Universal Minds: Inspired by Panpsychism and Siri Hustvedt

Watercolor, ink, and India ink on paper

Day 272 and Siri Hustvedt (photo © Marion Ettlinger)

As children, many of us play with stuffed animals, filling them with our imaginations until the cloth and stuffing come alive. At times when I was little, I convinced myself that my stuffed animals, those creatures who gave me comfort and companionship, were true creatures, convinced myself that the stuffed animals thought and felt and loved as I did. 

Perhaps this was purely imagination, perhaps it was deep empathy, but as I grew older, I found myself attached to even more inanimate objects. A rock or feather or note or piece of fabric all at once held possibility, and the possibility quickly turned into a kind of humanness. And suddenly I found myself anthropomorphizing these objects.  

As years go by my anthropomorphism has become a bit more objective. Yet when I read a passage in Siri Hustvedt’s book The Blazing World, a term brought succor to my childhood caring for inanimate things. This term is “panpsychism”, defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as “the view that mentality is fundamental and ubiquitous in the natural world.”

In other words, panpsychism holds that the mind, soul or consciousness, is a universal element shared by all things. Hustvedt unravels panpsychism in The Blazing world, by way of a daughter making a movie about a woman named Esperanza who horded objects, objects nestled in piles of rags so they would be “nice and comfy”,

“After she saw the film, my mother said that Esperanza appeared to believe in a form of “panpsychism.” Mother said this meant that mind is a fundamental feature of the universe and exists in everything, from stones to people. She said Spinoza subscribed to this view, and “it was a perfectly legitimate philosophical position”. Esperanza didn’t know anything about Spinoza.”

Whether it be through our childhood stuffed animals, through moments, or though the scraps of our daily lives, each of us have experienced a moment of panpsychism, however fleeting. Perhaps we need to keep panpsychism in mind as we interact with each other. Perhaps the empathy, compassion, we desperately need to connect with each other, can be found inside us already, in our minds, one of our only commonalities.