An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy

An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy

By Liam Sutherland, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 17 February 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Graham Harvey on Animism (13 February 2012).

The interview with Graham Harvey on Animism was of particular interest to me because my Masters thesis concerns the theoretical relevance of the work of E.B Tylor, credited with introducing the concept of Animism to scholarship. Harvey related Animism back to the work of Tylor but when offered a definition of Animism by the interviewer (David Robertson), as “the attribution of a soul of some kind to non-human beings” Harvey contrasted this and more traditional Tylorian approaches to Animism with more recent discussions of Animism based around personhood.

He characterised the understanding of Animism in Tylor’s 1871 work Primitive Culture as ‘belief in souls and spirits’, and as the application of something human like to non-human phenomena: this is a fair description of Tylor’s Animism. Harvey also correctly emphasised the fact that for Tylor, Animism is characteristic of all religions generally, it is the core of religion; his theory is applicable by design to all religions, to Indigenous Peoples and High Anglicans. Harvey displayed a rich and refreshing appreciation for Tylor’s work with a nuanced understanding of his theories, the historical context in which he wrote and a deep knowledge of Primitive Culture (an often misunderstood text which is rarely read carefully).

I commend Harvey for more fully grounding the theory of Animism in the performance of ritual, on behaviour and for showing Animism to be a set of values and not just a cosmology, without ignoring the latter. However, it must be stressed that while rituals can be prescribed as obligatory without heed to the intent or belief of the practitioner, such rituals do have a clear connection to the belief system because certain inanimate objects are persons and thus they must be treated accordingly. The conceptions of a culture must be understood in order to account for behaviour: in short, believers really believe in their beliefs and it affects the mental world in which they move

I find the dichotomy he drew between the old and the new approaches to Animism a little stark. It must not be thought that Tylor’s understanding of Animism was of abstract, purely metaphysical spirits; Tylor argued forcefully that spirits are often considered to be ethereal, material beings. Though he did not emphasise personhood nearly as strongly as Harvey, he argued that the extension of Animism (the doctrine of the soul) to natural phenomena in which they are considered to be firmly embodied: animals, plants and objects, is based on personalisation. Furthermore the earliest rituals of religion are theorised to have been based on the notion that spirits, including those embodied in natural phenomena, can be related to as though they were present persons; it is only later that religious rituals became more formulaic mysteries. Other than perhaps Hallowell, it is not clear which authors make up the new approaches to Animism; at times Harvey seems to quite intelligibly and astutely describe the views of Indigenous Animists themselves, which hardly represents a ‘new Animism.’

He is correct to emphasise the non-systematic nature of much human thought – a perennial difficulty for ethnographers. I would, however, question Harvey’s implied dichotomisation of ‘western’ and ‘non-western’ thought, particularly his assumption that other cultures do not have ‘grand narratives’ while westerners are clinical, rigid and doctrinal in their view of the world. Arguably even an assumption “that life is pervasive” or a differentiation between persons and inanimate objects entailing a host of obligations is a somewhat systematic ‘grand narrative.’ The differences between cultures should not be overemphasised when the difference between life and death, say, may involve different rituals and beliefs but is never an absent or radically different distinction. Nor are most people in the west concerned with clinical dichotomies anymore than Ojibwa and Amazonian tribespeople; only in some situations and sometimes only for some specialists do strict definitions of categories matter. People largely think and act pragmatically, but for some people and in some situations systematic thought is required.  As Martin Stringer showed in his Contemporary Western Ethnography and the Definition of Religion, many ‘nominal’ Christians who also believe in science and astrology do not reflect on their beliefs (especially those that may be contradictory) much outside of the situations where they are contextually significant. They hold ‘situational beliefs’.

Similarly, Harvey laudably reinforced the fact that Animists inhabit basically the same cognitive world as materialists, that animals and inanimate objects are largely treated the same by both – a stone is mostly a stone. It is only certain stones on certain occasions which are treated as animate, possessing personhood and entailing obligations of respect.

One of the most important and novel contributions Harvey has made to the theory of Animism is his insistence that Animism is neither, as Tylor argued, innate nor an inevitable assumption made by the earliest humans, but is always taught. Animism or Animisms are systems of belief which entail and are cemented by ritual. The status of certain objects as other than human persons is underscored by being shown respect by the same ritual gestures as a human being. How certain objects are recognised as persons or when they need to be shown respect has to be taught, often to particular religious specialists such as Shamans or Medicine Men.

Surprisingly given this, Harvey also does link religious Animism, albeit tentatively, with the ingrained human tendency to treat animals and objects as personal even in non-Animistic cultures, to name ships and shout at slow computers to go faster etc. These two were linked by Tylor and more recently Stewart Guthrie in his Faces in the Clouds, who argued that religious conceptions are based on the evolutionary cognitive reflex to ‘bet’ that an ambiguous object is animate or even to anthropomorphise to avoid predators. Nonetheless, Harvey’s approach does not imply that religious Animism is determined by some mental category mistake, and is arguably more in line with the modus operandi of Religious Studies; methodological agnosticism to the beliefs of the people under study. The tendency to anthropomorphise is simply a means of appreciating Animist conceptions.

It could be objected that the focus on the relationship between persons in religion or even in Indigenous Religions is too narrow and that forces, qualities, laws and realms are also an important part of the collective worldview which may affect and prescribe certain actions. Nonetheless, this is not especially important because relationships with personal beings characterises much of the bread and butter of religious life, and theories which downplay this risk being unwieldy and aloof. One of the great hurdles in attempting to critically theorise religion and to move away from Abrahmocentric conceptions, is to understand that many of the beings which are the subject of religious rituals are not necessarily conceived of as much greater in power or status than human beings. Ancestor or larger Nature Spirits may be conceived of as primus inter pares in relation to their worshippers but may not necessarily represent the ‘summum bonum’ or highest good or value for a culture to which all other things are subordinate: instead this may which may well be something like respect. Religious communities are in many contexts well characterised as a community of persons – only some of whom are human – bound in reciprocal respectful relations.

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About the Author

I am a Religious Studies Postgraduate student at Edinburgh University undertaking a Masters by Research, my topic is the relevance of E.B Tylor for the contemporary theory of religion, defining religion and modern scholars with a ‘Neo-Tylorian’ influence or affinity. I am a native of Edinburgh where I also completed my undergraduate degree  in 2009, producing a dissertation on contemporary Indigenous Australian spirituality and the politics of land rights. Though I began in Politics, and took many Politics and school of Social Science courses, I quickly fell in love with Religious Studies! I enjoy Alternative Rock, Metal and other peculiar forms of music, sci-fi and fantasy literature, real ale and ranting. I hope to pursue an academic career as opposed to the bank for whom I currently work part-time (doing nothing evil!).


Guthrie, S. Faces in the Clouds (1995) OUP: Oxford

Harvey, G. Animism: Respecting the Living World (2005) Hurst & Co: London

Platvoet, J. “To Define or Not To Define” in Platvoet, J.G and Molendijk, A.L The Pragmatics of Defining Religion: Contexts, Concepts and Contests (1999) Leiden: Brill

Stringer, M. Contemporary Western Ethnography and the Definition of Religion (2008) Continuum: London

Tylor, E.B Primitive Culture (1871) London: John Murray