Culture Magazine

Animate Motion & Religion

By Cris

While working on the Göbekli Tepe Series, a reader suggested some possible intersections with the work of Julian Jaynes. At her suggestion I’m reading The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976) and some of Jaynes’ other writings, including his 1970 essay on “The Problem of Animate Motion in the Seventeenth Century.”

Jaynes begins the essay by reminding us that motion, our understanding of which today is taken for granted, formerly was a problem:

Motion is now so much the domain of physics that it is difficult for us to appreciate that this was not always so. Before the seventeenth century, motion was a far more awesome mystery. Shared by all objects, stars, ships, animals, and men, and since Copernicus, the very earth itself, it seemed to hide the answer to everything. The Aristotelian writings had made motion or activity the distinctive property of living things, an idea that occurs naturally to children and primitive peoples of all centuries.

Motion, in other words, was conceived as animation. Everything that moved did so through the agency of unseen forces or spirits.

Animate Motion & Religion

Early theorists of religion, such as Edward Tylor, called this understanding “animism” and asserted it was the earliest or original form of religion. Modern theorists of religion, such as Scott Atran, call this understanding “folk physics” and argue that religion arises from the over attribution and imputation of agency.

Although Jaynes wasn’t thinking in these terms, this early essay on motion presages his later interest in religion. Motion and religion may not seem to be related, but they are and have been perhaps since the beginning. Jaynes seems to have understood this.

While recounting the intellectual history of motion, Jaynes comments on Fabricus ab Aquapendente (1537-1619), an Italian Renaissance thinker and rival of Galileo. In 1618, Fabricus published a book containing this remarkable statement:

In truth, nature fulfills her aim by so bestowing behavioral movements and functions among animals that they preserve themselves through them; this consists in a preservation of the ablest in obtaining food, in continuing the species, and in avoiding injury.

It looks like Fabricus was thinking along evolutionary lines several hundred years before Darwin.


Jaynes, Julian (1970). The Problem of Animate Motion in the Seventeenth Century Journal of the History of Ideas, 31 (2), 219-234 DOI: 10.2307/2708546


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