Jonathan Rowson

On Weltschmerz and Weltanschauungen

Our challenge is to channel world pain into worldviews that clarify who we are, and how we should act, to inspire a shared sense of hope for the future.



The relationship between two words in the German language helps to characterise our plight at the moment. Those with awareness of how power operates globally and who work to protect open societies and avert climate collapse are often driven today by their experience of Weltschmerz – the sense that the world’s problems are our own problems and that we are called to respond to them, even if we don’t quite know how to. This experience of Weltschmerz is particularly acute today because our prevailing Weltanschauung of free individuals, benign nation states, and healthy market forces does not help us to make sense of this world of governance failure, culture wars, incipient ecological collapse, and exponential technology, where the private sector not merely shapes but controls the public realm.

The lack of Weltanschauungen that can help us understand who we are and how we should act today to create viable and desirable futures is a major challenge. In light of the epoch-shaping impact of social media it cannot arise top-down through broadcast messaging. Any viable worldview must contain many worldviews, and it must arise from within us and between us, in a way that honours both our shared human and planetary predicament and the specificity of the varying cultural and political contexts in which we operate. 

The Emerge project speaks directly to that challenge of constructively channelling world pain into worldviews that clarify who we are, and how we should act, to inspire a shared sense of hope for the future. 

This really is a time between worlds. That expression sounds poetic but it arises from historical data and is profoundly empirical. The technological, economic, and cultural forces that shape global history are now burgeoning to such an extent that our conventional patterns of collective understanding, sentiment, and expectation are failing to make sense of how we should act. For instance, human rights and international law often look insipid in the context of transnational financial power; democratic mandates based on economic growth are in tension with decarbonisation aims; and formal education in school is arguably less formative than the tacit education arising from advertising and social media.

What kind of information do we need in that context? And what does leadership look like in this time between worlds? Collective action challenges are also collective communication challenges and social coordination challenges. Legacy institutions across sectors are struggling to make sense of this historical moment, because what is called for goes beyond business as usual, or even innovation. What is called for is the capacity to find and support the growing movement of people who think and feel across frames and contexts at scale – a process that entails an encounter with the nature, meaning, and purpose of life. 
Words by Jonathan Rowson
Jonathan Rowson is Director of Perspectiva and author of The Moves That Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life.