Dooyeweeerd, Spann, and the Philosophy of TotalityLinked Glossary of Terms
(references to De Wijsbegeerte der Wetsidee, unless indicated. See concordance for correlation with pages in the New Critique. The concordance is in pdf format.)

meaning-totality I, 7, 10, 11, 19, 63

II, 405, 421

NC I, 4 (totality of meaning), 8 (in my central selfhood I must participate in the totality of meaning; Idea of the totality of meaning), 55

NC II, 4

totality I, 5, 9, 14 (totality thinking), 25-26, 28,33-34, 39, 42, 44, 48-49, 51 , 55, 57, 64, 66, 68, 70, 73, 76-77, 81, 86, 121, 124, 133

NC I, 3 (every aspect refers within and beyond itself to all the others; points beyond its own limits to a central totality), 4 (our ego expresses itself as a totality; coherence of meaning that refers to a totality; philosophy is theoretical thought directed to the totality of meaning), 4 fn1 (deeper totality transcends the mutual coherence of all modal aspects of temporal reality), 5 and 7 (Idea of the totality of meaning; subjective totality), 11 (view of totality), 15 (not found in immanent coherence of meaning), 16 (modal diversity is the expression of a totality)
NC II, 532 (time cannot contain the totality of meaning, and so refracts it).

Philosophy cannot be merely “gegenständlich” concentrated–that is, it cannot merely be set over against particular modal aspects of reality.Instead, it necessarily has a tendency towards totality, seeking its concentration above or behind the diversity of the modal aspects. The thinker must seek his Archimedean point. See “Het dilemma voor het christelijk wijsgeerig denken,” Philosophia Reformata 1 (1936) 1-16 [‘Dilemma’] at 7. Theoretical thought must be concentrated on totality, the deeper unity of all modal aspects.


See my article, “Dooyeweerd, Spann and The Philosophy of TotalityPhilosophia Reformata 70 (2005), 2-22.

Because Dooyeweerd’s philosophy begins with the idea of a supratemporal totality, he then needs to show how individual things and events are individuated from out of that totality. See my article: “Individuality Structures and Enkapsis: Individuation from Totality in Dooyeweerd and German Idealism.”

The idea of totality is one of Dooyeweerd’s key ideas. On the second page of the Prolegomena, Dooyeweerd already refers to ‘totality’ six times. Philosophy is limited to time, but it is directed to the transcendent (I, 55). It aims at a theoretic view of totality (I, 85). We can have a view of totality only because we have a supratemporal heart. (NC 30, ft 1).

In Dooyeweerd, Spann and The Philosophy of Totality, I have shown how Dooyeweerd’s use of the term ‘totality’ relates to other philosophers at the time. This allows us to see Dooyeweerd’s philosophy within the context of a philosophical tradition going back to Baader, Boehme and Eckhart.

The Idea of totality is one of three transcendental Ideas within each Ground-Motive. Totality is outside cosmic time. Totality is the fullness of meaning (I, 64). Dooyeweerd says that the Idea of totality has four uses {I paraphrase]:

1. The transcendental Idea of meaning-totality.
2. The Idea of the totality of structural moments in a particular mode of meaning.
3. As the idea of the whole of a thing or occurrence, or of a particular relationship of human social life.
4. The Idea of the integration of human societal relations. This fourth use remains bound to the first three uses; otherwise it must lead to a fundamentally false construction of the mutual relations between the societal structures. (NC III, 424-425)

Dooyeweerd emphasizes the referring nature of reality to this deeper totality. Our experience and our knowledge is not merely fragmentary. This emphasis on totality should be contrasted with postmodernism, which professes to accept a fragmentary nature to all knowledge. Postmodernism objects to an emphasis on totality, and calls it “totalizing.”

Baader also refers to the Idea of totality. The central totality is different than just the sum of all the peripheral points (Peripherie-Punkte); rather, the Center stands as essence (Inbegriff) over them. Just as the sum of all creation does not constitute a creator, so the center is more than the sum of the periphery (Begründung 63 ft. 7). Similarly, Dooyeweerd says that the religious center of our existence expresses itself in all modal aspects of time but can never be exhausted by these (NC I, 58).

Baader identifies man as the mirror of totality (Schumacher 57). Although man is the mirror of Totality (as the image of God), ultimately God is the absolute Origin and absolute Center of creation.

Some reformational philosophers have criticized Dooyeweerd for being “totalizing” in this sense. For example, Olthuis, citing Derrida, opposes Dooyeweerd’s metaphors of centering and unity. He criticizes Dooyeweerd’s transcendental approach, the Idea of the supratemporal self, centering metaphors like the prism,and the central unity of our consciousness, especially if it is seen as supratemporal. He says that this emphasis

“makes it difficult, if not impossible to honor fully the complex self-experience of actual living and dying, suffering and celebrating human beings.”(“Of Webs and Whirlwinds; Me, Myself and I,” Contemporary Reflections, 36)

Olthuis says that the emotional, political, ethical, gendered, and faith contexts of naïve experience in all their diversity, tension, and rupture end up to a large extent overshadowed and bracketed. If unity is sameness then but a small step to view community as sameness and uniformity. [But how does this follow, unless totality is viewed as a monism that makes all diversity unreal?]s

In the same volume, Hart says that order should not be seen as totalizing and overarching container of subjective/individual reality. Hart says that order needs to be conceptualized as less total and more dynamic (p. 137-138).

Goudzwaard speaks of a totalizing in Levinas’ sense (Dooyeweerd Herdacht, 35).

Smith agrees with Caputo and Derrida that the quest for the unconditioned, unmediated, absolute Infinite is a dangerous and impossible dream–a vision given to metaphysical violence (The Fall of Interpretation, 29).

I cannot agree with these postmodernist revisions of Dooyeweerd’s ideas. The Idea of totality is essential to his philosophy. The very Idea of temporal reality as meaning is a reference to a fulfillment of meaning in this totality. Nor is this criticism fair. Both Baader and Dooyeweerd say that our positivizations are fallible, and that those who do not share our Ground Motive can still discover truth. And neither Baader and Dooyeweerd believe in a static Unity or monism. It is true that they reject all dualisms. But non-dualism does not necessarily imply monism. Their thought is entirely Trinitarian in emphasizing the respect for both unity and diversity within both the temporal and the supratemporal; there is a dynamism even within God.

The postmodernist appreciation of fragmentation over unity reminds me of the Buddhist view of reality as conditioned and impermanent, especially in Nagarjuna’s interpretation of Buddhism. But is not such an interpretation of impermanence and emptiness itself an ontological view of the universe? Is it not itself a “view” of the world, to use the language of Nagarjuna? In Abhishiktananda’s terminology, it would seem to be an overuse of logic within Buddhist thought. Specifically, it appears to me that this view of contingency is based upon a desired accommodation with certain contemporary views of chance and randomness in evolutionary thought.

Revised Sept 25/07; Dec 24/16