Some Thoughts

By Vern Crisler


Dooyeweerd breaks up the world into various ontological regions or “spheres.”  (See his A New Critique of Theoretical Thought.)  This can be described as a “methodology of levels.”  The world is divided up into micro-hierarchical and macro-hierarchical levels in which each stratified level is built upon a prior level.  A level is “on top” of another level because it functions as an ontological region that evidences “qualitative novelty” vis-a-vis the previous level.  The previous level, however, is not “cast off” as inferior, as though the higher level is dominating it; rather, it functions as the necessary condition for the next “higher” level, and so on.  Each of these levels or spheres contains its own laws.


The basic ontological target of this theory of levels is “monism.”  The basic epistemological target is “reductionism.”  (For a defense of the methodology of levels, see Mario Bunge, Method, Model and Matter [1973], pp. 160ff.)


Ervin Laszlo has called this approach “systems philosophy.”  Its basic goal is to find a “potentially universal metalanguage of empirical theory….”  (“Systems Philosophy: A Symposium,” Metaphilosophy, Vol. 3, No. 2, April 1972, p. 129.)  Laszlo provides many “atoms-to-ecologies” hierarchies that make Dooyeweerd’s hierarchy look rather primitive.  The purpose of these structures, apparently, is to give a “consistent meaning to the ‘buzzing confusion’ which surrounds us….” (Ibid, p. 140.)  Laszlo’s discussion is more of a recommendation of a theory of levels and he provides no criticisms of the notion, nor interacts with any criticism.


James K. Feibleman also argues for a theory of levels (Ontology [1951], pp. 245ff.).  He sees a “graded series of being, an arbitrary set of systems rising superior to but resting on the so-called empirical systems.”  He speaks of “ontological domains” rather than of “spheres.”  He also sees qualitative novelty as a characteristic of each higher level, and uses a Dedekind metaphor to describe it: “The empirical domain consists of a graded series such that, [if] cut at any point it yields values upward (the integrative levels) and universals downward (the analytic levels).  There are, moreover, qualitative emergences which demark roughly certain levels…” (Ibid., p. 251).  Moreover, “Each domain in the graded series has its purpose furnished to it by the level above and finds its mechanism in the level below” (Idem).  Feibleman also provides his own demarcation of ontological domains.  His theory of levels makes Laszlo’s look primitive.


Feibleman makes an admission that phenomenologists need to keep in mind, that ontological description is dependent on empirical science: “For ontology has to alter its readings not only to conform to physics but to the findings of every field of study.  It would perhaps be better to say that there is no speculative system, no empirical system, no reliable knowledge of whatever type and obtained from whatever source, that ontology does not have to conform to” (Ibid.,  pp. 249-50).  Thus, if Feibleman is right, a theory of levels can only function as a sort of dependent philosophical variable.  Others, less charitable, might say that it is a parasite language looking for handouts from the hard sciences.


A system philosophy’s often stated purpose is to prevent reductionism, but the whole idea of ontological fragmenting and restructuring carried out by systems philosophy is a reductive enterprise.  The enormous information content of the world, given to us via our perception, has to be reduced to manageable thought-bites.  In perception we see and know objects in their totality, though we do not see and know the total objects.   As the philosopher David Kelley says, we see a thing or object as a whole, but that doesn’t mean we see the whole object.   In other words, our seeing the whole object is not a necessary condition for our seeing the object as a whole.  So, some type of “reduction” is a condition of our perceiving anything at all.  When we conceptualize the objective world seen in perception, we select bits and pieces of its information content.  In a sense, what Dooyeweerd et al., are doing is enumerating and analyzing the universalia of these objects in their functional aspects–a traditional practice of metaphysicians, though usually more in terms of “static” traits—but the Dooyeweerdians are adding to this the notion of a hierarchy–that is, a hierarchy of functional universals or qualities, i.e, the modal spheres.


Another problem is that systems philosophy seems to beg important questions.  For instance, the monist would reject the idea that he is engaging in reductionism for the reason that he simply does not accept a pluralist ontology.  Accordingly, for the monist, the word “reductionism” is meaningless.  Dooyeweerd et al.–like Husserl–ignore epistemological problems and begin right away with ontology–an ontology of plurality that other philosophers might not accept.  It seems to me, then, that for a systems philosophy to function as a meta-language for science, it must first answer basic epistemological questions rather than starting their programme in mid air with a question-begging “epoche.”