Edward Tylor's Theory Of Animism

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In Edward Tylor’s monumental proto-anthropology (1871), “animism” is defined as “a belief in souls or spirits” and is used as a synonym of “religion”. Tylor had considered labelling his theory “spiritualism”, but that was already strongly associated with a particular religious movement. (It might be significant that Spiritualism was gaining popularity in the late nineteenth century, contrary to the decline of religion that Tylor anticipated.) The term animism, however, carried associations with the “souls” and “spirits” that Tylor saw as central, definitive matters of religious belief in all religions. It had been previously used by Georg Stahl (1708) in a failed attempt to define the difference between living bodies and dead matter as the…show more content…
Among many other kinds of religious practices, it includes both indigenous possession cults and British Spiritualist séances. It has an explicit polemical purpose: the furtherance of rationalism against the mistakes of religious belief. Tylor’s animism should not be mistaken either for a categorisation of a type of religion distinct from “monotheism” or for the name of a particular religion distinct from “Christianity”. Tylor’s animism is religion. He claims to be defining religion as distinct from science, politics, entertainment or any other human endeavour. Nonetheless, because Tylor’s animism is reputed to have arisen from the first thought-mistake of a religious kind, its foundational nature contributed to a debate about what kind of religion was the earliest. The Victorian contest between prevalent styles of Christianity and nascent forms of evolutionary theory are visible in the replacement of the theory that religion derives from (monotheistic) divine revelation but has degenerated into diversity, sometimes and in some places at least, by the theory that “primitive” spirit-belief religion slowly progressed towards its own replacement by…show more content…
The key question here is not “is it alive?” but “how should we relate?”. The problem is not beliefs about something that might distinguish life and death, but learning appropriate ways of behaving. Among the Ojibwa, Hallowell learnt, animism is implicit in grammar and becomes explicit in casual and deliberate discourse and performance. In the Ojibwa language a
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