Myodicy, Issue 27, November 2006

Dooyeweerd on Meaning and Being

by Alvin Plantinga

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EDITORS' NOTE: The reference is to Dr. Herman Dooyeweerd, Professor of Philosophy of Law in the Free University of Amsterdam, who is currently lecturing in this country and in Canada under the auspices of the Reformed Fellowship. With an appeal to the biblical truths of Creation, Fall, and Redemption, and from within the Reformed tradition, Professor Dooyeweerd has fashioned a significant critique of immanence philosophy, and has offered for appraisal a new philosophical, construct, a single aspect of which comes under scrutiny in this article. Although the article raises questions about a detail of Professor Dooyeweerd's philosophy, it intends, not to destroy, but only to contribute to the continuing conversation going on within the Reformed community, the purpose of which is to attain to Christian philosophical clarity. Dooyeweerd's own contribution to this conversation is vast and Journal readers are encouraged to read his learned and penetrating three-volume work entitled A New Critique of Theoretical Thought. - The Editors.

This article was originally published in the October 1958 issue of the Reformed Journal. The original page numbers have been retained. -TP

There is much to admire in Professor Dooyeweerd's Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea. This system is rich and variegated, suggestive and stimulating. Adventurous and bold in the quest for a more profound understanding of the philosophical implications of Christianity, Professor Dooyeweerd does not shrink from criticizing and revising traditional Reformed ways of thinking where it seems to him that they have strayed from the path of truth. And this is as it should be. For a slavish adherence to traditional modes of thought can discourage and stultify intellectual progress. Therefore I hope that the critical character of the following remarks does not suggest that I intend them as an attack upon Professor Dooyeweerd's system as a whole or upon any aspect of it. They are meant solely as elucidatory questions, not as critical conclusions.

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Traditional Christian doctrine has held that God's creation of the world consisted in producing finite beings where there had been (if temporal language is appropriate) only an Infinite Being. After creation there were two kinds of being; and the being of creation, though finite and contingent, was nevertheless thought to be genuine being and genuinely distinct from God. Something like this, I take it, has been the root of Christian opposition to the various forms of pantheism constantly cropping up in the history of philosophy.

In this ascription of being to created reality, the tradition, Professor Dooyeweerd believes, has led us astray. He wishes to argue that the term "being" is applicable to God alone; that referring to created reality as "being" is in some way to deify the cosmos and cut it loose from its dependence upon God. "Being is to be ascribed to God, whereas creation has only meaning, the dependent mode of reality or existence." [NOTE 1] My aim is to elucidate this view. The following are capsule statements of it:

[The] universal character of referring and expressing, which is proper to our entire created cosmos, stamps created reality as meaning, in accordance with its dependent non-self-sufficient nature. Meaning is the being of all that has been created and the nature even of our selfhood (I, 4).
From the start, however, our inquiries should make clear the ultimate character of meaning as the mode of reality of the whole of creation, which finds no rest in itself (I, 96, 97).

What could be meant by, "Meaning is the being of all that has been created"? We should not be misled by the occurrence of the word "being" in this formula. Here it is clearly equivalent to "existence," "reality," and the like. Dooyeweerd is not of course denying that created reality exists or is real. The question he wishes to raise is about its mode of existence. Created reality, he says, exists not as being but as meaning. At first sight this is a puzzling assertion. Meaning, as we usually understand it, is a property of sentences, codes, poems, assertions, and (sometimes) events, as when we speak of the meaning of the French Revolution. But in none of these cases is it intelligible to identify

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the meaning of some form of words or some event with the words or the event itself. I can ask you what you mean by a given statement; but that the meaning and the statement are not simply the same thing is clear from the fact that you can express your meaning in different words or even in a different language. In the case of the meaning of events this is still clearer. Though I can talk of the meaning of the French Revolution, if I were to insist that the French Revolution itself just is meaning, you would be justifiably mystified. Further, concepts attaching naturally to meanings do not seem to apply intelligibly to things and events, and vice versa. It seems nonsense, for example, to speak of a meaning six feet long, or traveling at thirty feet per second. Similarly, meanings may be precise, clear, delicate, muddy, adumbrated, concealed, esoteric, etc.; and careful reflection upon these predicates will reveal that in the sense they apply to meanings they cannot be attached intelligibly to things or events. What follows is not, of course, that to describe all of creation as meaning is to talk nonsense. But it does follow that the significance of such an assertion is far from clear. Whatever it means to say "Meaning is the being of all that has been created," it does not, presumably, mean to deny our basic and inevitable distinctions between meanings and things.

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What does it mean then? Perhaps we can get a clue by considering more closely the passages in which Dooyeweerd denies that created reality has being. "Being is to be ascribed to God, whereas creation has only meaning, the dependent mode of reality or existence." Essential to characterizing creation as meaning, then, is the claim that created reality is in some way dependent, presumably upon God. "[The] universal character of referring and expressing, which is proper to our entire created cosmos, stamps created reality as meaning, in accordance with its dependent non-self-sufficient nature." Here again the notion of dependence is central, and with it are introduced the notions of referring and expressing. Created reality depends upon God, refers to Him, and expresses something -- perhaps God's plan or His will. "From the start, however, our inquiries should make clear the ultimate character of meaning as the mode of reality of the whole of creation, which finds no rest in itself ... Only God's Being is not meaning, because He alone exists by and through Himself" (I, 96, 97). Once again the notion of non-self-sufficiency is stressed; God's being is not meaning, because He is self-sufficient and independent of what He has created; creation, on the other hand, is (rather than has) meaning because it lacks this self-sufficiency and independence. So the evidence for the assertion that creation is meaning is the fact that creation is not self-sufficient and that in some way it refers to, points to, its Creator.

It is tempting to think that for Dooyeweerd "Meaning is the being of all that has been created" means simply that created reality is dependent and that it refers to God. So understood, the doctrine that creation is meaning would not add anything to the Christian doctrine of the dependence of creation; it would be no more than a new way of saying the same thing. But then, of course, Dooyeweerd's doctrine becomes (at any rate within the Christian community) a truism rather than a new and startling analysis of created being. For Christians have always held that created reality depends upon God, and they have always held that in some way creation points to, refers to its Creator. Indeed, Thomas Aquinas, for whom Dooyeweerd has some harsh words, would on this interpretation be in solid agreement with the doctrine that created reality is meaning rather than being, for he insisted both that created reality is dependent and not self-sufficient and that it points to God. So on this interpretation Dooyeweerd's doctrine, which looked new and startling, turns into a truism. And it is implausible to suppose that Dooyeweerd meant to announce a truism as a new analysis of created being.

There are further indications that by "Meaning is the being of all that has been created" Dooyeweerd means much more than that created reality is dependent upon God and refers to him. For example, he apparently holds that in some sense a creature is a combination of functions (or of functionings) which are themselves sometimes referred to as aspects or levels of meaning. Then there is his rejection of the doctrine of substance, which, he thinks, is intimately connected with the doctrine that created reality is being, rather than meaning. And finally, since the traditional understanding of the dependence and referential character of creation could be expressed by saying that created reality is being and has meaning (instead of saying that it is meaning), Dooyeweerd's rejection of that formula also reveals that when he claims created reality is meaning rather than being he means what he says and is not simply expressing an old doctrine in new words.

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So let us try once more to see what is meant by the doctrine that meaning is the being of all that has been created. We might next examine Dooyeweerd's rejection of the view that creation has, rather than is, meaning. The objection here is as follows: "If created things are only the bearers of meaning, they themselves must have another

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mode of being different from that of the dependent creaturely existence referring beyond and above itself, and in no way self-sufficient. Then with immanence-philosophy it must be possible to abstract meaning from reality" (II, 31). Dooyeweerd seems to be making the following suggestion: if we maintain that created reality has meaning and is being, then the meaning and the being of created reality are two very different things. And its being, as opposed to its meaning, would no longer refer beyond and above itself, would no longer be dependent upon God. Created reality would then contain two components, being and meaning, and only the one, meaning, would make any reference to God.

But I suggest that this is a specious difficulty. One of the things implied, I suppose, by saying created reality has meaning and refers to God is that created reality is contingent. About any created being we can always ask why it is the way it is, and indeed, why it is at all. And ultimately, according to Christian doctrine, the answer will refer to God. But we cannot ask the same kind of question about God. Thus contingent being bears an intrinsic reference to uncontingent, necessary Being. And this is part of what is meant by saying that created reality has meaning. But what could be meant by abstracting this meaning of created reality from its being? How could we go about that? What would it be like to abstract the contingency of a creature from its being? We perform a Gedanken experiment in which we remove the contingency from a created being and then consider what's left over. But what would be left over? So far as I can see, nothing at all. The contingency of a created being is not like the paint on a table, such that we can remove it in thought and examine the remainder. To remove the contingency of a created being is to remove the being altogether; nothing thinkable would remain. The relation between a thing and its contingency is, if you like, an internal relation; to remove one in thought or in actuality is to remove the other. [NOTE 2] In fact the root of the whole difficulty is the propensity to think of a thing and its meaning as really two things somehow conjoined. But of course the contingency of a thing is not another thing at all. And hence Dooyeweerd's worry about the danger of abstracting being from meaning seems to be largely misguided. The proper way to skirt that pitfall is not to deny that created reality has being, but instead to avoid thinking of the meaning of a thing as another thing somehow joined to it.

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This argument will not help us then. We are unable to see what Dooyeweerd means by asserting that meaning is the mode of being of created reality. We might try, next, to get some insight into the doctrine by considering Dooyeweerd's response to the objection that "meaning cannot live, act, or move" (I, 97). Dooyeweerd replies as follows: "But is not this life, this action, this movement, with respect to the mode of existence of created reality, itself meaning, pointing beyond itself, not coming to rest in itself? Only God's Being is not meaning, because He alone exists by and through Himself" (I, 97). In other words the action, life and movement characteristic of created reality constitute meaning, refer beyond themselves, and are not self-sufficient. But this again seems to be the truistic sense of meaning, for it shows only that created reality points beyond itself. And when Dooyeweerd insists that only God has being because only he exists in and through Himself our suspicion of truism is confirmed; if a necessary condition of having being is existing through oneself, then of course, creation has no being. But In that sense Christian philosophers have never supposed that it did. Dooyeweerd's argument entails that creation is significant; but it is quite another thing to say that it is significance.

I began by expressing puzzlement over the dictum that meaning is the being of created reality. So far we have seen that the sense of "meaning" here cannot be any sense with which we are familiar in ordinary parlance. And in our attempt to discover what new sense Dooyeweerd gives to this term, we have been frustrated -- on the one hand by the suspicion that the doctrine is only a new way of saying that created reality is not self-sufficient, and on the other by the certainty that this truism cannot be Dooyeweerd's meaning.

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I shall now waive (if that is not too weak a word) this difficulty and assume that some intelligible and non-truistic explication can be given the doctrine. The point of the view seems to me to be the rejection of the philosophical doctrine of substance. This, I think, is what really lies behind Dooyeweerd's insistence that meaning is the mode of being of created reality. He maintains that a truly Christian philosophy has no place for the notion of substance. And what he seems to have in mind here is primarily the Thomistic-Aristotelian conception of substance according to which a substance is a unit of being, a relatively independent and persisting entity which may have attributes but is not itself an attribute of any other being. Such a doctrine has seemed attractive to many philosophers because of its use in accounting
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for such things as freedom, causality, activity, personal identity, memory, the unity and integrity enjoyed by the things of common experience, and the like. In particular, most Christian philosophers have been inclined to subscribe to some such doctrine. Why does Dooyeweerd reject substance? He seems to have at least three arguments. One of these is purely philosophical in the sense that it does not depend upon a Christian commitment, while the other two are closely connected with Christian doctrine.

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The first objection is that a substantialist doctrine cannot account for the unity of our everyday experience. Let me put this doctrine in Dooyeweerd's own words: a doctrine of substance

is founded in an absolutized theoretical "Gegenstandrelation." "Substances" are opposed as "things in themselves" to human consciousness. They are represented as being quite independent of the latter, independent of possible sensible perception, independent of the theoretical logical function of thought. They are thus excluded from the subject-object relation which is essential to naive experience .... While it is acknowledged that human consciousness stands in an intentional relation to the substances, this is considered to be immaterial for the reality of the substances in themselves. This view consequently breaks the integral coherence of all the modal aspects of our experience asunder (II, 11).
Exactly what is the point of this objection? Dooyeweerd apparently objects to the doctrine that knowledge makes no difference to what is known. This, I take it, is the meaning of his strictures on the independence of substances from our noetic functions. And such independence, Dooyeweerd thinks, excludes them from the "subject-object relation which is essential to naive experience" and "breaks the integral coherence of all the modal aspects of our experience asunder." But what reason is there for believing this extraordinary statement? If I hold that trees, for example, are independent of my knowing them, how does this exclude them from the subject-object relationship? How does it break up the unity of my experience? Indeed, I should regard it as a virtue of the substance view that it allows us to hold that what is known does not derive its character from being known. Dooyeweerd's view here, as he certainly knows, is a peculiarly modern one which originated with Kant and is shared by most of the idealisms of the present and recent past. But it is a view which has suffered telling criticisms. What about unknown facts in the past, for example? Does the doctrine mean that when there were no (human) knowers there was nothing to be known? Supposing we do not know what Caesar had for breakfast the day he crossed the Rubicon; does this in any way affect the facts concerning that breakfast? The doctrine that the knowing relation is an intrinsic component of what is known is surely implausible, prima facie, at any rate, and to condemn a substance doctrine on these grounds seems very odd. Only one who already had strong idealistic propensities would be inclined to give it any weight at all.

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A second objection, and this time one connected with Christian doctrine, is the following. Dooyeweerd apparently thinks that to attribute substantiality to created being is to set up "an ultimate resting point for theoretical thought within the created cosmos." That is, we are in danger of idolizing some aspect of created reality if we admit that it has the relative self-sufficiency and self-containedness connoted by the idea of substance. Only God is an ultimate resting point for theoretical thought. But does the doctrine of substance set up an ultimate resting point for thought within the created world? The self-sufficiency of a created substance is not self-sufficiency over against God, but over against other created beings. All that is meant is that a substance enjoys a mode of being more independent than that of, let us say, a color, which can exist only as a characteristic of a substance. Substances are not as such parts of other created beings and have, therefore, a relative independence as contrasted with attributes and relations. But surely this is no grounds for holding that they constitute an ultimate resting place for theoretical thought. Fundamentally, this objection is a reiteration of the demand that created reality refer beyond itself and that it be contingent. But I fail to see how this demand is in any way compromised by a substantialist doctrine.

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Thirdly, Dooyeweerd objects to the notion of substance or being on the grounds that it necessarily involves "the Greek dialectical religious basic motive of the scholastic metaphysical theory of analogical being and the concept of substance implied in it" (III, 73). Dooyeweerd quite correctly insists that the form and matter motive employed in the scholastic analysis of substance is taken from Greek thought, in particular that of Aristotle. And Greek thought, he maintains, is dominated and controlled by religious presuppositions contrary to those of Christianity. Specifically, the philosophical conception of matter and form is a theoretical reflection of Greek religious commitments: it "originated from the encounter of the older pre-Homeric Greek religion of life ... with the later cultural religion of the Olympic gods" (I, 62). The matter-motive is thus identified with the religious commitment of the pre-Homeric nature religions while the form-motive originates from the religion of form, measure and harmony

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characteristic of later Greece. And the philosophical notion of form and matter as used by Plato and Aristotle never freed itself from this religious root. "The autonomy which philosophic theoria demanded, in opposition to popular belief, implied, as we have observed in an earlier context, only an emancipation from the mythological forms which were bound to sensory representation. It did not at all imply a loosening of philosophic thought from the central religious ground-motive which was born out of the encounter of the culture-religion with the older religion of life" (I, 62). The notion of substance, then, is ultimately tied up with the basic motive of Greek religion, which was, of course, non-Christian. And hence to employ the notion of substance is in some way to compromise one's Christianity. Such is the argument in brief. But it is surely unconvincing.

For in the first place it is not at all clear that any doctrine of substance necessarily involves the notions of matter and form, at least in the specific and quite technical way in which Thomas and Aristotle developed these notions. And even if this were not so, Dooyeweerd's arguments, consisting as they do in somewhat speculative assertions about the original religious contexts in which these ideas arose, would be inconclusive. Even if it could be shown in convincing detail that the notions of form and matter first arose in the context of Greek religion, it would by no means follow that there is a necessary logical connection between substance and Greek religion. And how could such a connection be established by historical inquiry? What reason have we to suppose that the taint of Greek religion still lingers about these concepts? We can reach a fair answer only by carefully examining the concepts themselves and the parts they play in post-Greek Christian philosophies such as those of Thomas, Bonaventura, Scotus, and the like. Specifically how, for example, does Thomas fall victim to Greek religion in employing the concepts of matter and form? To chide Thomas for using a concept arising in pagan Greek thought might be like excoriating St. Augustine for writing in a language developed in pagan Rome. I have no time for a full evaluation of Dooyeweerd's mode of argument here. That would lead us to some of the most fundamental questions confronting any attempt at a Christian philosophy. All I wish to say now is that it is extraordinarily difficult to draw a clear distinction between those generally human intellectual products which can be employed fruitfully in such a venture and those which cannot. Surely much of the world's treasures must be appropriated -- language is a prime example. And to suppose, as Dooyeweerd seems to, that a doctrine of substance is suspect just because it has genetic connections with "the dialectic and religious basic motive of form and matter" is to suppose too much. What we are presently concerned with is the present logical connections of such ideas; their ancestry is interesting, but not in this way relevant.

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Dooyeweerd's reasons for rejecting substance, then, are not convincing. But the doctrine that "meaning is the mode of being of created reality" is itself involved in important difficulties. What I say will have to be sketchy, not only because space is limited, but also because, as you remember, we have not yet found an intelligible non-truistic interpretation of this doctrine. The first problem concerns the difficulty of accounting for action, movement, and causation in terms of Dooyeweerd's schema. How can a meaning or a group of meanings be causally active, for example? If someone seriously insisted that he had caught the square root of two on a fishing expedition we should be at a complete loss as to what he was talking about. Similarly, with the suggestion that meanings can move about or be causally active. Perhaps this is clearer with respect to human selves. Let us consider, for example, such a phenomenon as memory. Memory presupposes the temporal persistence of a conscious self from the occurrence of the remembered item to the occurrence of the memory. This seems most simply interpreted in terms of a substantial view of the self. But what could be meant by saying that a meaning remembers? Similarly with such activities as judging. Suppose I judge that the Taj Mahal is more beautiful than Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church. What is it that does the comparing? And in what sense could it be described as meaning or a meaning? What would be meant by such a description? Meanings are the objects of judgments; they are not themselves judgers. Again, we maintain that in some sense the self is free. But how can freedom be predicted of meanings? It seems to make no sense to assert that a meaning is either free or not free. It just isn't that sort of thing. All of these phenomena seem to require the assertion that the self is being, and further, that it is some sort of substantial being.

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Finally, the doctrine that meaning is the mode of being of created reality seems to me to jeopardize the doctrine of creation. For it suggests that the relation between God and creation. is like the relation between a mind and the meanings it entertains. I am not, of course, suggesting that Dooyeweerd wishes to hold any such thing; but if

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creation is merely meaning it is hard to see how else to understand its relation to God. Now Dooyeweerd rightly rejects any dictation to philosophy on the part of theology; and where he thinks that traditional Reformed thinking deviates from the truth, he does not shrink from suggesting revisions. One of his virtues as a philosopher, I take it, is his refusal to be bound by all the formulae of past Reformed thinking. Still, however, if the total result is to be called a Christian philosophy and in particular a Reformed philosophy, it must be consistent with the spirit and the main doctrines of the Reformed and Christian tradition. And if his doctrine that meaning is the mode of being of created reality does imply that the relation between God and creation is like that between a thinker and the meanings he entertains, then at this point the accusation of a really significant departure from the Reformed and Christian tradition would be justified. For then created reality becomes constitutive of God's mind and thus of God.

And this is clearly to controvert the Christian conception of creation with its ontological chasm between God and created reality. But to have such a chasm seems to presuppose being on the part of creation as well as on the part of God. How, for example, can we conceive of sin in the context of a creature that is merely meaning? Can a meaning sin? What would an evil meaning be like, unless it is thought of as entertained by an evil being? The Christian philosopher must steer a nice course between the Scylla of giving finite reality too much self-sufficiency and power, and the Charybdis of altogether divesting creation of distinctness and "over-againstness" with respect to God. The first alternative threatens God's uniqueness and sovereignty; the second courts pantheism. Rightly determined to avoid Scylla, Dooyeweerd steers perilously close to Charybdis; for the very attempt to emphasize God's transcendent uniqueness and sovereignty may end by making him the author of evil in a very intimate sense and by denying an ontological distinction between Creator and creation altogether. Professor Dooyeweerd, we may be sure, is entirely aware of the danger. But in the absence of further elucidation, the dictum that meaning is the mode of being of created reality makes it hard to see how God and creation are to be kept distinct. The difficulty, of course, is with the dictum itself. For so long as we cannot discover more precisely what that dictum means, so long we shall remain in the dark about its precise implications for important Christian doctrines. END


A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, tr. D.H. Freeman and H. De Jongste (original title: De Wijsbegeerte der Wetsidee), 3 vols. Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1953. Vol. I, p. 3. All subsequent quotations are from this work and will be designated in the text by means of page and volume number.

Of course I am not suggesting that a creature's being and its contingency are identical.

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