Unitary Animist Worldviews

It is sometimes said that animist worldviews are unitary, totalized, and seamless. What does this mean? At a first approximation, it means that such worldviews are distinctly and adamantly non-dualist. Animist worldviews neither recognize nor use a series of dichotomies that we tend to take for granted and which are prevalent, if not dominant, in modernist worldviews. These dichotomies include (but are not limited to):

  • Nature/Supernature
  • Physical/Metaphysical
  • Matter/Spirit
  • Material/Ethereal

In the absence of these dichotomies, the world presents – or rather is constructed as – a seamless unity in which people, animals, landscapes, plants, things, ideas, and events are connected, even if the precise nature of those connections is unknown or mysterious. This seamless unity stands in stark contrast to the series of dualisms that dominate the kinds of politico-religious formations that are generally known as “modern” or “world” religions.

It is my contention that these conceptual dualisms arose in conjunction with and as a consequence of the Neolithic transition. The process, I surmise, began with the newly built environment featuring the settlement and house. From this materiality flows ideas about inner/outer and private/public. In these seemingly innocent dualisms we find conceptual seeds that will eventually sprout into ideas about property, ownership, wealth, and distinction. From the early Neolithic through the post-Neolithic present, we find a multiplying or cascading series of dualisms on which everything will come – or be made – to rest. It is this constant sundering and splintering of things that so bewilders animists who are exposed to (or resist) Neolithicization.

As I read and understand the animist ethnographic record, this is what separates animist worldviews from the many different kinds of sociocultural and ideological formations that arise in Neolithic and post-Neolithic societies. This also explains why animist worldviews cannot be made to lie down on the procrustean bed of “religion.” It further explains why I contend that “religion” slowly originates out of the Neolithic transition and is particular to post-Neolithic societies. There is no such parceled and constructed thing as “religion” in animist worldviews. The only people who find “religion” in that worldview are those who conceive religion as a something like a natural, timeless, essential, and universal category.

There is today a growing and sophisticated body of research that is sometimes called the “new animism.” Considered in all its variety and as a whole, this scholarship describes a fully integrated and comprehensive way of being in, knowing about, and relating to the world. Animist worldviews make no distinction between the symbolic world of the mind and the physical world in which minds are embedded. Animist worldviews seamlessly bridge or join those worlds and thus literally and figuratively “make sense.” There is no “nature” that exists separate and apart from “supernature.” There is simply one reality, one world, and one cosmos. Everything within this unified cosmos – perception, thought, action, experience, and event – is connected and hence “real.” Animist worldviews are, in this sense, seamless, unitary, and totalizing.

While I would like to take credit for these ideas, I have done little more than piece them together from various sources. The intellectual godfather of this conception is Irving Hallowell, whose classic work (pdf) on Ojibway ontology paved the way toward this understanding of animist worldviews. His ideas were brilliantly extended by Nurit Bird-David and her understanding of these worldviews as a “relational epistemology” and “cosmic economy of sharing.” Embedded within the latter is an “ethic,” which is a category and construct that modernists (and philosophers) usually treat as something separate and apart. This separateness is of course a legacy of Cartesian dualism. Bruce Charlton, for his part, extended these ideas yet further by considering animist worldviews as a “relational ontology.” This ontological treatment is perhaps most brilliantly expressed in the work of Tim Ingold, whose “rhizomatic” understanding of animist worldviews is profound.

For those who want an “operational” analysis of animist ontology, Ingold’s analysis is the place to start. In a related vein, Philippe Descola brilliantly showed us that Amazonian animists (the Achuar) conceive what we call “nature” as society: the cosmos, therefore, is a singular culture. In a related line of work on “perspectivism,” originated by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, we learn how and why it is that animals are ontological people or what Hallowell called “non-human persons.” There is a great deal more to this new animism, including work done by Calvin Luther Martin, Hugh Brody, Justin SmithRobin Ridington, and Rane Willerslev. The collective upshot of all this is that animist worldviews are properly characterized as unitary, totalized, and seamless.

Given the radical differences between animist worldviews and modernist worldviews, it can be difficult to wrap your mind around them. The best way to do this is, in my estimation, to read long and deep in the hunter-gatherer Record. This will, of course, always result only in partial understanding because animist worldviews are lived and experienced in ways that elude capture through written records. They are deeply embedded in particular lifeways and oral traditions, in addition to being deeply embodied within ancestral or non-agricultural environments.


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48 thoughts on “Unitary Animist Worldviews

  1. Gyrus

    Excellent, thanks Cris.

    On recent animism writing, I would add pointers to the work of Graham Harvey and David Abram. Also, on dualisms, David Graeber in Debt points to Money and the Early Greek Mind by Richard Seaford, which suggests that the origins of coinage in the Axial Age triggered an important shift in the conception of mind/matter. The dualism between abstract value and malleable form influenced philosophy’s models of the world (we always see the world through our material technologies). I agree with you that the origin of sharp dualisms would have been much earlier, the early Neolithic, but this would be another important transition.

    Regarding my conception of agricultural cosmologies as totalizing, I wonder if I’m thinking about the way in which they include an abstract sense of totality. We look back at the geocentric cosmos as being based more on lived, bodily reality in that it sees the sun as orbiting Earth (which is how things appear to the “naive” view). But in terms of comprehensive cosmology, the Ptolemaic view involves an abstracted kind of bird’s eye view, picturing the Earth-centred cosmos from a point removed from Earth itself – just as Copernican view involves a bird’s eye view, only with a different arrangement of planetary bodies. Animist worldviews are much more rigorously from the perspective of lived reality, and their totalizing aspect isn’t based on an abstract bird’s eye view.

    You mention ideas of “property, ownership, wealth, and distinction” sprouting from the inner/outer division that results from built settlements. I assume it would be hard to tease out a straight causal line either way between this and the division of society into entrenched classes. But with both settlements and class divisions, there is an interesting sense in which they attempt to unify even as they create division. The town wall seeks to create a “whole” community, even as it splits it off from the wild. And the king seeks to serve as a head unifying the body politic, even as his presence signals the emphatic division of that society into elite and commoners. Agricultural totalizing is kind of an effort to deny or overcome division.

  2. Bob Wells

    What wonderful irony that science devotes so much energy to trying to come up with a simple “Theory of Everything” while the Animists already have discovered it: “As within, so without.” and “As Above, so Below.” (Yes, Wicca is not animist, but it’s roots before civilization where.)

    The animists were the original quantum physicists. They intuitively realized the interconnection of energy and mater and simply extended those things from the infinitesimally small to the incomprehensibly large. Yes, a rock is just a rock, one hard, simple thing. But if you have eyes to see within the rock, you know it is so much more. I believe that at some time science will finally overcome it’s fears and prejudice and realize the same.

    The Taoist Yin-Yang symbol is the ultimate expression of this animist belief. Obviously the world is full of opposites, to the person with eyes to see they are always, only one thing.

  3. Cris Post author

    Bob, there are indeed some interesting parallels between animist worldviews and quantum physics. I wrote about those in this post. And one of my (brilliant) former students noted, in this post, the similarities these worldviews have to Chinese philosophy and energy flows. As always Gyrus, good stuff. So it seems like we are in agreement about the unitary aspects of animist worldviews?

  4. pain0strumpet

    “Animist worldviews make no distinction between the symbolic world of the mind and the physical world in which minds are embedded. Animist worldviews seamlessly bridge or join those worlds and thus literally and figuratively ‘make sense.’ There is no ‘nature’ that exists separate and apart from ‘supernature.’ There is simply one reality, one world, and one cosmos. Everything within this unified cosmos – perception, thought, action, experience, and event – is connected and hence ‘real.'”

    This idea brings up a question for me. If there are two animists who are discussing a non-human person, and the two of them disagree about some important detail about that third party, how do they suss out which of them is more accurate?

    – emc

  5. Cris Post author

    Neither is more accurate, as there is no essential or “true” or “authentic” or “pristinely primitive” animist worldview. There are various varieties of animist worldviews, but the version I have expressed about animals as “non-human persons” is fairly widespread in the Americas and Siberia. The Aborigines, for instance, have animist worldviews with quite different conceptions of animals (and space or place based ontologies). No one view is more accurate; they are just different. These differences, in my estimation, make them all the more interesting.

  6. Beard Nihilist (@borednihilist)

    Hi Cris, I took pain0strumpet’s question to be getting at how Animist A and Animist B might discourse about and resolve their disagreements (as opposed to a third party, “us”, ajudicating which of them is right) – or did you mean your remark to respond to both situations?

  7. Gyrus

    If there are two animists who are discussing a non-human person, and the two of them disagree about some important detail about that third party, how do they suss out which of them is more accurate?

    I wonder why this situation is so different to two modern people disagreeing about the character traits or moral behaviour of a human person? These are very subtle, perspective-dependent things – as are the details of non-human persons. My impression is that the typical materialist impression of “non-human persons”, i.e. a completely hallucinated, utterly non-material “spirit” is not at all typical of the realities involved. Almost always, non-human people would be imaginatively extrapolated from qualities in the material world – David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous puts this perspective across very well. And this extrapolation would be immersed in a very sophisticated, socialized (i.e. shared) matrix of imaginative ways of engaging with the qualities of the natural world. Certainly there’d be a lot of room for personal interpretation (Cris’s insistence that animism is not a “religion” fits well here, since there would be little or nothing in the way of religious “doctrine” or “dogma” to constrain animist perceptions from the top down). But equally, the shared social imagination underwriting these perceptions would make our ideas of atomized individual subjectivities mostly redundant.

  8. Gyrus

    Cris, I do think we’re basically in agreement, with some fruitful differences (always a good balance!). The main thing for me is the different connotations to the concepts of “unitary” and “totalizing” we’re using. They apply in different ways to both animism on the one hand, and religion and modern science on the other. For the former it’s about its non-dualism, and the effort to embrace everything in lived experience, and for the latter it’s about their abstracted attempt to embrace everything, lived and inferred. (Of course modern science is supposedly non-dualist, but my sense is that rather than truly collapsing the religious dualism of spirit/matter, it just dismissed the spirit half of the equation.)

  9. Sabio Lantz

    Fascinating and bold claims, Cris.

    And sir, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your excellent lay-friendly writing!
    When is your book coming out?

    What percentage of anthropologists (as I imagine only them having opinions on this issue worth the greatest weight) agree with you that dualism resulted from settling down and getting a home? This sounds very controversial. But then it would, if I had never tasted non-dualism, for it would offend common-sense since I wouldn’t even be able to imagine being human without forms of dualism.

    Countering many fellow non-supernaturalists (atheists) I contend that “dualism” is natural — that the stuff that makes up religion is intuitively obvious to the vast majority of humans. I have quoted Paul Bloom (a non-anthropologist psychologist) who contends that:

    I think children are dualists from the start. Even babies start off with this sort of body-soul split. To put it somewhat differently, they start off with two distinct modes of construal, or systems of core-knowledge, one corresponding to bodies, the other to souls. Because these systems are distinct, common-sense dualism emerges as a natural by-product.

    This quote is from his article posted on The Edge, entitled “Natural-Born Dualists”.

    So, was Bloom just a little wrong but close? Should he have said, “Babies are natural-born unitivists”? Yet he claims the systems are distinct modes, no unified.

    Did the pre-neolithic people no kill when one of their troop took their tool or their mate? Was there no sense of “mine”? Of “uchi”. Interestingly, to help you make your point, albeit in a rather cheap linguist way, the Japanese often use “uchi” [house] to describe something inner (not public) and outside of the listener’s circles — that is, “uchi” means “mine”.

    Even with my modernist-shackled mind, I have experienced huge variety in cultures’ senses of “mine” and so I see it as a fluid notion. But I can’t imagine a HG telling fantastical stories of people flying in the sky, and the next minute attempting to jump off a cliff. I would imagine that they had a dualistic notion too that helped them separate the supernatural of their story-telling mind and their rock-stick-tiger mentality of concrete existence. I can imagine a difference in the use of the stories and the imagination, but not trying to fly or wrestle a mammoth with Herculean strength feeding their unified imagination — because of they had distinct brain systems to allow them to differentiate when needed for the most part.

    But again, maybe my imagination is limited.

    “Dualism” has many aspects. Unified vs Dualistic categorization is a dualism in itself. Over simplified. “Spectrum” is often a clear metaphor, unless one is in rhetorical mode. And further, as you mention, their are many forms of dualism: epistemological, ontological, metaphysical, and more. All very confusing for this lay person.

    But I take your word that animists are, for many issues, far on the other end of the spectrum of separation of nature vs human, yours vs mine and other things. And unfortunately, I don’t have the time “to read long and deep in the hunter-gatherer record” but will have to read you, a few books and hope to tame my procrustean modernist-ankle-chopping mind.

    Thanx Cris

  10. Sabio Lantz

    Now after reading the comments.

    (1) It is comments like Bob Wells’ that illustrate tendencies to grossly generalize and idealize other cultures. It his sort of opinion which be heard as an implied voice in anyone writing on this stuff and should be address for its defects or you will only be preaching to the converted.

    (2) I enjoyed pain0strumpet’s question. When animists disagreed (and I can’t imagine they didn’t — or am I being “dualistic”) about a direction to go for a hunt or a tool to use in a kill, I am sure they used methods to test and improve — much like we do and in this sense they had a science. Likewise, their stories about non-bodied entities probably changed when people disagreed, with the socially dominate, the stronger person’s story winning.
    But again, maybe my thinking is limited. Or maybe their stories — shared — just mindless merged without disagreement — though I am suspect of that.

  11. Cris Post author

    Hi Beard, if I misunderstood Eric’s question and consider it the way you suggest, I think my response would be that animist worldviews are not matters of belief, doctrine, or dogmatism, so disagreements between animists about concepts would probably be low key affairs with not much at stake. It’s hard to imagine animists arguing with one another about whether a particular idea is right or wrong. They surely had animated discussions (sorry, couldn’t resist that pun) about differences in ideas and concepts, but those probably ended without resolution — just acknowledgements of difference.

  12. Gyrus

    A key text here I think is Tricksters and Trancers by Mathias Guenther:

    The Bushmen […] appear to have no lack of tolerance for the ambiguity inherent in their belief system. They seem untroubled mentally and emotionally by such cosmological and logical incongruities as humans merging identities with the animals of myth and veld, or god being both creative and destructive – the source of disease and death, but also healing, along with a physiological-mystical bodily potency. With respect to religious sentiment, these people blend the numinous with the ludicrous, as reflected in the merging of trickster with god and the clown with the shaman (in the early phase of the trance dance). The contradictions in their ‘religious attitude’, their theology, and their cosmology – of which they may be made aware only by the probing questions of resident anthropologists – do not cause them intellectual unease. They seem not only unperturbed by the great variation in beliefs and myths, as well as the narrative accounts thereof which they hear from other people, but actually seem aesthetically to cherish the interpersonal idiosyncrasies of ideas. (p. 227)

  13. Cris Post author

    That’s a great text and quote Gyrus. There are similar statements or assessments scattered about the secondary literature on animists and hunter-gatherers. These “contradictions” and “ambiguities” have long frustrated anthropologists determined to crystallize an “ideal” worldview and then present it to westerners as something timeless, pristine, ancient, and perhaps static.

    Animist worldviews were of course always changing in dynamic response to changes in society and the environment. They never was a pristine or original form, a fact which animist romantics like Calvin Luther Martin seem not to understand. Migrations, trade, and contacts with neighboring groups also would have resulted in dynamic transformations of animist worldviews. Tony Swain captures this brilliantly in A Place for Strangers: Towards a History of Australian Aboriginal Being.

    This willingness to tolerate or even celebrate ambiguity and contradiction, coupled with a profound sense of play, sounds almost post-modern doesn’t it?

  14. Sabio Lantz

    But didn’t the Greeks have such complex myths? And certainly they weren’t animists.
    The contradictions only exist if the underlying cosmology is imagined to give a shit about humans (a Theist concept).

  15. Sabio Lantz

    @ Cris,
    You said,

    They surely had animated discussions (sorry, couldn’t resist that pun) about differences in ideas and concepts, but those probably ended without resolution — just acknowledgements of difference.

    Why the heck would you suspect that? I can see it as an assumption to fulfill a theory, but is this only possible to see as true if we read deep, long and hard in ethnographies of those who also agreed with this?

  16. Cris Post author

    Sabio, I don’t think anyone is suggesting that animists were the only ones with complex, shifting, and contradictory myths. Pre-Socratic Greeks (with their emphasis on flux and “becoming” rather than “being”) certainly had a higher tolerance for this sort of thing, and a keener sense of play, than did later Greeks like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The latter were of course prime players in the western movement toward, and embrace of, dualisms. Descartes may be most famous for the dualist separation of matter from mind or spirit, but he was simply the formal culmination of this line of thinking.

    Nietzsche, with his love for play, irony, paradox, and contradiction, lauded the pre-Socratics and ridiculed Platonist philosophy as rigid, narrow, and dogmatic. Platonist-Cartesian dualisms could hardly capture the complex realities of lived experiences. All this lead Nietzsche to say, in a brilliant and funny one-off, that “Christianity is [dualist] Platonism for the [masses or] people.”

  17. Sabio Lantz

    @ Cris

    But I don’t think it was “tolerance” — it is how they saw the world. They did not think of the gods as loving and caring for them — so there was no contradiction.

    Plato tried to idealize his world and is rightly criticized by Nietzsche and others.

  18. Cris Post author

    Glad you asked this Sabio because I was just thinking about James Walker’s remarkable book Lakota Belief and Ritual, which is an anthology or collection of records obtained from Lakota “medicine men” or shamans during the early reservation period. As such, it’s a splendid collection of what animist “intellectuals” thought about various aspects of Lakota cosmology. It quickly becomes evident that these shamans had different ideas about the nature of things such as “Wakan” and that there was no one singular, essential, pristine, or “accurate” conception of Wakan.

    I’m quite sure that these shamans discussed these and many other issues in great depth, but they apparently never reached any sort of consensus. Achieving consensus just wasn’t important. They also understood that their conceptions changed over time, and could be lived or experienced differently by different people. Walker’s book (which I highly recommend) is the perfect antidote to the kind of ahistorical and timeless essentialism that we find in books like Black Elk Speaks.

  19. Gyrus

    Sabio said:

    What percentage of anthropologists (as I imagine only them having opinions on this issue worth the greatest weight) agree with you that dualism resulted from settling down and getting a home?

    I think it’s important to apply a little of the very tolerance for ambiguity that we’re talking about in HGs to this discussion. I think Sabio, you get to this when you mention the idea of the “spectrum” (rather than the dualism of dualism vs. non-dualism). I didn’t take Cris’s point as being that dualism didn’t exist prior to settled living. Just that dualist thinking was non-dominant in HG life, and the dynamics involved in settled living set dualist thinking on the way to being dominant.

    Again, I think there’s something we can learn about “HG thinking” in this very discussion. I didn’t take Cris’s point as being categorical and dualist because I’ve read a lot of his stuff here, and I appreciate that he’s trying to think with a bit more tolerance for ambiguity. Therefore, I took his point about animism “being” unitary as a loose generalization, not to be taken categorically. It’s true that someone not familiar with where he’s coming from could take it the wrong way and think he’s implying that animism involve nothing resembling dualism, and after the first farmer’s hut was built, ambiguity disappeared. Well, even not having read Cris’s other stuff, that’s a pretty ungenerous reception of his views! But the point is: context. We’re having to negotiate many different interpersonal contexts on the web. In HG life, all contexts would involve face-to-face communication and, almost always, intimate personal knowledge. Therefore the cultural system involved can afford to tolerate a great amount of ambiguity, because “gaps” in communication would be “filled in” by context (knowing where someone’s coming from, their underlying beliefs and attitudes, their mood expressed through body language, etc.). Especially in our non-oral, text-based culture, we’ve accumulated habits that see things in either/or, literalist terms.

  20. Cris Post author

    At various points in our discussion, Gyrus and Sabio have both commented on the speculative nature of my assertion that built environments played a key role in the proliferation and eventual fixation of dualisms. This solidification, as it were, is just a hypothesis and I need to give it a great deal more thought. I’m not sure that I can ever prove this, but the idea makes sense to me and is quite appealing.

    I’m not sure that many anthropologists would agree with me, or that many have even written about it. I think the impetus for this idea came from some provocative theoretical work being done in archaeology. The discursive frame for this work is usually expressed as “materiality.” It’s a vaguely phenomenological approach to built environments and how those impact not only our ontologies (or sense of being) but also eventually impact our epistemologies (i.e., solid or material stuff is foundational and thus constitutes the “real”). Ian Hodder has been doing some work along these lines.

    In any event, it’s just a hypothesis and something that I need to read and think about in more depth.

  21. Sabio Lantz

    @ Cris,

    If you take a bunch of Christians, and record their opinions about God (which I often do at work — acting as an anthropologist), we get great variety of opinions — no consensus. Now, their religious specialists may — but that is because the mechanisms of consensus were formed in their institutions and documents.

    Sure, animists may not have such social structures and certainly no worship of documents. But I imagine those disagreeing Shamans and my colleague who also having no agreement as not so widely apart. Different for sure, but not so very different when expressing different opinions and willing to walk away with difference. Though institutions have evolved to curtail this, I don’t think it was owning a house that causes this. Power players do it — maybe power players were less common back then or played different.

    To my friends, establishing consensus is not important either — and our opinions differ widely

    @ Gyrus,
    Hmmm, I just got scolded, “Sabio is in tolerant! and ungenerous”.
    Nice opening.

    Pushing that HG are more tolerant than moderns may be an exaggerated mistake — I am exploring that. Sorry for the doubt — I am not a believer.

    I hear atheists talk about T.O.E. and contradict each other and confuse and misunderstanding the physics, but they “tolerate” each other’s stories because their purpose is merely to say “Theists are wrong”. It is a tolerance because they are not shooting for factual consensus but emotional consensus.

    My friends think I am too tolerant. But you see, did you agree with Bob Wells opinion above? Cris seemed to. See what can happen if we aren’t careful generalizations — it can reenforce intolerance.

    Rhetoric is important — don’t you think.

    I am less picky when talking with non-academics. But here, I figured that careful thinking would be tolerated.

  22. Sabio Lantz

    @ Cris

    I see that the idea is very “appealing” to you, I am questioning why.
    And it is only the generalization and idealization I question, though you claim to not do this. Making HG “tolerant”, “unified” and such is loaded with valorizing language, IMHO.

    I totally agree that modes of production, life style and environment hugely inform our world views — and your writing helps me to see that over and over. I actually learn from you, while I may disagree on points. Maybe Gyrus would allow me to be “tolerant” is some highly qualified sense.

  23. Cris Post author

    While Christians may disagree, it’s the very fact of their disagreement that has caused them so much anguish and bloodshed over the last 1,800 years. In my recent post on Byzantium, Larry Stout gave us a great comment which details the history of these schisms, which have of course resulted in hundreds of thousands deaths over the past few millenia. I don’t see modern Christian disagreements (and liberal toleration of difference) as being very relevant to the ways in which animists negotiate differences.

  24. Cris Post author

    It’s appealing to me because it makes historical, existential, archaeological, philosophical, and logical sense. It has nothing to do with my personal needs, wishes, wants, or desires. It’s an intellectual or academic thing, not a personal thing.

    That aside, I really wish you would get over the idealizing and valorizing thing. I have stated nine-ways to Sunday that this isn’t my intention, yet you keep insisting or suggesting that it is. At this point, I don’t know what else to say about it.

    Just because there are others who romanticize or idealize animist worldviews (and use such worldviews to critique modernity or ameliorate psychological stresses associated with modernity), this doesn’t carry over to me by virtue of some mysterious transitive property. If you want to take issue with those who romanticize or idealize, that’s fine, but I’m not engaged in that sort of activity.

  25. Gyrus

    @Sabio, sorry if I was curt, just busy with work and trying to fire my thoughts off. I wasn’t scolding you at all – in fact, I suggested you kind of answered your own query by talking about a “spectrum” between dualism and non-dualism. And when I said “we’ve accumulated habits that see things in either/or, literalist terms”, I meant we, including myself! I hoped that would make it clear I’m discussing common stuff between us, not pointing out your mote and ignoring my own beam 😉

    The whole issue of generalisations is complex and interesting. Blake said, “To Generalize is to be an idiot”, but I can’t imagine he didn’t intend the obvious irony there! Generalizations are dangerous precisely because they’re so necessary. We really wouldn’t be able to get by without them (see! ;-). These days I tend to think, “Is this generalization more right than wrong, or the other way round?” There are exceptions to every generalization, but while keeping an eye on these is essential, I also think it’s good to maintain a sensible arsenal of generalizations that are true enough. My bottom line is always: “It’s complex.” But to rigidly stick to this as a bottom line leaves the power in the hands of the status quo, which is rarely true enough.

    So, regarding Bob Wells’ opinion above about animism and quantum science, part of me reacts against this as too simplistic. But I’ve not got a huge amount of time today, so rather open up an interesting discussion about the differences between the two, I’m quite happy to let that stand as a “true enough” point of view. There’s certainly a lot of meaningful overlaps, even if the overlaps are sometimes overstated or misunderstood.

  26. Sabio Lantz

    @ Cris,

    Yeah, the Christian analogy my be a stretch, but the Atheist TOE (above) disagreement may be less.

    POINT: people still tolerate when the opinion-consensus won’t change affect their daily life. Just because HG didn’t have a need for a myth-story consensus doesn’t mean they were at tolerant in other areas of their “unified” lives tools, mates, hunt styles and more.

    Do you think Bob Well was idealizing, romanticizing etc, even though you aren’t?

    @ Gryus,
    Yeah, concerning Bob Well’s opinion, I’m quite happy to let that stand as a “false enough” point of view.

  27. Cris Post author

    Joe, I’m glad you mentioned (again) this book by Istvan Praet. I want to get it, but damn it is expensive! Can you give us a summary of the main ideas or precis of what it contains? I can’t find any reviews of it.

  28. Sabio Lantz

    @ Gyrus,

    Right — like you, I’m a bit busy for such a huge undertaking.

    But that Cris let Bob’s comment go (and actually supported it), seems telltale to my point. People like Bob (or how I read him) are the readers who will love these type of generalizations an how they will use them unless they are more careful.

    I may be wrong, I often am. It shows that I need to read much more HG ethnographies to undo my bigotry.

    I am on a 3-week couch-surfing adventure with my 12-year-old daughter now — must see if she will take a walk on the beach with me now.


  29. Cris Post author

    Sabio, I’m a pluralist and pragmatist when it comes to worldviews. We all have them, and whatever works for others is fine by me. Except for some few worldviews that I find to be dogmatic and dangerous — and thus become targets for my occasional barbs, I’ve always found it more prudent (and polite) not to call out others or confront them on issues like this.

  30. Chris Kavanagh

    Really interesting post and great follow up in the comments! This seems like a great blog Cris, albeit I’m firmly in Sabio’s camp when it comes to skeptical sensibilities.

    Anyway, when reading the piece I was thinking about the expanding body of work that suggests dualist thinking appears to be the default setting of young children rather than something which requires significant social learning or knowledge of grand philosophical traditions. Are you familiar with the research of folks like Paul Bloom, Jesse Bering, Deborah Kelemen or Emma Cohen which address this? If so, I’d be interested to hear how you feel their work corresponds to the unitary framework you are positing. From my interpretation the findings seem contradictory, unless you either reject their interpretation of their findings or argue that our apparent cognitive default (as a species) has shifted towards dualism following the neolithic- which would seem a difficult position to support.

  31. pain0strumpet

    For the record, I did mean to ask the latter question (how would two animists reconcile their ideas to each other), but if I’d delved deeper, I’d have asked both forms. As much as I value the answers to the latter form, I often default to thinking there’s a single “right” way for people to be animist, and I need the reminder that my rigid categories are of no consequence to the variations in reality.

    “Achieving consensus just wasn’t important.”

    This is an idea that I need to work a bit to wedge into my understanding of the animists (and, apparently, rank-and-file Christians; thanks, Sabio!) I delight in the process of arguing that pares away false information, bad ideas, and faulty conclusions. I’m frustrated when the result of the process is a realization that not enough knowledge exists among the people at hand to reach consensus. While I’m perfectly willing under these circumstances to agree to disagree, I’m by no means happy about it.

    – emc

  32. pain0strumpet

    I’m keenly interested in the question of how animist hunter-gatherers transformed into non-animist villagers. Apparently, I’m not alone. (Hi, everybody!)

    Cris posited that the shift into building houses was key to developing the duality that would sound the first alarm bell for the death of animism. At least partially in reply, Sabio and Chris highlight psychological research that indicates human babies are born natural dualists.

    One thought: in the same way that coming to a-religious cultures with the idea that there are religious and non-religious modes of behavior can distort our perceptions of the culture, it seems possible that the slightest sign of dualist thinking would be naturally perceived as looming much larger than is warranted.

    Another reaction: suppose that it’s undeniably true that human beings are hardwired dualists. The existence of vibrant non-dualist cultures would mean that this hardwiring is pretty easy to override with some basic cultural indoctrination.

    Also in reply, some have asked Cris to defend this position. Cris has conceded that he may be unable to do so, however appealing the theory may be. I know so little about the field that I’m probably carrying around dangerous falsehoods alongside vast ignorance, so I find myself unable to answer a basic question: what are the competing theories for what catalyzed the transformation from animist to non-animist cultures?

    – emc

  33. Gyrus

    @pain0strumpet, the more we go into this here, the less the animist / non-animist dualism holds up. We’re dealing with a spectrum, and there were certainly many points where shades on this spectrum changed more quickly than elsewhere. Towards the end of the Palaeolithic there would be many interrelated changes: sedentary living, more stable dwellings, the development of fish traps and food storage… I’m not sure these came as a strict “package”, but they’re obviously related, and would significantly change HG culture. There were pretty large HG villages in Natufian culture, before agriculture.

    When agriculture began, that would be another transition, intensifying the change in relationship to production.

    Later, the development of writing would begin another significant move away from animism. David Abram sees literacy as a kind of usurpation of animism, all the effort that once went into “reading” nature now focused on “reading” texts.

    Monotheism would be another development, intricately connected to transformations of social structure where hierarchy was entrenched and centralized. I suspect transformations in social structure were intimately connected to transformations in animist thinking, but I’ve not completely nailed that idea. The important thing is that I think our relationships to “spirit” in its widest sense (i.e. embracing non-dualist animist ideas that are distorted by our ideas of spirit / matter) are heavily shaped by our social patterns. HG egalitarianism shapes what I think Cris is usually talking about here as “animism”, but there are societies with a quite animistic sense of the world, but “spirit” is more of a dualistic opposition to nature, and that realm reflects the hierarchies of society.

    I think the modern scientific revolution was the latest in this series of “transformations” of animism, and probably the most severe. The Royal Society’s war against metaphor, and resolving spirit/matter dualism by dismissing spirit, etc. But again, I think there was a transformation, not just a break. Our animistic tendencies got corralled and funnelled into things like art and economics.

  34. Cris Post author

    Thanks Chris. I had forgotten to address Sabio’s mention of Paul Bloom and your extended mention of Bloom, Keleman and others. To be clear, I am not claiming there are no dualisms to be found in animist worldviews. I’m a big fan of Bloom’s work and also Keleman’s. I have some reservations about that work, most of which are methodological. There is of course the problem of near exclusive reliance on western test subjects.

    As you know, this is the WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) problem, which I’ve written about here. A related problem, especially for Keleman’s work, is that her children test subjects have already been exposed, or deeply enculturated, in ways that encourage dualistic thinking. This process begins in early infancy and it’s almost impossible to find children raised in strictly materialist or non-dualist environments.

    Having said all that, I find Bloom’s and Keleman’s work quite good. Ironically, it seems to experimentally confirm what EB Tylor argued about the generation of soul beliefs way back in 1871 with the publication of Primitive Culture. When teaching my anthropology of religion class, we always read Bloom (including his paper on commonsense dualism and the delightful article “Homer’s Soul”). We also read Keleman. I’m not a huge fan of Bering’s work, which suffers not only from methodological limitations (i.e., using very WEIRD kids as test subjects) but I also have serious reservations about the inferences he makes based on that data. In this post, I touched on some of those problems.

    But back to Tylor, Bloom, and to a lesser extent Keleman on commonsense dualism, or the idea that minds float free from bodies, thus creating “souls” and all manner of other invisible agents. Surely we find similar ideas among animists. The difference, I think, is the way in which these ideas are cultivated, formalized, systematized, and then fitted into larger worldview frameworks. Animists don’t make a big deal of what Bloom calls commonsense dualism and don’t, on the basis of that dualism, construct the entire world around dichotomies such as nature/supernature, matter/spirit, physical/metaphysical, and material/ethereal. Here in the west, we do just that. Our dualisms are constantly taught, reinforced, and form part of the larger culture.

    Over time, these dualisms are so deeply imbibed that they become taken for granted, and they seem like natural categories. Earlier in this thread, Sabio noted that he does just this. He’s not alone — most of us do this. I think that science, with its emphasis on empiricism and matter or “stuff,” just reinforces this widespread cultural or Cartesian dualism.

    So what I’m saying is that animist worldviews don’t recognize, teach, codify, or reinforce these dualisms. Are there dualisms in such worldviews? You bet. But they play such a minor role in the larger scheme that I find it acceptable to characterize them in meta-terms as unitary cosmologies.

  35. Chris Kavanagh

    Thanks for the clarifications Cris. I wouldn’t dispute that dualism is a characteristic feature of modern society and I agree that without emphasis even if there is a ‘folk’ dualism it might be largely overridden in certain cultures/societies.

    You might also be interested/pleased to hear that there seems to be some significant efforts currently being put in to reduce the issue of the over reliance on WEIRD participants, at least on the part of Keleman’s team. I attended a conference she presented at last week and during her talk she went through a fair bit of cross cultural data they’ve already collected and highlighted some other forthcoming projects with non-WEIRD populations. She was also making use of variations of Bering’s methodology at various sites (as was another researcher who presented a different talk) so regardless of his lack of cross cultural emphasis it seems that some of his methodologies and findings are being replicated. Indeed, you might find Emma Cohen’s ethnography of spirit cults in Brazil that draws on his research to be quite interesting- although it doesn’t overcome the confounding issues of enculturation you highlight.

    Deb Keleman however also reported a quite novel attempt to overcome the issue of the influence of cultural narratives by asking children about pre-life rather than the after-life. Pre-life tends to be an area were there is very little cultural discourse available especially in relation to the kind of accounts that are transmitted to children and indeed it is also an area most adults don’t think about very much (“what did I feel before I was born?”). Yet they found the same dualist assumptions present from an early age.

    I understand from your response how you could incorporate such findings into your characterisation of animism and your explanation makes sense to me. I’m still not entirely convinced but it is a provocative thesis and I think I’ll need to look further into some of your references when I have time. Keep up the good work!

  36. Joe Miller

    The book is an elaboration on the ideas he presented in the other article that I linked to. I’ll post that comment and link again here for anyone who’s interested. http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/bloomsbury/azoos/2013/00000026/00000003/art00002?crawler=true

    He argues that “the modern notion of wildlife cannot be applied to animism” because “the monkeys, deer, whales, tigers, and elephants that indigenous hunters and shamans deal with must be understood as “wild-dead” rather than as wildlife”. The “wild-dead” in turn “are palpable representatives of an expanded realm of death which—I suggest—is characteristic of all forms of animism”. He builds on the work of Willerslev and Viveiros Castro. However, he extensively revises the conventional understanding of animism by asserting that “any two entities possessing different perspectives (sensu Viveiros de Castro) at a given point in time are always fundamentally incommensurable and have absolutely nothing in common (neither soul, nor humanity, nor even life)”. The vast differences between the two perspectives is what allows for the metamorphosis between species that Praet analyzes.

    Praet explains this dynamic in the following passage (I’ll quote it in full for the benefit of those who can’t breach the paywall). It describes how the Chachi of Ecuador perceive the monkeys they hunt:

    “In Chachi animism, hunting is one of the most valued activities. “Hispanics raise chickens, Chachi hunt” is an often heard catchphrase, highlighting the contrast between Amerindian and non-Amerindian inhabitants of the River Cayapas area in NW Ecuador (Praet 2009). A principal reason why the Chachi have built their villages near the headwaters of rivers, and only very rarely at the coastline, is their wish to have good hunting grounds in all directions. I here focus on contemporary hunting practices in one village near the Cotacachi-Cayapas thought of as “other living beings” rather than as non-living beings). nature reserve. Early one morning in 2004, the senior hunter Alfonso Añapa and I set out to hunt monkeys. We paddled upstream and left our canoe at the bank of a streamlet. Once we had entered the forest, my companion regularly stopped and watched carefully. He paid particular attention to certain trees, especially those whose fruit is eaten by howler monkeys. Each time we reached a hilltop he imitated their very loud and distinctive call. After many failed attempts, we finally managed to track down a small group. Most of them remained out of reach as they were sitting very high in the canopy, but Alfonso did manage to shoot two.

    Afterwards, he asked me whether I had noticed something. Puzzled, I told him I had not.
    “Didn’t you see how the monkeys on the higher branches furiously jumped up and down?” Of course I did, but that had not struck me as exceptional, for I assumed that it was the normal behavior of monkeys in a situation of great distress. Alfonso, however, did not doubt that there was more to it than simply panic: “They were shaking the tree,” he stated, “because they were attempting to let us fall.” Later, he explained that the howler monkeys perceived themselves as Chachi walking on the ground, while they viewed us as monkeys sitting in a tree.

    In other words, they were trying to hunt us, as much as we were trying to hunt them. What is more, Chachi hunters sometimes describe monkeys as a particular incarnation of ghosts (ujmu) and thus relate them to the realm of death, even before they are shot. But from the viewpoint of the monkeys, humans are ghosts and hence palpable incarnations of death (a common observation in Amazonian anthropology; cf. Viveiros de Castro 1992, p. 211). Or, in an alternative formulation: while the predator is alive, whoever occupies the position of prey is always dead.

    In this context, predator and prey are positional qualities rather than fixed identities. Both positions may be equivalent in so far that hunter and howler monkey are equally animate and equally tangible. But they are at the same time wholly incommensurable in the sense that they are not just a little bit different but very different. Between hunter and howler monkey, there is no common ground whatsoever; there is no shared condition of life. If the former are alive, the latter must be dead. That is, howler monkeys are not conceived of as “other living beings” but as non-living beings. To envisage them as “wildlife” is actually misleading; instead they must be grasped as “wild-dead.”1 That is why monkeys have such a radically different perspective: just like the deceased, their point of view is the inverse of that of ordinary Chachi.

    It is not by chance that similar instances of perspectivism occur at funerals (cf. Praet 2005). Just before the corpse is buried, mourners laugh, banter, and play all sorts of games; it is said they temporarily die during the funeral, to keep the deceased company. That is why they perceive an occasion of great grief as one of tremendous joy. What happens during hunting and at funerals, then, is not fundamentally different. Both are ways of dealing with an expanded domain of death that includes not only howler monkeys but all inhabitants of the deep forest.

    As I have explained elsewhere (Praet in press), Chachi animism is characterized by a restricted sphere of life limited to people, their pets, and the familiar world around the house and the river. In this framework monkeys are palpable representatives of death, at least from a human perspective. Humans, on the other hand, are palpable representatives of death from a monkey perspective. In short, life and death are not inherent properties but positional qualities.

    My central argument is that this total incommensurability between predator and prey is an extremely stable feature that recurs in many (if not all) forms of animism. I suggest it is perhaps the single most important key to understand human–animal relationships in so-called indigenous societies. The originality of animism is that differences are always conceived of as total. By contrast, differences are partial according to the modern, Western cosmology (e.g., monkeys Metamorphosis is impossible in the modern framework: at most, it is the stuff of legends. But incommensurability opens the possibility of metamorphosis. It should not surprise us, then, that stories such as this one abound in Chachi animism (Praet 2006, p. 48):

    A woman from Tutsá, the ancient village of the Chachi, encountered a man in the forest. She fell in love and married him. The husband took her to his house, a huge mascarey tree they climbed by means of a liana, but to them it appeared like a house they entered on a ladder. What the woman did not realize was that her husband was actually a spider monkey. The husband’s family treated her well and fed her cooked maize. At least, that was how she perceived it, for it really was just a piece of tree fruit. They had a child together, and occasionally went to visit the woman’s parents. At one point, she brought a basket full of “nappies” and “clothes” for the baby but when her mother had a closer look these turned out to be merely skins of snakes, felines and deer—from a spider monkey’s perspective these were proper clothes. Here, the woman’s parents realized that their daughter had married a monkey. Exposed, the son-in-law but also his wife and baby instantly shifted into their monkey shape and dashed off. The mother of the woman tried to follow them, but when they climbed the mascarey tree she could not follow. For her, the liana was no ladder.

    The example illustrates that seduction is quite comparable to predation. In fact, Chachi hunters who use techniques of imitation envisage their undertaking as much as an act of seduction as one of predation. Just like prey and predator, seducer and seduced must be understood as positional rather than inherent qualities. This also elucidates the toucan myth mentioned in the introduction. When a Chachi hunter seduces a toucan by imitating their distinctive call, he adopts a different perspective—he metamorphoses. Just like monkeys, toucans are palpable representatives of death—they are not “other living beings” but non-living beings. In Chachi animism, hunting always entails a voyage into the domain of death.”

  37. Gyrus

    @Joe, thanks, very interesting. I’ll have to check out Praet’s work, it certainly flies in the face of what I’ve absorbed about animism, like the sense of kinship with animals, and the way in which hunters often inhabit the behaviours of prey in order to approach them (e.g. the !Kung and the eland).

    My reservation at first glance stems from the fact that my main interest is in egalitarian mobile hunter-gatherers, and all my research tells me images of and relationships to the natural and “supernatural” worlds is profoundly influenced by social organization. It seems that the Chachi, while they do hunt, live by subsistence agriculture in villages, and have chiefs. Just as I’m suspicious of the over-use of the Yanomami in debates on indigenous violence, I wonder about Praet’s focus on the Chachi. Not that the realities of the Yanomami and the Chachi are irrelevant – just that I’m wary of extrapolating those realities across the world or back through time. Every region has its peculiarities, but my sense is that Amazonia is more peculiar than most!

    There’s a wider issue here of fieldwork bias. I’m a lay scholar with no fieldwork experience, and I’m very conscious of the necessity of deferring to those who have really got under the skin of other cultures by living with them. On the other hand, I wonder if sometimes anthropologist’s wider views are coloured by the intensity of their experience with one particular culture. I’m sure Jared Diamond’s views on indigenous violence was shaped by his fieldwork in New Guinea, a notably violent place. Maybe Praet’s experiences with the Chachi led to a similar bias? Obviously it’s down to examining the examples he rallies from other parts of the world. But while I’m definitely interested in “animism” in all its forms, I wonder to what extent the aspect of animism he found among the Chachi applies to very different indigenous societies.

    That said, glancing at his contribution to this book – http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=eW5GAAAAQBAJ – his ideas seem to revolve around an examination of the widespread indigenous habit of referring to themselves as “the people”. I’ve often wondered about the subtleties behind this deceptively simple translation. There’s all sorts of issues involved around attitudes to “foreigners”, otherness, etc., which would obviously have been distorted in various ways by us projecting our experience of xenophobia and so on. I’d be very interested in any work that gets past the polarized positions where on the one hand indigenous people are peaceful and full of brotherly love, lacking modern antipathy to “others” (which obviously isn’t the case) and on the hand they are belligerent and always ready to kill any “outsiders” (equally nonsense). I can see how this issue would be profoundly related to animism and the “otherness” of non-human people, too.

  38. Cris Post author

    Thanks Joe. What I find most interesting about Praet’s assessment (whether right or wrong as applied to other animists) is that it shows just how complex, strange, unfamiliar, and alien those worldviews are to those of “us” (i.e., modernists, westerners, dualists, etc.) who aren’t animists or Amazonians.

    It really doesn’t matter to me whether Praet is correct, or whether the Chachi views are representative of other animists (though I will say I have never before encountered an analysis like this one, so I’m skeptical about his broader claims).

    What matters to me is that these views are taken seriously, and are being analyzed in ways which show their depth and complexity. These kinds of analyses are unsettling to us because they are so far outside what we usually consider to be “natural” concepts of time, space, being, and life.

    And if Praet’s analysis is applicable only to the Chachi, that’s fine too because it shows that animist worldviews are variable and cannot be essentialized.

  39. Gyrus

    Thanks for underlining that Cris – my point isn’t that there would be another animist society that would be “the standard”, but that there is variety in animism because there’s no religious doctrine.

    There’s a related debate that I’m only slowly becoming able to tease apart from wider issues: which, if any, lifeway can be taken as “typical” of the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic. Simple foragers like the !Kung used to be held up as exemplary. Then people argued that the abundance of Palaeolithic life would have led to more complex societies as in the Pacific Northwest. Recently, in Christopher Boehm’s Moral Origins, the results of his 10-year survey of the evidence sides once again with simple foragers. He says more recent climatological data show that the Palaeolithic was unbelievably unstable, so the more adaptable and mobile simple forms of hunter-gatherer society would have prevailed. Anyway, the point being, whatever form of society was typical in Palaeolithic, it still doesn’t represent an “original society”, it’s just what was typical then. It doesn’t preclude great variety in hunter-gatherer lifeways, or in animist lifeways. As you say, what’s significant for us is how very different all of these lifeways are from our own. We should recognize that without letting it blur them all together.

  40. Joe Miller

    “I wonder about Praet’s focus on the Chachi.”
    His analysis of the data on the Uduk and the Navajo (the two groups that he discusses with which I’m most familiar) bear out the assertions he makes with regard to the aforementioned group. It also applies to the Zane-daa as Robin Ridington presents them in “You Think It’s a Stump but That’s My Grandfather’: Narratives of Transformation in Northern North America”. http://muse.jhu.edu/books/9780803258587

    At any rate, I think that you need to take his work into account in your chapter on the topic of animist perspectivism, Chris. It’s a major contribution that has wide ranging implications for the study of Amerindian groups in particular and animist groups in general.

  41. Joe Miller

    “Just as I’m suspicious of the over-use of the Yanomami in debates on indigenous violence, I wonder about Praet’s focus on the Chachi. Not that the realities of the Yanomami and the Chachi are irrelevant – just that I’m wary of extrapolating those realities across the world or back through time. Every region has its peculiarities, but my sense is that Amazonia is more peculiar than most!”

    I just remembered that the Batek and Chewong (two Southeast Asian egalitarian forager groups) also conceive of the “wildlife” that they engage with as spectral entities. I remember Praet noting this fact in one of his publications but I can’t recall which one. I’ll go back through the ones that I have access to.

  42. jaap

    Cris, here’s a text you might like (if you don’t know it already. I thought of it when I read your claim about settling as the/a root of dualism.
    On Houses
    Then a mason came forth and said, “Speak to us of Houses.”
    And he answered and said:
    Build of your imaginings a bower in the wilderness ere you build a house within the city walls.
    For even as you have home-comings in your twilight, so has the wanderer in you, the ever distant and alone.
    Your house is your larger body.
    It grows in the sun and sleeps in the stillness of the night; and it is not dreamless. Does not your house dream? And dreaming, leave the city for grove or hilltop?
    Would that I could gather your houses into my hand, and like a sower scatter them in forest and meadow.
    Would the valleys were your streets, and the green paths your alleys, that you might seek one another through vineyards, and come with the fragrance of the earth in your garments.
    But these things are not yet to be.
    In their fear your forefathers gathered you too near together. And that fear shall endure a little longer. A little longer shall your city walls separate your hearths from your fields.
    And tell me, people of Orphalese, what have you in these houses? And what is it you guard with fastened doors?
    Have you peace, the quiet urge that reveals your power?
    Have you remembrances, the glimmering arches that span the summits of the mind?
    Have you beauty, that leads the heart from things fashioned of wood and stone to the holy mountain?
    Tell me, have you these in your houses?
    Or have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and becomes a host, and then a master?
    Ay, and it becomes a tamer, and with hook and scourge makes puppets of your larger desires.
    Though its hands are silken, its heart is of iron.
    It lulls you to sleep only to stand by your bed and jeer at the dignity of the flesh. It makes mock of your sound senses, and lays them in thistledown like fragile vessels.
    Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral.
    But you, children of space, you restless in rest, you shall not be trapped nor tamed.
    Your house shall be not an anchor but a mast.
    It shall not be a glistening film that covers a wound, but an eyelid that guards the eye.
    You shall not fold your wings that you may pass through doors, nor bend your heads that they strike not against a ceiling, nor fear to breathe lest walls should crack and fall down.
    You shall not dwell in tombs made by the dead for the living.
    And though of magnificence and splendour, your house shall not hold your secret nor shelter your longing.

  43. jaap

    PS: sorry! Forgot, The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
    PPS: Klaus Schmidt (excavator of Gobekli Tepe) thinks that the powerstructures preceded the building activities

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