Rebirth of Reason

Intellectual Ammunition

Four Major Worldviews
by Ed Thompson

Your worldview is your philosophy on life. There are at least 4 main worldviews: idealism, realism, pragmatism, and existentialism. Different thinking, in both style and content, usually falls under one of those 4 categories. Here is a synopsis of each view, along with some historical examples of thinkers who held them:

Idealism is when you hold the view of "mind-over-matter." It doesn't mean that you can perform magic and alter reality at will (with the use of your mind). Instead it means that minds, or the ideas associated with minds (i.e., things immaterial), are the things that primarily exist. It is supposedly from the primary existence of a mind (or of something ideal or immaterial) whereby all of the usual and physical existence around us originates. This is the worldview of most religions. In the major monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), God is said to have always existed and, from the intentions springing up from His mind (or His "spiritual essence," if you prefer), the world -- indeed, the whole universe -- was created. In an essay entitled "The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made" Ayn Rand identified this worldview as a Primacy of Consciousness view, to be distinguished from a Primacy of Existence view.

Historical examples of thinkers who held idealism as a worldview would be Plato (c.428-347 BC), Augustine (354 - 430), and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

Realism is when you hold the view of "matter-over-mind." It doesn't mean that physical reality is all that there is to existence, or that physical reality makes our minds useless or inconsequential. Instead it means that reality exists independently of observers -- independent of their thoughts, feelings, intuitions, and opinions. On this view, reality is just there, and it is up to a mind to discover reality (through various forms of identification). In fact, that is the main purpose of a mind: to discover reality. This process of discovery is ongoing, as we learn more and more about our universe and about our place in it. The mind then, properly utilized in accordance with a strictly-propagated rationality, can be thought of -- Rand said -- as man's "means of survival" (see 3rd sentence here).

Historical examples of thinkers who held realism as a worldview would be Aristotle (384-322 BC), Francis Bacon (1561-1626), and John Locke (1632-1704).

Pragmatism is when you hold the view of "experimentism." It is an expansion on the notion of scientism (where everything known, or even everything knowable, is either scientific or knowable from purely scientific activity). Under pragmatism, you are a constant experimenter, proceeding through life by always trying new things and then seeing what worked. Often, it is only after the fact when you can see that something worked out for you. Under pragmatism, what you are not allowed to do, however, is to generalize. Because, if you generalize, then you will create a base of knowledge and, if you create a base of knowledge, then you will have formalized answers to some of life's problems (i.e., because then you will stop experimenting). Instead of generalizing your knowledge, you keep your knowledge tied tightly to each situation, practicing the epistemological caution of a card-carrying Popper-Kuhnian scientist, who proclaims that he is not just sure (he never is) if his theory is true or not, but that all that he can tell you, for now, is that it hasn't yet been falsified.

Historical examples of thinkers who held pragmatism as a worldview would be CS Pierce (1839-1914), William James (1842-1910), and John Dewey (1859-1952).

Existentialism is when you hold out your fist against reality and proclaim: "Listen to me, Universe, it is either my way or the highway!" It doesn't mean that the universe has to bend to your will, as if you are an all-powerful god or something. Rather, it represents a rejection of the 3 preceding worldviews in favor of a view that you are but a solitary force in a harsh sea of forces, and that you will 'ongoingly' choose to exert your force against that harsh sea, travelling without the specific compass provided by each of the first 3 worldviews. In doing so, you will follow your heart and you will make your own wake in that sea, and that is all that matters to you. It is a skepticist and subjectivist worldview, wherein nothing is presumed to be truly known, or even knowable, except your inner longings and desires. A brief characterization of existentialism is found in the phrase: "the will to power."

Historical examples of thinkers who held existentialism as a worldview would be Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976).


Further Reading

Wikipedia links to Worldviews mentioned:


Wikipedia links to Thinkers mentioned:

Francis Bacon
John Dewey
Martin Heidegger
William James
Immanuel Kant
Søren Kierkegaard
John Locke
Friedrich Nietzsche
CS Pierce
Ayn Rand

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