What is Your Worldview?

In the last post, I explained the concept of a worldview. In short, a worldview is consistent and integral sense of existence and provides a framework for generating, sustaining, and applying knowledge. We all have some sort of worldview (find out yours here with this self-assessment quiz), and there is a diverse array of worldviews to be found among the various peoples on Earth. Some thinkers have put forth ways that worldview can be categorized, which allows us to compare and contrast them and to identify in what category our own worldview might fall. Annick de Witt came up with one such worldview categorization scheme, which is a part of her recently launched initiative Worldview Journeys. This system was adapted from the work of numerous researchers in the fields of sociology, philosophy, and developmental psychology1. It includes four worldview types: traditional, modern, postmodern, and integrative.  You can visit the site and take a short test to find out which among four types your own worldview best falls into.

Ms. de Witt describes each of these as follow.  These descriptions are reprinted here with her permission.  To be able to refer to these below, I added a one letter abbreviation for each type.  These abbreviations doesn’t appear this way on her website, but the rest is verbatim:

T: In traditional worldviews the religious sphere is generally not distinguished from the secular sphere, nor is metaphysics from science. Religious or metaphysical views on reality thus answer the big questions in life, and substantial faith is placed in religious authority, such as scriptures, doctrines, and leaders. In this worldview, a transcendent God is usually seen as separate from the profane, earthly world, and man as fundamentally different from nature. The relationship with nature is frequently understood in terms of ‘dominion’ or ‘stewardship’. Traditional worldviews tend to emphasize the importance of family and community, as well as values such as honesty, decency, sobriety, obedience, discipline, solidarity, conformity, service, dedication, respect for tradition, humility, and self-sacrifice.

In the cartoon graphic above, this worldview is symbolized by the presence of the church, the agrarian landscape and lifestyle, and the religious figures. The policeman symbolizes a respect for authority and tradition, obedience and discipline, rules and order. 

M: Modern worldviews attempt to achieve liberation from imposed, oppressive, frequently religious, authorities and understandings of the past, through an emphasis on rationality and critical thinking. The vision of reality tends to be secular and materialistic: the existence of a higher power, divine reality, or intangible dimension is generally rejected. Science is frequently seen as the ultimate (and even exclusive) source of reliable knowledge, providing access to objective reality. This ‘objectification’ of reality generates a dualism between body and mind, and object and subject, which tends to lead to immense scientific, technological, and socio-economic progress as well as an instrumentalization of nature. Science and technology are generally seen as central means to address humanity’s most pressing issues. The autonomous, ‘self-made’ individual has a central position in this worldview. Individualistic and hedonistic values—such as freedom, independence, success, performance, social recognition, comfort, and fun—are usually dominant.

In the cartoon graphic this worldview is symbolized by the modern, standardized, functional style of architecture, smoking factories, airplanes, and the rise of global (fast food) corporations. The chemical scientist in the front points at the scientific-rational nature of this worldview, which results in both a philosophical materialism (there is nothing beyond what is empirically observable) as well as an axiological materialism (value and meaning in life is found in the material realm), as symbolized by the business man and the bag of money he is holding. 

P: Postmodern worldviews are characterized by a tendency to acknowledge and value multiple perspectives on reality, and are generally critical of modern science’s claim to exclusively provide objective knowledge. This worldview instead emphasizes the relativity and contextuality of knowledge, as well as the value of moral, emotional, and artistic ways of knowing. Frequently a somewhat critical attitude towards the modern model of society (e.g., ideas of progress, modern science and technology, capitalism) is observed, and the emancipation of marginalized and oppressed groups is a central motivation. This is for example reflected in the rise of social movements since the 1960’s, promoting peace, multiculturalism, gay rights, and the environment, among others. Generally, postmodern worldviews celebrate diversity, heterogeneity, relativism, and ‘post-materialistic‘ or ‘self-expression’ values such as creativity, uniqueness, authenticity, imagination, feeling, and intuition.

In the cartoon graphic this worldview is symbolized by the creative and playful ‘postmodern’ architecture, the colorful – diverse, expressive, authentic – crowd marching for typical postmodern concerns such as peace and justice, and by the courthouse in the back. 

I: Integrative worldviews appear to be primarily characterized by a self-reflexive attempt to bring together and synthesize elements of other worldviews, or of domains that in other worldviews tend to be viewed as mutually exclusive, such as science (or rationality) and spirituality, imagination and logic, heart and mind, humanity and nature—perspectives that in the West have been in conflict for centuries. In this worldview, such opposing perspectives are frequently understood to be part of a greater whole or synthesis—on a “deeper level”—resulting in “both-and” rather than “either-or” thinking. Such a holistic or integrative perspective may lead to a profound sense of connection with nature, and an understanding of earthly life itself as imbued with a larger consciousness or “Spirit.” Universal, existential concerns—such as life and death, self-actualization, global awareness, and serving society, humanity, or even “life” at large—are often of central importance.

In the cartoon graphic above, this worldview is symbolized by the green, social entrepreneur who integrates (modern) entrepreneurial spirit with (postmodern) idealism and concern for oppressed others. The person on the yoga mat holds a mobile phone in his hand, symbolizing the integration of century-old spiritual practices with modern technologies. Religious and spiritual expressions are diverse yet tolerant of their differences, as we see in the varied sacred buildings. The water points at the self-reflexive nature of this worldview, and the wind turbines and green roof show its commitment to global environmental values.2

At the top, you’ll see the cartoon graphic that accompanies these descriptions.  This allow us to understand the essence of each worldview type and to visualize the relationship between them, which you can see at the top.  I will note that from here to the bottom of the post, these are my own thoughts.  Certainly this analysis was inspired by the work of Annick de Witt, and perhaps she had something along these lines in mind as well, but the rest of this is what I came up with after studying her work.

I studied these descriptions and this graphic and I had an idea that we could reduce this image to just the geometric features.  We can see that there are four quadrants within a rectangular and polar coordinate system:


If we analyze the geometric features of this image then we can further understand these relationships. One thing that stands out is that we can think of the different worldviews as being like different directions within a compass. The idea is that anyone’s primary worldview should lie somewhere around this circle. For example, if you are solidly traditional-minded person then your compass would point to the upper left. Someone whose worldview would be a little less traditional and a little more modern, but not entirely modern, would have their compass pointing up. We could list examples of worldviews that would point in any direction from the center.

And so we can see how our worldviews can change over the course of our lives and this change would correspond to the movement of the arrow around the circle, either clockwise or counter-clockwise. We can see examples of this in the many people who have shifted, over the course of their lives, from traditional to modern or from traditional to integrative or from modern to postmodern, etc. And maybe there is not just an angle that we could plot, but also a magnitude. Let’s suppose that if one’s worldview is not very developed (maybe they don’t think much about the fundamental questions of life) then it might be closer to the center, but on the other hand if one’s beliefs are very strongly held, then they would be plotted further from the center.

And then we could shift our focus from polar to rectangular coordinates. Thus, our version of this graphic includes X and Y axes. It seems that the X axis represents the spiritual/secular dichotomy. So both T and I are spiritual systems because they have an underlying assumption that there is some sort of timeless, eternal truth that transcends the physical world, while both M and P are secular because the assumption is that everything in reality is temporal and belongs to an age. The Y axis represents the epistemically monistic/pluralistic dichotomy. This dichotomy hinges on how complex or straightforward it is to understand reality. Both T and M are epistemically monistic because they both have the underlying assumption that there is a single method through which we can understand the most important aspects of reality. For T, that method is scriptural authority, while for M, that method is science. Conversely, both I and P are epistemically pluralistic because they both involve multiple methods through which we can understand reality. For both I and P, science is not shunned but it is not made central and authoritative. P worldviews emphasize the importance of art and social activism as additional ways of understanding reality. I worldviews involve the assumption that reality is complex because it can be scientific and spiritual at the same time and that in order to gain understanding of the world, science needs to be integrated with other forms of knowledge, such as spiritual insight.

This can also be taken a step further so that each of the four categories has some centrally defining attribute that the other three do not have:

  • T is dogmatic, since it relies on faith. M, P, and I are all reason based.
  • M is individualistic, since the underlying ethical system has the self as central and it is only necessary to care about other beings insofar as it might affect oneself. P, I, and T are collectivistic, since in all of these, the well being of others is usually taken to have special importance, regardless of whether or not oneself is affected.
  • P involves a mostly uncertain and relative reality. I, T, and M all involve a more clear and understandable reality.
  • I is more focused on the inner world. T, M, P are more focused on the outer world.

This categorization is useful as we try to address the greatest challenges in our world and how best to bring about positive change.  I believe that each of these provides a valid perspective on the world that deserves serious consideration.  One could say that each worldview type has benefits and drawbacks.  My personal belief is that 3 of these 4 are enlightened worldviews and 1 of the 4 is, well, a bit retrogressive.   The modern, postmodern, and integrative worldviews all embrace evidence and reason, which makes them enlightened.  Now, I do think of enlightenment as a spectrum, not just an on/off binary switch, and we’re always seeking higher levels of enlightenment.  None of us are perfect in this regard.  I do, however, feel that those committed to a traditional worldview would benefit from adding appreciation of evidence and reason to their lives.  Certainly this doesn’t apply to all religious people, but I do think it is unfortunate that many such people are hostile to and suspicious of science.  One of the main aims of The Enlightened Worldview Project is to show how how some of the core beliefs of religious faith actually can be understood as perfectly reasonable beliefs within an integrative worldview.  As such, people inclined to religious faith can open their minds to evidence and reason and continue to believe in God, in the soul, and other religious notions.  Contrary to what some might otherwise believe, I think spirituality and science are entirely compatible.

Another of the main goals of this project is to show how people of different worldviews can recognize that they have shared core values and that they can use this to cooperatively address some of the greatest challenges in our world, such as poverty, inequality, human rights, and environmental degradation.  I’ll be posting more on how we can find this mutual understanding in the coming weeks.

Thanks Annick de Witt for giving permission to reprint the worldview type descriptions and the accompanying cartoon graphic!

1For more information on the research background of the worldview test: https://worldviewjourneys.com/scientific-foundation
2Hedlund-de Witt, Annick. Exploring worldviews and their relationships to sustainable lifestyles: Towards a new conceptual and methodological approach. Ecological Economics, 2012.

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What is a Worldview?

In order for a person to be able to function in their environment, they need some form of a guiding philosophy that allows them to make sense of their world and to interact with it. All intelligent beings naturally have questions about the world and seek answers to these questions in order to live an adequate life. The set of high-level answers that a person has to the philosophical questions that are essential to life constitutes the person’s worldview.

A worldview is a consistent and integral sense of existence and provides a framework for generating, sustaining, and applying knowledge. According to Annick de Witt, who recently launched Worldview Journeys:

Worldviews are inescapable, overarching systems of meaning and meaning-making that to a substantial extent inform how we interpret, enact, and co-create reality. A worldview is thus a complex constellation of epistemic capacities, ontological presuppositions, and ethical and aesthetic values that converge to dynamically organize a synthetic apprehension of the exterior world and one’s interior experiences.1

An individual uses their worldview as a tool for interpreting the complexities of the world while serving as a guide to their interaction with external reality. Examples of worldviews include religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. and secular belief systems such as atheism, materialism, and some forms of agnosticism.

It would probably be helpful to clarify what is meant by “religion” and “secular” here. There are a few ways to define “religion”. Traditionally, this is understood to be an organized approach to worship, faith, and spirituality and is supposed to lead followers to the ultimate truth. The definition that is most relevant here is a belief system that postulates the existence of the supernatural to explain the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, often involving a certain moral code of conduct. Religion is usually, though perhaps not always, facilitated through faith. Some definitions of religion involve ritual observances such as organized worship as an essential aspect, but it seems that these better fall into the category of cultural practice. Religion often goes hand in hand with culture, but one’s religion does not necessarily determine one’s cultural practices and vice versa. “Secular” quite simply refers to things that do not pertain to religion and are instead more worldly focused. The distinction between religious and secular worldviews becomes important when one is assessing and comparing them based on factors such as reasonableness, comprehensiveness, and enlightenment.

Twentieth Century philosopher Leo Apostel conducted a significant amount of research on the nature of worldviews and how they are constructed and produced detailed and comprehensive work on this subject. He defined worldview as consisting of several different elements including ontology, epistemology, ethics, and others. The exact list of elements is not universally agreed upon and Apostel himself refined his own list over the course of his career. What is common to any list is that they are all essentially categories of questions that one can have about the world and the corresponding beliefs that one holds as answers to these questions. For example, if one asks “What is the meaning of life?” then this falls under the category of either Teleology and the answer that one has for this constitutes part of this person’s worldview.

Apostel, in collaboration with Jan van der Veken and others, put forth a list of elements that constitute a worldview in the short book “Worldviews – From Fragmentation to Integration”.2 More recently, Clément Vidal analyzed Apostel’s list and reworked it into a list of questions with corresponding branches of philosophy, which appears in the paper “What is a Worldview”.3 While Vidal’s list is easier to follow, he leaves out some details from Apostel’s original list. The following list unifies both of these lists by taking the best of each:

Question Description Related Branch of Philosophy
What exists? Model of reality as a whole Ontology
Where does it all come from? Model of the past Explanation
Where are we going? Model of the future Prediction
How do words and symbols have meaning? Theory of language and logic Philosophy of Language, Philosophy of Logic
What is good and what is evil? Theory of values, often understood to include ethics Axiology
How can we act? Theory of actions, related to ethics Praxeology
What is true and what is false? Theory of knowledge Epistemology
What is the nature of personal experience? First person study of consciousness and personal identity Phenomenology, Philosophy of Mind
What is the meaning or purpose of global reality and do we have any special role in it? Theory of ends and purposes Teleology

It is possible that other elements could be added to this list, but it is likely that almost any philosophical question that one could ponder can be categorized into one or more of these nine elements. For example, the question “What happens after we die?” falls under the category of Prediction. The question “Do people have souls?” falls under the category of Ontology. The question “Why is the universe the way that it is and not different?” falls under the category of Explanation. Questions relating to ethics, such as “What should I do?”, “How should I live my life?”, and “What would be the best thing to do in a situation such as what I am faced with now?” do not correspond directly to one single element of worldview because ethics has implications for both values and actions, in other words both Axiology and Praxeology. Likewise, many other questions one can ask have implications for two or more worldview elements. While there are multiple lists of high-level questions of life that have been compiled, including Apostel’s list and Vidal’s list and others as well, the list given here is the one that will be used throughout this project.

One should note the difference between worldview and ideology. Worldviews constitute one’s core belief system and are mostly philosophical, whereas ideologies constitute one’s secondary belief system and are mostly sociological, political, and/or economic. One’s worldview precedes one’s ideology. Moreover, one’s worldview may or may not work to determine what ideologies one can accept and still maintain coherent beliefs overall.

For example, if one has Christianity as their worldview then it is unlikely that they will be able to subscribe to Marxist ideology, at least in the traditional sense, and still have coherent beliefs because Marxism is traditionally atheistic, and Christianity is theistic. On the other hand, such a Christian should be open to ideologies ranging from anarchism to libertarianism to social democracy and should be able to incorporate any of these belief systems with their religion without too much difficulty.

What is your worldview? How did you come to believe this? Please let your voice be heard in the forum.

1Hedlund-de Witt, Annick. Worldviews and their significance for the global sustainable development debate. Environmental Ethics, 2013.

2 Aerts, Diederick, Apostel, Leo, De Moor, Bart, Hellemans, Staf, Maex, Edel, Van Belle, Hubert, Van der Veken. “World views – From Fragmentation to Integration.” VUB Press, 1994.

3 Vidal, C. “What is a Worldview?” in press. Acco, Leuven, 2008.

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