Rethinking Animism: Thoughts from the Infancy of Our Discipline

By Stringer, Martin D. | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Animism: Thoughts from the Infancy of Our Discipline


Stringer, Martin D., Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


Here I look at E.B. Tylor's classic work Primitive culture, particularly that aspect that deals with animism. I discuss several of the critiques of animism, showing how most of them have actually misread Tylor's original intentions in relation to his supposed 'theory of origins' and his understanding of 'spirit', among other things. Then, by focusing on Tylor's theory of myth and the process by which he constructs his argument concerning animism, I provide a re-reading that focuses on discourse and layers of religious practice within individual societies. Finally, I indicate how this re-reading of Tylor relates to contemporary writing on animism and modern religions.

Last spring I decided to read the two volumes of E.B. Tylor's classic Primitive culture (1871). Much to my surprise, I found myself reading a very sensitive, sophisticated, intellectually complex text written by a scholar whose ideas seemed to bear very little relation to my popular conception of his writing. This led me to look at Tylor's other writing (Tylor 1866; 1870; 1881; 1892) and at the development of the critical literature surrounding his work. My own particular interest relates to Tylor's theories of religion, in particular his emphasis on 'animism'. I was not convinced that this concept could be dismissed quite as readily as many subsequent writers have suggested. Here I have chosen to concentrate on this particular strand of Tylor's thought. I will begin by looking at the different layers of criticism aimed at the concept of animism within the anthropological literature; then I will look at what Tylor's wider work on religion might have to offer to the contemporary scholar.

Meeting the criticism

When we come to look at the critique of Tylor's work on animism, we find that it comes in various layers. The first layer concerns the more general criticism of Tylor's thought on culture, evolution and survivals. None of these touches directly on the question of animism. All of them, however, define Tylor's wider thought, and an attack on Tylor's understanding of evolution, for example, would make a clear difference to the way in which we understand his ideas about the development of animism through the different stages of culture.

We cannot, therefore, ignore Tylor's evolutionism, his patronizing primitivism, his idea of culture or his theory of survivals. These are the things people remember him for. We can, however, acknowledge that all these things are a product of his context as a writer on social phenomena late in the nineteenth century, and that at least three of them play only a very minor part in his writing on religion. Tylor works within an evolutionary framework. He talks constantly about 'progress', he associates 'primitives' or 'savages' with 'children', and he has a basic understanding of time being mapped geographically onto the known societies of the world (cf. Fabian 1983). He is not, however, a great supporter of the contemporary status quo: he ends the book by saying that 'the science of culture is essentially a reformers' science' (1871:11, 410).

Tylor is far more sympathetic to the 'savages' he discusses (and far more critical of other ethnographers, and even the colonial context) than many of his contemporaries (cf. Lienhardt 1969: 85). He refuses to speculate about a pre-savage, 'animalistic', state. He is keen to emphasize that the human mind is the same throughout the world irrespective of the stage of social evolution reached by any one society In his discussion of language, for example, he maintains that, in terms of complexity, there is nothing to distinguish the language of the savage from that of civilized societies, except for a more specialized vocabulary. The principal distinction, for Tylor, appears to be one of education, which he equates with progress in many different ways. [1] Education, therefore, is Tylor's model for social evolution, the acquiring of knowledge and of ever more sophisticated ways of dealing with that knowledge by humanity as a whole. …

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