Animism Old and New

References are given either by hyperlink or in the list at the end.

This is a person.

ANIMISM has really become a buzz-word in the certain areas of the counterculture, and rightly so. In spiritual terms, it offers a new way of thinking about reality, and holds out the promise of communicating with plants, animals, and other beings. In political terms, it challenges us to treat those non-human beings more respectfully when we grow food, build cities, and generate energy. However, too often the concept is watered down so far that instead of challenging us, it merely nourishes Romantic fantasies about “returning to nature.” People then claim that any and every non-Euromodern culture is or was animistic, which stops them from seeing how other cultures actually inhabit the world. In this blog, I thought I’d begin by concisely illustrating what animism offers. In the next blog, I can show why Greek paganism is not, on the whole, animistic.

So what is “animism,” or better yet, what is “the new animism?” The “old animism” was E.B. Tylor’s condescending way of describing what he considered the basis of all religion, namely the attribution of “souls” (Latin animas) to a variety of natural forces, animals, plants, inorganic objects, and so on (1871: esp. vol. 1 p. 387, vol. 2 p. 100-1). Such souls have vitality, consciousness, personality, and volition. Tylor’s definition is still the starting point for the Archetypal Psychologist James Hillman when he argues “we” Euromoderns need to return to animism (1975: 12). But Hillman is thinking about the autonomy, personality, and volition of the “gods” of the collective unconscious, not about dogs, trees, rivers, or things like that.

The “new animism” suggests that many non-human beings are persons, that a person’s nature depends on the perspective from which you experience them, and that the combination of these perspectives is what defines the person each being is.

The “new animism” really gets going with articles by the anthropologists Nurit Bird-David and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro in the 1990s. I’ll just outline a few of their key ideas. First, animism explodes the opposition between “nature” as something “out in the world,” which simply “is what it is,” and human subjectivity or culture as something “in the mind,” which attempts to understand and manipulate nature. In the animist world, many types of animal, plant, and sometimes fungi or inorganic beings have subjectivity and culture, and things in the world are different for each of them. For instance, what we perceive as feathers, parrots perceive as clothes; what we perceive as blood, the jaguar perceives as beer. Viveiros de Castro calls this “perspectivalism”: things have no stable “nature,” only different ways of being for different kinds of persons. Bird-David adds that personhood is constituted by networks of relationships, which we learn to perceive and reproduce through attentive experience. For instance, in an animistic society I might be taught to perceive when a bird, a tree, or a stone is attempting to communicate or interact with me. It is these interactions with both human and non-human beings which make me the person I am.

Let me make this more down to earth by exemplifying with my dog Muki. For me, Muki is an affectionate, playful, slightly anxious friend, who needs love and care and gives love in return. But for the cat next door, Muki is a loud, toothy, aggressive type of being, who must be avoided on the ground, though he can be amusing from the top of the bike shed or through the slats in the fence. There is no core “nature” that defines Muki: his being shifts according to the perspective you view him from. Muki, the cat, and I all have points of view, consciousness, impulses and desires: we’re all persons. Because we’re different types of persons, we have trouble communicating, though each of us communicates pretty well with other persons of our own type. But because we’re all persons, we can still communicate to some extent, and these communications and interactions define us. Moreover, through spiritual exercises and altered states of consciousness, including those induced by psychedelic substances, we might be able both to see the world from each other’s perspectives and to communicate more fully. (For instance, check out the plant ethologist Monica Gagliano’s account of her communications with plants.)

I’ve barely scratched the surface here, but hopefully I’ve given you some idea of why animism is exciting for spiritual practitioners. In terms of ecology and politics, animism helps us to stop romanticizing “wilderness” as the opposite of “civilization,” and instead to realize that humans and all other organisms are in interaction everywhere. Moreover, as Graham Harvey argues, animism helps us stop viewing the world in terms of quantifiable “resources” we human beings are in the unique position of understanding and “managing.” Instead we begin to pay more attention to the perspectives, desires, and relationships of nonhuman persons, and to treat them with respect. (John Reid and Matthew Rout have developed this argument in detail with regard to food provenance and Maori culture.) Finally, this can help us to appreciate in a new way how Euromodern approaches often conflict with indigenous priorities, even though (to return where I began) not all indigenous peoples are animistic. But that is a topic for another post.

Hillman, James. 1975. Re-Visioning Psychology. New York: Harper.

Tylor, Edward Burnett. 2010. (orig. 1871) Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom. Cambridge.