Animism renewed: A review of The Wakeful World

The Wakeful World

The Wakeful World

The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature
Moon Books, 2012

At its most basic, animism can be defined as the idea that plants, animals, natural objects and the universe itself have souls. The definition is accurate, but oversimplified.

In The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature, Emma Restall Orr seeks a deeper meaning of animism. She approaches the topic methodically, building a case one step at a time, focusing by turns on spirit, matter, consciousness and the self. On each topic, she explains and engages with the various philosophical ideas that have shaped our view of body, mind and spirit over the centuries. Her goal is to examine each aspect of existence that shapes a worldview in some detail before putting it all together in the final chapters.

She largely succeeds, but the result is a challenging book. Some prior knowledge of the history of philosophy will help, but it is accessible to the patient reader even without that.

The dualistic world view, articulated in detail by Renee Descartes in the eighteenth century, has dominated Western culture for centuries. To Descartes, man has a soul, but all of nature is essentially mechanical. Plants, animals and natural processes are simply machines of various kinds, operating without thought or motive. Even the human body is a mechanism, or a set of mechanisms, while the soul is a distinct, non-material entity.

“The comprehensive efficacy of Descartes’ thesis was based upon the principle distinction between body and soul,” Orr writes. “Once the God-given substance of thought had been removed, what was left was empty. The spirits of the wildwood, the personality of a dog or horse, the heavy presence of a thunderstorm, the striving growth of the barley, the irrational and thoughtless urgency of human love-making, all were no more than the clunking of levers and gears in nature’s various array of mindless machines.”

This Cartesian dualism contrasts with another prominent philosophy, materialism. Materialism is not dualistic, holding that all that exists is made of the same kind of stuff. However, materialism arrives at that view by jettisoning the spiritual dimension altogether, where Orr seeks to integrate spiritual and material, mind and matter. In Orr’s animism, “Mind and matter are not, nor do they ever become, separate substances: they are merely different states of nature’s essence.”

While animism is hardly the only philosophical basis for polytheism, Orr’s book makes clear that it can be a powerful foundation. It does take some patience to work through, but the experience is rewarding. Even a reader who does not fully embrace Orr’s arguments will come away enlightened.