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On an academic legal blog I visit, from time to time I see people using the word Weltanschauung where I feel worldview would have sufficed. It all seems a bit ostentatious to me, as I'm pretty sure that Weltanschauung had a precise academic usage before it became (fairly) common lingo. If in fact there is a difference between the two words, can someone demonstrate that difference to me, and illustrate with a couple of sentences when one word would be a better choice than the other?

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I guess it is just the Zeitgeist –  mplungjan Mar 25 '11 at 17:13
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5 Answers

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Weltanschauung is used as an English word, from the German because the English worldview is too vague and not comprehensive enough. (For anschauen = to look at, rather with the meaning "to take a good look at", for schau = to show, display, as opposed to blicken = to look, or aussehen from sehen = to see).

Primarily it means a way a person looks at the phenomenon of life as a whole. Some people (particularly those who have not lived very long) have not formed any broad (inclusive, even "sophisticated") view of life. Others consider a large number of factors before forming their overall view — maybe in their seventies — of the phenomenon of human existence. Typically a person's Weltanschauung (as an English word we drop the capital letter required of all German nouns) would include a person's philosophic, moral, and religious conclusions — including e.g. the duality of spirit and matter — and perhaps their conclusions about the origins of the universe and of the development of life. They would also have conclusions about the state, society, politics and economic activity. I suggest def. "A person's conclusions about existence (however tentative) at a particular time of life, after taking a good look at everything they have come across about". What do the German philologists say about my amateur offering?

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I've always understood Weltanschauung as being 'a comprehensive worldview'. worldview by itself, on the other hand, I've taken as a category that is modifiable not only in the sense of 'comprehensive worldview', but as in 'limited worldview'.

I have the sense that Weltanschauung implies an understanding of the world, systems of humankind, or Cosmos, that is deliberately or logically understood and fully-formed, such as that underpinning an extensive philosophical system.

In practice, the shades of difference in the two terms will be dependent on the speaker or writer, with the terms becoming synonymous in cases where worldview is intended to capture the comprehensive sense of the German antecedent.

Usage of weltanschauung in English

The OED has example citations from 1868.

A blog post here on "Weltanschauung in English says gives an interesting referenence:

Google's new, fascinating Ngram tool shows you that it all started in 1850 .

Both the post and link open the Google Labs Ngram viewer.


Weltanschauung [from the OED]

1868 W. James Let. in R. B. Perry Thought & Char. W. James (1935) I. viii. 160, I remember your saying‥that the characteristic of the Greek ‘Weltanschauung’ was its optimism.

1906 Nature 10 May 26/2 In 1863 Haeckel entered the lists as the champion of the evolutionist ‘Weltanschauung’.

1917 A. S. Pringle-Pattison Idea of God iv. 69 The intimate appreciation of living experience forms the basis of the whole Weltanschauung which he [sc. Bergson] offers us.

1934 M. Bodkin Archetypal Patterns in Poetry 326 A man's philosophy‥ is his Weltanschauung—the individual vision, or perspective of reality.

1952 G. Sarton Hist. Sci. I. iv. 121 The creation of that astrological Weltanschauung which dominated late ancient and medieval thought and is not yet extinct today proves the survival through the Dark Interlude of some astronomical ideas of immemorial antiquity. [OED]

weltanschauungen (plural)
[from the OED]

1978 N. Jardine in C. Hookway & P. Pettit Action & Interpretation 124 Speakers of different cultures, having different Weltanschauungen, ideologies, interests, paradigms, etc.


Er, just substitute "worldview" for "Weltanschauung" in the sentences above.

More examples:

But I will say that their worldview is aggressively offensive and that a game that I might've tried is now something I won't consider because of their steadfast, intolerant stance. Michael Grove

This difference in worldview is part of the reason that the couple fails. Eric Melin

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If you delete your agreement, I'd love to accept your answer. ;) I think your definition is a mite better than theirs. –  Uticensis Mar 26 '11 at 13:26
@Billare Hmm, getting scissors -- Thanks. –  jbelacqua Mar 26 '11 at 18:26
@Billare -- removed a paragraph, added a paragraph. –  jbelacqua Mar 26 '11 at 18:45
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Weltanschauung is a calque of world view. Often, calques gain traction when translation of the word is either inelegant or does not justify the word's deeper meaning (e.g., Zeitgeist). Weltanschauung appears to be an important concept in cognitive philosophy. (See this great lecture by Freud.)

I admit that it is probably a little pretentious to use Weltanschauung outside of a philosophical context, but it could be argued that, because of its roots in cognitive philosophy, Weltanschauung suggests a 'wider' notion than the term world view could alone.

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I think you may find the direction was reversed, i.e. world view was a calque of Weltanschauung. Once there is a anglicisation it is very pretentious to continue with the foreign form, and suggests highbrow jargon is being used to exclude the uninitiated. –  Henry Mar 25 '11 at 16:52
I've never heard of Freud referred to as a cognitive philosopher. Unless I'm mistaken, it is just not correct to say that Weltanschauung had its roots in cognitive philosophy. I don't think cognitive psychology, philosophy of mind, or cognitive science are correct either. I think Weltanschauung was taken up by academics as an apt term, without being isolated to a particular discipline. –  jbelacqua Mar 25 '11 at 17:15
In that case, may I suggest some references: Freud's Philosophy of the Unconscious, Studies in Cognitive Systems, and Worldview. –  HaL Mar 25 '11 at 17:37
Continuing with the above comment (due to space limitations), I don't disagree with your idea about Weltanschauung not being isolated to a particular discipline, and I would love to see some supporting examples, particularly if they predate the 1930s... –  HaL Mar 25 '11 at 17:39
calling Freud a cognitive philosopher is like calling Nietzsche an Existentialist. You can do it, but it's a creative redefinition, in my opinion. For earlier examples, see my answer. –  jbelacqua Mar 25 '11 at 20:30
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I think the difference is purely implied register: using the German term is more highbrow (though even using the term 'worldview' is already pretty intellectual).

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Basically, Weltanschauung is an explanation for reality that includes everyone by default, that is, whatever their particular worldview may be. Thus, everyone, even Congolese Pygmies, are subject to Kant's categorical imperative. Likewise, science purports to describe reality as it is for everyone, not just for some. In short, there can be many worldviews but only one Weltanschauung.

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protected by RegDwigнt Mar 29 '13 at 19:29

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