In common usage (since its coinage by E. B. Tylor in 1871), animism means “belief, based on the universal human experience of dreams and visions, in ‘spiritual beings,’ comprising the souls of individual creatures and other spirits” (Harper Dictionary of Modern Thought 25)

For Barfield, animism is a product of logomorphism< and a prime case of chronological snobbery. Born from “that luckless dustbin of pseudo-scientific fantasies—the mind of primitive man” (Poetic Diction 67), the theory of animism came about because “earlier anthropologists assumed as a matter of course that the primitive peoples who still survive in various parts of the earth perceive and think in the same way as we do—but that they think incorrectly” (Saving the Appearances 25).

Though there exists “not any single shred of evidence whatever” for “the nineteenth-century fantasy of early man first gazing, with his mind tabula rasa, at natural phenomena like ours, then seeking to explain them with thoughts like ours, and then by a process of inference ‘peopling’ them with the ‘aery phantoms’ of mythology” (Saving the Appearances 41), the development of the idea of animism was perhaps inevitable.

Animism was a product of its time: an historical and cross-cultural projection of the 19th century mindset, with all its contradictions still intact:

Now, in order that nature may be peopled with spirits, nature must first be devoid of spirits; but this caused [19th century] scholars no difficulty, because they never supposed the possibility of any other kind of nature. The development of human consciousness was thus presented as a history of alpha-thinking beginning from zero and applied always to the same phenomena, at first in the form of erroneous beliefs about them, and as time went on, in the form of more and more correct and scientific beliefs. In short, the evolution of human consciousness was reduced to a bare history of ideas.
(Saving the Appearances 71)

As such, animism stands as a case-in-point of metaphoric internalization, specifically of the logomorphic projection of the late 19th and early 20th century “camera age” metaphor of projection. As Barfield sarcastically observes,

One thing at least is made very clear from what [psychologists and anthropologists] are fond of telling us about primitive man and that is that, whatever else he was doing, he was always projecting his insides unto something or other. It was his principal occupation. He must presumably have had one or two other things to do as well, but that was what he majored in.
(Rediscovery of Meaning 108)

Copyright © 1997 — Owen Barfield Literary Estate.       Return to Top.