Animism, Affect, Spiritual Beings (E.B. Tylor)

In late mid-career, I finally got around to E.B. Tylor’s Primitive Culture and more of these musty nineteenth century contributions to the science of Religion. I am now including in my graduate seminar on Theories and Methods Max Müller’s Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of India, as well Tylor. You can find public access to volumes I and II of Primitive Culture here and here.  

Having read about without ever having actually read it, I assumed simply that Tylor’s project was swamped in nineteenth century racial theory and colonial practice that is the hard and definitive division of humanity according to racial typologies, between “high” and “low” culture, “primitive” and “civilized.” Following received opinion in contemporary theories of religion, I assumed also that the definition of religion as “belief” in “spiritual beings” was looked at as a Protestant prism that is cognitive-intellectualist and private and that does zero justice to the lived character of material culture.

About Tylor I would make two notes. First, the colonial discourse is the obscene legacy of cosmopolitan universalism and the European idea of progress, prejudices that are complicated in the text by the way that Tylor understands the lived connection across cultures. Second, the notion that Tylor’s orientation is Protestant turns out to be a useless caricature of a more sophisticated project about “religion” as spiritual orientation vis-à-vis the natural world. He understood religion in tight relation to [1] culture, [2] nature, and [3] objects. Reading Tylor is to find vitalism and proto-formations of new materialism, animal studies, and affect theory. 

By culture, Tylor means something broad “in its wide ethnographic sense…that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (vol. I, p.1). I’m noting here the much forgotten subtitle of the magnum opus: PRIMITIVE CULTURE: RESEARCHES INTO THE DEVELOPMENT OF MYTHOLOGY, PHILOSOPHY, RELIGION, LANGUAGE, ART, AND CUSTOM. More than belief, religion is a part of culture.

About culture, Tylor assumes basic binaries between progress/evolution, high/low, civilized/primitive that make him almost impossible to read out-loud today, while he argues at the same time that human mind is uniform and that there are no innate differences between cultures. The criteria with which Tylor will distinguish so-called primitive and so-called civilized cultures are technological and knowledge-based; they have to do with the types of social and political organization that promote human “goodness,” “power,” and “happiness” (vol. I, pp.26-7). Tylor rejects the idea of biological race having anything to do with any of this (vol. I: pp.7, 158-9). “Primitive” includes people of his own time, place, and country. In other words, the prejudices are liberal.

Tylor knows that what he calls progress is mixed and uneven. This is because he thinks that so-called primitive and so-called civilized cultures are connected as higher and lower stages of one single human formation (vol. I, pp.1, 28-9, 37). I do not understand critical readings of Tylor that assert that he looked down on “lower cultures.” What we will see in later chapters is the vitality of the myth and religion of so-called primitive cultures carries over into so-called higher cultures, the latter being just as much a part of nature as the former (vol. I, p.2). According to Tylor, it is only when one does not see lines of connection across cultures that one sees only arbitrariness and stupidity in “primitive culture” (vol. I, pp.19, 23).

Key to Tylor’s understanding of culture is the idea of cultural “survivals.” These survivals are “processes, customs, opinions, and so forth, which have carried on by force of habit into a new state of society.” They stand as “proofs and “examples” of “an older condition of culture out which a newer one has been evolved.” Examples include everyday things like old technologies and styles and other aesthetic forms, popular sayings, games of chance, divination, etc.. They include also and especially things like myth and religion. Not restricted to superstitions, survivals reflect in new-world forms” “the serious business of ancient society” and matters of “serious belief” (vol. I, p.16). Tylor’s understanding of culture is one that takes note of the “modes of connexion” that “bind together the complex network of civilization” (vol. I, p.17).

Tylor tries to correct for European bias even as he carries it forward. In this, his thinking about culture represents a liberal and broadminded form of anti-racist racism or racist anti-racism. The human race, on the one hand, constitutes a homogenous and undifferentiated whole placed, on the other hand, at different grades of civilization. Tylor will continually encourage his readers to adopt a “broad” view of culture, and, with it, a broad view of religion. A sympathetic scholar, Tylor pulls together missionary accounts of so-called contemporary “savage tribes” while rejecting with open contempt the “unappreciating hated and ridicule” lavished in “narrow hostile zeal” against systems such as Brahminism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, which are “consistent and logical” to a “high degree” (vol. I, p.22). Tylor is limited to to the view that culture “develops” and gets better over time. At the same time, he could recognize that “the white invader and colonist,” whose culture Tylor assumed to be “morally superior” to the culture of the peoples he “improves or destroys,” represents his own culture very poorly. In the same critical vein, Tylor understood that modern slavery is incomparably more brutal, that the relations between the sexes are less free as is modern governance than is the case among so-called “savages” (vol. I, p.29).

A critic of modernity, Tylor completely rejects European and Christian models of religion. He rejects, in particular, the basic notion made by narrowminded Christians that “savage” peoples have “no religion.” He notes that the very Christian missionaries who claimed that “primitive people” have no religion are the very ones who then go on to observe the many “definite traditions concerning spiritual beings,” the “minds saturated with the most vivid belief in souls, demons, and deities” (vol. I, 417-9). He writes against the so-called Christian “religious world” that is “so occupied in hating and despising the beliefs of the heathen whose vast regions of the globe are painted black on the missionary maps” that they do so without a shred of understanding (vol. I, 420). Part of a theory of culture and against narrow Christian and European prejudice is the notion that all religions, like all cultures, are connected. No “religion of mankind” lies in utter isolation from the rest” (vol. I, p.421). That would include Christian religion as well as so-called primitive religion. Neither is separate, not one from the other nor the other from the one.

To make that point stick, Tylor needs a broad-enough concept that cuts the definition of religion narrowly down to a basic “minimum.” For Tylor, there is more to religion than belief in a supreme deity or belief in judgement after death; there is also more to religion than the adoration of idols or sacrifice. These definitions of religion are at once too narrow and maximal. Assuming too much by way of content about the constitution of religion excludes too many peoples of the world. These kind of definitions have the fault of identifying religion with particular developments rather than with the deeper, undergirding motives that connect all human cultures into a single formation. That is why Tylor thought, “It seems best to fall back at once on this essential source, and simply to claim, as a minimum definition of Religion, the belief in Spiritual Beings” (vol. I, p.424).

About this origin point in the modern study of religion, I would note two things.

[1] Critics today have rushed to align Tylor with Protestant Christianity, i.e. the very form he rejected as determinative of religion. If they have even read him at all, what so many critics seem to fail to see is that “belief in spiritual beings” is based upon “animism,” and not just animism, but vitalism. (Tylor cites Georg Ernst Stahl and a scholarly work by Lemoine, Le Vitalisme et l’Anisme de Stahl. Paris, 1864). As part of a theory of cultural continuity and survival, it is animism that establishes the unbroken relation between “tribes very low” in the “scale of humanity” and “high modern culture.” By “animism,” Tylor means “the animation of all nature.” The notion was introduced earlier in a chapter on myth. There, Tylor wrote about how myth speaks to the belief “that inert things” are alive and conscious,” that there is a vitality “giving consistent individual life to phenomena,” “pervading life and will in nature (vol. I, p.285).

[2] For Tylor, “belief” is not a matter of disembodied, immaterial, private, cognitive, propositional in the Cartesian, ideational sense of the word (e.g. I think therefore I am; I believe in God, I believe in the idea of God; I carry this notion around in my head, separate from and detached from the world of physical extension). What Tylor means by “belief” has more to do with mental states, qualities imagined about the world and about beings in the world. Spiritual beings like spirits, ghosts, gods, God, and the like are sensed in the world; they are fancied, lived, and sensed, i.e. felt, seen, touched, heard. Religious actors sense or believe they sense the presence of spiritual beings animating the physical world. These spiritual beings are not immaterial, not metaphysical. Not objects of dry propositional belief, spiritual beings are living and animate; they possess the physical world with their own “vaporous materiality” (vol. I, p.457).

Spiritual beings are sensed in nature: animals, plants and vegatble souls, rivers, trees, sky, rain, thunder, wind, water, sea, fire, sun, human institutions like war and agriculture. Tylor rejects the modern distinction between “man and beast” (vol. I, p.469). Tylor entertains a full-on sense that spiritual beings are embodied beings, devoting almost thirtypages in the second volume of Primitive Culture on the so-called “fetish.” He does not dismiss so-called fetish worship as confusion, false consciousness, or neurosis. For Tylor, the material “fetish” is part of a larger discusion of bodies and embodied spirit possession that defines religion tout court. As he sees it, animism is the general “doctrine,” so-called fetishism the narrow notion of spirits embedded in particular objects. Thecomments appear as part of a general interest in what we today would call material religion (vol II: pp.143-67). What matters is that these beliefs about stocks and stones are not “symbolic.” Citing Berkeley and Leibniz, Tylor discerns affinities in modern science relating to matter as receptacles of force and refined quintessences, to heat, electricity, visible fluids “passing in and out of solid bodies” (vol. II, p.160; in relation to idols-images, cf. pp.169, 177, 181). Animism passes into Phyics, Chemistry, and Biology (vol. II, p.183).

“Primitive culture” is big capacious religion. Readers of Tylor are introduced to Buddhism, Islam, Chrisitainty, Judaism, Greek myth, Zarathustrism, Brahamnism, African trads, Indigenous American tradtions. These are drawn from virtuall all the peoples of the earth: English, Scandanician, Papuans, West Africans, Afghans, Greeks, Algonquin, Mohawk, Chinese, ancient Egyptian, Siberians, Italians, Indians, Irish, Japanese, Turks, Mexiccan, Haitians, Indigenous Australians, Javanese, Borneoans, North Americans, Peruvians, Estonians, Pacific Northwestern, Pacific Islanders, New Zealanders.

In the explosion of comparative data, monotheism is another form of animism, the belief in one big “spiritual being.” Monotheism carries animism to it “upmost limit,” etc., etc. (vol. II, pp.331-61. 449-53). Tylor did not particularly like monotheism. “Entering these regions of transcendental theology, we are not to wonder that the comparative distinctness belonging to conceptions of lower spiritual beings here fades away.” They fade away into “[a]n unshaped divine entity looming vast, shadowy, and calm beyond and over the material world, too benevolent or too exalted to need human worship, too huge, too remote, too indifferent, too supine, too merely existent, to concern himself with the petty race of men, — this is a mystic form of formlessness in which religion has not seldom pictured the Supreme” (vol. II, pp.335-6). Unlike Müller, Tylor was not drawn to “the Infinite.”

Tylor was a melancholic modern, but not simply that. He saw the fading away of spirits in modern world where there is no indwelling deities, no guardian angles, no deities in the boiling pot, no spirits presiding in the volcano, no howling demons shrieks from the mouth of the lunatic. Once upon a time, the whole world seemed actuated by spiritual life.” Force now replaces life, law replaces will (vol.II, p.183). He writes about the dying of myth today in relation to science, weighed down by weights and measures, proportions and specimens, and the anatomizing work of students(vol. I, p.317). But Tylor can still speculate, about myth today, about time, in the present. “The broken and stiffened traditions which our fathers fancied relics of ancient history, are, as has been truly said, records of a past which was never present; but the simple nature-myth, as we find it in its actual growth, or reconstruct it from its legendary remnants, may be rather called the record of a present which is never past” (vol. I, p.326).

With the relation between past and present no longer so simple, no longer distinct, now seen to be interconnected, Tylor allows himself to imagine “the battle of the storm against the forest and the ocean” still being “waged before our eyes.” “We still look,” he writes, “upon the victory of man over the creatures of the land and sea; the food-plants still hide in their mother earth, and the fish and reptiles find shelter in the ocean and the thicket; but mighty forest-trees stand with their roots firm planted in the ground, while with their branches they push up and up against the sky. And if we have learnt the secret of man’s thought in the childhood of his race, we may still realize with the savage the personal being of the ancestral Heaven and Earth (vol. I, p.326).

Myth is still now, in his words, a past that was never present and the record of a present which is never past. Tylor is writing here in a spirit of reverie that inevitably returns to melancholy. “The evidence and interpretation here brought forward, imperfect as they are, seem to countenance a strong opinion as to the historical development of legends which describe in personal shape the life of nature. The state of mind to which such imaginative fictions belong is found in full vigour in the savage condition of mankind, its growth and inheritance continue into the higher culture of barbarous or half-civilized nations, and at last in the civilized world its effects pass more and more from realized belief into fanciful, affected, and even artificial poetry” (vol. I, p.367).

Against artificial poetry and “symbols,” Tylor is a defender of myth and animism. He rejects the notion that these are irrational beliefs, arguing instead that they are based in sense evidence, and that we can still see their effects today. “Everyone who has seen visions while light- headed in fever, everyone who has ever dreamt a dream, has seen the phantoms of objects as well as of persons. How then can we charge the savage with far-fetched absurdity for taking into his philosophy and religion an opinion which rests on the very evidence of his senses? The notion is implicitly recognized in his accounts of ghosts, which do not come naked, but clothed, and even armed; of course there must be spirits of garments and weapons, seeing that the spirits of men come bearing them. It will indeed place savage philosophy in no unfavourable light, if we compare this extreme animistic development of it with the popular opinion still surviving in civilized countries, as to ghosts and the nature of the human soul as connected with them” (vol. I, p.478). Tylor belonged to an age when intellectuals took ghosts and the paranormal seriously; they did so unapologetically.

More than a scholarly interest, the fascination with spiritual beings and his own belief or confidence in the power of imagination explain why Tylor rejected “interpretation” in the study of religion.

The interpretation of myth, he argues, only creates more myth. “Any of us may practise this simple art, each according to his own fancy. If, for instance, political economy happens for the moment to lie uppermost in our mind, we may with due gravity expound the story of Perseus as an allegory of trade: Perseus himself is Labour, and he finds Andromeda, who is Profit, chained and ready ‘to be devoured by the monster Capital; he rescues her and carries her off in triumph. To know anything of poetry or of mysticism is to know this reproductive growth of fancy as an admitted and admired intellectual process. But when it comes to sober investigation of the processes of mythology, the attempt to penetrate to the foundation of an old fancy will scarcely be helped by burying it yet deeper underneath a new one” (vol. I, p.277-8). With our own eye on Marx, Müller, Durkheim, and Freud, it would seem how scientific interpretation in religion constitutes its own “fancy.” Instead of looking at what lies behind the rite or representation, Tylor commits ostensibly to a deep dive into the available data. His own writing is affecting, the “belief in spiritual beings” standing on its own against interpretation, against the suppression in interpretation that turns the marvelous into something commonplace. “[T]he mythologists arranged systematic methods of reducing legend to history, and thereby contrived at once to stultify the mythology they professed to explain, and to ruin the history they professed to develop.” (vol. I, p.278)

Tylor is, in this respect a better theorist than the social theorists who came after him writing about religion. Apart from the incredibly crude language about primitive and savage people, there is little in Primitive Culture about animism and material religion that is necessarily contradicted in works in the study of religion by Diana Eck, Charles Long, J. Lorand Matory, David Freedberg, or Bruno Latour. Tylor is a sympathetic thinker drawn to the imagination, to the sense of lived reality. There is very little by way of dried-out stuff like “symbols” and “discourse.” Tylor does not explain away or write off religion and the religions of other people. At this ecological moment, it could very well be that physics, chemistry, and biology will lead back to material religion and the religion of animism, not necessarily away from them.

But there is a destructive method that comes into full view in the conclusion of the second volume of Primitive Culture. At this point in the text, he is back “at home,” as it were, back in Great Britain, trying to referee debates between religious traditonalists and radical rationalists. He refers to the scientific study of religion as a new, emergent field of study now siding with evolutionary theory and comparative method. At question for Tylor has been the survival of cultural survivals in the modern world, if earlier forms of primitive culture once found out in more advanced cultures maintain their rightful place as a “proper representative of more advanced views.” About his own time and place in the world, he now takes on a clinical attitude. It is “a harsher, and at times even painful, office of ethnography to expose the remains of crude old culture which have passed into harmful superstition, and to mark these out for destruction.” Yet this work that is the work of destruction, “if less genial, is not less urgently needful for the good of mankind.” Taking sides, “the science of culture is essentially a reformer’s science” (vol. II, p.453).

What we today call cultural and physical genocide hangs over the entire modern comparative project. I cited above Tylor’s critical from very early in the first volume of Primitive Culture the critical take on the colonial destruction of colonized peoples. Genocide comes up again, right after he has defined religion as “belief in spiritual beings.” He immediately notes there that he cannot prove that this belief pervades every culture on earth or in human history. “It cannot be positively asserted that every existing tribe recognizes the belief in spiritual beings, for the native condition of a considerable number is obscure in this respect, and from the rapid change or extinction they are undergoing, may ever remain so” (vol. I, p,424). I note in passing the end of his own ethnographic study Anahuac; or, Mexico and the Mexicans Ancient and Modern. Steeped in racial thinking, he writes wistfully about old colonial Mexico in all its violent colors, including the violence of racism and slavery in the West Indies. He believes that the culture is about to disappear in the face of what he thought, in 1861, was going to be a full-scale U.S. occupation of the country. In all these varied ways, about animism and human extinction, Tylor more than makes the point made by Benjamin that human civilization is the history of “barbarism.”

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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1 Response to Animism, Affect, Spiritual Beings (E.B. Tylor)

  1. dmf says:

    I like the emphasis on belief in spiritual beings (a good corrective to the general academic trend of trying to secularize/generalize Tillich’s matters of concern to include everything, especially along the avenues of aesthetics/affect) not sure if the Buddha would count as one so might also include some sense of telos (vs contingency, like in evolution). more interesting is Stengers’ take that the value of animism is not that it is somehow compatible with physical sciences (it’s not) but more of a W..James-ish will to resist capitalist “sorcery” :

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