Back To (Foundational) Basics

Over the past six weeks I’ve been writing what I hope will be a short book that I want to use when teaching my anthropology of religion course. As of today, I have six different opening chapters. During the the writing of each chapter, I feel the rush and thrill of finally getting things right — the approach seems good, the voice is on, and the writing flows. When the writing is done, I let the chapter rest for a few days and then go back for a review, thinking I’ll start writing chapter two. It never happens. Things just aren’t right. Either the voice is wrong, the opening stiff, or the approach is one that will eventually lead down the mind-numbing and eye-glazing path of purely academic writing — the kind of stuff that is sure to kill any enthusiasm that readers might have for the subject.

If I were writing only for an academic audience, none of this would bother me — I’d just get on with my business, knowing that academic readers can overlook less than ideal aesthetics if the insights and analyses are good. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that beginnings set the stage for everything that follows and if the beginning isn’t right, then nothing else flows or follows. At the beginning, one needs to have a clear and compressed vision of the entire book. If there is any doubt about that vision — if the entire storyline isn’t fairly clear in the mind, the first chapter or all-important introduction becomes a tentative or meandering mess. I have now have six messes on my hands.

In a (partially successful) effort to stave off the despair that comes during six weeks of unsuccessful writing, I’ve decided to seek some clarity by going back to basics and doing some reading. Because my problem involves the beginning of a book that revolves around what has been called evolutionary religious studies, it made some sense to begin with a foundational book. Even though David Hume’s Natural History of Religion (1757) is a pre-evolutionary book, his psychological-historical treatment of religion anticipates post-Darwinian approaches. This book gets far less attention than it deserves, not only from Hume scholars but also from scholars who think they are breaking new ground in evolutionary studies of religion. Because I last read this book as an undergraduate, I had forgotten just how prescient (and brilliant) Hume was. His model of the “religious” mind, one driven by cause-effect sequencing and riven with the twinned emotions of hope-fear, is fairly compelling. His attempt to locate that mind in historical time was limited by the record available to him at the time, but the method is impressive.

Having finished up with Hume, I decided to re-visit Edward Burnett Tylor, one of anthropology’s founders and the person who held the first professorship of anthropology at Oxford. Most anthropology majors and graduate students know about Tylor, even if they don’t actually read his work. Most of what we learn about Tylor is second-hand, critical, and (unfortunately) caricatured. My decision actually to read the two densely packed volumes of Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom (1871) was driven in part by the resurgence of academic interest in animism, which serves as the key concept in Tylor’s work and is the idea for which he may be most famous.

This resurgence began with Irving Hallowell’s famous article on Ojibwa ontology and was further developed by Nurit Bird-David in this epistemological treatment of animism. Since that time, Tim Ingold, Graham Harvey, Viveiros de Castro, and Rane Willerslev have all published provocative books and articles on animism or what some call “neo-animism.” All of these authors pay homage to Tylor, even as they probe much more deeply and perceptively into the animist world. Another who does so is Martin Stringer, who begins “Rethinking Animism: Thoughts from the Infancy of Our [Anthropology] Discipline” with observations that really resonate now that I’ve actually read Tylor:

Last spring I decided to read the two volumes of E.B. Tylor’s classic Primitive Culture (1871). Much to my surprise, I found myself reading a very sensitive, sophisticated, intellectually complex text written by a scholar whose ideas seemed to bear very little relation to my popular conception of his writing. This led me to look at Tylor’s other writing (Tylor 1866; 1870; 1881; 1892) and at the development of the critical literature surrounding his work. My own particular interest relates to Tylor’s theories of religion, in particular his emphasis on ‘animism’. I was not convinced that this concept could be dismissed quite as readily as many subsequent writers have suggested. Here I have chosen to concentrate on this particular strand of Tylor’s thought. I will begin by looking at the different layers of criticism aimed at the concept of animism within the anthropological literature; then I will look at what Tylor’s wider work on religion might have to offer to the contemporary scholar.

Now that I’m enmeshed in that wider work, I’m finding that Tylor has a great deal to offer the contemporary scholar, especially those working in the field of evolutionary religious studies. Another thing I’ve found is that the phrase “evolution of religion” should be retired in favor of “evolution of animism.” Perhaps the most important thing, however, is that getting back to basics is providing clarity for that oh so elusive beginning. The storyline is starting to emerge.

"Animism 1" by Joost de Jonge

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