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Animism in the Sciences Then and Now


Animism began in the sciences, when the chemist and physician Georg Ernst Stahl coined the term for describing the specificity of living matter, its distinctive character vis-à-vis non living things. Its modern, almost inverted meaning, however, goes back to the Anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor who used it to characterize a worldview that does not discriminate—or at least, not properly—between living and non-living matter but believes in “universal animation of nature” (Tylor: Primitive Culture (1871), chapt. VIII). Tylor's concept of “animism” as a deviant worldview points to an irrevocable—and perhaps irrecoverable—separation of the spiritual from the material. If animism named the belief in having no separation between the material and the spiritual worlds, then the very coining of the term would indicate that such an inclusive worldview had already become anomalous by the time he introduced it in his book Primitive Culture (1871). Regardless of the concept’s clear history and of the processes that motivated Tylor (1832–1917) to elaborate his theory of religion—though such a point of rupture would be difficult to locate historically—dichotomizing regimes that classify things and beings as either animate or inanimate, material or spiritual, can well be traced to different places and periods throughout history; they certainly predate the progressivism of the nineteenth century, which was a driving force in Tylor’s theory. The same applies to alternative, holistic, or integrative worldviews, which are also shaped by vastly different places and perspectives—with some dating back to the beginnings of human cultures and others stemming from the current interest in animism.

With Tylor, however, these alternatives became widely associated with questions about evolutionary progress, and animism became the label for a primitive form of belief. The concept of animism hence entails a twofold discrimination: the differentiation between two classificatory regimes as well as between hierarchical divisions. Consequently, animism henceforth described a double loss, one of access to spirits (whatever they be and wherever they supposedly reside) and one of an understanding for people who communicate or interact with them.

Demarcating a premodern and allegedly primitive worldview, animism was the name for a distancing and exoticizing view from a “superior” European perspective. Classifying alternative worldviews as lower steps in a rigidly evolutionary schema helped to define (and exert) European superiority. In noting a lack of progress, and with deep ties to nineteenth-century progressivism, the concept of animism is constitutive of the very emergence of modernist epistemologies. Addressing foreign cultures as it did, the notion of animism fostered the European perspective on materialism, rationality, objectivity, and the all-in-all modern—in contrast to allegedly irrational, superstitious, and nonobjective worldviews. Among the many divergent and partly contradicting modern agendas, the cultural evolutionary program gained its shape and sense of direction from a supposedly clear and obvious opposite. Whatever modernism’s peculiarities or specificities, we can say with some certainty that the modernist program itself was not primitive.

It is this history that makes animism problematic and difficult. Animism is not just rooted in a historical context that now appears highly problematic—the very phenomenon that animism was supposed to capture cannot easily be detached from the historical baggage, from the very perspective from which it derived, from the strictly evolutionary focusing lens and the sense of superiority that was inscribed into it. Whatever animism did or referred to, its potential does not so much depend on the question of how to regain perspectives that have been discarded, but more on the problem of finding a perspective outside a separation of worldviews.

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