This is the primary belief system that one has and this constitutes a person’s core beliefs. In order for people to be able to function in their environment, they need some form of a guiding philosophy that allows them to make sense of their world and to interact with it. All people naturally have questions about the world and seek answers to these questions in order to live an adequate life. The set of high-level answers that one has to the philosophical questions that are essential to life constitutes their worldview.
A worldview is a consistent and integral sense of existence and provides a framework for generating, sustaining, and applying knowledge. An individual uses their worldview as a tool for interpreting the complexities of the world while serving as a guide to their interaction with external reality. Examples of worldviews include religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. and secular belief systems such as atheism, materialism, and some forms of agnosticism.
Twentieth Century Belgian philosopher Leo Apostel conducted a significant amount of research on this topic and produced detailed and comprehensive work assessing the nature of worldview. He defined worldview as consisting of several different elements including ontology, epistemology, ethics, and others. The exact list of elements is not universally agreed upon and Apostel himself refined his own list over the course of his career. What is common to any list is that they are all essentially categories of questions that one can have about the world and the corresponding beliefs that one holds as answers to these questions. For example, if one asks “what shall I do?” then this falls under the category of ethics and the answer that one has for this constitutes part of this person’s worldview.
Apostel, in collaboration with Jan van der Veken and others, put forth a list of elements that constitute a worldview in the short book “Worldviews – From Fragmentation to Integration” 1. More recently, Clément Vidal analyzed Apostel’s list and reworked it into a list of questions with corresponding branches of philosophy, which appears in the paper “What is a Worldview” 2. While Vidal’s list is easier to follow, he leaves out some details from Apostel’s original list. The following list unifies both of these lists by taking the best of each:
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It is possible that there are other elements that could be added to this list, but it is likely that almost any philosophical question a thinking being could ponder can be categorized into one or more of these eight elements. For example, the question “What happens after we die?” falls under the category of Prediction. The question “Do people have souls?” falls under the category of Ontology.
One should note the difference between worldview and ideology. Worldviews constitute one’s core beliefs and are mostly philosophical, whereas ideologies constitute one’s secondary beliefs and are mostly sociological, political, and/or economic. One’s worldview precedes one’s ideology. Moreover, one’s worldview may or may not work to determine what ideologies one can accept and still maintain coherent beliefs overall.
For example, if one has Christianity as their worldview then it is unlikely that they will be able to subscribe to Marxist ideology, at least in the traditional sense, and still have coherent beliefs because Marxism is traditionally atheistic and Christianity is theistic. On the other hand, such a Christian should be open to ideologies ranging from anarchism to libertarianism to social democracy and should be able to incorporate these views with their religion without too much difficulty.
Different worldviews can be compared with each other based on several factors. One important factor is comprehensiveness, which is the degree to which a worldview can lead a person to find answers to any of the great questions of life, which are listed above as the worldview components. Worldviews also differ in the degree to which the answers to questions are based on observation and reason, which is epistemic justifiability. Both comprehensiveness and epistemic justifiability contribute to a worldview’s overall degree of enlightenment.
1 Aerts, Diederick, Apostel, Leo, De Moor, Bart, Hellemans, Staf, Maex, Edel, Van Belle, Hubert, Van der Veken. “World views – From Fragmentation to Integration.” VUB Press, 1994.
2 Vidal, C. “What is a Worldview?” in press. Acco, Leuven, 2008.