Already used  by  Stahl  in  1707 in  his  work Theoria medica  vera (True Medical Theory) to denote, in  the  medical field, the  theory that identifies the  soul with the  life principle, in anthropology animism refers to  Tylor’s concept of religion, which he expounded in Primitive Culture  (1871).  In   anthropology  the term animism has also been used not to indicate a theory of religion but, more usually, the beliefs concerning the existence of many spiritual beings. Finally, in psychology, animism is conceived by Piaget as a typical concept of the world corresponding to a precise step in children’s cognitive development.

To  remain  in  the  anthropological realm, Tylor’s  opinion  was  that  the  idea  of  soul would have been the starting point for more complex  religious  beliefs.  Animism  would have  arisen  from  reflection  upon  universal experiences such as dreams and death. In particular, the fact that people remain motionless while dreams provide the sensation of acting, moving, and interacting with others, including the  dead, would have suggested to  primitive people  the  existence of  something  surviving death,  a  kind  of  ‘‘double’’ able to  abandon the human body. This is exactly what happens when people sleep. There is a feeling of temporarily leaving the body, only to return to it later.  This  element  is  precisely the  soul  or vital force, which in time came to be regarded as belonging not  only to  human  beings but also to  inanimate objects and  animals. Thus primitive humans in their dreams would have imagined that life does not stop with physical death  but  continues.  This  would  have suggested the  idea of the existence of a parallel world beyond the material one.

If these souls are at first conceived as being attached to material things, the idea that some of  them,  the  spirits,  are  totally  immaterial leads them into what will become for humans the religious sphere. At this stage it is possible to verify a progressive hierarchization and differentiation of  such  spiritual  beings, on  the basis  of  ways that,  starting  from  animism, reach   polytheism   and   finally  monotheism.

This  is to give a purely intellectual explanation for religious beliefs. Religion would be a kind of primitive philosophy. From this point of view, Tylor’s animism is not very different from other theories aiming to find the kind of belief underlying more sophisticated religious forms. Other authors identified it with fetishism  (Comte),  magic  (Frazer),  or  totemism (Durkheim).

The fact that Tylor’s view, in contrast with other  theories,  was  built  on  reflections  on universal   and   immediate   experiences,  like dreams and death, could explain its great success  during  an  age  in  which  evolutionistic images of cultural facts were fashionable. Most of these theories aimed to discover the  most archaic form of religion. The  opposing arguments put forward by others referred not only to this approach, but also to the choice of one or another belief as representative of the most archaic form of religion. The  various theories were more similar than different and the arguments against them always followed the same course. So, in the case of animism too, one of  the first arguments against it consisted in stressing that it was not universal. It was noted that many cultures had no word equivalent to the western idea of the soul. Studies of other peoples showed that  the notion of the soul pre supposed other even simpler notions. So what Tylor considered original was derived.

One of the first authors to stress this kind of  argument   against  animism  was  Marett (1909), who spoke of pre animism. His reflections were based on studies of the Melanesians conducted by Codrington (1891) regarding the notion  of  mana,  an  impersonal power  contained  in  all things.  Among the  other  arguments against animistic theory, a very special place is occupied by that formulated by Durkheim  in  Les Formes e´le´mentaires   de  la  vie religieuse (1912).  He  showed  that  many  of Tylor’s statements were based on presuppositions whose attribution  to the primitive peoples was scarcely probable. But Durkheim also stresses the merits of Tylorian theory, such as that of submitting the soul notion to a historical analysis. With  Tylor  the  notion  of  the soul ceased to be an immediate datum of the conscience, as  it  was in  most  philosophical arguments, becoming rather a subject investigated as a product of mythology and history.

In  spite  of  this  progress  in  the  debate, Durkheim  stressed how it  was anti historical to assign to primitive peoples the idea of soul as  something  completely separate  from  the body,  as  is  the  case  with  the  idea  of  the double. It was also scarcely probable for Durkheim that  the notion of soul as double was originated by the experience of dreams, which would have suggested to primitive people the idea of the existence of a self parallel to the self dwelling in the body. Stressing the relation  that  often  exists  between  dreams  and actual experiences, Durkheim emphasizes that certainoneiric images are only possible on the condition  of  presupposing  the  existence  of religious thought,  and  they  cannot  be  conceived as a cause. Above all, echoing a remark made  by  Jevons  (1896),  Durkheim  stresses how the  belief in  the  double does not  automatically imply the belief in its being sacral, destined to  worship. Finally, to  explain religion as starting from the experience of dreams would be,  notes  Durkheim,  to  trace  it  to  a hallucinatory and  not  a real element. But  it is not evident why this hallucinatory element, and not a real one, connected with life in society, would be at the  basis of the various religious systems.

Although Durkheim  shares with Tylor  the concern  to  find  the  most  archaic  form  of religion,  his  consistent  critique  of  animism yet implies the kind of reflections that, developed afterwards by functionalism, will eventually  diminish  the  interest  in  every debate aiming to  trace  the  presumed  original form taken by religion, leading scholars’ reflections to  more  properly  sociological and  pragmatic problems.


  1. Codrington, H. (1891) The Melanesians: Studies in their  Anthropology and   Folk Lore.   Clarendon Press, Oxford.
  2. Durkheim, E´ . (1912) Les Formes e´le´mentaires  de la vie religieuse. Alcan,
  3. Evans-Pritchard, E. (1965) Theories of Primitive Religion. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
  4. Jevons, B. (1896) An Introduction to the History of Religion. Methuen, London.
  5. Marett,  R.  (1909) The  Threshold of  Religion. Methuen, London.
  6. Tylor,  E.  (1871) Primitive Culture:  Researches into  the  Development   of  Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom. Murray, London.

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