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
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
truth or falsity. His point is that to speak about “speaking to
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
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”
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
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
also seems useful as a label for at least some expressions of “panpsychism”
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
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
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
(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”
is made to look like a local idea when its placed alongside Amazonian
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
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
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