Animism: Respecting the Living World

Animism: Respecting the Living World

Animism: Respecting the Living World

Animism: Respecting the Living World


How have human cultures engaged with and thought about animals, plants, rocks, clouds, and other elements in their natural surroundings? Do animals and other natural objects have a spirit or soul? What is their relationship to humans? In this new study, Graham Harvey explores current and past animistic beliefs and practices of Native Americans, Maori, Aboriginal Australians, and eco-pagans. He considers the varieties of animism found in these cultures as well as their shared desire to live respectfully within larger natural communities. Drawing on his extensive casework, Harvey also considers the linguistic, performative, ecological, and activist implications of these different animisms.


Theories about animism are often used to illustrate detours, false starts and outdated prejudices in the history of scholarly interest in religions, cultures and indigenous peoples. Sometimes these illustrations act as a warning of what happens when colonialist ideology and preconceptions cloud academic engagement with people and their lived realities. In some academic and some Christian missionising discourses 'animism' labels all or most indigenous religions, often when presented as the primitive or 'primal' substratum on which more advanced culture or religion may be constructed. On the other hand, a growing number of academics have recently found the term helpful when used in a new and distinctive way. This new usage converges interestingly with the growing popularity of the term as a self-designation among some indigenous and nature-venerating religionists, many of whom are well aware that it can carry negative associations but reject these in favour of its more positive associations. Of most interest in this book is this 'new animism'. However, this first chapter introduces both uses. It is not intended to be exhaustive or sufficient as a history of the term, but rather to highlight the word's shifting meanings and in doing so raise issues that generate discussion in later chapters.

Foundational figures in each of the two uses of animism are the keys to this chapter's structure. Both were anthropologists: Edward Tylor established the 'old animism' by borrowing a term from earlier scientists and philosophers while Irving Hallowell's role in the 'new animism' derives, in part, from the grammar of the Ojibwe people among whom he studied. However, there is a longer history of thought in which these thinkers are embedded. Therefore, the sections of this chapter that discuss their writings are preceded by consideration of earlier scientists and philosophers and followed by introductions to some other significant names and views in the debate they generated.

Stahl's elements

In 1708 Georg Stahl (a German physician and chemist) theorised that a physical element, anima, vitalises living bodies just as another element, phlogiston, enables some materials to burn or rust. Materials containing more phlogiston (e.g. charcoal) burn or oxidise more easily and more completely than those with less (e.g. metals). Just as matter may contain more or less of the elemental 'burning stuff ' phlogiston, it

Stahl 1708.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.