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What is an Animist?

“Animism is the attempt to live respectfully as members of the diverse community of living persons (only some of whom are human) which we call the world or cosmos.”

-Graham Harvey, Animism, 2005

Animism has been the label for all or most indigenous religions, presented as the foundation for which more complex advance culture or religion is constructed. Recently the meaning of the word ‘animism’ has shifted for a number of academics who have begun to use the word in a new distinct way, this can be labeled ‘new animism’

Edward Taylor(often considered the founder of anthropology) established the ‘old animism’ by borrowing a term from earlier scientists and philosophers. Irving Howells played a major role in the establishment of ‘new animism’ with his study of Ojibwe grammar.

A good definition of the ‘old animism’ would be that humans attribute to the world around them signs of human-likeness, beautiful as poetry, vulgar and ignorant as spirituality or philosophy. It is thought to be a superstitious world-view created by ‘primitives’ in order to understand their world without the gift of science. For Tayler, animism is a label for what he defines as the essence of religion, i.e. ‘belief in Spiritual beings’ residing even in ‘objects’. Many notions of animism blend belief in spirits/souls or belief in life energies. The early anthropologists were materialists who tried to equate animism with religion claiming it to based on the belief in eternal souls. Animism has been the label for all or most indigenous religions, presented as the foundation for which more complex advance culture or religion is constructed.

However, the new view of animism is relational rather than mystical.

In regards to the interactions of humans with the natural world, anthropologist Nurit Bird-David reminds us that “we do not personify other entities and then socialize with them but personify them as, when, and because we socialize with them.” (1999, ‘ “Animism” revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology’, Current Anthropology 40: S67-S91)

The philosophical label ‘hylozoism’ focuses attention on the question of recognizing life in matter. Panpsychism is a recognition of mind, experience, sentience, or consciousness in matter. The former is then somewhat like the old animism, the latter somewhat like the new. (Harvey, Graham Animism: Respecting the Living World, 2005)

The new animism views the world as full of people, only some of whom are human. However, it is a mistake to see this as an attribution of human-likeness to ‘inanimate’ objects. There is a distinction between person and object, but the notion of a person includes non-human persons. Person is a wide category, with sub-groups such as ‘human persons’, ‘rock persons’, ‘bear persons’, etc. Persons are related beings defined by their interactions with others. Persons are sociable beings who communicate with others. In learning to recognize personhood, animists are intended to become better, more respectful persons.

David Abram’s 2010 masterpiece entitled Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, is a wonderful excursion into the multitudes of relationship awaiting us throughout the natural world.

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6 Comments
  1. I love Graham Harvey’s book and recently read David Abram’s first book “The Spell of the Sensuous” which put into words a lot of feelings I had about the world, the body, language and existence. Becoming Animal is on my shelf waiting to be read. I am really pleased to have found your blog and look forward to reading some of the older posts over the next few weeks. Thanks.

    • That’s great! Wow in my experience, not many people know of Harvey’s book. David Abram is amazing, I had the pleasure to hear him speak at Muir Woods a few years ago. Becoming Animal is less analytic/research based(which he used ‘Spell’ for) Becoming Animal almost reads as an extended poem at times with interesting research sprinkled in. He elucidates what it’s like to see the world through the eyes of an animist, reminding us of the magical biosphere that we are inclosed within. Thanks for the comment, I hope my blog has tons more tasty info for you. I’m going to check out your blog right now…

      • Harevey’s book really blew my mind when I read it, especially as I was exploring the idea of “place” in relation to re-enchantment of the landscape and bioregionalism. I wrote about this on a blog I deleted, but I still have the articles so I’ll republish them at some point! I look forward to reading “Becoming-Animal” especially if it’s more of the poetic side of Abram’s writing. I am sure your blog is going to provide me with lots of food for thought! Best wishes, James

  2. I think I am the only animist in the world who was bored by Harvey’s book as it was stuff I read from other sources and skimmed the surface of stuff I already knew and I wanted MORE. I wish he’d make a book based on each chapter’s topic. I wanted it to be deeper. Abram for some reason I cannot read at all. I have bought the book a few times and given it away. It was reading him learn what I already knew. And when you can do that mindset, words don’t work. I start to read him, get tranced into that state asap and cannot understand the swiggles on the page. The thing is I want to be blown away by their books. Instead I get blown away by science books and evolutionary psychology. I grew up off the grid to mentally ill introverted parents and rarely went to school due to my IQ test and I was always around hippies, so I never lost this thing I hear that people lost as kids. I was encouraged to talk with trees and water. Plus I was all alone aside from nature, and being off the grid, nature was in my house. I never understood people saying they were going to nature for the weekend. Now with MCS and being an inside person living in an isolation tank for the rest of my life due to the toxic world of rural remote Northern Vermont, I have no idea what to do. The people I like best grow outside in places that logging or tourists have made unsafe. I never doubted i was an animal. How to be one in captivity because your natural habitat, all the planet, is poisoned and GONE, isa very weird thing for an animal to figure out.

  3. pointpath permalink

    Hi, I want to link to a couple of your pages. The links will be on the opening page. Objections or suggestions, just let me know.

  4. pointpath permalink

    Decided not to use the links on the first page, I’ll let you know when I use them.

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