World, term used in various ways to designate a comprehensive unity. The idea or concept of a world is ancient. Numerous cultures have proposed models for the unity of all things signified by the idea of a world. In its simplest form, the idea is suggested by the containment of a horizon, with a dome of sky above, and the ground of earth below. In pre-modern cultures, the idea of a world is never far removed from religious concerns. It is usually understood as animate and many ancient mythologies tell stories of the marriage of earth and sky. In higher cultures, animism takes on the more distinct characteristics of individual deities or spirits, gods and goddesses, and attempts are then made to explain what appears in the world, the sun and the moon, the stars, and various creatures, including humans, in terms of the workings of occult forces with which the world is understood to be infused. Another aspect of the idea of a world in its earlier forms is that it attempts to unite and explain the visible and the invisible. Most importantly, it includes a realm of the dead. In Egyptian culture, this conception took the literal form of a necropolis, or city of the dead, on the western banks of the Nile, corresponding to the city of the living on the eastern bank. Some early concepts of a world are relatively static, others dynamic and even cataclysmic. The Mayans, speculating in astronomical expanses of time, proposed the growth, fiery destruction, and birth of many worlds over the aeons. The ancient Chinese conceived of the world as the result of a ceaseless dynamic that moved according to internal laws. All of these ancient concepts of a world were graphically symbolized, many in the form of maps. Their conceptualization and elaboration was the work of many generations and inspired the arts.
The Greeks also had mythopoetic conceptions of the world peopled by gods and goddesses, but they were the first to decisively depart from the mystical and magical conceptions of the world. Greek thinkers were the first to look for reasonable answers to why the world was as it was and how things came to be. In doing so, they rejected occult explanations and put forth questions to the world, believing that the world itself was somehow reasonably organized or directed by an intelligence, resembling human intelligence. Not coincidentally, it was a Greek who worked out a reasonable approximation of the earth's circumference, and a Greek who devised star and planet charts that used to be the basis of Western astronomy until modern times. To the practical Romans, Greek concerns were too speculative. Nonetheless, the Romans further altered the content of the concept of world by conquering and organizing a vast empire. Their work as soldiers, engineers, administrators, and legislators contributed to a very practical sense of the world that was in many ways the forerunner of the modern sensibility. But the Romans were not wholly without religion; in fact, they tended to be superstitious, and as the empire aged, religion played a more and more dominant part in people's conception of the world. The most important distinction between the idea of the world in pre-modern times and the modern conception is that the Old World view had always to account for the visible and the invisible, this world and the next. The spiritualism and dualism that characterized the ancient view of the world in the West came to an end with Columbus and Copernicus.
Columbus's discovery of the New World radically changed people's conception of place. It wasn't only the matter of having discovered hitherto unknown continents, but the challenge this discovery posed to all previous knowledge and the demands it made to know and measure the world as it actually was. Working within Columbus's lifetime, the Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus (1473–1543) reported that the earth was not the center of the universe, but rather one of several planets revolving about the central sun. The very meaning of the word world, in its most fundamental sense for modern peoples, begins with Columbus and Copernicus. Modern science continued to add to the concept. The idea of world retained the ancient sense of unity, but with scientific skepticism and knowledge, the world and its societal ideas were radically separated from religions and spiritual concerns. The world was no longer divided between the visible and invisible, but rather between the known and the unknown. The work of science further altered the common sense of the world thanks to Darwin. His theory of natural selection offered an explanation for the variety of life on the planet, including Homo sapiens, that was radically different. In absorbing the new knowledge, humans had to reconsider their position in relation to other animals.
Not only modern science but modern institutions changed people's sense of the world. Modern capital and commerce made international business possible and by the 17th century, markets in Amsterdam and London could be affected by events half a world away. Nation-states changed the way people thought of the world as well. In old Europe there had been a binding force in the ideas of a common Christendom and the Holy Roman Empire. The nation-states substituted for these ideals clearly defined territorial entities measured accurately and administered with ruthless rationalism. Printing presses and the modern printed media spread information rapidly and universally, bringing people closer to one another in their calculations and concerns.
Both the Industrial Revolution and imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries brought to people's attention for the first time certain economic forces and conditions working on a worldwide scale. The theories of Karl Marx were an attempt to formulate the laws inherent in those forces and, combined with international socialism, to promote an understanding of the world that was opposed to the limited views and interests of nation-states and nationalism. Finally, drawing upon 2 centuries of industrial and technological development, World War I and World War II gave birth to a world united by a sense of common peril, a world with the technical capacity to utterly annihilate itself.
The modern conception of world can be considered a framework or canister for holding an ever-accumulating body of data. In 1992 there were some 5 1/3 billion people on earth and, at current rates of reproduction, there are likely to be more than 6 billion by the year 2000. Numerous species of plants and animals have become extinct, and, as pressure increases in the competition with humans for living space and food, more and more species face extinction. Currently the world consists of 192 countries and some 45 dependencies, but boundaries are changeable and, in many places in the world, volatile. Until the early 1990s it was a common convention to divide the world's nations among the First World, consisting of the prosperous industrialized societies; the Second World, the Soviet Union; and the Third World, consisting of all the less-developed countries. Most of the Third World is concentrated in Africa, South America, and the Asian subcontinent, the southern half of the world. Some 3,000 languages are spoken the world over, though 12 are the most widely used. The 12, in order of the numbers of people who use them, are Chinese, English, Russian, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Portuguese, Japanese, German, Malay-Indonesian, and French. The 8 major religions of the world are Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Shinto, Taoism, and Judaism. The world, as a framework or container for the data that has already been accumulated and that continues to accumulate, is virtually infinite. At the same time that it has this property of never-ending expansion, it also seems incredibly small and contracted. Modern communications and media have made it possible to connect any 2 points on the globe instantly, for business or pleasure. Modern transport puts the entire planet within reasonable traveling distance. Common concerns suggest there may be a basis for a more genuine unity in coming to terms with overpopulation, shrinking resources, and the threat posed by a degraded environment. There are as many indications that divisions will deepen and multiply. Still we use the term world in numerous ways and continue to find it useful, in fact, indispensable, no matter how unstable the notion of unity it contains.