Two Provocatives (Part 1)

First of Two Provocative Statements About a Philosophical Understanding of Sustainability

Andrew Basden

My problem, my confusion was I was a member of the Green Party in the 1980’s, I still am actually [although I don’t like it]. I came across lots of different factions fighting against each other. There were the deep ecologists who emphasised species and so on, there were the green economists, there were the new agers and spirituality. There were people who were emphasising decentralisation, and so on, and I couldn’t understand what is sustainability. I wanted to understand what is sustainability.

I gave a talk at a conference and this guy afterwards came up to me and said, “You know that book you recommended, the book called Thine is the Kingdom by Paul Marshall?”, he said “Do you know what that book’s based on? It’s based on a Dutch philosopher by the name of Herman Dooyeweerd” and he explained a number of aspects.

And immediately over coffee, I saw that the factions in the Green movement were each emphasising one or other aspect. And so in a flash I saw, at last, I could understand sustainability as the working together in all aspects, and that all these different movements have something to give, even though they themselves may see their own aspect as the answer. So I started thinking about that.

This is about 1990 after I’d been with Peter for a time working technically.

I then saw that the other problem that I had in my work, which was the usefulness and benefits of ICT in use, could also be explained by aspects. They {Expert Systems or other ICT applications} could be socially beneficial, but economically detrimental, or the other way round: economically beneficial increasing profits, but socially detrimental. This gave me a way of thinking about aspects {about both ICT in use, and sustainability}.

Dooyeweerd’s Aspects and Sustainability

So I’d like very quickly to go through these aspects now and explain how I see their relation to sustainability, very briefly and Patrizia I think can do a lot more than that because that’s part of her PhD.

[I’ll start with the physical aspect.] I’ll go through them, there’s fifteen of these things (aspects).

Aspects are ways in which reality can be meaningful and lawful, the way in which reality functions and works. So for example, the situation we have now {the talk situation}, functions in the lingual aspect of communication, but also the social aspect of friendship; if I was trying to talk to you, not treating you as friends, it wouldn’t be a good talk. Then the pistic aspect (the Greek word pistis means faith, vision and commitment): If I didn’t believe what I was saying, it wouldn’t be a good talk. You have probably all heard lecturers who deliver their stuff without really believing it – and the students know. {Now we will go through the aspects of sustainability.}

  • So let’s start with the physical aspect. Things like climate change and geology, climate and geology are physical aspects of sustainability.
  • The biotic aspect is to do with life functions. So things like food, health, ecosystems are to do with the biotic aspect of sustainability.
  • The psychical or sensory aspect is when entities can feel and sense and respond to each other. And it’s also about animal emotions like fear and so on, that’s the Psychical or sensory aspect to sustainability.
  • Analytic aspect is more for humans. It our ability to distinguish one thing from another. So we distinguish issues in sustainability when we discuss it: What do we distinguish and what do we overlook? How do we classify things? That affects sustainability. The various arguments of different classification systems of “Here are the four things of sustainability” and “Here’s the ten”.
  • Formative aspect is our formative power: creative, deliberate formative power. Like a potter shaping mud or clay into a pot, or us shaping ideas, [or something], shaping people into an organisation. It’s to do with techniques, it’s to do with achievement. And sustainability requires techniques and achievements. Technology is in there as well.
  • Lingual aspect is to do with communications, and records and things like that. If we don’t have good communication we’ll not have good sustainability.
  • Social aspect is to do with collaboration, working together rather than just as separate individuals. The idea of ‘we’ rather than just a lot of I’s. Institutions – and the role of institutions in sustainability.
  • Economic aspect is of course to do with resources. Not just with money or production and consumption, but frugality in the use of scarce resources: management of scarce resources. Not necessarily use {of resources}. Of course there’s lots to discuss about that.
  • Aesthetic aspect is, Dooyeweerd said, the aspect of harmony as in an orchestra – lots of things, working together to produce something more than the sum of the parts. Holism is aesthetic. Also people are saying: fun is aesthetic. If sustainability isn’t fun, it’s not going to be taken up by people. Michelle was talking about teaching being fun.
  • Juridical aspect is the idea of “what is due” {to something}. It’s to do with laws and so on. But it’s more than laws, it’s something more fundamental. It gives us responsibility – to human beings, to the future generations, to the poor, to forests, to ecosystems, to animals – and it helps us separate out {different rights or responsibilities}. It helped me to make sense of the animal rights people, not just reject them {as many do}, but to see their place {in contributing to sustainability}.
  • The ethical aspect is not to do with good-and-bad: it’s goodness, self-giving, generosity. If society is generous with people self-giving and being willing to sacrifice themselves, {then sustainability increases}, but if everyone is self-interested and self-protective, sustainability is going to be harmed.
  • Finally the faith {or pistic} aspect: Ideology and religion, but it’s the aspect of commitment and vision; of trust or distrust. If that’s not there, if a community has low morale, it’s not so sustainable.

That helped me to see and think about sustainability in the round.

The Nature of Dooyeweerd’s Aspects: An Overview

Dooyeweerd claimed that this was not a final set {of aspects} nor some kind of absolute truth; it was always provisional – but maybe our best guess. It’s better than Maslow’s hierarchy because it’s wider and deeper and more philosophically based; Maslow’s hierarchy can be seen as perhaps a subset {of Dooyeweerd’s suite of aspects}.

It’s useful for a number of things as you can see in the paper {given out at the workshop}. It’s useful not so much as a check list – you can use it as a check list – or for making up questions in a questionnaire. But it’s better for separating out kinds of issues, because all of the aspects are irreducible {to each other}.

The green {pointing to diagram on a flipchart} is the characteristics that Dooyeweerd felt were of the aspects. Aspects are irreducible for example. Aspects are also normative – they have a normative thrust – and so they’re useful for guidance. Also they’re aspects of possibility, they’re a law side and so they’re useful for anticipation.

We find them very useful for stimulation, for thinking of what issues are being overlooked in a discourse. What elephants in the room are there? ({For example,} Often the aesthetic aspect is overlooked.8

They’re useful for research and practice, to guide both research and practice. Each science or discipline can be seen as centred on an aspect linked to other aspects. {See Page on sciences.}

The bridge between the human and the non-human.

Now there are some aspects which are mainly human. But in the same aspectual set there are the pre-human aspects, that animals and plants function in – and humans as well – and so it brings things together. It {Dooyeweerd’s approach} doesn’t separate the human from the non-human. It also doesn’t separate the subject from the object as Descartes did. It has aspects to do with the individual, it has aspects to do with the social, it has aspects to do with the structural elements of society, all in the same set.

The aspects have relationships with each other and so it offers the possibility of integrating – integrating various things. They are seen as practical because Dooyeweerd started with pre-theoretical thought rather than theoretical.

So I used Dooyeweerd as a framework, for understanding information systems, and possibly for sustainability as well. (I’m involved in the Ecosystem Services project to develop this.)

What I’ve done in my paper, is I’ve tried to work out from each person’s abstract, what I thought they were on about. I won’t go into this, you can see it in the paper, but {explaining the diagram} a house with someone in it is someone living in a city or in a urban environment. The guy with the hammer is the construction industry. The guy with arms extended is to do with values and care. Trees are obvious. A cloud is someone thinking or our view or something. An arrow between two people is communication and a long straight arrow is time and future.

Then in my paper I thought what aspects is each one focusing on? I don’t want to go into that detail.

Provocative Statement 1

Peter asked us to be provocative and I didn’t realise that when I wrote the paper. So I’ll make one provocative statement:

Dooyeweerd can address all sustainability issues,
or rather,

Dooyeweerd can help us address all sustainability issues.
Provocative? too arrogant? I put it forward as something to test. There still needs to be research and exploration of these possibilities, not just to see the aspects separating the issues, but all these other things as well and Patrizia and Manila especially have done some of that.

I think we need a hundred PhD students doing this. I believe that we need as many people exploring Dooyeweerd as used Michel Foucault or J├╝rgen Habermas, before we can really know whether Dooyeweerd can help us, whether this is true or not.

I was disappointed Chrisna that you moved away from Dooyeweerd and gave him lip service.

Chrisna: I used Dooyeweerd in my thesis.

A: I know! :-) But only with a bit of lip service there, I think? ;-)

Actually no, a PhD student ought to do what they think is interesting, not what the supervisor thinks interesting. Actually you ended up with probably one of the best PhD’s, so you actually did the right thing. But it did put a pause on the Dooyeweerd exploration to sustainability.

That’s one provocative statement.

NOTES Note 1. Professor Peter Brandon, whom the Workshop was honouring as a kind of Festschrift.

Note 2. I was at that time working in a research project led by Peter Brandon to build expert systems to help the Surveying Profession. Expert systems are computer applications that encapsulate human expertise about a particular topic, so as to give advice, stimulate thinking, provide understanding, etc.

Note 3. Aspects of ICT in use, or aspects of sustainability. The same suite of aspects. See “”.

Note 4. Patrizia Lombardi, joint organiser of the Workshop. Patrizia undertook a PhD with Peter Brandon and, at my suggestion, developed Dooyeweerd’s aspects as a framework for understanding urban sustainability. See Brandon PS, Lombardi P (2005) Evaluating Sustainable Development in the Built Environment. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Science.

Note 5. Michelle was one of the participants in the workshop, who had just spoken.

Note 6. The paper is a printed version that I wrote as a draft for the workshop.

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