It is important to recall that while a given worldview dominates among a group it may be thought of as a cultural condition, even the cultural condition for a particular society. The example of the long centuries of European Christendom comes to mind. Such a worldview offers an explanatory means which might be thought of as a latticework by which to ascend to true knowledge, but each is also a kind of closed or “magic” circle (Koestler 1967) within which all other knowledge must fit and outside of which lies only fantasy, ignorance or heresy.
Worldviews do change but very, very infrequently. There have in fact only been a handful of truly major worldview shifts through all of human history. Because they last so long, and because each seems absolute and self-evident while it does persist, when a worldview dies and is replaced by another the effect is vastly greater than the upset associated with a change of zeitgeist. Apprehension of the essential nature of the world, of life, even of our individual selves, undergoes drastic and fundamental revision when one Weltanschauung replaces another among a culture or society: the Europe prior to and the Europe following the birth of science and modernity seem in more ways than not different places entirely.
Contrasting the Modern and the Postmodern
Postmodernity is at once anti-traditional and anti-modern, rejecting as it does both a) the Judeo-Christian-Muslim assumption of mankind’s special “greatness and dignity” (Kolakowski 2001) and b) modernity’s assumption of the human ability, necessity even, to make the world a better place. It is thus not surprising that many inhabitants of today’s western world are troubled by an uncomfortable feeling that things no longer seem to quite add up, make sense or feel “right.” Why?
If one asks, what if anything is fundamentally different about a postmodern outlook? one must I think point to a crucial inversion of freedom and limits. Where once we inherited limits and cobbled together personal freedom as best we could, now that relation is exactly reversed. For tens of thousands of years a universal of our condition was one of inherited more-or-less fixed limits-where we lived, what we did for a living, etc.–and our great challenge was to somehow find freedom within those assumed constraints. Although the precise character of the inherited confines certainly changed, this was for all practical purposes the human condition. The upside was that these inherited constraints could act as lattices upon which one might grow vine-like toward meaning. The downside was, as Spinoza observed, that these same limits and rules could, by instilling not virtue but obedience, breed faux meaning: “so that they will fight for slavery as for salvation and not think it shameful…” (Spinoza quoted by Dirda 2007).
In postmodernity, personal freedom has become an assumed, almost sacred, “absolute,” and the great challenge for contemporary students is to find or invent limits which can give meaning or significance to their radical freedom. And, notwithstanding Rorty”s “soft” nihilism (Oventile 2007), it remains unclear whether this is “doable”, that is, whether a condition of self-created lives is now or ever possible, much less desirable. Put rather simplistically, if it is we may have arrived at the beginning of the beginning of a thrilling new meaning of what it means to be human. If it is not it may be the beginning of the end of all meaning, including that of “humanness” itself.
Undergraduate Worldviews and Values: Our Research Project and Its Findings
By and large our current students’ great-grandparents’ and even their grandparents’ experience was largely one of modernity. While their outlooks retained important aspects of traditionality, if many only symbolic, they were mostly moderns rather than traditionals, because they expected to mainly discover rather than inherit their calling and identity even as they read their Bible and studied their John Dewey. But, things change. Now, students-well, all of us, really–may choose to be devout or logical or kind but we choose to do so and next week we may choose not to. The cultural condition we inhabit has become such that the “sacred” or non-negotiable value in all this is not devotion, reason, or self-giving, which are but options, but choice itself. Thus, the experience of most contemporary undergraduates seems likely to be mostly an essentially postmodern experience to a very considerable degree.