Matter & Energy: Kinetic Animism

When formal western philosophy was in its infancy, pre-Socratic Greek philosophers grappled with what they conceived to be a foundational issue: What is the nature of the world or base of reality? Is the world comprised of something fundamental?

There were various answers, some of which (such as atomism) were remarkably prescient. Over time, western philosophy (and eventually science) settled on the idea that matter is foundational. Empirical science revolves around matter that can be measured. In its classical or mechanical form, empiricism has been stunningly successful. In its quantum form, empiricism begins to break down and leads to something more like metaphysics. Depending on one’s perspective and objective, things can look like matter or they can look like energy. It all gets very weird. As Jerry Coyne reports from a heavy-hitter conference on naturalism, the participants are split on the issue:

It’s strange that, given our task of moving naturalism forward, we can’t agree on what naturalism is. Alex Rosenberg defined it as “all that there is in the universe are bosons and fermions” [matter]. Others disagreed, saying that “all there is are quantum fields” [energy].

With these things in mind, let’s consider one of the comments to my rhizomatic animism post. It comes from a former student, who now assumes the role of teacher:

This article reminds me of what I’ve been reading lately from scholars working on cosmology in Chinese philosophy. In particular, a lot of them highlight how while the Western mode inherited from the Greco-Romans takes matter as its base of reality, the Chinese instead take energy (ch’i) as the base. It gets even more interesting if you consider the fact that both anima (the Latin word for breath which also takes on the meaning of soul) and ch’i are linked to the concept of breath. It seems that in the Western system, we assume that there is “living” stuff and “dead” stuff, and that the difference is “breath” or anima, and that dead matter needs a force to “animate” it. However, in the Chinese sense, all things are against a backdrop of shifting, moving energy, and different forms of life are characterized instead by their li, or pattern (caveat: I’m privileging the Neo-Confucian perspective pretty heavily here).

This is perhaps a good example of what you call the “China Rule,” but I think it speaks to traditional treatments of animism as well. Even the word animism is rooted in the concept of “animating” spirits, which with the traces of Cartesian dualism still evident in our outlook, forces us to either reduce the self out of existence or simply refer to it as the “ghost in the machine,” which we can neither prove nor analyze. The point of this is that maybe all of these logical back-flips aren’t totally necessary, but maybe they’re simply tied to our attachment to “matter” and solid “stuff” as the root of reality. Atomism has been dismantled pretty thoroughly by quantum physics, but its philosophical traces are still running strong.

John’s comment has  been rattling round in my head for the better part of a week. Our fixation on matter has led, ironically, to a conception of the universe as energy. We can, in other words, conceive the cosmos as either matter or energy based without doing any violence to science. Both views are, in their own way, correct. Things can be matter or energy, depending on which way we look at them (and for what purpose). This is a sophisticated way of looking at things that developed over the past few millennia in both east and west.

It is not, however, all that novel or new. Animists have been thinking this way for thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of years. This occurred to me last night while reading Jay Miller’s article “Numic Religion: An Overview of Power in the Great Basin of Native North America” (1983). In this excerpt, Miller describes ideas found among Utes, Shoshones, Paiutes, and other Uto-Aztecan speakers:

Probably the hardest aspect of the Native world to convey to English speakers is its dominant kinetic or dynamic quality. It is poorly described by nouns because it involves verbs almost entirely. While many native languages do use nouns, verbs are usually much more important because these people concentrate on processes. They speak not of life but of living, referring to the ongoing interactions and reciprocities that make life possible.

Similarly, power [puha] is not a particularly appropriate word for characterizing the life force-and-energy, because it is not a static concept. It is kinetic, underlying all aspects and activities of the native universe, conveying notions closer to those of modern physics than to other folk beliefs. Yet convention and English usage constrains any attempt to introduce more appropriate terms at this time. This processual dynamic of the universe pervades all of power, and with it, all of life.

As should be evident, animist ideas are not simple projections of souls and spirits onto the world and everything in it. The animist worldview is far more sophisticated than that, and in some respects science and philosophy have only recently come to understand what animists have known for a very long time.


Miller, Jay (1983). Numic Religion: An Overview of Power in the Great Basin of Native North America. Anthropos, 78 (3/4), 337-354.

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2 thoughts on “Matter & Energy: Kinetic Animism

  1. Chris Tolworthy

    >Is the world comprised of something fundamental? There were various answers, some of which (such as atomism) were remarkably prescient. Over time, western philosophy (and eventually science) settled on the idea that matter is foundational.

    Let’s not forget the first great western philosopher, Pythagoras. As Aristotle reports, he taught that “the principles of mathematics were the principles of all things.” Maybe calling it math is just a western mindset. After all, what is math except differences and transformations? And what is energy except a measure of differences and transformations?

    I consider this one of God’s inside jokes: the very first philosopher hit the nail on the head first time and the rest of history is spent ignoring him. It’s as if the first philosopher is born, walks out of his tent and blinks in the sunlight, thinks for a moment, and says “it’s all made of math.” Then goes back into his tent and spends his time working on a better society. It takes 2600 years before theoretical physicists come to the same conclusion, that the physical universe can only be understood in terms of data.

    I notice this joke in a lot of big topics: the first person to seriously think about it gets it pretty much right, and we spend the rest of history ignoring them.

    Other examples are monotheism (Moses got it right: God is nature, the burning bush, pillar of cloud, smoke on the mountain, etc) or economics (Adam Smith got it right: with his Theory of Moral Sentiments and his observations on ground rents as the best form of tax). Future generations ignore or mangle the ideas and get thoroughly confused, but the original thinker is often right.

    At least, that’s how I see it.

  2. Cris Post author

    I’m not sure that Pythagoras was the first great western philosopher — there are plenty of pre-Socratic contenders (such as the Milesians, Ephesians, Eleatics, Pluralists, and Atomists). Aristotle is hardly a disinterested reporter in these matters — he liked mathematics because he liked logic. As for math being foundational or being some sort of divine or universal language, I have my doubts. This sentiment is usually expressed by those with idealist or metaphysical commitments that I don’t share.

    Math appears to be perfect because it is tautological. But as Godel demonstrated, this is more or less an accounting trick based on unprovable assumption. And while math can work great wonders in some areas, it isn’t of much use in others. Take human behavior, for example. While you can quantify human decision making and describe it, no maths can capture the complexity of the thing or predict it. In this post, I touched on the issue of mathematics and reality. Reasonable people can, of course, disagree.

    I really like your observation that early players in a field often have foundational insights which we then subsequently ignore. This happens all the time in anthropology, and accounts for my recent reading programme organized around early anthropologists, most of whom have been ignored and left in the dust.

    As for Moses and Adam Smith, I don’t think either one of them got things right. I just started reading David Graeber’s “Debt” the other day and am astonished by how much Smith got wrong, and how theologically based his economics actually are. Many of his concepts rest on a strong notion of divine order, which probably explains why the religiously inclined are so religious about his ideas.

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