The foundation world reacted today with confusion - and in some cases irritation - at criticism by Henry Ford II that the $2.3 billion Ford Foundation - the nation's largest - should devote more attention to strengthening the capitalist system and scale back some philanthropic programs, including the arts.

Ford's criticism, some foundation officials said, promises to generate considerable debate but probably little change in the nation's huge philanthropic business, which encompasses 26,500 giving agencies with assets of more than $30 billion.

Ford, a trustee of the foundation since 1943, resigned Tuesday complaining that he has lost interest in many of the programs funded by the agency and that the truestee and staff often fail to appreciate the free enterprise system that produced the grant money in the first place.

He suggested in a letter to board chairman Alexander Heard that society's view of the Ford Foundation has become "quite blurred" because the large number of programs have spread the agency too thin. Ford complained that this has diluted the foundation's effectiveness.

Other than mentioning in passing the foundation's sponsorship of the arts, Ford did not offer any specific criticism of the vast array of programs funded by the agency.

The arts last year received only 4.7 per cent of the $195.2 million dispensed by the foundation.

"National affairs" programs - such as for civil rights, housing, and community organization - received the largest share, 25.5 per cent. Assistance to programs in developing nations was next with 20.1 per cent, followed by higher education with 14.4 per cent and communications programs with 10.5 per cent. Ford would not comment today, other than to say through a spokesman at the Ford Motor Co. headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., that he would "stand on the letter."

McGeorge Bundy, the foundation's president, said there is no reason to believe that Ford's letter will have any immediate impact on the direction the agency has been taking in awarding grants, nor should it stimulate any significant changes in the attitudes of the foundation community in general.

"He has a right to expect people to read the letter carefully (but) I don't think one letter from anyone is going to change the foundation's course," Bundy said.

He added, "This tension - or kings of tensions - between the business world and people in the non-profit world are nothing new."

Bundy said the letter accurately reflected Ford's expressions to the trustees at various meetings, but he denied Ford was quitting in protest."It's not as if he were raising hell with the board and with what we're doing. In fact, he hasn't done that," Bundy added.

Another Ford Foundation official characterized Ford's criticism as "parting words of guidance by a man who has had it after 33 years and wanted to quit."

However, top officials of some other major foundations said they were puzzled by Ford's remarks.

John H. Knowles, of the $744 million Rockefeller Foundation, called the letter confusing and said, "I would have thought he would have made his views known and done something about it."

"Foundations are a product of capitalism. Their assets are the result of capitalism. I think the point he makes is a healthy one - that we shouldn't forget we've come from the fruits of capitalism - but the institutions of capitalism are the industrial companies of this country," Knowles said.

"For God's sake, it's the job of people like Henry Ford to strengthen those institutions, not the foundations," Knowles said.

David Rogers, head of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, N.J. - the nation's second-largest philanthropic group - said of Ford's free enterprise comment, "That was one of the statements that worried me . . . I'd be surprised if there is much of a ripple effect (as a result) but there will be alot of discussion about it."

Rogers noted that the Johnson Foundation, with assets of more than $1 billion and grants last year of $50 million, is one of many philanthropic organizations, unlike the Ford Foundation in that they have a narrowly defined scope of interest - in the case of the Johnson Foundation, promoting access to medical care, improving quality of health services and promoting better public policy on health matters.

A high official of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace expressed some irritation with the letter, saying, "Is that what the Ford Foundation is set up for, to promote free enterprise?" He called the views "an historical, social and cultural problem" for all foundations, and suggested that the Ford Foundation might be better off now that the last member of its originating family had left the board of trustees.

The official said the trend now is for foundation boards not to include relatives of the family that created the trest, and he called the trent "healthy" because it would help prevent excursions into such fields as the preservation of free enterprise.

Sol Richman, spokesman for the New York-based Council on Foundations, noted that there has been increasing debate in recent years over some of the complaints raised by Ford, but said the letter any stimulate more rhetoric than substantive change.

In addition to his comments about preserving capitalism, Ford complained that the foundation had stuck with some programs for years rather than branch out into innovating programs. He also criticized the staff of developing a "fortress mentality" in which the "not invented here attitude" has denied the organization the benefit of new thinking.

Richman said that many of the criticisms have been debated extensively in the foundation establishment, but that the complaint heard most often is one not expressed in Ford's letter: that too many foundations are "of, by and for the establishment and reflect mostly the viewpoint of those who produce the money."