Weltanschauung is a German word that often is translated as “worldview” or “world outlook” but just as frequently is treated as a calque or left untranslated. A Weltanschauung is a comprehensive conception or theory of the world and the place of humanity within it. It is an intellectual construct that provides both a unified method of analysis for and a set of solutions to the problems of existence. The concept of a Weltanschauung has played an important role in the development of psychoanalysis, critical theory, and nineteenth- and twentieth-century hermeneutics.
Weltanschauung is connected closely to the work of Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911), who wanted to provide for the human sciences what Immanuel Kant (1724– 1804) had provided for the natural sciences. Kant had established the possibility of objective and certain knowledge for natural science (Naturwissenschaft ) in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781). Dilthey intended to fashion a critique of reason on behalf of the historical human or cultural sciences (Geisteswissenschaft ). For Dilthey the goal of natural science was causal explanation, whereas the goal of human sciences was to achieve understanding by means of interpretation. Every interpretation, he reasoned, takes place within a larger understanding of the world (i.e., a Weltanschauung), which itself is historically conditioned. Thus, interpreters of human history and culture must recognize their immersion in a particular historical situation and tradition and in that process come to terms with the finitude of their perspective. The irony of Dilthey’s historicist conclusions lies in the fact that they undermine his original goal of establishing universal validity for judgment in the human sciences. This split or contradiction resulted in differing orientations to the concept of the Weltanschauung among thinkers such as Freud, Husserl, Heidegger, and Gadamer.
For Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) the age of modernity was the coming into being of the rational or scientific Weltanschauung and the subsequent decline or eclipse of alternative religious or philosophical Weltanschauungen. The scientific Weltanschauung sees both the natural world and the cultural world as being ultimately transparent to the power of human cognition. Therefore, it consciously supplants world outlooks that place certain phenomena beyond the reach of human understanding. In Freud’s view psychoanalysis represented the last contribution to the criticism of nonscientific Weltanschauungen (for instance, by tracing the origin of religion to the persistence of the wishes and needs of childhood into maturity). The arrival of the scientific Weltanschauung, which Freud described as still being in its infancy, would resolve the paradox left behind by Dilthey. This was a historically conditioned view of the world, but because it represented the endpoint or terminus of human cognition, it could provide objective and certain knowledge for all human activities and endeavors.
A more direct successor to Dilthey was Edmund Husserl (1859–1938). In rejecting the strong claims of scientific rationalism, Husserl argued that objects are experienced by the observer only from within an intentional horizon of consciousness, or “life-world” (Lebenswelt ). In other words, objects are not located in objective or autonomous space and time; they do not exist outside a detached observer who can come to know them objectively and finally. For Husserl meaning does not exist “out there” but resides only where subject and world meet. The goal is to strip away the preconceptions of history and science so that consciousness can understand the object as it really is.
Husserl, however, like Freud, ignored the historical nature of Dilthey’s account. The very possibility of a historical meaning was challenged by Husserl’s successors in phenomenology and hermeneutics, including Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) and Hans Georg Gadamer (1900–2002).
Heidegger emphasized the finitude of all historical and cultural interpretation at the expense of ahistorical accounts. For Heidegger hermeneutics, as the theory and practice of interpretation, must remain cognizant of different Weltanschauungs operating in certain historical contexts. One can know an object only from within one’s peculiar and historically conditioned Weltanschauung or (Heidegger’s favored term) Weltbild (world-picture). As interpreters of the world around them, people always find themselves within a particular language and culture. People cannot bracket the presuppositions of their Weltanschauung in order to explicate reality; in fact, those presuppositions become part of the very existence that demands explication.
Hans-Georg Gadamer, whose 1975 work Truth and Method represents the major thrust of contemporary hermeneutics, extended the Heideggerian critique of ahistorical interpretation in many ways. For Gadamer understanding involves an interpretive dialogue with the Weltanschauung in which one finds oneself. People’s modes of understanding (their “methods”) are at one and the same time the means of interpretation and objects that require interpretation. Gadamer reconnects to the historicist conclusions of Dilthey with his assertion that understanding can be achieved only with reference to the Weltanschauung in which that understanding is taking place. Unlike Dilthey and Heidegger, however, Gadamer posits that there can be no final interpretation of reality because new life-worlds or world pictures will cause future interpreters to see and experience the world differently.
SEE ALSO Freud, Sigmund; Hermeneutics; Ideology; Philosophy; Political Theory
Dilthey, Wilhelm. 1996. Selected Works. Vol. IV: Hermeneutics and the Study of History, eds. Rudolf A. Marrkkreel and Frithjof Rodi. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Freud, Sigmund. 1933. Lecture XXXV: A Philosophy of Life. New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. Trans. W. J. H. Sprott. New York: W. W. Norton.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 1975. Truth and Method. London: Sheed & Ward.
Heidegger, Martin. 1962. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper.
David W. McIvor
The term Weltanschauung, literally, "view of the world," had a very specific meaning for Freud, who defined it in the New Introductory Lecture as follows: "A Weltanschauung is an intellectual construction which solves all the problems of our existence uniformly on the basis of one overriding hypothesis, which, accordingly, leaves no question unanswered and in which everything that interests us finds its fixed place" (1933a , p. 158).
Indeed Freud had already used this concept as a stick with which to beat philosophies and religions—both lambasted, for example, in his Future of an Illusion (1927c). In 1933, however, he broadened the notion, bringing science too under its aegis; this with the proviso, though, that "the Weltanschauung of science already departs noticeably from our definition. It is true that it too assumes the uniformity of the explanation of the universe; but it does so only as a programme, the fulfillment of which is relegated to the future." (pp. 158-159). The fact was that the notion of Weltanschauung usefully supplemented that of culture, for it helped specify culture's different spheres and point up their underlying emotional raisons d'être.
Freud extolled and defended the virtues of an intolerance that refused, in the name of "truth," to consider all domains of human intellectual activity to be of equal value: "It is simply a fact that the truth cannot be tolerant, that it admits of no compromises or limitations, that research regards every sphere of human activity as belonging to it and that it must be relentlessly critical if any other power tries to take over any part of it" (p. 160). It has to be said, therefore, that Freud's views on religion and especially on philosophy were rather narrow—judging, as he did, that they were totally closed to doubt. On the other hand, his opposition to dogmatism is much easier to comprehend if one bears in mind that dogmatism constitutes the major temptation for any theoretician, and no doubt for Freud himself with respect to psychoanalysis. And it was certainly for the sake of psychoanalysis that he defended the ideal of scientific ascesis.
Apropos of the religious Weltanschauung, in 1933 Freud articulated ideas he had expressed in Totem and Taboo (1912-13a) on the formation of religions, while restating, in essence, some themes of The Future of an Illusion concerning the way religion panders to humanity's "desire for knowledge" and to its infantile need for protection. To emphasize how risky a religious view of the world is to thought, which it limits through its interdictions, he also revisited the ideas expressed in "Civilized Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness" (1908d). Most of Freud's observations on the notion of Weltanschauung were in fact concerned with religion, but he did also mention art, which for him was "almost always harmless and beneficent; it does not seek to be anything but an illusion" (1933a , p. 160), and philosophy, about which he wrote: "Philosophy is not opposed to science, it behaves like a science and works in part by the same methods; it departs from it, however, by clinging to the illusion of being able to present a picture of the universe which is without gaps and is coherent" (p. 160).
Another kind of Weltanschauung, about which Freud usually had very little to say, save for his considerations on war, was politics, and specifically Marxism, to which he opposed a conception of the evolution of societies that was just as materialist as Marx's, but without any real discussion of Marx's theories, which seemed to him to be derived from "the obscure Hegelian philosophy, in whose school Marx graduated" (p. 177). Nihilism of the anarchist variety he denounced as pure sophistry; it nevertheless constituted an attack on the very core of scientific ideals, since it abolished the criterion of truth.
Finally, Freud's reflections on the notion of Weltanschauung were generally conflated with an earnest and vibrant pleading of the case of science, as when he said about the common man: "Truth seems to him no more capable of comparative degrees than death" (p. 172). His conclusion was a real rallying cry: "A Weltanschauung erected upon science has, apart from its emphasis on the real external world, mainly negative traits, such as submission to the truth and rejection of illusions. Any of our fellow-men who is dissatisfied with this state of things, who calls for more than this for his momentary consolation, may look for it where he can find it. We shall not grudge it him, we cannot help him, but nor can we on his account think differently" (p. 182).
Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor
See also: Ideology; Illusion; Linguistics and psychoanalysis; New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis ; Psychoanalytic research; Science and psychoanalysis; Truth.
Freud, Sigmund. (1908d). "Civilized" sexual morality and modern nervous illness. SE, 9: 177-204.
——. (1912-13a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13.
——. (1927c). The future of an illusion. SE, 21: 1-56.
——. (1933a ). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 22: 1-182.
Weltanschauung is an expression, used already by I. kant in 1790, that came into common usage particularly in German romanticism from the mid-19th century onward. Weltanschauung (world view) denotes an image in which a person blends the multiplicity of beings, values, and duties, particularly through the concept of beginning, that explains the existence of the universe, and through the concept of supreme value, to which the universe tends as to its end and from which it derives its meaning. This image can be unconscious and latent; it can be expressed in mythical narratives or in more or less scientifically developed theories. From a cosmological viewpoint, the Weltanschauung may be qualified as skeptical, atheistic, pantheistic, theistic, etc.; from an axiological viewpoint, the Weltanschauung may be classified as hedonistic, humanistic, religious, etc.
Those philosophers who maintain that value is beyond the reach of rational knowledge (H. Lotze, M. scheler, N. hartmann) must admit that a Weltanschauung is a philosophical system—there exist two irreducible ways of conceiving the universe. If, on the contrary, one admits the intimate coherence of being and value, one must affirm that a metaphysical system is a scientifically elaborated Weltanschauung.
Historicism (W. dilthey) usually judges the various Weltanschauungs with reference only to physiological and psychological qualities, individual and collective experiences, the needs and conditions of the individual and of society. A Weltanschauung, according to historicism, is correct if it permits the individual or society to conceive the world coherently with its own subjective dispositions. In fact, the criterion of the validity of a Weltanschauung is its veracity, that is, its conformity with objective reality. Nevertheless, the same truths can be united in varied syntheses according to the diverse points of view from which they are considered. In this sense there are, in fact, various true Weltanschauungs, which are complementary and not contradictory.
In theology, the question arises concerning the relationship between Weltanschauung and faith. Protestants, for the most part, believe that faith does not include any judgment concerning the existence or value of beings; they are, therefore, inclined to admit that the Christian religion can coexist among the faithful with various contradictory Weltanschauungs. For Catholics, faith consists in a total submission of intellect and will to God the revealer: therefore the acceptance of the Catholic religion implies the rejection of a Weltanschauung that is contradictory to the revealed image of the world.
See Also: man; relativism.
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