“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

In dialogue with David Abram

This conversation was recorded earlier this year in San Francisco.


This is the CIIS Public Programs Podcast, featuring talks and conversations recorded live by the Public Programs department of California Institute of Integral Studies, a non-profit university located in San Francisco on unceded Ramaytush Ohlone Land. 


Author, cultural ecologist, and geo philosopher David Abram has been an inspirational leading voice at the intersection of ecology and philosophy for over 25 years. A close student of the traditional ecological knowledge of a diverse array of Indigenous peoples, his work articulates the interconnection of humans both with the varied sensitivities of the plants and animals upon whom we depend, as well as with the agency of the places that surround and sustain our communities. In this episode, David is joined by CIIS philosophy faculty Matt Segall for an inspiring conversation on the wild intelligence of our bodies, the ecological depths of our imagination, and the ways in which sensory perception and wonder inform the relation between the human animal and the animate Earth.

This episode was recorded during an in-person and live streamed event at First Unitarian Universalist Church & Center on May 19th, 2022. A transcript is available at ciispod.com. To find out more about CIIS and public programs like this one, visit our website ciis.edu and connect with us on social media @ciispubprograms. 

[Theme music concludes] [Clapping fades in and out] 


Matthew Segall: Good evening, everyone. Hello Dave. [David: Hello!] Great to be here in person with all of you. Thanks for coming out to this UU Center, beautiful space, beautiful day for hopefully a deep and interesting conversation. I’ve been looking forward to this for actually over two years. This was supposed to happen in the BC era, before Covid. I guess, we’re still obviously dealing with that.  


And to begin, I thought it would make sense to start in the present, which seems to me to be something like a state of normalized emergency, is one way of describing it. Where in so many ways, the world is pushing people to retreat, to escape, to not look at all the various ways in which an unraveling is occurring. And for someone like you who has been engaged in a form of philosophy that is calling us to return to our senses, how do you practice ecology in a time of planetary emergency like this? When it’s pretty clear that the Earth seems to be in a decline ecologically? What does it mean to be an ecologist in that context for you?  


David Abram: It hurts. [Matt: Yeah.] It hurts. I reckon this is something we’re all grappling with, everyone in this fine room, whether you are an ecologist or a thief or a banker or a monk. We’re all- we’re all confounded, and massively, confused and befuddled by what’s coming down on every hand, sort of cascading calamities. Glaciers melting, oceans rising, wildfires spreading.  


It was weird coming here from New Mexico. I live in northern New Mexico in the upper Rio Grande Valley. In the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Really beautiful terrain, homeland many Pueblo peoples, the Tewa, Tiwa and Toa’s speaking peoples, who have tended the Earth there for so long with so much care, but it’s a land also tended and stewarded by the huge Aspen groves up- upslope and ravens and the coyotes who wake us up in the middle of the night pretty much every night and bobcats and black bear. And great Ponderosa Pine trees. A luscious realm that is now home to a huge fire, the Hermit Peak fire, which is ever so steadily advancing toward my home terrain, so there is friends back home know that they just gotta call me and let me know if it’s encroaching um a bit too close, and I’ve got to hightail it back.  


But I know you folks here in California are well acquainted with that sort of situation, but not just such things as fires and floods and droughts and never-before-seen, hurricane winds, but you know now, the distant thunder of war yet again, in the midst of a global pandemic. How to not become numb is for me a huge question. And a question, I reckon probably most of you have found yourself wondering. And it’s a puzzle for me. It’s just- it’s- it’s a big koan.  


The Pinyon pines around my home it’s- the land there is sort of polka dotted with Pinyon pines and Juniper trees, the red Earth between them setting off these, these fairly low trees, but the Pinyon pines all succumbed last summer to- from the drought to this opportunistic Pine Bark Beetle and many, many of them died. And in the last few days, last three days, folks, a team of folks have been cutting down these Pinyons. I didn’t realize they were going to be doing that. I was out and about all day, got back after dark and found myself, you know, I was trying to read, get some work done in the evening. Found myself, really glum, really blue, uncommonly. And I couldn’t figure out what is this ache? Went to sleep. Tried to sleep, really fitful night. When the sun came up in the morning, I was still feeling just kind of miserable in my muscles, in my body and got up and went outside to just take a walk and stepped into the trees and realized so many of these had just been lopped, cut the day before and I hadn’t realized they were going to be engaged in that in the neighborhood in hopes of protecting against fire. To remove some of the fuel, as it were, from the fire. I stepped out among all these trees and just sat on the ground and started weeping and realized ah, my body had just been picking up the dramatic sudden absence of all these allies and friends and neighbors of my organism that suddenly were just not there or were lying dismembered on the ground. Weeping.  


So, it seems to me that the parched Earth is dry, dry soil, at least where I live. The parched soil needs the water of our tears. To know that we actually give a damn. That we’re actually here. And so, I’ve got no good answer to that question in the midst of so many compounding catastrophes. How do we not become numb? Except something of keep listening close into your muscled flesh. And when you feel joy, really express it and let it roll through you. Dance, sing, sing and dance, or write a poem or two or three. And when you an ache or gloom or sadness, let it roll through also. Express it, let the tears, let the tears fall because that feeds the Earth and it feeds the bond and the rapport between your body and the Earth. And it keeps stuff from getting stuck in here, which is what fosters that kind of numbness that we all I think are grappling with as things accelerate now.  


Matt: Yeah. Yeah. So you’ve been described and describe yourself, I believe, as an animist and I’d love to deepen into the meaning of this term and how it relates to coming to our senses, as it were and reinhabiting our bodies, and being in the places, being in the places that we find ourselves rather than always rushing to be elsewhere in search of something that we imagine will be better than where we are. As an animist, you know, you’re talking about the, the grief you feel for the trees that were lost and the, the tears that can be shed on behalf of all the various forms of life organisms that are being pushed off their habitats and driven to extinction and so on. But what does animism mean for you? I assume it also implies that the mountains and the rivers, and even the very air that we breathe, has a kind of animacy.  


David: Mmm.  


Matt: Yeah? And talk to us, talk to us about how you came to that realization, and what its relevance might be for this ecological unraveling that we find ourselves in.  


David: Wow. Well, if I might pull back a moment to make a link with the prior question. Huh. Well, just to say, it seems to me that as things are unraveling further, and as there is this steadily accelerating loss of other species as you speak of other shapes of sentience and sensitivity winking out of the world as we sit here together, talking. And as these onrushing weirdnesses, like this fire spreading toward my home in New Mexico, as these kinds of events intensify, I’d like to offer one clue that’s been becoming more and more real to me, which is that the most efficacious response is um, to become more and more identified with your body. To become body.  


Identifying with your body not as you know, just the house or temple of your soul, but as the very shape of your sentience, as the very shape and texture of your soul. To identify with your creaturely flesh, your animal organism because this body is, are, it’s like the most exquisitely tuned instrument for sussing out any aspect of the real. It’s far more tuned and attuned than any technology we will ever devise seems to me. To become more and more identified with your body is to become more and more of your place. It’s to wake up your animal senses and open the pores of your skin. Your ears tuning into all these other voices that surround. Your eyes becoming much more aware of the nuances and the subtleties in the scape around you. The soundscape for the ears, the color scape for the eyes, but your skin. In fact, your whole synesthetic organism just starts blending with the terrain all around so that you’re not just noticing and attuning to and being tuned by these nuances in the surrounding world, but you can avail yourself of them, you know, where to find particular tools or spaces of calm. You can even make yourself virtually invisible to onrushing wildnesses and wildfires as they move through. There are ways always in the land itself, in your rapport with the other animals thereabouts, wherever you live. That at least, it seems to me, is a key strategy for meeting the outrageous weirdness that is now upon us. So, your question was, you know, about animism.  


Matt: Yeah. Well, I mean the importance of embodiment is so crucial for Western cultures who are used to identifying with some invisible point somewhere behind their eyes, and the body is this baggage we have to carry around with us particularly, as we age. And, but when you say identify with the body, I think you mean something different than the way that a nineteenth-century materialist would refer to bodies, right? Because there’s this animacy to the body as you’re referring to it, so unpack that for us. How is animism different from materialism when clearly, you’re trying to call our attention to the materiality of our reality? 


David: I am indeed. And so, in a sense, one could say I suppose that I’m a materialist, but I’m a matter realist really. I try and keep faith with the materiality of things, and I feel like our culture is in ever so many ways, not material enough. Not, doesn’t pay attention to the materials from which our houses are built, our furniture in our homes, the clothes even that we wear. Material or matter realist, in the sense of um, yeah, keeping faith with a sense of matter as something alive through and through. Matter not as something inert, inanimate, determinate, mechanical or following mechanical, purely mechanical laws of causation, but matter as, as mater, as matrix, as the womb of all things. That’s the kind of matter realist, I suppose that I am. To speak of the body from such a perspective is to speak of this outrageously gifted creature that we are. That is, clearly has its density and weight.  


So, it’s by being a body among other bodies, it’s my body that gives me access to all the other animals and to the plants as well cause there is something in me of that rooted verticality. In fact, once us four-legged creatures started standing up and balancing on our hind legs, suddenly all the trees became our closest allies in verticality. We have by virtue of being body, we have a way of leaning into and sussing out something of the experience of any other body we encounter, whether that body be an earthworm, or a Ponderosa pine, or a bobcat, or a mountain, or even a whole forest, even a building, a computer because it’s all, it’s all alive. It’s all, it’s never entirely, utterly inanimate, inert. There is nothing, at least to my creaturely experience, that is utterly inanimate.  


We speak of how things catch our eye, or call our attention, or grab our focus, even a stone, you know, it’s snags my awareness. That was a cool stone as I’m cycling past. I turn my bike around, go back and pick it up because there’s something about that stone that caught my eye. It caught my eye. It grabs my focus, it, things actively engage our organism, our body. And we respond to that engagement by maybe reaching up and touching that presence to which the thing then itself responds by revealing something more of itself, that stone or this boulder shows me something of its grainy texture, to which I then respond by engaging further.  


And so, perception is this sort of ongoing interchange or dialogue. It’s a living reciprocity between my sensate body and the sensuous beings that I encounter. It seems to me that from our body’s perspective, we know of no utterly inanimate, inert substance. That simply to perceive something is already to enter into a living exchange, a reciprocal encounter with that being. And so, animism, since you asked, is just a way of speaking in accordance with our sensate organism. It’s a way of speaking in alignment with our body. It’s a way of bringing our abstract intellect back into a kind of accord or alignment with its animal flesh.  


Matt: Yeah, so the term itself, which you’ve repurposed in this positive sense, as I’m sure, you know, comes out of 19th century anthropology where Europeans and Americans were describing Indigenous cultures and their worldview as well, they’re animist. And it seems that all human beings for the first what, five, six, seven, eight years of our lives are basically very much aware of what you’re describing. And then in the modern West, for the last several hundred years, it gets beaten out of us and we learn the alphabet. [David: Yes.] We’re going to talk about that as I’m sure you all know. We develop abstract thought, and we begin to not notice all of the agencies that are scintillating on the edges of our rational conscious [David: Yes.] awareness. [David: Yes.] We could talk about how that happened, and I want to go into that.  


Usually we say, well the Scientific Revolution and this mechanistic world view led to the disenchantment of nature and so on. But I think there’s also, there is a political project here, which is to develop human freedom and human beings as individuals recognize their own freedom, in contrast to the inert mechanism of nature. [David: Yes.] It seems to me that as soon as we step back into an animated universe, that’s going to change how we think about our own freedom. Right? [David: Hugely.] What does that look like? What’s in store for us? If we do step into a more ecological worldview, what sort of, what is the politics that comes along with this ecology? I know that’s a hard question, but it seems to me that it’s very much alive.  


David: Wow, that’s a good question. Well, I think I’ve already gestured a bit toward the matter of place. Place and the politics of wonder. That’s, that is going local it seems to me is deeply key here. To notice that not just oneself, but the entirety of one’s world is filled with agency, animacy, that things live in a gazillion different ways. I mean, I got to say that first. That animism, which, you know, one could say the simple intuition that everything is alive. Or that everything has its own interior animation, its own pulse, its own rhythm, its own way in the world. That each thing has agency and ability to affect the space around it and the other beings and even to affect us. What this does first and foremost is open the possibility of relation and reciprocity with every part of the surrounding field.  


And so, the world immediately around you becomes really fascinating and like inexhaustibly so, because this sense that everything is animate, that everything moves is not, it’s not a way into oneness. It’s not a way into oh, so it’s all alive. So, it’s all one. No. No, it’s actually a way into radical multiplicity because it’s as if the bifurcation of the world into animate and inanimate enables us to hide, not from the oneness of things, it enables us to hide from, from the irreducible pluralism of the world. As soon as it’s all alive, then I get to step up toward a slab of granite and say, how are you living? What is your way in the world? And how are you different? How is your way different from that of this, this sandstone boulder nearby and inquire and that is, each thing lives in its own way, in its own style.  


But yeah, the immediate local world becomes a kind of universe, it becomes inexhaustibly strange in its ways and possibilities, even the lichen spreading on this boulder. Whoa, what’s this all about? Who are you? And why this sort of crinkly red lichen, how are you different from this yellow one over here, which is not nearly so crinkly, what’s going on there? So, yeah, becoming local. Opening one’s sense of a kind of inexhaustible wonder at the weirdness of the real and, and your kind of absolute freedom that you were speaking of that we’ve celebrated for a while. It becomes a bit less absolute, you realize that you are profoundly dependent for your very breath upon all these other powers and beings and agencies around you, like all the plants who are breathing out the oxygen that we creatures take in and inhale and metabolize within our chest, circulated through our limbs and then alchemize it, transform it, and breathe out air, infused now with the very ingredient that all these plants need to take in for their photosynthetic metabolism. So, what we animals breathe out, all the plants are breathing in and what the plants breathe out, all us animals are breathing. I mean, the world begins to become exquisitely marvelous to the animistic sensibility.  


Matt: Yeah. Yeah, I like that for you to be in place and to establish a relationship to your local environment actually entails being in a relationship to a multiplicity of different beings because usually, politically when we think of localism, it’s well, it’ll be a more homogeneous culture and less exposure to different kinds of people and so on. But this is a pluralistic localism, animistic localism, let’s call it where you inhabit a world that is far more populous than you even realized.  


David: Indeed. And it’s not- I don’t mean to be saying only tuned to your locale, but first and foremost [Matt: Yeah.] to this locale. And it does mean, you know, walking up to those straight lines and right angles that you see on the map, and you know, peering under them. What’s actually here? Because the land doesn’t have those striped straight lines and right angles between New Mexico and Arizona or Canada and the United States. What are the actual contours in the land itself? The real boundaries of the watershed where everybody, on this side of that mountain ridge shares the same water, not just us two legged, but all the other creatures that inhabit the land here, or migrate through when they’re here?  


And can we begin to develop our politics and our economies, in a way, in service to the needs of the local Earth and honoring not these straight line, artificial boundaries on the map, but actually recognizing what this terrain and its actual contours really are. Who are my real neighbors here, human, and more than human? But each place in this sense, is not just a world unto itself because it connects at those bounds with the, all these other places that surround it. So, it says, if one begins to perhaps, since Earth itself, this immense spherical metabolism in which our individual physiologies are embedded, but Earth itself as alive, breathing, a physiology. Yes. But, but each place, each bioregion, each locale is like an organ of that wider flesh. Yeah, this body, this two-legged two arm form is our smaller body, and the Earth is my larger flesh. As flesh, it has different organs, just like my physiology does. The rainforest, even the temperate rainforest up north of here, the high desert where I live. Each place, the Hudson River Estuary where I grew up in New York, each bioregion, its own rhythm and style of life, its own state of mind, really. It’s as if each place is its own organ within the larger flesh of the breathing Earth. I can’t help but think that our economics and our politics, sooner or later, if we, if we are to have anything of a future, will begin to align and ally itself with the deep needs of the breathing Earth itself.  


Matt: It strikes me that a human species that became more attuned to the surrounding environment through the senses might have an easier time communicating across linguistic barriers. That in some sense we’re inhabiting our bodies, which are the same across cultures and our sensory apparatus, which are the same across cultures might actually afford us some way forward politically, geopolitically as much as ecologically.  


David: Hmm. I would think so. It does seem to me that we don’t have a hint of a hoot of a chance of healing our various social injustices and massive inter-human violence. These internecine wars that we keep sparking up between one another. Without a sort of collective turn away from just gazing at each other and battling out over particular words, particular things we disagree with, particular beliefs, turning together toward the land and asking the ground what do you need of us here? What does this place ask of us? And that very gesture of turning away from just being focused just on ourselves toward the more than human context and asking of it. That very gesture it seems to me, begins to draw the human population into a new alignment with itself. Eases a lot of the brittleness of our internecine inter-human discord.  


Matt: So, you studied with various Indigenous peoples in the Western United States, you’ve studied in Asia with traditional magical practitioners and healers. And you also have drawn on and I think personally connect with some, with the Biblical traditions in some way and given all of this, what future do you see for, for religion and or spirituality? And we can talk maybe about what the difference between the two are, but what is the future of religion and spirituality [David: Hmm.] in an ecological context? If we do attune to our senses again and rediscover an animate Earth. What sort of religion would be flowering or religions in such a context, do you think? 


David: Huh. Interesting question. 


Matt: Is there a place for religion in that context? Or would you describe it as something else entirely?  


David: Well, I would say given the propensity of religious forms to nudge our attention out beyond the sensuous into relation with a transcendent source that is radically outside or beyond or beneath or behind. It seems to me perhaps that the move that deeply ecological move that I’m trying to tickle my compatriots into is a move toward a kind of radical immanence. A deeply immanent, radically immanent sense of the sacred that, that in a sense is very contrary to what we have associated with religion for far so long. I, I don’t, I don’t know that the Indigenous brothers and sisters I lived among in Indonesia or even the Pueblo allies where I live back home, I don’t know that their belief system or worldview or cosmovision is rightly called a religion because it’s so palpably in relation to the actual terrain around them and the elements that compose that terrain. The animals, the plants, but even the wind and the weather powers, the particular way that the sunlight is held in the air in that part of this continent, immanence.  


So perhaps what we’re speaking of is a relation to the holy that preceded all of the world religions. And that will outlast all of the large formal religions because it’s always been there underneath these formal religious structures, secretly nourishing them from below. It’s, it’s the body’s faith, a faith, not in a radical transcendent source, but a faith in the return of light, every dawn in the nourishment of the air, in the gestation of seeds, and faith in mountains and rivers. Is that a faith? I think so, it’s the body’s faith.  


Matt: Yeah. When you spread agency throughout the world and cease from keeping it contained just within the human, it seems to me that one way of describing what that entails is that it’s like, there are little transcendences populating the entire Earth, in the sense that each agent is a source of, of creative surprise that’s yeah, profoundly relational, but not determined by those relationships. I mean agencies, there’s, there’s a creative will there that’s present in all the creatures that compose the world. And so, I guess rather than totally eliminate transcendence and just have the immanence, it’s like we can see how, well, the transcendence pops up everywhere. 


David: Exactly. Yeah, that’s gorgeous. It’s that- 


Matt: You can write about it because I won’t be able to write about it as well as you can. 


David: But it’s just transcendence wherever you turn, there is transcendence. That is just how I see it. That is just how I see it. Yeah. 


Matt: So, let’s talk a bit about your first book Spell of the Sensuous. I was rereading some of it in the last several days. And first of all, it’s astounding that someone of such erudition and poetic capacity could at the same time, raise such a profound critique of the effects of the alphabet on consciousness. [David: Huh.] And I think you’re not this, the irony of that is not lost on you by any means. But I wonder how, how do you reconcile with the sense in which you yourself are so possessed by this alphabetic mode, right? As, as I assume we all are, as speaking, writing English, English speaking human beings, maybe you’re multilingual here, but you still have an alphabet. We have this way of using this very tool to turn back upon the tool and ask, should I really be using this tool or how is this tool blinding me from the animate Earth. [David: Right.] Talk to us about how you came to this, this insight, this relationship to the alphabet.  


David: Um, well. Huh. It’s a good question. I mean gadzooks. So, for those of you who know this particular book of mine, The Spell of the Sensuous. It’s by no means the whole book, but it is one of the arguments threaded throughout the work is the very strange influence of formal writing systems upon our senses and looking, even how different writing systems affect our senses in different ways. But how the alphabet, or phonetic writing profoundly alters our sensory relation to the surrounding sensuous Earth, and also how writing and the alphabet alters our experience of language and linguistic meaning, because when we speak of Indigenous traditionally animistic or traditionally, yeah, peoples of place, we are by and large speaking of traditionally oral cultures, cultures that developed and flourished often century after century, millennia after millennia without or in the absence of any formal system of writing that is coupled to their spoken language.  

And so, it’s an interesting question, this difference. But gadzooks Matt, I gotta say it’s been the most common misunderstanding that we meet out there in the world, that I’ve met out there in the world of my work is that like oh my God, Abram says the alphabet is the cause of all of our problems that writing, you know, is bad. And yet, look, the guy’s written a whole book! [Matt laughs] And he’s written it with a kind of love of language and it’s a very sort of a literary text. We seem to have caught him in a performative contradiction and they just have not been reading carefully enough. [Matt and audience laugh] 


I love the written word. I am not saying that writing is bad. I’m certainly not saying that the alphabet is evil. I am saying rather that writing is magic. And that the alphabet is a very powerful form of magic, a very concentrated form of animism. I mean, we come down in the morning, open up a newspaper and focus our eyes on these ostensibly inanimate bits of ink on the page and suddenly, we hear voices. And we see visions of events happening on the other side of the world. This is animism, folks. This is magic. I mean, it’s not that different from an Indigenous Pueblo woman stepping out from the pueblo into the woods and coming upon yes, like a boulder. I was speaking of earlier with all of these crinkly lichen spreading on it and she focuses her eyes on a patch of lichen and suddenly hears the rock speaking to her. Or a man walking under a tree and sees a spider slowly weaving its web between two branches of that tree or maybe his faith snags on spider web and then he steps back and looks for that spider. I’m sure this has happened to each of us at some point or other. And you, when you catch sight of that spider, it’s like there she is and you focus in and suddenly you hear the spider speaking to you or at least many of my allies in the traditionally oral Indigenous world hear themselves addressed by such diminutive beings, as well as by very large beings like wolf or bear, but sometimes even spider. Well, we do the very same thing with our scratches and scripts. We focus our eyes on those bits of ink and we hear voices, and we see visions. This is an intensely concentrated form of animism, but it is animism nonetheless as outrageous as a talking stone or a speaking spider.  


And so, it’s just that this very concentrated form of magic effectively eclipses all of the other modalities of participation in which we used to engage, not just with spiders and animal tracks and bent branches and cloud shapes. But I mean, with basically everything in the world that we’ve stepped into relation with could sometimes address us and speak to us. Now we have, with the written word, stepped into a richly and almost exclusively human conversation with our own human tracks leading across the wide expanse of the page. So, it’s, it’s a big shift. It’s a huge change. If you want to wonder about the origin of our sense of a private interior that we each carry around this inner world within us. I think you’ll find that origin point right there as we step into formalized writing and in particular to the phonetic alphabet. But I’m not saying the alphabet is bad, I’m saying the alphabet is magic, and if we don’t recognize it as such, then you tend to fall under its spell, which is the spell of spelling. Really. It’s like, wow, it’s written. So, it must be true. You all know that experience.  


Matt: Especially on the internet.  


David: Indeed. So, so wow, if you do recognize it as a magic, a very powerful magic, then you can wield it responsibly and place also the written word back in service to the whole more than human field of voices like, a writer like Mary Oliver does or Wendell Berry or Henry David Thoreau, or Gary Snyder, your great Californian cat, and, and so many other luminous women and men. Terry Tempest. 


Matt: Yeah. So, we’ve got 10 minutes to continue- 


David: I’ve got a question for you. [Matt: Oh!] I actually, when CIIS asked if I would, if I would come and do something with you guys. Sure. What do you want me to-? They said well, we don’t want you to give a talk. We’d like you to be in conversation, we’ll come up with someone. I said, well no, if you’re having me out there, it’s got to be Matt Segall. We’d not met until now. We’d not even corresponded until after they, CIIS had said yes, but I’m sure many of you know, but Matt is a powerful philosopher in his own right. And I find much of the work you’ve been doing really compelling and fascinating to me. So, you’ve been asking me these questions about animism, and it has not, you know, escaped my notice that much of your writing engages something that folks today call panpsychism. Are these very different or are they two ways of speaking the same enigmatic wonder?  


Matt: I think they overlap profoundly. They could be synonyms, but panpsychists tend to want to get into arguments with each other about what it means, whereas animists seem perfectly fine to just zip it [David laughs] and experience what’s going on out there. [David: I see.] So, in other words panpsychism is like this, this philosophical category. That is, I think of it as an alternative to the other major games in town in terms of metaphysics, the ultimate nature of reality. [David: Hmm. I see.] Materialism, though, I mean, in the sort of 19th century, reductionistic sense, idealism, dualism, and then panpsychism. There’s probably other ways you can, you know, dice it up, but those seem to me to be the four major options.  


And panpsychism, or animism, I think avoids the excesses of the others. [David: Right.] Materialism is too deflationary, idealism too inflationary, [David: Right.] it’s mind everything and it’s all one, right? [David: Yes.] And dualism’s kind of incoherent. So, panpsychism would be the view that, yeah, mind is everywhere. There’s a soul of the world. There’s a soul in everything. In each thing. And we, you know you emphasize embodiment. I tend to think of bodies as expressions of soul. [David: Ah.] Yeah, there’s a, in your book, Spell of the Sensuous, you talk about the Hopi language and how they have these two different senses of reality as manifested and manifesting. [David: Manifesting. Yes.] And soul for me is the manifesting, right? And manifested would be sort of when, when the soul expression has become arrested in that instance. Okay, then it’s manifested. And we think of it as no longer as living as it was in the manifesting phase. 


David: Right. Got it. Yeah, body for me, I suppose combines both of those. [Matt: Sure.] It’s clearly manifest in many of its aspects and yet so much of it is hidden, even from me and it’s up to things going on all the time. Not just in my gut, but in every little, you know, digit and knuckle of my digits. Things are preparing are brewing, unfurling themselves and often taking me by, by surprise. But yes, so I, it would be hard for me to say that each thing has a soul. It’s more that each thing is a soul. That the body is the very texture and flesh or shape of this mystery we call soul or mind, but this is, [Matt: Words.] we’re very close and yet it’s very, you know, it’s, it’s slightly divergent ways of speaking. It’s true. Those who would hold or feel comfortable with a sense of animism, many of whom would not even necessarily know the term animism, but they are, it’s not a logical, it’s not a logical position. It’s an experiential stance in relation to the rest of the real and it comes into being, or it’s discussed not because it solves or yeah, solves any sort of philosophical, logical incoherence, but because of a kind of ethical imperative to step into full-bodied relation with the palpable actuality of the world that surrounds us. How is it that we have become so deaf to all these other voices that don’t speak in words? So blind to anything that’s not human or of human invention that we can so casually bring about by our lifestyles the extinction of all of these other shapes of sensitivity and sentience. How can we undo that? Is there, is there a way of just rapidly shifting that blindness, that deafness? And I think that’s, that’s what certainly motivates my wish to speak in these ways.  


Matt: We have a few minutes left here. I will say, I think I am both an animist and a panpsychist because they’re different in the sense that you were hinting at, animism is more experiential. There are an increasing number of analytic philosophers of mind who adopt panpsychism, but as a logical exercise and when you- actually and I’ve asked some of them, you know, well, how do you feel about, about the mountain over there? How do you feel about, you know, the water that comes out of the faucet or the water in the river? Do you, do you feel the presence of another being or beings, you know, sharing a place with you when you encounter them? And the answer is usually no, there’s no experiential grasp of what if panpsychism were true, what it would mean for us as embodied creatures.  


David: How very strange. How very strange. 


Matt: It’s a little frustrating [David: It is.] to be an academic having these conversations and, you know, panpsychism sounds so cool, but if it just stays in the classroom and in the books, it’s like, oh yeah, how is it helping the world?  


David: Another slight difference is that animism is it’s a more, perhaps, perhaps a more mythopoetic way of addressing this sense of being immersed in sentience. 


Matt: But although Pan and Psyche also are mythic beings, right?  


David: Yeah, very mythic beings just like animism comes from anima. Anima, the Latin word for the soul, which originally means the breath, or a gust of wind, it actually comes from the older Greek term anemos, which means wind and so the sense of everything in motion, very sensuously is also just a noticing that we live immersed in this unseen invisible medium of air that sometimes, well that sets everything in motion when the wind is moving. And yet it’s also, has these cool pools of calm on certain days that the air itself is aware. Yeah.  


Matt: You’ve given some talks and I think written a bit about what you call the commonwealth of breath and develop this analogy between mind and air and that in some ways, we are inside of a kind of atmospheric consciousness. [David: Yes.] Very panpsychist. Very animist. I love it. In the context of two I’ll call them natural disasters. Some people think Covid was a lab leak, but even if it was, they were only studying it because of the risk of spillover events due to habitat loss and so ultimately, what’s the difference. Climate change, Covid, affecting the air we breathe and the atmosphere of this planet. What does that tell us about consciousness? What does that tell us about the sort of intention that we would need to cultivate and develop to respond to the climate crisis, if we think about it in an animistic way and not just as, oh there’s too much CO2 in the air out there. We’re actually breathing that in from moment to moment too, so, how does, how does the animistic view of climate change, you know and or the pandemic change our situation, what is it?  


David: Well, I think both of these are instances where the palpable thickness, the meaning filled richness of the invisible medium that connects you and I up here and all of us sharing breath within this room with one another. Yet we live in a civilization, a rather goofy civilization that thinks that since we can’t see it, there’s nothing of much consequence here between us, we don’t speak of the air between us, we speak of the space between us or the space between you and a nearby tree. It’s empty, empty space. And so, it’s just, it’s a void, right? And so, it’s a perfect place to toss everything we wish to avoid. All the toxic byproducts of our industries, of our fossil fueled automobiles and giant tankers out at sea lugging thick tar sands crude to be processed in foreign ports, whatever, you know, spills and spews out of those smokestacks and farts out of the, the exhaust pipes of our trucks and automobiles and dissolves into the unseen air. We think well, look, the smoke. It’s just dissolving into the air. And we think out of sight, out of mind, we don’t need to worry about it. It’s gone.  


But for our Indigenous oral ancestors, that which dissipates as smoke and dissolves into the invisible atmosphere, is by that very gesture, entering into the mind. Wind mind of the world from which we all drink steadily. The animistic sense of mind is not of that I have a little mind inside me, and you have a little mind inside you and then we get to argue about whether that squirrel has a little mind inside its head. But rather is a recognition that, that there is something interior about the mind. But it’s not because it’s inside us, it’s because we are inside it bodily, immersed along with all these other bodies of people and great blue herons, and spiders, and oak trees. We are immersed in a mind that is not ours but is rather the Earth’s. That mind moves and blows through all of us and each being partakes and participates in this vast sentience.  


I don’t know Matt, what is climate change if not the simple consequence of forgetting the sacredness of the invisible air or atmosphere and beginning to treat it as just empty space or rather to treat it as a convenient dump site for all of our toxins. In doing that, it’s like we were making burnt offerings back to some slumbering power, some god, some wild agency that stirred from its slumber would begin to bite us, and we are living at that moment, and the bite is coming hard.  


Matt: Dave, it’s been a delight to share air with you, and all of you. Thank you so much. 


David: Thank you. 

[Clapping fades in and out]








3 responses to “In dialogue with David Abram”

  1. Jim Racobs Avatar
    Jim Racobs

    Wonderful dialogue & very accessible. Thank you for posting. It’s brightened my day.
    A couple of mistranscriptions–immanence & immanent, not eminence & imminent. Soul expression, not sole expression.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Thanks for catching those!

  2. dltooley Avatar

    Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal had a major influence on me going back almost ten years now.

    Abram, perhaps like Ken Wilbur, has both advantages and disadvantages to not being associated with academia. Your dialogue.

    Speaking subjectively to my personal path I do think connecting the brain in dialogue with nature can help to provide a deeper, and easier, understanding of process thought.

    From my perspective this dialogue helped to integrate a large part of my mental path over this decade. Thanks.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: