Oct 20, 2007

Distinguishing Worldview, Philosophy, and Ideology

I frequently encounter and occasionally use the terms "worldview," "philosophy," and "ideology." The problems I have wrestled with are:
- What idea does each term name?
- How are the ideas--and the facts they subsume--related?

My answer is that a worldview is a comprehensive set of ideas that, taken together, explain at least: (1) the basic nature of the world in which one lives; (2) one's own basic nature (including the way one knows about the world around us); and (3) the manner in which one should act in the world. "Worldview" is the genus for two species: religion and philosophy. The essential characteristic distinguishing religion and philosophy is the method by which a theologian or philosopher comes to his conclusions: mysticism for religion versus reason for philosophy.

Whether they are religions or philosophies, worldviews are universal in the sense that they are meant by their developers to apply to all individuals, at all times, and in all places. For example, in Christianity, the virtue of charity wasn't meant by Christians to apply only to the people of the Eastern Mediterranean in the first century AD. Likewise, in Objectivism, the virtue of honesty--facing facts of reality--will apply as much 1000 years from now as it does today.

By contrast, an ideology is an application of a universal worldview (particularly its ethics and politics) to the current milieu, that is, a certain broadly defined time and place. An ideology is not merely the worldview's ethics and politics lopped off from their base in epistemology and ontology. An ideology explains (1) the nature of a society's current situation in history, especially the political aspects, and (2) what should, in the most general terms, be done next to create the ideal society. For example, Marxism is an ideology applying a Kantian philosophy to the time of Marx and his successors in the countries dominated by "capitalists." For another example of an ideology, see the title essay in Ayn Rand's For the New Intellectual.

Conclusion: Worldview, philosophy, and ideology have distinct, logically related meanings. They are not synonyms.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory:The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

(The Ayn Rand Lexicon contains informative entries for "Ideology," "Religion," and "Philosophy.")


Clay said...

terrific post adding clarity to thought. :)

So "worldview" is then a species of "belief" in that they are both concepts with regard to the contents of consciousness w/o regard to the method of acquisition or the validity of the content.

The difference between belief and worldview is that belief can entail any particular content such as belief that someone is telling the truth. "Worldview" on the other hand pertains to a specific subset of beliefs.

Myrhaf said...

I'm delighted to see you blogging. I got a lot out of the study group on Aristotle's Poetics on the Forum.

Burgess Laughlin said...

Does the term "worldview" pertain to a specific set of beliefs? Yes, I think so, but I would emphasize the fact that a worldview is not a mere collection of particular beliefs, but a system of particular beliefs. (In fact, the phrase I've heard is "belief system.")

In a worldview, the particular beliefs are causally connected in some manner, no matter how primitive or inaccurate the explanation might be.

Burgess Laughlin said...

This weblog is an experiment. I am trying to see if I can create a place devoted solely to the discussion of specified ideas.

Sadly, I have revised the Etiquette sidebar to specifically exclude personal comments, even when they are welcome to me. Private communication is the place for that.

Burgess Laughlin said...

[On Jan. 5 '08, "Bryan H" has offered an intriguing comment. It deserves discussion. Unfortunately his comment, in its form, inadvertently violates one of the guidelines for etiquette in Making Progress: Concentrate only on ideas, and don't quote or address others. For an explanation of my partial rewrite of his point in this post, see the P. S. to the November 18, 2007 Making Progress article on etiquette. I have tried to preserve as many of Bryan H's words as possible. If I have misinterpreted him in essentials, I will rewrite it. BL]

Let's assume the use of reason (vs. mysticism) in the formation of a worldview does indeed distinguish a philosophical worldview from a religious worldview. A problem immediately arises for anyone familiar with the history of philosophy and religion: Different philosophers and theologians have different definitions of "reason" (and "mysticism"). More precisely, they mean different things by the concept "reason." If their concept of reason is invalid, can I correctly say that they use reason to create their worldviews and that, therefore, their worldviews are philosophies?

Further, if one is using reason in the Objectivist sense (the faculty of integrating the evidence of the senses logically into abstractions), then Objectivism is the only philosophy in the history of worldviews. Objectivism makes reason practical, by applying it to facts in reality.

But, by contrast, traditional philosophies often think of reason as deductions from supposed axioms. Take Descartes, for example, who rooted his philosophy on the skyhook, "I think therefore I am."

Many philosophies also embrace the use of some type of mysticism. Kierkegaard, for example, asks us to take a "leap of faith."

There is another possible problem with distinguishing worldviews by their essential epistemologies, but this time dealing with religion. Catholics and deists following Aquinas' tradition believe God's existence can be proven through reason--the teleological argument, the cosmological argument, or other methods of (mistaken) logic. However, the complete Catholic worldview must be supplemented with some species of emotionalism (whether faith or revelation) in order to know God's supposed moral commandments.

Clay said...

I don't know if I will have time to long into this further anytime soon so I am pass along this recollection if anyone else has the time.

I believe that in Edward Cline's excellent Sparrowhawk (fiction) series that he has one of his characters speak on just this issue. I think it was in SparrowHawk: Hugh Kenrick.

Burgess Laughlin said...

PROBLEM: Is the use of reason--either as a means of producing the worldview, or as an element of the final worldview, or both-- really the differentia distinguishing a philosophical worldview from a religious worldview?

If so, then consider this situation: A supposed philosopher creates what he claims to be a philosophy; and, he says, "reason" (vernunft, raison, logos, ratio, or 'aql) has a role in it. By "reason," he says, he means the faculty of drawing deductive inferences.

When reading his philosophy we can see that, at the foundation of his explicitly stated philosophy, his most basic premises actually come not from induction of sense-perceptions but from a mystical source such as revelation, intuition, "common sense," the subconscious as an oracle, or innate ideas.

Summary: Is it accurate to describe such a worldview as a philosophy?

MY ANSWER: My first step is to try to untangle a skein of ideas.

Issue 1. When looking back at the history of philosophy, is it proper to speak of "philosophy" when we are examining worldviews whose creators merely claim to use reason themselves and merely use the term to name an idea that subsumes only some of the elements of what I, as an Objectivist, know to be reason?

The purpose of concept-formation is not to help us identify certain immutable, fixed Forms floating up there in another dimension. Instead, the role of concept formation is to help us identify the nature of particular things for certain purposes chosen by the thinker. For example, I would suggest that looking back at history sometimes requires us to include "seem-alikes" in our inquiry when we are examining a particular modern thing's historical antecedents.

Likewise, for the concept "philosophy" to be a concept, it must subsume more than one unit. There can be no concept "philosophy," if Objectivism is sui generis.

Further, in forming the concept of "philosophy," we should, as always, omit measurements--such as the breadth of the philosopher's idea of reason and the breadth of his application of his idea of reason to his worldview.

Given those points, I would say yes, the worldview of Descartes is indeed a philosophy.

Issue 2. What should we do with things that only resemble what we are trying to define?

As with almost any product of human endeavor, worldviews are often mixed cases. They have some of the essential defining characteristics of one entity and some of the essential defining characteristics of another entity, typically in the same genus.

A particular worldview, examined for certain purposes, might be predominantly philosophical or predominantly theological--or it might be a true borderline case, one that is so evenly mixed that, for a particular purpose in a particular inquiry, we might examine it as if it were either (or both).

Burgess Laughlin said...

Here is a short essay that is an example of a general statement of a Christian worldview. It is also an example of "integration," with God at the center. It thus illustrates Leonard Peikoff's idea of "misintegration."


This essay, by Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, appears in the January 24, 2014 edition of christianheadlines.com. The title is: "Intellectual Discipleship? Faithful Thinking for Faithful Living."