Whether one uses the colloquial term ‘worldview,’ or Kant’s weltanschauung, ‘noetic structure’ (Alvin Plantinga), ‘plausibility structure’ (J.P. Moreland), ‘paradigm,’ or simply ‘outlook,’ all of these terms speak of a general form and structure, a framework. This is true in spite of the multiformity of the personal worldviews expressed in the culture at large.
Despite how abstract and airy fairy they may first appear, most students find the basic categories of philosophical speculation helpful for generalizing the details of a worldview’s content. These are (at least) four:
* Metaphysics (or ontology)
* Ethics (or morality, axiology)
There is little, if anything, in human experience that cannot be brought under one of these four headings. Metaphysics is the study of what is ultimately real, what has real existence, the nature of existent things, etc. Epistemology is the study and theory of knowledge; it attempts to examine the nature, extent and methods of knowledge and knowing. Ethics considers morals, values, duty, right and wrong. Finally, eschatology narrowly looks toward the end of history as we know it. Broadly speaking, however, eschatology actually touches all of history, including the present. Eschatology includes what postmoderns scornfully refer to as “metanarrative,” that overarching story that gives significance to every other event in that occurs within that story.
Some have sought to put things in pedestrian terms, using more concrete language and questions that beg to be filled with content. Here is a list of such questions that James Sire offers.
1. What is prime reality—the really real?
2. What is the nature of external reality?
3. What is a human being?
4. What happens to a person at death?
5. Why is it possible to know anything at all?
6. How do we know what is right and wrong?
7. What is the meaning of human history?
James Sire, The Universe Next Door, (Intervarsity Press, 1988), 18.
This is an indirect way of defining a worldview, especially helpful for discovering the content of a particular worldview, one held by some individual. In another post, we’ll look at how questions and categories like these are helpful with raising one’s self-consciousness about the content of one’s own worldview and for engaging contrary ones.
At this point, it behooves us to look at some solid positive definitions of worldview. Notice that these definitions are merely a direct statement of the questions above. Both are indispensable for roundly understanding the issue.
“[Worldview is] a network of presuppositions, which are not verified by the procedures of natural science, regarding reality (metaphysics), knowing (epistemology), and conduct (ethics), in terms of which every element of human experience is related and interpreted.”
Greg Bahnsen, per various lectures. Cf. Pushing the Antithesis, (American Vision, 2007), 244.
“In its simplest terms, a worldview is a set of beliefs about the most important issues in life...[It] is a conceptual scheme by which we consciously or unconsciously place or fit everything we believe and by which we interpret and judge reality.”
Ronald Nash, Worldviews in Conflict, (Zondervan, 1992), 16.
“A worldview is composed of a number of basic presuppositions, more or less consistent with each other, more or less consciously held, more or less true.”
James Sire, The Universe Next Door (Intervarsity Press, 1988), 17.
For some, the term “presupposition” may be new. Essentially, the term is paralleled in Nash’s definition: “beliefs about the most important issues in life.” When Nash says, “most important issues,” even this needs clarification. For so many, “the most important issues” stop short; people generally think of things such as, “Who will I marry?” “What career do I choose?” “Should I live in Chicago or Lynchburg?” (Really, that one too easy;). Presuppositions are the answers to Sire’s questions above. Thus, instead of asking “What career will I choose?” first we must ask, “Are humans active moral agents that can make meaningful choices at all or is everything pre-determined by antecedent causes?” You can sense the difference in quality and profundity.
Basically, all of our suppositions have pre-suppositions. Presuppositions are pre-theoretical and non-inferential. That is to say, presuppositions function like axioms or postulates in algebra. These provide the starting point for deduction, but they themselves cannot be proven or justified by mathematical procedure; axioms must be assumed valid and taken for granted to prove every other proposition within the system. So also presuppositions: We do not reason to them but from them. They are one’s deepest heart commitments and attitudes about how things really are. Presuppositions are first principles; the foundation stones upon which the entire edifice of one’s other beliefs are built.
Now these presuppositions do not exist independent of one another in the vacuum of our minds. Instead, they must be brought into a more or less consistent (Sire) connection with each other. Together they form a “network” (Bahnsen) or “conceptual scheme” (Nash). Collectively, then, they take on a web-like form. Presuppositions are therefore the composite properties that inevitably result in a worldview.
No one figure, since Calvin, has had a greater effect on the centrality and awareness of worldview in Christian thought than the neo-Calvinist Netherlander Abraham Kuyper (1837 – 1920). Every man cited in this post (and scores more) is, more or less directly, an heir of Kuyperian thought. And frankly, I don’t think anyone can improve on Kuyper’s definition of a worldview, from his 1898 Stone Lectures, with it’s elevated prose and organic simile.
“As truly as every plant has a root, so truly does a principle hide under every manifestation of life. These principles are interconnected, and have their common root in a fundamental principle; and from the latter is developed logically and systematically the whole complex of ruling ideas and conceptions that go to make up our life and world-view.”
Christianity: A Total World and Life System, Plymouth Rock Foundation. 1996. 113—14.
Kuyper’s is here describing the Christian worldview, but it is a fitting definition for the concept in general, and will provide a good point of departure for the next post on the subject.