9 May 2022

Meaning/Being/Knowing: The Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Implications of a Christian Ontology

“Meaning is the being of all that has been created and the nature even of our selfhood.” With these enigmatic words, which form part of the introduction to his magisterial New Critique of Theoretical Thought, the neo-Calvinist philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd signals his intention to de-centre the central concern of Ontology by relativizing (which is to say thoroughly relating) the philosophical notion of Being to Meaning, even to the point of (re-)defining creation’s being as meaning—all in the conviction that this will enable us to engage in (rather than circumvent or supersede) the work of Ontology (and thus Epistemology) in a truly systematic, integrally Christian, way. Although it might seem as though Dooyeweerd is merely substituting one metaphysical idea for another, his reference to the nature of our selfhood here indicates that, for all its theoretical import for Philosophical Anthropology, this highly suggestive proposal also has profound implications for how we might both appreciate and pull upon our deepest (religious) self-knowledge, which takes shape before the face of God as we face the world. To do the work of Ontology well—to gain genuine insight into the “nature of things” and to identify the contours and coherence of the world’s general structures without undermining investigation or denaturing experience—will require that we also draw upon a pre-theoretical form of Knowing, and a spiritual grounding and hope, that will always precede and exceed our understanding. 

Implicit in Dooyeweerd’s vision of and for Ontology, we might say, is the provocative claim that creation does not “have” meaning but “is” meaning (a paraphrase that, tellingly, uses the language of Being to relativize Being). But what does Dooyeweerd mean by “meaning”? And what difference might this systematically relational, spiritually open, with-reference-to-self-and-beyond re-centering make (a) to the detailed, nitty-gritty work that needs to be done in any given academic field, and (b) to the theoretical integration that requires both intra- and inter-disciplinary reflection? After an opening discussion about the phenomenon of “post-truth,” to which we shall return at the end of the course, we shall explore the inter-play between Meaning, Being, and Knowing via a close reading of Hendrik Hart’s Understanding Our World: An Integral Ontology, paying careful attention to the ways in which his interpretation of Dooyeweerd’s ideas—not least the discussion of “meaning” that occurs at the midpoint of his Appendix (see 8.1.4) and in a pivotal section within his central chapter (see 4.4 and 405–406n37)—might deepen our insight into how what is known in faith and articulated via our web of beliefs can help us identify and evaluate the core concepts and the conceptual-ontological connections that play such an integral, influential role in the scholarly disciplines with which we are engaged. In paying attention to developments in Hart’s Ontology and Epistemology since the publication of this work, we shall also ask whether the broadly Dooyeweerdian position he initially adopts is as post-metaphysical as it may first appear. 

In this iteration of the course, we shall pay special attention to the central concerns of political theory and aesthetics, including their respective interests in the way we posit societal principles and protect, reveal, expand, and find ourselves via the symbols that make up the fabric of our life, history, and society. In further probing the relationship between the aesthetic and political dimensions of created meaning, and between the mystery of our selfhood and the structural contours of reality, we shall also be asking what the development of an Ontology in the Reformational tradition might offer to the scholarly search for disciplinary integrity and interdisciplinary integration—this being a neo-Calvinism in which the unity and diversity we rightly seek are typically seen as covenantally, rather than ontotheologically, grounded. 

Given this relational emphasis, we may well wonder what might happen if “Being” were to make way for—or make a way for—“Loving.” Perhaps, following Dooyeweerd’s (post-metaphysical?) turn to “Meaning,” we may find that a Christian scholarly approach to knowing and understanding our world and ourselves “after Being” may have something new to say to the peril and promise of life “post-truth”!

Dr. Nik Ansell
ICS 2105AC F22
Remote (Online Synchronous)
Thursdays, 6:00pm - 9:00pm ET

(MA, PhD)


*NOTE: This course is only available to ICS Junior Members. Completion of 1107AC or 2107AC is a prerequisite for enrolling in this course.