Cosmologies of the Anthropocene

Panpsychism, Animism, and the Limits of Posthumanism

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Arne Johan Vetlesen
  • New York: 
    , April
     270 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Arne Johan Vetlesen’s Cosmologies of the Anthropocene, Panspychism, Animism, and the Limits of Posthumanism has some serious faults. The discussion is often too detailed and convoluted to hold the attention or the interest of most readers. At times, the issues are rather gratuitous and not worth the time spent on them. At other times, it is not all that easy to see the connection of the local topic to the overall thesis of the book. The book needed an editorial workup to shorten it and better focus the author’s positions.

With all that said, this is an important, even exciting book. It challenges a standard approach in anthropology and has repercussions beyond its stated topic. The chief aim of the author is to advance an appreciation of meaningful life and consciousness in creatures other than human animals. Having this stance, humans should relate differently to nature and to its inhabitants, and overcome the propensity to treat the natural world as a thing rather than as a presence.

Vetlesen spends much time with Alfred North Whitehead and his notion of panpsychism, which Vetlesen defines as the idea that “everything that exists possesses mentality and a point of view in/on the world” (162), however attenuated. But Vetlesen turns out not to be so interested in the experiences of quanta as he is in the experiential life of higher beings. The heart of the book is the author’s claim that animism is panpsychism (perhaps limited in its downward reach) in practice. He defines animism as “life is everywhere.” Concentrating on a South American tribe, the Runa, Vetlesen reports on anthropological studies of their animism, in which even forests are thought of as alive. He shows quite clearly that anthropologists agree that animism is a result of a mechanism of projection, in which one projects onto the world the nature of one’s own inner life. It is anthropomorphism. On this view, animism is an attempt at an explanatory theory of how things in the world do what they do and change as they change. This is also, by the way, the starting point of present “cognitive study of religion,” in which belief in God supposedly lies on a continuum of animistic projection, but with God being a grand projection onto the face of reality.

Vetlesen argues forcefully that animism is not a process of projection and theory construction. Rather, the Runa experience the world from the very start in animistic terms. That is the way the world presents itself to them, holistically and directly, much as the world presents itself sometimes greenly and at other times redly. The life is communicated from within the experience itself, not tacked on to it. Since this is not anthropomorphism, we are to relate to other forms of life as intrinsically alive and possessed of mind. We experience not a projection of ourselves, but an independent source of meaning and intention. “The agency of all sorts of creatures is the most fascinating, self-explanatory, self-manifesting thing and phenomenally and experientially the most indubitable fact in the world” (203).

This animism does not equal a full panpsychism, since it goes no lower than the observable and the familiar, not all the way down. Yet, as William James argued long ago, panpsychism might be needed to save evolution. It defies explanation how experience/mind could have evolved from dead matter. Facile explanations of mind “emerging” from matter are rather empty of explanation of just what that means. Unless we posit that experience is an original feature of the world, along with matter, that evolves as does matter, we remain with a blocked bottleneck in evolutionary science. And if Vetlesen would have his way, that bottleneck appears way before the evolution of Homo sapiens.

Vetlesen expands “knowing” not only to animals with brains and nervous systems but beyond. Not only brain cells respond and think thoughts. A fascinating exposition on an invertebrate, the brittlestar, notes that this creature has no brain and no eyes. Yet, amazingly, brittlestars adjust their position to avoid predators, find food, and gain shelter. The entire skeleton of the brittlestar functions as one big eye, furnishing visual data to the organism. This creature succeeds in life with no brain and with no eyes as conventionally thought of. For the author, this further decenters humans from an exclusive possession of mentality.

There is much worthwhile in this book if you manages to ignore its deficiencies. The author displays wide and thorough knowledge of science, philosophy, and anthropology. The main argument, for the experiential as opposed to the projective, deserves careful study and consideration. It is a challenge to anthropological truisms.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jerome Gellman is emeritus professor at Ben-Gurion University.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Arne Johan Vetlesen is professor of philosophy at the University of Oslo, Norway. He is the author of A Philosophy of Pain; Evil and Human Agency: Understanding Collective Evildoing; Perception, Empathy, and Judgment; and The Denial of Nature: Environmental Philosophy in the Era of Global Capitalism.


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