Peer Commentary

Not Two Metaphysical Parts But Four Substructures: A Dooyeweerdian Perspective of the Human Being

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The French philosopher Albert Camus remarked that there is only one real philosophical problem, viz. suicide. This thesis presupposes a view of what it is to be human, a central question in philosophy as well as in theology and medicine, for that matter.

Even the best philosophical and theological presentation of what it is to be human leaves a mystery that calls for our respect. Any model or image that pretends to fully represent what it is to be human will be reductionist in some way. Yet, I applaud this initiative of Dignitas to promote reflection and dialogue on this topic, as we need understandings of the human being that defend its dignity and worth in a society that tends to reduce people to some characteristic or capacity.

In this review I will briefly react to the essay of Jason Eberl. However, most of my contribution is dedicated to the presentation of the philosophical anthropology of the Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd (1894–1977) that I found very helpful in my work in bioethics for about thirty years.


To start I want to express my appreciation of Eberl’s paper. I fully agree with his bioethical positions and his rejection of substance dualism and reductive materialism. However, his anthropology raises some questions. He argues that the human being is one substance: “A human being is the individual substance brought about through a rational soul’s informing a material body; soul and matter are thereby a human being’s metaphysical parts.” To me there seems at least a tension between speaking about two distinct metaphysical parts of the individual human substance that is a human being. The title of Eberl’s essay, speaking of “ontological chimeras,” contains the same tension. Chimeras contain parts of different species that can still be identified as such, both in mythological chimeras and in today’s biomedical chimeras (e.g., human cells in an animal embryo).

Another discomfort with Eberl’s paper is the characterization of the immaterial part of the human being with the term “rational soul”: “Human beings qua persons have an essentially rational nature.” Of course I am aware that this term comes from the classical (Aristoteles, Boethius) and Thomistic traditions. I also realize that the word translated with “rational” had broader connotations than this word has in our time, probably related to the Greek word nous. Yet it seems to me that this emphasizes too much one characteristic of the human being. The human being, in my view, is inherently religious in the sense that he always relates to “that which has unconditionally non-dependent realty.”[2] This relation is fundamental for the human being; it is the core of the imago Dei and presupposes capacities such as the moral, intellectual and lingual.[3] Consequently, intellectual and volitional capacities are not the foundation of human dignity but its expressions in the human being as he is intended. I do not fail to note that Eberl also defends the inalienable dignity of the human being. But the way he elaborates his view of the human being contains the suggestion that its personhood and dignity relates to certain capacities. For instance, consider the statement: “These inherent capacities, founded within human beings’ essential nature, are what grounds the inherent dignity of each individual human being.” Empirically, those capacities can be severely impaired; why in this view wouldn’t that affect the person’s dignity?

So far, my direct comments have been on Eberl’s valuable contribution. In the remainder of this commentary I will present another philosophical view of the human being. This, in my opinion, is a richer, nonreductive view of the human being that can be very helpful in dealing with bioethical issues, such as those raised by recent biomedical advancements like the convergence of technologies. In particular, it helps to overcome reductionist views of, e.g. the role of genes or of the brain (“We are our brains”) in the human being, as will become clear below.

Basic Characteristics of Dooyeweerdian Philosophy

This view of the human being was first formulated by H. Dooyeweerd, philosopher at the Free University in Amsterdam during the middle of last century and later elaborated in particular by Gerrit Glas, a psychiatrist and philosopher. Before I lay out his anthropology, it seems necessary to present some of the main characteristics of this philosophy.[4]

First of all, it departs from the thesis that “an intrinsic connection exists between a philosopher’s theoretical activity and his religious faith” and attempts to make that thesis plausible.[5] Second, it emphasizes the idea of law (in a general sense of lawfulness, not primarily in the juridical sense). In Dutch the approach was originally called the philosophy of the law idea; now it is called Reformational philosophy. Dooyeweerd is a (kind of) realist with respect to laws and, consequently, to order. He holds a transcendental version of them in which laws exist as conditions without which the things for which they hold would not exist. The term “transcendental” refers, in other words, to fundamental concepts and/or conditions that need to be presupposed in order to conceive certain states of affairs in the world as real and existing.[6] The law applies to creation, not to God; God is not subject to his own laws—he transcends them.[7]

Third, this view asserts that Meaning is the fundamental property of reality, in contrast to the classic assumption that Existence, or Being, is the fundamental property of things. It holds that reality, including humanity, has a given meaning and value in itself that is independent of its usefulness for humankind. It follows then that, fundamentally, “meaning” is not a construct of the human being as is thought in today’s mainstream secular ethics.[8]

Fourth, a central element in this philosophy is its theory of modal aspects. Modal aspects are at the same time modes of being, of functioning, and of meaning of reality and all its entities. The theory of modal aspects states that in reality different modal aspects can be distinguished (see Figure 1 for the suit of aspects). These aspects are both modes of being and meaning of “the real world” and modes of human experience. So, not only human beings, but everything that exists, is functioning in these modal aspects. This aspectual thinking on the one hand embodies the three characteristics mentioned above and on the other is an expression of the astonishing diversity and coherence in the way things exist and are functioning.[9]

Aspect Meaning Kernel
Quantitative Amount
Spatial Continuous extension
Kinematic Flowing movement
hysical Energy, matter
Biotic/Organic Life functions, self-maintenance
Sensitive/Psychic Feeling and response
Analytical Distinction, conceptualization
Formative Formative power, achievement, technology, technique
Lingual Symbolic communication
Social Social interaction
Economic Frugal use of resources
Aesthetic Harmony, surprise, fun
Juridical Due (rights, responsibility)
Ethical Self-giving love
Pistical, credal Faith, vision, commitment, belief

Table 1: The fifteen modal aspects as distinguished in Dooyeweerdian philosophy[10]

It should be understood that the laws of a modality are not emergent properties and are not “socially constructed” (though knowledge about their laws might be). The laws (rules, regularities) of these fifteen modalities are irreducible to each other. That is, the meaning kernel and laws of one modality cannot be fully explained in terms of those of another; thus, the multi-modal approach emphatically rejects any form of reductionism.[11]

A final characteristic that should be presented here, as it is necessary to understand Dooyeweerdian anthropology, is the concept of enkaptic relationships.[12] This concept is closely related to the use of the modal aspects in understanding entities. This can best be illustrated with an example. Consider a statue made out of a block or marble. How can we give an account of the relation between the marble and the statue? It is a marble statue, but it does not seem quite right to say marble is part of the statue, or that the specific form of the statue is just a property of this piece of marble.[13] In Dooyeweerd’s analysis of entities he considers the statue to be qualified[14] by the aesthetic aspect and founded in the formative aspect as the marble is the objectivation of the design of the artist and brought about by his formative work with the marble. The statue forms a structural whole in which the marble is enkaptically interwoven in the aesthetically qualified marble statue. In this enkaptic structural whole the marble continues to be marble with all the characteristics of marble. And yet the statue is much more than a piece of marble; the artistic work of the artist has “disclosed” the physical structure of the marble. When observed by other people the statue functions as an object in the sensitive aspect.[15] As the statue functions in all the modal aspects, a rich understanding of the marble statue should consider its functioning in all the aspects as really belonging to the reality of the statue.

With these general insights into Dooyeweerd’s philosophy we now turn to his anthropology.

Dooyeweerdian Anthropology

Four Substructures

Dooyeweerd recognizes an intertwinement and coherence of four substructures in the human being in his bodily existence (see Fig. 1 and 2).[16] These are hierarchically interlaced, such that the lower substructures are “morphologically bound” to the higher substructures. The first, most basic substructure is the physical-chemical: the molecules of which the body is made. At this level, the laws of physics and chemistry apply and DNA, as well as other biomolecules, is just a physical structure. Secondly, there is the biotic substructure, expression of the irreducible mode of being that is giving living cells like micro-organisms and plants its typical character (is qualifying for them) and that man shares with all living organisms. This substructure manifests itself in cells, in gene expression, but then also in tissues, organs, and systems (e.g., the circulatory system or the nervous system). The third substructure is the sensitive. This substructure is found in animals and in human beings. For animals this is the qualifying substructure; they are not just alive but have feelings and emotions and embody a form of agency. This sensitive substructure refers to the body as a whole, in which the central nervous system functions as a regulation centre for the organism. Typical for this substructure are sensory awareness, temperament, emotion, and affective expression.

Substructure “Level of Being” Typical Manifestation
4. Actstructure Spiritual /normative level Acting human being
3. Sensitive structure Psychical level Sensitive body
2. Biotic structure Level of life Cell, tissue, organ (systems)
1. Physical-chemical structure Material level Molecules

Table 2: Four substructures that can be discerned in human beings

In the human being a fourth substructure can be observed, the so-called normative actstructure that qualifies and opens up the before-mentioned substructures. Acts are not deeds as visible events; they are inner, characteristically intentional performances. Acts proceed from the selfhood and focus on “something” in the outside world in order to make it one’s own. The act structure comprises all modalities higher than the psychical (from the analytical to the pistical), and the acts should observe the normative principles related to the modal aspects. Therefore, Dooyeweerd speaks of normative actstructure (see table 2).


This actstructure is rooted and centred in the human Self, the “I,” that is embodied in the body with its intertwined substructures and at the same time transcends it. Dooyeweerd in this context speaks about the heart in a biblical sense as the human being’s center pointing-beyond-itself, in which all of human existence is concentrated. The actstructure itself functions as “plastic field of expression” of the human spirit, the heart.[17] The heart in this sense can only be understood in a religious sense. Here religious/religion does not refer to an object of scientific study but to an essential characteristic, a fundamental longing of existence itself. This also applies to the notion of the heart. The heart is not a construct with a specific empirical content. The term “heart” signifies a tendency, a dynamism that can in no way be delimited conceptually because, according to Dooyeweerd, it underlies all conceptualization and is its presupposition.[18]

Figure 1: Image of Reformational anthropology (courtesy G. Glas)

Enkaptic Structural Whole

It is important to note that the four substructures are qualitatively different. Each substructure functions according to its own normativity; e.g., the physical-chemical substructure obeys the laws of physics and chemistry. At the same time, the biotic substructure takes control of the spatial organization of biomolecules. The processes and functions that occur at the different levels of being or substructures together form one dynamical, integrated enkaptic structural whole—the human being. A higher level cannot be fully explained in terms of a lower level. So, a living cell cannot be explained using the properties of, and interactions by, molecules—i.e., using only the laws of physics and chemistry. The functioning of the human body cannot be explained using the properties of and interactions by cells, and the activities and responsibility of human beings cannot be explained in terms of the functioning of the body. A higher substructure governs and directs the way a lower level is functioning. At the same time, a higher level substructure is based on and dependent on the processes in the lower level substructures and laws that hold for that level (consider, for example, the food and the air we need and the range of sound frequencies we can hear).


With respect to the identity of individual entities, a distinction is made between the species-identity and the subjective individual identity of each entity, i.e. a human being. The species-identity resides in the constancy and continuity in time of the structuredness of the individual in the various substructures described above. The subjective individual identity rests on the species-identity but constitutes a unique realisation of each of the substructures (the only exception being the identical genotype of monozygotic twins, who will yet differ in the higher substructures). Hence, the uniqueness of the individual identity does not reside only in one of the substructures but expresses itself at the various levels. Disorders in human life, which ultimately root in humanity’s fall in sin, can have a manifestation in any of the four substructures (e.g., a gene defect, organ deficiency, or psychiatric disorder). Whereas the manifestation of the species identity can be studied scientifically, this is not possible for the unique subjective identity. The unique identity of each human being withdraws itself from scientific analysis precisely because it is unique and does not fall under scientific studies of regularities in reality.

The theory of the enkaptic structural whole enables us to distance ourselves from both psycho-physical monism and psycho-physical dualism. The various substructures retain the quality proper to them because they conform to an inner structural principle (contra monism), but this functional specificity does not imply independence (contra dualism). The substructures continue to be interlaced within the totality of the body and derive their typically human character from the structure of that totality.[19]

Characteristics and Implications of This View

To conclude I summarize some ethical implications of this view:

  • Since (1) the species identity of the human being is constant throughout the existence of each individual, and (2) the notion of the “heart” (in the sense explained above) and its relation to the Creator is a core dimension of individual identity, each human being has full human dignity and should be protected by law. Each individual human being harbours a secret that cannot be revealed scientifically. As this dignity is rooted in the species-specific structure of human beings this dignity is independent of the degree or way of instantiation of the substructures.
  • A unique individual identity does not reside just in one of the substructures but expresses itself at the various levels, while at the same time transcending them in the “heart.” Any reductionist account of human identity (e.g., that it resides fundamentally in the genes or in the brain) is mistaken. Every part of the body, from the genome to the brain, functions equally in all substructures. Furthermore, the brain is an organ that is enkaptically interlaced in the four substructures, implying that brain processes must always be studied in terms of human functioning as a whole. Though in a sense it can be said that the brain is the organ for thinking, perceiving, feeling, and planning, the brain as such does not think, perceive, feel, or plan. It is always the whole person in the unity of body and soul who performs “acts.”[20]
  • This view is radically nonreductive and integral; humans are essentially unfathomable, beings too rich to fully grasp conceptually. The human being is not composed of “parts.” Therefore, the dignity of the human being is the dignity of the whole human being, including the physical body. By itself DNA or the brain is not sacred.
  • The actstructure, and hence full human life, including morality and religion, has a substrate in physical, biotic, and psychic substructures but cannot be derived nor explained from them.
  • Interventions at the level of any substructure (e.g., genome, brain) should be evaluated on the basis of the effects of the interventions on the wholeness and species identity of and as a consequence on the dignity of the human being.


[1] Emeritus chair holder of the Lindeboom chair for medical ethics at VU Medical Center, VU University Amsterdam.

[2] Roy A. Clouser, The Myth of Religious Neutrality (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1995), 23.

[3] Henk Jochemsen, “Calvinist Spirituality and Its Meaning for Ethics,” in Seeing the Seeker: Explorations in the Discipline of Spirituality, ed. Hein Blommestein et al. (Leuven: Peeters, 2008), 463–74; John F. Kilner, “Special Connection and Intended Reflection,” in Why People Matter: A Christian Engagement with Rival Views of Human Significance, ed. John Kilner (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 141ff.

[4] His main work in English is Herman Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, vol. 1–4 (Ontario: Paideia Press, 1984). Accessible introductions and explanations of this philosophy can be found on the following websites: All of Life Redeemed, accessed January 4, 2024,; and The Dooyeweerd Pages, accessed January 4, 2024,

[5] Cf. Clouser, The Myth of Religious Neutrality, 23.

[6] Gerrit Glas, “Roots of the Normative Practice Approach: The Philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd,” in The Normative Nature of Social Practices and Ethics in Professional Environments, ed. Marc J. de Vries and Henk Jochemsen (Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 2019), 5. A simple example: chess does not exist apart from the rules defining it.

[7] “Introduction to Reformational Philosophy,” All of Life Redeemed, 2005,

[8] Henk Jochemsen, “Normative Practices as an Intermediate between Theoretical Ethics and Morality,” Philosophia Reformata 71, no. 1 (2006): 97–98.

[9] For an illustration of how the modal aspects apply to cells see the quote from Uko Zylstra of Calvin College found in “Introduction to Reformational Philosophy,”

[10] Glas, “Roots of the Normative Practice Approach,” 15–30.

[11] “Dooyeweerd’s Theory of Aspects,” The Dooyeweerd Pages, updated June 2022,

[12] “Enkapsis takes place, when one structure of individuality [i.e. an entity] restrictively binds a second structure . . .  without destroying the peculiar character of the latter.” Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, vol. 3, 125. See also “Enkapsis,” The Dooyeweerd Pages, updated July 11, 2019,

[13] “Summary of Dooyeweerd’s Cosmonomic Philosophy,” The Dooyeweerd Pages, updated March 11, 2016,

[14] The qualifying aspect gives the entity its typical character (for a piece of art this is the aesthetical aspect); the founding aspect indicates in what aspect of reality the entity is rooted (a statue is the result of human shaping of given reality).

[15] Gerrit Glas, “Christian Philosophical Anthropology: A Reformation Perspective,” Philosophia Reformata 75, no. 2 (2010): 151.

[16] Further elaborated by Glas, “Christian Philosophical Anthropology,” 141–89.

[17] Glas, “Christian Philosophical Anthropology,” 162.

[18] Glas, “Christian Philosophical Anthropology,” 161.

[19] Glas, “Christian Philosophical Anthropology,” 154.

[20] Glas, “Christian Philosophical Anthropology,” 156.