We are human beings because we participate in worlds – complex, interrelated systems of meaning, significance, relationships, tools and practices. A person is never just a physical object, but a participant in something much bigger than them, which they are contributing to and which is shaping them all the time.
To see this clearly, try first living for a few days with a family that’s not your own. You’ll soon come to appreciate that, despite much being shared, much is different in this place. Words mean something subtly different. The way people eat, dress, argue, love have somewhat different meanings here. They relate to time differently, uncertainty, money, mess. The significance of the past, the possibilities of the future – all with their own nuance. And most of this, that you can see so clearly by being with others, is usually invisible in your own life, a transparent background upon which all else is founded.
Then extend your inquiry by living in a culture very different from your own for a while. Here, the difference between your world and the one you are visiting will start to reveal the way world extends into everything. What buildings mean and are for, what it is to sleep, wash, work, parent, pray. What ‘community’ is, or ‘society’. What constitutes suffering and what constitutes joy. What people are, what life is for. All ‘world’ and all present in your own life but mostly invisible in its everyday familiarity.
It’s striking that our bodily, biological similarity to one another is precisely what makes our widely varying worldhood possible.
When we reduce people to generalisations, statistics, measurements, personality types, exam scores; or to their merely physical presence – brains, neural structure, blood chemistry, bodies – we leave out all of this vital context that makes them the particular kind of beings that they are. These reductions are necessary, sometimes, but we miss out so much that’s important when we mistake the reductions to be what’s most essential about us.
It’s no trivial matter, because the deworlded, reduced account of people dominates our understanding and discourse in much business, government, medicine and education and produces a kind of ‘flatland’ in which the full humanity of human beings has quite little room to show up.