“A Language In Which To Think Of The World” – Animism, Indigenous Traditions, And The Deprovincialization Of Philosophy Of Religion, Part 1 (Mikel Burley)

The following is the first part in a two-part installment.

The phrase “a language in which to think of the world” derives from a discussion by the philosopher D. Z. Phillips of the notion of animism or, more specifically, of certain forms of animistic expression exemplified by particular Native Americans.[1] Commenting on an earlier essay by Mario von der Ruhr, Phillips endorses the contention that when Native Americans speak in terms that, for example, attribute the power of speech to trees and rocks and ascribe emotions to the “spirit of the land,” the available interpretive options are not limited to a simplistic dichotomy between “literal” and “metaphorical” meaning.[2]

There is, Phillips concurs, a third possibility, which is to hear the forms of words at issue as presenting us with, precisely, “a language in which to think of the world.” What this third interpretive option facilitates is an understanding of the animistic modes of expression as insinuating neither that trees and rocks speak in exactly the same way as humans do, nor that they speak in a merely metaphorical sense (and hence, from a literal point of view, do not really speak at all). Rather, the modes of expression can be regarded as an entry point into a perspective on the world that offers alternative ways of conceptualizing living beings along with what, from a modern Western cultural standpoint, are liable to be construed as inert or inorganic components of the natural environment.

On the account to which I have just referred, the verbal and written affirmations of indigenous peoples can provide a means of accessing perspectives on the world that diverge from those with which modern Western readers may be most familiar. And the philosophical approach exemplified by von der Ruhr and Phillips provides a means by which indigenous traditions may be brought within the purview of philosophy of religion; or rather, it provides a means of expanding that purview to better accommodate discussion of the traditions in question. It does this by seeking to do conceptual justice to the variety of perspectives that exist in the world rather than, as is all too often the case, fixating on only a narrow selection of religious concepts while, in many instances, abstracting those concepts from the very lived traditions in which they have their sense.[3]

As a growing number of critical voices within the philosophy of religion have remarked, the need for an expanded conception of this area of inquiry – a conception that enables and actualizes discussion of a wider range both of religions and of religious phenomena than has standardly been the case – is long overdue.[4] It is overdue not least because the preoccupation with issues surrounding the rationality of a highly abstracted “theism” promotes an unduly restricted comprehension of religious possibilities. Efforts to broaden the subject are, however, becoming increasingly prominent.

By fostering attention to religions other than Christianity and to dimensions of religiosity other than doctrinal belief (construed narrowly in terms of intellectual assent to specific propositions), recent innovations have exemplified paths that might fruitfully be pursued further.[5] Among the areas that remain underexplored are the forms of religion that are typified by those human communities that have come to be known most commonly as indigenous peoples.[6]

Arvind Sharma, in a rare book-length philosophical study of indigenous – or what he terms primal – religion, describes philosophy of religion as undergoing a gradual “deprovincialization.”[7] This has occurred, Sharma observes, as philosophers of religion have examined the major religions of Asia as well as of the Western world. He adds, however, that despite being “present in both the East and the West,” a certain tradition – “namely, the primal religious tradition” – remains neglected in those treatments, “perhaps under the mistaken assumption that this religious tradition has little to offer by way of philosophical reflection.”[8]

Sharma, no doubt, harbors some questionable assumptions of his own. Among these is the assumption that it makes sense to think of indigenous religions as constituting a single religious tradition rather than a multiplicity of more or less variegated traditions. A further assumption on Sharma’s part – embodied in the very structure of his book – is that discussion of indigenous religions can usefully be inserted into a preformed conceptual mold based on an existing list of categories.

Instead of looking to see how the effort to engage philosophically with indigenous religions might transform the very parameters of the inquiry, Sharma attempts to shoehorn ideas drawn from indigenous sources into a framework borrowed from a general textbook on the philosophy of religion authored by John Hick.[9] Thus, while Sharma is to be commended for his intrepid spirit, the end result, as several commentators have noted, leaves much work to be done.[10]

In view of the paucity of material on indigenous religions within the philosophy of religion itself, one means of improving upon the kind of project typified by Sharma is to look towards debates in other disciplines. The work of many anthropologists is a fertile resource in this regard, as are certain discussions in the field of religious studies. And among the topics to have generated vibrant debate in these disciplines since the 1990s is that of animism.

Having, to a large extent, fallen out of favor among scholars of indigenous religions in the mid-twentieth century, talk of animism has gained fresh approval over recent decades as a means of identifying certain tendencies or “orientations” that are “immanent” in the ways in which many indigenous peoples relate to their environment.[11] Indeed, some scholars have spoken enthusiastically of a “new animism” that manifests in the “worldviews and lifeways” not only of indigenous peoples but also of Neo-Pagans and environmental activists.[12]

In this article, I take animism as a central concept around which to develop philosophical engagement with indigenous religions. I begin by examining the origins of the concept of animism and its revival in recent and contemporary anthropology and religious studies. I then turn to the treatment of animism by a small number of philosophers, including Phillips and von der Ruhr, to whom I referred above. While the approach that regards animistic talk as illustrative of a particular perspective on the world is helpful as far as it goes, there is a danger of oversimplifying our understanding of that perspective if insufficient attention is paid to the variety of ways in which indigenous peoples interact with their environments. To guard against this danger, I examine the ongoing debate among anthropologists, historians, and other scholars concerning the myth of the “ecologically noble savage,” a phrase first coined by Kent Redford.[13]

As is often the case when a topic is scrutinized carefully, the conclusions to be drawn in relation to this debate are complex. But gesturing towards complexity is itself a helpful lesson for the philosophy of religion; doing so is apt to encourage – at least among those philosophers who wish to participate in the deprovincializing project – an aspiration for further methodological innovation, perhaps including a higher degree of interdisciplinary research.

I. The Concept of Animism: Origins and Revival

The use of the term “animism” to denote a religious orientation is normally traced back to Edward Tylor (1832–1917), who is widely esteemed as the founder, or at any rate one of the principal founders, of the discipline of anthropology in the nineteenth century.[14] Tylor himself derived the term “animism” from earlier uses, notably its application in the eighteenth century by the German chemist and physician Georg Ernst Stahl,[15] who “explained life and disease by the action of a ‘sensitive soul,’ or anima, which inhabited every part of the organism and prevented its spontaneous putrefaction.”[16]

Transposing the term from the medical to the religious and cultural domain, Tylor deployed it to indicate the ascription of “personality and life” not merely to animals and human beings but also to “what we call inanimate objects,” such as “rivers, stones, trees, weapons, and so forth.”[17] For Tylor, animism was more than some relatively marginal religious attitude; construed concisely as “the deep-lying doctrine of Spiritual Beings,” it constituted the essential characteristic of religion tout court.[18]

Animism was viewed by Tylor as the very “groundwork of the Philosophy of Religion, from that of savages up to that of civilized men,” adding that “although it may at first seem to afford but a bare and meagre definition of a minimum of religion, it will be found practically sufficient; for where the root is, the branches will generally be produced.”[19] Tylor is here using the term “philosophy” in a broad sense, to mean a kind of system or worldview, “of which belief is the theory and worship is the practice.”[20] He is thus conceiving of philosophy of religion not as a branch of academic inquiry, but as an approach to the world that is distinctively religious or spiritual.[21]

Despite acknowledging that animism, and hence religion, comprises practical as well as doxastic elements, Tylor’s insistence that it is specifically belief in spiritual beings that is essential to religion has earned him a reputation for being “intellectualistic.”[22] He tends to treat religion, with animism as its foundation, as essentially a primitive – and ultimately a mistaken – theory about the world. Notwithstanding its tenacious presence in the more instinctive moments even of modern “civilized” life, animism, for Tylor, represents a “childish stage” of the human mind’s development.[23] According to the evolutionary model to which Tylor subscribed, this immature stage inevitably succumbs in the long run to scientific ways of thinking, which are deemed to be intellectually superior.

It is in large measure these associations with a condescending evolutionary conception of human cognitive development that led, over the course of the first half of the twentieth century, to a reluctance on the part of anthropologists, and indeed philosophers, to use the term “animism.”[24] In more recent decades, however, “animism” has been reclaimed as a non-pejorative designator, both by certain anthropologists and scholars of religion on the one hand and, on the other hand, by certain indigenous and other people who wish to identify themselves as animists. In some instances, to highlight the difference, Tylor’s conception has been labelled “old” animism in contrast with the revised and more politically respectable “new” or “neo-” animism,[25] though in many instances these qualifying prefixes are omitted.

Recent advocates of the viability of the concept of animism in the study of indigenous peoples frequently look to work in the mid-twentieth century by the anthropologist Irving Hallowell as a precursor and source of inspiration.[26] In his writings on the Ojibwe people of southern Canada, Hallowell is careful not to treat them as animists in what he regards as the “dogmatic” sense, which would signify a people who indiscriminately “attribute living souls to inanimate objects such as stones.”[27] Rather, Hallowell views the Ojibwe as recognizing “potentialities for animation in certain classes of objects under certain circumstances”; whether these potentialities are understood to have been actualized will depend on the forms of behavior displayed by particular objects belonging to the relevant class.

Thus, for example, the Ojibwe do not regard all stones as being alive, but they do regard some of them as being so, notably those that have been perceived to move apparently of their own accord.[28] In some instances, the Ojibwe will even claim to be able to have a two-way conversation with a stone, thereby indicating “that not only animate properties but even ‘person’ attributes may be projected upon objects which to us clearly belong to a physical inanimate category.”[29]

Hallowell’s talk of attributes being projected might be taken to imply that he considers there to be something erroneous or purely imaginary about the Ojibwe’s ascription of personal characteristics to what are, “to us,” inanimate objects. But on the whole Hallowell deliberately tries to avoid giving that impression, maintaining instead that a comprehensive understanding of another culture requires an effort to refrain from imposing on it a set of “categorical abstractions derived from Western thought.”[30] Rather, he insists, we should strive to adopt “a world view perspective,” which consists in seeing how the various conceptual strands of a given cultural system cohere together without privileging our own way of viewing things as necessarily normative.

Unlike Hallowell, certain theorists have followed Tylor in assuming that “animistic thinking” incorporates “fallacious reasoning” that leads to “‘illogical’ behaviour” such as the performance of sacrifices in the hope of persuading the natural environment to give one something in return.[31] One way of trying to explain the origins of such purportedly misguided reasoning has been to devise evolutionary psychological theories, which speculate that, in the distant past, it would have been advantageous to human survival to ascribe life and anthropomorphic characteristics to various natural phenomena regardless of whether the phenomena really possess them.

Supposedly, these ascriptions would have been advantageous because they instantiate a precautionary principle, which might be encapsulated in the phrase “better safe than sorry”: assuming that something is alive or humanlike enables evasive action to be taken, whereas waiting until one is certain about its nature is liable, in many instances, to put one at risk.[32]

Against this line of argument, it has been pointed out that the entities and phenomena to which animist peoples attribute life and personhood are not generally, let alone exclusively, those with which they are least familiar or about which they have the greatest degree of uncertainty. On the contrary, it tends to be precisely in relation to those features of the world that are best known to them that such peoples’ expressions of animism are strongest. If, as the evolutionary theory supposes, human cognitive development has comprised a series of retrospective acknowledgments of earlier animistic mistakes, then, as the anthropologist Nurit Bird-David has contended, the theory remains dubious; for even on the most charitable reading it leaves unanswered the question of why animist peoples “culturally endorse and elaborate these ‘mistakes.’”

Worse than that, however, it insinuates that the cognitive capacities of indigenous people are inferior to those of most animals, since it maintains that even amphibians are able to see their mistake after reacting to an inorganic object as though it possessed animate qualities (albeit that they are prone to react similarly next time).[33]

Bird-David is among the anthropologists who, in the footsteps of Hallowell, view animism not as a childish or otherwise underdeveloped way of comprehending the world, but as embodying alternative ontological and epistemological perspectives.[34] Drawing upon her own fieldwork among the Nayaka, a small forager community in southern India, Bird-David contrasts animistic (or relational) epistemology with epistemology of a modern Western (or modernist) strain. To illustrate the difference between these, Bird-David characterizes the modernist approach as one that, drawing a sharp distinction between the knower and the known, tends to objectify that which is to be known and to analyze it into its component parts.

When studying a forest, for example, botanists who deploy a modernist epistemology are apt to chop some specimen trees into pieces and divide the pieces into distinct types, which are then transported to a herbarium to be classified. By contrast, the Nayaka means of knowing would involve talking with trees, where “talking with” encompasses activities that might include “singing, dancing, or socializing in other ways.” “To ‘talk with a tree’ – rather than ‘cut it down’ – is,” Bird-David proposes, “to perceive what it does as one acts towards it, being aware concurrently of changes in oneself and the tree. It is expecting response and responding, growing into mutual responsiveness and, furthermore, possibly into mutual responsibility.”[35]

This notion of an epistemology, in the sense of a way of learning with and about one’s environment, shades into the notion of an ontology, where the latter term is used to denote a way of conceptualizing the entities that constitute the world. Both the animistic epistemology and the animistic ontology are facets of a conception of community as comprising more than just the human inhabitants of a region: in effect, the region itself amounts to “a local heterogeneous community whose members cooperate with or accommodate themselves to one another.”[36]

To designate the mode of existence characteristic of such communities, Bird-David coins the term pluripresence, by which she means to indicate a mutual togetherness shared by multiple beings of diverse species within a community small enough in geographical spread to facilitate “the vivid availability” of all members to one another.[37]

As is suggested by her talk of cooperation and “mutual responsibility,” Bird-David perceives relational epistemology as also carrying certain ethical implications. Indeed, the idea that animism is tightly bound up with attitudes of solidarity with, and respect towards, nonhuman species and the environment as a whole is pervasive in the contemporary literature. It is frequently accompanied by the insinuation that animism, far from being of mere academic interest as one among many possible ways of relating to the world, is to be admired and celebrated as a way that is ethically and ecologically superior to others.[38]

Though understandable, such admiration risks providing an oversimplified and hence distorted picture of the heterogeneous category of indigenous peoples, a risk that I shall explore later in this article. In the next two sections, however, I turn to some of the few instances in which animism and indigenous religiosity more generally have been discussed in specifically philosophical contexts.

II. Animism, Indigeneity, and the Philosophy of Religion

As I noted in this article’s introduction, discussion of indigenous religions has for the most part been conspicuous by its absence in the philosophy of religion. When such religions have been referred to at all – either by the term “indigenous” or by others, such as “primal” or “primitive” – it has often been precisely in order to clear the path for a discussion that ignores them. For instance, in the introduction to his Philosophy of Religion, John Hick, having acknowledged that the concept of religion is probably best construed as a “family resemblance” concept in Wittgenstein’s sense of this phrase, then proceeds to draw a distinction between two broad categories of religion.

On the one hand are those that Hick terms “the great developed world faiths,” which exhibit a prominent interest in personal “salvation or liberation”; on the other hand are what Hick lumps together into the category of “‘primitive’ or ‘archaic’ religion, which is more concerned with keeping things on an even keel, avoiding catastrophe.”[39] Since it is the quest for salvation, characterized in terms of “the transition from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness” on which Hick is chiefly focused,[40] the indigenous religions, which he uncritically assumes to be unconcerned with issues of salvation, get left aside.[41]

Subsequently, in his An Interpretation of Religion, Hick acknowledges that he has given less attention to “primal religion” than it deserves, though here he excuses this lacuna by remarking that the book aims to provide only a preliminary rather than a definitive inquiry. The onus, he says, is on those who “find this approach inadequate or misleading” to develop their own.[42]

In other cases, consideration of indigenous religions has been omitted on account of their lacking a clear connection with the Western philosophical tradition. For instance, in laying out the parameters of their five-volume edited series on The History of Western Philosophy of Religion, Graham Oppy and Nick Trakakis note that they have based their decision to exclude entries on thinkers from “the non-Western world,” including “the Asian, African and indigenous philosophical and religious traditions,” “primarily on the (admittedly not incontestable) view that [those traditions] have not had a great impact on the main historical narrative of the West.”[43]

Given the series’ explicit focus on specifically Western philosophy of religion, this editorial decision is perhaps defensible. But the very fact that Western philosophy of religion has, according to these editors, managed to avoid engaging to any serious extent with Asian, African, and indigenous traditions tells a poignant story in itself.

A further perceived obstacle to incorporating indigenous religions into philosophical discussions is the predominance of oral over literary modes of communication in indigenous societies. Thus, in a chapter on “Religion and Global Ethics,” Joseph Runzo-Inada, while recognizing the importance of indigenous religious ethics, especially in connection with environmental issues, opts to concentrate on “the world religions” that, “unlike indigenous oral traditions,” “have philosophical religious texts which facilitate comparisons in ethics.”[44]

There have, of course, been exceptions to the general disregard of indigenous religions by philosophers, some of which I have mentioned already in this article. Aside from Sharma’s monograph, one such exception takes the form of an exchange on the question “Is Animism Alive and Well?” between Richard Eldridge and Mario von der Ruhr plus a subsequent endorsement of von der Ruhr’s position by D. Z. Phillips.[45]

The contributions of these philosophers are important inasmuch as they exhibit ways of avoiding the kinds of hasty marginalization of indigenous traditions exemplified by Hick, Oppy and Trakakis, and Runzo-Inada. By offering potential points of connection with anthropological literature, some of which I briefly surveyed in the previous section, these philosophical treatments, while being limited in their own ways, open up possibilities of interdisciplinary inquiry that warrant critical attention and augmentation.

Central to the argument that Eldridge develops is the contention that while “traditional, more animistic cultures and practices,” on the one hand, and “modern, scientific, materialist cultures and practices,” on the other, both “express persistent human interests and responses to reality,” they nonetheless display significant differences.[46] Following suggestions from figures such as Wittgenstein and the anthropologist Robin Horton, Eldridge makes a distinction analogous to the one that we have seen Bird-David making between modernist and animist ways of relating to the world.

As Eldridge puts it, modern materialist cultures are disposed to encourage attempts to control nature, satisfy material desires, and cultivate power, whereas traditional cultures generally accentuate “the expression of a sense of human ensoulment and resonance with nature, thus leading to what Horton calls ‘an intensely poetic quality in everyday life’.”[47] Eldridge maintains that, despite the divergences between these general orientations, the poetic quality to which Horton alludes retains a place, perhaps an ineradicable place, in all human life, such that it may be apposite to speak of “a natural poetry of being.”[48]

Versions of the thought that vestiges of animistic or other supposedly premodern modes of response to the world persist in modern societies occur frequently in early literature on indigenous religions. Tylor himself was sympathetic to the idea that even “full-grown civilized Europeans” are, for example, prone to react to inanimate objects as they might to purposive agents, especially in moments of passion, such as when, in anger, we lash out at an object that has caused us physical pain.[49]

Several decades later, Wittgenstein, in connection with a comparable observation of his own, proposed that reminding ourselves of these instinctive levels of reaction can satisfy (or perhaps supplant) our desire for an explanation of certain religious rites: the reminders help us to see that, analogously, rites may be expressing something deeply human without their needing to be based on a theory or belief (purportedly held by the participants) that the ritual action will bring about some practical result.[50] In this respect, Wittgenstein’s thought runs counter to that of Tylor, who would have regarded the instinctive reactions to which Wittgenstein is referring as themselves manifestations of a residual, and erroneous, belief.

Eldridge’s intimation that there is something specifically poetic about animistic ways of thinking and behaving echoes (or anticipates) suggestions from Brian Clack, who borrows from Goethe the phrase “poetry of life” (die Poesie des Lebens) to express the thought that much of what, in modern life, gets derided as superstition may be seen to possess “a curious depth.”[51] One of Clack’s examples, derived from the work of James Frazer, is that of the Cambodian King of Fire, who was said by the local community to own a sword containing a spirit “who guards it constantly and works miracles with it.”[52] The legend surrounding the sword declares the sword’s spirit to be that of a slave who, having accidentally spilt some of his own blood on the blade as it was being forged, “died a voluntary death to expiate his involuntary offence.”

The destructive power of the sword is said to be such that the King’s unsheathing it even partially would result in the sun becoming hidden and people and animals falling unconscious; if he were to withdraw it fully from the scabbard, “the world would come to an end.”[53] Commenting on this example, Clack observes that an excessively rationalistic interpretation would assume that a false conception of causality is in play, whereas adopting a different perspective might disclose something more profound. Instead of fixating on the error of supposing that a sword could have the magical power attributed to it, Clack recommends reflecting upon “the fascination that envelops us when we entertain the possibility that it might”; in doing so, “We may come to recognise the essentially poetic nature of such acts.”[54]

Inviting us to perceive certain customs or practices under the aspect of poetry is a means of freeing us from the temptation to dismiss them as products of ignorance or confusion. Just as it would show a misunderstanding to conflate poetic utterances with, say, scientific hypotheses, so, according to the view exemplified by Eldridge and Clack, it would show a misunderstanding of practices imbued with animistic or magical elements to conflate them with straightforwardly instrumental styles of reasoning.

What needs to be cultivated by the philosopher, or by any other prospective interpreter, is a sensitivity to the distinctive character of the modes of discourse in question and, as Hallowell among many others has urged, an alertness to the dangers of hearing that discourse through the potentially distorting filter of “categorical abstractions” imposed from outside.[55]

For someone such as Mario von der Ruhr, who, like Eldridge and Clack, has been influenced by the philosophical thought of Wittgenstein, there is little here with which to take issue. Although von der Ruhr’s response to Eldridge’s discussion does contain several points of disagreement, he remains sympathetic to its overall tenor.[56] In the following section, I shall not focus on the points of disagreement, since doing so would require entering into the minutiae of both Eldridge’s and von der Ruhr’s essays in more depth than is suitable for my purposes in this article.

Rather, I shall concentrate on how von der Ruhr provides additional “illustrative detail to bring out what might be meant by saying that an attitude towards nature is animistic,”[57] and especially on the point, made by von der Ruhr and seconded by Phillips, that care is needed not to presume that the only alternative to a literalistic reading of what this could mean is a purely metaphorical one. It is by becoming aware of other ways of listening to the voices of indigenous peoples that new pathways are exposed for a deprovincialized philosophy of religion.

Mikel Burley is an Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Leeds, in the subject area of Theology and Religious Studies. His main interests are in developing interdisciplinary and cross-cultural approaches to philosophy of religion that seek to clarify and understand religious practices and their place in human life.


[1] D. Z. Phillips, Religion and the Hermeneutics of Contemplation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 158–59. I am aware of the disputes surrounding the appropriate terminology by which to refer to the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Americas and their descendants. In the absence of any consensus on this issue, I follow certain other scholars in using terms such as “Native American,” “American Indian,” and “Amerindian” interchangeably; cf. Joane Nagel, American Indian Ethnic Renewal: Red Power and the Resurgence of Identity and Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), xi–xii.

[2] Cf. Mario von der Ruhr, “Is Animism Alive and Well? A Response to Professor Eldridge,” in Can Religion Be Explained Away?, ed. D. Z. Phillips (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996), 26–45.

[3] For the notion of doing “conceptual justice to the world in all its variety,” see esp. D. Z. Phillips, “Rejoinder,” in Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy, ed. Stephen T. Davis (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 174–80, at 174; idem, Religion and Friendly Fire: Examining Assumptions in Contemporary Philosophy of Religion (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 52–53; idem, “Philosophy’s Radical Pluralism in the House of Intellect – A Reply to Henk Vroom,” in D. Z. Phillips’ Contemplative Philosophy of Religion: Questions and Responses, ed. Andy F. Sanders (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 197–211, at 207.

[4] Instances of such voices include Timothy D. Knepper, The Ends of Philosophy of Religion: Terminus and Telos (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Kevin Schilbrack, Philosophy and the Study of Religions: A Manifesto (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2014); Thomas A. Lewis, Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion – And Vice Versa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015); plus some of my own work, such as Mikel Burley, Rebirth and the Stream of Life: A Philosophical Study of Reincarnation, Karma and Ethics (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), esp. 9–11.

[5] For innovative approaches, see John Clayton, Religions, Reasons and Gods: Essays in Cross-Cultural Philosophy of Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Gwen Griffith-Dickson, The Philosophy of Religion (London: SCM Press, 2005); Wesley J. Wildman, Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future for the Philosophy of Religion (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2010).

[6] Like “Native Americans,” “indigenous peoples” remains a contested term. Though I shall not in this article be entering into the debate surrounding its use, I accept the point made by other commentators that, far from being treated as “static and rigid,” the meaning of “indigenous” should be recognized as having a degree of context-dependence. Relevant contextual factors include the power relations between those who are categorized as indigenous on the one hand and the “politically dominant group” within a given society on the other (Frans Viljoen, “Reflections on the Legal Protection of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights in Africa,” in Perspectives on the Rights of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples in Africa, ed. Solomon Dersso [Pretoria: Pretoria University Law Press, 2010], 75–93, at 78). For a variety of opinions, see Alan Barnard, “Kalahari Revisionism, Vienna and the ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Debate,” Social Anthropology 14, no. 1 (2006), 1–16, plus the responses from seven other anthropologists and the rejoinder from Barnard that follow it in the same journal issue. Incidentally, other underexplored areas in the philosophy of religion include New Religious Movements, a notable exception being Morgan Luck, ed., Philosophical Explorations of New and Alternative Religious Movements (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012).

[7] Arvind Sharma, A Primal Perspective on the Philosophy of Religion (Dordrecht: Springer, 2006), back cover.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Cf. John H. Hick, Philosophy of Religion, 4th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1990).

[10] For critical appraisal of Sharma, see Laura Grillo, “The Urgency of Widening the Discourse of Philosophy of Religion: A Discussion of A Primal Perspective on the Philosophy of Religion by Arvind Sharma,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 79, no. 4 (2011), 803–13, plus contributions by Mary N. MacDonald and Jeremy H. Smith, respectively, in the same journal issue. Grillo challenges the adoption Hick’s framework especially strongly: “Using Hick’s Christo-centric philosophy as the basis for establishing a comparative philosophy of religion replicates the fundamental error of early works in the history of religions: that is, it makes the implicit assumption that Christianity is the norm against which comparison with the ‘other’ is made” (805).

[11] I am here borrowing the notions of orientation and immanence from Tim Ingold, The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill (London: Routledge, 2000), 112. It should be noted that neither I nor most of the authors I am discussing in this article simply equate indigenous religion with animism. Not all indigenous religions are animistic and not all versions of animism are connected with indigenous religion. As we shall see, Edward Tylor would equate the two, but only inasmuch as he equates religion in general with animism.

[12] See, e.g., Paul Bouissac, “What Is a Human? Ecological Semiotics and the New Animism,” Semiotica: Journal of the International Association for Semiotic Studies 77, no. 4 (1989), 497–516; Graham Harvey, Animism: Respecting the Living World, 2nd ed. (London: Hurst, 2017), esp. chap. 5; Kathryn Rountree, “Neo-Paganism, Animism, and Kinship with Nature,” Journal of Contemporary Religion 27, no. 2 (2012), 305–20. The phrase “animist worldviews and lifeways” is one that Harvey uses in, for example, “Things Act: Casual Indigenous Statements about the Performance of Object-Persons,” in Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief, ed. Marion Bowman and Ülo Valk (Sheffield: Equinox, 2012), 194–210, at 194; Animism, passim.

[13] Kent H. Redford, “The Ecologically Noble Savage,” Cultural Survival Quarterly 15, no. 1 (1991), 46–48.

[14] Nurit Bird-David, “‘Animism’ Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology,” Current Anthropology 40 (Supplement) (1999), 67–79, at 69; George W. Stocking, Delimiting Anthropology: Occasional Essays and Reflections (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001), 105; Julia Reid, “Archaeology and Anthropology,” in The Routledge Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century British Literature and Science, ed. John Holmes and Sharon Ruston (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017), 357–71, at 363.

[15] Georg Ernst Stahl, Theoria medica vera: physiologiam et pathologiam, 2nd ed. (Halle: Literis Orphanotrophei, 1737), cited in Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom, 2 vols, 6th ed. (London: Murray, 1920 [1st ed., 1871]), vol. 1, 425–26, fn. 1.

[16] Erwin H. Ackerknecht, A Short History of Medicine, rev. ed. (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 128. For more on Stahl’s animism, see Lester S. King, “Stahl and Hoffmann: A Study in Eighteenth Century Animism,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 19, no. 2 (1964), 118–30.

[17] Tylor, Primitive Culture, vol. 1, 477.

[18] Ibid., 425. Tylor, famously, adopts “belief in Spiritual Beings” as his “minimum definition of Religion” (ibid., 424). Hence, by identifying animism with the “doctrine of Spiritual Beings,” he effectively equates animism with religion, or at least with religion’s “essential source” (ibid.).

[19] Ibid., 426.

[20] Ibid., 427.

[21] We might say that, in Tylor’s usage, “of religion” constitutes the subjective or active genitive (implying the philosophy that belongs to religion) rather than the objective or passive genitive (implying that religion is what is being treated as an object of study by philosophy).

[22] Paul Radin, “Introduction to the Torchbook Edition,” in Edward Burnett Tylor, Religion in Primitive Culture (New York: Harper, 1958), ix–xvii, at xi.

[23] Tylor, Primitive Culture, vol. 1, 286.

[24] “To call any philosophy Animism is to condemn it. The word usually refers to an early level of man’s thinking about the world, a level in which our distinction between animate and the inanimate had not yet been made” (Elmo A. Robinson, “Animism as a World Hypothesis,” Philosophical Review 58, no. 1 [1949], 53–63, at 54). See also Kees W. Bolle, “Animism and Animatism,” in The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade, vol. 1 (New York: Macmillan, 1987), 296–302; John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Heinemann, 1990), 8.

[25] For “new animism,” see, inter alia, Kaj Århem, “Southeast Asian Animism in Context,” in Animism in Southeast Asia, ed. Kaj Århem and Guido Sprenger (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), 3–30, at 6; Anselm Franke, “Much Trouble in the Transportation of Souls, or: The Sudden Disorganization of Boundaries,” in Animism, ed. Anselm Franke, vol. 1 (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2010), 11–53, at 13; Paul-François Tremlett, Liam T. Sutherland, and Graham Harvey, “Introduction: Why Tylor, Why Now?” in Edward Burnett Tylor, Religion and Culture, ed. Paul-François Tremlett, Graham Harvey, and Liam T. Sutherland (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), 1–7, at 4. For “neo-animism,” see, e.g., Signe Howell, “Metamorphosis and Identity: Chewong Animistic Ontology,” in The Handbook of Contemporary Animism, ed. Graham Harvey (Durham: Acumen, 2013), 101–12, at 105.

[26] See, e.g., Harvey, Animism, 17.

[27] A. Irving Hallowell, “Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior, and World View,” in Culture in History: Essays in Honor of Paul Radin, ed. Stanley Diamond (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), 19–52, at 24–25.

[28] Ibid., 25.

[29] Ibid., 26.

[30] Ibid., 21.

[31] Nicholas Humphrey, “The Social Function of Intellect,” in Growing Points in Ethology, ed. P. P. G. Bateson and R. A. Hilde (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 303–17, at 313.

[32] Stewart Guthrie, Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), esp. 4–5.

[33] Bird-David, “‘Animism’ Revisited,” 71.

[34] Ibid., 77–79. See also various publications by Tim Ingold, esp. The Perception of the Environment. A concise discussion of Bird-David vis-à-vis Ingold is included in Århem, “Southeast Asian Animism in Context,” 9–11.

[35] Bird-David, “‘Animism’ Revisited,” 77.

[36] Nurit Bird-David, Us, Relatives: Scaling and Plural Life in a Forager World (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2017), 174.

[37] Ibid., 21. Bird-David refers to “pluripresence” as a neologism (ibid., xiv), but the word has in fact existed since the late eighteenth century, albeit with a different meaning. James Boswell quotes Samuel Johnson as asserting that the Roman Catholic invocation of saints implies not their omnipresence (i.e., presence everywhere) but only their pluripresence (i.e., presence in multiple places at once); James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., vol. 2 (London: Murray, 1831 [1791]), 240.

[38] This celebratory posture is most obvious in the work of Graham Harvey, who not only speaks unapologetically as a proponent (rather than a mere scholar) of animism, but contends that the new animism, unlike the old, actively invites academics “to participate more fully” in “the living world” (Animism, 212). Harvey’s allegedly confessional stance has resulted in his being dubbed a “new primitivist” (Jan Platvoet, “Beyond ‘Primitivism’: ‘Indigenous Religions’,” AASR Bulletin 21 [2004], 47–52, at 52) and a “theological animist” (James Cox, From Primitive to Indigenous: The Academic Study of Indigenous Religions [Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007], 161–63). Ingold, too, often implies that animist ontologies and epistemologies afford not merely a different but a more accurate account of reality than do certain Western ones; see, e.g., Tim Ingold, “Comments,” Current Anthropology 40 (Supplement) (1999), 81–82, and remarks on Ingold in Århem, “Southeast Asian Animism in Context,” 10.

[39] Hick, Philosophy of Religion, 3.

[40] Ibid.

[41] More nuanced discussions of soteriology in relation to indigenous religions distinguish between “this-worldly” and “other-worldly” conceptions of salvation (Sharma, A Primal Perspective on the Philosophy of Religion, 12), thereby opening up conceptual space for talk of indigenous soteriologies that aim “at securing benefits in this world rather than in a life after death” (Cox, From Primitive to Indigenous, 63).

[42] John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent, 2nd ed. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), xiii.

[43] Graham Oppy and N. N. Trakakis, “Editorial Introduction,” in The History of Western Philosophy of Religion Volume 5: Twentieth-Century Philosophy of Religion (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014), vii–ix, at  vii.

[44] Joseph Runzo-Inada, “Religion and Global Ethics,” in The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Religion, ed. Chad Meister and Paul Copan, 2nd ed. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), 700–11, at 700.

[45] Richard Eldridge, “Is Animism Alive and Well?” in Can Religion Be Explained Away?, ed. D. Z. Phillips (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996), 3–25; von der Ruhr, “Is Animism Alive and Well?”; Phillips, Religion and the Hermeneutics of Contemplation, chap. 6.

[46] Eldridge, “Is Animism Alive and Well?,” 21.

[47] Ibid., quoting Robin Horton, “African Traditional Thought and Western Science,” in Rationality, ed. Bryan R. Wilson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1970), 131–71, at 170.

[48] Eldridge, “Is Animism Alive and Well?,” 12.

[49] Tylor, Primitive Culture, vol. 1, 286.

[50] Ludwig Wittgenstein, “Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough,” in Philosophical Occasions, 1912–1951, ed. James C. Klagge and Alfred Nordmann (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1993), 115–55, at 137–38.

[51] Brian R. Clack, “D. Z. Phillips, Wittgenstein and Religion,” Religious Studies 31, no. 1 (1995), 111–201, at 114. For Goethe’s original use of the phrase, see Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Maxims and Reflections, trans. Elisabeth Stopp, ed. Peter Hutchinson (London: Penguin, 1998), 20, maxim no. 171.

[52] Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 3rd ed., Pt. 1: The Magic Art and the Evolution of Kings, vol. 2 (London: Macmillan, 1911), 5.

[53] Ibid. Frazer’s account is based on reports from nineteenth-century French expeditions to the Central Highlands that cover the border area between modern-day Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. For a more recent ethnographically informed account, see Oscar Salemink, The Ethnography of Vietnam’s Central Highlanders: A Historical Contextualization, 1850–1990 (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), esp. chap. 8.

[54] Clack, “D. Z. Phillips, Wittgenstein and Religion,” 114.

[55] For talk of the importance of noting “the distinctive character” (original emphasis) of different modes of discourse or “linguistic practices,” see the exposition of Wittgenstein’s philosophical methods in Brian R. Clack, An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Religion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 51. For talk of “categorical abstractions derived from Western thought,” see Hallowell, “Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior, and World View,” 21, quoted earlier.

[56] Von der Ruhr, “Is Animism Alive and Well?,” 27.

[57] Ibid., 27–28.

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