A Worldly View of Worldview Metaphysics

  • Helen Lauer
Part of the Einstein Meets Magritte: An Interdisciplinary Reflection on Science, Nature, Art, Human Action and Society book series (EMMA, volume 10)

This essay critically analyses how the notion of contrasting worldviews is often used to explain and to suggest ways of improving upon the way people relate in light of the way they think about each other, about themselves, and the world at large. Such usages of the worldview metaphor occur routinely in contemporary philosophical, political and social scientific texts, as well as in everyday untutored discourse. It is notoriously difficult to trace even in rough outline the thought contents and the causal sequences that result in our exhibiting loyalty, or getting safely across a street, or justifying an ill-advised military invasion.1 The mental realm remains obscure. When we externalise beliefs and other mental states by using metaphors that invoke a shared framework or storehouse of beliefs, then the subjectively personal constituents of our intentions (the particular convictions, priorities, urges, perceptual beliefs, aspirations, motives that lead us to act as we do) no longer seem so mysterious as when they are couched in terms of the hidden workings of an inner realm. The picture of ‘contrasting worldviews’ vaguely connotes a variety of view points operating in concert, or simultaneously, or con-secutively.2 But unless this metaphor provides insight into how people really tick, talking about worldviews gives a false impression about the feasibility of understanding what is involved when people intentionally do things that other people regard as unthinkable. There are actions which bring a halt to people‘s willingness to empathise and understand a radically alien point of view. Talking about worldview structure, content and adjustability as such is misleading because our analytic focus is thereby shifted away from the specific conditions, historical episodes, and material circumstances which undermine people's mutual trust and feature somehow in the way people perceive their options. But the deficit inherent in this shift of focus cannot just be declared; it has to be shown. In order to focus on the kind of situation where mutual understanding has reached a complete impasse, the behaviour in focus throughout this essay will be the sort that gets called sectarian violence and ethnic conflict. This kind of fighting is regarded as different from the murderous activities which have been formally authorised, conscripted and supervised by a sovereign state.

In the next section, a distinction is drawn between two senses of ‘worldview’ that are normally conflated in the literature of political and social philosophy, international relations, anthropology, and analytic psychology. Subsequent sections discuss versions of a widely received hypothesis that the primary cause of sectarian strife of all types is lodged deep in the conflicting worldviews of the individuals embroiled in violence.3 As will be shown, it sometimes appears vacuous, and at other times simply mistaken, to diagnose the root cause of group antagonism as the logical consequence of certain fundamental beliefs (comprising a ‘group-’ or ‘social-’ or ‘ethnic identity’) – beliefs which lie at the core of the worldview shared by members of a particular group (Connor 1972; Honneth 1998, 2002; Horowitz 1998). This is followed by a review of problems with treating a worldview as an emerging property of a community, rather than as an attribute intrinsic to any particular individual. In conclusion we examine the plausibility of social engineering programmes to enhance national harmony by encouraging people to build better world-views (Connor 1972). For instance it has been argued that a mandate of good governance is to instil in a whole population the spirit of inclusiveness through enforcement of a single national language policy (Gyekye 1997).


Ethnic Identity Worldly View Basic Belief Core Belief Ethnic Conflict 
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  • Helen Lauer

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