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What Good is a World View? August 26, 2007

Posted by Dwight and Lynn Furrow in Philosophy, Teaching.

I suspect that many philosophy professors, when asked what cognitive benefit students acquire in a philosophy class, would respond that students should begin to acquire a world view.

What is a “world view” and why is it good to have one?

“World view” seems to refer to an understanding of how everything in our experience fits together conceptually. (Assuming it does fit together conceptually, which is not obvious.) And I suppose that the great thinkers in history–Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, etc.–have attempted some sort of comprehensive, synoptic understanding. But this is a devilishly difficult intellectual task and they all seem to have gotten it wrong, since we are still preoccupied with figuring out exactly what they were trying to say and posing an endless stream of objections to their respective world views.

But if these accomplished and devoted thinkers got it wrong, how can we expect our students to get it right? Yes, I know there is value in understanding how the great thinkers of the past got it wrong, but that understanding is not sufficient for constructing a comprehensive alternative view that gets it right. So it is likely that whatever our students come away with will be wrong in some significant respect.

What is the value of a world view that is likely to be false? I suppose the maxim “any port in a storm” applies here but, in a real storm, imaginary ports are dangerous. Isn’t this true of imaginary ideas as well?



1. Nina Rosenstand - August 31, 2007

Thanks to our famous/infamous adversarial method we usually feel honor bound to dig and scratch until we find weaknesses within the great World Views, the Systems, like a well-trained airport Beagle sniffing for meat and fresh fruit in suitcases of weary travelers from international flights. But once our Beagle finds the contraband, does this automatically nullify the rest of the suitcase’s contents, or the traveler’s journey? A world view may have flaws, and still be meaningful, or at least interesting, and is often a life saver when everything else is falling apart–even if it is based on illusions. A truly well-structured “false” world view can even end up creating a world to support it…
But who says our job is to help students acquire world views? I think many of our colleagues would say that we are supposed to train students to pick apart world views, to deconstruct the systems based on tradition and illusion. That is, in effect, what drives some of our students crazy—that they are not supposed to fall for any cohesive system, but always be ready to tear it apart.
What few philosophy instructors—myself included—ever get around to talking about are the accumulated effects of the incessant tearing-down of systems and ideas. This bonfire of criticism can have several end results—cynicism is one, without a doubt. But, strangely, for some thinkers, what rises out of the ashes of criticism is wisdom. Is having wisdom the same as having a world view? Sometimes…

2. Huan - September 1, 2007

From a student’s perspective, I’m glad that I’m being taught to take down world views instead of simply accepting them. I think all these world views from various philosophers are always nice to have, because they just provide a broader perspective and many of them have things in common. Many of them maybe mistaken in some ways but it seems most of them have some factors that are simply timeless in my opinion. Even though knowing that I may never truly see the completely correct world view, i’m still happy to be able to have some ways of understanding pieces of it.

3. Michael Mussachia - September 2, 2007

Well put, Huan. I wish I had more students like you. As NIna suggested, finding contraband in the suitcase doen’t nullify the rest of the suitcase’s content or the traveler’s journey. I myself would especially emphasize the value of the latter. Study. Critically analyze. Learn, and keep moving forward.

4. Dwight Furrow - September 9, 2007

It seems to me that a world view provides us with an interpretive framework. It is an account of how elements of experience are systematically related that enables us to make sense of that experience. If a world view contains false beliefs, it may cause us to misinterpret our experience.

Does it matter when we misinterpret our experience? It might if life is constantly throwing you curveballs that you can’t hit because you lack the conceptual framework to grasp what is happening to you. At some level our actions have to conform to the shape of the world. A world view might be meaningful or interesting but if it doesn’t allow you to make sense of what is going on around you, I doubt that it is worth having, even on pragmatist’s grounds. And if we start creating a “world” to accomodate a world view, we are in Heaven’s Gate territory.

The philosophical habit of picking apart world views aims at exposing those “curveballs”, the elements of experience that the world view cannot explain. Discovering one of them doesn’t require that we give up the world view as long as there are “tweaks” that look promising. And part of philosophy’s job is to evaluate the “tweaks”. But in the absence of promising adjustments the world view should be discarded and good riddance. So in answer to Nina’s question, “When the Beagle finds the contraband, does that nullify the rest of the suitcase’s contents?” It depends on the contraband. (I know. The metaphors are getting out of hand)

The incessant tearing down of philosophical systems aims at improving them. But should we be unable to improve any of them, perhaps our conclusion should be that reality is less systematic that we think it is. That in itself is worth knowing.

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