James Sire’s book Naming the Elephant is a serious look at the concept of the worldview. At its most basic form, Sire defines a worldview as a set of presuppositions that exist in relative concert with each other. While we have no real rational reasons for holding to these basic beliefs, we remain committed to them to a greater or lesser extent and tend to judge ourselves and others based upon how well they adhere to these ideas or beliefs. Though the book is relatively short, consisting only of approximately 150 pages, it delves deep into the idea of the worldview, attempting to explain the areas of belief it covers, what it means to have a worldview in today’s world of increasing globalization and cultural interaction and why a study of worldview is important to understanding not only ourselves but our interactions and understandings of others as well. Thus, the primary purpose of the book emerges as an attempt to accurately and completely define the concept of the worldview and bring its importance to the attention of his readers. This is sharply contrasted against the somewhat de-emphasized portrayal of the concept presented in his earlier work, The Universe Next Door, of which he openly acknowledges the lack of importance given to the topic. A summary of the book as it is presented provides a basic understanding of the concepts presented by Sire, thus enabling one to determine to what degree one might agree or disagree with the ideas provided.
The title of the book is an important place to start in understanding the concepts presented within. According to legend (and Sire), a small boy noticing the basic effects of gravity was once asked his father about what it was that held up the world. The father, struggling to find an answer, simply named the largest thing he could think of and told his son it was an Elephant, complete with the capital E. In an interview about the book, Sire talks about the significance of this title: “At the foundation of a person’s understanding of reality lies the Elephant that holds up their whole conception of life. The name each of us gives to that Elephant – God, the Cosmos, the Divine Fire, the Void – is the most important aspect of our worldview” (Author Interview, 2005). With an understanding of the title, the contents of the book seem to follow in a very natural, logical order as they investigate further how we define, or name, the Elephant.
This story of the foundational Elephant is related upon first opening the book, to be sure any reader not familiar with the significance of the title might immediately grasp its full content. In his presentation, Sire points out that the story itself reveals two primary elements of a worldview. The first of these is that there must be a primary foundation or prime reality and the second is that the question of a worldview originates in a pre-theoretical context. The prime reality refers to the answer we give when we have run out of answers, again illustrated very well within the book. This essentially boils down to how we define the Elephant, whether it is God by whatever name or Nature and the laws of physics or some other possibility, such as the combination of gods although this possibility is not originally mentioned, being preserved for later discussion. Upon this primal instinct that there is something there before we’ve even had time to consider what that something might be or how we might relate to it, is formed our worldview. For clarity, within this first chapter Sire defines a worldview as “a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic makeup of our world” (19).
Having presented his idea of the worldview, Sire then outlines the basic questions we answer, either knowingly or not, as a means of forming our own individual worldview. These include our concept of what is the prime reality, what we consider to be the nature of the world around us, what constitutes a human being as it differs from other elements of the universe, and what happens when we die. Other fundamental questions considered include consideration of why we are even capable of knowing something, how we can determine what is right and what is wrong and what is the meaning of human history. Regardless of whether we think about these issues, we must come to a conclusion about them at some level of our being as we navigate our way through the external world and these conclusions necessarily influence the way we define ourselves and others. In addition, our foundational answers regarding these questions, again regardless of whether we’ve consciously given them any thought or investigation, serve to inform us regarding every other belief or principle we form in life.
While Sire attempts to provide for us a clear and succinct definition of what is meant by the term ‘worldview’ and how this affects each one of us, he allows the work of others to provide the necessary background material to the idea. For example, he uses David Naugle’s historical survey of the concept to serve as background material on the subject rather than conducting his own research in this area. Naugle created an astounding history of the term ‘worldview’ from its emergence in the German language with the philosopher Emmanuel Kant and as it can be traced through such traditions as the Protestant Evangelical, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox faiths. He also provides an overview of how the concept has been treated by various philosophers since the nineteenth century and within various fields of investigation, such as psychology, sociology, and the natural sciences. While this helps to prove that the concept is well-grounded in intelligent thought and from a variety of belief systems, it also seems to suggest that only those of a Christian-based faith or living within what is considered to be the Western nations might have a concept of worldview. One can’t help but wish Sire had done a little of his own research to fill in these glaring gaps in the discussion, creating the very sort of one-sided viewpoint he is suggesting we all disabuse ourselves of through being more self-aware.
Having provided a firm foundation regarding the ideas he’s discussing, Sire then goes into an investigation of just where we get our information from. His chapters progress logically through further definitions, this time regarding elements essential to the determination of a worldview, through to real-life application, refined definition, and concludes with an appeal to the reader regarding the importance of understanding one’s worldview as a tool for analysis. Essential elements of defining a worldview rest on the primacy of being or knowing, which informs the other. Another essential element discussed is determining the difference between theoretical and pre-theoretical knowledge. In terms of real-life application, Sire talks about how various means of defining one’s worldview manifest themselves in life, such as through rational thinking, basic way of life, or through the master story. An example of rational thinking would be if one were to sit down with the various questions Sire proposes in his first chapter and rationally comes to a conclusion regarding each answer, justifying it through further rational thought, logic, and perhaps scientific knowledge. The basic way of life is one way in which someone might adhere to a worldview without recognizing it. Living the way your parents did simply because things seemed to work out fine for them naturally follows that one would begin to find definitions to those same early questions based upon the lifestyle of the parents. Following the master story might include deviating from how you were raised to follow a story provided through some other means – such as the college, married, kids, retirement story that defines the upwardly mobile middle class in America. In his concluding chapter, Sire illustrates why an understanding of one’s worldview is essential to understanding how one’s approach to the world might affect what one sees, understands, and holds as important or significant.
Overall, I cannot but agree with Sire that worldviews are an essential element of the human being. Simply looking at the questions he poses in chapter 1 reveals the unavoidable nature of this concept. This begins with the idea that there is something out there that is bigger or greater than oneself, the prime reality. As infants, this idea is enforced even before we are born as science has shown that in utero, babies are still capable of hearing sounds outside the womb and experience the emotional reactions of the mother. It has been undeniable for many years before this that what the mother consumes also has the ability to affect the unborn child. Thus, we enter the world with the concept that there is something else out there already firmly in place. While we cannot avoid finding some sort of answers to these questions on a subconscious level, it seems self-evident that knowledge of how we have answered these questions can provide us with greater insight into ourselves and how we perceive ourselves. For instance, if I have defined ‘right’ as being that action that brings about the greatest good for the greatest number of people and ‘wrong’ as being that action that brings harm upon others, yet I continuously engage in activities that harm others, perhaps as an unscrupulous used car salesman, I will understand that my low self-esteem and lack of self-respect stems from this divergence between belief and practice. However, I also take issue with the seemingly single-sided approach to the concept of worldview taken by the author. He suggests that it is only within a predominantly Christian or Western scientific context that the concept of worldview has been discussed, only bleeding into other arenas and faiths after originating in the Christian church. While he may be correct regarding the particular term used, I cannot agree with Sire that no other culture, religion, or intellectual pursuit throughout the history of mankind has dealt with these concepts prior to the emergence of Christianity. This seems like a very narrow view given the nature of the work.
“Author Interview: James Sire.” (2005). InterVarsity Press. Gospel. 2008. Web.
Sire, James W. (2004). Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.