On Worldview 2 (Philosophy)

Worldview in Philosophy

My primary points of reference in this post will be David Naugle’s Worldview: The History of a Concept, followed by James Sire’s Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept, which Naugle’s work provoked.  In addition to these two, I will discuss with more depth than these two authors the importance of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, at least in my conception of worldview for a missional hermeneutics.

Naugle’s book is undoubtedly a landmark in worldview studies.  I think it demonstrates definitively that the concept is immensely fruitful and far from defunct.  While particular conceptions at certain moments in history have needed significant critique, Naugle’s diachronic treatment of worldview witnesses to the evolution and cumulative improvement of an idea that will not quit.  It also suggests that no one really claims the definitive articulation; much like a worldview, the concept of worldview remains contested yet is no less effective for that state.  I will not attempt to summarize the history that Naugle narrates.  Instead, I’ll refer to his resultant notion of worldview and note some implications.

Basically put, “worldview as a semiotic system of world-interpreting stories also provides a foundation or governing platform upon or by which people think, interpret, and know” (Naugle, loc. 3881).  This needs considerable unpacking.  His tenth chapter is the key to understanding what is loaded into the definition; in it he discusses worldview’s relation to (1) semiotics, (2) narrative, (3) reason, (4) hermeneutics, and (5) epistemology.  First, Naugle takes semiotics as the best theoretical description of human reality.  His exuberant description of our symbolic existence bears reproduction:

Behold, then, the power of signs and symbols across the whole spectrum of reality and human existence. They permeate the physical universe; they are germane to all aspects of culture; they are essential to human thought, cognition, and communication; they are efficacious instruments of either truth or falsehood; they create symbolic worlds in which people live, move, and have their being. Indeed, a certain string of symbols possesses unique cultural power and determines the meaning of life. Those symbols I would designate a worldview. As an individual’s or culture’s foundation and system of denotative signs, they are promulgated through countless communicative avenues and mysteriously find their way to the innermost regions of the heart. There they provide a foundation and interpretation of life. They inform the categories of consciousness. They are the putative object of faith and the basis for hope, however it may be conceived. They are embraced as true and offer a way of life. They are the essential source of individual and sociocultural security. They are personal and cultural structures that define human existence. (Naugle, locs. 3938-3944)

As this quotation indicates, Naugle draws an important connection to the human heart.  Specifically, he develops the thesis that what the Bible refers to as “heart” is what worldview philosophers have tried to understand (Naugle, locs. 3547–3639).  This is an important foundational insight for missional hermeneutics that will bear greater exploration.

Second, the symbols that compose our lives are narratively construed.  By relating it so completely to semiotics, Naugle expands significantly on Hiebert’s diachronic aspect. “One reason why these signs making up a worldview are so powerful individually and culturally is because of the particular shape they assume: they have been formulated and received internally as a set of narratives or stories that establish a particular perspective on life” (Naugle, locs. 3952-3953).  Thus:

The most fundamental stories associated with a Weltanschauung—those closest to its metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical epicenter—possess a kind of finality as the ultimate interpretation of reality in all its multifaceted aspects. Such stories are considered sacred, and they provide the adhesive that unites those who believe in them into a society characterized by shared perspectives and a common way of life. They also provide a tenacious grid by which competing narratives and alternative claims to truth are judged. Controlling stories, therefore, function in a regulatory fashion both positively and negatively, and are able to bind those who accept them into an intellectual or spiritual commonwealth. Thus the bulk of human praxis does seem to be under the jurisdiction of a worldview, including the significant activities of reasoning, interpreting, and knowing. (Naugle, locs. 4031-4036; emphasis added)

Third, Naugle relates the work of R. G. Collingwood and Alasdair MacIntyre to “the idea of rationality rooted in commitment” (Naugle, locs. 4079-4080).  In Collingwood’s “absolute presuppositions” and MacIntyre’s “tradition” is a philosophical discussion of the pretheoretical constructs that determine reason: “the character and content of rationality are Weltanschauung-dependent” (Naugle, loc. 4111).

Fourth, like reason, hermeneutics is worldview-dependent:

A Weltanschauung—as the primary system of narrative signs that articulate a vision of reality and lie at the base of individual and collective life—is the most significant set of presuppositions on the basis of which interpretation operates. One set of privileged signs—the worldview—provides the foundation and framework by which another set of signs—speech acts, texts, or artifacts—is understood. Hermeneutics is, therefore, a matter of signs interpreting other signs, a context-specific and tradition-bound operation rooted in a fundamental outlook and form of life. Every explanation of the social and natural world is always conditioned by Weltanschauung, the presence of which relativizes the desideratum of unaffected, noncircular scientific knowledge championed by the architects of the Enlightenment. (Naugle, locs. 4159-4163)

The question is how one enters the hermeneutical circle—how one explicates and deals with worldview—more on which later (see Naugle’s reading of Gadamer, loc. 4217).

Finally, Naugle discusses worldview and epistemology.  It is worth pointing out that there is a lack of clear analytical organization so far.  In regard to semiotics and narrative, Naugle is basically describing what worldview is, and in regard to reason and hermeneutics, he is describing what worldview does.  In regard to epistemology, then, there is an important ambiguity: just as a worldview is a way of knowing with certain characteristics, so an epistemology is a way of knowing with certain characteristics.  Therefore, in regard to epistemology, to some extent it is necessary to discuss both what worldview is and what worldview does.  On one hand, if epistemology is “how I know what I know,” then my worldview comprehensively conceived is the best answer to that question—worldview and epistemology are synonymous in this sense.  On the other hand, the field of epistemology has some typical conceptions such as realism, which are in their cognitive focus narrower than worldview.  Interestingly, though, “as a mediating element in cognition, a worldview plays no role in [naive realism], a conditioning role in [critical realism], and the total role in [creative antirealism]” (Naugle, locs. 4285-4286).  So, from another angle, one’s epistemology determines the function of one’s worldview in one’s own thinking.  That is not to say that worldview does not actually mediate in naive realism, as though naïveté were an off switch, or that worldview actually determines everything in antirealism, as though relativism could disconnect one from reality.  But one’s epistemology does undeniably have a kind of mediating function for worldview.  If epistemology is a component (or, if explicit, a product) of worldview, then the implication is that some worldviews are inherently non-self-reflexive and some are inherently narcissistic.  Without an epistemological shift, the former type cannot view itself as part of the real world and the latter type cannot view the real world because of itself.  An interesting application of the Johari Window comes to mind here, especially since Naugle commends a kind of inter-epistemological dialogue based on Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas:

Each person in the dialogue has something to contribute individually and to the other: I see things in my framework that you do not see; you see things in your framework that I do not see. I see and point out shortcomings of your framework which you cannot see; you see and point out shortcomings in my framework that I cannot see. (Naugle, locs. 4346-4348)

In the end, Naugle is looking for a way to demonstrate the superiority of critical realism.  He recommends three criteria for the dialogue: the rational test—coherence; the empirical test—correspondence; and the existential test—pragmatism (Naugle, locs. 4354-4365).  I will discuss pragmatism more below.

James Sire, sensing the need to improve the definition of worldview in his acclaimed work The Universe Next Door, reacts to Naugle’s proposal.  Sire is as impressed as I with the connection to the biblical idea of heart.  In fact, he says: “What difference does the refined definition make to worldview analysis? The main difference is a shift of focus from propositions and stories to the heart that grasps and understands them” (Sire, 135).  Before stating his definition, I should point out a another key element of his reaction to Naugle, which betrays what I take to be a methodological error in his discussion.  Sire simply confuses what worldview is and what a Christian worldview is.  He does this because his Christian worldview compels him to deny the implication of merely describing the nature of worldview as it seems to function generally: relativism.  Rejecting the mediating function that virtually all worldview conceptualization accepts, Sire says, “The irony is that any notion that a worldview forms a foundation for what we really know undermines itself” (Sire, 40).  For Sire, if it were the case that we know through worldview, then we could not know at all—for example, it would be impossible from a position of committed knowing to say anything about worldview.  Thus, he rejects the very application that makes worldview such a powerful concept: the investigation of how we know differently. Sire’s alternative is to insist that ontology, not epistemology or hermeneutics, is first:

What counts against putting meaning first is the commonsense notion that something has to be before there can be meaning. A worldview certainly can be “expressed in a semiotic system of narrative signs.” But it has to be something else first; it is not created by the signs by which it is understood. The pretheoretical categories themselves seem to be universal: being and not-being (is and isn’t) are fundamental and carry truth value; that is, they label something that is not just linguistic. (Sire, 71)

This is, of course, realism.  I’ll let other readers decide whether it is naive.  At all odds, it is thoroughly biblical: Sire feels that ontology must come first not just because a commonsense maxim demands it but because, first and foremost, “both traditional Jewish theism and traditional Christian theism have always seen the Infinite-Personal God as most basic form of what is. God, at the most fundamental level, is what it means to be. That is, they have put ontology before epistemology” (Sire, 52).  Therefore, since a Christian worldview takes the Creator to establish realism, then a Christian must insist not only that the world is real but that worldview functions in a mode of realism.  It seems to me a commonsense conclusion that this is not the case, but that is because my worldview, rather than the ontological reality of worldview, is determining how I know what a worldview is.  In any event, Sire is simply participating in the same trend he describes: “the focus of most, if not all, of the evangelical Christian definitions of world-view is never on the categories by which we grasp God, humanity and the world but on what God, humanity and the world actually, objectively (i.e., outside our thought life) are” (Sire, 41-42)—that is, the definition of a Christian worldview, not a concept of worldview.  I would contend, on the contrary, that a Christian conception of worldview should be missional and therefore far more dialogical and empathetic than Sire’s construal permits.  It is not necessary to reject an epistemic (faith) commitment to the reality of God in order to enter into discussion with the other worldviews in order to consider collectively how our worldviews mediate reality.  If that exposes us to the risk of relativism that Sire hopes to circumvent at the conceptual level, well, mission is risky.

Sire’s book is not devoid of insight.  In particular, his appropriation of Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton’s The Transforming Vision is valuable.  I will discuss their well-known worldview questions subsequently (I only note here that Sire is dissatisfied with the fact that their questions do not start with “What is real?”).  Aside from this, Sire takes up two important points.  First, worldviews are “ways of life.”  Quoting Walsh and Middleton, “A world view is never merely a vision of life. It is always a vision for life” (Sire, 98; cf. Hiebert, 2008, 28, “As Clifford Geertz points out, worldviews are both models of reality—they describe and explain the nature of things—and models for action—they provide us with the mental blueprints that guide our behavior”).  Sire thus concludes, “This aspect, the practical, lived reality of worldviews, is missing from the definition given in the first three editions of The Universe Next Door and needs to be included in any revision” (Sire, 100).  Second, he makes the narrative turn:

Both in the works of most Christian worldview analysts-such as James Orr, James Olthuis, Arthur Holmes and Ronald Nash—and my own Universe Next Door, worldview is first described in intellectual terms, such as “system of beliefs,” “set of presuppositions” or “conceptual scheme.” I want now to ask whether this is quite accurate. Does it not miss an important element in how people actually think and act? Isn’t a story involved in how we make the decisions of belief and behavior that constitute our lives? Would it be better to consider a worldview as the story we live by? (Sire, 100-101).

He affirms Middleton and Walsh’s understanding of the Bible’s narrative function in Christian worldview, which is a key point I will return to in the application of worldview to hermeneutics.

Now for Sire’s new and improved definition:

A worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being. (Sire, 122)

The benefits of this conception are that it allows for the conscious and subconscious aspects of worldview, it permits inconsistency, and it makes clear the lived quality of worldview.  Sire’s contribution accounted for, I’m prone to agree with him that James Olthuis’s is “perhaps the fullest and clearest brief definition of world-view” (Sire, 36):

A worldview (or vision of life) is a framework or set of fundamental beliefs through which we view the world and our calling and future in it. This vision may be so internalized that it goes largely unquestioned; it may be greatly refined through cultural-historical development; it may not be explicitly developed into a systematic conception of life; it may not be theoretically deepened into a philosophy; it may not even be codified into credal form. Nevertheless, this vision is a channel for the ultimate beliefs which give direction and meaning to life. It is the integrative and interpretative framework by which order and disorder are judged, the standard by which reality is managed and pursued. It is the set of hinges on which all our everyday thinking and doing turns. (Olthuis, 2–3; emphasis added)

I want to return momentarily to Naugle, who reiterates his definition at the end of his tenth chapter and adds an important phrase: “A worldview, then, is a semiotic system of narrative signs that creates the definitive symbolic universe which is responsible in the main for the shape of a variety of life-determining, human practices. It creates the channels in which the waters of reason flow” (Naugle, locs. 4384-4386).  Both Olthuis and Naugle conceive of worldview metaphorically as a channel.  Olthuis’s footnotes make the Wittgensteinian connection explicit; both channel and hinges are from Wittgenstein.  Though Naugle deals with Wittgenstein extensively in his historical overview—quoting the key passages from Wittgenstein’s On Certainty and identifying Wittgenstein’s project as “what might be accurately called a ‘linguistic’ Weltanschauung rooted in words, their use and meaning” (Naugle, locs. 2179-2180)—his indebtedness is not clear when he uses the channel metaphor chapters later.  Nonetheless, in both authors the connection is real and vitally important.  I turn now to an explanation of Wittgenstein’s contribution to a missional conception of worldview.


Naugle, David K. Worldview: The History of a Concept. Kindle ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.

Olthius, James H. “On Worldviews.” Christian Scholar’s Review 14, no. 2 (1985): 153-164; I’m using a version available online, with different pagination; http://www.freewebs.com/jamesolthuis/OnWorldviews.pdf.

Sire, James W. Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept. Downers Grove: IVP, 2004.

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