Review of In the Twilight of Western Thought

By all evidence, Herman Dooyeweerd, the Dutch professor of law and philosopher, was a man if great intellect and learning. This is evident even in his little book, In the Twilight of Western Thought, intended as an introduction to his philosophy. However, for all his learning, Dooyeweerd does not succeed in clearly articulating his thought—which, in my opinion, should be a key concern for the philosopher and the Christian—in radically critiquing non-Christian thought, or in presenting an alternative Biblical philosophy. In this review, I will provide a brief outline of Dooyeweerd’s book and thought followed by an evaluation of his argument and position.

The Argument of In the Twilight

In the Twilight is divided into 8 chapters. In its essence, he intends to present a transcendental critique of non-biblical thought. That this critique is transcendental indicates that he is aiming at the heart of what it means to reason: he wants to uncover the necessary basis for critical thought. That is, he wants to show that there is no neutral starting point, that all philosophies emerge from a religious starting point. He argues that every religious starting point is incapable of true critical thought except the biblical one, for non-biblical thought cannot find a unifying point for critical thought and is trapped in a dialectic because of its starting point.

Chapters I-II

In chapters I-II, Dooyeweerd makes his argument for this transcendental criticism. He contends that all thought can be divided into theoretical or pre-theoretical thought. Pre-theoretical thought considers human experience in its unified whole. Theoretical thought is different in that it abstracts one part, or mode, of experience—especially the logical—and sets it in opposition to the rest of the modes of experience. By “modes,” Dooyeweerd conceives of distinguishable aspects of human experience (height, colour, spatiality, faith, mathematics) that are interrelated yet hierarchically ordered and complex in their nature.

Because of this antithesis, the setting one mode against the whole of experience, Dooyeweerd argues that theoretical thought requires a higher unity which is itself not part of this modally conceived temporal human experience. That is, there must be something above that antithesis of mode of theoretic thought (e.g., logic) and the rest of experience that unites the antithesis. He contends that this must be the ego, or the self. This self is not neutral but is religiously related to God, either believing or apostate, and is governed by a motive that directs its unifying of the theoretical antithesis.

He then traces the influence of these ground motives, which dominate theoretical thought, through western history. The motives are form and matter, characteristic of Greek though; creation, fall, and redemption, characteristic of biblical Christianity; nature and grace, characteristic of scholastic theology; and nature and freedom, characteristic of modern thought.

Chapters III-VIII

In chapter III-IV he traces the influence of nature-freedom in modern thought, but he gets at the crux of his philosophy in the last 4 chapters.

In chapters V-VII he discusses the relation of philosophy to theology. Theology, he contends, is a theoretical discipline that considers the articles of the Christian faith from the mode of faith. The Word of God is only the object of theology in its modal sense of faith. The Word of God in its full actuality is conceived as the central ground motive of creation, fall, redemption. Because this motive is the starting point of theoretical thought, it is not actually an object of such thought. Thus, this motive cannot be confused with theological articles concerning creation, fall, and redemption.

In the last chapter, Dooyeweerd attempts to answer the important question “What is Man?” by juxtaposing his conception of the self with opposing theological and philosophical views. Because the self is what enables theoretical thought, it cannot be known by such thinking, indeed, it is a “veritable mystery” (181). It is itself nothing unless it is conceived of in three central relations. It is related first to temporal existence as the central reference point of experience. Second, it relates to the egos of other human beings, which are themselves mystery unless viewed through the final relation of the ego. Finally, the self is related centrally to God who created man in his image. We cannot know ourselves through experience or others, Dooyeweerd concludes; ultimately the self-knowledge requisite for critical thought requires “the Word-revelation of God operating in the heart, in the religious center of our existence by the power of the Holy Spirit” (185).

Evaulating In the Twilight

We now turn to evaluation; what do we make of this? Ultimately, I think Dooyeweerd’s thought is unclear at best and deeply destructive at worst. Let me explain. Immanuel Kant is famous for introducing new terms into philosophical discussion and rebranding old ones without properly explaining the sense in which he uses them. Philosophy has generally followed this trend, producing confusion ad nauseum. Dooyeweerd not only follows Kant in his epistemology (focusing on human experience apart from the objects of that experience) and method of criticism but also in his use of terminology. Many words are introduced and old words given new meaning, yet nowhere is there an effort to define what precisely is intended by the vocabulary Dooyeweerd uses.

At his most crucial point, Dooyeweerd never actually explains what he means by “Creation, fall, and Redemption” as the biblical ground motive. Later he uses his philosophy to justify this by saying it is unexplainable: it is something impressed on our hearts by the Spirits (e.g. 146).

In addition to being unclear, I found the argument thoroughly unpersuasive. It is not evident to me that thought can be dichotomized as theoretical and pre-theoretical, that experience can be modally divided as Dooyeweerd does, that modes can be treated as essentially equivalent in nature (is logic truly analogous to the aesthetic or spatiality?), that theoretical thought involves opposition of one mode to unified experience, or that the self and God are above experience and theoretical thought. Furthermore, though his ground motives are quite helpful, I think they fail to provide an all-encompassing grid for understanding western philosophical thought: Dooyeweerd essentially abandons the true plurality of human history for abstract unity. For these reasons I found In the Twilight unhelpful. Yet more seriously, I found it dangerous.

 

To be unclear is itself dangerous. Christian teachers must head the warning of James 3:21 and really strive to be good teachers. But the danger of Dooyeweerd’s work is more than unclarity. At its heart, Dooyeweerd abandons the propositional character of Scripture and its normative authority, placing his amorphous and spiritually communicated ground motive as the ultimate criterion for theology and exegesis (146-147). He goes so far as saying that Christian thought has been wrong in propositionally interpreting Scripture as if it spoke to anything more than faith, such as seeing creation as happening in astronomical or geological days as opposed to, I surmise, faith days—whatever those might be (149-151).

To be clear, Dooyeweerd redefines biblical to mean not what accords with the Bible but what accords with the biblical ground motive revealed by the Spirit and discerned by his philosophy. By definition, he has set his thought up as thoroughly unbiblical. For these reasons, I cannot commend the work.

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