Intimate Intuition: Why Anthropomorphism is a Good Thing

I usually try to dissuade students from starting off a piece of writing with a dictionary definition – a history essay on ‘fascism’ or ‘identity’ ought not to need Merriam-Webster to get it going – but let me be hypocritical for a moment, and offer you this, from good old MW:

Anthropomorphism: an interpretation of what is not human or personal in terms of human or personal characteristics

It’s not easy to say, and you wouldn’t want to encounter it in a spelling test, but I’m not sure anthropomorphism really deserves the bad press it gets: it’s one of those words – like ‘sentimental’ – that aren’t inherently negative, but if someone says you’re being anthropomorphic or sentimental, it’s rarely a compliment.

So why doesn’t it deserve this bad press? Surely it’s a bar to an accurate understanding of the world? Serious biologists, for example – except perhaps those working with primates (and even many of those) – would see anthropomorphism as a major stumbling block.

Well, first of all put from your mind images of tongue-lolling Californian puppies in sunglasses riding skateboards, or paintings of cats wearing three-piece suits and playing pool. And if you weren’t thinking of those things to begin with, but are now, then apologies. And try to put them from your mind. I offer you instead…. a tree.

It’s not this actual tree, but visiting my Mum and Dad recently I discovered that they’re thinking about having an enormous tree in their garden cut down and removed, because if it came down in a storm it would chop their house in half.

Despite its size, the tree is only about 40 years old. Not knowing much about trees, I’d assumed a tree of its size would be more than a hundred years old, so I was surprised and a bit sad at the idea of it being cut down in what – yes, anthropomorphically – I considered its prime.

Never having thought much about this tree in the past – or indeed any tree – I was quite disturbed to find myself comparing it in age and height to myself (I’m younger, it’s taller), and even moving in to get a close-up look at it.

I promise you it’s not the stress of the semester getting to me when I say this, but paying a detailed, somehow personalized attention in this way triggered an odd sense of warmth and closeness – totally unlike either my usual view of trees as vaguely decorative, or indeed – presumably – the professional perspective of a dendrologist (to save you time, the link to MW is here). There was a momentary shift not just in my sense of the tree but also my sense of my own self as a result – less isolated; sharing a camaraderie, almost sharing a joke of some sort… with this tree.

Eric Cartman: twenty-first century poet

Now, if I were reading rather than writing this, I would assume it was a wind-up. It’s really not, but it is something that’s hard to do justice to in words. It’s not a self-consciously romantic or environmental sensibility  (as a long-time Eric Cartman fan, I’ve traditionally been fairly hostile towards tree-huggers, even while conceding the actual point on climate change and environmental damage).

So it’s not romanticism or environmentalism. It’s more immediate than that: it has to do, I think, with how I – how we – basically relate to the world.

It’s easy to skim over the word ‘relate’ here, as a wishy-washy pseudo-psychology kind of a concept. But almost every religious or spiritual tradition that you could name has paid great attention to the idea of ‘relationship’. It might not be that attractive to read about – impenetrable theology or teeth-grinding pieties – but to get a feel in practice, almost by accident, for why relationship is such a valuable human capacity has been really quite something.

I’ll leave the ‘in practice’ thing to you, but let me end with a distillation of the idea behind this sort of experience. The thinking goes that as humans we’re limited creatures, and we only have a few different means of ‘knowing’ available to us: an objectivizing, ‘scientific’ knowing that tinkers with objects large and small, for example, as well as a rationalising capability that allows us to think through a problem and discover answers.

Our most basic way of relating to whatever happens to be around us – the pure energy of simple contact, of being in the presence of something, prior to deciding whether we like it or not, or whether it’s useful, or how it works, etc, etc – is another form of knowing. If this is what is meant by ‘intuition’ (and MW says it is), then bringing a sense of intimacy into play changes the character of this intuition, making it more potent – think about being in the silent presence of  a loved one, for example, and how the quality of that experience goes beyond intuition alone.

So intuition plus intimacy is powerful stuff – and while we probably already appreciate that fact where people who are close to us are concerned, perhaps we underrate the potential of a dynamic, personalized intimacy when it comes to knowing other aspects of the world. Perhaps the human talent for intimate intimacy is meant to be applied far more widely, and more radically, than merely being reserved for a chosen few fellow human beings.

We don’t have to pretend a tree or the sea, a roadway or towerblock, is a ‘person’ in order to bring this faculty of intimate intuition into play. It is more a case of being open to the possibility of a kind of relating that differs from the conventional one of objectification – seeing something as an object, separate and fundamentally different from me.

Rumi: thirteenth-century poet

Francis of Assisi’s relationship with the natural world springs to mind as an example of this kind of intimate intuition, as does Rumi’s poetry portraying his God as a ‘Lover’. We might also look at how modern physics has done away with the idea of a static, measurable universe, in favour of a dynamic model where perspective and relationship count for a great deal (see here).

It makes me think also of Thich Naht Hanh, whose Peace is Every Step is either nauseating blather and charlatanry or an initially unpalatable and difficult set of ideas about how to ‘do’ intimate intuition – and what its implications might be. I’m not sure I’d want to come down firmly on one side or the other of that argument just yet, except to say that intimate intuition clearly doesn’t seem to be the default mode for most of us – other ways of knowing have a head-start in our culture, and are still way out in front, for better or for worse.



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  • Yoshi Inoue
    February 4, 2012 - 12:00 am | Permalink

    thank you so much for your inspiring post. i don’t think it’s a wind-up at all chris, please! your “intimate-intuition” experience with the tree is fascinating, and it reminded me of the ‘oceanic feeling’ we discussed in our last pioneers’ seminar… (it also reminded me of what my hippy friends call “one love”).

    i am not trying to put a conceptual cage around your personal experience, of course. but like you said, the kind of relatedness you described is what many spiritual / religious people have been attempting to perfect, and share with others, for centuries (possibly bound by a perennial thread?).

    ?”first, you must know that the heavens, the earth the watery plains of the sea, the moons bright globe, the sun and the stars are all sustained by the spirit within; for immanent mind, flowing through all its parts and leavening its mass, makes the universe work.” – Aeneas upon meeting his father Anchises in the underworld.

    P.S. i find your approach of “being open to the possibility” very congenial.

  • Hanna Mantila
    March 21, 2012 - 6:20 pm | Permalink

    Interesting post, and well written as always. As with so many of your ideas and thoughts I cannot help but relate (tadah) them to anthropology, this time pointing towards the theories of the social lives of, well, things (or objects if you must). In anthropology it often comes back to questions of agency; do things, trees or oceans, landscapes or architecture, cheese or pills, have agency? And if they do, what then? How are we to identify it, make sense of it and talk about it? Although this would probably entice an entirely different debate than what you are proposing here, intimacy and intuition, I wonder how the consideration of the agency of things, in this case your tree, would expand upon your theory. In any case, it was a good read.

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