Animism: An idea whose time has come?

I’ve been writing about animism for years, and I sense that it’s an idea whose time has come. Animism has never gone away for Indigenous peoples, of course; it’s those of us in the Global North who lost the plot. But perhaps there’s an animist awakening coming.

Earlier this month, I read the news that Traditional Māori and Pasifika leaders had signed a declaration that granted legal personhood to whales. Crucially, this opens the way to discussion with governments across the Pacific to create a legal framework of protection for whales and a $100 million fund backs that. Reactions in the media have been positive. The reason, I suspect, is because animism makes sense to us. The evolutionary psychologist Bruce Charlton suggests that we are born animists; it’s “the ‘natural’ way of thinking for humans”.

Orion magazine recently hosted a conversation between Sumana Roy and Mary Evelyn Tucker about how spiritual traditions can reconnect us to the more-than-human world (The Rites Of Nature). Sumana Roy, author of the non-fiction book How I Became a Tree, explained the importance of inviting plants to a traditional Hindu wedding. Roy emphasises that we exist in a living earth community. She referenced the work of scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose, who, in the 1900s, argued that plants may be sentient. More recent research supports this idea, with some leading plant scientists claiming that plants can distinguish between ‘self’ and ‘non-self’ (Witzany & Baluška, 2012).

Rachael Petersen contributes a different perspective in her article Zen Mind, Vegetal Mind. Reflections on Buddhist practice and plant science. Petersen considers contemporary and traditional discussions in Buddhism about plants. Are they sentient? Do they have Buddha-nature? Petersen concludes that “not only do plants have a spiritual life, they are the spiritual life”, adding that “through deep practice that we may hear the voice of plants ‘with our eyes’.”

That intriguing suggestion echoes a recent experience of mine. I’ve been experimenting with super-slow-motion videos of water, including one of a river on Dartmoor. As I watched one of these videos, it occurred to me that the spirit of this place – the genius loci – was communicating through the mesmerising patterns of light and shade. Is this the voice of the more-than-human ‘speaking’ through an image?

Watching the river reveals the Spirit of Place

Embodied Animism

Last year I gave a presentation on ‘Embodied Imagination and New Animism’ at a seminar organised by The Alain Daniélou Foundation. I was inspired by this topic and took the opportunity to develop my presentation into an article for Transcultural Dialogues, the journal of the Foundation. I had more space to develop my ideas and my article – Embodied Knowing, Imagination and New Animism – took my thoughts in a new direction. I begin with a critique of the disenchanted world of Modernity, the dominant worldview of the Global North. Such critiques are common, especially as we face the growing climate emergency, for this is the worldview which has ushered in the Anthropocene Epoch.

Some of those seeking an alternative turned to animism for inspiration. David Abram is a good example. David spoke at the same seminar I attended, so while I drew from his work for inspiration, I needed to take a fresh perspective on animism. My PhD research into embodied knowing (2008) has proved to be a deep well of inspiration, and again it nurtured my thinking. I mentioned animism in my thesis, noting a relationship between embodiment and animism but I didn’t follow the thread. Curiously, animism kept cropping up in my subsequent work. The spirit of animism was stalking me, appearing like a shadow glimpsed in the forest that vanishes when the sun emerges from the clouds. Animism features in Embodied Eco-Paganism (2013) and crops up again in The Knowing Body: Eco-Paganism as an Embodying Practice (2016). It’s also a theme in my conversation with the improvisational movement artist Stephanie Gottlob (2022). But in all these previous engagements with animism, I’d missed a profound insight: “Animism isn’t about what is believed but how the world is experienced”.

bare trees in the early morning mist

The idea that animism is a belief system comes from Edward Tylor, an anthropologist working in late 19th century England. Tylor invented the term ‘animism’ to describe a ‘primitive’ type of religion, a childish and mistaken worldview that confused inanimate matter with living beings. Tylor couldn’t have got it more wrong: what he called ‘animism’ isn’t a primitive religion and certainly isn’t confused! Most importantly, animism isn’t about what you believe; it’s about how you relate to the world. Tim Ingold characterizes animism as “a condition of being alive to the world, characterized by a heightened sensitivity and responsiveness, in perception and action, to an environment that is always in flux” (2006).

I concluded that it “can best be understood as an embodied way of knowing that underpins how people live practically in the world; hunting, farming, navigating etc.” (Harris, 2023). Once we grasp that animism is an embodied way of knowing, our perspective shifts 180 degrees. Tylor wasn’t capable of understanding animism because he was blinkered by the intellectual framework of 19th-century England. There’s a lot to value in that tradition, but like any viewpoint it’s restricted, which brings us back to my critique of Modernity. My main issue with Modernity is that it believes it’s the only framework that can make sense of the world, so it literally can’t see any aspect of reality that doesn’t fit within its confines.

Animism helps illuminate many of the themes I’ve explored in this blog: ecopsychology, ecosomatics, embodied ecology, the power of place, psychedelics, activism and more. It offers a powerful alternative to Modernity and if we can drop into an embodied animist way of knowing we may yet find our way through the Anthropocene.

Science, Imagination and Animism

I recently gave a presentation on ‘Embodied Imagination and New Animism’. I explored my usual themes, but from a different angle and concluded that imagination can open the Western mind to a deeper awareness of the animated world.

As part of my preparation, I read Allan Frater’s Waking Dreams: Imagination in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life, which combines theoretical chapters with practical exercises. While the theoretical chapters were helpful for the presentation, it’s the practical exercises that prompted this post.

I’d just finished his chapter about the Waking Dream Walk and remembered that I needed to get some groceries. I decided it was a good moment to take a break from studying and get some shopping in.

It started as I was walking to the supermarket; the clouds loomed, dark and mysterious over the roof of the nearby University building, which had a distinctly mythic look. The trees were unquestionably watching my progress. I smiled. ‘It’s working then!’

Back home, what struck me was how quickly and dramatically my awareness can shift. I didn’t deliberately try the Waking Dream Walk on the way to the supermarket; it just slipped in. Evolutionary psychologist Bruce Charlton suggests that animism is “spontaneous, the ‘natural’ way of thinking for humans”. It takes “sustained, prolonged and pervasive formal education to ‘overwrite’ animistic thinking with the rationalistic objectivity typical of the modern world” (2002).

Bee feeding on yellow flowers

We’ve benefited enormously from such rationalistic objectivity: Thanks to a vaccine, I barely noticed a recent close encounter with Covid. But Max Weber suggests that such progress comes at a cost. Science tends to describe the world through a “process of disenchantment” that banishes “mysterious incalculable forces”. Weber claimed that meaning and value must also be relinquished in such a scientific worldview: “the belief that there is such a thing as the ‘meaning’ of the universe” must inevitably “die out at its very roots” (1962 [1917]).

Animism and science seem to be in opposition, but if we step back from an ‘either/or’ approach, there’s space for both. The pioneering work of Barbara McClintock is a classic example. McClintock won a Nobel Prize for her pioneering research on the genetics of maize. She came to such profound understanding by becoming “part of the system” and developing an intimate “feel for the organism” (Keller). McClintock didn’t think of herself as an animist, but arguably the same quality of relationship with the more-than-human informs her work.

Imagination is a fundamental part of McClintock’s genius. As the philosopher Peter Strawson notes, this kind of imagination is involved in activities ranging from a “scientist seeing a pattern in phenomena which has never been seen before … to Blake seeing eternity in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower” (1974).

What if Weber was wrong? Maybe animism need not be opposed to scientific objectivity: Perhaps imagination, a fundamental way of knowing that informs them both, can open a fruitful dialogue.

Embodying Nature: A conversation with improvisational movement artist Stephanie Gottlob

Most dancers work in a studio, but Stephanie wanted to see what happens when she went out into the wild. Stephanie spends weeks living in some of the most remote parts of North America: she’s visited rain forest, deserts, tundra, lakes and swamps.

I interviewed Stephanie for the first episode of my new podcast series, Embodied Pathways. We explore art, nature connection, embodiment, dance, relationship, activism and spirituality. There are many crossovers with the themes of this blog, but one is foundational: where we are has a profound impact on who we are. Stephanie describes the mythic power of the ancient rainforest she visited and the powerful impact it had on her “unconscious imagination”. She concludes that “We need the forests to be human”.

This reminds me of Christopher Preston’s work. He concludes that “the physical environment is not just a site in which mind operates; it is a characterful place that influences the products of the mind” (Preston, 2003: 88).

David Abram says much the same:

Each place has its own mind, its own psyche. Oak, madrone, Douglas fir, red-tailed hawk, serpentine in the sandstone, a certain scale to the topography, drenching rains in the winter, fog off-shore in the winter, salmon surging in the streams – all these together make up a particular state of mind, a place-specific intelligence shared by all the humans that dwell therein … ”

Abram, 1996

Relationship is central to Stephanie’s work. Sometimes there’s a merging, a blurring of the self/other divide, but at other times there’s a clear engagement with an animate other. In the guest post Stephanie wrote for this blog, she writes: “Landscape and I… always a duet, at least a duet”.

Towards the end of our conversation, we touch on the environmental crisis, It’s an emotional moment for me, but Stephanie’s experience has taught her well; in the face of fear and immense challenge, she finds a place of trust and engagement.

I very much enjoyed our conversation, and I think you will too! Let me know what you think. Embodying Nature: A conversation with improvisational movement artist Stephanie Gottlob.

Stephanie has created videos of her work:
Rain Forest Video-dance:
Rain Forest stills video:

The enchanted wood

Blackator Copse is a patch of ancient oak woodland on Dartmoor. Although it’s small – only 21 acres – this rare habitat is nationally important because of the exceptional variety of lichens and mosses. It’s a magical place and I was very grateful to be there again over the Bank Holiday weekend. I conversed for a while with the spirits of place that afternoon, and the idea came that Western civilization is in thrall to an evil spell. Perhaps it’s what the sociologist Max Weber called “the disenchantment of the world” (1962 [1917]). Weber described how animistic beliefs become replaced by purposive-rational action. We gained scientific understanding and control from this Faustian pact with reason but lost something precious in the process.

Sunlight through the trees on Blackator Copse

I’d planned to camp at Blackator Copse and was sitting quietly enjoying the peace when the throbbing beats of banging techno came drifting across the green. I’m well up for some dance music in the right setting, but Blackator Copse most certainly isn’t one of them. Half a dozen lads wandered into the Copse, clearly delighted to have found this little piece of paradise. ‘It’s Bank Holiday weekend’, I thought with a shrug and headed up the hill to a quieter spot.

I came down again the next morning just as they headed off. I sat by the river enjoying the silence for a while and then wandered along the bank. There were a few scraps of rubbish lying about, which is pretty much what I’d expected, but also the remains of a fire. At this point, some context might be useful. Open fires are banned on Dartmoor. First, they aren’t safe as parts of the Moor get very dry. Second, people who light fires on Dartmoor don’t bring in a supply of supermarket bought wood. They collect whatever they see lying around, which will be covered in the lichens and mosses that are part of a unique ecology. Some of the species found here are threatened with extinction in Europe and people burn them. While this is partly ignorance, but it’s mainly due to a consumerist attitude to nature. For some people Blackator Copse – and every other natural place – is simply a resource to be consumed: Get there as fast as possible, use it and leave without paying.

I’m reminded of an occasion many years ago when a friend and I stood in front of a Renoir. I was lost in rapture, but he broke my reverie when he asked “How much do you reckon that’s worth?’ (Framing perception). It’s as if the guys who enjoyed that bonfire of ancient wood and rare lichens were in a different place from me: I wandered amidst magic and they sat in a disenchanted theme park.

David Abram

David Abram’s first book, The Spell of the Sensuous, (1996) has influenced pretty much everyone in the world of ecopsychology and environmental philosophy. Its themes are summed up in the subtitle: Perception and Language in a More-than-human world. By way of introduction, I’ll touch on each of those themes.

Abram is more than just a philosopher; he’s also an ecologist, anthropologist and slight-of-hand magician. That unusual combination gave Abram some unique insights about perception:

“The task of the magician is to startle our senses
and free us from outmoded ways of thinking.”
(Interview with Scott London, 2018).

Abram’s interest in perception led him to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and he develops that into an embodied environmental philosophy. Abram challenges conventional ideas about subject and object, inside and out. He reveals that our perception is always participatory; it involves “an active interplay, or coupling, between the perceiving body and that which it perceives” (Abram, 1996). Thus he comes to understand the body as “a sort of open circuit that completes itself only in things, in others, in the encompassing earth” (Abram, 1996). There are echoes here of Eugene Gendlin who understood the body as extending beyond the skin into “a vastly larger system” (Gendlin, 1997).

It’s not only humans who have a living language. Abram suggests that “various animals and other natural forms today speak in their own unique dialects” (Abram, 1996). Oral cultures fully appreciate this reality; they’re aware that we’re “corporeally embedded” in a “living landscape” (Abram, 1996). But the influence of writing has led us into a “more abstract mode of thinking” that conceals our sensuous, embodied relationship to the more-than-human world (Abram, 1996).

Wentworth Falls. Australia.

A more-than-human world
We are part of a more-than-human community: “the animals, the plants, the trees, even whole forests” (2018). Every member of this wider community has its own wisdom and way of being.

“Each place has its own mind, its own psyche. Oak, madrone, Douglas fir, red-tailed hawk, serpentine in the sandstone, a certain scale to the topography, drenching rains in the winter, fog off-shore in the winter, salmon surging in the streams – all these together make up a particular state of mind, a place-specific intelligence shared by all the humans that dwell therein … ” (Abram, 1996).

Abram was one of the first to recognize the importance of animism for ecological thinking. Animism had long been dismissed as a primitive error, but by the early 1990’s Religious Studies scholar Graham Harvey had identified it as a powerful influence amongst Neo-Pagans. Abram was on a parallel track to Harvey, following the thread through older, indigenous cultures.

Abram continues to explore these themes in Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (2010), another book I highly recommend. It’s important to note that Abram is a practical philosopher and his work with the Alliance for Wild Ethics is perhaps as important as his writing.

I’m delighted to say that David Abram will be joining me on the Ecology and Research channel of The Embodiment Conference. This on-line event takes place from 14 – 25 October and it’s free to join.

In my next post I’ll introduce philosopher and poet Glen Mazis.