Narrow Animism

On page 210 of Animism: Respecting the Living World I argue that it might be useful to speak of broad animism” and “narrow animism”.

While these the terms “broad” and “narrow” are like the terms “deep” and “shallow” with reference to depths of environmentalism, they are not intended to express value judgments. A narrow river is as good as a broad one in many respects. They're just different. A camera’s “wide angle” lens produces a different photograph from other lenses. Difference is good.

This page introduces some more discussion of “narrow animisms. As ever, it does not set out to repeat what's in my book. However, since the terms I'm using were inspired by reading Erazim Kohák’s excellent book, The Green Halo: A Bird’s-Eye View of Ecological Ethics (especially the bit where he discusses various depths of ecology or environmentalism), I will begin with another of Kohák’s works that’s a favourite of mine.

In “Speaking to Trees - Critical Review 6 (1993): 371-88 - Kohák asks what a philosopher and a tree might talk about. Since the particular philosopher is a “personalist philosopher and not a Cartesian one (are there trees in the Cartesian gap anyway?!), the question is treated as a serious possibility. A world in which the question makes sense and can be seriously entertained is one in which that which surrounds us is worthy of respect and likely to be treated as a community of agents or fairly autonomous beings. However, this is a “narrow animism because Kohák is clear that he does not mean to describe the world as it actually is. He may not entirely reject that possibility but he is not really interested in discussing what others might call “objective truth or falsity. His point is that to speak about “speaking to trees is a “manner of speaking that is “true in the non-descriptive sense of being good. That is, it is better for the tree and for the philosopher that the world can be spoken of in this way. Whether or not the tree “says anything, it is certainly treated better by a philosopher who recognises its presence in the world, its needs and so on, than it would be by someone convinced that trees are simply “scenery or “resources. The point is made even more stark when Kohák writes about the “manner of speaking" about cows as “bio-mechanisms. Similarly, he might have cited those Cartesians who were willing to nail a dog to an operating table because dogs have no mind, and those who continue to “de-bark dogs to stop them howling about their ill-treatment in laboratories in the name of Science.

In my book I note that near the end of his article Kohák writes about “speaking with trees. At that point his animism edges deeper into the broader current of animism. My point it not to claim him for animism or to claim that he really is an animist, but to illustrate a wider claim that “personalism, at least as I read Kohák’s version, is a “narrow animism.

There are plenty of other discussions of personalism, many explicitly engaging with environmental ethics and, thus, engaging in some way with the community of life that surrounds us. (Here's a link to one of the useful bibliographies on personalism).

“Narrow animism also seems useful as a label for at least some expressions of “panpsychism and/or “hylozoism. Debates about these do, at least, focus on aspects of the nature of the cosmos that make it sensible to talk about the world being pervasively animate, i.e., full of living persons. There's more about this on a separate page.

The work of Marc Bekoff, Jane Goodall and others (ethologists) interested in animal cognition are introduced briefly on pages 24 and 209 of Animism: Respecting the Living World.

Their websites provide further material for the debate: see The Jane Goodall Institute website and Marc Bekoff’s website.

In 2004 I had the privilege of presenting a paper at the American Academy of Religion annual gathering in a panel devoted to responses to Marc Bekoff's work. A lightly edited version of the paper is forthcoming as ‘Animals, Animists and Academics’ in Zygon: interdisciplinary Journal in Religion and Science. Basically, I argued that ethologists who respect the animal-persons with whom they work might benefit greatly from engaging in dialogue with animists about ways of communicating with (especially listening to) animal and other persons. Research methods and results could be greatly enhanced.

(After the session, Marc and the panelists and friends ate at Mad Dogs, a “British pub” in San Antonio. There aren't many British pubs where half the menu is vegan - and all the food is great. And the walls are decorated with excellent spoof photos. I'd almost go back to Texas to eat there again. Now lets see that on a tourist brochure!)

Bruno Latour’s work is of considerable importance for a host of reasons beyond the scope of a discussion of animism, narrow or broad. Again, I'm not alleging that Latour is an animist nor claiming his work “proves animism true, etc.

My interest is in the debate. And Latour is always an exciting commentator, critique, thinker, writer...

Here's the link to his website.

In my book I refer to his We Have Never Been Modern which provides a vitally important critique of the what is often judged obvious, normal, ordinary... taken for granted what we're commonly pleased to call “the West. The foundations of modernity were never well built. Or perhaps I should say that the “Cartesian gap was never deeply dug. Certainly it is an artifact of the single dualistic culture that needs, for its own ends, to separate mind and matter, humans and the wider community of life, etc.

In his War of the Worlds: What About Peace?, Latour insightfully clarifies the nature of modernity's aggression against others and argues brilliantly that we need diplomats and mediators to help us negotiate towards a common world. He expands on all of this in his Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy.

What’s animist about any of this? It is not only that he acknowledges the influence of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and hence of Amazonian animists - although the notion that there is a single “nature and many “cultures (hence “multiculturalism) is made to look like a local idea when its placed alongside Amazonian “multinaturalism and the singular culture of all who live. (Go read the books - mine, Latour’s and Viveiros de Castro’s.) It is that Latour goes far beyond the now common - but still radical - understanding that “nature is a construct, to explain how it (the device of “nature") functions. That is, we are imprisoned in a net of our own making by a false but powerful separation of humans from what Latour calls the “collective of all entities or beings in the world. (He is more careful than I am being in this summary: noting, for example, that “the collective isn't one thing but a “procedure for collecting associations of humans and nonhumans.) He also makes powerful use of the humpty-dumpty word “things that requires us to think about the life of objects and the way they participate in making the world.

Latour may, or may not, think that animals, plants, objects and their particular associations and collectives can literally speak for themselves. He may or may not think that some of them, at least, need human representatives to speak on their behalf (scientists of various kinds - but always those who serve the collectives rather than Science). So, his radical contribution to rethinking and re-organising human living - and academia in particular - is a “narrow, focused version of a part of what a full blown animist might say.

OK, I've run out of time - there's more to say, more links and pics and debates... stuff about environmental ethics, stuff about Donna Haraway and her manifestos, etc. but I'll have to come back to it another time.











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Erazim Kohák - from his website.


one day old calf meets lone oak tree. the calf's mother is a “biomechanism”, a milk producer. the oak tree survives the destruction of a hedge.



Marc Bekoff and companions - from his website.













Bruno Latour - from his website.