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Essay on the Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More Than Human World

5 pages
1146 words
Harvey Mudd College
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David Abram in his book, The Spell of the Sensuous, majorly touches on the philosophical themes of language, magic, the nature of belief and primitivism (or tribal ritual). All these are discussed in the attempt to examine the experience of reality and perception. The chapter sets its role into play by reviewing some of the past anthropological studies like work of Edmund and Maurice.

Abram studied for a longer duration with various tribal cultures and investigated the degree to which cultural primitivism finds its participatory relationship with nature. He covers in details the extent by which the shaman in some traditions will nurture the mystery surrounding his charisma. He explains that the shaman's primary function in the culture, which was primarily to act as an intermediary between the people and the natural surroundings, is not usually recognized. Abram begins by outlining the living relationship that occurred between the native people and the natural world.

The indigenous people exhibit a unique relationship to the world more than we do in the modern eras. They look out at the universe as though it exists inside a distinct paradigm. It is for this reason that many anthropologists focus their interests on studying these cultures. They hardly give us the opportunity to have a distinctive observation of being, but instead, they shed light on our pattern through techniques that would not be possible without an external reference point.

The Nature of Belief/Culture

Native people claim to be communicating directly with the surrounding natural world. They walk through a world that is consistently in interaction with them. For them, the happenings and existence of various physical phenomena are not just random events but a form of communication. All of them have their meanings, and so does the human being meaningful to the rest of the natural world. It is commonly believed that the livelihood of a tribe and all its members depends on a continuing harmonious interaction with nature. The indigenous inhabitants have to pay attention to nature and do things that resonate to the dictates of nature.

Furthermore, Abram reveals his personals experience of spending so much time in an indigenous culture that he started to feel his perception unfolding to a new degree of communication with nature. He elucidates, in the beginning, to expose the meaningfulness about the distinct elements of the natural ecosphere. As he found himself in an interactive exchange with nature, it also dawned on him that nature happened to listen to him. Additionally, he purports to have realized that animals crossing his path tended to pause and commune with him.

Upon his return to the West, it slowly came to his realization that he lost the initial connection with the natural world. This different feeling makes him realize that the Western world is intensely out of order with the dictates of nature. Abram argues that the western people have perpetrated hostility upon the natural earth without taking into considerations the consequences of breaking up such a living relationship. The imbalance that is currently witnessed in nature extends to the ecological problems that people face today. Therefore, the only way to restore the balance to normality is by repairing the damage that has been caused to our world.


Abram explores the theme of language in the context of the contemporary Western world. This nature of language is treated as a system of symbols and signs that signify real things. The linguistic signs and symbols are affirmatively meaningful and can be used in meaningful exchange. Merleau-Ponty viewed language first as an extension of the interaction between human and nature; it first came into existence as a verbal exchange. The world then occasioned human vocalizations and suitably verbalized itself through human beings. In the wake of the world, language started as spontaneous utterances that took place with a close relationship with the living exposure to the world.

They way the contemporary world perceives language is somewhat different. We have been oriented to see language mainly as a mental activity that occurs within our heads. The words of our mouth are perpetually born of our minds, and as such, they solely affect our brains. The language that we speak currently remains isolated from our human involvement and the world. Abram contends that if our words genuinely originate from the world, then they are already connected to the world. Looking at the language from this perspective subjects us to a living inverse relation with the world.

The author (Abram) focuses our attention on the manner in which the construction of our current language strengthens the preference for mental reasoning. The expression is depicted to exist in two written forms the pictorial language and symbolical language. These languages are unwieldy to adopt since they require a vast number of different symbols act as a direct representation of things.

The Concept of Animism

In the modern culture, we view the natural world as inanimate and dunce. This is to the effect that we lack the experience of being in constant communication with our surroundings contrary to the way it was in the case of the indigenous people. Instead, we stand out as perceivers of a world that is just sitting there to be observed. It is on this ground that Abram develops the theme of animism to demonstrate how the contemporary world has been detached from the ancient interaction with nature. He perceives the world as inert and disregards ourselves of not being in a reciprocal living exchange with the world. Abram speculates that the emerging environmental problems are the consequences of the imbalance in our connection with nature.

Some similarities are displayed by both the indigenous and modern people. First, the indigenous person read nature in the same way we read books. While walking out, the native will hear individual sounds and those sounds will direct their focus. Seeing animal footprints on the dirt will trigger them to pay attention to the animals in their proximity. They will feel the wind blow on their skin which will then direct them to tread in the direction from which a scent or smell is coming. On a similar note, we read through written words. Though the symbols on the document appear meaningless, they relay information which we can interpret and understand as if we were spoken to verbally. The sort of interaction that is envisaged in both cases is entirely animism.

Animism alongside the other three themes helps in the development of the settings within which the book is based. The argument makes it possible for the reader to feel what is being addressed and follow up the storyline. More importantly, all the themes have been developed to ensure the relevancy of various concepts is maintained in their appropriated contexts.


Abram, D. 1996. "The Spell Of The Sensuous: Perception And Language In A More Than Human World." Colonial Waterbirds 20 (1): 152. doi:10.2307/1521797.


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