The Triune Structure of Experience

Last Saturday Faith-in-Scholarship hosted a workshop about Christian philosophy with Dr Jeremy Ive. Having asked what “Christian philosophy” might be, I’m now going to share the basics of a proposal concerning the structure of our experience. For now this framework is presented in Jeremy’s thesis awaiting publication… so remember, you heard it here first!

Three Transcendental Conditions

Does reality have a structure that humans have to acknowledge? Let’s start with an example from geometry. If we reflect on what reality feels like spatially, one of the obvious things is that there are three dimensions. You really can only find three mutually-perpendicular axes of space, and we can’t (as far as I know) imagine space any other way. Emmanuel Kant proposed that the human mind actually imposes the basic structures of time and space that we experience, in outlining his doctrine of transcendental idealism. But wherever they come from, there clearly are constraints (“transcendentals”) for the ways we can conceive reality.

It may be argued that a more fundamental set of conditions is necessary for us to have any experience at all. There are things, there are relations, and there are events. “Things” are just the items we recognise, like rocks, people and companies; they don’t have to be detached, tightly bounded or universally recognised. Although as babies we may have had a stream of consciousness without distinguishing people/things at all, we don’t remember that, and it probably wasn’t “experience” as we know it. Secondly, there are relations among things. This covers the sensations we have in perceiving a thing: we stand in relation to it as we conceive its location, colour, potential behaviour, economic value, etc. Thirdly, there are events. Our sensations are dynamic, giving rise to the sense of continuity and the possibility of change. Each of these three limiting “Ideas”, as Jeremy calls them, reveals a transcendental, as shown in the diagram below.  We’re playing thought experiments again: can you imagine a situation or state of affairs without conceiving of things, relations and events?

Ive's triangle

So the three transcendentals of particularity, relationality and time are supposed to lie behind our basic ideas of people/things, relations and events. The diagram also indicates three “descriptive views” (blue circles) in which we can begin to analyse reality. Lived experience comes to us in a rich, dynamic flow of consciousness, but undisturbed reflection allows us to focus, abstract and attempt to describe the world. The structural, life-history and evolutionary perspectives (my terms!) probably come up in most academic disciplines, for example, although there will often be a focus on just one or two.

This may appeal to you if you like big, unifying schemes, and believe that philosophy should start from common sense. The epistemology in play here (of which more another time) puts great weight on the phenomena we experience. And that’s where this proposal departs from that large body of the Western philosophical tradition that posits some kind of unfamiliar “substance” (e.g. matter or spacetime) behind the appearances we observe. The “substance” approach is unlikely to be either realistic or fruitful, Christians might suspect, because, originating in non-theistic cultures, the “substance” idea is suspiciously similar to an impersonal notion of what is divine.

Jeremy’s triangular proposal is actually a synthesis inspired by the notion of perichoresis in Trinitarian theology. It’s not meant to be natural theology (drawing inferences about God from nature), or evidence for the Trinity. The main source, in fact, is the 20th-century Dutch philosophers Dirk Vollenhoven and Herman Dooyeweerd. These brothers-in-law are said to have hit on their big idea one day when one (or both?) of them took a walk along the coastal dunes near Amsterdam. But that’s a story (and a diagram) for another time!

You can read more about Jeremy’s work, including his thesis, at

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