The Meaning of Cities   /   Summer 2017   /    Essays

Animal Spirits

and the Vitalist Currents in Modernity

Jackson Lears

Glad Day, or The Dance of Albion (detail), 1780, by William Blake (1757–1827); Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library/Alamy.

The vitalist tradition has underwritten fluid ways of thinking about thinking.

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.

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