Worldviews, Narratives, and Ideologies

In general, I do not see much of value in postmodernist thinking, or actually almost none at all. One exception is the concept of a “narrative.” The basic intuition in my interpretation is that the human mind is built for storytelling. A story has a few actors and then a plot how things evolve between them. There are constraints:

We can only keep track of rather few moving parts. We like plot twists where it gets complicated and something surprising happens, but only to a point. We also tend to view actors as human actors with a whole set of assumptions in the background. What we can tell as a story also depends on the level of literary technique. Folktales have very simple plots, often only turning around a single message. A modern novel, by constrast, may have different layers of meaning and can involve dozens of characters, storylines are intertwined. One of my favorite movies is Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts,” which I had to watch several times before I could keep track of the different interconnections, and I have probably still not gotten all of them.

Some fields of scientific study are obviously close to literature. History writing is an obvious example, especially if it is biographical or traces some actors and their actions through a series of events. Historians have been aware of the pitfalls of storytelling for a long time, since long before postmodernism had made its appearance. No one would write anymore how King X literally fought King Y. However, the solution has often been to shift the story to an abstract level. The plot is then about nations, classes, historical forces, etc.

Anthropomorphism is often not far away, treating abstract entities as human beings with all the background assumptions we have about them. A group of people shows similar behavior to that of an individual. But it is not the same. So if a newspaper claims to have found out that “country X is reeling from a terror attack,” this is either a loose metaphor, which may be okay, or it is false if it is meant as an exact description. Nervousness may have risen on average in the country, but it may also have remained the same for some part of the population or may have even decreased for another. That is unlike for an individual where it could only be one of the three. Making inferences on this basis can hence mislead you. And seriously, how can a journalist find this out just hours after the event and without taking a poll?

What postmodernists get wrong, though, and that is understandable for people whose background is in literary studies, is that the human mind has only one way to structure information. It is a déformation professionelle to think that everything is a story. That’s also why I tend to avoid the term “narrative” which has been over-used to say the least.

Other ways to approach information are, for example, an account of the static relationships between different entities. Examples would be descriptions of a landscape or a picture. There is no story here. Or it could be a logical argument where you speak about causal relationships: “X happens because of Y” or draw conclusions like “if X is the case, then Y is true.” A mathematical proof is only a story in a very lame sense.

You can evade this objection and call all this a “narrative.” But then the word has lost its meaning. Calling it a “text” or even more technical talk of “signifiers,” etc. does not help either. What may be an insight and a valuable perspective in its domain, now becomes nothing more than saying: “Heureka, Hitler used vowels and consonants in his speeches!”

The perspective of viewing something as a “narrative” is also not as new as it seems. It can actually be understood as a special case of a much broader and older concept, namely that of a “worldview.” The term is a calque, a word-by-word translation, from the German “Weltanschauung.” It is not perfect. “Weltanschauung” is made up of “Welt,” which obviously means “world,” but “Anschauung” is somewhat more subtle than English “view.”

I have written about the German word “an” in another post. It is a preposition that expresses the idea that something is so close to something else that the two practically touch each other. English “next to” comes close, but is more awkward. “Anschauung” is a noun derived from the verb “anschauen” (“-ung” is the same as English “-ing”). The verb “schauen” means “to look,” but more in the sense of looking around without a focus. It is rather passive. By constrast, “anschauen” adds a more active and perfective slant: you not only look, but you get in touch and engage with what you see.

German has also other similar words that can have slightly different meanings: “Weltansicht,” where you have “an” with the noun “Sicht” (sight) for “sehen” (to see), “Weltsicht” without the “an,” or “Weltbild,” where the second component is “Bild,” which can mean “picture” or “image.” None of these terms has a precise definition, they are all inherently vague to some extent. As far as I could find out, Immanuel Kant was the first to use the word “Weltanschauung” in his writings, but only in passing. Hegel seems to have turned it into a buzzword that then gained traction with the Romantics.

That makes a lot of sense. First the Romantics were into art like postmoderists are into literature. And then they stressed intuitive understanding vis-à-vis rational thought. What they probably found attractive about the concept was that it expresses a comprehensive understanding of the world. It is a panoramic view, not a scientific theory. You also connect with the world, perhaps even on an emotional level. Also moral judgments may be a part of it, not just facts.

Now, my point is that broadly understood a “worldview” encompasses also the concept of a “narrative.” The focus is more on static relationships, whereas the idea of a “narrative” focuses on the dynamics. Still, a comprehensive and intutitive understanding of the world would probably not be flat like a picture, but would also have a time dimension and hence also stories. That’s how the different parts interact and drive each other forward. Things have evolved to this state, they are evolving and will keep evolving.

The main thing here is that this is about intuitive understanding, something that comes to you without rational thought. It may also involve it, but does not have to. You could contrast this with a scientific theory or an ideology where the stress is on causal and logical relationships and where your reason is called upon. In German, though, it can be confusing because “Weltanschauung” or “Weltsicht” is often used as another word for “Ideologie.” But then let me define “ideology” as a set of ideas, maybe encompassing a lot of things, that are tied together by logical or causal arguments. It is a similar concept, but it is still distinct from a “worldview.”

A worldview is on the individual level. But people often tend to align theirs. Some parts are perhaps innate, others we learn as children, still others may evolve over time. A point that various German thinkers have made is that worldviews are reflected in language. Some things are easy to express because many people needed a short expression for an idea and then created a word for it. And language can also shape your worldview in return. What is easy to express comes to you without effort.

I am not into the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, though, which is the claim that language determines your worldview. It is no coincidence that the idea cropped up earlier with German thinkers like Wilhelm von Humboldt. My objection is that I would say I can express anything in German as well as in English. It only may only take a paragraph in one language while in the other I can say it with one word that condenses the idea. Sometimes German has an edge, sometimes English. The upshot of all this is that you can see individual worldviews operate also on the aggregate level. However, my caveat applies here as well: This can be a useful metaphor, but it can also mislead you.

Intuition and rational thought are two different modes of the human mind. The first is fast and easy, the second slow and hard. It is not true that an intuitive approach is irrational per se. That would mean that it goes against logic and causal explanations. But that is not so. It just has a lower standard for what you accept. Actually, the human mind spends a lot of time keeping a worldview coherent. There are mechanisms that try to fix “cognitive dissonances” and fit new pieces of information into the whole picture. This can be with a sledge hammer. Or it can be that you ignore what doesn’t fit.

Once your worldview has incorporated some new pieces that are in tension, it can also work the other way around. As your intuitive repair mechanisms kick into high gear, other parts are adjusted. That can cascade through your whole worldview, and in some cases may lead you to swap it for another. You may have a conversion experience where you suddenly see everything in a different light. This can happen with new pieces of information that are impossible to ignore, eg. a war or an economic crisis. At such times, people often change their views dramatically. But for the most part, a worldview is rather inflexible. Your mind work continually on keeping it intact.

While there is an internal logic in a worldview, the logic can be rather weak compared to what you would accept on deeper reflection. However, you mostly rely on your worldview and intuitive thinking because rational thought is hard work. That also applies for those who are into slow thinking. We humans try to avoid it if we can, and some perhaps never really use it. Still, this does not mean they do not know how to get a grip on the world. They use their intuition and draw on their worldview, which also adds a feeling of immediate self-evidence.

Take Donald Trump: He is very confident in his conclusions, but seems to have given next to no thought to what he claims. He doesn’t get his ideas from books, they come to him intuitively. Many people conclude from all this that he has no ideology. In my narrow sense that is probably true. He could not write a well-argued manifesto where he develops his argument, much less make his case on a scientific level. However, he clearly has a worldview. I would think of it mostly as folk Darwinism with a moral tinge: There is a continual fight in nature, only the strong survive and make it. They get all the women and spread their good genes around. What helps you win is morally good. Losing is morally bad.

There are also other parts of his worldview, eg. a certain type of folk economics that meshes with his folk Darwinism: Winning in business is morally good, it validates that you are a winner and good. The losers cannot accept this reality. They try to steal from the winners. Trade is about robbing the other person. Obama was a loser, which is by definition morally inferior. He did not understand the struggle and let China and Germany rob Americans while the US should have mugged them instead.

My guess is that Trump has aligned his worldview very well with that of his audience. Binge watching TV seems like a stupid thing to do. But it isn’t if Trump can directly connect with a large segment of the public because he knows how they tick. Hillary Clinton had a hard time doing that. Basically you had to rely on her pose of being an expert and believe that she knew the answers. Trump instead could directly engage with the worldview of his audience and make an argument that worked intuitively for many people: China steals our jobs, illegal immigrants have caused a crime wave, etc.

Rational arguments are not useless against intuition, they can plant pieces of information in a worldview that then may lead to a cascade. But often they do not. You could point out that trade is not a one-way street and benefits both sides, crime has gone down, and illegal immigrants are less criminal than natives. However, many will not even listen because their minds are already made up. And even those with whom you get through may then repair their worldview immediately, shrug and go back to: But China still steals our jobs, illegal immigrants have caused a crime wave, etc.

The Romantics were convinced that intuition works better than reason. But that is not true. Actually, it is rather frustrating to see how much worse it works and that it plays such a large role. My contention is that ideas mostly work not through ideologies, but only in as much as they change worldviews. This can explain phenomena that are otherwise suprising.

Take for example the common observation that people can flip from one political view to another although the two seem worlds apart on an ideological level. If the worldview is primary, and the ideology more of a rationalization, it can easily be a small step. Let me try to capture Ron Paul’s worldview for example:

The little people work hard, but are then sucked dry by Washington. The money goes to worthless people. But the system works because it is hidden from view. Banks are in collusion with the Fed, which again is a part of the government. They are all aligned with lobbyists who thrive because they can get all the wealth. And they are again in collusion with big business. It is kept under the rug by the media who also collude, and by academia. They all stick together to keep their racket going. When they get nervous, they send in the police and the secret services.

Now I tricked you: This could also be the worldview of Noam Chomsky or Bernie Sanders or Ralph Nader or Steve Bannon or Donald Trump or Pat Buchanan or Richard Spencer. On an ideological level, you could point out that it is inconceivable that a supporter of anyone of them would become the supporter of another. But on the level of their worldviews this seems like a small step. You might only have to change a few details. The main hindrance is that others have the wrong tribal affiliations, or what would be called in German “der falsche Stallgeruch” (the wrong stable scent).

Another example is what I have begun to develop for the Malthusian argument. My contention is that it is pretty worthless as a scientific theory. There are so many logical leaps in it, equivocations, and even transparent rhetorical tricks that it is hard to keep track. However, the Malthusian argument has had a very long shelf life. It is still with us after more than two hundred years. And my explanation is that the crucial point is that it is a worldview.

Thomas Malthus was very good at appealing to the intuition of his readers. He paints a gripping “Weltbild” (world picture) of how things work. It has a few building blocks that you can easily handle with sloppy thinking: People always have lots of children. It cannot be stopped. Since there is only so much food, they rather sooner than later end up in a famine. Something brutal just has to stop them. There are only so many slots: One person can only be there because another is not. Some just have to die. There is a continual “war of extermination” (his own words!).

Malthus rams this worldview in right at the start. He asks you over and over to believe him, presents it all as a foregone conclusion that only a fool could doubt or someone who is too weak to face reality. And once you have absorbed this worldview, you only need some confirmation. “Look, there were famines in the past. That proves it!” But then there are many reasons other than maximum population why a famine may occur. At best, famines do not contradict the Malthusian argument. They don’t prove it. But once you know intuitively that human populations are always at the brink of starvation it can sail throught as proof definitive.

The Romantics and other critics of the Enlightenment, including Malthus to some extent, had a good point that Enlightenment thinkers ignored intuitive thinking and focused only on rational thought. That was their serious shortcoming. Most of what they have to say remains shallow for that reason. But then this insight can help your reason to get this right. You don’t have to fall for the judgment call whether intuition is better than rational thought, and conclude that it is. You only have to be aware that you will not have an immediate effect just because you make a stringent argument that appeals to someone’s reason. Sometimes it works when people start to build it into their worldviews which then realign in more rational ways, but often it doesn’t.