Defining Our Terms: Worldviews and Worldviews in Change
Many of us have by now shared a peculiar classroom experience characteristic of these early years of the twenty-first century. One example may serve to make my point. In an recent advanced geography seminar a bright female senior, in response to a question about “honor killings” of young Muslim women by brothers and fathers in France and elsewhere in Europe, argued that while she thought honor killings “are terrible I don’t feel that I have the right to impose my values onto another person or another culture.” This kind of student attitude, now commonplace, sends shivers up the spine of even the most jaded teacher. After all, if the vitality of a civilizational worldview as expressed by its young has eroded to the point that it is unwilling to defend its core values it seems fair to question its future.
From the start of our project we believed that we had observed, experienced and intuited sufficient changes of student attitude and even behavior to formulate a working hypothesis, i.e., that least some degree of a shift from traditional and modern to a postmodern Weltanschauung (worldview) had occurred or was occurring among many or perhaps most college students.
What do I mean by these terms? Briefly, values in a Traditional worldview originate with God and are inherited. As philosopher Charles Tayler puts it, “people recognized something transcendent to their lives, that is, a good which is beyond that of human flourishing” (Taylor 2007). Personal identity and meaning are derived from one’s place in and contribution to a group or collectivity like tribe or kinfolk. The sources of authority are sacred and learned texts/persons. Obedience is more than a mere value, it is essential to survival. Traditional values such as familial duty were non-negotiable because to do otherwise would have been to rebel against the obvious, true order of things; would, in other words, have been foolhardy, even crazy.
In a Modern worldview the source of authority is objective evidence, and the source of values is science and reason. Personal meaning and identity are not inherited but discovered (e.g., finding one’s true calling or vocation) and the self has become central. Technology, progress, and individual worth and merit as positive goods are as unquestioned as the air one needs to breathe (Norwine et al 2006). Older values like obedience and self-abnegation, so vital in traditionality, come to feel outmoded, quaint, silly.
It is important to note that, while different, absolute values are assumed in both of these worldviews. In neither a Traditional nor a Modern outlook would the toleration of “all cultures are equal, we have our values, they have theirs” (Kolakowski 1990) make sense.
But now, in Postmodernity, we have moved “to a conflicted age in which the locus of meaning is no longer unproblematically assumed to lie beyond or outside human life but is challenged by many who place it within human life (Taylor 2007). Very little else is self-evident. Identity is no longer inherited or even discovered but is provisional and shifting, like grazing over a salad bar, in an endless quest for personal authenticity. Values are not absolute. Now, according to the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend, “the only principle that does not inhibit progress is ‘anything goes’.” This idea, the antithesis of Dostoevsky’s “If God does not exist, everything is permitted” (Dostoevsky 2002; Cortesi 2007), captures and conveys a sense of what is meant by a Postmodern worldview. No “privileged” perspectives are permitted, there is no unitary truth “out there,” and the source of authoritative answers is self-referential, that is, based on individual personal experience.
Finally, life and existence itself have become, in the worldview variant we characterize as “radical” postmodern, essentially meaningless. In the words of comedian Jerry Seinfeld, life is “a show about nothing” (Lansing 2006). We may, as the brilliant late postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty said, choose soft nihilism or hard nihilism but it nihilism all the way down. I.e, because “there is no true world” (Nietzsche), nothing,–save power, pleasure and pain–nothing is any really any more important than anything else. Or, in popular novelist’s telling phrase, nothing is essential.