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Rethinking Animism: Thoughts from the Infancy of Our Discipline

Author(s): Martin D. Stringer


Source: The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Dec., 1999), pp. 541555
Published by: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2661147 .
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RETHINKING ANIMISM: THOUGHTS FROM THE


INFANCY OF OUR DISCIPLINE
MARTIN D. STRINGER
Universityof Birmingham

Here I look at E.B. Tylor's classic work Primitiveculture,particularly that aspect that deals with
animism. I discuss several of the critiques of animism, showing how most of them have
actually misread Tylor's original intentions in relation to his supposed 'theory of origins' and
his understanding of 'spirit', among other things. Then, by focusing on Tylor's theory of
myth and the process by which he constructs his argument concerning animism, I provide a
re-reading that focuses on discourse and layers of religious practice within individual
societies. Finally, I indicate how this re-reading of Tylor relates to contemporary writing on
animism and modern religions.

Last spring I decided to read the two volumes of E.B. Tylor's classic Primitive
culture(1871). Much to my surprise, I found myself reading a very sensitive,
sophisticated, intellectually complex text written by a scholar whose ideas
seemed to bear very little relation to my popular conception of his writing. This
led me to look at Tylor's other writing (Tylor 1866; 1870; 1881; 1892) and at the
development of the critical literature surrounding his work. My own particular
interest relates to Tylor's theories of religion, in particular his emphasis on
'animism'. I was not convinced that this concept could be dismissed quite as
readily as many subsequent writers have suggested. Here I have chosen to
concentrate on this particularstrand of Tylor's thought. I will begin by looking at
the different layers of criticism aimed at the concept of animism within the
anthropological literature;then I will look at what Tylor's wider work on religion
might have to offer to the contemporary scholar.
Meeting the criticism
When we come to look at the critique of Tylor's work on animism, we find that
it comes in various layers. The first layer concerns the more general criticism of
Tylor's thought on culture, evolution and survivals. None of these touches
directly on the question of animism. All of them, however, define Tylor's wider
thought, and an attack on Tylor's understanding of evolution, for example,
would make a clear difference to the way in which we understand his ideas about
the development of animism through the different stages of culture.
We cannot, therefore, ignore Tylor's evolutionism, his patronizing primitivism, his idea of culture or his theory of survivals. These are the things people
J. Roy.anthrop.
Inst.(N.S.) 5, 541-556

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remember him for. We can, however, acknowledge that all these things are a
product of his context as a writer on social phenomena late in the nineteenth
century, and that at least three of them play only a very minor part in his writing
on religion. Tylor works within an evolutionary framework. He talks constantly
about 'progress', he associates 'primitives' or 'savages'with 'children', and he has
a basic understanding of time being mapped geographically onto the known
societies of the world (cf Fabian 1983). He is not, however, a great supporter of
the contemporary status quo: he ends the book by saying that 'the science of
culture is essentially a reformers' science' (1871: II, 410).
Tylor is far more sympathetic to the 'savages'he discusses (and far more critical
of other ethnographers, and even the colonial context) than many of his contemporaries (cf Lienhardt 1969: 85). He refuses to speculate about a pre-savage,
'animalistic', state. He is keen to emphasize that the human mind is the same
throughout the world irrespective of the stage of social evolution reached by any
one society. In his discussion of language, for example, he maintains that, in
terms of complexity, there is nothing to distinguish the language of the savage
from that of civilized societies, except for a more specialized vocabulary. The
principal distinction, for Tylor, appears to be one of education, which he equates
with progress in many different ways.' Education, therefore, is Tylor's model for
social evolution, the acquiring of knowledge and of ever more sophisticated ways
of dealing with that knowledge by humanity as a whole. As Ingold (1986: 94)
says, Tylor 'regarded the mind [not of the 'individual' but of 'mankind' (Ingold
1986: 47)] as an active and creative movement, endlessly borne along by generation after generation of individuals'. It is for this reason that the science of
culture is a reformer's science. It is forward-looking and potentially revolutionary.
This brings us to the subject of culture. Tylor borrowed the term 'from his
readings in German "culture-history"' (Lienhardt 1969: 88). It is Tylor's own redefinition of the term, however, which is most often quoted at the beginning of
modern discussions. Tylor uses the term 'culture' primarily to avoid a discussion
of race (1871: I, 6). There is, however, no clear sense of what this concept
contains. Tylor's own list of 'capabilities and habits' which opens Primitiveculture
is purely exemplary and could be expanded indefinitely (1871: I, 1). Ingold
(1986: 34 sqq.) notes that Tylor always uses the concept of culture in the singular
and that he must, therefore, be talking about the culture of humanity as a whole;
a single cable made up of many different strands which unites the whole history
and development of the race. There is certainly strong evidence for this holistic
view. However, we must also acknowledge that Tylor uses 'culture' as the basis
for his comparative analysis. While those things that are compared are essentially
the distinct strands of Ingold's culture, at different places along the cable, each
society is also seen as being a distinct whole with a culture of its own. Ingold
claims that Lowie distorted Tylor's holistic view of 'culture', and introduces the
concept of 'cultures' (1986: 46). I would argue, however, that, in practical application at least, this understanding of cultures is already present in Tylor's work.
Finally, therefore, we have 'survivals'. This is the concept that will be forever
linked with Tylor's name. Survivals are the consequence of a logical line of
thought from evolution, and Tylor's particular understanding of culture. If
culture is a unified whole that is progressing at a regular pace, then those
elements which appear in 'later' cultures but which should not, by other criteria,

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543

be there, can be defined as 'survivals'. Survivals, however, are not simply a


logically necessary element of the wider framework; they are also an integral part
of the analysis. It is through survivals, Tylor suggests (but does not actually
develop), that we can see what was going on at an earlier stage in the process. It
is in these terms that folklorists (and others, including modern pagans) have
taken up and used the concept, treating Tylor in the process as something like a
'household god' (Dorson 1968: 196).2
A 'theoryof origins'?
Having put these wider issues to one side, we can now come to the second layer
of criticism, the theory of animism in itself The first question to clear up
concerns the commonly quoted assertion that Tylor coined the term 'animism'.
This is not strictly true. Animism is not the term that Tylor himself would have
chosen. He preferred 'spiritualism', but this was already being used to define a
particular religious group, for whom Tylor had very little sympathy (1871: I,
385). Tylor comments that 'Animism is not a new technical term' and a footnote
explains that 'the term has been especially used to denote the doctrine of Stahl.
The Animism of Stahl is a revival and development in modern scientific shape of
the classic theory identifying vital principle and soul' (1871: I, 384-5).3
Animism', therefore, does have some appeal to Tylor, especially in its connexion
with the soul. The understanding of spiritualism, however, is always hovering in
the background and Tylor argues that animism must be seen to be divided into
'two great dogmas, forming parts of one consistent doctrine', the belief in souls
and the belief in spirits (1871: I, 385). As we shall see, this double identity and
the confusions that it can create have led to a number of serious misreadings of
Tylor's work.
Before we come to look at the precise content that Tylor gives to 'animism', we
need to explore a preliminary question, that of origins. Every writer, from Lang
and Marett to contemporary commentators, assumes that the core of Tylor's
writing on animism is a 'theory of origins'.4 It is this supposed 'theory of origins'
which is then subject to criticism, primarily through a discussion of its logical
coherency. The question we need to ask, however, is whether animism and the
linking of souls to the experience of dreams, as seen by Tylor, is a 'theory of
origins' in any but the loosest of senses. To do this we need to take a step back
and look at the internal logic of Tylor's argument, and then compare this to the
supposed logic of the arguments that are criticized by subsequent writers.
In order to do this I want to look briefly at Lowie's discussion of Durkheim's
critique of the 'theory of origins' (1936: 108-14). In The elementaryforms
of religious
life, Durkheim picks up the link that Tylor makes between dreams and the
concept of the soul. He states that 'to have been able to thrust itself upon men
with a kind of necessity, this idea would have to have been the only possible
hypothesis, or at least the simplest' (1995: 53). Durkheim then goes on to explore
other, 'simpler' explanations of dreams, and dreams for which the 'idea of
double' would not be valid. In doing this, Lowie suggests, 'Durkheim misses the
point of departure for Tylor's investigation by ... inverting the problem' (1936:
111). 'The question', Lowie argues, 'is not to show how the savage might in
simple fashion explain his dream life but how the empirically noted idea of a
double could arise' (1936: 111). In other words, Tylor is beginningwith empirical

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data and looking for some plausible explanation of these data, while Durkheim is
assuming that Tylor is building a hypothesis out of first principles through a
logical development from dreams to souls. To put this another way, following
Skorupski's (1976: 21) discussion of Leach's criticism of Neo-Tylorianism,
irrational beliefs cannot be presented as rational, but it is possible 'to explain
irrationalbeliefs rationally'. All those who attempt to criticize Tylor's animism as
a 'theory of origins' face this problem in one form or another.
Evans-Pritchard, for example, falls into exactly the same trap in his own
summary of Tylor's supposed 'theory of origins'. 'Primitive man's reflection on
such experiences as death, disease, trances, visions, and above all dreams', EvansPritchard claims, 'led him to the conclusion that they are to be accounted for by
the presence or absence of some immaterial entity, the soul' (1965: 25). Here,
again, the direction of the theory is presented as if it were a logical deduction
from 'death, disease, trances, visions and ... dreams' to 'the soul' on the part of
'primitive man'. This leads directly to Evans-Pritchard's famous critique: 'The
theory has the quality of ajust-so story like "how the leopard got its spots"' (1965:
25), or as he says of Spencer, 'it is a fine example of the introspectionist psychologist's, or "if I were a horse", fallacy' (1965: 24). For Tylor himself, however, it is
no such thing. He has a mass of data about the existence of the soul, which he
goes to some length to prove is universal in human culture. He then looks for
some means by which this concept of a soul could be explained in a rational
fashion (1871: I, 380). Dreams, trances, visions and the like offer one possible
way of doing this. As Lewis says, 'Tylor's interpretation is, up to point, good horse
sense' (1986: 15). In no sense, however, is Tylor constructing a 'theoryof origins'.
Even if we grant that Tylor is not constructing a 'theory' of origins, we still
have to acknowledge that he is offering a 'plausible explanation' in terms of
origins. This, however, is probably to take his words too literally.Tylor, like many
of his critics, goes to some lengths to explain that we could never discover the
true origins of any religious idea; such origins come from a period of human
history to which we have no possible access (cf Marett 1914: 7). Any theory of
origins, therefore, is bound to be guesswork and should always be treated as such.
What Tylor was looking for was not 'origins' in this definitive sense, but rather a
reasonable explanation for the 'facts' that he lays out at such great length. The
dream theory offered one possible, and very plausible, explanation. This is
reinforced by the passage from the second edition of Primitive culturethat is
quoted by Lessa and Vogt in their Readerin comparativereligion(1979). Having
given the 'theory of origins' explanation for the passage in their introduction, the
editors then provide the classic passage from Chapter 11, the most important
section of which reads:
It seems as though thinkingmen, as yet at a low level of culture,were deeply impressedby
two groups of biologicalproblems.In the first place, what is it that makes the difference
between a living body and a dead one; what causeswaking,sleep, trance,disease,death?In
the secondplace,whatarethose humanshapeswhich appearin dreamsandvisions?Looking
at these two groupsof phenomena,the ancientsavagephilosophersprobablymadetheirfirst
step by the obvious inferencethateveryman has two thingsbelongingto him, namely,a life
and a phantom(Lessa& Vogt 1979:11-12, emphasisadded).5

The words 'it seems as though' and 'probably' give a very different feel to this
passage from the bold statement of the 'theory of origins' as presented by Tylor's
critics.

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The same argument can, in principle, be used to discuss the second half of
Tylor's supposed theory, that of the development of the idea of the soul-spirit
through the different layers of culture. The principal criticism of this theory
which is offered is that there is no mechanism in Tylor's work by which the idea
of a soul can be transformed into that of an ancestor, for example, or how the idea
of an ancestor can develop into the idea of a god, and so on. What is being
presented is essentially a descriptive account. This leads Tambiah to state that 'the
scheme ... has only an illusory magnificence, without hinges to support the
edifice' (1990: 48). Again, this criticism misunderstands what Tylor is trying to
do. For Tylor, the theory is descriptive. 'What matters is the fact that all the
different elements of religious belief, at all levels of culture, are of the same kind,
each being suggested by the other but without any necessary causal connexion
between them. 'All that is hypothesised ... is the sequence in which they are
supposed to have arisen one out of another' (1866: I, 85). What matters for Tylor,
therefore, is that the same thought process underlies the whole edifice, and his
primary interest is in the thought process rather than the edifice itself 'Animism
in Tylor's account', says Byrne, 'is the key to understanding the manifold beliefs
and practices now extant and is the hidden unity beneath that manifold' (1991:
17).

Animism,soulsandspiritualbeings
Tylor's work on animism, therefore, is not a theory of origins. It is a 'plausible
explanation' that most early commentators appeared to accept in those terms
(Morris 1987: 101). There is, however, one further question related to animism
that still needs to be explored. This forms the basis for the third layer of criticism
which Tylor faces, and is concerned with the actual content of the thesis: what
exactly is this 'soul' that is being talked about? Alternatively, taking Tylor's
minimum definition of religion, the 'belief in Spiritual Beings' (1871: I, 383),
what does Tylor mean by 'Spiritual Beings', or even by 'belief'?
Tylor himself is notoriously vague on these kinds of questions and, I argue,
deliberately so (1871: I, 383). Other writers, however, want to nail him down,
and want to be far more precise in their own definitions. In the same way that
writers constructed a 'theory of origins' out of Tylor's 'plausible explanation' and
then proceeded to critique it, so the same writers define what they mean by 'soul'
or 'spiritual beings' and then proceed to critique this secondary definition.
Lowie, for example, uses an unspecified dictionary to define 'spiritual' (1936: 99).
Durkheim follows his statement of Tylor's definition with the qualifier,
"'Spiritual beings" must be understood to mean conscious subjects that have
capacities superior to those of ordinary men' (1995: 27). Tylor never offers
anything like a clear definition, and while he talks at times of'phantoms', at other
times of 'spirits', of souls that are 'vaporous and immaterial' and so on, he never
actually offers one master definition. The definition of the concept must, like
that of culture, be derived from the use to which he puts it, and in this sense it
must cover everything from the basic soul to the highest of High Gods. Whatever
this 'spiritual' thing is, it is that which all these entities have in common.
By ignoring the vagueness of the terminology in Tylor's work, various authors
have offered criticisms that in many cases Tylor has already dealt with.
Durkheim, for example, raises the problem of Buddhism and Jainism, as being

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religions without 'spiritual beings'. This is despite the fact that Tylor recognizes
the problem and deals with it succinctly. Durkheim does not include the concept
of the human soul within his particular definition of spiritual beings. Tylor
clearly does, and Buddhism could not function without an understanding of the
transmigration of souls (Tylor 1871: II, 10). Lowie raises what might be defined
as the opposite problem, that of dwarfs. These, Lowie argues, are not spiritual at
all, but decidedly material. Among the Crow, for example, the dwarf 'has all the
earmarks of robust non-natural anthropomorphism, he belongs as it were to a
distinct and powerful, though stunted, branch of the family Hominidae,
localised near Pryor Creek' (1936: 123). Tylor's comment on this would be
twofold. First, he would probably place such dwarfs alongside giants as the result
of so-called 'myths of observation', a process of explaining the presence of large
(or small) fossil bones and therefore a part of the supposed natural environment
and not an element of religion at all (1870: 313 sqq.). Or, if dwarfs are treated as
the focus for religious devotion, then Tylor would stress the 'non-natural'
element of Lowie's definition and equate this with the spirit-soul while playing
down the 'thin unsubstantial image' which Lowie quotes from Tylor to define
the 'spiritual'.
This raises the question of what value concepts such as the 'spiritual' or the
'soul' have if they can mean whatever Tylor wants them to mean at any particular
time. In answering this we need to acknowledge another aspect of the thesis, that
animism is seen by Tylor as a 'primitive philosophy', a prerequisite for religion,
and not as a religion in itself. Some authors clearly use this distinction as the basis
for their own critique, arguing that if animism is not a religion then we should
not treat it as a religion and consequently that it has no value to the student of
religion. This is not very helpful. To define animism as a religion is to place the
emphasis once again on the focus for that religion, that is spirits and souls, and
this brings us straight back to the definitional problem. To treat it simply as a way
of thinking, as a primitive philosophy, is to make the definitional problem irrelevant. VWhatis important for Tylor is that people think in terms of entities that are
beyond empirical study (for which Tylor uses the shorthand of 'Spiritual Beings')
and subsequently modify their behaviour in such a way as to take these nonempirical entities into account.6 The exact form of such non-empirical entities is
irrelevant to the mode of thought, although essential to the understanding of any
particular case. VWhatis important is that they exist for the thinker. The problem
Tylor has is the age-old problem of talking about these entities, and related
phenomena, in a religiously neutral way. Tylor does not try to do this very consistently, which is unfortunate. He tends to solve the problem through an excess of
terminology and a subsequent confusion of terms, while others have tried to be
more precise. However, as Klass (1995) has shown, the question of definitions
will never go away entirely.
Another, related, question picks up from this point. If animism is essentially a
mode of thought that accepts the existence of non-empirical entities, of whatever
kind, and seeks to act accordingly, does this not put 'belief' and the intellectual
faculty at the heart of religion? 'What happens, Marett asks, if religion is not
concerned with thought or belief at all, but is founded on a vague notion of preanimistic awe? 'Whathappens, according to Robertson-Smith, if religion is essentially about ritual action, and that any thought about such action can only provide
a post-hocjustification for that action? 'What happens, in Marett's words, if

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religion 'is something not so much thought out as danced out' (1914: xxxi)? This
is a tricky question and one that has dominated discussions within the anthropology of religion from Tylor, Robertson-Smith, Marett and so on to the present
day.What these questions represent are three distinct theories of religion - intellectual, emotional or ritual - and it will depend on which theory writers hold as
to which they will pursue. In reality, all religious activity involves all three
elements, but even to say this only raises the question of priority. There is no
obvious answer to this except to say that whatever answer we come to we must
not, as anthropology has tended to do, stress any one element at the expense of
the others. Anthropology still needs an adequate theory of belief, and with his
emphasis on thought processes, Tylor, I suggest, might offer us one possibility for
developing such a theory.
The final criticism that I wish to deal with in this section is Lang's. For much
of his The makingof religion(1898), Lang emphasizes the importance of trances,
hallucinations and other extra-sensory perceptions in reinforcing Tylor's
supposed 'theory of origins'. He argues that there should be more 'scientific'
study of such phenomena, and that the possible 'truth' of such experiences must
always be acknowledged (1898: 121). In the rest of the book, Lang argues a
different case. Here the question is one of chronology. Was the 'soul' the first
stage in the development of religion, and did the concept of the soul lead to that
of ghosts, ghosts to ancestors, ancestors to gods, and gods to God? The first
question concerns the definitional problem that I have already discussed; are
gods of the same 'kind' as other spiritual beings, particularly souls (Lang 1898:
176)? As we have seen, Tylor would claim that they are. The second criticism
concerns the supposed fact, as stated by Lang, that moralistic High Gods are
found even among the most primitive of tribes and should therefore be seen as
being as 'original' as souls. Lang claims to provide 'conclusive' evidence for High
Gods among primitive tribes (1898: 177 sqq.). Tylor does not dismiss this
evidence entirely, but he does raise a number of questions about the nature and
origin of these High Gods among primitive tribes that Lang tries to challenge.
Tylor questions, for example, the implied 'morality' of these High Gods, which
for him is a product of higher levels of culture. He also asks whether such High
Gods might not have derived from missionaries and other Western travellers
rather than being intrinsic to the primitive tribe itself
Lang argues that the primitive High Gods pre-date the missionaries and he
provides evidence to 'prove' it. He appears to be unaware, however, of a paper
given to the Anthropological Institute by Tylor and published in theirJournal of
1892. This paper consists of a very detailed reading of a number of cases for
primitive High Gods among American Indian and Aboriginal peoples. Through
a careful analysis of the sources, and an awareness of the comparative chronology
of these texts, Tylor shows that, at least in the cases quoted, High Gods are the
product either of Western travellers reading their own ideas into the thoughts of
the locals, or of direct influence from missionaries and others. 'The historical
evidence that the Great Spirit belongs not to the untutored but to the tutored
mind of the savage', Tylor claims, 'is preserved for us in the records of the tutors
themselves, the Jesuit missionaries in Canada' (1892: 284). This is a very tightly
argued paper which, while not being conclusive (it does not deal with the African
High Gods for example), is dealing with historical time (and not the evolutionist's time scale of primitive v. civilized) and is dealing with actual records and

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first-hand accounts. This kind of very close reading of the texts should go a long
way to challenge many of our own prejudices about the lack of adequate data
available to nineteenth-century writers, and Tylor's paper should be much more
widely known. Apart from anything else, its presence means that we need to go
back and review Lang's own evidence very carefully indeed.7
A processof reconstruction
Having removed some of the red herrings in Tylor's argument we now need to
ask what theory of religion he is presenting. The first point is to restate that this
is not, as almost every writer seems to suggest, a 'theory of origins'. Tylor is not
interested in how religion originated. What he is interested in is the more general
question of why so many people around the world appear to believe in things
which do not make immediate rational sense to the Victorian scientific mind. It
is the logic by which religion works which is of primary concern for Tylor. In the
remainder of this article, therefore, I want to highlight two aspects of Tylor's
work that I feel could form the basis for a reconstruction of 'animism'.
The first area that I wish to highlight is that of myth. No anthropologist that I
have read has ever commented on Tylor's theory of mythology, although it was
taken up, developed and criticized by folklorists (Dorson 1968: 187 sqq.). The
theory of myth, however, underlies Tylor's understanding of animism, and,
given Tylor's own tendency to begin his arguments with a discussion of language,
it is arguable that a right understanding of myth is, for Tylor, necessary for a right
understanding of religion. As with many other elements of his work, Tylor does
not define myth too narrowly. Dorson comments that Tylor 'placed mythical
narratives on a spectrum running from the historically valid to the purely
inventive' (1968: 188). Tylor, however, is not interested in the content of myths.'
He argues that myths do have a meaning and a historical importance, but only as
a record of beliefs and ideas from earlier stages of culture. It is the structure of
the human mind that is revealed in myth, and this, for Tylor, can only be
discovered through the comparative method.9
Myths, according to Tylor, begin with experience; that is, with nature and the
animation of nature as held by those who believe (1871: I, 248). The sun and
moon, for example, are generally seen as animate, as are stars, waterspouts,
rainbows, disease, death and so on. This is not simply metaphor for Tylor. It is an
a prioriview of the world, 'a philosophy of the nature of things' (1866: 81). Tylor
does accept MuAller'sdefinition of myth as a 'disease of language', at least in part.
He focuses, for example, on the role of gender in language, both in terms of male
and female (as applied to inanimate objects) and in those languages where there
is a further distinction between animate and inanimate genders (with sun, moon,
stars, etc, being in the animate category). The process of categorization
embedded in language (winter v. summer, night v. day, etc.) makes such personification not only possible but also plausible. Myth, however, is not derived from
language (contraMuller): for Tylor the experience always comes first (1871: I,
271).
Tylor argues that poets are best placed in contemporary society to understand
primitive myth. The principles of both are much the same, particularly the way
in which they each use and develop language. The only real distinction between
the myth teller and the poet is that the former believes what he is recounting is

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true and the latter knows it is metaphor (1866: 82). Tylor also talks about ecstasy
and trance states as they relate to myth, and notes the important point that the
person in an ecstatic state always sees what society has already defined as myth.
Myth cannot, therefore, be based on the visions of the mystic (1871: I, 277). He
stresses this point by emphasizing that it is the transmission of fantasy from
person to person that makes the fantasy real and this, in its turn, enables society
as a whole to 'see' the metaphor implicit in myth as real (1871: I, 277-8). o
Myth, for Tylor, is a form of discourse, a way of talking about the world that
aims to make sense of that world. Myth is only accessible to contemporary
scholars because of poetry. For Tylor, therefore, the mid-nineteenth century was
the best possible time to study religion. While there were still poets, scholars
could at least grasp what was happening in myth. However, society had
progressed far enough away from the mythic to see beyond the discourse and
understand exactly what was going on (Tylor 1871: I, 286). Tylor is constantly
stating that religion is framed within a mythic discourse (although he would not
have used the word 'discourse'). What is more, he felt that it was necessary to
discuss myth before talking about religion. He seems to be suggesting, therefore,
that it is impossible to understand the language of the non-empirical without
first moving into mythic discourse, which is that discourse which makes the
presence of the non-empirical a reality.
In doing this, Tylor is constructing religion as a discourse, a way of talking
about the world in which different rules apply.This is common in contemporary
thinking. We have got used to the idea. However, it is still interesting to see Tylor
trying to struggle with the same idea over one hundred years ago.1'Tylor does not
want to fall into the trap of Muller and say that religion is simply a 'disease of
language'. Religion is not 'language' in a strict sense; it is 'discourse'. It is selfcontained. It demands a switch of thought world, a switch which we still
experience in poetry and which we canjust about grasp, a switch which demands
its own logic and its own rationality. Unfortunately for Tylor, he does not have
the analytical tools available to explore this kind of discourse. It would have been
fascinating to see what he might do with it if he could.
Having looked at myth, I now wish to explore the better-known argument by
which Tylor builds up, through a logical progression from simple ideas to issues
that are increasingly complex, the structure of animism. Tambiah describes
Tylor's 'scientific method' as 'the sorting of phenomena into "species"-like
grouping, and then arranging these social species in levels or grades' (1990: 44).
A number of authors have commented on the sheer number of facts quoted in
Tylor's work. Lowie, for example, says that in 'turning from the psychological to
the chronological aspects of Tylor's scheme, I must confess that it is not in all
details perfectly clear to me, for the overwhelming mass of concrete illustrations
is leavened by a minimum of logical correlation' (1936: 118). Jordan complains
that Tylor's argument is actually too complex to be true to nature (1905: 263). I
would argue, however, that it is this very complexity, this overwhelming mass of
concrete illustration, which allows us to rework Tylor's material in a new and
interesting fashion.
At first sight, Tylor's argument looks to be an evolutionary process, and Tylor
clearly understands it in this way. Each chapter, for example, or each argument
within a chapter, begins with simple instances of a phenomenon, illustrated
primarily by examples from 'savage societies'. Tylor then shows how the same

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principle develops through different layers to more complex forms, with illustrations of the higher or more complex phenomena taken primarily from
civilized societies. The whole structure is developmental and is mapped onto a
pre-conceived evolutionary model. One element of all these arguments,
however, undermines their evolutionary framework and this needs to be
explored in more detail.
While Tylor generally uses examples from savage societies in the earlier stages
of his arguments, and examples from civilized societies in the later stages, his
insistence on providing an excess of data cannot help highlighting anomalies. So
we find, for example, that ghosts are found in civilized societies (usually seen by
the uneducated, although not always, as with Spiritualists and others) and that
the idea of a High God is present in many of the so-called savage societies of the
world (with the provisos that I have already explained above). In other words,
while the form of the argument may suggest an evolutionary framework, the
facts that he is presenting, the concrete illustrations, are clearly undermining the
central principles of this framework. For every phenomenon on these developing
progressions there are examples from primitive societies, there are examples
from barbarian societies and there are examples from civilized and modern
societies. The primary emphasis in each society may be on one particular
element, whether ancestor worship, polytheism, nature spirits or whatever. What
is clear, however, is that all the other kinds of phenomena also appear to be
present in the same society, even if they only exist in sub-sections of the society
or at different levels of the same society, such as between the family and the wider
political system.
In late Victorian Britain, the main emphasis may be on monotheistic ethical
religion, but ancestor-worship and polytheistic gods are also found in, for
example, the cults of the saints. Some people believe in ghosts and local nature
spirits, and healing is understood in certain parts of the country as the departing
of a spirit from the body.12 All these religious elements exist together in some
kind of complex, if not very coherent, whole. However, by taking each element
one at a time and by exploring some kind of supposed progression between them,
Tylor fails entirely to notice the form of the complex whole that he is actually
describing. This is just as true of many of Tylor's so-called savage societies as it is
for Victorian Britain. There may be ancestor cults, spirit beings, fetishes and
High Gods all existing simultaneously in the account, but unconnected in any
continuous description.
Tylor, however, cannot be blamed entirely for failing to recognize this basic
principle. Very few anthropologists have ever fully acknowledged such facts.
Evans-Pritchard, for example, attempted to make sense of this same complexity
in his famous study of Nuer religion(1976). In order to do this, however, he had
to develop the spurious theological notion of 'refraction' that allowed him to
contain all the different levels of Nuer religion, from fetishes and local nature
spirits, through the spirits of the below and the spirits of the above, up to Kwoth,
the High God who is beyond contact and comprehension, in one theoretical
frame. What becomes clear, however, if Tylor's work is read in a non-chronological fashion, is that all these levels exist simultaneously throughout the world.
However, in no specific situation (even, we must assume, that of the Nuer) are
these different levels adequately integrated into some kind of religious whole.
If we relate what Tylor was saying about myth to the kind of argument that I

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551

havejust presented, then it becomes clear not only that there are different layers
of religion within any one social context, but that these represent different layers
of religious discourse. These discourses may be cross-cutting and contradictory,
they are probably situational (that is they serve the purpose of the moment;
Stringer 1996), but we should not expect them to come together into one distinct
'religious' discourse. All that finally relates these discourses is that they concern
that which is 'spiritual', that which is 'non-empirical'. They share the thought
processes of 'animism'. This may well undermine the very notion of 'religion',
but it does, I think, express the real situation far more satisfactorily than many of
the theories that we have been developing, and it needs to be explored further
through ethnographic study.
Conclusion
By way of conclusion, I wish to reflect on the way in which this reinterpretation
of the work of Tylor has any relevance for the contemporary study of religion
with anthropology. The first and most obvious place to look would be in recent
writing on the nature of animism. While those who work within comparative
religion have maintained the term as a designation for a particular kind of
religion, anthropologists, until very recently, have largely ignored the term itself
This is presumably because of its associations with 'primitivism', which comes
directly from the critical discussion of Tylor's works.
Fairly recently, however, various books and articles have been written which
have attempted to rehabilitate the term, ostensibly by going back to its roots, that
is by turning back to Tylor. Each of these attempts has picked up certain elements
of the concept without really engaging with the full complexity and ambiguity
that I have shown to surround Tylor's own thinking. Guthrie (1993), for
example, simply picks up the idea that animism is thought to be the process of
giving personality to non-human objects and talks in terms of anthropomorphism. This, Guthrie argues, sits at the heart of all religion. There are two fundamental mistakes in this analysis, however, when seen from a Tylorian perspective.
First, the assumption that animism can be reduced only to those non-empirical
entities that appear to have personality or other 'human' attributes cannot be
supported by Tylor's writings. As part of his complex classification of nonempirical entities that could be covered by the basic thought process underlying
animism, Tylor would also want to include entirely impersonal forces, such as
those associated with fetishes. While Guthrie may argue that to relate to anything
as if it contained some kind of force is to anthropomorphize it, I think that this
tends to stretch the point too far. Secondly, Guthrie is explicitly trying to
construct a theory of origins (1993: 62 sqq.). His theory of origins is different,
even from that imputed to Tylor, but it suffers from exactly the same kind of 'if I
were a horse' nature that Tylor's theory is supposed to have. In other words, all
the critiques which have traditionally been thrown at Tylor can easily be
redirected at Guthrie and, what is more, they can probably stick.
A more sophisticated form of a very similar argument is found in a recent
paper by Bird-David (1999). Bird-David does not attempt in any way to account
for the origins of religion. Her concern is entirely with the ethnographic reality
of a number of villages in southern India. In this sense her work is more of an
application of the theory of animism than it is a discussion of its nature. The

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paper, however, defines itself as a discussion of animism and much of it consists


of a reassessment of Tylor's work. Unfortunately, Bird-David falls into many of
the same traps as other critics of Tylor. She sees animism not so much as a
religion as an approach to the world. The animistic approach, as represented by
the people Bird-David studied, is based on the need to establish relationships
beyond the human realm. Bird-David actually provides a very sophisticated and
interesting discussion of the way in which relatedness is understood. She shows
how this concept of relatedness easily can, and in some sense must, be seen to
expand beyond the human realm to the natural and physical world. This is an
excellent piece of ethnography and an interesting exploration of a particular
religious expression, but the question still remains of how far this analysis relates
to the discussion of animism, or even the wider discussion of religion, in Tylor.
Once again, as with Guthrie but with far more subtlety, animism is understood
primarily as a way of relating to the non-human world as if it were human
(although with the emphasis here on the 'relating' rather than the 'as if it were
human'). This is only a small part of Tylor's far wider conception, a part which
might be important to the people being studied but does not engage with the full
range of reflection on spirits, souls, fetishes, gods and the like, which are a part
of Tylor's wider conception.
The essential problem with the discussion of animism appears to be the
problem which Tylor realized he might run into but could see no way of
avoiding: the problem generated by the choice of words. 'Animism' speaks of the
imputing of a soul (or a 'personality', or a 'relatedness') to that which empirically
does not have one. This, as Guthrie (1993: 40) makes clear, is far more closely
related to the psychologist's use of the term than it is to Tylor's. There may be
some value in developing this narrow definition of animism and exploring the
subtlety and sophistication of the different ways in which it can be expressed
within different social groups. However, in doing this, anthropologists,
including Guthrie and Bird-David, are not really engaging with Tylor, although
they may be engaging with the image of Tylor created by his critics.
Where, then, should we look for some contemporary applications of the kind
of thinking that Tylor is advocating, especially in relation to the complexity of the
different layers of discourse on the non-empirical which I have offered as the
most significant element of Tylor's work? We might look at contemporary work
in Western societies that focuses on phenomena such as the experience of angels
or visitations from the dead or the use of crystals or ideas surrounding the
concept of aliens and other beings from other planets and so on. In other words,
we might turn to what is commonly referred to in the literature as the New Age.
Much of the literature on the New Age aims to find some kind of order
(conceptual, historical or in terms of practices) within the diversity of the New
Age (e.g. Heelas 1996; York 1995). However, the very difficulty of providing any
kind of definition of these phenomena means that the search for order may not
be the most helpful approach.
Reading Tylor's account non-synchronously, as I have tried to show, suggests
that all human societies relate to the non-empirical at many different levels, in
terms of personal souls, fetish-style forces, as spirits of many different kinds, as
various forms of God. When the religious world is dominated by one tradition,
such as Christianity, and this tradition attempts to suppress all unorthodox
religious expression, then the different kinds of discourse represented by relics,

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saints, angels, God and the like are difficult to see in isolation. When that
domination is lifted, even partially, then other elements emerge and a wide
variety of discourses, at many different levels of religious experience, begin to
come into play. This is exactly what we are seeing within the New Age (and
beyond, as many of those who talk about experiences of angels or the power of
crystals would not claim to have any particular connexion to the New Age). It is
here that we can see the application of Tylor's theory of animism. This is not
some primitive religious expression, not anthropomorphism or relatedness, not
some theory of origins, but simply the way in which ordinary people late in the
twentieth century talk about that which is perceived to be non-empirical in their
lives, whatever forms that non-empirical might actually take.
Tylor was clearly constrained by his own times and by the thoughts of his
contemporaries. He struggled to construct a new kind of argument. He could not
do this entirely, and there is much in his work that we would want to reject today.
However, if we acknowledge the struggle and look at what there is, both in and
behind the text, then we can see so many later theories being developed in
embryo, and can seejust how exciting Tylor actually was as a thinker. We can gain
inspiration from his writing and look more critically at our ovn. We can think
more carefully about the presuppositions and contexts that confine our ovn
thinking. We can learn a great deal about writing comparative analysis and about
synthesizing data into grand theories. We can learn the pitfalls, and perhaps we
can learn some positive points. Grand theory, comparative analysis, interdisciplinary study, is clearly coming back onto the agenda (cf Guthrie 1993). We have
been there before. We have, perhaps, rejected the past and learned again for
ourselves what we could have read in these books if only we took the time. Do
not let us reinvent religion again in new theories. Rather, let us try to learn the
lessons of the past and move on. Let us build on the work of Tylor and his
contemporaries, as well as the thinkers of the hundred or so years in between,
and develop new and exciting theories that begin to make sense of the facts, as we
now understand them.
Evans-Pritchard (1965: 100) states 'some of the books - those for example of
Tylor, Frazer and Durkheim - will doubtless continue to be read as classics, but
they are no longer much of a stimulus for the student'. In the case of Tylor, at
least, I would beg to differ.
NOTES
This model of education is seen particularly in Tylor's discussion of 'gesture language' among
the deaf He treats educated signers as being on a par with himself intellectually, and those who use
crude gestures as being 'uneducated' rather than unintelligent (1870: 14 sqq.).
2 The concept of survivals is interesting primarily, I would suggest, because of the way in which
the theory is misunderstood by so many commentators. Some writers appear to think that Tylor
sees contemporary primitive societies as 'survivals', but this is not Tylor's understanding (see e.g.
Bennett 1996: 35). Survivals, for Tylor, only occur in societies with a higher level of culture and are
anomalous within that culture. It was also the emphasis on survivals that has led to what is perhaps
the most offensive comment on Tylor in the whole of the anthropological literature, that of
Douglas. Having first got his name wrong (calling him Henry) and then mistaking the date at
which Primitiveculturewas first published (1873 rather than 1871), Douglas goes on to dismiss the
idea of survivals: 'Whereas Tylor was interested in what quaint relics can tell us of the past,
Robertson Smith was interested in the common elements in modern and primitive experience.
Tylor founded folk-lore: Robertson Smith founded social anthropology' (1966: 14).

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'As far as I can discover, Tylor first used the term 'animism' in an article in the FortnightlyReview
in 1866, where he says 'the theory which endows the phenomena of nature with personal life might
perhaps be conveniently called Animism' (1866: 82). It should be noted, however, that this use of
Animism reflects Spencer's more general and literalistic use of the term rather than Tylor's more
specific definition developed in Primitiveculture.
I This term is borrowed from Marett, who, in the preface to the second edition of his The
thresholdof religion,objects to his own ideas of awe and pre-animistic religious activity being referred
to by critics as a 'theory of origins' (1914: viii).
I This is taken from the second edition of 1873 and is noticeably vaguer and less certain than the
first edition. In the first edition Tylor says: 'Looking at these two groups of phenomena, the ancient
savage philosophers practically made each to help to account for the other, by combining both in a
conception which we may call an apparitional-soul, a ghost soul' (1871: 387). Among other
changes, the word 'probably' is missing. However, if Tylor chose to add 'probably' to the second
edition then this must be significant. It is also interesting that Morris quotes the same passage from
the same source, without explaining why, and yet fails to pick up on the 'probably' (1987: 100).
6 Scholars have used many different terms to define what I have called 'non-empirical'. Tylor
uses 'spiritual'. Others have used 'supernatural', 'non-material' and, more recently, 'incorporeal'
(Kiass 1995: 100). There is no adequate terminology. However, my term is based on the inability
to provide empirical proof for such entities (beyond the language of those who talk about them).
This is related to Sperber's 'symbolic knowledge', which involves statements which are, in his
terms, 'false according to the state of the world' (Sperber 1975: 92), but which I would prefer to
define as being empirically unprovable (the state of the world being unknown beyond the
empiricism of scientific observation).
7 Despite the evidence of this article it is still noticeable that writers within Comparative
Religion tend to take Lang's critique as definitive. This probably reflects their own (Christianinspired) desire to maintain the centrality of the High God. Bennett (1996: 37), for example, uses
Lang's argument concerning God in primitive society to state that 'anthropological evidence, then,
would seem to demolish Tylor's theory of religion as untenable'.
8 Dorson, in The Britishfolklorists,argues that Tylor is too dependent on Muller's ideas of the
'solar myth'. Lang (1893) subsequently demolished the concept of the solar myth in his own
writings but without directly criticizing Tylor. This led Tylor to tone down his own discussion of
nature myths in the 3rd editions of both Primitivecultureand Researchesinto theearlyhistoryof mankind,
which, in its turn, has probably led to the removal of myth as a topic from the later critique of
Tylor's work. Both Lang and Dorson, however, seem to have focused solely on the content of
Tylor's interpretation of myth (i.e. the association of mythic heroes with the sun, etc.), rather than
on the mechanisms by which myth itself might work. They have, therefore, provided only a very
superficial critique of his theory (Dorson 1968: 191).
9 Much of Tylor's work on myth clearly prefigures later structuralist accounts, both in their
Proppian and in their Levi-Straussian forms. See, particularly, his discussion of life after death in
chapter 13 of Primitiveculture(1871: II, 40-98).
'OIn AnthropologyTylor uses the following example: 'When a story-teller lives in this dreamland,
any poetic fancy becomes a hint for a wonder-tale, and though (one would think) he must be aware
that he is romancing, and that the adventures he relates are not quite history, yet when he is dead,
and his story has been repeated by bards and priests for a few generations, then it would be
disrespectful, or even sacrilegious, to question its truth' (1881: 392). There is something here
which is very similar to Berger and Luckmann's (1966: 49 sqq.) process of objectivation.
" This 'symbolic' or 'linguistic' element of Tylor's work is picked up by a number of his critics
but is never developed. Skorupski, for example, says that Tylor is 'perhaps the earliest to have laid
stress on belief in the power of symbols over what is symbolised' (1976: 129). Morris says that in
his discussion of idols 'Tylor initiated a symbolic approach' (1987: 102). Lienhardt (1969: 89) argues
that 'Tylor's still deeper concern with language, meaning, modes and thought and communication
has in part lived on' in the recent writings of Turner and Levi-Strauss. None of them, however, goes
on to explore the implications of this for contemporary anthropology.
12 Lang reinforces this view of late Victorian society by stressing the revival of hypnotism and
clairvoyancy towards the end of the century, and adds his own comment on what was later to be
called the 'primitive thought' debate by arguing that both savages and civilized men could see
phantasms by the same induced methods; 'the civilised man,' Lang claims, 'beyond all doubt, is
capable of being enfantisme ' (1898: 62).

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Prise de point sur l'animisme: reflections depuis lenfance


notre discipline

de

Resume
Je considere ici l'oeuvre classique de E.B. Tylor intitulee 'La Culture Primitive', et plus
particulierement les aspects de cette oeuvre qui traitent de l'animisme. Je discute quelques-uns
des ouvrages critiques sur l'animisme et demontre que la plupart de ces critiques ont en fait mal
interprete les intentions originales de Tylor concernant sa putative 'theorie des origines' et le
sens qu'il donne a la notion d"esprit', entre autres. Ensuite, tournant mon attention sur la
theorie du mythe avan?e'epar Tylor et la demarche de son raisonnement sur l'animisme, j'offre
une re-lecture centr6e sur le discours et les couches de pratiques religieuses superposees au sein
de societes particulieres. En conclusion, jindique la pertinence que peut avoir cette re-lecture
de Tylor pour les etudes contemporaines sur l'animisme et les religions modernes.
Dept of Theology,Universityof Birmingham,Edgbaston,BirminghamB15 27T .D.Stringer@bham.ac.uk

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