Animism as Weltanschauung

While rummaging around the anthropology antique closet, I came across a 1915 article by Alexander Goldenweiser. As one of Franz Boas’ students, he shouldn’t have been thinking or writing about theory but he was. This excerpt fits neatly with my earlier post on animist understandings of reality:

From a theoretical standpoint, Edward Burnett Tylor’s minimum definition of religion as “the belief in spiritual beings”  is misleading, for a belief in spirits may not, per se, be designated a religion. Animism as such is not a religion, but a Weltanschauung.

The specific channels through which particular groups have arrived at the animistic interpretation of nature are no doubt many and varied, but a most general rationale of the process may perhaps be given in the following formula: Whereas the generalized experience of the behavior of things compatible with gross and permanent materiality becomes crystallized in consciousness as the world of matter, the generalized experience of the behavior of things incompatible with gross and permanent materiality finds conceptual expression in the world of spirit.

One further point must be noted in justification of the above formula: the material, as well as the spiritual worlds are conceived by animists as material. Animists know no disembodied spirit. The distinction between matter and spirit is one of degree only: both are material, but the materiality of the spirit is less gross and less permanent.

Goldenweiser did his fieldwork with the Iroquois.

“Animism Regions” by John Brophy


Goldenweiser, A.A. (1915). “Spirit, Mana, and the Religious Thrill.” Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, Vol. 12, No. 23, pp. 632-640.

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