A worldview (weltanschauung) is a holistic vision of existence, which by its nature has an appearance of completeness. It is a totality comprising 1) perception of a particular pattern or field of relevance and irrelevance in its experience, 2) conceptual articulation of relevant experience into an interrelated, nested system of categories, 3) appraisal of values according to tacit but self-evident standards, and 4) the development of a characteristic set of practical responses to its experiences. All this manifests as an individual vision of the world — a way of seeing — but it also naturally generates outwardly visible phenomena corresponding to the dimension enumerated above: 1) an intentional thrust, 2) a characteristic symbol-system, of language and image, 3) an identifiable aesthetic-moral style, and 4) a body of explicit beliefs and formal customs. All of this together constitutes a proto-culture, a germ of tradition.

What is not outwardly visible, however — despite appearances — is the worldview itself that engendered these forms.

“Kernel of culture, invisible as sight,
Darkless and lightless in the back of an eye”

The worldview must be sought to be found, otherwise one tends to discover and rediscover only one’s own worldview. (* See note to nerds, below.)


(A sidenote: Worldviews are not formed in a vacuum. They form within cultural conditions, which in turn formed within cultural conditions. In the beginning is always culture, and culture is within reality, but culture is reality — and also it somehow produces cultural progeny. This is the chicken-and-egg problem. No culture, no humans; no humans, no culture.)


My theory: Coherent worldviews are constantly, spontaneously generated by a variety of spiritual impulses: philosophical, artistic, mystical, political, etc. Some cultures promote their production, others suppress them, but they are always coming into existence, and most die off without attracting the slightest notice, perhaps because the worldview itself lacks awareness of its essential differentness. But some worldviews acquire vivid expression as actions or artifacts, and gain cultural currency — and not necessarily from minds congenial with the actor or author of the works.

The symbol-systems in particular (especially when separated from the rest of the “tradition”), meant to represent particularities of the engendering worldview (its “meaning”), are also frequently capable of representing or describing features of other worldviews, quite different from the origin.

In particular, the symbol-systems are capable of hosting several perennially recurring worldviews, found in nearly every time and place, which recur precisely because they are capable of thriving within just about any symbol-system. They enter into the symbol-systems and animate them various spirits, and to the degree that these spirits can harmonize (however uncomfortably) within these symbol-systems the culture gains viability and force.

Three of these recurring worldviews are of particular interest: Fundamentalism, gnosticism, and philistinism.

  • Fundamentalists interpret symbols strictly literally, which means in strictly objective terms, using violent magical stop-gap concepts to fill in the gaps and form a totalistic worldview. In regard to others, fundamentalists oppose and impose.
  • Gnostics interpret symbols strictly figuratively, which means there are no gaps to fill, because the concepts are liquid, with no solid, practical obstructions to free-flowing completeness. In regard to others, gnostics stand apart, uninvolved.
  • Philistines just do what is expected, in order to keep doing, and symbols are just one of many practical concerns. In regard to others, philistines cooperate, uncritically.

Wherever there is culture, these three generic spirits move in and make their indispensable contributions. Nothing happens without them.


  • Note to nerds:

What the discipline of hermeneutics pursues is the recovery of the generative worldview behind created forms. The pursuit is a futile one — that is, it is never brought to completion — but the pursuit of completion is the goal that makes the activity possible. For this reason, any “hermeneutic” loyal to some set worldview, for instance a “Marxist hermeneutic” or “feminist hermeneutic” is impossible. The point of hermeneutics is precisely to overcome the limits of one’s particular worldview in order to experience beyond one’s horizon and to modify one’s worldview. An ideological “hermeneutic” is a contradiction in terms.

Not that re-interpretation of common phenomena into terms of  one’s own worldview is illegitimate. This activity is necessary. But when one reinterprets an author without first earnestly practicing hermeneutics, one strips away the author’s human status and treats the author and the work as mute, passive phenomena. A reader kills “the author” for the same reason any person kills another: to extinguish an active, apparently harmful subjectivity and to render it a passive object. A corpus has an author; without an author a corpus is corpse. It returns to dust, to impersonal text, to unprotesting material with which one may work as he pleases.

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