This is the second installment of my series of reflections on Herman Dooyeweerd’s little book, In the Twilight of Western Thought. If you’re following along in this series or you’re part of the Kirby Laing Centre’s Junior Scholars Hub, welcome back! This week I’m reflecting on chapter 2: “The Concentric Character of the Self,” which closes out Part 1 of the book in which Dooyeweerd confronts “The Pretended Autonomy of Philosophical Thought.”

Already you should have a sense of Dooyeweerd’s project. He discerns a rot in the house of Western thought. And with prophetic insight and proclamation, he’s attempting to reveal that the sun is setting on the Western project of enlightened, autonomous thought; it has reached its twilight. The shadows are lengthening. The darkness is descending.

Where lies the problem for Dooyeweerd? It is precisely in how, since the rise of the Enlightenment, the human thinking person has been conceptualized and viewed. The problem is not limited to philosophy or theology. For Dooyeweerd, all scholarly thinking is fundamentally and profoundly affected, shaped, directed by one’s pretheoretical presuppositions or starting points. The two most basic questions that Dooyeweerd addresses are: Who is the thinker when they are thinking? And, where is the thinker when they are thinking?

The logical contradictions we encounter (like the fundamental issue of unity and diversity), the reductionisms that muddle our thinking, and the elusiveness of a coherent view of all of reality are due to the human thinker conceiving of themselves in god-like (divine) fashion: as somehow independent from their object of study and reflection and therefore objectively neutral. This, then, leads to the second problem that Dooyeweerd draws our attention to: the human thinker does not occupy a detached, separate, or independent place when they are thinking. 

These are what Dooyeweerd calls pretheoretical presuppositions that the “I” brings to thinking and which make neutrality impossible. These presuppositions that operate prior to reason display a religious character, says Dooyeweerd, because they concern how we conceive of ourselves in relation to everything else. This is “the fundamental crisis of contemporary Western thought … the human ego” (25). How is the human ego, the thinking “I”, related to what Dooyeweerd called “the Absolute” (25) or “its divine origin” (24)?

Dooyeweerd sees four options in the history of Western thought. The ancient Greeks operated with a “form-matter motive” (27). The (Judeo-)Christian tradition places the human thinker within the cosmic drama of Scripture (Creation, Fall, Redemption). The medieval scholastic period introduced an “accommodation of the biblical and the Greek religious basic motives” (32). And the modern or Enlightenment period operates out of a “Humanistic motive of nature and freedom” (27). Of these four options, argues Dooyeweerd, only the biblical is radical enough in its critique of all things to properly understand the human thinker within the diversity of the world and its phenomena.

For Dooyeweerd, it is only when we engage in theoretical thought from this biblical ground-motive that we can discover “the real root, or center, of human nature.” This, in turn, “unmasks the idols of the human ego, which arise by seeking this center within the temporal horizon of our experience” (31). It is only the realization that we are embodied and rooted within God’s creation that “unmasks any absolutization of the relative, … [freeing] philosophical thought from dogmatic prejudices which impede an integral view of the real structures of human experience” (37).

This is why I love Dooyeweerd: because his insights into the structure of human thought itself make possible the most radical form of critique: the critique not only of all things and ideas but even one’s own. Every discipline is built on presuppositions, assumptions, what Dooyeweerd calls “dogmas,” that go unquestioned within our discipline (according to fad and fashion at any given time). 

Every graduate student discovers this at some point: there are certain unquestioned beliefs (Dooyeweerd would call them, therefore, “religious” in nature) upon which the discipline operates. But Dooyeweerd’s insights are “of a universal value” because they penetrate to “the inner nature of the theoretical attitude of thought itself” and allow us to “penetrate to each other’s … presuppositions” (39). Indeed, as Dooyeweerd himself says, this allows the thinker “to think critically” – even self-critically about “every absolutization of a relative mode of the temporal order” (39). The latter is nothing short of idolatry.

So, I love Dooyeweerd because I see in him a twentieth century version of the Apostle Paul arriving in Athens only to see what everybody else took for granted: their city was “full of idols” (Acts 17:16). Paul’s response wasn’t to run away and hide. Luke records his strategy: “So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:17). Our world – and each of our academic disciplines – today is full of idols. Dooyeweerd gives us the framework and the tools to perceive them and to reason with them.

We welcome your engagement with these ideas! Where do you see “pretheoretical assumptions” at work within your discipline? Is there something within the relative realm of human experience that has been elevated to the divine-like level of Absolute in your field of study? How does what Dooyeweerd calls the “biblical ground-motive” give you a fresh perspective on the development of current state of your discipline?

Michael Wagenman

Michael Wagenman

Michael Wagenman is Senior Research Fellow and Director of PhD Studies at the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology in Cambridge. He earned his PhD at the University of Bristol (Trinity College) and now teaches Christian theology and philosophy in Canada. His academic work focuses on the theological dimensions of institutionalized forms of power within culture and society. His most recent book is "The Power of the Church: The Sacramental Ecclesiology of Abraham Kuyper" (Pickwick, 2020).​


Bruce Wearne · February 15, 2022 at 9:48 pm

This statement Michael in the midst of your exposition jumps off the page: “the critique not only of all things and ideas but even one’s own”. It is particularly apt. The last phrase might be amended to read “and even and indeed especially and particularly of one’s own thinking”. I should clarify (critically) that I do not want to give the impression that Christian students transform their course-work essays and terms papers into elaborate “aide memoire” in which the results of careful analysis become couched in dogmatic faith-language. As you point out, science in all disciplines cannot find its true horizon without the scientist already knowing and giving expression to her place in the scholarly project. I’m looking forward to reading more of your efforts to contribute to “a student’s guide to Herman Dooyeweerd’s philosophy.” Indeed In the Twilight was Dooyeweerd’s guide to the student vocation that retains its integrity even in a confusing and long-lasting twilight. Thanks.

Mark Roques · February 16, 2022 at 9:49 am

Thank you Mike for this engaging and very insightful article. I like the way you compare Dooyeweerd to Paul reasoning in the synagogues and the market places. I think you are spot on when you say that Dooyeweerd helps us to discern and understand the idols of our contemporary culture.

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