Animism as Reciprocity

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Andreas Weber:

"Animism, the cosmology of indigenous peoples, is the most radical form to think and to enact reciprocity among human and non-human persons. To understand the full scope of this radicality, we need to rediscover what animism is. It has suffered a long time of misrepresentation within the western cognitive empire. The idea that naïve “native” humans live in a Hobbesian natural state adulating spirits and demons in trees, rivers, and mountains is a false myth. This misrepresentation stems from projecting the western cognitive mindset on what the so-called “primitive people” are doing, when they, for instance, ritually give thanks to a tree-being. It comes from not getting the radical reciprocity animism is engaged in.


Animism accepts that all beings co-create a world that is continuously producing life, and takes responsibility to keep this cosmic fecundity going. It understands the cosmos not as made up of things, but of agents, which all resemble humans in the fact that they, like us, crave for life, express their needs, and are required to interact with one another.

“Animists are people who recognise that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others…,” religious scholar and anthropologist Graham Harvey observes, providing the best up-to-date definition of indigenuous, animistic cosmologies.

In a cosmos of relationships, reciprocity is required in order to thrive, and it is required from all sides. In a world of relationships, we are not atomistic indivduals set against one another, but we collectively create one coherent process of life. The collective is as important as the individual. This collective is not only human, but made of everybeing and every force of reality.

Ecologically, the social definition of an attitude required to produce life is accurate. If we look from a formal point of view, an ecosystem is the embodiment of reciprocity. It consists of a host of beings related in endless ways. Ecological life is always lived in relationships with others. An ecosystem is a commons, shared and brought forth by all its participants. It is not an assemblage of egoistic agents. For a long time, Darwinian economics of nature have overstressed competition (the “natural state”) and not paid due attention to the host of dependencies within competitions play out. (For a deeper discussion see Weber 2013 & 2019).

So a view to substitute the crumbling Western Cognitive Empire is already at hand. It is the etiquette of reciprocity we can find unconsciously executed in ecosystems – and culturally instituted in societies, which have managed to live in mutuality with those ecosystems for a long time.

To explore this view, the west will need to step out of its intrinsic supposition that “western rationality” after all is the way the world works – and everything else are mild or severe superstitions. Scientific anthropology has started to attempt this humble position, asking, with Edoardo Kohn “How Forests Think” , instead of “what indigenous people think about forests”.

The animistic attitude, attempting to share the productivity of the cosmos among its participants, contrasts the basic principles of the western cognitive model (see table). Animism is not about material objects being possessed by spirits. It is about constructing a culture, which enables reciprocity, and about a cosmology, which integrates the experience of being part of a fecund collective.

Animism as Commoning with Kin

"An animistic answer to the central problem of how to maintain good relations is that we can see our membership in the living cosmos as being part of a vast community of beings. Our behaviour has the potential to make good relations possible – relations that let others and ourselves prosper. As these relations are of an embodied nature, we can, in accordance with an animistic view, put it even more radically: In this cosmos, all persons including the non-human ones are kin. As kin, they help us, they give us the assurance of being received well, but they also demand being treated in a way so that they can thrive. Reciprocity with other – human and non-human – persons plays out in two fields: It requires us to treat the distribution of material provisions as a sharing of the productivity of the biosphere. And it allows us to experience this sharing as an emotional involvement, hence reconnecting with our own aliveness and enjoying it as a prime intuition of successful relationships.

I have called this new double stance “enlivenment” we can build from it a “poetics for the Anthropocene” , an art of creating and maintaining mutual fecund relationships sustaining cosmic productivity. And we can experience ourselves as sources as well as recipients of this productivity.

If reality is a society of beings, individual behaviour is fruitful to the degree that it joins into this cooperative worldmaking. The distribution of material goods hence follows what we call a “commons economy”. Exchange and distribution is not a reaction to scarcity, but enables everyone to participate. A commons is not a resource, but a set of relationships. It is a collective process of co-creation, which nurtures all participants, which is upheld by everyone, and which in the end feeds into the productivity of the cosmos."" (