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