Aug 15, 2011

The 'worldview' boom

"Everybody has some kind of a worldview," Rick Warren said.

But this might be more true than it used to be.

The idea of "worldview," of course, is that one has to have one, and that people have always had them. But the use of the word, the way people conceive of themselves and of others as having worldviews, is a much more recent thing.

Google ngrams show that, in American English, "world view" was used in .00012% of books from 1710 - 1720, and then in about .0001% percent around 1780. These are blips. Stray usages. Several of those cases turn out not to be "world view" at all, in the way we think of it, but, "world, view'd," from the line "This, and the next world, view'd with such an eye," in a then-much-anthologized poem by the poet Edward Young.

Besides that it's basically nothing -- non-existent -- until around 1900, where there's a couple uses of the set of words in the corpus of Google-scanned books, and then more, and then a lot more. By 1986, .0003% of the American English corpus contains uses of the phrase "world view." That's 3x what it was in 1780.

Considering that there are also a lot more books being printed in America in 1986 than there were in 1780, this is more than an uptick. It's a massive increase of "world view."


In the '80s, the phrase gets used in a variety of ways pretty familiar today: anthropology, in certain sorts of histories*, and in translation of the German "weltanschauung."

And in Evangelical Christian books.

A lot in Evangelical Christian books.

Interestingly, one of the first places the idea of a specifically Christian "world view" can be found in English is the translation of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics. Volume III is fairly dismissive, saying "a world view is an opinion, postulate or hypothesis even when it pretends to be Christian." Volume IV provides a series of more positive definitions, including: "World-views are doctrines which the man who views the world from a particular standpoint deduces from the many things which he has seen or thinks he has seen. Usually, it will be a doctrine which includes some kind of practical ethics and perhaps politics."

This may be the first case of the phrase being used in English explicitly in the sense that there might be a worldview that's specifically Christian. That the Christian one might be opposed to or in competition with others. This is the early '60s.

I haven't seen an earlier use -- Tillich is using the phrase freely in '71, even saying "Christian world view." John C. Greene's Darwin and the Modern World View is copyrighted in the years between the English translation of Barth's Dogmatics III and IV, but it's printed well-after, as far as I can tell, right in the middle of our boom of "world view" usage. Oddly, the phrase "world view" only shows up in the title of Greene's book, never in the text. So it might have been added by an editor to catch the wave of "world view" usage.

Of course, it wasn't Tillich who disseminated the prhase throughout Evangelicalism, nor Barth. That was Schaeffer. He's using the word at least as early '72. In He is There and He is not Silent, we find the source for Warren's phrasing, for example, when Schaeffer writes: "no man can live without a worldview," and "all men have a worldview."

David K. Naugle says "Through Schaeffer** an entire generation of Evangelicals were (and continue to be) inducted into the notion of thinking Christianly about the whole of human existence," which is to say, of Christianity as more than a faith, or a matter of personal salvation, but as a system, an ideology.

The use of the phrase drops off in the '90s, according to Google ngrams. But this is just because there's a switch to Schaeffer's preferred spelling, "worldview." As one word, usage went up from '81 to 2000. "Worldview" usage passes "world view" in about '90, and shows up in .0005% of American English books at the turn of the 21st century.

This is still a tiny fraction, of course, five parts per million, but a fraction with a cultural dominance. Within certain circles of contemporary American Christianity, everything is thought of through the frame of "worldview." When Christian fiction authors say that "Christian fiction is fiction from a Christian worldview," this is what they're drawing from. These are the terms and conditions of their imagination.

A large portion of the usage of the word in books published in American English at the end of the last century, according to the titles represented in the Google corpus, was in Evangelical titles such as Homeschooling from a Biblical Worldview, Muslims, Magic, and the Kingdom of God: Church Planting among Folk Muslims, and A Christian Worldview and the Social Sciences.

There was still, in 2000, a continued use of "worldview" in the contexts of social science and anthropology, and anthropological-style history, though.

And some of the .0005% of titles that use "worldview" were still just translating the German -- the English equivalent for weltanschauung*** shows up in translations of Heidegger. There's also some continued, minority use of the untranslated word "weltanschauung" in American English as well. Never as much, though: it reaches a high-water mark in '86, with about .0000024%.

The rates and the change in usage seems basically the same with British English, but there's a higher percentage of social science texts, and a lower percentage of Evangelical works.

In American English, though, the word is everywhere today, and the idea and the implications of the idea of "worldview" are even more widespread. These days, as Warren said, it seems like everybody has one.



*A question for those who study historiography: is the historians use of "worldview" or "world view" an attempt to look at the affects of ideas while still accounting for the challenge of dialectical materialism in historiography? Or does it follow from the Frankfurt School's attention to ideology? Is it that historians are borrowing from structualists, who start, a la Roland Barthes, in anthropology? Is there another way to explain how this idea fits into theories of history?
** It's not clear the extent to which Schaeffer takes the word from the German philosophers, Kant, Heidegger, etc., or if he gets it from the theologies of Barth or Tillich, works he surely would have been familiar with. We do know Schaeffer is partially using the presuppositional apologetics of the Dutch Calvinists following Herman Dooyewerd, which Schaeffer said he learned from Cornelius Van Til.
***My wife, who is fluent in German, tells me that German students today don't use "weltanschauung," which would be old fashioned and philosophical, but "weltblick." Possibility a translation of the English which was a translation of the German?