animist ontology


Ontology, according to Denzin & Lincoln (2005) "raises basic questions about the nature of reality and the nature of the human being in the world" (p. 183). An animist ontology, as I understand and engage it, is about relationality where the partners in relationship are not all human (Harvey, 2006a, 2006b). It is also based on assumptions that the universe is both "psychic-spiritual"and "physical-material" (Berry & Tucker, 2006, p. 57), and humans and non-human Others exist as energy bodies generally experienced as physical. In other words, humans and non-human Others are not necessarily conceived of as separate, physical entities, but are spiritual beings and energy bodies which most often appear in physical form (Berry & Tucker, 2006; Buhner, 2006; Capra, 1975/1991; McMaster & Greene, 2003). People can be animists within a particular animist culture, or, as Harvey (2006a) points out, "there are also cultures where it is possible to act occasionally as an animist" (p. xv).


Some differentiate this understanding of animism (which could be called spiritual animism) (Taylor, 2008, 2009) from naturalistic animism which assumes it is only living beings such as plants and animals which can communicate with humans. Other-than-human persons (a phrase now in active use by animists) (see Harvey, 2006a) can be assumed to not only possess self-consciousness and intentionality, but also be able to "communicate intelligently and deliberately" (Harvey, 2006a, p. 187). Harvey's (2006a) discussion of the notion of person* is useful. "Persons", he says, "are those with whom other persons interact with varying degrees of reciprocity. Persons may be spoken with. Objects, by contrast, are usually spoken about. Persons are volitional, relational, cultural and social beings. They demonstrate intentionality and agency with varying degrees of autonomy and freedom..." (p. xvii). Some persons may look like objects to some, and in other instance, may have more human-like qualities...; neither material form nor spiritual or mental faculties are definitive" (p. xvii), nor important in determining subjecthood. From the ontological perspective taken up in this dissertation, human and non-human persons can interact in intimate physical and/or spiritual and energetic relationship.


Animism, particularly spiritual animism, is unlike most dominant Western ontologies which assume a "hierarchical dissimilarity exists between categories of being – divinity, humanity, and nature" (Morrison, 2000, p. 25, drawing on Hallowell, 1960). This hierarchy may, at least in part, help to reinscribe the human/nature binary that many argue is at the root of much of the current environmental crisis (Haraway, 2004a; Berry, 1988, 1999; Berry & Tucker, 2006; Capra, 1982; Evernden, 1992; Peterson, 2001; Plumwood, 2002; Sandilands, 1999; Russell, 2005; Swimme & Berry, 1992).


*see glossary (other-than-human person) for a discussion of issues related to the word 'person'