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( Latin, Anima, Soul)

Animism is the doctrine or theory of the soul. In current language the term has a twofold signification:
I. PHILOSOPHICAL--the doctrine that the soul is the principle of life in man and in other living things. As applied to man it embodies the essence of spiritualistic as opposed to Materialistic philosophy.
II. ETHNOLOGICAL--a theory proposed in recent years to account for the origin and development of religion. As such it is known as the Soul or Ghost-theory of religion.


For the application of the theory of animism to living things in general, see LIFE. So far as it is specially concerned with man, animism aims at a true knowledge of man's nature and dignity by establishing the existence and nature of the soul, its union with the body, its origin and duration. These problems are at the basis of our conscious existence and underlie all our studies in mental and moral life. The importance of animism today is shown because;

  • its validity as a theory has been questioned;
  • a school has risen which treats psychology without reference to the soul ; hence the attempt at " psychology without a soul ", e.g. Sully, James, Murray, Davis, Kœlpe, Höffding.
  • In establishing the doctrine of animism the general line of reasoning is from effect to cause, from phenomena to their subject or agent. From the acts of mind and of will manifested in individual conscious life, we are forced to admit the existence of their source and principle, which is the human soul ; from the nature of the activity is inferred the nature of the agent. Scholastic philosophy , with Aristotle and the Christian Fathers, vindicates the true dignity of man by proclaiming the soul to be a substantial and spiritual principle endowed with immortality. The soul is a substance because it has the elements of being, potency, stability, and is the subject of modifications--which elements make up the notion of substance. That the soul is a spiritual substance, i.e. immaterial and a spirit, is inferred from its acts of intelligence and of freewill, which are performed without the intrinsic cooperations of the bodily organs. By immortality is understood in general terms the future life of the soul after separation from the body. The chief errors are those which contend;

  • that the soul is not a substance. Thus
    • some writers, e.g. Kant, hold that the soul is not a real, but only a logical, subject;
    • modern Pantheism, seem especially in New England Transcendentalism (e.g. Emerson, Royce) and the Neo-Hegelian school which unifies human and divine consciousness (e.g. Prof. T. H. Green);
    • the school of Associationists (e.g. Hume, Davis, Höffding, Sully), who contend that the soul is only a bundle or group of sensations;
    • those who teach that the soul is only activity, nothing more (Wundt), or "a wave of consciousness " (Morgan);
    • the Agnostic and Positivistic school (e.g. Locke, Spencer, James, Prof. Bowne, Comte), who affirm that the soul is unknown and unknowable, although some among them postulate it as the subject of our conscious states;
    • the materialistic school which denies its existence altogether (e.g. Tyndall, Huxley)
  • That the soul is neither spiritual, nor immortal. Modern Materialism, Positivism, and Agnosticism have tried in every way to establish this thesis. Various theories of knowledge have been proposed, and the discoveries of modern science have been cited in its behalf. Appeal has been taken to psychophysics and to such facts as the localization of function, the correlation of thought to the structure of the brain, and the results of cerebral lesion. Theories of Monism (e.g. the double-aspect theory) and of Parallelism have been advanced to account for the acts of mind and of will. Yet animism as a doctrine of the spiritual soul remains unshattered, and the spiritualistic philosophy is only more strongly entrenched. (Cf. SUBSTANCE, AGNOSTICISM POSITIVISM, MATERIALISM, SOUL, IMMORTALITY, PSYCHOLOGY).

    In this sense animism is the theory proposed by some evolutionists to account for the origin of religion. Evolution assumes that the higher civilized races are the outcome and development from a ruder state. This early stage resembles that of the lowest savages existing today. Their religious belief is known as animism, i.e. belief in spiritual beings, and represents the minimum or rudimentary definition of religion. With this postulate as the groundwork for the philosophy of religion, the development of religious thought can be traced from existing data and therefore admits of scientific treatment. The principle of continuity, which is the basal principle in other departments of knowledge, was thus applied to religion. Comte had given a general outline of this theory in his law of the three states. According to him the conception of the primary mental condition of mankind is a state of "pure fetishism, constantly characterized by the free and direct exercise of our primitive tendency to conceive all external bodies soever, natural or artificial, as animated by a life essentially analogous to our own, with mere difference of intensity". Proposed at a time when evolution was in the ascendency, this opinion fell at once under the dominion of the current conviction. The hope was entertained that by a wider and more complete induction religion might be considered as a purely natural phenomenon and thus at last be placed on a scientific basis.

    The foundation of animism as a theory of religion is the twofold principle of evolution:

  • the anthropological assumption that the savage races give a correct idea of religion in its primitive state;
  • the philosophical assumption that the savage state was the childhood of the race and that the savage mind should be likened to a child (e.g. Lubbock, Tylor, Comte, Tiele, Reville, and Spencer).
  • Hence the evolution of religious thought can be traced from existing data, viz, the beliefs of the lowest savages, and though deeply modified as mankind rises in culture, yet it always preserves an unbroken continuity into the midst of modern civilization. This continuum , or common element, in all religions is animism. The importance of animism in the science of religion is due to Tylor, who represents it as a primitive philosophy supplying at the same time the foundation of all religion. His work entitled "Primitive Culture", first published in 1863, is justly called the "Gospel of Animism". Animism comprehends the doctrine of souls and spirits, but has its starting point in the former. Dreams and visions, apparitions in sleep and at death, are supposed to have revealed to primitive man his soul as distinct from his body. This belief was then transferred to other objects. As the human body was believed to live and act by virtue of its own inhabiting spirit-soul, so the operations of the world seemed to be carried on by other spirits. To the savage mind, animals, plants, and all inanimate things have souls. From this doctrine of souls arises the belief in spirits. Spirits are of the same nature as souls, only separated from bodies--e.g. genii, fairies, demons --and acting in different ways as tutelary guardians, lingering near the tomb or roaming about (Spiritism), or incorporated in certain objects ( Fetishism, Totemism ). They appear to man in a more subtle material form as vapour, or as an image retaining a likeness to the bodily shape; and they are feared by him, so that he tries to control their influence by propitiation and magic ( Shamanism ). Thus unconsciousness, sickness, derangement, trance were explained by the departure of the soul. Among savages and Buddhist Tatars the bringing back of lost souls was a regular part of the sorcerer's profession. The belief prevails among the American Indians that if one wakes a sleeper suddenly he will die, as his vagrant soul may not get back in time. For the savage, as the lowest of men, is supposed to be actuated by the lowest of passions. Hence the fear-theory of religion is essential to animism.

    Animism therefore discovers human life in all moving things. To the savage and to primitive man there is no distinction between the animate and the inanimate. Nature is all alive. Every object is controlled by its own independent spirit. Spirits are seen in the rivers, the lakes, the fountains, the woods, the mountains, the trees, the animals, the flowers, the grass, the birds. Spiritual existences--e.g. elves, gnomes, ghosts, manes, demons, deities --inhabit almost everything, and consequently almost everything is an object of worship. The Milky Way is "the path of the souls leading to the spirit-land"; and the Northern Lights are the dances of the dead warriors and seers in the realms above. The Australians say that the sounds of the wind in the trees are the voices of the ghosts of the dead communing with one another or warning the living of what is to come. The conception of the human soul formed from dreams and visions served as a type on which primitive man framed his ideas of other souls and of spiritual beings from the lowest elf up to the highest god. Thus the gods of the higher religions have been evolved out of the spirits, whether ghosts or not, of the lower religions ; and the belief in ghosts and spirits was produced by the savage's experience of dreams and trances. Here, it is claimed, we have the germ of all religions, although Tylor confesses that it is impossible to trace the process by which the doctrine of souls gave rise to the belief in the great gods. Originally, spirits were the application of human souls to non-human beings; they were not supernatural, but only became so in the course of time. Now, as modern science shows the belief in ghosts or spirits to be a hallucination, the highest and purest religion--being only the elaboration of savage beliefs, to the savage mind reasonable enough--cannot be accepted by the modern mind for the reason that it is not supernatural nor even true. Such in brief is the outline of the theory by which Tylor attempts to explain not only the phenomenon but the whole history and development of religion.

    Tylor's theory expresses two sides of animism, viz., souls and spirits. Spencer attempts to synthesize them into one, viz., souls or ancestor-worship. He agrees with Tylor in the animistic explanation of dreams, diseases, death, madness, idiocy, i.e. as due to spiritual influences; but differs in presenting one solution only; viz., cult of souls or worship of the dead. "The rudimentary form of all religion", he writes, "is the propitiation of dead ancestors", or "ghost propitiation". Hence Spencer denies that the ascription of life to the whole of nature is a primitive thought, or that men ever ascribed to animals, plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena souls of their own. Spencer's theory is known as the "Ghost-theory of Religion" and at the present time is generally discredited even by evolutionists. With Tylor the worship of the dead is an important subdivision of animism; with Spencer it is the one and all of religion. Lippert consistently carries out the theory of Spencer and, instead of animism, uses the word Seelenkult . De la Saussaye says that Lippert pushes his view to an extreme and supports it with rich, but not over-trustworthy, material. Schultze considers fetishism and animism as equally primitive. F.B. Jevons rejects the theory that all gods of earlier races were spirits of dead men deified.

    The animism of Tylor is vague and indefinite. It means the doctrine of spirits in general, and is best expressed by "Animated Nature ". Fetishism is a subordinate department of animism, viz, the doctrine of spirits embodied in, or attached to, or conveying influence through, certain animals or material objects. The animism of Tylor differs little from the naturalism of Reville or the fetishism of De Ia Rialle. It accounts for the belief in immortality and metempsychosis. It thus explains the belief in the passage of souls from men to beasts, and to sticks and stones. It includes tree-worship and plant-worship--e.g. the classic hamadrya, the tree-worship of the South African natives, the rice-feasts held by the Dyaks of Borneo to keep the rice-souls in the plants lest by their departure the crop decay. It is the solution proposed for Manes-worship, for the Lares and the Penates among the Greeks and Romans, where the dead ancestors, passing into deities, go on protecting the family as the dead chief watches over the tribe. In animism Tylor finds an explanation for funeral rites and customs-- feasts of the dead, the human sacrifices of widows in India, of slaves in Borneo ; sending messages to dead chiefs of Dahomey by killing captives taken in war, the slaughtering of the Pawnee's horse and of the Arab's camel at the graves of their masters, placing food and weapons in, or on, the tomb --customs which survive in the practice of burning paper messengers and placing stone, clay, or wooden substitutes on graves in China and Japan.

    The general principles of animism are:

  • in the last analysis it is a biological theory, and attempts to explain all phenomena through analogy with biological phenomena. To the savage, and to primitive man, all moving things lived, and the fancy which created ghosts or souls to account for human life soon extended this explanation to all other external objects.
  • The greater value it attaches to unwritten sources, viz., folk-lore, customs, rites, tales, and superstitions, in comparison with literary sources.
  • That spiritual beings are modelled by man on the primary conception of his own human soul.
  • Their purpose is to explain nature on the primitive, childlike theory that it is thoroughly and throughout animated nature.
  • The conception of the human soul is the source and origin of the conceptions of spirit and deity, from the lowest demon up to Plato's ideas and the highest God of Monotheism.
  • Yet it gives no unified concept of the world, for the spirits which possess, pervade, and crowd nature are individual and independent.
  • It is without ethical thoughts and motives. Thus Tylor holds as proved that religion and morality stand on independent grounds; that, while lower races have a code of morals, yet their religion--animism--is unmoral, and thus the popular idea that the moral government of the universe is an essential tenet of natural religion simply falls to the ground.
  • The followers of Tylor have pushed these principles to an extreme and applied them with more clearness and precision. The present tendency of the anthropological school is to begin with a prereligious stage, from which religious ideas slowly emerged and elaborated themselves. Hence religious life was preceded by a period characterized by an utter absence of religious conceptions. Thus Tiele holds that animism is not a religion, but a sort of primitive philosophy, which not only controls religion, but rules the whole life of man in the childhood of the world. It is a belief that every living thing--i.e. moving thing--is for primitive man animated by a thinking, feeling, willing spirit, differing from the human in degree and power only. Religion did not spring from animism, but its first manifestations are dominated by animism, that being the form of thought natural to primitive man. Pfleiderer teaches that belief in God was formed out of the prehistoric belief in spirits, that these spirits are ancestor-spirits and nature-spirits found everywhere in the primeval period of peoples side by side with one another and passing into each other in various forms of combination without the one being able to be referred to the other, that the prehistoric belief in spirits cannot yet be properly called religion--it only contained the germs of religion. Caspari teaches a pre-animistic period in the family circle and holds that the worship of elders and chieftains was the first religion. Brinton says "the present probability is that in the infancy of the race there was at least no objective expression of religious feeling", and that "there must have been a time in the progress of organic forms from some lower to that highest mammal, man, when he did not have a religious consciousness ; for it is doubtful if even the slightest traces of it can be discerned in the inferior animals". The French school of anthropology is distinguished by its outspoken atheism and materialism. Darwin, Spencer, and Lubbock hold that primitive man had no idea of God. Linguistic analysis, as Baynes clearly proves, shows this to be false. The theory of animism has exerted great influence on the study of religions during the last twenty years. This is shown in the animistic trend of Prof. Maspero's study of the Egyptian religion; in the contention of the late Prof. W. Robertson Smith that the religion and social institutions of the Semites are founded on Totemism ; in the emphasis laid on the animism of the ancient Israelites by Dr. Stade; in the worship of the dead and of ancestors among the Vedic Indians and the Persians ; in the study of soul-worship among the Greeks, by E. Rhode. That this influence was not for good is the opinion of Prof. Brinton, who says that the acceptance of animism as a sufficient explanation of early cults has led to the neglect, in English-speaking lands, of their profounder analysis and scientific study.

    Tylor published the third edition of "Primitive Culture" in 1891, confident of having proved the evolution theory as to the origin of our civilization from a savage condition, the savage belief in souls and spirits as the germs of religion, and the continuity of this belief in its progressive forms of development up to Monotheism. Yet the hope was short-lived. More scientific research and severer criticism have deprived this theory of its former wide influence.

    (1) The assumption that the lowest savages of today give approximately a faithful picture of primitive times is not true. Savages have a past and a long one, even though not recorded. "Nothing in the natural history of man ", writes the Duke of Argyll, "can be more certain than that morally and intellectually and physically he can and often does sink from a higher to a lower level". Max Müller assures us that "if there is one thing which a comparative study of religions places in the clearest light, it is the inevitable decay to which every religion is exposed. . . . Whenever we can trace back a religion to its first beginnings, we find it free from many blemishes that affected it in its later states". Even Tylor admits that animism is everywhere found with the worship of a great God. Brinton holds that the resemblance of the savage mind to that of the child is superficial and likens the savage to the uncultivated and ignorant adult among ourselves.

    (2) It is opposed by the Philological and Mythological schools. Thus Max Müller explains much in animism by superstition, a poetical conception of nature, and especially by personification. He says that inanimate objects were conceived as active powers and as such were described as agents by a necessity of language, without, however, predicating life or soul of them; for human language knows at first no agents except human agents. Hence animism was a stage of thought reached slowly, and not by sudden impulses. "What is classed as animism in ancient Aryan mythology", he writes, "is often no more than a poetical conception of nature which enables the poet to address sun, moon, rivers and trees as if they could hear and understand his words." The same truth finds abundant illustration in the Psalms. "Sometimes, however," he adds, "what is called animism is a superstition which, after having recognized agents in sun, moon, rivers and trees, postulates on the strength of analogy the existence of agents or spirits dwelling in other parts of nature also, haunting our houses, bringing misfortunes upon us, though sometimes conferring blessings. These ghosts are often mixed up with the ghosts of the departed and form a large chapter in the history of ancient superstition." The ghost, or ancestor, theory received a fatal blow from Lang's "Making of a Religion", where it is shown that the belief of the most primitive savages is in a High God, Supreme God , and Moral God. Lang thus confutes Tylor's contentions:

    • that man could not have possibly started with a belief in a Supreme Being;
    • that religion and morality must have separate origins.
    Even in China, where ancestor-worship prevails, we find it distinct from the worship of gods, and there is no trace of an ancestor having ever become a god. Again, soul-worship and ancestor-worship are not identical, and with many tribes much attention is paid to conciliating the souls of the dead where ancestor-worship is unknown. Brinton holds the former to be older and more general. The aim is to get rid of the soul, to put it to rest, or send it on its journey to a better land, lest it trouble the survivors. Karl Mullenhöff maintains that folk-lore has no independent value and as a source of mythology is of only secondary importance.

    (3) Animism is not the sole and chief source of religion. De la Saussaye says that the belief of the early Teutons consisted only to a small extent of animistic ideas concerning souls and spirits. Prof. F. B. Gummere teaches that in Teutonic mythology animism has not succeeded in annexing nature-mythology. F. B. Jevons holds that the religious idea is no part of animism pure and simple, and to make the personal agents of animism into supernatural agents or divine powers there must be added some idea which is not contained in animism, and that idea is a specifically religious idea, one which is apprehended directly or intuitively by the religious consciousness. E. Mogk, whose inclinations lean to Tylor, is yet constrained by a scientific mind to recognize nature-worship and the great gods as original; and he warns the student of Teutonic mythology that he must not allow himself to be seduced into disregarding the fact that the worship of the God of Heaven is one of the most original elements of the Teutonic belief. De la Saussaye and Pfleiderer hold that the supposition according to which every conception of an object--e.g. tree, sun, moon, clouds, thunder, earth, heaven --as a living being has an animistic character is undemonstrable and improbable. They show from Teutonic mythology that the power and beneficent influence of these objects of nature and their symbolic conception belong to another sphere of ideas and sentiments than that of animism.

    (4) Prof. W. Robertson Smith and Prof. Frazer conclusively prove that the animistic religion of fear was neither universal nor primitive. According to Prof. Frazer, the primitive reason of sacrifice was communion with God. Even worship of the dead cannot be entirely explained animistically as the cult of souls. Animistic conceptions may enter into the worship of ancestors and heroes; but other ideas are so essential that they cannot be regarded merely as modifications of soul-worship.

    (5) It is not primitive nor specific. Prof. Brinton says, "There is no special form of religious thought which expresses itself as what has been called by Dr. Tylor Animism, i.e. the belief that inanimate objects are animated and possess souls or spirits." This opinion, which in one guise or another is common to all religions and many philosophies, "is merely a secondary phenomenon of the religious sentiment, not a trait characteristic of primitive faiths". De la Saussaye holds that animism is always and everywhere mixed up with religion; it is nowhere the whole of religion. Cf. ANTHROPOLOGY, MYTHOLOGY, EVOLUTION, TOTEMISM, SHAMANISM, FETISHISM, RELIGION, SPIRITISM.

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