Animism is the perception that consciousness or spirit is a quality of the entire world, rather than the exclusive possession of humankind. Everything has the potential ability to communicate with other beings (whether verbally, through gestures, intuitively, or otherwise) and to bring about change. Nothing, not even a rock, is completely inert, and no creature’s actions are exclusively the result of genetic “programming” – rather, there is always some element of feeling, understanding, evaluation, and choice present. A rabbit doesn’t run from a dog because it has been “programmed” to do so, as if it were merely a machine. Rather, it runs from the dog for the same reason that humans run from bears: we’d prefer to not be killed and eaten if we can help it. This involves no Winnie-the-Pooh-style personification or anthropomorphization; sentience and spirit are genuinely perceived to be inherent in potentially anything and everything.

Since consciousness or spirit is a property of the world at large rather than residing only in one organ (the brain) of one species (humans), it follows that the essence of the self is not a “soul” or anything else that stands aloof from the self’s particular earthly context. Rather, the essence of the self is to be found within its earthly context, as the sum of its relationships with other beings. We would not be ourselves if we were not simultaneously a part of something greater than ourselves.

Varieties of animism can be found in the worldviews of countless indigenous peoples from every geographical area and period of time, from Paleolithic Africa to modern North America. Even the European peoples are no exception: go back far enough in our history and you will find animistic traditions as rich and vibrant as those found anywhere else. It would be quite a trial, and probably an impossible one, to furnish even a single example of a truly inanimate object anywhere in the Eddas, sagas, and other scraps of lore concerning the indigenous Germanic worldview. Examples of animism, on the other hand, cavort through nearly every page and stanza. Every river, every stone, every tree has its local animating force. Humans called many of these forces “land spirits” (Old Norse landvættir), “elves” (Old Norse álfar), and other such names that denoted presences that, while strange and inhuman, were nevertheless recognized as being personal in their own right. The highly personal gods and goddesses were, in an important sense, land spirits “writ large.” Perhaps the most moving example of the personality inherent in all the world can be found in the Prose Edda, which records the ancient interpretation of the spring thaw as the world weeping over the absence of the warm and universally beloved Baldur, in hopes of hastening his return from the land of the dead to the land of the living.[1]

Animism in Anthropology and Philosophy

Animism has traditionally been grossly misunderstood by scholars, but the past several decades have witnessed a welcome reversal of this tendency. The misunderstandings go all the way back to Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, who established anthropology as a distinct discipline. In his 1871 work Primitive Culture, the book that put him (and the fledgling science of anthropology) on the map, he wrote:

It is habitually found that the theory of Animism divides into two great dogmas, forming parts of one consistent doctrine; first, concerning souls of individual creatures, capable of continued existence after the death or destruction of the body; second, concerning other spirits, upward to the rank of powerful deities. Spiritual beings are held to affect or control the events of the material world, and man’s life here and hereafter; and it being considered that they hold intercourse with men, and receive pleasure or displeasure from human actions, the belief in their existence leads naturally, and it might almost be said inevitably, sooner or later to active reverence and propitiation. Thus Animism, in its full development, includes the belief in controlling deities and subordinate spirits, in souls, and in a future state, these doctrines practically resulting in some kind of active worship.[2]

Tylor, despite his scorn for Christianity, forces his subject into a quintessentially Christian framework. This is most obvious, and most problematic, in his recourse to the typically Christian notion of individual souls distinct from a body and a relational context. Tylor was one of the foremost apostles of the doctine, widely held in the scientific community of his day, that history is a linear process that inevitably moves toward a specific goal. Conveniently, this goal was held to be the European culture of Tylor’s day. Accordingly, the more different any given society was from nineteenth-century Europe, the more “primitive” it was believed to be. Animistic worldviews were most often discovered amongst peoples that this schema labeled as “primitive,” which led to animism being viewed as inevitably evolving into some kind of Christianity-esque monotheism, and from there to the atheistic scientism of Tylor and his peers. Hence Tylor’s description of animism in Christian terms – he believed that it was an infantile precursor to Christianity, which was in turn an infantile precursor to his own philosophy.

This sordid view of animism continued unabated until the publication of A. Irving Hallowell’s breakthrough 1960 essay Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior, and World View. Instead of discussing animism in terms of individual “souls” that can be cleanly separated from a “body,” Hallowell introduced the term “other-than-human persons” to denote those beings that the Ojibwa people of south-central Canada perceive to have the fundamental qualities of personhood: consciousness/sentience, will, and the ability to communicate with other persons. Persons can come from any class of things: to mention but a few examples, Hallowell cites instances of stones, shells, thunder, trees, cookware, and pipes being treated as “persons” in this sense.[3]

Another particularly insightful and important treatment of the concept of animism is Nurit Bird-David’s 1999 essay “Animism” Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology. Bird-David reaffirms Hallowell’s notion of the “other-than-human-person.” She extends this line of thinking by pointing out that the inadequacy of the term “soul” is also due to its association with notions of rigid and fixed individuality – in other words, its implication that the “soul” of one being cannot be the soul of anything else, and that the essence of that being therefore lies in a state of absolute remove from the essences of the other beings with which he or she interacts. She proposes a new addition to the vocabulary of animism: the “dividual.” The animist “person” should be understood not as an “individual,” but rather as a “dividual,” which she defines as “a person constitutive of transferable particles that form his or her personal substance”[4] – or, to put it another way, there is no hard and fast boundary between self and other, but rather a spectrum or a continuum. Throughout her essay, she references the twentieth-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s concept of in-der-Welt-sein or “being-in-the-world” as a way of explaining her own concept of the dividual. For Heidegger, a being is never an isolated thing, but, rather, is itself only in the particular context within which it exists and the meaning it has for itself and for others – hence the “in-the-world” element of the term. For example, water is never simply “water,” but is always necessarily “water-in-the-ocean,” “water-in-the-glass,” “water-falling-from-the-sky,” and so forth.[5] A dividual, therefore, is defined not by some isolated and static essence (a “soul”), but rather by the dynamic web of relationships within which he or she is enmeshed. “As and when and because they engage in and maintain relationships with other beings, they constitute them as kinds of person.”[6]

A highly useful, up-to-date overview of current interdisciplinary thinking on animism can be found in Animism: Respecting the Living World by anthropologist of religion Graham Harvey, who defines animism as the view that “the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others.” [7]

Philosophers and theologians seem to have been able to grasp the essence of animism much more readily and intuitively than anthropologists, even if they often haven’t used the word “animism” itself. We’ve already noted Heidegger’s contribution of the concept of being-in-the-world.

Of perhaps even greater importance is the nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of die Wille zur Macht. This term is most often translated as “the Will to Power,” but could be just as accurately rendered as “The Will to Make” or “The Will to Creative Agency.” The Will to Power is, as the term implies, a will that permeates all life: “where I found the living, there I found will to power; and even in the will of those who serve I found the will to be master.”[8] For Nietzsche, the heart of life is a constant overcoming of oneself and of others, wherein everything, from a human to a grain of sand, is an instrument with which the cosmos eternally overcomes itself: “And life confided this secret to me: ‘Behold,’ it said, ‘I am that which must always overcome itself.'”[9] All life is animate, and a part – an arm, a finger, a foot – of something much greater than itself.

Jewish theologian Martin Buber expressed a similar insight, with far less bombast, in his classic 1923 work I and Thou. Buber describes two ways of interacting with the world and speaking to or about the world. The first, “I-It,” consists of merely speaking about something in a manner that implicitly denies the personhood of the one who is being spoken about. The one who is spoken about is reduced to an object with no agency or sentience of its own. This objectifying mode of discourse is opposed by “I-You,” which consists of speaking to someone else, treating the other as an animate person much like oneself. He explicitly extends this relation to nonhumans, despite some reservations:

The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it – only differently. One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity. Does the tree then have consciousness similar to our own? I have no experience of that. But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible? What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.[10]

The final contribution that merits consideration here is that of the twentieth-century French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Pointing out that the only way we know anything at all is through our perception of it, Merleau-Ponty spent his life studying the process of perception, in both its sensory and intuitive forms. Never afraid to voice an unconventional idea, Merleau-Ponty ended up speaking of an “intertwining” or “chiasm” between perceiver and perceived, wherein both have agency, in his unfinished masterpiece The Visible and the Invisible. He writes, in characteristically Proustian language:

Since the seer is caught up in what he sees, it is still himself he sees: there is a fundamental narcissism of all vision. And thus, for the same reason, the vision he exercises, he also undergoes from the things, such that, as many painters have said, I feel myself looked at by the things, my activity is equally passivity — which is the second and more profound sense of narcissism: not to see in the outside, as the others see it, the contour of the body one inhabits, but especially to be seen by the outside, to exist within it, to emigrate into it, to be seduced, captivated, alienated by the phantom, so that the seer and the visible reciprocate one another and we no longer know which sees and which is seen.[11]

To see something is necessarily to be seen by that thing in return, and in the last analysis it is impossible to draw a definitive line between ourselves and what we perceive.

For the pre-Christian Germanic peoples, as for countless other peoples the world over, the universe and everything within it was experienced as being full of life, vitality, will, love, fear, pain, yearning – in short, spirit.

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[1] Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning 49.

[2] Tylor, Edward Burnett. 1871. Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom. p. 385-386.

[3] Hallowell, A. Irving. 1960. Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior, and World View. In Culture in History: Essays in Honor of Paul Radin. p. 19-52.

[4] Bird-David, Nurit. 1999. “Animism” Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology. Current Anthropology 40: S67-S91. p. 68.

[5] Heidegger, Martin. 1962. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. p. 78-89.

[6] Bird-David, Nurit. 1999. “Animism” Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology. Current Anthropology 40: S67-S91. p. 73.

[7] Harvey, Graham. 2006. Animism: Respecting the Living World. p. xi.

[8] Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1954. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: a Book for All and None. In The Portable Nietzsche. Edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann. p. 226.

[9] Ibid. p. 227.

[10] Buber, Martin. 1971. I and Thou. Edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann. p. 58-59.

[11] Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1968. The Visible and the Invisible. Edited by John Wild, translated by Alphonso Lingis. p. 139.

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