creation, fall, and redemption.”” With the three words of that phrase Dooyeweerd encapsulates the basic idea that the whole of the cosmos is God’s creation, ordered by God’s laws and norms toward an end that will be realized only through God’s judgment of human sin and redemption of the cosmos in Jesus Christ. For this reason, Dooyeweerd refers to his philosophy as “”de wijsbegeerte der wetsidee“”—the philosophy of the cosmonomic idea.8

Another point from which to gain entrance to Dooyeweerd’s philosophy is by starting with the ordinary, everyday experience we have of the various relationships, associations, organizations, and institutions of society. Without much critical thought we can notice that these relationships and organizations are of different types and exhibit different kinds of responsibility. In order to give a proper account of those diverse responsibilities, however, one must engage in a normative task, and this is where critical reflection and argument become unavoidable, according to Dooyeweerd. The reason is that every serious attempt to account for social diversity either answers or takes for granted answers to questions such as: What makes social diversity possible? What is its source or origin? What holds the diversity together? And what is the meaning of human life in society in the first place? Taking up these and many closely related questions, Dooyeweerd’s work represents an attempt to develop an empirical-normative account of the foundations of social diversity and the conditions for its normative development and coherence. In the course of his work, as just mentioned, he became convinced that the differences among various accounts of reality are due most importantly to differing ground-ideas arising from different “”religious ground motives”” or “”religious basic motives,”” which encompass and influence human life in its entirety. These deep orienting drives shape the basic assumptions and ideas that thinkers have about the origin, diversity, and coherence of the cosmos.

Dooyeweerd’s philosophy, therefore, whether starting from within the problems of theoretical thought or starting from questions about everyday experience, is rooted in the conviction that the cosmos—everything that exists—is God’s creation.9 On this basis, he presumes that every scientific and philosophical account of reality must necessarily depend on the creation’s order and conditions, regardless of whether a thinker believes this to be true. Thus, if those seeking to account for reality hold fast to contrary assumptions and/or ignore the lawful and normative boundaries of creation, their arguments will inevitably get caught in antinomies.

By an “”antinomy”” Dooyeweerd means an unresolvable dilemma that a theorist accepts as a given—as inherent in the very foundations of reality, including the foundations of human life and society. However, from Dooyeweerd’s point of view, the cosmic order cannot be antinomic because it is God’s well-ordered creation.10 In fact, it is the very order (nomos) of creation that drives misguided, anti-nomos thinking into its unresolvable dilemmas (antinomies). Thus, the only account of reality that can answer the questions raised above without collapsing in antinomies is one that is grounded in biblical, creation-order assumptions and proceeds by carefully heeding the creation’s integral order. Moreover, only such an account will be able to offer an adequate explanation of why other accounts get caught in antinomies. Thus, Dooyeweerd’s philosophy of the cosmonomic idea entails the method of antinomy: the method of searching out, illuminating, and overcoming antinomies. And this is a crucial part of his methodical investigation of the character of diverse religious basic motives and ground-ideas that he calls the transcendental-critical method.11

The Necessity of a Cosmonomic Idea

According to Dooyeweerd, the very possibility of posing and responding to questions about law, politics, and society, and the possibility of theoretical thinking itself, go back to the ordering conditions of the creation and not merely, as some believe, to the subjective ideas people have or to the adequacy of their empirical research. This is why every science and philosophy must start with assumptions about those ordering conditions, says Dooyeweerd. All theorizing necessarily presupposes a “”cosmonomic idea,”” even if it is the mistaken idea that all of reality is ordered by and coheres in autonomous humanity or in theoretical thought itself. The necessity of a cosmonomic idea is apparent in the conduct of theoretical thought when thinkers choose to focus their attention on one or another part of reality—the biotic, or the social, or the legal, for example—abstracting it from all that is not drawn into that particular focus of attention. In order to conduct such analysis a thinker must, at the very least, assume that a relationship already exists between thought and that which is being thought about, namely, the chosen field of study. This also means that every thinker must assume that all parts of reality continue to cohere even while abstract thinking proceeds. Theoretical thought cannot even begin, and certainly cannot proceed, without an idea or unconscious assumption about the origin and coherence of the diverse reality.

Take, for example, the modern western tradition of political liberalism that dominates social, economic, and political thought in the United States. Liberalism’s answers to questions about diversity, justice, pluralism, and coherence tend to be based on normative criteria presumed to be either innate in each individual (inalienable rights) or constructed by supposedly rational, self-governing individuals through some type of contract. The origin of social diversity as well as the authority to determine the right ordering of that diversity are thus assumed to be found in autonomous individuals and the contracts they make with one another.12 The guiding, unifying, integrating norm is individual freedom, which means the freedom of each person, insofar as possible, to initiate actions and make commitments unencumbered by an outside dictate (whether from feudal lord, clan chieftain, neighbor, government, or God). In saying this much, however, it is evident that liberals speak of freedom not just descriptively, but as a binding norm or law: individuals ought to obey, yield to, conform to the norm of self-government (autonomy) rather than obey, yield to, conform to the standard of heteronomous or theonomous authority. “”Freedom,”” in other words, is used to prescribe a standard for what should be the order of life in society. Typically this norm of freedom for the individual goes hand in hand with a derivative or accompanying norm of equality: if each person should be free, then the freedom of each one should be recognized and protected equally. This is what each person deserves, what each is owed: this is what justice requires. Justice, then, means recognizing and guaranteeing freedom equally to everyone. Consequently, that which ought to bind every person, every social entity, and every government is the law of equal recognition and protection of each person’s autonomy.

But how do the standards of freedom and equality both bind and arise from autonomous persons? Can individuals truly be free if they are bound by, or obligated to, a law? Consider, for example, liberalism’s problem with governmental authority. If every person should, normatively speaking, be unencumbered, in keeping with the hypothesis of autonomy, and if, at the same time, no one can be assured of the exercise of their freedom apart from protection by government, then are not all persons encumbered from birth by government’s heteronomous restrictions, regulations, obligations such as taxes, and other legal burdens? The traditional liberal answer to this dilemma is that government is itself the fruit of a rationally constructed social contract among autonomous individuals. Consequently, government’s laws and regulations, including its forceful protection of the freedom and equality of all persons, represent nothing more than the extension of each person’s right of self-government. From this argument it is evident that the liberal answer to the question of what holds diversity together is “”self-government by political extension.”” Coherence among diverse elements itself must derive from the autonomous individuals who together decide which relationships and associations to create and the terms on which all of the contracted entities will exist simultaneously. The actual diversity of social relationships and institutions is, thus, utterly arbitrary—historically accidental—in the sense that both the diversity of entities and their coherence accord with no other law than the law of creative autonomous contracting.

From Dooyeweerd’s point of view, however, there are antinomies in this basic liberal ground-idea. For example, human freedom is supposedly the origin as well as the rule of society and its coherence, but to hold such an assumption, it is necessary (from John Locke to John Rawls) to posit a mythical, unhistorical social contract that transmutates or transubstantiates multiple individual autonomies into a single governing authority that can obligate the supposedly autonomous individuals with heteronomous demands. The social contract, seen as necessary, establishes an authority that confines, or diminishes, or ultimately denies individual autonomy. Furthermore, neither the ideal of autonomy nor the myth of the social contract yields a serious account of the real qualitative differences that are apparent in society: the differences among economic, academic, recreational, scientific, aesthetic, social-service, and political organizations, for example. In other words, liberalism is even inadequate to the empirical task of accounting for the origin and meaning of that qualitative diversity, since it falls back on nothing more than the presumed interests and freedom of individuals. But why do individuals have this diverse range of interests and capabilities in the first place, and why does the pursuit of them take different organizational and institutional forms?

The empirical inadequacy and the antinomic character of liberalism’s fundamental assumptions and arguments have their root in the religious ground-motive of modern humanism, according to Dooyeweerd. That root is the dialectic of freedom and determinism. The antinomic character of this religious basic-motive became stark in Thomas Hobbes and other early modernists, and it reached a high point in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.13 Dooyeweerd refers to the philosophic expression of modern humanism’s religious ground-motive as the dialectic of the “”freedom ideal”” and the “”science ideal.”” We can summarize the dilemma briefly as follows. The early ideal of human freedom or autonomy was carried largely by faith in science—the science ideal—a conviction that humans would achieve their Creator-like independence and self-sufficiency through rational, scientific mastery of nature. “”Nature was conceived as the territory that had to be dominated by the free personality with its ‘sovereign reason.'””14 Behind the science ideal was the assumption that all of reality, including human life, is subject to laws of nature, which scientific thought has the power to explain. Understanding those laws would supposedly lead to ever increasing human control over the environment, and thus to ever increasing self-government, self-mastery, and autonomy.15 Only if humans can gain freedom from the encumbrance of anti-scientific ecclesiastical dogma and political oppression can they become truly autonomous. The enlightening progress of science will supposedly make that possible.

However, if it is true that the growth of science is the key to human mastery and thus to human freedom, it appears that complete human autonomy will come about only when scientific thought reaches the point where it can explain the behavior of everything in the universe, including human behavior, in terms of the laws of nature. But this means that maximum human mastery will be attained when science eclipses all freedom, because everything will then have been shown to be predetermined by the laws that science has mastered. Freedom will be swallowed up in a pre-determined nature.16 As Dooyeweerd explains, as soon as the ideal of science dominating nature “”began to make itself felt consistently in humanistic philosophy, so that the entire extent of reality from top to bottom was construed as a closed chain of mechanical cause and effect, there was no longer a place in any part of reality for the ‘free autonomous personality.’ ‘Nature’ showed itself to be a dangerous enemy of ‘freedom.'””17

Kant’s response to this dilemma was to try to separate the realm of naturally determined phenomena from the noumenal (non-phenomenal) realm of human freedom, and to give priority to the latter. But Dooyeweerd argues that Kant never escaped the inner antinomy in the religious basic motive and cosmonomic idea of liberal humanism on which his thought depended. Even in Kant’s realm of human freedom, the fundamental assumptions of liberal humanism lead to unresolvable dilemmas.18 In Kantian liberalism, the origin of norms for human life is the practical reason of autonomous individuals. The idea of autonomy, of being a law to oneself, of self-government, of being a person who should be treated as an end and not as a means, must be posited, Kant believed, as a practical rational necessity even though it cannot be proven scientifically. Yet the very nature of a lawful or normative principle, even in the realm of freedom, is that it binds and obligates someone. Consequently, if the rational self is truly autonomous but at the same time obligated, then it is simultaneously both free from any law as well as the law that constitutes that freedom. There is an unresolvable tension here between two poles that simultaneously repel and depend on one another: the pole of unbounded freedom and the pole of universal and inescapable law. Law binds subjects, but autonomous subjects are themselves the law-givers. The self is swallowed up in law, or law dissolves in freedom. This antinomy, Dooyeweerd contends, demonstrates the inescapability of the creation’s normative boundaries, which liberalism tries to deny at the outset but from which it cannot escape. In order to save the presumed autonomous individual, liberalism must posit a law of freedom and equality to guarantee the individual’s freedom. The universality of the law, however, levels or obliterates the distinctive identity of each supposedly autonomous person, and also any significant qualitative differences among institutions, by subsuming each under the law of freedom.19

This all too brief introduction to Dooyeweerd’s exploration of the underlying cosmonomic idea of liberal humanism is sufficient to have introduced the critical philosophical approach by which he works to fathom the unresolvable dilemmas that necessarily arise from mistaken ideas of the origin, diversity, and coherence of the cosmos. The difficulties inherent in liberalism reveal antinomies that cannot be resolved on the terms liberalism assumes to be true at the foundations of life. The modern humanist cosmonomic idea presumes that the ordering of social diversity originates with autonomous human reason or will. This subjectivizing of normativity is inherently antinomic because no creature is its own law; each creaturely subject exists only in relation to the lawful, “”norm-full”” order of creation. The antinomy thus exposes the error of the fundamental assumption of human autonomy.

Dooyeweerd is convinced that the unresolvable dilemmas of all “”immanence philosophy””20 typically begin with the absolutizing of human reason. Since rationality and every other part of the creation have their meaning only within the coherent bond of all the dimensions of our creatureliness, the attempt to absolutize and elevate reason and/or any other part of creation to the position of origin leads to antinomic outcomes. Only the Creator, not part of the creation, is the transcendent origin of all that exists. The cosmonomic idea of liberal humanism, as that of every other immanence philosophy, must therefore be challenged from another standpoint, a standpoint that does not start with the deep religious presumption of human autonomy but with the religiously deep assumption that humans and all creation are fully dependent on, and normatively accountable to, God. Humans are heteronomously encumbered from the outset, and the grounds of social diversity and coherence are to be found in God’s creation order itself.

The Cosmonomic Idea of Creation Order

If Dooyeweerd assumes that the cosmos is a law-and-norm-ordered creation, should we then identify him as a “”natural law”” philosopher? The preliminary answer to this question must be both yes and no. If by reference to “”natural law”” one intends to say that humans are somehow bound by laws and norms that are not reducible to, or created by, human subjects themselves, then yes, Dooyeweerd is a natural law philosopher. Dooyeweerd is in search of an accurate understanding of the law-order of the cosmos, which humans have not created. However, if one has in mind with the phrase “”natural law”” the philosophy of Aristotle, or the Stoics, or Thomas Aquinas, or John Locke, then Dooyeweerd wants to take some critical distance.21

Dooyeweerd is convinced that human subjection to the creation’s laws and norms is given with the very meaning of creation. Everything the Creator creates, including humans, is distinguishable from the Creator and is therefore subject to the ordered conditions and purpose the Creator has given it. At some points in his writing Dooyeweerd uses a spatial metaphor to speak of the law as a boundary between God and the cosmos. More often he speaks of the creation’s law-and-norm side, which holds for all creatures, which are the subject-side of creation. Whether referring to “”boundary”” or “”law-side”” Dooyeweerd’s intention is to counter the idea of a continuity of being—a great chain of being, or an analogy of being—that unites and binds God and the creation together under the same law. To the contrary, Dooyeweerd believes that physical, chemical, and biotic laws (among others), together with norms such as those that call forth and bind humans to think logically, to socialize hospitably, to provide careful stewardship for the creation, to do justice, and to love the neighbor—that all of these laws and norms constitute the governing conditions that God has established for the creation. They all hang together interdependently and irreducibly. But we must not suppose that any of those laws or norms also bind God. Human acts, including the act of thinking, can never transcend the creation’s law-norm order because that order is the very condition for the exercise of human thought and other capabilities.

Dooyeweerd lays out his empirical-critical understanding of the creation order most elaborately in the second and third volumes of A New Critique of Theoretical Thought. Every creature and every concrete thing and institution is subject to laws and/or norms of both a modal character and an individual-identity character. By “”modalities”” (or “”modal aspects”” or “”modal spheres””) of reality, Dooyeweerd refers to that which answers the question of how things exist, in contrast to the particular subjects that exist in terms of the laws of those modalities. The modal aspects of the creation have a definite, interdependent order in relation to one another as aspects of time. Each is a law (or norm) sphere in the sense that its “”law (or norm) side”” holds for individual subjects and objects. No particular person or thing or institution exists apart from the modal laws and norms that hold for it.22 Dooyeweerd enumerates 15 modal aspects (or spheres) of reality as follows:

Our temporal empirical horizon has a numerical aspect, a spatial aspect, an aspect of extensive movement, an aspect of energy in which we experience the physico-chemical relations of empirical reality, a biotic aspect, or that of organic life, an aspect of feeling and sensation, a logical aspect, i.e., the analytical manner of distinction in our temporal experience which lies at the foundation of all our concepts and logical judgments. Then there is a historical aspect in which we experience the cultural manner of development of our societal life. This is followed by the aspect of symbolical signification, lying at the foundation of all empirical linguistic phenomena. Furthermore there is the aspect of social intercourse, with its rules of courtesy, politeness, good breeding, fashion, and so forth. This experiential mode is followed by the economic, aesthetic, juridical and moral aspects, and, finally, by the aspect of faith or belief.

This whole diversity of modal aspects of our experience makes sense only within the order of time. It refers to a supra-temporal, central unity and fullness of meaning in our experiential world, which is refracted in the order of time, into a rich diversity of modi, or modalities of meaning, just as sunlight is refracted by a prism in a rich diversity of colors.23

These modalities become distinguished only through acts of scientific abstraction and critical reflection, and that is why we recognize most of them as fields or disciplines of academic study: physics, chemistry, biology, logic, economics, law, and so forth. From a Christian standpoint, one understands that reality cannot be reduced to any one of these modes of existence, and therefore, as part of the transcendental-critical method and the method of antinomy, one is on the lookout for theoretical reductions that lead to a misunderstanding of the multi-modal creation. These attempts typically yield reductionistic “”isms””—biologism, materialism, historicism, etc.—arising from the absolutization of theoretical thought, which, then—depending on the cosmonomic idea and religious basic motive of the thinker—adopts a particular modal abstraction as the means of explaining all of reality.

In Dooyeweerd’s interpretation, medieval Christian philosophy, culminating in the work of Thomas Aquinas, attempted a problematic synthesis of Christian and Greco-Roman cosmonomic ideas, just as a great deal of modern Christian philosophy has tried to synthesize Christian and modern humanist cosmonomic ideas. Aquinas, for example, certainly presumed that the God of the Bible is the Creator of all things and that all modes of reality and the diversity of human responsibilities hold together by the providence of God in the unity of God’s creation. On the other hand, according to Dooyeweerd, Aquinas also adopted a great deal of the classical worldview as the framework with which to explain human nature, law, and the diversity of society. This was problematic because the cosmos for the Greek philosophers is explained ultimately in terms of the dualistic dialectic of form and matter. Form and matter, even when both are thought of as created by God, cannot yield a non-antinomic idea of creation’s coherence and integral dependence on God. This is especially significant for Aquinas’s understanding of reason, law, and nature, where Dooyeweerd sees as at least a partial expression of rational-legal reductionism.24


Aquinas, as Dooyeweerd interprets him, sometimes blurs the boundary between God and the creation with respect to both law and reason and tends to reduce or condense all modal normativity to rationality.25 Natural law is the sharing in eternal law by intelligent creatures; the relationships “”between men”” and “”of men to God”” are subject to the dictates of natural law, which represents the sharing of human intelligence in the eternal law. The creation’s social diversity coheres in rational lawfulness—both divine law and natural law, which also serve as moral norm. Human reason thus, to some degree, appears to be both subject and law at the same time. By contrast, Dooyeweerd argues, the biblical understanding of creation is incompatible with

a falling back upon the Aristotelian-Thomistic conception of the “”lex naturalis.”” For this latter proceeds from the religious form-matter motive of Greek thought, and therefore necessarily conflicts with the Biblical conception. The speculative Idea of the “”lex aeterna”” provides the foundation for the speculative “”lex naturalis”” with its teleological order of “”substantial forms.”” In this construction human reason thinks it can prescribe what is law to God. And in the final analysis the Aristotelian conception of the world-order is deified, because in the Idea of the lex aeterna it is identified with the “”rational essence”” of God.26

One of the dialectical antinomies in this kind of natural law thinking is parallel to, though different from, the modern humanistic antinomy discussed above. To the extent that human reason is believed by some natural-law thinkers to be the essential conduit of natural law as well as the regulator of human moral life, then reason or intelligence is presumed to function as both subject and law. For Aristotle, humans govern themselves properly when reason rules over will and passion. This is different from modern humanism in that Aristotle did not believe humans are autonomous. Instead, he believed that reason is the higher part of human nature that grasps or participates in divine reason. The problem in this formulation, however, is that either there is no ultimate substantial difference between divine reason and human reason—in which case reason is the law of pantheistic self-governance—or, if there is a difference between the divine and the human, the difference appears to be in the fact that humans are materially embodied rational souls. Yet, even in that case, humans rule themselves by right reason, which is possible because of their rational sharing in divine reason or the eternal law. The regulative ordering of human life thus originates to some degree from the higher part of the human subject, namely, the rational part, which is the law for the will, the emotions, and the appetites. The human subject, or at least human rationality, functions dialectically as both law and subject at the same time.

Consider the following summary by Russell Hittinger of Heinrich Rommen’s twentieth-century explanation of why natural-law thinking has prospered in the law-as-reason tradition in contrast to the law-as-will tradition:

For Rommen, natural law thinking has always thrived in the lex-ratio tradition. According to this tradition, law binds by way of rational obligation. To use the older scholastic terminology, law is neither force (vis coactiva) nor mere advice (lex indicans) but is rational direction (vis directiva). The lex-ratio position contends that the intellect’s grasp of what ought to be done comes first; the force executing that judgment comes second, after the directive of reason. Interestingly, Thomas Aquinas insisted that command is principally a work of reason. He believed that without the measure of action grasped and communicated by the intellect executive force is blind and arbitrary. For example, when we say that force must be justified by law, we recognize at least implicitly that law and force are not the same thing. So, it is one thing to say that force without law is unjustified, but it is quite another thing to suppose that law is force. Thus, for the intellectualist tradition, law and liberty are not necessarily in opposition, because they are grounded in the same source, namely the intellect’s measuring of action. The lex-ratio tradition holds that only on the ground of the primacy of reason can we make sense of law as obligation rather than as a literal binding in the fashion of force.27

Dooyeweerd argues that legality, rationality, and forcefulness are all modes of human existence. But in each of these modalities (and in other modalities as well) the subjective human function is always bound, respectively, by legal norms, rational norms, and norms of historical-cultural power. In fact, the only legitimate starting point for a science and philosophy of law is the recognition of the interdependence of all modes of reality. As Dooyeweerd explains: “”A concept of law that truly wishes to grasp this structure of the jural aspect can never be found apart from a philosophic idea of the mutual relationship and coherence of the jural aspect with the remaining aspects of reality.””28 Furthermore, subjective functioning in one mode cannot serve as the norm-giver of subjective functioning in another mode. Nor may the subject’s function in any modality be identified as the law of that modality. God’s manifold law-order holds human creatures accountable in all kinds of ways. Neither the boundary between Creator and creature, nor the distinction between subject and law/norm, nor the irreducible boundaries of all the modal spheres of reality may be blurred or obscured without leading to confusion and antinomy.

Law and force must indeed be distinguished and not reduced to one another, Dooyeweerd would agree. But with respect to life in political community, for example, if we are to speak properly about the relation of law and force, it is necessary to recognize the full, multi-functional reality of the state institution with its own identity—its own “”individuality structure,”” as Dooyeweerd refers to it—that entails lawmaking and executive functions, police and the military, courts of law and the law-adjudicating processes. The binding enforcement of law is not, therefore, a rational matter, even though human reasoning is operative in all dimensions of state life. Rather, the enforcement of public law is a juridically guided political-institutional matter in which rationality, legality, and forcefulness should all function in accord with the norms that hold for each of those functions within the state structure.

Rejecting the identification of reason with the normative ordering of human life is a judgment that flows from Dooyeweerd’s insistence on recognizing not only the irreducibility of modal aspects and the distinction between subject and law (or norm) in each modality, but also the distinction between creatures and their Creator. On these terms, Dooyeweerd also denies the possibility of natural theology in the sense of a theoretical knowledge of God, made possible by human reason, which by analogia entis gains access to the mind and eternal law of God. One may speak biblically of the creation revealing the glory of God, of humans imaging God, and of God’s faithfulness and revelation to human creatures through his covenantal bond with them. One may say that God’s law binds humans so that their obedience to it leads them to the knowledge of God. But everything known of God comes from what God has revealed in, through, and to creation. Human knowledge of God cannot be something that transcends the boundaries or the temporal law-order of creation itself. Dooyeweerd thus follows Calvin in what he refers to as Calvin’s essential return to Augustine insofar as the latter sought to reject the neoplatonic blurring of boundaries between Creator and creature. Calvin is intransigent, says Dooyeweerd, in his opposition to every attempt to make human reason or the human will a co-legislator with God or with divine reason, because such an attempt invariably finds its origin in a speculative idea of a community of reason or will between God and creature.29

Law/Norm Pluriformity

Going no further than this in introducing Dooyeweerd’s cosmonomic philosophy, we have already touched on two important characteristics of the creation. The first is the creation’s pluriformity and the second is the creation’s law-order comprising both laws and norms.

(1) The creation’s pluriformity is the ground of Dooyeweerd’s normative affirmation of societal pluralism, which is the human obligation to develop, care for, and do justice to the creation’s diversity, including the diversity of human social responsibilities. Dooyeweerd emphasizes two meanings of the creation’s pluriformity. The first is that God’s creatures are many, each with a distinct identity or individuality. The second meaning of the creation’s pluriformity is its modal structure and the irreducible “”sphere sovereignty”” of every modality.

(2) With respect to the characteristic difference between laws and norms, consider, for example, the difference between biotic laws and legal norms. Humans as well as plants and animals have no choice about, or responsibility for, the way biotic laws govern their biotic functions. In that regard, we speak of natural laws. By contrast, juridical norms hold for humans in a way that requires human response and “”positivization.”” Humans may obey or disobey the normative demands of justice in the way they shape society, but they cannot escape those demands. By their very identity humans are (among other things) juridically responsible creatures. Thus, part of what distinguishes humans from other creatures is precisely their normed or responsible character. According to Dooyeweerd, one of the distinguishing characteristics of “”norms”” in contrast to “”natural laws”” is that in all of the normative modalities or law spheres “”the laws are given only in the form of principles. They do not automatically bring about results in the subjective course of events, as is the case in a natural process. They appeal to the normative power of human judgment and require the giving of form, positivizing by human will.””30 Plants and animals are not responsibly subject to the norms of logical reasoning, economic stewardship, doing justice, and so forth, even though all of these norms hold humans accountable for the way they relate to plants and animals and other creatures. Both the “”natural laws”” to which humans are involuntarily subject as well as the “”norms”” for human responsibility, according to Dooyeweerd, constitute the law-side (in contrast to the subject-side) of creation. And humans are subject to all laws and norms simultaneously.

Because humans bear diverse kinds of responsibility, it is possible to account for the moment of truth as well as the errors in various philosophical reductionisms. Take for example the liberal reaction to earlier governmental authoritarianism, which denied real political responsibility to those who are subject to authority. Partly because authoritarianism had mistakenly identified certain human superiors (feudal lords, kings, etc.) as the law for their subjects, we can understand why the reaction of the French revolutionaries (“”Neither God nor master””) arose. But two wrongs do not make a right. The opposition to authoritarianism (in contrast to authority) has legitimate grounds because all humans have indeed been called to responsibility. Yet the mistaken conception of human responsibility as autonomous freedom leads liberals into the antinomy noted earlier. Human responsibility can only exist in relation to the Creator’s normative obligations that hold for and call forth that responsibility. And in every institution some people will exercise the authority that belongs to the governance or direction of that institution. A creationally normative response to the injustices of the ancien regime would have been to recognize that the identification of certain persons with the law ignores the difference between subjects and law. True human freedom comes not from the declaration of an unrealizable autonomy, but from obedience to God’s creation-order norms that call all human subjects to responsibility.

As we will see below, Dooyeweerd’s account of the historical differentiation of the res publica together with the differentiation of non-state institutions and associations shows how the res publica makes possible the emergence of a realm of civil private law (or private common law). A limited, public-interest state is, in fact, what makes possible the recognition of individual persons in distinction from the roles and responsibilities that people bear within families, churches, and business enterprises, for example. What liberalism has done is to take that important truth of individual freedom under the law and absolutize it as an ideal of complete autonomy. The free person is intellectually abstracted (mistakenly) from the full context of public-legal protection in a differentiated society. Liberalism then moves backwards from its absolutized ideal to try to construct all human obligations and social relationships on the basis of a presumed human autonomy. The effort becomes unhistorical and antinomic, as we have already seen. Yet the very possibility of the error, according to Dooyeweerd, can be accounted for because of the insight into the normative order of creation, which calls forth the differentiation of society, the state, and the distinguishable realm of individual freedom.

Modal and Individuality Structures

Part of what distinguishes Dooyeweerd’s Christian cosmonomic-idea philosophy is the way he articulates the relationship between the modalities of the creation order, on the one hand, and the diverse kinds of creatures and institutions, on the other. The diversity of modal laws and norms embraces the entire creation all at once. And every creature has an identity that is subject to those laws but not reducible to them. For example, physical laws hold for all physical subjects at the same time that biotic laws hold for all living subjects at the same time that juridical norms hold for all juridical subjects, and so forth. Humans are subject to all such laws and norms simultaneously. But “”there is not a single law-sphere that may be considered as the exclusive origin of individuality.””31 The individuality of each creature cannot be explained in terms of any single modality or of all of them together. We know from everyday experience that the difference between a plant and an animal, for example, is that even though both are physical and biotic creatures, the animal is more than a physical and biotic creature. It is also a sensitive creature capable of habits and reactions that are foreign to plants. Likewise, while humans are physical, biotic, and sensitive creatures, they are also rational, historical, economic, aesthetic, juridical, and loving creatures. Analyzing the modalities helps us understand how things function even though such analysis cannot account for what each creature is as a whole.

For the most part, Dooyeweerd’s work concentrates on analyzing the modal functioning of different creatures to show how particular modal functions serve as the “”founding”” functions and the “”guiding”” (or “”qualifying””) functions of the full individuality of those creatures. A plant, for example, is a biotically qualified creature; an animal is a sensitively qualified creature, and so forth. These modal functions do not in themselves establish the peculiar identity of an apple tree or a tomato plant or a fox or a whale, because the individuality of each lies beyond modal explanation. Nevertheless, the universality of each modal sphere represents part of the order of God’s single creation, and the way different creatures function in them reveals a great deal about their unique identity. A vast array of creatures function in accord with a diversity of modal laws, all of which hold for the single, pluriform creation.32

Taking seriously the modal law-structure of reality, Dooyeweerd tries to account for the reductionisms and antinomies evident in many philosophical and scientific arguments. Hobbes argued, for example, that everything is matter in motion. That is true in one sense, namely, that every physical thing in creation is subject to physical laws. But his statement is not true if it is taken to mean that physical laws are sufficient to provide an exhaustive explanation of everything.33 Physical reductionism appears to be possible because of the universal embrace of physical laws, but it becomes antinomic when the reductionist tries thereby to account for everything in the universe. There is more than a physical law-side to the universe and the “”more”” cannot be accounted for in terms of physical laws alone. Or take biological reductionism. It is true that every living creature, including humans, is subject to biotic laws. But biological reductionism cannot account for the various non-biotic dimensions of human experience that supposedly emerge in the course of biological evolution. To argue that humans are nothing more than highly evolved, increasingly complicated living organisms since they, like fish, fowl, and animals, are also biotic creatures, offers no explanation of how and why humans exhibit logical, economic, juridical, and ethical functions. Biotic laws can, at most, explain biological functioning; they cannot explain the non-biotic functions. Biotic laws may be universal in their embrace, but they no more exhaust the universe than do physical laws. The human ability to write music and create musical instruments presupposes aesthetic and crafting norms. The very nature of such norms distinguishes them from biotic laws and thus the former cannot be accounted for in terms of biotic evolution.34

Even within the normative realm, aesthetic norms cannot be reduced to logical or historical or juridical norms. If, for example, a Marxist or a capitalist says that all of human social life can be explained in terms of economic laws, the statement has validity if it means that all humans act in economic ways as characterized by the production, exchange, and use of goods and services. There is no human life without economic activity. Yet the statement is wrong if its intention is to say that all political, familial, artistic, cultic, and academic activities and institutions can be accounted for in terms of economic functions and norms. The very mention of political, familial, and academic institutions takes for granted a diversity that is more than economic in order to try to give an economically reductionistic account of that diversity. Economic norms are universal but not exhaustive.

The fact that in the history of science and the humanities we have witnessed many different kinds of reductionistic attempts to explain reality bears testimony to the pluriform character of the modal structure of reality. If reality were nothing more than matter in motion, then biological reductionism could never have been attempted. If human creatures were nothing more than complicated biotic and sensitive creatures, then economic reductionism could never have been attempted. The multiplicity of reductionistic attempts bears witness to the simultaneous, universal embrace of the many modes of the creation’s order.35

It is the very character of the creation’s cosmonomic order that makes possible the illumination and confinement of human error, according to Dooyeweerd. With respect to deviancy, for example, humans can try to think illogically, speak meaninglessly, produce and consume uneconomically, relate to one another unlovingly, and build unjust political systems, but they cannot thereby achieve success and satisfaction in thought, speech, productivity, love, and justice. That is to say, by anti-normative behavior they will either immediately or gradually prove the validity of the binding character of the creation’s norms, because their actions will lead to the failure of communication, the pollution of the environment, constant conflict, and the breakdown of human community because of a lack of trust. The very fact that one person can say to another, “”That isn’t logical,”” or “”That is unjust,”” or “”Those parents are mistreating their children,”” is possible only because of a normative order by which to make such judgments and by which to see the legitimacy or illegitimacy of every human action and pattern of behavior and organization.

At this point, of course, we face the charge that all such norms have been socially constructed. But this charge, too, collapses in antinomies, Dooyeweerd argues. Without doubt, all human relationships and institutions reflect social and historical “”construction”” because humans function socially and historically in subjection to the norms of those modes of existence. Humans really do make history and creatively organize their lives. Yet “”social”” and “”historical”” norms cannot account for aesthetic, ethical, and juridical dimensions of reality. In order for ethical or juridical relationships and institutions to develop socially and historically, they have to have an ethical or juridical character. And if the attempted social or historical reduction is already grounded in the modern humanist presumption that all human norms originate from the autonomous subject, then the reductionism inevitably exhibits the antinomy of trying to identify subject and law, neither of which can generate the other.36 The norms that hold for reasoning within the single creation order in which reasoning takes place, will not allow for the successful completion of reductionistic and antinomic arguments.

The modal aspects of reality in which all creatures function are not the only dimension or horizon of the creation’s cosmonomic order. The modal dimension, as we have said, accounts for how things exist, not for what exists. The actual things that exist must be approached in terms of their full “”individuality structure.”” For our purposes here, we will consider only Dooyeweerd’s account of human life in society.37 And the first thing to say in this regard is that Dooyeweerd does not conceive of the human person as having a temporal individuality structure. Rather, he argues that humans give shape to and live through a variety of kinds of structured relationships, organizations, and institutions, each of which has its own individuality structure in accord with creation-order norms. Altogether, the full range of these relationships and institutions disclose that humans—the image of God—cannot be exhaustively disclosed in and through them. Human persons in their generations have their identity in a threefold relationship: (1) in relation to one another through a diversity of normative relationships and institutions, (2) in relation to all other creatures, and (3) ultimately in relation to God, a relationship that cannot be reduced to any or all of the first two sets of human relationships.38

To understand human temporal life, therefore, we must deal with the fullness of its relational complexity. The normative complexity of human social existence is precisely what liberalism (as well as socialism, communism, absolutism, and other “”isms””) misses and which, on its own terms, it cannot account for. To illuminate this complexity we must deal carefully with three closely interrelated realities: (1) the “”individuality structures”” of human society in relation to the modal dimensions of the creation’s law-order; (2) the historical differentiation and integration of society; and (3) the human obligation to organize and integrate differentiated societies in a just way. In the process, we will see not only the anti-reductionist, normative-empirical sweep of Dooyeweerd’s approach but also how different his historically dynamic, creation-covenant assumptions are from both those of liberal humanism and those of the Greek philosophers who sought to ascend to eternal rational forms to explain the identity of institutions and individuals.

1. Individuality Structures and Their Modal Qualifications

Dooyeweerd begins with the assumption that human life unfolds within a unified cosmos, which is God’s creation. Pluriformity, therefore, is, by God’s design, coherent and non-antinomic. It is an integrally ordered pluriformity. Normatively speaking, diversity within the creation, both among a variety of creatures and within human society, presents no inherent conflict or tension. Conflicts arise from anti-normative behavior—from disobedience to God’s creation-order norms—in the historical shaping of culture and institutions. Based on these assumptions, Dooyeweerd’s critical eye goes in search of the lawful or “”norm-full”” framework of the identity of things. This search is empirically normative in the sense that he is not an idealist trying to imagine a world other than the one in which we now live. He is not searching for eternal forms behind a materially changing reality in front of our eyes. The law-side or norm-side of reality is part of the creation, given with the creation. Consequently, all human responsibility has the character of norm-responsiveness through obedience rather than form-embodiment through rational application. The development of society historically displays both constructive and destructive, both normative and anti-normative, behavior and consequences. Philosophical and scientific attempts to articulate the character and quality of the diverse laws and norms are acts of understanding and interpretation made possible by reflecting on the actual exercise of human activity.

Through modal analysis, as we saw, Dooyeweerd discerns a multiplicity of universal modes of creaturely existence, all of which simultaneously govern the creatures of God’s cosmos. Yet creatures are distinct in their own identities. A tree is not a bush; a cat is distinct from a frog; and humans are not only distinct individually but give shape to a variety of different kinds of relationships, associations, and institutions. The philosophical question Dooyeweerd then asks about the diversity of creatures and of human life is about the “”individuality structure”” of each different kind of creature.39

Humans are unique among all creatures, says Dooyeweerd, because they do not remain confined by repetitious and instinctive behaviors that characterize creatures qualified by biotic and sensitive functions, even though humans, too, are embodied creatures who have such functions. The identity of human beings includes the capability of both individual and socially organized action based on calculation and judgment, culture shaping, imaginative anticipation, creativity, complex planning, and so forth. Moreover, humans do all of this in and through multiple relationships, organizations, and institutions as part of their very identity as inter-personal and inter-social creatures. It is precisely the unique identity of each of these relationships and social entities that needs to be normatively accounted for, according to Dooyeweerd, because nothing is possible outside the creation’s cosmonomic order. His search, then, is for the internal structural principles of different things, including the different types of human relationships and institutions. Each of the different life-spheres of human society, Dooyeweerd is convinced, has intrinsic structural principles of a normative character that constitute the sphere sovereignty of each individuality structure in distinction from the sphere sovereignty of the different modalities in which everything functions.

To be sure, it is always persons who bear institutional and relational responsibility, but a woman bears a different kind of responsibility as a mother than she does as a town council member and as a shop owner. Moreover, each of her responsibilities is bound together with the responsibilities of other people in each of those arenas of responsibility. We recognize that the family, the town council, and the retail shop each has an identity and normative responsibility of its own. We can also say that when a person becomes a mother, or joins the town council, or opens her shop, she takes on or enters into familial, governmental, or commercial responsibilities, respectively. The very possibility of recognizing and comparing different families, town governments, and commercial shops across the country and around the world exists because of a typical, normative individuality structure that each one has.

This fact of commonality—of universality—is what led Greek philosophers, on the basis of their form-matter assumptions, to look for an eternal form behind or within each materially distinct thing. By contrast, the fact of personal responsibility and the uniqueness of each historical situation has led liberals to look only to the individual’s actions to explain the origin and diversity of institutions and relationships. From a Christian creational point of view, Dooyeweerd argues, the normative individuality structure of each distinct social relationship or entity can be accounted for only in terms of the creation’s diversified orderliness that calls for human responsibility in accord with sphere sovereignty.40

The long and important tradition of Thomistic thought is not sufficiently helpful at this point, Dooyeweerd contends. Aquinas was unable to recognize and investigate the “”internal structural principles”” of each creationally grounded societal relationship because of his teleological and metaphysical view of human society. For Aquinas, to be sure, “”the State is only societas perfecta in the natural sphere. In all matters relating to salvation it is subordinate to the sacramental institute of grace; but even this relation between State and Church is formally conceived of according to the metaphysical rational order of matter and form.””41 The institutional church and human faith are, for Aquinas, “”hypostatized in the ‘sphere of grace.'”” On the other hand, rational and moral human nature is hypostatized in the sphere of nature where the state is “”conceived of as an organic ‘unitas ordinis,‘ of which all other forms of society are merely dissimilar components.””42

In Aristotle the State was necessarily based upon the rational and moral essential form of man, because he conceived of the volitional activity of the soul as exclusively belonging to its affective and desiring activity, which in itself is not inclined to follow the leading of reason in choosing the mean…between two extremes. By means of its laws the State must help to accustom the individual to virtue. This conception was adopted by Thomas in his commentary on Aristotle’s Politica and it does not appear that he abandoned it in his later works….

This realistic metaphysical theory does not have any room for the principle of the internal sphere-sovereignty of each typical structural relationship of human society after its own inner nature. It can at the utmost allow for the autonomy of non-political relationships within the State and for the autonomy of the State with respect to the Church.43

How does Dooyeweerd try to explain the internal sphere sovereignty of each typical structural relationship? He does so primarily by describing and analyzing the unique, actualized grouping of all the modal functions of each entity. Everything in creation, including every social entity, functions simultaneously in all modalities, but each thing does so in a distinct way, in keeping with its particular individuality structure. For example, every human relationship and institution functions juridically. This means, among other things, that proper to every relationship and association is an obligation for participants to do justice to one another. Thus, a teacher must be consistent in grading students’ work; employers ought to give wages and benefits appropriate to the type and quality of work, the length of time in service, and so forth; and a judge ought to mete out penalties consistently in ways that fit the crime. Yet in examining each relationship and institution from a juridical point of view, says Dooyeweerd, we should take careful note that the juridical function serves as the leading or qualifying function of only one institution, namely, the state or political community, not of the school, the family, or the corporation. In other words, a school exists not as an organized community of justice but as a community of learning. A family exists not as a community of justice but as a community of love in which children can grow to maturity and family members can share throughout life. A corporation exists as a community of production, distribution, and economically qualified services, and its responsibility to do justice to its employees, managers, stockholders, is guided by the corporation’s economic qualification. Unlike these and all other non-political associations and institutions, says Dooyeweerd, the differentiated state institution or political community, with all its branches, levels, and departments is qualified precisely by a juridical function; that is, it exists as a community of public justice. It has no other qualification.44

2. Historical Differentiation and Integration

Let us now turn to the question of the differentiation and integration of society. From Dooyeweerd’s point of view, the biblical mandate for humans to fill, cultivate, and have dominion over the earth is a multigenerational responsibility that unfolds within the cosmonomic order of creation. And integral to that order is the historical modality of cultural formation.45 The cosmonomic order of creation is not a collection of unchanging forms, accessible only to reason through its ascent to a transcendent realm above the ever-changing material world. Instead, as humans respond in obedience or disobedience to God in the creative development of all their capabilities in all spheres of life, they develop more and more kinds of relationships and institutions. They marry and raise children, cultivate the earth, tend animals, create music, build cities, and realize the creation’s potential in an increasingly diverse range of societal “”individuality structures.”” There is nothing “”un-normed”” or arbitrary about this process, nothing arbitrary or humanly autonomous about the unfolding and development of human callings, even though historical changes do occur in a humanly unpredictable, unprogrammed, free-forming way.

To speak of “”emergence”” or “”development”” is not to suggest either an immanent derivation by biotic evolution46 or the origination de novo of social diversity by historically autonomous individuals. To the contrary, the biotic and historical modes of human functioning are part of the creation order, not the origin or source of human society. Humans do indeed act historically to shape and unfold society. We can speak of a time before the industrial revolution, before the use of gunpowder, before

Get the Collegiate Experience You Hunger For

Your time at college is too important to get a shallow education in which viewpoints are shut out and rigorous discussion is shut down.

Explore intellectual conservatism
Join a vibrant community of students and scholars
Defend your principles

Join the ISI community. Membership is free.

You might also like