Worldview in Anthropology

A Missional Method for Constructive Theology (Part 7.5)

Within the social sciences too, worldview enjoys a diverse history.[1. Despite the oddly reductive portrayal of Sander Griffioen, “The Worldview Approach to Social Theory,” in Stained Glass: Worldviews and Social Science, ed. Paul A. Marshall, Sander Griffioen, and Richard J. Mouw, Christian Studies Today (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1989), 90, fourteen years prior Michael Kearney, “World View Theory and Study,” Annual Review of Anthropology 4 (October 1975): 247–70, had already surveyed an expansive amount of worldview study, particularly in anthropology. Mark E. Koltko-Rivera, “The Psychology of Worldviews,” Review of General Psychology 8, no. 1 (2004): 3–58, provides a similarly expansive presentation of worldview in psychology. Annick Hedlund-de Witt, “Exploring worldviews and their relationships to sustainable lifestyles: Towards a new conceptual and methodological approach,” Ecological Economics 84 (December 2012): 74–83, explores a number of more sociologically oriented approaches.] I limit my comments here to anthropology. Clifford Geertz is the best representative of worldview conceptualization in anthropology, both because of his influence (including in missiology) and because his work is dated.[2. His well-known essay “Ethos, World View, and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols,” The Antioch Review 17, no. 4 (Winter 1957): 421–37, is nearly sixty years old.] The latter is important because worldview has seemingly become passé in anthropology, raising the question of whether worldview analysis like that of Geertz has been debunked or proven unsustainable in some way. It appears, to the contrary, that worldview as an analytic construct is alive and well at least in American anthropology.[3. Beine, David. “The End of Worldview in Anthropology?” SIL Electronic Working Papers 2010-004 (September 2010): 1–10,] Geertz has also recently been the object of vindication despite significant critique.[4. Kevin Schilbrack, “Religion, Models of, and Reality: Are We Through with Geertz?” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 73, no. 2 (June 2005): 429–452; Jung Lee, “Ethos and Worldview Reconsidered: Geertz, Normativity, and the Comparative Study of Religions,” Religion Compass 6, no. 12 (December 2012): 500–510.] Furthermore, much of worldview’s decline in anthropology is related to wider philosophical critiques of representationalist epistemology, along with the rise of antirealism. Yet, ethnographers continue to wrestle with the need to affirm both a common world and socially constructed views of the world.[5. Two recent programmatic essays by João de Pina-Cabral, in which he urges the recovery of worldview, may well signal the resetting of the board in ethnography. See João de Pina-Cabral, “World: An Anthropological Examination (Part 1),” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic  Theory 4, no. 1 (2014): 49–73; João de Pina-Cabral, “World: An Anthropological Examination (Part 2),” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic  Theory 4, no. 3 (2014): 149–84.] The conception of worldview must and can find a middle way between skeptical relativism and naive representationalism—which it already needed to do on the basis of early philosophical conceptions—and ethnography and comparative anthropology is in a unique position to “go beyond the limits of speculation to point to the actual empirical conditions under which humans produce meaning.”[6. De Pina-Cabral, “World: An Anthropological Examination (Part 1),” 59.] With that in mind, I summarize the implications of the preceding subsections en route to the missiological conception of worldview.

Worldview across Philosophy, Biblical Studies, Theology, and Anthropology

  1. Worldview has gone through various philosophical articulations and critiques. Three important qualifications have resulted. First, having a worldview does not put one in the position of a subject viewing the objective world. The human perception of the world is mediated by perceptual experience, and worldview is a way of designating the total perceptual system of the human being. Second, the state of being-in-the-world is a given for perceptual experience, so the designation worldview necessarily implies a holistic, embodied experience of the world. Third, worldview is pretheoretical and linguistically mediated. Thus, while a worldview is, to some extent, articulable, its first-order function is not as a theory or philosophy but rather as that which undergirds the articulation of a theory or philosophy.
  2. In post-romanticist biblical studies, worldview does not refer to the mind of the author as an object of historical-critical study that, once reconstructed, might render authorial intent. Instead, worldview is the very horizon meditated by an author’s language, which the reader only encounters through her own horizon.
  3. Following the above qualifications, it is a mistake for theology to equate worldview with a Christian philosophy or philosophical theology, or even an explicated set of Christian presuppositions. Because worldview is an embodied, cultural-linguistic, pretheoretical phenomenon, it cannot rightly be reduced to a cognitivist belief system. Furthermore, the narrative dimensions of worldview, which come to the fore in the linguistically mediated horizon of an author, orient theology to human narrativity rather than mere beliefs.
  4. Cultural anthropology’s continued deployment of worldview is concerned with the ways in which humans both inhabit a shared world and socially construct views of the world. This is once again a holistic investigation, whose accent falls on the concretely cultural aspects of perception.


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