Philosophy Magazine

Matter & Energy: Kinetic Animism

By Cris

When formal western philosophy was in its infancy, pre-Socratic Greek philosophers grappled with what they conceived to be a foundational issue: What is the nature of the world or base of reality? Is the world comprised of something fundamental?

There were various answers, some of which (such as the atomism) were remarkably prescient. Over time, western philosophy (and eventually science) settled on the idea that matter is foundational. Empirical science revolves around matter that can be measured. In its classical or mechanical form, empiricism has been stunningly successful. In its quantum form, empiricism begins to break down and leads to something more like metaphysics. Depending on one’s perspective and objective, things can look like matter or they can look like energy. It all gets very weird.

With these things in mind, let’s consider one of the comments to my rhizomatic animism post. It comes from a former student, who now assumes the role of teacher:

This article reminds me of what I’ve been reading lately from scholars working on cosmology in Chinese philosophy. In particular, a lot of them highlight how while the Western mode inherited from the Greco-Romans takes matter as its base of reality, the Chinese instead take energy (ch’i) as the base. It gets even more interesting if you consider the fact that both anima (the Latin word for breath which also takes on the meaning of soul) and ch’i are linked to the concept of breath. It seems that in the Western system, we assume that there is “living” stuff and “dead” stuff, and that the difference is “breath” or anima, and that dead matter needs a force to “animate” it. However, in the Chinese sense, all things are against a backdrop of shifting, moving energy, and different forms of life are characterized instead by their li, or pattern (caveat: I’m privileging the Neo-Confucian perspective pretty heavily here).

This is perhaps a good example of what you call the “China Rule,” but I think it speaks to traditional treatments of animism as well. Even the word animism is rooted in the concept of “animating” spirits, which with the traces of Cartesian dualism still evident in our outlook, forces us to either reduce the self out of existence or simply refer to it as the “ghost in the machine,” which we can neither prove nor analyze. The point of this is that maybe all of these logical back-flips aren’t totally necessary, but maybe they’re simply tied to our attachment to “matter” and solid “stuff” as the root of reality. Atomism has been dismantled pretty thoroughly by quantum physics, but its philosophical traces are still running strong.

John’s comment has  been rattling round in my head for the better part of a week. Our fixation on matter has led, ironically, to a conception of the universe as energy. We can, in other words, conceive the cosmos as either matter or energy based without doing any violence to science. Both views are, in their own way, correct. Things can be matter or energy, depending on which way we look at them (and for what purpose). This is a sophisticated way of looking at things that developed over the past few millennia in both east and west.

Matter & Energy: Kinetic Animism

It is not, however, all that novel or new. Animists have been thinking this way for thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of years. This occurred to me last night while reading Jay Miller’s article “Numic Religion: An Overview of Power in the Great Basin of Native North America” (1983). In this excerpt, Miller describes ideas found among Utes, Shoshones, Paiutes, and other Uto-Aztecan speakers:

Probably the hardest aspect of the Native world to convey to English speakers is its dominant kinetic or dynamic quality. It is poorly described by nouns because it involves verbs almost entirely. While many native languages do use nouns, verbs are usually much more important because these people concentrate on processes. They speak not of life but of living, referring to the ongoing interactions and reciprocities that make life possible.

Similarly, power is not a particularly appropriate word for characterizing the life force-and-energy, because it is not a static concept. It is kinetic, underlying all aspects and activities of the native universe, conveying notions closer to those of modern physics than to other folk beliefs. Yet convention and English usage constrains any attempt to introduce more appropriate terms at this time. This processual dynamic of the universe pervades all of power, and with it, all of life.

As should be evident, animist ideas are not simple projections of souls and spirits onto the world and everything in it. The animist worldview is far more sophisticated than that, and in some respects science and philosophy have only recently come to understand what animists have known for a very long time.


Miller, Jay (1983). Numic Religion: An Overview of Power in the Great Basin of Native North America. Anthropos, 78 (3/4), 337-354.


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