Reflections on thesis conclusion


I posted my Masters’ Honours thesis’ Conclusion today (1 May) and had another read of it. I read it a few months ago. And before that, in 2010, shortly after I graduated.

The thesis title, An inquiry into animism as a source of meaning in response to radical and disruptive non-ordinary experiences, still has an emotional resonance for me. I started the thesis in 2002. I wanted to wait a few years, but because I was granted a scholarship, that was not an option. My then partner had started her PhD at the same time and having two people working on their theses in one household at the same time was not a smart thing to do.

I struggled for almost 2 years for frame my research question. I began obedient to the assertion that one should inquire into a theme one was passionate about. The trouble was that my passion had never been articulated in a disciplined way. It had been driving me, but more like a haunting spirit than a guiding hand.

There was one event that triggered clarity. I will quote from Chapter 3 of the thesis where I describe it. I had been leafing through Funk & Wagnell’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend and glanced across the page at ‘animism’ to read; “The belief in souls; the attributes of spirits or personality to physical objects or phenomena…” (Leach, 1975 p. 62). It was a starting point that emerged, ineluctably, as a compelling central theme for my subsequent thinking. It was unexpected and forced a complete rethink of the original project.

It was far more dramatic than that. It was an epiphany that left me stunned. There was an instant flood of recognition of the implications of the idea. I was astonished and confused. I had never knowingly encountered the word animism before. This was even though I had been reading on themes related to and embracing the essential ideas of animism for decades. Why hadn’t I come across that word before?

The experience was like sitting with a hopeless jumble of jigsaw puzzle pieces with no idea what the final picture would look like – and then getting a sudden intuitive flash of the completed puzzle.

There had been a single organising idea absent from my experiences and thought for decades. True, I had vague ‘spiritual’ notions of a unifying sentiment or principle, but nothing so concrete as the sudden flash of awakening encountering animism gave me. 

It took me a few more years to finish. There were difficult times. As I revisited my early experiences with psi phenomena, I triggered memories that forced me to process surprisingly powerful emotions – a kind of existential PTSD. Even though the thesis was autoethnographic I was unwilling to record the real depth of my reactions.

 The final form was not submitted until late 2009. This wasn’t an intellectual exercise anymore. It was a kind of spiritual ordeal. I April 2008, I contracted a severe case of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), which put me in hospital for 10 months. In the 8 months of subsequent home-based physio before I could get back to work, I had to rework the whole thesis.

While I got a letter saying I would graduate, I had no feedback comments. By that stage I didn’t care. On the level where it mattered the thoughts of the markers were irrelevant. This was a personal matter.

Together, the thesis and the GBS transformed my thinking – and have continued to do so. The Conclusion was an affirmation of the transformative dramas – on an intellectual and spiritual level. It condensed time before GBS and after into a single moment. Here I want to revisit it and see whether it has stood the test of time, and my ongoing inquiry.

Three themes

I want to take only 3 themes from the Conclusion – to keep this essay at a decent length. They are the environmental movement, technology, and urban animism. I have selected these because each speaks to our contemporary world in powerful and singular ways. I haven’t researched these themes in any deliberate academic way since I graduated. I read, listen, and watch widely, so I also am curious as to whether any of the themes has become prominent as part of the general conversation.

The environmental movement 

From the Conclusion: Animistic thought is finding a place in the environmental movement, as it seeks ideas and language that better articulate emergent values and ideas. Mack has argued for a ‘new psychology’ to express such values and ideas as core and key to a needed change in attitudes and conduct.

The most telling development for me has been the greater accessibility to indigenous ways of knowing. There are more books and podcasts tackling animistic themes; and expressing a far more sensitive awareness of planetary lives – even as persons, as kin.

The environmental movement has dropped off my radar. It is unsubtle and jarringly political from my perspective. Greater sensitivity to, and awareness of, environmental issues has been growing – chiefly because of ‘natural disasters’, and the advocacy of ‘climate change’ activists.

I don’t think we are seeing the emergence of a ‘new psychology’ just yet. But I sense a hunger for it. Engagement in metaphysical ideas or ‘woo’ isn’t an issue if you have a predisposition for it. It is a problem is if you want to get there from a materialistic perspective there is no rational pathway yet. In a way, the reliance on ‘science’ has impeded the development of an articulate and deep value vision. And the passion for a kind of ecological sentiment without a countervailing reasoned foundation has impeded it as well.

I see an opportunity to develop a ‘new psychology’ based on what we do know, and what we know we need to know. Rational assertions of immanent peril are not working. We need stories. Stories are the foundation of the psychology of driving change. That means we need smart informed and creative thinkers on the job of developing an intentional transitional psychology – getting us from where we are to where we know we want to be.

I didn’t like the idea of New Animism that appealed to some in the environmental movement when I was writing the thesis, and I haven’t shifted from that position. It may help for environmentalists to have a greater awareness of the natural world as the home of kin. I am not disputing that. What concerned me about New Animism was that it was, in my view, an adaption of an idea intended to modify and support another idea. It’s the ‘New’ that bothers me. I came to animism as an idea that made sense of my experiences. I did not see it as something to explain or organise my thought. What I see as animism is far more than New Animism offers.

That said, I don’t oppose New Animism per se. I see it has value in expanding awareness of environmental advocates. It’s just not what the name says it is. Animism, as an idea, is far more than that. Far better is to learn from an indigenous perspective how to think about the natural world. Braiding Sweetgrass is a good place to start.

I am aware that in New Zealand that the Whanganui River was granted personhood under New Zealand law in 2017. That is a powerful thing to do, but to what extent the spirit of the intent has been honoured in action I do not know. That’s something I will follow up on. Again, this is a case of the indigenous perspective being a guide. 

We do need to build these other ways of knowing into our own. This may be the foundation of a new psychology – to create a shared ‘value vision’. I use this term advisedly because envisioning a destination in a rational sense is restrictive. Such a vision must be values based – but values based on, and articulated through, a psychologically informed philosophy. It must, of course, embrace the precepts of animism.

I have no doubt there are exciting and inspiring developments that I am not aware of. I can speak here only of what I am aware of as a person who is open to, and curious about developments in the environmental movement. I will allow that in today’s deeply fragmented media, there are great conversations happening on platforms I do not engage with.


From the Conclusion: The other area potentially rich in opportunity for inquiry is technology… In some ways designers are employing the potential implicit in technologies to impose a new kind of animism on us. Machines are engaging us, drawing us in to animistic relationships. I perceive a metaphysics of the machine that can help us explore extension of the human domain beyond the physical – engaging with the energies operating on the sub-strata of material existence. Is it entirely co-incidental that it is animistic analogues that take us there? 

I think it is now beyond doubt that we are animating our devices in wholly remarkable ways – and we are nowhere done with the potential. There is a possible future world in which those who live in ‘advanced’ economies will live in an AI drenched world. Echoing Thales’ ‘Everything is full of gods’, we might say, “Everything is full of microchips” (or whatever new term we develop). 

Between the internet of things, AI in everything, and robotics we might find ourselves living in a machine consciousness-based constructed environment. Such may take centuries to eventuate, but the early steps are here, and they are only the beginning.

Humans crave belonging and acceptance. It’s hardwired into our biology and fundamental to our spiritual ideals. Those who live in close connection with country know also that such a craving extends place and the kin lives who dwell there.

The rational separation between thing and living, or meaningful, being is not fixed. Things imbibe attributes beyond their intrinsic form via experience (just by being in time and space). And they acquire meaning because of that experience. Things ain’t just things. You know this when the property of famous persons sells for many times an item’s ‘normal’ price. Hence a guitar that would make say $5,000 normally might sell for $1m if it belonged to a rock & roll legend.

Some things are made sacred or imbued with a kind of secular manna

and are thus elevated beyond the normal. We can argue whether the ‘spirit’ expressed as monetary value is the same as the idea of the sacred. I think it is, and that’s an argument I am happy to have.

I really have no thoughts about AI infused human generated objects, beyond their occasional convenience. As a person with a disability, I am grateful I can say, “Hey Siri” and make stuff happen.

But what I will observe is that machine animation is not a surprising development. We may be amazed by what is happening, but we should not be astonished that it is happening, or that it can happen. Humans have been making automata for millennia. We are answering an innate impulse.

We really must stop talking about ‘Artificial Intelligence’. In the sense that the term denotes human made, it makes some degree of sense. But artificial can also imply fake; and confer a sense of invalidity.

If consciousness is the foundation of all, its manifestation in what we call intelligence should not be surprising – when the opportunity to do so arises. Human made devices are opportunities for consciousness or intelligence to express through the natural process of humans being humans.

Urban animism

From the Conclusion: Urban animism offers the opportunity to explore how we vest living significance and meaning within whatever environment becomes our ‘natural habitat’…We may comprehend a human- centred animism describing the built human-mediated environment in terms of the ghosts and spirits of history. 

I think that if we fuse our modern passion for automata with the urban environment, we can see that not only will many people live in situations dominated by human-caused structures and objects, but they will all have histories and interpretations that resolve into underpinning human stories – as well as engaging with us.

The distinction between natural and artificial is essentially a distinction between a presumption of objective mechanical forces and a perception of intelligent agency. It is very much a materialistic point of view. A religious view distinguishes only between divine and human. The Christian view, which I cite because it is still the foundational faith of our culture, was closer to the animistic (everything is full of God). Christianity simply stripped the multiplicity of voices down to one. 

The idea of urban animism is essentially an idea of sensitive awareness to human causes, heritage, ownership and meaning. It should also include how these attributes of the human-caused intersect with the natural/divine agencies and systems.

The story of what we grandly call Civilisation is the story of humans crafting and transforming their operational environment from one that was wholly ‘natural’ to a fusion of ‘natural’ and ‘human’ to one dominated by human artifice.

That transformation has been fuelled by a biological imperative to survive, and a deep non-biological impulse to express metaphysical aspirations. The city became the apex of human expression – but one born in contestation with, and disdain for, the ‘natural’. In the history of the evolution of the city over the past two millennia, ‘nature’ has been a vital resource and a dump – debased as crude and savage, fit only for domination and exploitation. That exploitation has included enjoyment of what has been tamed.

The tension between wilderness and the urban remains confused and unresolved. The deep sense of contestation lingers unresolved. The idea that the urban has the same claim to an animism of its own is not yet a comfortable idea.

It is still a field of great potential.


From the Conclusion: I can best sum up my sense of the potential for future research by repeating Guba & Lincoln saying that “we stand at the threshold of a history marked by multivocality, contested meanings, paradigmatic controversies, and new textual forms.”  

I love this statement. Animism is a wholly inadequate term for the rich lifeworld of indigenous and other sensitive peoples. It was a western European conceptualisation that had a pejorative tone to it. But we do not have a better one yet. New Animism merely skimmed off surface notions for a purpose nowhere near holistic as is needed to give fuller insight into the potential.

I have retained the word more as a signal for what lies beneath it – a deeper, more coherent potential source of meaning. In a sense it is a political affiliation – in the politics of ideas. I reject New Animism because it is not an intellectual or spiritual spade to dig deeper, rather something to make mental sandcastles with. That’s fine. It has a purpose and value, but it’s not enough for me.

From multiple fields of human inquiry, we do indeed stand at a threshold “marked by multivocality, contested meanings, paradigmatic controversies”. It should be an exciting time. In a way this may be said of multiple times in the preceding centuries going back for millennia. There is no certainty that what we know and believe now will endure even a decade hence. A sense of curiosity and a passion to seek deeper meaning will always place on a threshold.

We have a choice – to cling to knowledge and beliefs we feel were hard won, and deserve to be preserved because of what we have invested in getting there; or adapt to a more dynamic response to how things are. It is true that the threshold we may be standing on is applicable only to inquirers, and not believers. The alternative to is step back, close the door, and enjoy our knowledge and beliefs as they are for a little longer. That’s okay.

In terms of inquiry, now we have multiple looking glasses as entrances to our own paths to a wonderland. Animism is my looking glass. Sometimes I look into it, and it looks right back. Other times I can see through it to an alluring realm of possibilities. Our challenge is to fuse our looking glasses into a shared instrument of inquiry.

We must also learn to carry the fruits of disciplined rational inquiry in the same basket as spiritual sensitivity and insight. They are not the “non-overlapping magisteria” Gould asserted. They are the yin and yang of our consciousness, dancing together – when we let them.

Thesis Conclusion

How has the research addressed the thesis questions?

I asked the two key research questions:

  1. How do I make sense of non-ordinary experience on a personal level?
  2. Could I find a way of fitting my experiences within my parent culture’s ontologicalnarrative?

The personal

All three recounted experiences that illustrate the precipitation into deep ontological crisis can be accommodated within the spectrum of ideas that constitute animism. That is to say that certain conditions or circumstances may lead to non-ordinary events occurring as a consequence of animate agencies intruding into the ‘normal’ realm of personal reality – conditioned by a cultural ontological frame to deny or reject such things. In this respect animism provides a wider paradigm that makes such experiences possibly valid – they can happen. I know they did.

However, this explanation should not extend to the role of giving personal ‘meaning’ to the experiences. That something can happen and did happen does not explain why it did happen. The “Why me?” question can be answered within the frame of animism, but at a more personal level of asking what possible relationships exist between me and the range of possible intelligent agencies opens up deeper issues of meaning and reason that remain unresolved. In seeking an answer to the question “Why did these things happen to me?” I needed to ask “Of what possible benefit is the precipitation of an ontological crisis?” One answer is that it generated the motive force for a journey of discovery, arriving at, for the moment, this research project. This suggests the possibility of meaningful and purposeful experiences may be had long before meaning or purpose can be discerned. But this supposes ‘meaning’ to life of a bigger stage, for which I have offered no evidence or argument. It is a choice, irrational maybe, that I elect to make in order have some sense, no matter how illusory it may ultimately be, of coherence, of meaning. So my focus has been not on ‘why’ but whether there is the prospect of intellectual validation.

I spent a good deal of time thinking about crisis experiences, including reading extensively on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I wondered whether there was any necessary distinction between what I had been through and any other kind of critical incident, and concluded that there was not, at least in terms of the sense of disruption and dislocation. The precipitation of ontological crisis in consequence of uninvited and disruptive non-ordinary phenomena, or as the unanticipated by-product of intentional acts, is almost a cliché. Life changing experiences are not rare. There are innumerable challenging or catastrophic events that precipitate the experiencer into a crisis of meaning. That my experiences were of the paranormal variety marks them as perhaps extraordinary, but the drama that followed is not especially remarkable, save that it was expressed in a peculiar context and related to a particular theme. The realisation that I was, in effect, just another person struggling to make sense of a dramatic intrusion into my life was a sobering and necessary thing.

The cultural

The idea of animism permeating sacred and secular thought, as a ‘natural’consequence of awareness and perception, suggests to me that I can locate my struggle for meaning making within my cultural paradigm. Of course, it cannot be located within that aspect that insists on the fundamental ‘error’ of animism (or anthropomorphism) or persists in denial of the paranormal. But there is a significant community of those who are exploring deeper meaning and other ways of knowing, and here it has a natural place.

From the time I began to undergo the drama of ontological crisis in the early 1970s many deep shifts in knowledge and values have altered the cultural landscape. Nevertheless there is still the risk of inhabiting the pluralistic environment as an isolate, bound off by beliefs, language, practices and hubris that mark one as not a full member of the wider community, save in the sense of tolerated inclusion. This was the risk I saw in the Western Mystery Tradition, and later in Wicca. The danger of set specific beliefs, ideas and language is that of inflating one’s particular set to precedence, as if it has universal, rather than a context-based virtue. The merits of ideas risk being lost in the accoutrements of groups and cultures, as if the ideas belong, natively, to the set. Each individual map is but a perspective of common country, and none, of themselves, are wholly representative.

Exclusion and the denial of validity of experiences or ideas serve a critical function of defining membership of a set, group, community or culture. But when cultures become complex they lose their homogeneity, or their illusion of such, and learning this was an important lesson for me. I could belong, but I had to understand better the complexity of the culture in which I lived.

The fact that Western culture is in need of revising its ontological frame is, I think, well enough established. Being a participant in that revision might be a good way to see myself. Cultural revision begins at the level of personal experience, so I might be permitted to think that my experiences are part of a larger cultural movement towardsrevision.

I have located my experiences within a common and knowable domain that is animism though it is a fragmented, blurred, and contested domain. I have resolved the dilemma occasioned by my dramatic, disruptive, and dislocating non-ordinary experiences in relation to how I fit within my cultural narrative by showing that there is a coherent pathway of thought that functions within my culture and which is exploratory and creative.

I have not set out to create an alternative ontology but have sought to resolve apparent conflicts and mutually exclusive contradictions in a way that privileges no particular cultural frame. In the course of inquiry the contingencies and contextual cautions that were identified in the methodology have shown to be consistently relevant across the spectrum of ideas encountered in the research of literature.

Western ontology is not homogenous, but complex and context sensitive and full of power plays for dominance, or, at least, acceptability. Certain elements have attained dominance because they reflect practical, utilitarian and pragmatic responses to changing human needs, especially for material stability, and especially in the political and economic domains, with resultant impact upon intellectual and cultural areas. At the edges of those public domains the ‘spiritual’ continues to interact and contend with the formation and perpetuation of discourses on identity, relationship and meaning where material and non- material imperatives intersect and interact.

The dominant materialist ontology has established particular notions about the nature of identity, relationship and meaning in relation to the Earth (and Heaven if one considers the ‘materialistic’ aspects of religious thought), and these appear to be unsustainable and harmful. There is an emerging vigorous and contentious dialogue that represents a vital perpetuation of an ancient endeavour – to engage with and understand the physical and metaphysical domains, and how they intersect within the lifeworld of human experience.

My initial attempts at validation and defence were tentative and self-protective, but as my examination of meaning-giving cultural discourses progressed I found a location that enabled and preserved my sense of full membership of my culture. This seems to reflect an evolutionary progression common to historically excluded discourses, as might be seen with feminist, queer, disability, and multicultural voices.

A reflection on the possible role of animism

I have sought to establish a chain of argument that works through the consequences of the experience of radically disruptive non-ordinary events and towards a theoretical position that locates them within a rational ontological construct that does not demand fleeing from my parent culture. The initial drama of experience was matched by the dislocating problem of not being able to find a fit for it within the ontological frame of the ‘normal’ world of my culture’s ontology.

The sense of ‘misfit’ within my culture and the dilemma concerning how to remain within it or seek the solace of systems based in other cultures turned out to be an illusion, the product of my own ignorance and naivety. The ontology of Western culture is not homogenous, but a dynamic constantly changing and evolving environment. It is, however, dominated by large forces that contend for supremacy, and which oppress and exclude other voices. This includes suppression and oppression of perceived opponents. But the culture is also permeable and porous, adoptive and adaptive and this enables the struggle for acceptance, toleration and validation by minority or non-conforming voices to progress.

The struggle for personal validation of direct lived experience, especially that which intrudes upon and challenges the universality of the dominant ontological prescriptions and proscriptions, is an ongoing dynamic that has great potency in the present age. Individual lived experience, and the validation of non- conforming knowledge, is now honoured as the age of individualism matures. The implications for shared experience are less ‘scientific’ and more human-centred, concerning shared and mutual understanding and engagement. This reflects a wide appreciation of the complexity and uncertainty of knowledge itself, and more so as it applies to the human experience.

The object of this thesis was to work through the journey of attempting to reconcile the experiences and resolve them into a coherent ontological frame that may have meaning and validity to the Western mind. The focal point for doing so was the idea of animism. The essential precepts of animism accorded with my direct experiences, both the involuntary ones and those later intentionally sought, but the idea of animism itself did not present itself as a cohering idea until at a much later stage.

Animism, when explored in greater detail, presented a more complex and coherent thought system than in its popularly conceived aspect: as a primitive and erroneous knowledge system that rightly belonged an earlier evolutionary stage of the human psyche. As the concept was expanded, it became evident that the essential precepts of animism had a home in contemporary Western culture on many levels – unconscious and reflexive as well as intentional.

Anthropologists and psychologists see that animism, along with anthropomorphism, permeates Western thought and worldview. Some see that animism is virtually fundamental to human consciousness and perception. I argue that this persistent attribute might be understood as Animistic Consciousness, an innate human propensity to see the world in animistic terms, whether wholly within the human mediated sphere of civilisation or in relation to the natural world. This suggests to me a psychic analogue of the reptilian brain that functions at an unconscious and instinctive level to maintain the physical human body, and without whose continued operation that physical body would cease to function. I propose an equal level of consciousness that has an equally vital function – that of maintaining essential human psychological functions of relationship, identity and meaning – in relation to the material world [especially the natural], and the immaterial domains.

While we might consider the reptilian brain as primitive, we would not consider advocating its eradication and replacement with a new improved version. Instead, we live with, and honour its role in maintaining our essential physical presence in the world. I suggest a similar attitude towards the fundamental mechanism of our psychic well-being would be appropriate. Animistic consciousness links us to our world, and beyond the human mediated to the natural. At the deepest level it participates in the sense of fellow feeling with other lives and acknowledges a larger sense of living being than might be otherwise evident to the rational senses.

Cultures that share animism also share a sense of a binary nature of reality, and especially the presence of an inhabited and interactive realm beyond the physical. We can see how this natural apprehension, denied unfettered expression, finds expression in analogue of imagination and now in the conception of cyberspace. The challenge is not so much accepting the idea of an inner realm but accepting the reality of it. The reliance on physical sciences as the primary authoritative determinant of what is real has arisen, in part, because the failure of religion to maintain a credible narrative on the realm in relation to which it has asserted supreme authority – a gatekeeper of experience and knowledge. As a consequence, the methodologies of science have set the limits at the boundary of the physical world. So we have become accustomed to living without knowledge of what is beyond it.

For the most part living without that knowledge has not been evidently problematic because when the inner world has intruded it has been contained through diagnoses of madness, acceptance of error, accommodation of occasional strangeness, and tolerance of religion. Secret beliefs or removal into a sub- set community of shared ‘secret’ knowledge have also been accommodated and tolerated where eradication has not been effective. But on the other hand, it has enabled the mythic inflation of elements of the material world to act in a substitutional manner as surrogates of essentially metaphysical functions. The apparent ultimate failure of this inflation has become one of the ‘hungers’ now seeking satiation in non-traditional and contentiousways.

Animism in this context needs to be ‘recovered’ in Charlton’s sense, and it needs also to be honoured as an experience and respected as a discourse or narrative – as a natural heritage. And for those who choose animism as a philosophy it needs to be accorded due respect.

Animism has the potential to re-engage physical being with a sense of the sacred and the numinous, to extend meaning and value into secret domains beyond appearances.

Further research possibilities

There is little evidence of contemporary systematic thinking about Animism in what I’d consider a sympathetic manner. Harvey (2006) is sympathetic but essentially redefines animism, creating a ‘new’ interpretation. It has its merits in that it appears to enable engagement with elements with animistic ideation without having to deal with the ‘metaphysical’ side of it. Harvey asserts that he is, in fact, rescuing Animism from disrepute and I’d agree he is, but only partially, though usefully. Guthrie (1995) addresses animism as a perceptual strategy, but from a squarely atheistic position, thus reinterpreting it against a default ‘scientific’ context of anthropological inquiry. The difficulty with Guthrie’s position is, however, that the scientific model of inquiry does not properly extend into this domain. The scientific disciplines of examining human being and conduct are not yet accompanied by a fully-fledged science of human experience. That is to say there is no actual scientific examination of whether spirits exist or not. Neither is there exploration of what the experience of spirits might be as if such spirits were real. Guthrie theorises on what the experience would be if they were not. Thus we are dealing with speculative thought: theory based upon opinion based upon certain assumptions. It is fully useful only if the assumptions can be supported by evidence and hold to be true. Otherwise what we have is interesting scholarship with limited practical application.

In contrast to Harvey and Guthrie, Frankfort et al (1946) and Radin (1957) exhibit a certain comfort with spiritual and magical ideas in their examination of ancient and “primitive” thought. Here aspects of the animistic experience are thought through rather than redefined, and this is because the root premise is accepted (that there is a spiritual domain, though this also is an assumption). These inquirers share an acceptance of the spiritual as a given in human thought and experience. It is the obverse of rational or scientific atheism. The debates are about method and interpretation. Frankfort asserts that the ancients saw the world as a ‘Thou’ as opposed to the post-Cartesian ‘It’. Radin disagrees, arguing that this is a kind of armchair misinterpretation that relied upon mistaken perceptions and interpretations of inquirers locked in the vice grip of ethnocentricity, albeit unconsciously so. However he does not actually articulate precisely an alternative proposition. Radin criticises Tylor in this respect. While Radin is no doubt also subject to criticism he does exhibit remarkable and sensitive insight into magical methodology, and hence his ability to interpret evidence is, in my view, superior. Neither Frankfort nor Radin offer any critique of Animism per se. Their values lies solely in exploring animistic ideation in a sympathetic manner and within a  greater context of intellectual and philosophical thought .

If we take a time line from Tylor to Harvey at either extreme, and Radin in the middle, animisitic ideation has been employed to many ends. It has penetrated, but not permeated, our culture as an evocative descriptor whose precise meaning is not always clarified. It’s use is artistic rather than rational. On the other hand the experience of what Tylor called Animism appears to permeate our lived experience. This certainly seems to me to be true at a cultural level and, I would argue, at an individual level the experience varies from the mild and benign to the radical and disruptive, even catastrophic. There is, however, no disciplined or structured examination of common experience, so my comments are impressionistic. The challenge is to define what constitutes an animistic experience and then search for it. I would anticipate that such an inquiry might well demonstrate that there is a greater level of experience than admitted or spoken of. The ghosts and spirits of Tylor’s inquiry retain a persistent presence in contemporary fantasy and in ‘folk’ reportage.

There are related ideas. This is, for me, one of the most exciting domains for further inquiry, and also probably the most contentious. Animistic thought is bound up with the notion of another world – the proper domain of spirits, the realm of dreams, the territory of the shaman; and to which we might fruitfully add the domain of imagination. There are two questions – whether this elsewhere is as substantive as is reckoned within animistic thought and whether is has any role to play as a source of affect upon our familiar reality. We are accustomed to dismissing this realm as “just” imaginary but on the other hand accept it as the repository of archetypal psychic forces. I am not presently aware any sympathetic studies that embrace the full potential extension of this vital element of human consciousness.

Various thinkers touch upon it. Redfield (1968) distinguishes between moral and technical orders of human experience in his consideration of the distinction between ‘primitive’ and ‘civilised’ living. Armstrong (2001) explores ideas of mythos and logos in order to articulate the differing kinds of consciousness in her exploration of religious thought. Frankfort (1946) considers the emergence out of mythopoetic consciousness into rational thought, a theme also explored by Jeynes (2000) as the emergence of consciousness itself. So some see distinguishing states of consciousness that may denote degrees and types of development or evolution or attunement.

In spiritual and religious thought there is widespread thought of other dimensions of being. There is, in short, a near universal acknowledgement of another domain to human experience. It might be called the mythopoetic imaginal realm rich in moral energy (here I wish to distinguish a certain kind of dynamism that concerns itself with issues of conduct – the virtuous or ennobling actions as well as fears and failures). This domain appears to be fundamental to animistic thought. That is; it appears to be a necessary companion to human life experience. It is part of the lifeworld of the ‘primitive’ Animist, and it is part of the lifeworld of even the sophisticated atheistic Westerner. There are, I think, clues to suggest that there may be an essential psychic architecture to this domain. It may be that we have, in the contemporary West, evolved so that the locus of our consciousness is no longer substantially located in this mythopoetic domain, but it is a different and possibly perilous thing to argue that it no longer exerts a vital or fundamental influence upon us. In fact, Newberg et al (2001) comment on the value of religious ideation in life in contributing to our health psychological.

There is a certain desire from dedicated rationalists to see human destiny as entirely liberated from the legacies of instinctual and mythopoetic impulses. This is an extreme view that champions what is conceived as reason as the highest and most valued attribute of humanity. At best this is an emergent quality confined to a few extraordinary individuals. The general human condition, from the tenacious remnants of traditional cultures to the urban sophisticates of Western culture, remains true to both instinctual and mythopoetic impulses, as much as it is responsive to reason. This fundamental trilogy remains the essential constituents of the human lifeworld for the time being.

The advent of sophisticated technologies has enabled not an orgy of rational and reasoned content in movies or on television but a ‘bringing to life’ of the fantastical in evermore elaborate forms. We mine the potential of our mythopoetic heritage to construct popular entertainment of increasingly compelling character. And we ‘animate’ these same technologies with presently rudimentary smarts as if we are driven by a desire to render our servant machines intelligent and capable of communication as if they were fellow animate beings. Here we may perceive a convergence of high reason expressed in the deeply sophisticated technologies and the science that enable them and that ancient imaginal capacity that give a stage to archetypal psychic energies. If our view of this convergence is to lament it, seeing a degradation of fine machines as mere servants of whimsy and fantastical irrational nonsense then we risk divorcing two remarkable human attributes – the rational and the imaginal. If we rather permit the marriage of both, then the intellectual prowess we apply to one we might also apply to the other.

But this requires genuine free inquiry, not engaging with ideas bound about by pre-conditions that insist upon an assumption of atheism as the responsible and rational default position. In my view the presently scattered and fragmentary engagements with animistic ideation do not, come close to tapping the potential for examination and exploration of the subject matter.

There is a number of areas of particular interest on a more concrete level.

We can explore the kind of animism that is bound implicitly within religious and spiritual practices not traditionally widely accepted within the ‘old’ West. There is a growing multicultural element within the ‘new’ West (no longer dominated by a singular ethnic, cultural and religious bloc) whose religious traditions are steeped in animistic thought and practice. Added to this is the growth in Pagan  and Shamanic practices and thought among members of the ‘old’ West.

Animistic thought is finding a place in the environmental movement, as it seeks ideas and language that better articulate emergent values and ideas. Mack has argued for a ‘new psychology’ to express such values and ideas as core and key to a needed change in attitudes and conduct. The extent to which such a new psychology is predicated upon animistic ideation based upon a disciplined conception of Animism is not something I’ve explored. The extent to which a psychology (as a science) is influenced by a philosophy in the context of the various permutations of animistic ideation might be usefully explored.

Urban animism offers the opportunity to explore how we vest living significance and meaning within whatever environment becomes our ‘natural habitat’. If animism is an innate impulse then it will apply as  a mode of perception whether the environment is ‘natural’ or human-made. In design and art, in planning and in conceptualisation of the built environment as the dominant domain of human experience there is a potential to merge inanimate and organic elements into a unified discourse. We may comprehend a human-centred animism describing the built human-mediated environment in terms of the ghosts and spirits of history.

The other area potentially rich in opportunity for inquiry is technology. We create devices, systems, and media in response to desire and need. But how we interpret that desire and need depends upon what assumptions we have made about our nature. In some ways designers are employing the potential implicit in technologies to impose a new kind of animism on us. Machines are engaging us, drawing us in to animistic relationships. I perceive a metaphysics of the machine that can help us explore extension of the human domain beyond the physical – engaging with the energies operating on the sub-strata of material existence. Is it entirely co-incidental that it is animistic analogues that take us there?

Animism is but a portion of the wider prospect of validation of an innate propensity for the spiritual/religious that may be confirmed in brain and other scientific research fields. If this transpires, we will have to rethink a good deal of what constitutes knowledge about our psychology.

Despite the dominant Western aversion to the metaphysical and the spiritual humans have persistently demonstrated a profound responsiveness to ideas and values that transcend the physical. It may be a response to a genetic heritage that bids us obedience to the greater good of the species. But this shared survival imperative has its own metaphysical implications. We do not yet understand the root of our motives for noble and self-sacrificing actions. Animism, as a pervasive and universal aspect of consciousness, may be a vehicle for penetrating that mystery more deeply.

Guthrie illustrates perhaps the most critical and interesting potential for future research. He surveys the range of ideas that ‘explain’ animism and anthropomorphism in terms of error, whether of a cognitive or interpretative kind. The view is that humans have evolved from error to superior, and maybe even correct, interpretation of experiences and perception. This, however, demonstrates only one way of considering the evidence. Under an alternative philosophical orientation, the apparently innate propensity for humans to see the world in animistic or anthropomorphic terms might be a response to the way things are. What appear as errors or vices under one way of knowing can be seen as truths and virtues under another.

We can perpetuate the now shaky assumption that knowledge has an objective dimension, or we can embrace more completely that notion that knowledge expresses relational and contextual interplays between human experience and perception and the things experienced and perceived. So whether we interpret the world in terms of wrong/right or in terms of context sensitivity – whether in determinative or contingent terms – matters a great deal.

As our culture is enriched through the acceptance of diverse people whose heritages bring knowledge systems and cosmologies the challenge to critically examine the dominant knowledge discourses of the West, already seen to be problematic, must precipitate uncertainty and contention. This can be taken to be a disruptive consequence against which defence must be mounted or an exhilarating opportunity.

I can best sum up my sense of the potential for future research by repeating Guba & Lincoln saying that “we stand at the threshold of a history marked by multivocality, contested meanings, paradigmatic controversies, and new textual forms.” (2005, p.212)

A final autoethnographic thought

At the top of Katoomba Street, here in Katoomba, there is a pre-loved bookshop. It is usually closed when I walk past it, in the mornings and evening, to and from the station, on workdays. Today is Saturday and it is early morning. The shop is closed. Almost always I stop a moment to survey the books arrayed in the window. Recently I discovered Brunton’s Hidden Teachings Beyond Yoga, a book I had not seen in over 37 years. Today I saw a Hesse and several other volumes that immediately recalled my turbulent years in the early 1970s. The sight of the books threw up powerful images. I could immediately recall the circumstances of reading them.

The bookshop has become a potent time machine that activates images and emotions long since locked away and overlain. The exultation of a new idea, the agony over the wretched struggle to make meaning, the frustration of ignorance, and those occasional blissful moments of the sweet illusion of comprehension – they all come tumbling back. It has seemed to me that over the past few months, especially, these trigger books have appeared in greater profusion, agitating me into a turmoil of thoughts and emotions at a time when I am grappling with the last stages of writing this project.

At the point of ‘enough’, when one knows it is time to abandon something and leave it to fend for itself in the world, the shop window has become an elegant articulation of beginning and ending – the commencement of my journey is now before me as I come to an end – going far does mean returning, so it seems. And as I write this on January the 19th 2008 I am also suddenly struck with the fact that it is three days before my birthday, and two days shy of the tenth anniversary of my mother’s death – another potent articulation of ending and beginning.

Suddenly I am thrown back to a day in the mid 1970s. I am travelling by car from Strahan to Hobart. My wife is driving. There is a sudden strong gust of wind and debris is driven across the road in front of us. I say “Merlin has just died.’ She laughs. She hates it when I do this. “How do you know?” She asks, because she has to, not because she wants to know. “The world just told me.” The conversation flags, and I note the time. When I get back to Strahan, I confirm Merlin was shot just about then. Merlin was a stray blue heeler who adopted us. He was smart and spirited and a mischief-maker. He was harassing chooks in company with other dogs when he wasshot.

The world often ‘speaks to me’, so I see the shop window as a point where it and I intersect in a dialogue about my project. Sometimes it seems that, John, the shop owner, collaborates by provocatively arraying the books and titles to trigger a potent thought or emotion for my journey, or, as today, spur me to scrawl in my notebook over an early morning coffee.

Of course, I may not mean that John is a collaborator in any sensible sense, as if there is an external truth to the notion. Rather the dynamics of the bookshop window is a nexus between me and something else, and it is where my sense of self chooses to find meaning. De Quincey’s notion of self as choice and Briggs’ & Peat’s moments of bifurcation meld to allow me to choose to be reflectively and creatively responsive to what I see. The content in the widow must be there as much as the permitting of potentialities must be there in me. I have a degree of freedom in interpretation only because I let scope of possible meanings find its own horizon.

At a certain level of metaphysical thought whether the cosmos is or is not animate, or is or is not meaning drenched, is an unanswerable and pointless question. Reason and intellect cannot satisfy a sufficient degree of testing any such hypotheses. And there is sufficient complexity and uncertainty for any such proposition to be lived as if it were true, with a sufficient number of validating experiences to make seem to be true. Choosing one hypothesis or another creates potential interpretations that then influence conduct, and whether one chooses one or the other seems dependentupon influences beyond personal control. I choose the animated meaning-drenched interpretation of the cosmos because it seems to be in my nature to do so, and because my life experiences have orientated me towards such a choice. It is a choice potential that I can go with or struggle against, and the more I go with it the happier I seem to be.

This does not suppose that there is an external truth or an entirely internal one, but rather a truth that intersects and interacts across the self/other boundary. A key thought that emerged for me in the course of the research project was that of how senses of identity, meaning and relationship work in concert to create a sense of what is real. I cannot say whether the cosmos is animate or whether it is meaning drenched, or whether it matters whether it is or not. But what I can say is that for my sense of identity, meaning and relationship it seems to matter a great deal, and hence I choose what matters to me.

What has emerged for me, in the course of this project, as the essential ‘take home’message, is the proposition that humans are naturally imbued with an animistic impulse. Regardless of its status within the collective ontologies and paradigms that constitute the profoundly complex psychic environment of Western culture, it is a birthright, in relation to which we have an innate liberty of choice to leave it latent, unconscious or engage with it actively and creatively in our meaning making endeavours.

If this project has a contribution to make, I see that as being a step towards the restoration and healing of permission to make that choice, if it is in one’s nature to be inclined to do so.


A volume I had entitled “A” Transcripts Vol 1 had been commenced in the early 1980s. I had intended to undertake the large job of transcribing the 40 odd audio cassettes of recorded conversation between me and the discarnate entity who had spoken through PJ. It was a task I did not finish, and there are only 53 pages completed. It had been the most neglected of my journals as I had penned most of the transcripts in my magical diaries. Towards the end of 2007 I took the leisure of going through it, in case I might find something worthwhile to be included in the project.

On 11 March 1979 I had asked about the voices that had precipitated my drama. These were the three entities ML had encountered in her bedroom. This is what I recorded in response to my question:

A: These (are) discarnate entities with whom you have profound psychological links. 

Me: Ah, could you explain.

A: No.