Gordon White and the New Animism


Okay, it’s not really “new” animism at all. It’s actually the oldest animism but I’ll get to that in a moment.

Over the past few months, I think I’ve read every book by Gordon White and have listened to at least fifty hours of his podcasts and presentations. This is odd because his subject matter (as advertised) revolves around chaos magic, alternative history, anomalous events, etc. Not typically what was included in my “Great Books” education nor even remotely close to my current interests. However, as far as public intellectuals and metaphysicians go, I think he is an extraordinary thinker and onto something profound. He presents a cohesive philosophy that is internally consistent and exceedingly well-developed. I’m not convinced he is right, by the way, but he presents a worldview which is orderly and utterly aligned with the history of religious, philosophical, and folk thought that has largely disappeared from the public conversation. It warrants review and discussion. In short, the guy is brilliant.

Let me explain.

Gordon states frequently that he is an “animist” and that our universe is potentially populated by types of entities that fall squarely outside of current materialist definitions of what it means to be “real.” He doesn’t drop into a concise scientific definition but leaves open the possibility of entities\forces of place (e.g river spirits), perhaps trans-dimensional consciousnesses, non-human intelligences, etc.. I am not sure exactly what he means – it is open ended. What I do know is that if we were in different times or places we would simply refer to these as ghosts, angels, aliens, devas, asuras, etc. In fact, there are far more people in the world who actually believe in these things than who don’t. So, he is technically in the majority. [By the way, I’m not just talking about third world religious practitioners whom we modern sophisticates can write off as primitives. The history of European Christianity is also full of disembodied entities who act in this world — they are otherwise known as “saints.”]

I’m convinced that materialist epistemology is broken beyond repair (to use Gordon’s witty example – materialism is like the drunken party guest who seems to be hanging around long after the festivities are over while everyone stands around and wonders why he is still here.). In truth and as supported by evidence, humans know things they should not. Sheldrake, Radin, et al. have conducted peer reviewed experiments that demonstrate (as academically uncomfortable as they are) that while materialist epistemology can explain very much of what we know – there is a small but statistically significant sliver of human knowledge for which we cannot account. It seems to me that Gordon is responding to these epistemological anomalies by going back to the earliest of all religious ideas – that we are not the only ones in this movie.

As a philosopher, I bristle a bit at this. Why postulate the existence of other actors when simpler explanations might work? William of Ockham would not be proud. However, as Gordon states somewhere or another, humanity has preserved these ideas of non-human beings since our very beginnings. In fact, even the sophisticated and established theologies of today claim their existence. For example, my formal experience in graduate school had one Jesuit advisor work with me on an independent study he chose of Iamblichus (a magician if there ever was one) while another professor (who studied directly under Etienne Gilson) coached me on all things related to Plato. These men were steeped in the rationalist western tradition but probably would not even question Gordon’s ideas. Certainly their church does not deny the existence of these beings, they simply forbid relating to them.

Yet, Gordon’s metaphysics postulates a universe that is messy. It is not nearly as neat and tidy as advaita Vedanta, neo-Platonism (which the earlier White seems to genuinely scorn), or most of the systems derived by the intellectual traditions of both East and West. His is a well-populated universe that cannot be cleanly outlined and is more akin to how folk societies saw the world than the output of sterile philosophy programs. I’m reminded of what Ram Dass said after his first trip to India when seeing all the colors, idols, and rituals – “It is just so garish.” Yet, like it or not, this is how the vast majority of even contemporary people see the world –  as generally understandable but with edges of reality that get pretty fuzzy once you leave the immediacy of our well-lit existence near the campfire. Put another way, his views on reality are not those which are outlined in the topics of papers at religious studies conferences but are more aligned with the private conversations of those exact same conference participants after a few drinks later in the night.

There is certainly no way I can prove or disprove Gordon’s speculations here. What I can say is that his ideas are grounded in history – not just in the the history of thought but also in the history of myth. His use of Michael Witzel’s theories on myth propagation is solid. His willingness to recognize that our prehistory is likely much more extended (e.g. Gobekli Tepe) than previously believed, allows him to analyze what could have been religiously taking place in those cultures which, up until recently, we failed to even recognize. I’d also suggest that his writings (now talking more about his chaos work) seem to coincide rather nicely with Jungian understandings of the world – particularly on the nature of synchronicity. He also does an outstanding job integrating the strongly relevant and researched worked of Jeff Kripal on the theory of religion, comparison, and experience. In my own direct communications with Jeff, I’ve found him to be one of the better academic researchers working today. So, Gordon is among very good intellectual company, indeed.

So, where do I land on this? Well, I’m not so sure I need to land anywhere because this topic is fairly mysterious bordering on holy (using Otto’s definition). If I had to guess, I’d have to say that Gordon is developing a metaphysics and theory of knowledge that overlaps into the spaces being explored by Radin. He is bringing some structure to the belief systems of real people as opposed to theologians. There are a myriad of complexities in our experience; Jung’s theories of synchronicity coupled with 20th-century work on intentionality and intersubjectivity point this out. In Gordon’s work, we see a very fresh (but primal) attempt to understand some of our experienced anomalies. When we find someone willing to approach old issues in a new light, who happens to also be grounded historically and intellectually, then it is best to see where his thought takes us.

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