The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 19 No. 2 (Summer 2017)

Animal Spirits
and the Vitalist Currents in Modernity

Jackson Lears

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2017

(Volume 19 | Issue 2)

Intellectual obituaries are a risky business. Consider the ideas of John Maynard Keynes. Once dismissed as obsolete by free-market ideologues, they proved invaluable in helping to counter the most devastating effects of the recent recession. But Keynes did more than provide policy prescriptions; he challenged the core assumption of market utilitarian thought—the central economic role played by the rational actor, calculating and acting on his material self-interest. Keynes argued that most investment decisions were “a result of animal spirits—of a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction,” rather than “an exact calculation of benefits to come.” Venturesome enterprise was rooted in visceral feelings and only a little more rationally motivated than “an expedition to the South Pole.” These observations reveal Keynes to be far more psychologically sophisticated than Joseph Schumpeter, the economist who is usually credited with displacing Keynes as the presiding spirit of our entrepreneurial age. Schumpeter’s ideal entrepreneur turns out to be little more than a capitalist embodiment of conventional male will, and his concept of creative destruction has become a capitalist version of divine providence—an assumption that no matter how much of a mess we make, no matter how many cities we hollow out or resources we squander, things will always work out for the best, as innovation and productivity press forward. Keynes’s speculations about animal spirits, far richer than Schumpeter’s catch phrases, lead us into the largely unexplored territory of capitalism and emotional life.1

Animal spirits lead in more directions than the economic. Linked etymologically and conceptually with soul, courage, vigor, breath, the term itself harkens back to medieval and early modern usage in medicine, cosmology, philosophy, and even theology: It captured the paradox of the Incarnation—God become man, flesh and spirit mingling. It remained in medical usage until the late eighteenth century, when it was displaced by what scientists began to call nerves. But it survived in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century vernacular as a synonym for life force. Keynes’s invocation of animal spirits is in this vitalist tradition.

To follow the history of animal spirits from its early modern origins to our own time is to uncover fragments of a contrapuntal theme in the cultural history of the modern West, a counterpoint to conventional notions of utility and rationality as well as to the dualities of body and soul, emotion and cognition, animal and human, wildness and civilization. This vitalist stream of thought flowed through early modern Europe in the shadow of dualist orthodoxies (religious and secular) until it resurfaced at the end of the nineteenth century, flooding the Modernist cultural landscape and animating a search for alternatives to the bloodless utilitarian ethos that dominated liberal modernity. That search led in many directions, some of them ethically ambiguous. The vitalist fascination with intense experience not only inspired new explorations in Modernist art and philosophy (Henri Bergson, William James, the Harlem Renaissance) but also appealed to fascists, libertarians, and amoralists from Friedrich Nietzsche to Ayn Rand. Once one granted legitimacy to raw force, discord could surely follow.

Yet the claims of force could not be lightly dismissed. The very survival of a staid, predictable commercial society required periodic (if sometimes vicarious) relief from its regime of self-discipline. As Max Weber’s “iron cage” of rationalized existence expanded, many still held out hope for the possibility of escape.2 In the bourgeois imagination, possessors of animal spirits—black and brown people, charismatic public figures, criminals, athletes, entertainers, and the young—embodied and enacted that escape.

The vitalist tradition has also underwritten fluid ways of thinking about thinking—a challenge to the view of the mind as a collection of enduring “faculties.” In contrast to this static epistemology, references to animal spirits anticipated ideas in modern philosophy and neuroscience about dynamic, embodied cognition. Consider the opening pages of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759), which trace the hero’s “sad disorder’d state of nerves” to the scattering of his animal spirits during his conception: His mother distracted his father at a critical point by asking if he’d remembered to wind the clock. This would not be the last time a clock disrupted the flow of animal spirits; in his critique of quantified time in Creative Evolution (1907), Henri Bergson would take up the problem explicitly. The assumptions behind Sterne’s narrative prefigure the contemporary notion that the mind is what the philosopher Andy Clark calls “a leaky organ, forever escaping its ‘natural’ confines and mingling shamelessly with the body and the world.”3 Older and newer views alike reject the dualist model of a disembodied subject set apart from the world, rationally calculating his self-interest—as well as the reductionist model of the mind in thrall to the hardwiring of the brain.

The idea of animal spirits, far from being a relic of outworn superstition, maintains a surprising relevance to contemporary cultural debate. It provides a powerful alternative to the “rational choice” theory that dominates American social science and to the pop-evolutionary neuroscience that pervades popular understanding of mind-body relations. Animal spirits are epitomized by animal (or human) play, which neuroscientists and other neo-positivists have repeatedly tried to reduce to something else—something adaptive, utilitarian, and consistent with a narrow notion of self-interest. But they have never produced a convincing reductive interpretation: Play continues to assert itself as an irreducible activity, a thing done for its own sake. Its origins remain a mystery. Johan Huizinga recalled “Plato’s conjecture that the origin of play lies in the need of all young creatures, animal and human, to leap,” but neither Plato nor Huizinga pretended to know where that need came from.4

Connecting play with animal spirits—and recognizing their common irreducibility—takes us to the heart of the matter: the spontaneous expression of fluid, sensuous energies that flow toward individual or communal regeneration (or sometimes both). Cultivating animal spirits can promote therapeutic or tribalistic agendas for remaking the broken self, the pursuit of personal fulfillment, or the immersion of separate identity in a roiling mass movement. Whatever particular form it takes, this vitalist impulse embodies profound human urges that are left largely unmet in modern societies dedicated to market utility, and that are missing from many contemporary accounts of human motivation.

A recovery of the vitalist tradition could reconfigure our intellectual life in several promising ways. First, the melding of animal spirits with play challenges the resurgent wave of reductionist neuroscience that threatens to demote subjective experience to a mere figment of “folk psychology.” More broadly, a notion of animal spirits as irreducible play resists the reduction of humans to manageable populations or quantifiable human capital—and the reduction of some humans to the mere instruments of other humans’ will. Finally, the vitalist emphasis on play leads us toward those forms of life that are central to human experience but devalued, even rendered invisible, in contemporary public discourse: the aesthetic dimension of poesis, or creative making, and the realm of the sacred—where through ritual play, as Huizinga writes, “something invisible and inactual takes beautiful, actual, holy form.”5 Animal spirits, like animals themselves, are good for thinking about ultimate questions.

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  1. John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (New York, NY: Harvest Books, 1964), 161–62. First published 1936. For Schumpeter’s characterization of the entrepreneur, see his Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2008), 16, 76, 125, 132. First published 1942.
  2. On the “iron cage” (stahlhartes Gehäuse), see Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (New York, NY: Scribner, 1930). First published 1904–05 as Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus.
  3. Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2007), 1–2, first published 1759; Andy Clark, Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), 53.
  4. Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1955), 37. First published 1938.
  5. Ibid., 14. For the equation of subjective experience with “folk psychology,” see the work of the neuroscientists Patricia Churchland and Paul Churchland, summarized and criticized in The Churchlands and Their Critics, ed. Robert N. McCauley (Cambridge, MA: Wiley, 1996).

Jackson Lears, a visiting fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, is a professor of history at Rutgers University and the editor of Raritan. He is the author of Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877–1920, among other books.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 19.2 (Summer 2017). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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