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  • Writer's pictureJoe Lightfoot

Structures Of Feeling: Mapping The Five Foundational Worldviews

Whenever attempting to map something as complex and nuanced as a worldview there will inevitably be a high degree of generalisation involved. And there's always the risk that the model is used to justify some very strange and unsavoury behaviour.

And yet despite the limits of our sociological models and their tendency to be used in decidedly pernicious ways many of us are still inexorably drawn towards them. As such I feel it’s wise to continually challenge and update the ones we find ourselves using. This article is my attempt to do just that.

Let's start by defining a few terms.

* Technically it’s only four and a half as the last one is still emerging but five sounds much catchier.

Before Going Any Further... A Few Caveats

Before further outlining my own map I want to honour the theorists whose models have inspired its creation. They include the venerable Hanzi Frienacht, Clare Graves, Don Beck, Christopher Cowan, Susanne Cook-Greuter, Terri O’Fallon, Jean Gebser and Ken Wilber. Much of my work here stems from concepts and ideas presented by these other thinkers.

However I believe there are some important distinctions between my model and theirs in that each of the aforementioned theorists (other than Gebser) has created what are known as Developmental Stage Theories, whereas what I’m putting forward I would categorise differently as a Map Of Worldviews. Essentially I am putting the question of development to one side for the purposes of mapping out the Five Foundational Worldviews that show up in the world today without implying that one is in any way superior to another.

So while it can be interesting, useful and in some cases even imperative to vigorously debate the strengths and weaknesses of each worldview (and in specific situations be highly discerning about which aspects of each are healthy or unhealthy, even through a developmental lens), I believe its possible to map them out without implicitly or explicitly suggesting that any worldview is superior to another. In doing so I’ve tried to create a map that is as neutral as possible in regards to the inherent value of each worldview in order to let people make up their own mind around which combination of them, in which context, might result in the healthiest kinds of culture.

While I’ve done my best to evenly represent contributions from all the worlds cultures I’m fairly certain that the gaps and blindspots in my knowledge have at least slightly skewed the model towards having an overly Western focus.

Now that I’ve shared those caveats I’d like to succinctly restate my intentions for creating this model. In a nutshell they are to put forward a map:

  • That presents each worldview as still very much alive and evolving.

  • That refrains from universally ranking the worldviews.

  • That attempts to present each worldview in its most positive light without denying their shadow sides.

  • That separates an individuals level of development (ie. their cognitive complexity, level of awareness or ego development) from their worldview.

  • That clearly conveys that the vast majority of us are a complex weave of a number of different worldviews. Essentially that we have different ‘worldview parts’ within us.

Let’s now take a look at each one of them.

A Brief Description Of The Five Foundational Worldviews

The Indigenous Worldview

The Indigenous Worldview is the root of all human culture. It’s the worldview that we’re most biologically and psychologically primed for as it developed in response to our way of life over hundreds of thousands of years. It informs and underlies all the subsequent worldviews that arose in its wake. It is typified by a profoundly deep lived experience of long time cycles and an immanent understanding of how past, present and future all intertwine in an ongoing creative dance. In its highest form it engenders an egalitarian and deeply cohesive social structure where great value is placed upon humility and reciprocity. It is composed of a complex web of social norms and cultural practices many of which are designed to negate the formation of dominator hierarchies.

Continuity and ongoing rejuvenation of culture through the transmission of song, dance and sacred ritual is a key feature of this worldview. It’s also the only worldview that managed to stay in a form of symbiotic relationship with its surrounding ecology over large periods of time. Over the last few thousand years this worldview has been undermined by colonisation, direct attack and a continuing loss of land. But thankfully despite attempts to eradicate it, the Indigenous Worldview continues to exist and evolve in both more traditional and contemporary versions in various parts of the world today.

The Traditional Worldview

The Traditional Worldview coalesced when a significant percentage of the human population gradually transitioned from being nomadic hunter gatherers into that of more permanently settled farmers. As Graeber and Wengrow point out in The Dawn Of Everything this was by no means a directly linear transformation. But eventually the Traditional Worldview crystallised along side the formation of the first cities, codified law, standing armies and centralised religions and resulted in a heightened sense that might is right with the patriarch playing a more central role in its power dynamics. Over time the increasing levels of administration and bureaucracy inherent in this way of life led to a much larger and more centralised body politic.

In the Traditional Worldview there is a heightened obligation to one finds ones place of duty and become subservient to a larger order in return for protection and security. Emergent divine orders are reflected in a more stark stratification of human society and an emphasis is often placed on the value of sacrifice in this life in order to be rewarded in the next. Notions of honour, salvation, stability and the warriors code are all intricately woven through this worldview as are the ideals of being steady and dependable. Guilt and fear of transgression against holy morals and standards are powerful motivating forces as is the connection to what is divine. In comparison with subsequent world views it tends to be more conservative by nature and less inclined to rapid change. In the contemporary context the Traditional worldview values patriotism and loyalty to religious groups and ideals.

The Cosmopolitan Worldview

The Cosmopolitan Worldview came into being during the 15th Century just as streams of knowledge from both the Arabian and Classical worlds were being rediscovered across Europe. It further crystallised as early breakthroughs in the sciences began to undermine the authority of the ruling religious elite. Soon after great power and wealth began to concentrate in the hands of just a few nations with technological advancement in shipping and warfare allowing for European colonisation and exploitation of all corners of the globe. The subsequent Age of Reason helped to shape the Cosmopolitan Worldview by providing new notions of progress, liberalism, empiricism, individual rights and the separation of church and state.

In its purest form such rationality erases all concept of traditional divinity instead replacing it with grand humanistic visions, the pursuit of pleasurable experiences, the accumulation of material goods and philanthropic or charitable endeavours. Entertainment, pleasure, reaching the limits of human potential, progress and the unabashed pursuit of wealth and power are all central elements in this worldview which strongly compels individuals to continually keep up with what is new and fashionable. It’s a worldview that has produced industrialisation and capitalism creating enormous prosperity and innovation whilst also systematically reinforcing glaring inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth.

The Holistic Worldview

The Holistic worldview crystallised in the 19th century just as Romanticism was starting to gain traction. It arose in response to the industrialisation of society and was an invitation to turn back to the unadorned beauty and wisdom of nature. In the Holistic worldview a great deal of value is placed on the quality of peoples internal experiences which resulted in the labour movement, feminism and a number of other challenges to the primacy of free market capitalism. It gained significant traction in the 1960’s when the first generation after World War Two came of age and began engaging with Eastern philosophies and psychedelic culture. A watershed moment for the Holistic Worldview was when the first photos of Earth were taken from outer space. These images helped to catalyse a whole new perspective on peoples relationship to the planet and coincided with a surge of interest in the emerging fields of ecology and conservation.

As the academic world became increasingly interested in deconstructing Enlightenment ideals the Holistic worldview became deeply interwoven with many streams of Postmodern critique including cultural and ethical relativism. This melange of critical theory, primacy of emotional well being and focus on social justice resulted in a worldview which values consensus, political correctness and equity. It also tends to invite people into cultivating a personalised form of spirituality that often draws from a wide range of mystical and esoteric wisdom traditions.

The Integrative Worldview

Unlike the first four Foundationals the Integrative Worldview is not yet fully formed and as such it’s still somewhat of a working hypothesis. It appears to have begun coalescing in the early 2000’s drawing many of its values from a lineage of philosophers and systems change theorists who each integrated wide bodies of knowledge in order to synthesise new kinds of often interdisciplinary theory. This lineage is detailed halfway through this article in the section titled The Liminal Web Intellectual Lineage.

This worldview is uniquely meta in nature in that it primarily values integrating the wisdom of each of the other worldviews and attempts to create harmony between them. It’s possible to get glimpses into its ‘structure of feeling’ in the new wave of Metamodern art that was first identified by academics Vermuelen and van den Akker in 2010. It’s also evident in the new sincerity that David Foster Wallace pointed to in the 1990’s which he felt represented a new wave of anti-rebels that might earnestly attempt to re-engage with the world and step past ironic sniping into a sincere and concerted effort at making change.

The Integrative worldview values the ability to inhabit multiple perspectives and acknowledges that we’re each composed of various different inner ‘parts’. People immersed in this worldview often value playful provocation as well as the heightened ability to be able to dialogue with, be affected by and remain open to learn from a wide variety of different sources. This tends to encourage the translation of wisdom from one domain into another and as such it can often precipitate the building of bridges between various peoples and cultures.

The Foundational Worldview Table

Click to enlarge. Then click the arrows at the top left to expand further again.

Mapping An Individuals Worldview

One way to conceive of the human condition is to divide it into three parts. The first part being that significant majority of humanness that we all share in common. Those impulses which compel us to eat, dance, dream, cry and fall in love. You could think of this as our Universal Humanity.

The second part is our unique personality type and specific character traits. As far as we know this part of us is made up of a combination of our genetics, our childhood experiences and the distinct wiring of our brain and nervous systems.

The third and final part is our own personal blend of worldviews. And it’s generally a blend as while there is still some tiny percentage of individuals who are only ever exposed to a single worldview, these days that’s pretty rare.

So if we zoom in on the last part of that equation we can then attempt to map out an individuals unique blend of worldviews. Now its worth pointing out that this is a highly complex and delicate undertaking that at this point I believe can only really be done with any accuracy by the individual themselves as it requires a very intimate and comprehensive birds eye view of someones life. At some point if an objectively verifiable questionnaire and testing process is engineered it may be possible to map other people worldviews with a high degree of accuracy as well.

But in the mean time if we wish to determine our own individual blend I propose that one effective way to do it is to designate a single score out of one hundred for each of the five foundational worldviews and then plot these five scores onto a donut graph. I suggest that each score out of one hundred would be based on an aggregate of that individuals:

  • Depth of exposure to the worldview.

  • Depth of understanding of the worldview.

  • Depth of becoming or embodiment of the worldview.

  • Depth of care, love and reverence for the worldview.

In the example above the individual worldview ‘scores’ were:

Another way to think of it is that this score represents how much of the wisdom of each worldview the individual in question has accrued. So if we acknowledge that there are more healthy and less healthy versions of each worldview this score indicates how much of the healthy version of each of them we have integrated into our way of being. It’s worth noting that I believe this model could also be used to map organisations or even whole subcultures in a similar way.


How can this kind of map be useful?

I believe that much of our conflict at both the micro and macro scale relates to our unseen differences in worldview. So if we can better understand our own and each others underlying perspectives then we might have a better shot at all getting along. The model can also help us to make clearer sense of our own internal dialogue as often we have competing value sets (or worldviews) at war within our own psyches. So essentially I hope it can be used as both a tool for bridge building and personal development. I’m particularly interested in applying this model at the community level after having seen unexplored differences in worldview tear otherwise healthy and thriving communities apart.

Does each worldview have a distinctly unique set of values?

No. For example religiosity and the concept of honour is not unique to the Traditional Worldview just as caring and kindness are by no means unique to the Holistic Worldview. Similarly the ability to synthesise and integrate knowledge has been going on long before the Integrative Worldview emerged and the pursuit of wealth and material well being is most definitely not limited to the Cosmopolitan way of seeing things. However each of these worldviews preferenced these values (and a wider set of others) to such a degree that a particularly prevalent and enduring type of culture began to coalesce. A Foundational worldview is kind of like when a certain Zeitgeist runs so deep that it sprouts roots and continues growing and evolving in perpetuity.

Are some of the worldviews ‘better’, more highly evolved or complex than others?

I propose that each worldview offers up its own specific kind of wisdom and comes with its own unique blindspots. There are some beautifully elegant and some incredibly warped versions of each one. But all five Foundational Worldviews are highly complex in their own way. When comparing them I think it’s more useful to assess things in terms of lines development of each worldview (i.e equality of opportunity, technical proficiency etc.) instead of an outright ranking.

So just like with political viewpoints we’ll each have our own opinions as to which we prefer and why. Although I believe it’s worth noting that those people with a higher degree of fluency in the Integrative Worldview will tend to be more adept at creating bridges of understanding and cooperation between the other four worldviews and in this day and age I’d suggest that this is a particularly important ability.

Do people move or mature through the worldviews in a particular sequence?

No. Anyone can be enculturated into any worldview (or combination of them) in any sequence at any time. Despite the fact that they arose sequentially doesn’t mean that an individual will move through them in this same order. For example a child can be born into a Cosmopolitan household, then go to a Traditional school before participating in a Holistic culture through their friendship circle and place of employment. And this same sequence could happen in the reverse order.

However an individual will only be able to absorb the depth of wisdom of a particular worldview relative to how fully they have familiarised themselves with and mastered the various kinds of complexities and language structures native to it. In some cases this wisdom has been developing sequentially and has been built upon over time with the emergence of each new successive worldview.

It's important to note that there is a certain uniqueness to each of the wisdoms associated with each worldview. So if you took a Hunter Gatherer who'd never contacted another culture outside of their own and fully educated and enculturated them into the Integrative Worldview, while they would then automatically infer some degree of the wisdom from each the preceding worldviews in between, without direct exposure and immersion into the specific wisdom repositories of each of these worldview themselves they would be far from complete in their experience of all of the worldviews.

Essentially I’m positing that there are discrete bodies of wisdom unique to each of the Foundational Worlviews and that a fully a rounded out individual would have spent time being initiated into each one. Thus having done so could be thought as having a (more relatively) complete structure of feeling and that this would be discernible to others who have a similar breadth and depth of experience and development.

It also seems apparent that the that the worldviews we are most deeply exposed to up until the age of around seven years old will tend to form some particularly deep roots in our psyche for the duration of our life.

At what point do new Foundational Worldviews emerge?

This is difficult to determine with any kind of specificity but they appear to arise in response to ecological changes, the discovery of new technologies or cultural practices and in reaction to the limitations of previous worldviews. They tend to show up in the arts before anywhere else but for a new Foundational Worldview to become fully established it appears to need at least a few decades to coalesce around a number of social movements or streams of thought before crystallising into a distinct body of values and ideas.

Which Worldview currently holds the majority of the worlds hard and soft power?

Here's my best guess.

How does the notion of a Foundational Worldview relate to the concept of a cultural epoch?

A cultural epoch could be described as a phase of thought, sensibility and aesthetic which typifies a particular period of time. Examples of recent cultural epochs include Modernism, Postmodernism and now Metamodernism. I believe there is a very complex interplay between the cultural epoch (or phase) of the day and the various Foundational Worldviews in that they both appear to inform and impact each other in a kind of circular perpetuity.

For example there appear to be Modern, Postmodern and now emerging Metamodern versions of each of the worldviews that existed at the time of these subsequent cultural epochs whilst the arrival of a new cultural epoch often appears to precipitate the formation of a whole new Foundational Worldview. It’s complicated stuff and teasing out the interplay, differences and similarities between epochs and worldviews (as well as Foucalt’s épistémès and Kuhn’s paradigms) would need to be the subject of its own essay.

Will all of these worldviews continue exist? Or will some of them slowly die out over time?

It’s my sense that ever evolving versions of the five Foundational Worldviews will be with us for the foreseeable future. Whilst over the last few millennia (and continuing on presently) proponents of the Indigenous Worldview have been systematically marginalised and undermined, thankfully there appears to be growing interest in honouring and continuing to cultivate the wisdom of this way of life.

Are the worldviews in a kind of perpetual memetic warfare with each other?

In a sense yes, but only so far as communication continues to break down between them. I believe that it’s possible to craft a society where people embodying healthy versions of each of the worldviews can live together peacefully and in fact even balance each other out in uniquely different ways.

Towards A Sixth Worldview?..

It’s interesting to consider whether any new Foundational Worldviews will emerge in the 21st Century, particularly as the Integrative Worldview has only just arrived on the scene. If I were to hazard a guess as to what a sixth might look like I’d put forward the idea of a Cybernetic Worldview.

As we continue to digitalise our culture it seems as if a whole new set of values may coalesce around artificial intelligence, virtual reality and our increasing ability to fuse the organic and technological domains. At this point it’s difficult to conceive of what such a worldview may look and feel like but if we consider that soon enough there will be a subset of people spending the large majority of their time in virtual realities, engaging with the world through brain to computer interfaces and potentially experiencing a form of hive like communion then it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that a very different and peculiar perspective on the world may soon emerge from this.

It gets even harder to conceive of after we add Artificial Intelligences at the roughly human level of capability into the mix. Perhaps such a worldview will come to view the traditional physical human form as simply a limitation and in the far future we’ll be dividing the remaining Foundational Worldviews into those that are primarily organic and those that are primarily digital. Although by that time it might be difficult to even discern the difference.


Joe Lightfoot is a writer, podcaster and apprentice community weaver. He is the author of A Collective Blooming: The Rise Of The Mutual Aid Community and the host of The Lightfoot Podcast. You can sign up to his newsletter The Lightfoot Letter and find him on Facebook.


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2021 Joe Lightfoot

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