YEAR 2 WEEK 1 – Relational ways of knowing – Animism or naturalism?

Week 1 Writing Task

For your Glossary:
Define both Animism and Naturalism, cite key authors.

Write 300-500 words:
Use the two positions (or one of the two) to write a short piece of critical writing on either the Eleanor Hawkins story, one of the Tumble Stones, or the essay on Street Lamps.


Animism – Animism is the attribution of a living soul to plants inanimate objects and natural phenomena.It believes that there are other sensory belief systems and is sometimes seen as naivee particularly in the western culture of today that we live in. This animistic approach can be found in the extract, ‘Rediscovering Animism’ by Stephan Harding’, ‘For most non-Western cultures, such experiences of the living qualities of nature are a source of direct, reliable knowledge. For them, nature is truly alive, and every entity within it is endowed with agency, intelligence, and wisdom’ it goes on, ‘For such peoples, even the ground underfoot was repository of divine power and intelligence.’

Naturalism – Our cultural position, particularly as a Western culture tends to follow this position; the theory that natural laws and forces operate in the world (as opposed to supernatural or spiritual).  It is a scientific view of the natural world. This Naturalistic approach can be found in Le Roy, ‘Foret’ where everything centres human needs and demands; ‘While woods must be regarded as the property of the state, due to their general utility, a forest is often nothing other than a cluster of woods belonging to many different particular owners (…) If one expoits woods for present needs, one must also conserve them and plan in advance for future generations.’ Here there is no mention or thought of the potential souls the trees may have (as would a naturalist view). An animistic view is one that posses scientifically views and numerical facts, measures and values in comparison to the very spiritual animistic view, demonstrated by Galileo in the passage ‘The Scientific Revolution’ from ‘Animate Earth’, ‘one must ignore subjective sensory experiences if one wanted to learn anything useful about the world. Such experiences, such as empathy with a small deer chewing its cud, or awe at the diverse and elemental beauty of a forest in which one is wandering, were for Galileo unreliable and downright misleading.’

We’re in an era now that our knowledge of nature is so great, that we can actually control it. However, the belief systems that haven’t discovered science and mathematics yet, nature controls them because they don’t understand the reasoning and meaning behind it, then they’re not to know any different and fully rely and believe in their surrounding nature (animism).

Animism or Naturalism – The Eleanor Hawkins story


The former private school head girl, 23 year old, Eleanor Hawkins, was jailed for stripping on a sacred mountain, Mount Kinabulu, Malaysia, on the 30th of May 2015. She was released from prison ofter serving a three day sentence imposed by the Malaysian court.

The engineering graduate, was one of ten tourists who took their clothes off at the peak of  Mount Kinabalu, their photos, shared online, caused anger in the region with some saying the group’s disrespect caused an earthquake in the days to follow which caused 18 deaths. Eleanor, and three others were sentenced to three days in a Malaysian jail and fined almost £900 for their actions.

The debate here, in this story, lies in the tension between the animistic theories and views of nature and those of the naturalistic ones. On the one hand, as a modern Western culture, we often pose a naturalistic view which is a scientific and mathematical view of the natural world in which natural laws and forces operate – numerical facts, measures and values are possessed and are used as explanations for nearly everything. Therefore, in studying the Eleanor Hawkins story from a naturalistic view, the sentences she served could appear as rather radical and extreme considering it was only her and her friends at the peak of the mountain at the time, merely following a popular trend at  (in the UK Western culture), of taking naked/topless photos in an aesthetic location to share with friends/on social media. Despite being educated on the local views and beliefs beforehand, and being informed that this particular mountain held sacred sentiment to the locals, being the resting place for the dead, perhaps it was difficult for Eleanor and her friends to understand the seriousness of these beliefs due their naturalistic upbringing – they did not understand the level of disrespect or upset they would be causing carrying out what would be ”simple’, ‘harmless’ act in other locations.

However, in studying the case from an animistic point of view, it is easy to understand why such uproar was caused by Eleanor and her friends in the local community of Borneo and Malaysia. This community is one of many that still have animistic beliefs thus meaning that objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence. It is the attribution of living souls to inanimate objects, plants and natural phenomena. In this case, the mountain being the resting place for the dead –  living within the mountain are the souls of the deceased locals and they are in fact what control the mountain and keep it alive. As a result of this, the mountain is one that deserves and receives huge respect from its animist community, they abide to the mountain. So, as a result of Eleanor and her friends’ disrespect, the villagers strongly believe that the mountain answered and voiced its upset by causing an earthquake in the following days, causing 18 deaths, numerous injuries, the slaughtering of 20-30 animals and Eleanor’s sentences as punishment for this wrongdoing. As far as they were concerned this all happened directly as a result of the upset Eleanor and her friends caused the mountain on this specific occasion.

As an outsider, studying both points of view and beliefs, both sides of the story and perspectives can be understood and appreciated. To the naturalists, the laws of nature and science behind natural disasters can be understood, proven and tracked geographically to the source of the earthquake – thus meaning the earthquake and subsequent results of this were by no fault of Eleanor and her friends despite having arguably disrespected the culture. However, as far as animists are aware and believe, nature has a soul, it is not only a thing used to make things. We are all subjects and there are no objects. The earth is alive. Often, these cultures haven’t discovered mathematics or science and therefore, it would only make sense that the earthquake happened as a result of the upset that Eleanor caused the mountain so she deserves all punishment for the unfolding of events that they caused.

In terms of where I lie personally in this argument in terms of my understanding and beliefs, I can certainly appreciate, understand and empathise both sides. The case study and first study session of this module has definitely opened my eyes to a broader approach of the world – to think deeper beyond what obviously lies in front of the eye. Nothing just appears as it is and what appears as something to one person, may not appear as the same thing to another. It is not as simple and straight forward as it may initially seem as there are many factors that play a role in this understanding and interpretation of the world for example, cultural, environmental and historical. I’m really looking forward to delving deeper into the subject matter over the coming weeks in order to develop a greater understanding enabling me to take this knowledge over to my subject as a product designer and therefore have consideration for this in some form in my own work whether it be subtle or purposefully done.

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