That’s a Huge Weltanschauung You’ve Got There, Thomas Jefferson! Does It Ever Get in Your Way?

What’s your Weltanschauung—your worldview?

In other words, what do you think you know about the world (your metaphysics)? How do you think you know it (your epistemology)? What ought you be doing and valuing as an individual (your ethical and aesthetic judgments)? And what ought you be doing and valuing in league with others (your politics)?

Do you have answers to such questions? Have you checked your premises lately? How you answer these questions, and the premises you bring to them, constitutes your Weltanschauung.

All claims arrive embedded, implicitly or explicitly, in a Weltanschauung. And bringing a Weltanschauung surrounding a claim into full awareness—-making it explicit—can help you evaluate the claim. For example, let’s imagine that you have a friend who approaches you and says the following:

I’m pregnant!

Perhaps your first response to her announcement is skepticism. Even though you are smiling at her in response, in the back of your mind you’re noting to yourself two curious things. First, you know her to be religious and that she doesn’t approve of sleeping around—yet she’s happy about her situation. Second, you know that, not only is she not married, she’s not in any sort of relationship at all. In fact, she told you only a month ago that she’s a virgin. But here she is, a month later, elated and announcing her pregnancy.

So you’re skeptical. And you should be. You politely ask your friend how she knows that she is pregnant and she makes this jaw-dropping announcement:

An angel of the Lord visited me in the twilight of morning and told me so!

Okay, so now we’re in Virgin Mary territory. An extraordinary claim is being made. And with this piece of information, a worldview reveals itself behind the claim. It is one in which angels are believed to exist (a metaphysical assumption) and religious experience counts as knowledge (an epistemic assumption). If you think such a worldview containing these aspects is dubious, the plausibility of your friend’s pregnancy claim loses a good deal of steam with you.

Something similar once happened to Thomas Jefferson. (Not that he got pregnant, but that he encountered a jaw-dropping claim.) The claim that confronted Jefferson was from eyewitnesses who said that they had seen rocks fall from the sky and even retrieved fragments from them.   

Jefferson did not believe their claims. Insofar as Jefferson knew, rocks don’t fall from the sky, and so the witnesses, in his estimation, were either lying or simply mistaken. These possibilities seemed more probable to him than the idea that rocks could ever really fall from the sky. Jefferson, in other words, possessed a Weltanschauung that could not accommodate such a claim at face value. What Jefferson thought he knew about the world made it physically impossible for such a thing to literally occur. We now know, of course, that rocks can and do sometimes fall from the sky—as meteors.

In this instance, Thomas Jefferson was misled by his Weltanschauung. He had a worldview that did not bring him closer to the truth (at least on this matter). The cautionary lesson: worldviews—our own and others—need to be made explicit in the evaluation of claims, for they profoundly color interpretations of evidence.

And there’s a bootstrapping problem here as well (as in drawing yourself up by your own bootstraps): given that we are embedded in the very system that we are trying to understand, how do we ever really know if the premises underlying our Weltanschaung are correct?

Here’s one of my all-time favorite Twilight Zone episodes (“Five Characters in Search of an Exit”). It’s a wonderful primer to the existential dilemmas that adhere to our psyches when we really attempt to figure out, with certainty, who we are and where we are. Maybe people don’t tend to look too closely at their worldviews precisely because they don’t want the attendant frustration. It’s easier just to take on a role that seems to fit you moderately well (and that you haven’t thought about too much), and believe something—anything:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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