The Hunt for a Wakeful World: Anthropocentrism & Subjectivity

In the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa, a young man of the !Xõ people bends towards the earth, examining in detail an impression in the sand the shape of an upside-down heart. Nearby, his fellow hunters make their way quietly through the underbrush, moving with caution so that they might not come upon their prey too suddenly and startle it. The gemsbok is quick; they must be quicker.

Gemsbok_Yathin

One of the hunters, an older man with years of experience and many successful kills to his name, gestures to the others, indicating a bit of scat drying in the midday sun — a sign that the beast has passed this way hours ago, likely on its way to a popular watering hole over the next ridge. They should move on. With speed and stealth, they should be able to overtake the animal and bring the hunt to an end by evening. One of the other men challenges him, and a whispered debate ensues — is this scat from the same animal? how long ago was it left? Wind direction and temperature are considered. The interpretation of scat is a tricky and inexact business. In the end, though, the older hunter’s interpretation prevails and the group agrees to move on.

Yet the boy lingers by the heart-shaped impression in the dirt. Is it a hoofprint? If it is, it’s facing the wrong direction, leading back along the trail they’ve been following all morning. In the shifting sand, the impression is vague and already partly obscured by the breeze. It could be almost anything. But something about it calls to the young hunter, arresting his attention. As he considers it, strange physical sensations arise in his body — a weight on his shoulders, a palpitation in his chest, a feeling like warm, wet blood trickling down his back. On the very edge of his perception, it’s as if he can feel the lingering presence of the gemsbok in this place, its fawn-gray flanks quivering in the slight breeze as it raises its majestically-horned head, the grasses rustling around its legs — a rustling he feels now, too, around his own bare calves. In that moment, he is the animal, tasting the breeze for predators, looping back on his own trail seeking a protected place downwind to settle for an afternoon rest.

The young man turns to the other hunters in his group and, nervously, makes his case. The older men are skeptical. This youth has very little experience to go on, and he is far from a charismatic or convincing speaker. But something in his eyes, his conviction, sways them to trust his instincts. The group loops back, following a trail now entirely held within the mind and imagination of the boy as he feels his way through the brush with a body not quite his own. Before long, his vision is rewarded: among the underbrush, they spot the form of the animal half-asleep in the shade.

The Evolution of Reason

What does this story of the young hunter have to do with philosophy?

According to anthropologist and evolutionary biologist, Louis Liebenberg: a great deal. In his book, The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science, Liebenberg takes a close look at the indigenous hunter-gatherer peoples of southern Africa in order to explore what he believes to be the origins of homo sapien’s capacity for scientific reasoning. Tracing the evolution of hunting and tracking throughout human prehistory — from the simple to the systematic to the speculative — he argues that tracking represents science in its most basic form.

Like modern scientists, early hunter-gatherers developed detailed knowledge of the world around them based on careful observation of their environment. Possessing an accurate understanding of animal behavior was a matter of life and death, as they navigated an ecosystem full of elusive prey and potentially deadly predators (who were also competitors for food resources). In some places, a wide variety of environmental conditions challenged early humans to develop increasingly sophisticated tracking techniques. Simple tracking in snow and desert sand was relatively easy, though it required good eyesight, physical prowess, stealth and speed. But in areas of rocky ground or thick underbrush where footprints might be scarce or completely absent, a more systematic approach to tracking required not only greater skill but also a keener intelligence as hunters relied on a broad understanding of ecological relationships in order to piece together the subtler signs of an animal’s presence. With the advent of systematic tracking, Liebenberg argues, human beings first developed the capacity for inductive-deductive reasoning: gathering data from direct observation in order to formulate generalizations about the world, and then reasoning from the general to the specific based on the empirical evidence at hand.

Yet the most successful hunters not only possessed a vast knowledge of their surroundings, but an intuitive connection with the animals they hunted. At some point in the prehistory of our species, the homo sapien mind made the revolutionary step from systematic tracking to speculative tracking — from inductive-deductive reasoning, to what Liebenberg calls hypothetico-deductive reasoning. Speculative tacking required creative thinking and imagination, a willingness to listen to intuition as well as utilizing careful reasoning based on direct observation. The speculative tracker did not just follow the evidence before him — he learned to anticipate an animal’s behavior based on a sympathetic understanding of the creature’s own desires, motivations and unique personality. He imagined the world from the animal’s perspective, opening himself to experiences and sensations that did not always draw from direct observation but could nevertheless lead him to correct conclusions. Forming a predictive hypothesis about an animal’s likely movements, the speculative tracker tested and refined his theories through the “experiment” of the hunt itself, in cooperation with fellow hunters who offered feedback, critique and alternative explanations. Whereas systematic tracking once restricted hunters to the slow, detailed process of collecting and interpreting only the empirical evidence immediately at hand, speculative tracking now allowed them to anticipate patterns and look for further evidence where they expected to find it, revising their theories as they went and responding more effectively to new or unexpected information in difficult terrain.

Grottes de Lascaux II, by David Martin

Both of these types of reasoning are still evident in the sciences today — in fact, like the most successful trackers, scientists usually employ a combination of the two, for both have their advantages and disadvantages. A systematic approach to the scientific method utilizes trial-and-error and detailed observation to collect vast amounts of data, allowing patterns to naturally emerge from a careful analysis of the evidence. A good example of this technique can be found in how citizen science is being used today to measure the impact of global warming around the world: ordinary people contribute their observations of local phenological phenomena (like the timing of bird migrations or the budding and flowering of plants) to a global database, allowing scientists to develop statistical models that illustrate the wide-scale effects that changes in temperature and weather patterns have on these species. The method requires the patience and precision to collect large amounts of reliable data in a number of different locations over several years, but almost anyone can contribute to the work without needing in-depth knowledge of the theories behind the research or creative insights into what that research means.

On the other hand, some of the greatest scientific minds in history have used speculative reasoning to formulate new hypotheses about the world and to create experiments with which to test them. Albert Einstein is probably the best known example of a scientist using such an approach: his famous thought-experiment, in which he imagined what it would be like to chase a beam of light, played an important role in developing his theory of special relativity. Today, most work in theoretical physics relies heavily on speculative reasoning, as scientists propose theories that cannot yet be tested by physical experiment or confirmed by direct observation. While systematic science values patience and precision, speculative science celebrates intuition, imagination and the courage to take bold risks for the sake of discovering new frontiers of knowledge.

Both systematic and speculative reasoning play a vital role in philosophy as well (as I’ll explore more later in this post). Philosophers routinely grapple with questions about the nature of existence, the self and the soul that are grounded in and influenced by observations of the world around us, and yet can reach far beyond what we might directly observe in our everyday lives. We can see both kinds of reasoning in the earliest writings of the ancient Greeks, but as Liebenberg points out, these traditions of philosophical thought stretch back much farther into prehistory, preserved in the mythologies and religions of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

The Reasoning Animist

The Wakeful World, by Emma Restall OrrIt might seem odd to preface a review of Emma Restall Orr’s book, The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature in such a roundabout way. But Liebenberg’s insights into the intelligence and capacity for both systematic and speculative reasoning in our earliest prehistoric ancestors holds special relevance when considering the question of whether or not animism can be considered a viable philosophical position today.

Orr sets herself no easy task when she endeavors to articulate a philosophy of modern animism that can hold its own among the heavyweights of the Western philosophical tradition. She acknowledges this difficulty with admirable forthrightness, saying:

To someone looking at animist ideas from outside, such beliefs may seem close to the immature response of a little child still wondering how the world around him might respond. […] It is religious metaphysics drawn with fat, colorful crayons.

Within Western philosophy, the theory of animism has long been disparaged and dismissed as fundamentally irrational, immature, even primitive and “backwards.” Many Western philosophers and scientists alike attribute animistic belief to the superstitious anthropomorphization of non-human entities and objects, attributing them human-like feelings and characteristics (this is known in some philosophical circles as the “pathetic fallacy,” a term that comes from the Greek pathos meaning “emotion, feeling,” but which also expresses a clear tone of disdain for such a worldview). A modern Druidic writer and priest, Orr has encountered this attitude personally through her work at interfaith events, and she describes one experience in particular that left such a lasting sting that, even years later, it remained part of the impetus behind her decision to write The Wakeful World.

Another inspiration in the writing of this book, however, was Orr’s deep desire to respond to the call of the natural world itself. In The Wakeful World, she hopes to rise to the challenge of presenting a compelling and intellectually rigorous case for nature’s inherent value apart from our human judgements about its use or beauty. There is a certain poetry, then, in thinking of The Wakeful World as a kind of metaphysical hunt for a more robust animistic worldview than the incomplete, cursory treatment it’s received from scholars in the past. If the Western world has long since dismissed animism as a child’s fantasy, as easily debunked as the mythical unicorn, then you might say The Wakeful World is a hunt for the mud-and-blood reality behind such myths — the vibrant, minded presence of beings like the gemsbok (and its relative, the Arabian oryx), whose spiraling, rapier-like horns originally gave rise to ancient tales of unicorns in the first place.

In this hunt for the modern animist’s worldview, Liebenberg could prove a valuable ally. Unlike previous anthropologists such as Edward Tylor, who have generally viewed animism as merely a primitive precursor to more civilized and respectable philosophies such as monotheism and materialism, Liebenberg portrays the animistic imagination and active intuition of our hunter-gatherer ancestors as a positive development in the evolution of human reason. Rather than presenting the indigenous animistic worldview as childish or underdeveloped, he places it on par with modern scientific and philosophical thought:

The modern scientist may know much more than the tracker, but he/she does not necessarily understand nature any better than the intelligent hunter­-gatherer. What the expert tracker lacks in quantity of knowledge (compared to the modern scientist), he/she may well make up for in subtlety and re­finement. The intelligent hunter-gatherer may be just as rational in his/her understanding of nature as the intelligent modern scientist. [emphasis added]

But if The Wakeful World is a hunt for the modern animistic worldview, what kind of “tracking” — that is, what kind of reasoning, systematic or speculative — does Orr employ? To answer that question, it’s helpful to look at how systematic and speculative reasoning have played a role in the Western philosophical tradition, and to locate Orr’s arguments within that contemporary context.

Speculation in the Age of Reason

Since the 19th and 20th centuries, Western philosophy has seen a split between analytic philosophy and continental philosophy that roughly echoes many of the differences between systematic and speculative reasoning. Seeing themselves as allied more closely with the natural sciences, analytic philosophers emphasize empiricism, objectivity, thoroughness, precision and attention to detail each within their own specialized fields of study, seeing their work as contributing to the cummulative knowledge of the larger community. On the other hand, continental philosophers see themselves as taking up the project of formulating broad worldviews which can be applied to a wide range of related fields — from aesthetics to ethics to politics — while emphasizing the contextual and ultimately subjective nature of all knowledge. Unlike analytic philosophers, continental philosophers do not necessarily see knowledge as cummulative, but instead as progressing in leaps and bounds thanks to bold new insights by key figures.

As American philosopher Graham Harman quipped during a recent lecture:

People talk as though the difference between these two kinds of philosophy is scandalous. Two kinds of philosophy! Even though there are 24,500 species of fish, somehow having two kinds of philosophy is supposed to be this horrible intellectual scandal that we need to eliminate immediately.

Harman’s solution is not to seek to bring these two kinds of philosophy together but instead to revel in their differences, exploring and even intentionally heightening the tension between the two. If Liebenberg is correct in his theory of how the human mind evolved the capacity for complex reasoning through evolutionary pressures to improve tracking and hunting techniques, then we can safely assume that not only have these different kinds of philosophy existed almost as long as our species itself has roamed the planet, but that these approaches to reasoning — the systematic and the speculative — are each both useful and necessary in their own ways. Liebenberg notes, for instance, that while systematic reasoning is a better approach for gradually accumulating and retaining knowledge, speculative reasoning is more adept at recovering lost knowledge, discovering new knowledge and adapting to change.

Given these differences in application, we might expect Orr to rely primarily on speculative reasoning in The Wakeful World, as she sets out to tackle the twofold task of reclaiming an indigenous animistic worldview drawn from her ancestors (recovering lost knowledge) while challenging rationalist and materialist assumptions embedded deep in the contemporary Western philosophical tradition (discovering new knowledge). In her previous books, Orr has become well-known for her incorporation of poetic language and stories of personal experience to illustrate her ideas, inviting readers to step into a creative exploration of alternative human and non-human perspectives that she evokes through her prose. Such writing can be understood as a kind of speculative reasoning, embracing intuition and imagination alongside logical argument and careful observation, offering bold theories that push at the boundaries of currently accepted knowledge and which must be tested against each reader’s own experiences of the world, to be confirmed or refuted through practice and experimentation.

At first glance, this speculative approach seems to be at the heart of The Wakeful World as well. Framing her project in “Chapter One: The Enquiry,” Orr begins by building on the philosophical work of Immanuel Kant, progenitor and arguably still one of the most influential voices of continental philosophy over the past two centuries. In particular, Kant’s insights into the inherent subjectivity of human perception and knowledge is one of the defining features of continental philosophy in contrast to analytic philosophy’s emphasis on objectivity and empiricism, and it provides a rational foundation for valuing and interpreting subjective experience in the context of modern society’s growing scientific understanding of the natural world.

Never Say Kant

And yet, in the end, The Wakeful World seems to be a departure from much of Orr’s earlier work — in style, if not always in substance. Her analysis of concepts such as the self, matter, spirit and mind are much more cautious and systematic than bold and speculative. She spends a great deal of time carefully recounting the endless debates that have grown up around these terms, even when those debates are only tangentially related to her own ideas. In the meantime, readers must wait nearly 200 pages before Orr offers even a basic description of the animistic worldview in any detail. In the hunt for modern animism, readers might feel that they are forever losing ground to the elusive beast as Orr stops to examine every bent blade of grass and loosened pebble along the trail.

Ancient Rock Painting, by Carol Mitchell

The result is a text that is dense with ideas and can at times feel sluggish. Orr comes across as somewhat embarrassed by her occasional departures from the more familiar ground of Western philosophical tradition, rather than embracing such risks boldly as she has done in previous books. When she does allow her language to return to the speculative and the poetic (especially in later chapters), her words still shine with evocative power…. And yet her turn towards “the poetry of animism” occasionally seems almost apologetic, and her bracketing of these passages seems to imply that the imaginative writing of such moments should be considered a departure from the process of careful reasoning, rather than as an essential and natural aspect of it.

Part of Orr’s choice to take a more systematic approach no doubt stems from her desire to present her ideas in a way that will be convincing to skeptics and detractors of animism, or at least to speak in a language that can dismantle unfair assumptions and penetrate potential bias. It is impressive to see a writer with the flexibility to use both systematic and speculative writing as different circumstances warrant, and Orr puts to rest any doubt that she can hold her own against academics who have felt the need in the past to “mansplain” away the real importance of her ideas. For those who have found it difficult to keep up with some of her more provocative work, The Wakeful World slows the conversation to a more ruminative — if sometimes ponderous — pace.

Unfortunately, some readers may feel Orr cedes far too much to her critics in her decision to take a more systematic tack, missing a valuable opportunity in the process. Rather than rising to a vigorous defense of the “fat, colorful” worldview of modern animism in a way that rejects the notion that such ideas are automatically superstitious or immature, she seems to agree with that assessment and to feel a pressure to reimagine modern animism as simply a variation on Kantian idealism (or Whitehead’s process philosophy, minus the math). This is particularly frustrating for readers who are already familiar enough with Kantian philosophy to know that much of his work is built on anthropocentric assumptions that may ultimately undermine an animistic worldview that values the intersubjectivity of a minded, more-than-human world. Although Orr does her best to reason her way out of this pitfall, personally I found myself constantly anticipating a more direct rejection of Kant’s anthropocentrism that never quite came.

Ultimately, I believe Orr does move beyond the anthropocentric foundations of much of continental philosophy. But she does so in such an indirect and protracted way that readers spend much of the book feeling as if they are waiting for the other shoe to drop. Meanwhile, inexperienced “trackers” less familiar with the terrain of Western philosophy might entirely miss some of the more subtle footprints left behind by this metaphorical shoe that Orr’s animism seems to be dragging behind it for much of the text.

Back to the Future

But at the risk of losing the trail on our hunt for a more wakeful world, let’s return to the young man at the beginning of our story.

It’s easy to see this boy as a paragon of the animistic worldview, embracing a creative relationship that values the more-than-human world as a community of richly-minded beings, each in their own right capable of reaching out to the human through moments of intuition and connection. But this is not to say that animism is a worldview concerned primarily with the sentimentality or romanticism of the merely personal, imaginative experience. As Liebenberg points out, our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not merely accept such experiences at face value: they were keenly aware of the distinction between direct observations and creative or intuitive insights, constantly testing their intuitions against the facts of the real world. Where they accepted the reality of non-human intelligences, consciousness and subjectivity in other beings, these beliefs were confirmed by on-going experiences and practical demonstrations of the explanatory power of such theories. Indeed, it is this very willingness to entertain a skeptical viewpoint and to continually refine one’s theories through attentive observation that is the hallmark of the speculative approach.

Oryx running, by Benjamin Hollis

It is this same skepticism that now challenges us to question some of the lingering biases that we have inherited from the Western philosophical tradition. Liebenberg expands on his initial observations about the intelligence of hunter-gatherers by adding:

Conversely, the intelligent modern scientist may be just as irrational as the intelligent hunter­-gatherer. One of the paradoxes of progress is that, contrary to expectation, the growth of our knowledge about nature has not made it easier to reach rational decisions. [emphasis added]

The future of modern animism depends upon this insight: that the prevalence of anthropocentrism in modern science and philosophy is not necessarily an indication of its correctness. One reason Liebenberg suggests that indigenous hunter-gatherers may possess a knowledge of the natural world that is more subtle, refined and responsive than that of the modern scientist is precisely because the modern scientist’s access to huge quantities of data threatens to mire him in dogmatism:

While the scientist may have access to a large amount of information, accepting the validity of the information requires to a certain degree an act of faith in others. This has the inherent danger that well-established knowledge may become dogmatic, which may result in irrational beliefs becoming entrenched in science. […] The tracker, by contrast, is in direct contact with nature. Ideas and interpretations are continuously tested in nature itself.

This places Emma Restall Orr’s The Wakeful World in a slightly different light: as a challenge to the anthropocentrism of Western philosophy which, although perhaps it never quite succeeds in catching up to the unicorn, contributes meaningfully to the modern animist community in ways that continue to encourage skepticism and critical reasoning skills. In the end, animism is a worldview that must be grounded in and responsive to individual experience even as it seeks to reach beyond it. In the same way that a !Xõ tracker cannot simply be told how to hunt but must learn for himself — cultivating a creative way of thinking that allows him to “continually acquire new knowledge and solve unique problems in a never-ending process of discovery” — the animist who expects to learn everything from her elders will have “a head that is only half full.”

For this reason alone, aside from its other merits, Orr’s book is well worth reading, and re-reading: for it introduces the thoughtful animist to a challenging intellectual terrain against which to hone her skills.


Coming soon: Even more thoughts on anthropocentrism and subjectivity…


This post is part of the Animistic Blog Carnival, hosted this month right here on Holy Wild. For details on how to join, click here.


Photo Credits:

• “Gemsbok or Gemsbuck (Oryx gazella),” by Yathin (CC) [source]
• “Grottes de Lascaux II,” by David Martin (CC) [source]
• “Ancient Rock Paintings,” by Carol Mitchell (CC) [source]
• “Oryx running,” by Benjamin Hollis (CC) [source]

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Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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