Tag Archives: Animism

I have never called myself a Marxist. Or a Spinozist. Marx and Spinoza are to me just thinkers, who added important new viewpoints to our understanding of our human selves and our human world. In their attempt to create a coherent philosophical explanation of the world, they created as many (philosophical and actual) problems. Confessing to the thought of one of them would mean to think those problems are not there, or can be overcome, which I do not. I have sometimes made an exception to my habit of not confessing to the work of any thinker as work that I could almost always in some way agree with. Sometimes I call myself a Derridian – to me that is less problematic, as Derrida never aimed to create a coherent philosophical explanation of the world, but just wrote endless commentaries to deconstruct any claim to universal truth. So being a Derridian is actually inconsistent in itself, and therefore less problematic to one who thinks, like me, that there is no such thing as a consistent philosophical view. Consistency is not nonsense, of course, but it is just a norm, indicating what we should strive for, like politeness, or maturity – no more.

Still, some months ago, when some colleagues were having drinks at a conference, continuing our learned conversations in a more easy tone, someone said that I lived in an Eco-Marxist bubble. Although I was rather surprised, I found it very funny, and immediately after my friend had crafted this expression, I knew I would be using it for my blog. The more so as it was used to describe the mindset of my internet personality, who was supposed to see the world through the filter of this epistemic shelter. Although it was said jokingly, I could understand that it was still meant to contain some real description of me. And I also immediately understood that it related to the subjects I tweet about on twitter. Indeed they often include articles that criticize how mining and deforestation threaten the lifeworld of indigenous peoples – the eco-part. As well as articles that criticize social problems created by neoliberal capitalism (the Marxist part). Still, I never was a Marxist, and I never adhered to any ecology movement or ideology.

Why, then, do I tweet about these subjects? And how do they relate to what I think about and write about here? My friend forgot one aspect, which is not so ubiquitously present on my twitter timeline, but that is because there is less interesting news about it – that is the aspect of the spiritual, especially in its more anim(al)istic manifestations. This forgotten aspect explains a lot about my interests and concerns, though, also those of a more ‘socialist’ and ‘ecologist’ character. It clarifies what motivates the other tweets. Let me first make it clear though that I am neither a spiritualist, a new ager, or a romantic traditionalist. I just take the approach to ourselves and our world that is often called animistic, and which I would rather call anim(al)istic, very serious. And I don’t do that because I fell for some new Latourian fashion. I have from a young age known this approach to make sense.

I would never argue that we should take more care of the planet because we would otherwise destroy it, or because otherwise the future of humankind would be at risk. We should take care of the world we live in, because taking care in itself is meaningful and makes life better. There is just nothing attractive or meaningful in using up everything around us and transforming it into waste. It hollows out our life, and that of the other creatures around us. I would also never argue that wealth should be distributed more evenly for the sake of making an end to the reign of capital, or to create a classless society. I would not know what that would mean, nor if it would help us. I do think however that amassing wealth on one side, and creating poverty on the other, should never be a goal of one’s actions, as that makes – again – no sense. It is ugly. Destroying nature and giving the economy complete free reign makes for a very ugly world. So is my position an aesthetic one, then? Again, no. I do not value beauty in itself. It is just one of the things to enjoy, like tastefulness, warmth, or bodily movement.

The point is, my hunch is, that, first, a human life can be best enjoyed when one knows one’s limits – having enough to not constantly think about food or money, and not so much that it creates its own worries. That ‘enough’ is not exactly the same for everyone is okay by me. My hunch is, secondly, that in conditions of ‘enough’ one can most easily search those experiences that create real joy, and those are of the relationship kind. Enjoying the shadow of the tree, the whispering of the grass, the flowering of the weeds, even the torture of the wind on a stormy day. Enjoying the kindness of animals, and among these, the kindness of our fellow-humans. Also their otherness, that challenges our own being. Their mystery that makes us wonder. That seems to be a good life for most of us.

It is generally called animistic to value grasses, winds, and other things as things with which one can enter into a relationship. Yet we do so all the time. Not just with natural things, but also with those of our own creation. We miss ‘the old house’, we grieve a thing that has been broken, we get frustrated at an instrument that doesn’t work. As I said, I take that approach very seriously, as it makes me understand a lot of our behavior. So why add the ‘al’ – creating the word anim(al)istic? To remind us that we are animal, and that the other animal is our relative, and that we can best learn from our close relatives how to be animal in a better way. We humans constantly wander astray from our animality, which is strange, to say the least, as it is the beginning and the end of all human life.



Whe had a conversation on pluralist ontologies and environmentalist thinking – the occasion was a brainstorm, for which I had invited my guest – on a potential subject for her PhD project. After I had made clear to be an ontological pluralist (inasmuch as I would like to be attached to any ‘ism’) and told about the roman catholic roots of my thinking, she pressed me to disclose in a more personal manner my position – where do I stand, where do my philosophical positions come from? Leaving precise use of concepts behind in the relaxed atmosphere of coffee and a chatlike discussion between friends, I let myself say: I am an animist. Adding, playing with the words: and an animalist. That conversation with coffee ended shortly after those words were spoken, due to the normal busy schedule of tasks – my thoughts lingered on the strange connection I had created without thinking too much of it.

Animist – a word from the early tradition of cultural anthropology, as far as I know – indicates someone who treats the whole of visible reality as being inhabited by spirit in the meaning of soul (animus). In traditional contradiction to the ‘enlightened’ person who ‘knows’ that only mankind has spirit or soul, more precisely understood as (narrowed down to) a thinking mind – and that ‘nature’, the non-human – the beasts, the plants, the waters, the skies, the atoms, the currents… are unconscious in the sense that they cannot really think, like mankind does. I did not use the non-gender-neutral word by accident, as the battle of women, and non-white men for that matter, to be counted as members of ‘humankind’ has been long and still is not won. Perhaps not by accident too. ‘Female intuition’, ‘natural spiritual propensity’ are expressions that one can still hear, indicating a fear, perhaps, of those who see themselves as non-female and modern, that a lot of those considered human in a biological sense, might not be able to shed their inherent animism fully.

‘Mankind’, or the enlightened human being, is ‘alone in the universe’, as a famous physicist once dramatically said. The animist, though, is not alone. (S)he feels herself to be part of a whispering, bending, whistling, barking universe – which is not always in all aspects understandable, but so (s)he isn’t her/himself. In this universe a universal language is needed, that is always headed for translation. In its universality it is never defined or final – but demands the work of the bricoleur, trying what will fit or work in this specific work of translation. The bark or the whistle, the dream or the word – they all have to be translated, mediated, to enter in the interchange of animate voices.

Animal is the one who phenomenally shows to have a soul, by being drawn to things, or pushed away by them. The animal is not like the rock who stays where it is, no matter what, or the water, which indifferentially seeks the easiest route. Not even like the plant, which shows some kind of sensitive reaction, but which never moans for pain, or jumps for joy. The animal is the most expressive creature of them all. It cannot resist to react visibly or audibly to what it meets. Even not when keeping things in with grand mastery. So what is an animalist? It is someone who feels that the human being is not only not alone for being part of the world of ongoing translation between all creatures, but still less alone for belonging to a large family of expressive creatures. Making sounds or movements to collect its young ones, or to scare enemies away.

An animalist does not see humans as ‘just animals’ – like the ‘enlightened’ person might do who in the end is coerced by his own unrelenting scientific attitude to see all signs of humanity as ‘just effects of processes in the brain’. On the contrary – (s)he knows all animals to have a wide variety of sources of knowledge, not just the technological-scientific one. (S)he doesn’t shrink the human to fit the image of a non-understood poor animal, (s)he rather acknowledges the great wisdom and power of our fellow-animals, of whom humans can (and most possibly should) learn. Those who watch the animals who live with them know this. For instance that animals not only know when someone is going to die, but also might hold their kind of vigil next to that person. That a cat or a dog knows where you are hurting, and will try to treat your pain or wound when you let them. They know when you come home. Most of them know better than us how to die. How to enjoy sun, or rain, or snow. How to wait. They are not stupid. Nor is this just ‘nice’ behaviour of ‘innocent’ creatures. Humans can learn those things too, if they will try. It is no easy thing, though. It is in complete contradiction with the normal technological world they live in, and entering the contradiction might hurt rather badly.

The animalist is by definition an animist, in my view – for I have never met an (non-human) animal who didn’t treat the whole of visible reality as being inhabited by spirit/soul. No fools among animals.


The photos aim to give credit to the sheep, who, among the animals I met in my life, stood out for their patience to let me be with them and learn from them when I was a young child. The picture witnessing those times is not in my album, but if possible I will add it later.

Thanks to Terence Blake, who made me aware of this book, I started to read Feyerabend’s postumous Conquest of Abundance. On the side, I watched the only substantial interview with the famous philosopher I could find on the internet, the Interview in Rome, from 1993. What struck me most in the interview was Feyerabend’s obvious sympathy for times before ‘Entzauberung’ – a word which is hard to translate in English. Max Weber introduced it to signify the disappearance, in modernity, of spiritual experience from the public domain. The world, the public realm in which we live, is not subject to spiritual experiences, nor magical interferences any more – but only to calculation and argumentation. While Enlightenment ideology has convinced us most of the time of the blessings, progress, and improvement of everything modernity brought – Feyerabend seems to have seen the intrinsic relationship between Entzauberung and the ugliness of our world, and also the peril we are in.

In his Conquest of Abundance he approaches this issue in ontology, in the essay ‘What Reality?’ Here he makes it clear that cultures are not closed, that we have to accept pluralism in ontology, as ‘a unitarian realism’ is unconvincing, having to reduce ‘large areas of phenomena […], without proof, […] to basic theory, which, in this connection, means elementary particle physics.’ His plea for pluralism, and for intercultural learning implies that we should take seriously alternatives to modernism as they are present in history as well as in other cultures in modern times. It struck me that even in these texts written in the last years of his life, his coming closer to a more animist outlook is still so hesitant. Just as it was with William James, in his late work A Pluralistic Universe. Of course one might explain this hesitation from their position as philosophers, having to deal with the massive corpus of writings that have tried to make belief in the soul, in life, in change extinct.

In other disciplines this hesitation is less strong – as in the anthropological work of Felicitas Goodman, who by means of practical experimentation found that ancient statuettes show body postures that lead to specific types of trance. Trance that leads one to be able to learn from the spirit realm, about health, living in peace with nature, and about the afterlife. In her book Where the Spirits ride the Wind, she describes her research in this field, and advocates it as a way to rediscover human potential that was lost not only since modernity, but much longer, every time humans transferred from being hunter gatherers or horticulturalists to large scale agriculture. The time when woods are destroyed, wild animals retreat and die, and shamanism gradually gives way to monotheistic theology. Here, with monotheism, starts the belief in the autonomous subject, the individual who is a unity like his God, and who can (and should) bear responsibility in a moral sense – as he lives and moves under the ever present gaze of his God.

We are not finished by far with the task of having to analyze the effects of this event. Declaring all history after the agricultural revolution to be mistaken would be going too fast. As would be a simple declaration that prehistoric life is beautiful, lovely and a great loss. One has to move slowly, and search for negatives and positives on both sides. One has to try to understand, to see, before judging. I do not mind someone like Goodman taking a very unusual approach methodologically, as I agree with Feyerabend that in order to understand one should try his principle that ‘anything goes’. I do not share Goodman’s pessimist conclusion however that myths that are lost are to be mourned, as ‘extinction is forever’. I rather believe in the words of the native healer from Tonga cited by Robert Wolff, the psychologist who came into contact with his own shamanic powers through the training he received from an indigenous people in Malaysia in the sixties. He spoke with this woman about his sadness that so much old knowledge has been lost. She replied, after some thought, to him: ‘[…] there have always been people who know. When we most need it, someone will remember that ancient knowledge.’ And here lies for me the important point: we cannot understand our own position in history, nor do we know whether we already need it, that ancient knowledge, and in what measure. Time will tell.

Books mentioned and cited from are:

Paul Feyerabend Conquest of Abundance. A Tale of Abstraction versus the Richness of Being, The University of Chicago Press, 1999

Felicitas D. Goodman Where the Spirits ride the Wind. trance Journeys and other exstatic Experiences, Indiana University Press, 1990

William James A Pluralistic Universe. Hibbert Lectures at Manchester College on the Present Situation in Philosophy, University of Nebraska Press, 1996 [1909]

Robert Wolff, Original Wisdom. Stories of an ancient way of knowing, Inner Traditions International, 2001