After the collapse of communism some two decades ago, the expression civil society came into widespread use, both popularly and in the academy. Generally, civil society is described as that social space lying outside the state, yet not reducible to the individual. In a hierarchical understanding of society, it is often said to be located between the state and the individual. Hence the focus on what are frequently termed mediating structures or intermediary communities.
Catholic social teachings are often credited with alerting us to the value of such structures. Indeed, the principle of subsidiarity has often been invoked as a way of theoretically accounting for them. The tradition of Reformed Christianity is less well known, with its distinctive non-hierarchical account of civil society. And while Abraham Kuyper’s name is better known than it was among North American evangelicals, say, a generation ago, his principle of sphere sovereignty—a rather graceless term originating in a clunky translation of the Dutch soevereiniteit in eigen kring—is probably still unfamiliar to most. Nor are many aware that one of the more noteworthy heirs of Kuyper, Herman Dooyeweerd, worked out this principle at a high level of theoretical sophistication.
Jonathan Chaplin’s new book promises to rectify this situation by bringing Dooyeweerd’s philosophy before a wider audience. Among 20th-century philosophers, Dooyeweerd (1894-1977) was unique in articulating what he claimed to be a distinctively Christian philosophy rooted in the Augustinian insight that faith—far from tagging alongside reason as another, supplementary path to knowledge—conditions our intellectual and practical efforts at their very roots.
Dooyeweerd’s central insight is that the how and what of God’s creation need to be distinguished in order to fully comprehend its diversity. The “what” are the various entities we experience every day, such as trees, rocks, hawks, cattle, rivers, clouds, and so on. But it also includes the various communities and associations of which we are part, such as families, marriages, states, church congregations, and denominations, as well as business enterprises, schools, labour unions, and a huge array of voluntary associations. The “how,” which Dooyeweerd describes as modal aspects, is the way the entities function as they go about fulfilling their tasks in God’s world. Dooyeweerd isolates fifteen of these modal aspects, with the higher aspects building on the foundation of the lower:
- Faith—belief, ultimate commitment
- Ethical—love, loyalty, fidelity
- Jural—justice, right, law
- Aesthetic—harmony, proportion
- Economic—stewardship, frugality
- Social—etiquette, mores
- Lingual—symbol, meaning, communication
- Historical—culture, power, technique
- Analytical—logic, distinction
- Psychical—feeling, sensation
- Biotic—organic life
- Physical—energy, force
- Spatial—continuous space
Why are these modalities significant for understanding the relationship between the state and civil society? Because although each community functions in all these modalities, it functions uniquely in two of them, which Dooyeweerd labels founding and qualifying or leading functions. When we understand the relationship between these two functions, we have a powerful way of accounting theoretically for the difference between these diverse structures.
The state, for example, is founded in the historical and qualified in the jural modalities. This modal analysis reveals what Dooyeweerd calls the structural principle of the state. The church institution is similarly historically founded, but is qualified in the faith aspect. Marriage and family, on the other hand, are founded in the biotic mode and qualified in the ethical mode.
Initially, this sounds more complicated than it is. In fact, all Dooyeweerd’s analysis is meant to do is to confirm what we already intuit in ordinary experience
Liberal political philosophy, by contrast, tends inevitably to suppress this experience by recasting all human communities as voluntary associations. This is the import of the social contract, as found in Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Collectivist approaches take one particular community (often the state) and treat other communities as if they were but parts of this one overarching whole. Neither liberal individualism nor collectivism takes seriously the genuine pluriformity of human society.
The dissemination of Dooyeweerd’s philosophy in the English-speaking world has been hampered by a number of factors, including his own somewhat dense written style and less-than-fully-faithful translations from the Dutch. Those who have found Dooyeweerd helpful in their own philosophical reflections might be excused for wishing he had been blessed with the wit and eloquence of, say, a G. K. Chesterton.
Short of that hypothetical happy turn of events, we nevertheless have the next best thing in Chaplin’s eminently accessible introduction to Dooyeweerd’s political thought. The author, who is director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics at Cambridge, has written what is likely to prove the best book in English on the Dutch philosopher’s prolific writings. Focusing especially on the third volume of Dooyeweerd’s New Critique of Theoretical Thought, Chaplin guides the reader through the Dooyeweerd’s mature theory of social structures, including the state. In so doing, Chaplin draws out fresh insights from and offers helpful modifications to Dooyeweerd’s theory.
Resisting the temptation to discuss all of these, I will mention one insight and one modification in that order. The insight has generally been missed in the contemporary literature on civil society. Many observers treat civil society as if it were a phenomenon preceding historically the rise of the modern state. Moreover, some tend to assume a kind of natural adversarial relationship between the two.
To be sure, states often encroach on the legitimate spheres of competence of non-state communities—particularly under the influence of one of the principal political illusions of our era. Yet to think that civil society would flourish without the state is historically unwarranted, because both are interconnected products of the twin processes of individualization and differentiation that Dooyeweerd identifies as historical norms. There is a profound sense, writes Chaplin, in which “the modern state actually made possible the arrival of civil society” (280) by creating a civil-legal space in which it might flourish. Opposing both collectivist totalitarianism and libertarian individualism, Dooyeweerd instead favours an active, but limited, state.
Chaplin’s modification comes in his important elucidation of the meaning of public, a term Dooyeweerd insufficiently defines. In Chaplin’s understanding, public refers not to a specific community such as the state, but to a space shared by all individuals and communities, including the state, insofar as they relate to each other. Within this space, the multiple communities making up society are inextricably interdependent. Public justice, then, “is the public-legal adjudication of those interdependencies that intersect with the public realm—of the realm of public interdependencies” (295). The state’s central task is therefore to adjudicate these public interdependencies.
For anyone interested in the current debate over the relationship between state and civil society, Chaplin’s Herman Dooyeweerd: Christian Philosopher of State and Civil Society makes a significant contribution and deserves a wide readership.