Modern Worldview

“An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump”, Joseph Wright of Derby, oil on canvas, 1788. This image is often thought to typify the intellectual pursuit of knowledge that rose to prominence during the Age of Enlightenment. Click image to see an enlargement. The emotions of the children are a key element of the image.

How do you refer to the worldview held by most people in America and much of the world in the 21st century? Most people aren’t even aware of their worldview as being a worldview. They think of it as “normal” or “regular” or “just plain old reality.” That’s how worldview feels to each of us, of course. The only time you find out that something you think of as “reality” is really “a point of view about reality” is by running into someone else who doesn’t see it that way. That can only happen when you meet and work with, or otherwise relate to, people in a worldview that’s not the same as yours. Since the dominant worldview is, well, dominant, most people who hold that worldview never meet anyone who sees things differently. So it never occurs to them to give a “name” to the way they see things. To them, it’s simply how things are. It’s reality.

Cultural scholars recognize that the dominant worldview we’re talking about here is only one of many possibilities, so they give it a name. Which name they give it depends on their own field of study because we all define worldviews that aren’t ours in terms of how they are not ours. Scholars and other people in the dominant culture have begun to call it by names that say what it’s “not” to them, names such as Scientism, Modernism, and Materialism. Each name refers to a different aspect of this particular, ubiquitous worldview. Because it arose in Europe during the “Age of Reason” or “The Enlightenment”, many scholars call the larger, baseline worldview “European” or “Euro-American.” But because it has clear roots back to the Ancient Greeks, and because Classic (Greek-derived) European culture is often called “Western Civilization,” the most common term for this worldview was, until recently, “Western worldview.”

Everyone dislikes something about one name or another for the dominant culture we’re discussing here, so at present there is not a single, accepted name for it. If you refer to a point of view as being “Western,” for example, someone is bound to bristle and say, “It has nothing to do with the Greeks; it’s more ‘Industrial’ or ‘Colonialist’.” At the same time, other people will bristle the opposite direction and say, “It’s not ‘Western’. It just IS!” All this makes it even harder to communicate. Yet, as you can see in our web pages, it’s important to have a way to refer to this worldview.

We have solved the problem in our own webpages by adopting a loose and unofficial convention. We refer to this “Euro-American, Western, Materialist, etc.” worldview as “dominant”, “modern” (with a lower-case “m”), and/or “contemporary” — variably. We don’t use the term “dominant” all the time because it doesn’t get to be dominant in our programs. We don’t use the term “modern” all the time because there is a term “Modern” (with a capital “M”) that means very specific things, all narrower than what we mean by simply “modern”. And we don’t use the term “contemporary” by itself all the time because Indigenous and other worldviews also exist now — they are contemporary, too. We intentionally mix the terms around and change them throughout our pages to try to remind ourselves and others that the thing we’re referring to is hard to pin down, elusive in its shape and dimensions, and very powerful precisely because it’s so hard to see. That which is invisible is most difficult to understand, and can most easily be present without anyone knowing it.

Incidentally, it may amuse you to know that coining terms with hard and fast definitions is a characteristic common to contemporary modern worldview. “Adopting a loose and unofficial convention” is a common way of doing things in Indigenous worldview.  So even the way we talk about worldview depends on our worldview!