Many of us take for granted a clear divide between the animate and inanimate. For instance: I am alive, but the chair I sit in is not. My dog is probably alive, as is the oak tree just outside my window. I am somewhat less certain about grass. Or viruses.
What does this distinction between the living and nonliving mean to us? Why do we care so deeply about finding a firm line between the two? What might we discover about our world, our own assumptions, and our own ethical action if we are willing to question these categories? Many cultures and peoples throughout the world have never bothered to make such clean distinctions, and even in our contemporary western culture, a movement of philosophers has been challenging this divide from within.
What We Explored
In this ZOOM workshop led by philosophers Henry Kramer & David Nowakowski, we explored the philosophy of animism – an orientation toward the world where everything is encountered as meaningfully alive – from three angles.
- Perceptual: What is it like to see and feel into an animistic space? Think of this like trying on a new pair of glasses. You don’t need to buy them to try them on, and you don’t need to philosophically accept the vitality of everything around you in order to experiment with a new way of seeing. We will look at some of the ways the human body tends toward animism, and at how the very act of perception itself has some unavoidably animistic qualities.
- Theoretical: How do the philosophical claims of animism, as a description of the world, hold up under scrutiny? What is it in our Western philosophical history that has led us away from the animistic mode and into a dualistic mode, where mind and matter are seen as two incommensurable substances? We will look here to a variety of ancient and modern philosophers, to see how they might answer these questions.
- Ethical: If we encounter all things around us as alive, speaking, and full with meaning, how would this change the way we behave toward those things? How might it change the way we ourselves feel? Or how about our definition of meaning – of what matters?
Some aims included:
- Offering some tools to inhabit novel and mysterious ways of seeing, without the need for philosophical justification
- Providing a broad-stroke understanding of the contemporary discussion surrounding new materialism, vibrant materialism, panpsychism, and animism
- Discovering and discussing insights into a potentially healing (both for the human psyche and the more-than-human earth) orientation toward the world
About the Workshop Leaders
Henry is a philosopher who specializes in in environmental Environmental Philosophy and Environmental Literature. He graduated from the University of Montana with an MA in both fields and is finishing out his 2019-2020 Merlin Student Scholar fellowship with us this on a curriculum development project.
As an undergrad, Henry studied comparative religion and philosophy, with a particular focus on indigenous perspectives and phenomenology. He has traveled extensively, including spending several months in New Zealand studying Maori culture and society.
After graduating, Henry was involved in the creation of Storyeon, a think-tank based out of the Jung Institute in Manhattan, and with them, presented on a panel at the United Nations on the wisdom of myth and story.
Henry is currently writing a thesis on wonder, and the role of wonder in fostering our connection with and ethical treatment of the natural world. In his spare time, Henry enjoys eating vegan food that other people have cooked.
David is as a philosopher and educator whose professional work is dedicated to helping people of all ages and backgrounds access, understand, and apply the traditions of ancient philosophy to their own lives. A lover of philosophy and the great outdoors, David is currently building his own consulting practice and serves as a Philosophical Advisor and Consultant for Merlin CCC & Senior Mentor for scholars in the Merlin Fellowship Program.
David began studying ancient philosophies and classical languages in 2001, and has continued ever since. A scholar of the philosophical traditions of the ancient Mediterranean (Greece, Rome, and North Africa) and of the Indian subcontinent, reading Sanskrit, Latin, and classical Greek, he earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 2014. His work has appeared in a variety of scholarly journals, including Philosophy East & West, Asian Philosophy, and the Journal of Indian Philosophy; as well as in presentations to academic audiences at Harvard, Columbia University, the University of Toronto, Yale-NUS College in Singapore, and elsewhere.
A hermit by nature and by committed choice, he balances contemplative solitude with his active work in teaching, counseling, and the healing arts. We are elated to be collaborating with David on our philosophy in the community activities, fellowships, and other Merlin projects.