When I was a young child visiting my grandparents, they often had a detective show on the TV. I can still picture Perry Mason encouraging some distraught woman to give him, “Just the facts, ma’am.” It was believed that if the bare facts themselves became known, the puzzle would certainly be solved.
One of the things you may discover at university, especially in graduate school, is that there is an unspoken assumption built into many fields and disciplines: the belief that true knowledge, and the methods for arriving at true knowledge, are neutral. Many assume that information or theories or perspectives, especially decontextualized and in pure rational form, are somehow free from distorting biases.
This isn’t only an issue with what’s often called “post-modernism” which many take to be synonymous with “relativism.” All scientific or theoretical investigation is shaped by pre-theoretical commitments. These guiding commitments need not be “religious;” they may also be political or economic in nature. Virtually any ideology or -ism can function in this way to guide and shape knowing. And this is why Roy Clouser has called the idea of neutral theories or knowledge nothing less than a “myth.”
There are historical reasons why some would want to believe that objective knowledge, derived from theories disassociated from religious (or other worldview) commitments, is possible. In the West, for centuries, knowledge has been heavily influenced by the Christian Church. This can be seen in the first universities arising from Christian contexts as well as in church authorities trying to cover up inconvenient or unpopular scientific discoveries. The Enlightenment was, in part, an attempt to break this link and allow scholarship to have its own independence.
But then the pendulum swung to the other extreme and knowledge, theories, and facts were believed to not only be free from religious influence but any outside influence whatsoever. The scientific method, to take only one example, has come to be viewed as a value-free, independent, and objective way of knowing. The problem is that as long as human beings are involved in the process, there’s no escape from some form of subjectivity.
One philosopher who saw this most clearly was Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977). Dooyeweerd was professor of law at the Free University of Amsterdam for forty years, founded and served as the editor of the journal, Philosophia Reformata, and wrote extensively about the inescapability of subjectivity in every scientific discipline.
During the late 1950s, Dooyeweerd travelled through the United States giving a series of lectures on this topic. Those lectures eventually were published in 1960 as In the Twilight of Western Thought. This little book (about 130 pages) functions as an introduction to Dooyeweerd’s much larger, four-volume project on the worldview roots of knowing, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought.
Over the next eight months, I will be posting a short reflection based on each chapter of Twilight. The first chapter is what this post began with: a critique of the idea that theoretical thought can be neutral. Dooyeweerd introduces the problem by observing that over time different eras have understood the basis of theoretical thought differently (pointing out how, clearly, therefore, theorizing isn’t inherently objective) and how different philosophical trends understand theoretical thought differently, often producing ideas that work at cross-purposes with each other. What Dooyeweerd allows us to see is that scientific inquiry, theoretical thought, lacks an inherent neutrality within itself.
Dooyeweerd then presents his “modal scale” or the spectrum of aspects that any “thing” can be examined through. Theoretical thought, Dooyeweerd shows, has a multiplicity to it, just like our experience of the world reveals to us a world richly varied and diverse. Different “things” in the world exist differently and therefore must be studied differently if they are to be known in a way proper to what they are. And then Dooyeweerd concludes the first chapter by going all the way back to Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and the introduction of a split between the objective and the subjective in Western thought. Dooyeweerd shows how the “I” of the scientific or theoretical knower cannot be divorced from the empirical or human “I” of the individual. Knowing is never disembodied.
If you are a Christian student, Dooyeweerd is one of those Christian philosophers who puts important theoretical tools in your toolbox if you’re going to engage your academic work as a faithful and servant-hearted scholar. Join us as we dive deeply into this theoretical framework which has provided countless Christian scholars with the skills needed to serve God and the world through scholarship.
Through the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology in Cambridge, a Junior Scholars Reading Group will be starting later this month and will be taking up reading Twilight together. You are warmly invited to join our group (or just follow along here on the blog each month). Take a look at the invitation below and let me know if you’d be interested in joining us! Steve Bishop has also given a great gift to us by compiling a study guide of Twilight that you’re encouraged to check out along the way. See you back next month for chapter 2 in which Dooyeweerd goes deeper into who this “I” or this “self” is who engages in theoretical thought and how that shapes knowing.