Feb 6, 2014

Against Worldview Thinking?

Ever since my days at Dordt College I was under the conviction that identifying and clarifying one's weltanschauung (world-and-life view) was a significant step toward comprehension, analysis, and critique of systems such as law. Where one stands with respect to fundamental matters such as the nature of ultimate reality, whether and how knowledge is possible, whether there is the Good (or simply preferences), and the nature of "human nature" was foundational to a significant extent one's position on more specific topis such as, say, the validity of the efficient breach hypothesis in contract law.

While I still believe that thinking about one's worldview (note the common truncation) is useful, I have become concerned that abstract "worldview thinking" can shortcut actual thinking.

My concerns about worldview thinking were first piqued when I read James K.A. Smith's "Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation." (You can read some comments about Smith's book at my personal blog here and here.) One of Smith's key contentions is that what people actually do is less driven by what they believe than it is by what they desire. And our desires, according to Smith, are only marginally related to something as abstract as a worldview. In other words, what we know (i.e, justified true beliefs) is only a fraction of what we believe but what we desire dwarfs both knowledge and belief when it comes to what we imagine will make us happy. And what we imagine will make us happy is generated by the overwhelming nature of experiencing life drowning in capitalistic production and consumption and the idolatries of entertainment and sports.

While I could believe that Smith was broadly correct, I remained convinced that worldview thinking could nonetheless be a useful tool for living obediently in the contemporary world.

But maybe not. Is it possible that "worldview thinking" short-circuits thinking? Considering that possibility is one of the burdens of Molly Worthen's book "Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism." I'll quote from a review of Worthen's book by Brian Auten, where he observes that Worthen's point is about the use to which worldview thinking has been put. In other words, what folks have done with worldview can be understood as
About the "retreat to commitment"--the situation in which a thought system perceived to be under siege is shifted into the realm of ideology (in the case, "Christian worldview") so as protect it from public reason, critique and falsification--or, as Bartley himself puts it, the "use [of] ideas to protect ideas from competition." 
On my personal blog I have repeatedly warned about the futility of ideology (check here and here). As I use the term ideology I mean using a system in lieu of careful analysis. Ideology simplifies life; we aren't required to do the hard work of discernment when we already "know" the right answer to all of life's persistent questions.

I had never thought that worldview thinking itself could become ideological, that it could be used to protect ideas against ideas. I had understood it as a means by which to engage in the hard work of analysis, critique, and (re)construction. And I continue to believe that's the case for worldview thinking at its best. I am nonetheless concerned that as deployed at a popular level "worldview" may have inoculated a generation against careful self-examination. Or, even worse, set young people up for a very hard fall when they discover that the deliverance of their worldview are insufficient when it comes to a sophisticated marketplace of ideas.

So, in the end, I still believe considering and refining one's worldview can be a useful tool. But only a tool. Abstract worldview thinking should not be confused with the results of its concrete application to the hard questions of life and the law.


  1. Is Smith saying "worldview" thinking short circuits thinking or that thinking about worldview short circuits thinking? I agree with Smith if the answer is the former. I think this post is driving at how thinking about worldview is important for analysis of ideas. If Smith means that reason can be blinded by worldview, then I don't think there is any contradiction between this post and what Smith says. I'll have to check out the post and maybe that book sometime. I am with you that worldview thinking (meaning acknowledging worldview) is crucial to analysis of ideas.

  2. Smith argues that worldview thinking has less impact on who we are than us analytically-minded folks would like to believe. Following Augustine, Smith demonstrates that who we at the heart level and what we do is determined by our loves. He goes on to argue that we can redirect our consumer-driven loves toward God by employing the forgotten practices of the Church both in worship and individually. Worldview thinking remains important for doing analysis but analyzing is only one (small) part of our calling as Christians.