Worldview in Philosophy

A Missional Method for Constructive Theology (Part 7.2)

The word worldview (Weltanschauung) first appeared in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) and quickly developed in different directions.1 Three later philosophers represent abiding critiques of the concept (as they had respectively received it): Edmund Husserl (1859–1938), Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951). Responding primarily to Wilhelm Dilthey’s “science of worldview,” Husserl objected that worldview philosophy ended in relativism. Dilthey had proposed a historicist metaphilosophy that attributed every philosophical system’s failure to account for reality to its historical conditioning.2 While Dilthey sought an objective basis for analyzing the worldviews that produce metaphysical accounts of reality, Husserl (and many others) felt Dilthey espoused subjectivism. From a postmodern perspective, it is not a very substantial critique to insist on “scientific” objectivity, yet Husserl’s concern establishes the persistent need to distinguish between the claim that worldviews mediate human perception of the “world” and the claim that the “world” is therefore not really accessible. Husserl believed the former entailed the latter and devised phenomenology as the means to make philosophy a “rigorous science” in which one might study the human consciousness of objects that precedes scientific theories (or psychological assumptions such as worldviews). The world perceived by consciousness, the “lifeworld” (Lebenswelt), is not merely the world a worldview mediates but is always already the object of consciousness through perceptual experience. Thus, while Husserl ultimately espouses a form of direct realism that may not be tenable, his dispute with Dilthey underscores the need to clarify whether worldview necessarily maintains a Cartesian subject-object dualism and, if not, how to characterize the epistemological role of a worldview.

Heidegger, a student of Husserl, makes a similar point but takes it farther. Philosophy has been about the production of worldviews, Heidegger claims, but he desires to redefine philosophy as fundamental ontology. This is similar to Husserl’s desire to define philosophy as the phenomenology of consciousness, but if it were simply a semantic move to limit the meaning of “philosophy,” the traditional task of philosophy (producing worldviews) would become nameless but remain intact. Rather, the being with which fundamental ontology is concerned is by definition being-in-the-world.3 Again, similar to Husserl’s rejection of subject-object dualism, being-in-the-world assumes a sort of ontological holism. The upshot for Heidegger is that worldview has come to signify the modernist human objectification of the world as a “world picture” (Weltbild), which necessarily prevents the recovery of the “question of being” in philosophy, given that being is being-in-the-world, not being-as-subject-over-the-world.4 Subject-object dualism therefore becomes an ontological problem in addition to an epistemological one. Does worldview inherently misconstrue human beings’ relationship to the world? Even if not, it must certainly be conceived so as to rule out a modernist objectification of the world.5

Finally, not unlike Dilthey’s search for a metaphilosophy, Wittgenstein’s later work seeks an understanding of the linguistic preconditions of philosophical claims. Wittgenstein takes worldviews to be “the form of our representation, the way we see things”6—which amounts to a philosophical understanding (i.e., contra Dilthey, philosophy produces worldview, which is the assumption Heidegger identified as the norm to be rejected in favor of fundamental ontology). In particular, Wittgenstein identifies the modern worldview (“typical of our time”) as a kind of worldview that assembles data hypothetically in order to achieve “perspicuous representation.”7 Because he desires to explain how the language of philosophy functions rather than to present an alternative representation of reality, he does not want his work to be taken as a worldview.8 His argument, instead, focuses on the idea of the “world-picture” (Weltbild) that precedes the survey of things that a worldview undertakes: “I have a world-picture. Is it true or false? Above all it is the substratum of all my enquiring and asserting.”9 He continues with a statement that contrasts clearly with the hypothesis-based modern worldview: “I say world-picture and not hypothesis, because it is the matter-of-course foundation for [the scientist’s] research and as such also goes unmentioned.”10 In short, worldviews are construals of reality that do not take into account the way philosophical language is predicated on world-pictures.11 Thus, Wittgenstein’s world-pictures occupy a place strikingly similar to that of Dilthey’s worldviews: both precede and determine philosophical understanding.12 Another question the conception of worldview must answer, therefore, is whether it is truly pretheoretical or is, instead, the product of something more basic—or whether it is both. To some extent, the fuzzy relationship between worldview, world-picture, and lifeworld is already contained in two definitions of perception: (1) the capacity for perceiving and (2) the result of perceiving. Whether two different terms should represent these distinct ideas depends largely on whether Wittgenstein was right to characterize the world-picture as presuppositions that can be identified as such. Presumably, once presuppositions are explicated, they are almost indistinguishable from what Wittgenstein would call a worldview—which is no doubt what caused him to ask whether his own explicated “picture” of language was not ultimately a worldview too.


  1.  See David K. Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept, Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), for the best overview of the concept available. The following accounts of Husserl, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein take Naugle as a point of departure.
  2. Ramon Betanzos, “Wilhelm Dilthey: An Introduction,” in Wilhelm Dilthey, Introduction to the Human Sciences: An Attempt to Lay a Foundation for the Study of Society and History, trans. Ramon Betanzos (Wayne State University Press), 29.
  3.  Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Kindle ed. (Seattle: Amazon Digital Services: 2013), Kindle locs. 2129–36.
  4. Heidegger admits that a better understanding of Weltanschauung as a less objectifying “view of life” is justified. Yet, “the fact that, despite this, the phrase ‘world view’ asserts itself as the name for the position of man in the midst of all that is, is proof of how decisively the world became picture as soon as man brought his life as subiectum into precedence over other centers of relationship.” Martin Heidegger, “The Age of the World Picture,” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Garland, 1977), 134.
  5. As representatives, Husserl’s and Heidegger’s concerns relate to those of many others who do not treat worldview per se. Particularly noteworthy from a postmodern perspective are (1) John Dewey’s characterization of representationalist epistemology as a “spectator theory of knowledge,” taken up in Richard Rorty’s discussion of the “optical metaphor,” and (2) Jacques Derrida’s critique of the historical association of sight with knowledge in metaphysics, leading into the burgeoning discussion of “carnal hermeneutics.” A knot of problems entangle sight as a root metaphor for human perception, with which any viable conception of worldview must recon. See John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action, Gifford Lectures 1929 (New York: Minton, Balch & Co., 1929), 23 and passim; Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979), 39; Jacques Derrida, “The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes of Its Pupils,” Diacritics 13, no. 3 (Fall 1983): 4; Jacques Derrida, On Touching—Jean-Luc Nancy, trans. Christian Irizarry (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005); Richard Kearney and Brian Treanor, eds., Carnal Hermeneutics, Perspectives in Continental Philosophy (New York: Fordham University, 2015).
  6. “Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough” in Philosophical Occasions: 1912–1951, ed. James C. Klagge and Alfred Nordmann, Hackett Classics (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1993), 133.
  7. Ibid. 131–33. This seems consistent with his early use of worldview, by which he identifies the assumption that the sun will rise tomorrow as a hypothesis, not a natural law: “At the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena.” Notably similar to his comments in “Remarks,” here natural laws elicit the same deference as God and Fate, but the conceit of the modern worldview is that “in the modern system it should appear as though everything were explained.” This is the assumption of perspicuity typical of the modern worldview. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in Major Works (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), §§6.36311–6.372.
  8. Yet, he seems to have an ironic awareness that his account of language itself may still constitute a worldview. The irony is clear, because Wittgenstein’s language in “Remarks” is verbatim in Philosophical Investigations, as he claims the problem is that “our grammar is deficient in surveyability” (Übersichtlichkeit being translated as surveyability or perspicuity). But whereas he identifies the surveyable representation of data according to a hypothesis as a worldview, he self-consciously asks of his own quest for a surveyable representation of “grammar”: “Is this a ‘Weltanschauung’?
  9. Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty in Major Works (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), §162. Wittgenstein’s use of Weltbild is not related to Heidegger’s objectivized Weltbild.
  10. Ibid., §167.
  11. I agree with Naugle, Kindle locs. 2174–6, that world-pictures seem to be synonymous with “forms of life.”
  12. And indeed, Wittgenstein is often taken to be just the sort of relativist that Husserl thought Dilthey was. Yet, Wittgenstein also imagines a virtually pragmatic interaction with the world that produces the world-picture, akin to Husserl’s lifeworld—and Wittgenstein never claims that the world-picture cannot be explained (though he is as uninterested in Husserl’s method as any other), only that some aspects of the world-picture cannot be doubted or investigated for the purpose of justification. One turn of phrase is particularly interesting in the context of the present discussion: “Giving grounds, however, justifying the evidence, comes to an end;—but the end is not certain propositions’ striking us immediately as true, i.e. it is not a kind of seeing on our part; it is our acting, which lies at the bottom of the language-game.” Wittgenstein, On Certainty, §204.

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