As a young man/teenager, I heard a lot about worldviews, and didn’t think much of it. The philosophers talked about them, the theologians talked about them, and the gurus talked about them. It was always a choice between worldviews. But it was at best only vaguely communicated by these great thinkers what a worldview actually was. In recent years I have dabbled in the question of belief formation, and I have argued that what views a person is best aligned towards are the ones asserted by those of authority in their epistemic world. I will write more on this anon.
But, as we all know by now, ideas have genealogies, and each subsequent use of an idea and its terminology owes something to the originators of that idea, either by simply following them, and the assumptions they used to support the idea, or in debates that have occurred since. And so I purchased a little volume Worldview, the history of a concept by David K. Naugle (2002) to trace this back. Naugle is an evangelical scholar, but I have no reason to doubt his historical bona fides, although I suspect I disagree with him on many points.
But Naugle’s Christianity is not irrelevant to the topic, as the most frequent users of this concept are indeed Christians, especially those influenced by Kuyperian Reformed Theology, via Hermann Dooyeweerd, as I was in my teens through Francis A. Schaeffer’s popular texts.†
In what came to be known as “Presuppositionalism“, these Christian thinkers argued that something is neither rational nor irrational in themselves, but only when based on a set of presuppositions. Science was a source of knowledge with one set of presuppositions, but not with another. One person’s presuppositions are another person’s prejudices. Or, to put it in terms of the late 60s, “What’s true for you isn’t necessarily true for me”. Philosophy knows this as relativism, and it is usually a problem in the field of beliefs. I don’t think it is the bogeyman that some do, but that is for another post.
Worldviews came to the fore in the late 19th century in the English-speaking world via the revival of Christian intellectualism, which started after (among other things) Darwin’s theory became widely known. This is also the period during which the so-called “Conflict Thesis” of a war between science and religion was created (by way of bad history, during arguments about secular education). But one of the most influential wordviewers in the English language was Scottish Presbyterian theologian James Orr in his 1891 Kerr Lecture:
A reader of the higher class of works in German theology—especially those that deal with the philosophy of religion—cannot fail to be struck with the constant recurrence of a word for which he finds it difficult to get a precise equivalent in English. It is the word “Weltanschauung,” sometimes interchanged with another compound of the same signification, “Weltansicht.” Both words mean literally “view of the world,” but whereas the phrase in English is limited by associations which connect it predominatingly with physical nature, in German the word is not thus limited, but has almost the force of a technical term, denoting the widest view which the mind can take of things in the effort to grasp them together as a whole from the standpoint of some particular philosophy or theology. To speak, therefore, of a “Christian view of the world” implies that Christianity also has its highest point of view, and its view of life connected therewith, and that this, when developed, constitutes an ordered whole.The Christian View of God and the World, p3
Kant himself used the term Weltanschauung (world intuition, or world perspective) only once, although as Englert (2002) observes, he also uses Weltbegriff (world concept), Weltbetrachtung (world observation), and Weltbeschauung (world inspection) for perspectives on the sensible world.
For it is only by means of this [faculty in the human mind that is itself supersensible] and its idea of a noumenon, which itself admits of no intuition though it presupposes as the substratum of the Weltanschauung as mere appearance, that the infinite of the sensible world is completely comprehended in the pure intellectual estimation of magnitude under a concept, even though it can never be completely thought in the mathematical estimation of magnitude through numerical concepts.Critique of Judgment I, 1, §26, 92; AA 5, pp. 254-5), translated in Englert 2022.
According to Englert, Weltansicht (world view) was preferred by Fichte in his 1809 Guide to a Blessed Life (Die Anweisung zum seligen Leben) but both Englert and Naugle hold that the fullest working out of the notion (or cluster of notions thus far) was by Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling. He, it is claimed, treated worldviews as – in Heidegger’s words – “a self-realized, productive as well as conscious way of apprehending and interpreting the universe of beings” (Heidegger, The Basic Problems of Phenomenology 1982, p5, quoted in Naugle, p60).
The concept and terms are Germanic. While other European languages have adopted a phrase (e.g., vision du monde in French) for this idea, generally writers use the German terms above, or something like Weltbild (world picture). More on this later.
Another influential writer of worldviewing is Hegel. He requires as post on his own.
† Schaeffer was way out of his depth. When I started to read actual philosophy, I came to see how his theological prejudices played out – in order to assert that post renaissance philosophy was non-Christian, he basically ignored Descartes, Pascal and a slew of others, possibly because they were Catholic and not stupid.
Years ago I met a guy who was writing his sociology dissertation on the worldviews of upper middle class male professionals, a sort of journey to the heart of whiteness. I don’t know if he ever finished the thing, but I got the impression that it would have been seven chapters on methodology with at most a short appendix on the findings, SOP for phenomenologists. The appendix would have to be short because he couldn’t actually find any worldviews. The men he interviewed would come up with something in the way of answers to his questions, but the responses were pretty obviously concocted on the spot and reflected the structures implied by the questions. The only empirical result I gathered from him was that his informants didn’t actually think about things much, but thought they should.
I’ve never figured out what a worldview could be. Maybe you could think of it, Heidegger-wise, as a master synecdoche, a part of the trans-categorical whole which somehow typifies it. Yeah, I don’t know what that means either.
Curse you for making me think about Heidegger!
He gets a passing mention later on.
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