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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


STRAUSS, Danie. A remarkable philosophical-aesthetic connection: Bilderdijk, Dooyeweerd and Malherbe. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2014, vol.54, n.1, pp.22-36. ISSN 2224-7912.

In his astonishing sonnet, De Wareld, Bilderdijk captures the main contours of the philosophical legacy of the West, from ancient Greek philosophy up to his own position in 1786. He even anticipated key elements of the reformational philosophical movement of the 20th century in the Netherlands. These periods of philosophy embody reflection on perennial problems, such as unity and diversity and constancy and change, accompanied by theoretical stances such as atomism, holism, realism and nominalism. Dooyeweerd has shown that particular philosophical notions acquired diverse philosophical interpretations dependent upon the (supra-theoretic) basic motives guiding and directing theoretical thought. The concepts of nature and causality, for example, obtained a meaning in Greek philosophy that differs from their meaning in modern (post-Renaissance) philosophy. The same applies to the concept of substance, a concept that dominated Greek-medieval philosophy but then, within modern philosophy, had to give way to the concept of relations. However, the latter was now embedded in the dialectical tension between causality (nature) and freedom. Inspired by a thought-experiment of Galileo (1638) the great Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, had to restrict the initial science ideal to sensory phenomena and the categories of understanding in order to open up a domain of practical freedom. Yet within the domain of sensibility Kant elevated human understanding to be the formal law-giver of nature. His idea of freedom was negative, in the sense that it is supposed to be free from natural necessity (causality). Thus he confused the underlying conditions of freedom with the nature of freedom. Freedom is only possible within the normed possiblities of human beings leaving room both for norm conformative and antinormative actions. Informed by the idea of being a law unto oneself (autonomy), Kant introduces two law-givers: understanding as law-giver for theoretical knowledge in a possible experience and reason as law-giver for (practical) freedom. At this point Bilderdijk wrote his sonnet De wareld (in 1786): What are you, configuration of inconceivability? chain of struggles and causes without an end Upon whose possibility the spirit scarcely can comment Whose real existence, for reason, is sheer impenetrability An abyss, in which awareness finds no way to enter What are you? a mere appearance, impressed upon the senses? An impression of understanding, upon which focusing is fruitless? An idea which we, out of our hollow opinion, give structure? Or are you, on the contrary, a being outside of me? Do you exist? is that not purely dreaming? Or is it an alteration of a different being? Hence I asked time and again, until God gave me the answer: He spoke: 'what is, belongs to me', what exists, depends upon me, The world is my voice, and calls you, to fear me. (Translation by author) Bilderdijk was a leading figure in the Dutch Rèveil and he influenced figures such as Isaäc da Costa, Samuel Iperusz Wiselius, Willem de Clercq and Groen van Prinsterer. However, the remarkable fact about this sonnet is that it managed to capture the main contours of the historical development of philosophy in the West. The first four lines of the octave focus on the middle Stoa (figures such as Panaetius and Posidonius) with their idea of an endless causality series. It is followed in the last four lines of the octave by mentioning the empiricist view of sensory impressions and proceeding to the Kantian view of the relationship between sensibility and understanding. Then, in the first part of the sestet the neo-Platonic idea of emanation surfaces alongside the classical concept of a substance. Finally, in the last three lines of the sestet a biblical perspective unfolds, emphasizing that the universe (the world) is the voice of God calling us to fear Him. These closing lines relate to the Reformation of the 16th century and anticipated the new philosophical orientation of Herman Dooyeweerd in the 20th century. His philosophy proceeds from the biblical distinction between Creator and creation, and the implied acknowledgement of the dependent nature of reality. He anticipated the two main outcomes of the philosophy of science, namely the inevitability of a theoretical frame of reference (paradigm) and an ultimate commitment. Although Dooyeweerd initially had been under the influence of neo-Kantianism and the phenomenology of Husserl, he eventually advanced a radical new approach proceeding from recognizing the heart as the root of human existence. Malherbe followed him in both regards. He wrote a penetrating article on the dependence and independence of an artwork and in his last volume of poetry, Agterland, a poem on the Self is found, echoing various facets of Dooyeweerd's understanding of the human self-hood (the heart in its radical biblical sense).

Keywords : causality; skepticism; substance; emanation; freedom; autonomy; dependence; uniqueness; coherence.

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