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.

Between Body and Soul

Early modern England was not a society dominated by dualistic distinctions. The rhetorical merger of spirit and flesh expressed a deep—one could fairly say, pre-Cartesian—connection between cognition and emotion, often with strong erotic connotations. The poet John Donne memorably celebrated the blending of body and mind in one of his lady patrons:

we understood
Her by her sight, her pure and eloquent blood
Spoke in her cheeks, and so distinctly wrought,
That one might almost say, her body thought.6

Thinking flesh integrated body and mind. But Donne was after bigger game: For him, the notion of animal spirits was rooted in a larger cosmology. An Anglican divine who had been raised Catholic but renounced his childhood faith to advance his career at court, Donne became committed to his own idiosyncratic form of Christianity, which joined the physical and spiritual realms in a fluid, volatile cosmos. God was the blazing, boiling energy at the core of Donne’s universe, which was filled with fragments coming together in friction-filled unity. Key fusions were performed by animal spirits, which constituted “a kind of middle nature, between soul and body,” Donne wrote, adding that “those spirits…unite and apply the faculties of the soul to the organs of the body, and so there is a man.”7

Donne’s poetry, like the work of other prominent seventeenth-century thinkers and writers, including John Milton, posed a powerful counterpoint to the worldview emerging in the scientific revolution—one that envisioned the separation of disembodied, analytical mind from inert, manipulable matter, a separation laid out most forcefully in the work of the French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes.

Donne and Milton parted strikingly with Descartes and other dualists who insisted on the separate existence of a rational human soul as the only animated entity in an otherwise passive, mechanical nature. Descartes acknowledged the existence of animal spirits but denied them reason or will, treating them as subtle and elusive components of the bloodstream—what he called “extremely small bodies which move very quickly, like the jets of flame that come from a torch. They never stop in any place.”8

Between Paradise Lost and Tristram Shandy lay a century of efforts to complicate the relationship between spirit and matter—a tradition of vitalist materialism recently unearthed and explored by George Makari and Jessica Riskin. Its expositors included Gottfried Leibniz, Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Willis, and Robert Whytt, among others. Most tried to preserve a sharp distinction between religion and science, but, as Makari writes, they “would often land between the two worlds, a wild, unmapped place where brain and soul, spirit and flesh, and Nature and God seemed to touch.”9

In various ways, these thinkers began to move from traditional humoral medicine, which postulated animal spirits as the immaterial connectors between body and soul, and toward a notion of thinking matter, which defined animal spirits as a sentient principle underlying all nature. Whatever their differences, none of them inclined toward the idea of disembodied subjectivity that would characterize the emerging bourgeois self. The figure representing that idea was entering intellectual history about the same time Tristram Shandy was being conceived.

Centripetal Force: The Bourgeois Self

The most influential creators of the bourgeois self, at least in the Anglophone world, were the Scottish common sense philosophers. And the most prominent among them was Adam Smith, who combined autonomy, agency, subjectivity, identity, and morality—all to make up a unified, coherent self, capable of rational choice and responsive to the dictates of the moral sense embedded in his conscience. The male pronoun is not accidental. In the Scottish common sense view, women as embodiments of sentiment played an ambiguous role; they were symbolically central to stabilizing the uncertainty, the unrest and agitation, of the emergent capitalist marketplace, but marginal to its operation. The central figure was the moral man—a man of feeling, perhaps, but without question a man who was a product of his own autonomous achievement, a man later generations would learn to call self-made.

Adam Smith was not a cold rationalist, but he did settle the emotional atmosphere in early market society by creating a stable model of selfhood. Assuming that most individuals are “mild, thoughtful, and peaceable,” Smith inaugurated a shopkeeper’s ethic celebrating the steady pursuit of betterment. The liberal notion of bounded personal identity—stable, reasonable, autonomous—provided ballast for the emergent paper-money regime, in which monetary values fluctuated in accordance with the unpredictable flow of investors’ animal spirits. Bourgeois moralists created a counterweight to this chaos by celebrating a mythic self-made man, who mastered fate through force of will. They left little room for the play of animal spirits.10

The attempted elimination of animal spirits from Anglophone philosophy coincided with the emergence of a disembodied notion of subjectivity and a stable, bounded notion of personal identity. This seismic shift occurred at a telling moment in economic history, when certain kinds of property were becoming, in effect, imaginary, their value dependent on the imagination of investors. Money was a sign, not a thing; its meaning was increasingly related to the mingled feelings it evoked—trust or mistrust, confidence or doubt or even panic. Everything was up in the air, not only subjectivity but also wealth.

One did not need to be a Marxist to see the mysterious power of money, its capacity to multiply dramatically in value or disappear overnight. The problem for moralists generally was how to stabilize the sorcery of the marketplace—to keep moral order in a society that threatened constantly to dissolve into anarchy.

The traditional political solution was a republican insistence on elevating public good over private gain, a solution with roots in the Puritan conception of a “Holy Commonwealth” that flowered in the populist and socialist notion of a “Co-operative Commonwealth.” But the newer and more influential solution was the common sense school’s creation of a more stable model of selfhood—a self whose avarice was sanitized into interest and whose pursuit of self-interest was tempered by an innate moral sense based on sympathy to human suffering—the “cognitive style” that bred humanitarian sentiment, according to Thomas Haskell. What was even more reassuring to its creators was the belief that this moral sense was universal, at least among respectable Englishmen and Americans. No wonder Adam Smith and his contemporaries shared what Emma Rothschild calls a “faith in the mildness and thoughtfulness of most individual men and women.”11

Yet those paragons were haunted by a shadowy double: the confidence man, who engaged in the suave manipulation of appearances designed to advance his own deceitful ends. As early as 1610, the Jacobean dramatists Thomas Dekker and John Fletcher had already created a character who advised that “He that would grow damn’d rich, yet live secure, / must keep a case of faces.” The shape shifter, the blower of bubbles, was a central figure in market society from the outset.12

The self-made man and the confidence man have existed in dialectical tension down to the present. They are ideal types, calling each other into being. The self-made man was sincere, transparent; he said what he meant, meant what he said. As a cultural construction, he existed primarily to stabilize the moral and epistemological sorcery embodied in the confidence man. In nineteenth-century success literature, the self-made man did mostly without animal spirits, relying instead on the discipline of steady work. The confidence man, by contrast, required animal spirits to keep his entrepreneurial juices flowing, his trickster energies at a white heat. The self-made man also counteracted another disruptive figure, just appearing on the scene in the late eighteenth century: the consumer, who was animated by the antinomian side of the Protestant ethic, but in secular form—a delight in intense emotional experience for its own sake, not God’s; a preference for a fantasy of the Next Thing rather than the Thing Itself.

Making commerce appear respectable required denying much of what made it hum. Enlightened subjects were motivated not by extraordinary longings but by what Smith called simply “the desire of bettering our condition,” which was uniform, constant, and uninterrupted.13 This was the key to the pursuit of happiness, identified by Thomas Jefferson in 1776 as an “unalienable” right. Jefferson himself embodied the characteristically American coexistence of republican and liberal impulses. He invoked the importance of public virtue versus commercial vice but also remained committed to the emerging liberal vision—enlightened selves in search of rational self-interest, overcoming the fear induced by centuries of superstition, evading the vexation caused by burdensome economic regulations.

Participation in the market, from this view, was a way of ascending from a realm of roiling, unpleasant emotions to an Olympian plane of calm. In the nineteenth-century United States, republican and liberal views competed for dominance, but the liberal view gradually won out. The result was an implicitly Benthamite emotional economy: Autonomous selves pursued self-interest in accordance with assumptions of inevitable progress and immutable natural laws. Educators, ministers, and other moralists encouraged this agenda even as they fretted about its corrosive effects on community.

Still, the stream of utilitarian thought was complicated by many crosscurrents. One of the most powerful, along with speculation and consumption, was evangelical Protestantism, especially in its revivalist forms. In the stereotypical pattern, after the itinerant preacher left town and the camp meeting closed down, spiritual fervor soon cooled and congealed into listless conformity. A faith that was once on fire became formal, cold, and dead, and had to be periodically reanimated by another revival. This involved the rekindling of animal spirits, of vital force. Yet the regenerative project was potentially dangerous; restoked excitement could transgress boundaries and create social havoc. The process was strikingly parallel to the lurchings of the business cycle; investors and entrepreneurs were urged to avoid the “overexcitement” that fostered panic and burst bubbles. Yet prolonged “dullness” could be as fatal to finance as to faith. The safest emotional economy balanced thrills and controls to ensure steady progress.14

Only the shrewdest observers saw beneath the surface rhetoric of bland betterment. Alexis de Tocqueville was one. The full significance of his Democracy in America (1835) is best understood if one realizes that by “democracy” he frequently meant “laissez-faire market exchange.” Tocqueville viewed American economic life as “a vast lottery,” capturing the fascination with risk and chance that energized enterprise. Alongside his generally celebratory account flowed an undercurrent of anxiety. He described the complacent tyranny of the majority and also its forlornness, its fragmentation: “Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates its contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.”15 Decades later, Emile Durkheim characterized this condition of isolation and normlessness as anomie.

But Tocqueville would not resign himself to this bleak outcome. He found countervailing influences in American culture. One was the prevalence of voluntary associations—a phenomenon social scientists fastened on during the great Tocqueville revival of the 1950s as they strained to save mass society from its critics. The other counterpoint to anomie was what Tocqueville called “self-interest rightly understood.” The Americans, he wrote, “do not deny that every man may follow his own interest, but they endeavor to prove that it is in the interest of every man to be virtuous.” This required “no great acts of self-sacrifice, but daily small acts of self-denial.” Yet this prudential virtue could in turn produce “a kind of virtuous materialism, which would not corrupt but enervate the soul and noiselessly unbend its springs of action.”16 Tocqueville could never rest content with uncritical admiration.

Tocqueville’s “virtuous materialism” resembled the vision of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, and Dostoevsky himself recognized the chief ontological objection to the dogma of enlightened self-interest. In Notes from Underground (1864) he asked whether it was true that “on occasion man’s profit not only may but precisely must consist in sometimes wishing what is bad for himself, and not what is profitable?”17 This was a key insight—a recognition that there was always a wild card lying in wait, ready to disrupt the utilitarian game of self-advancement, and that this disruption was not necessarily a bad thing. What from the rationalist perspective could seem like sheer perversity could from other angles of vision seem like a necessary rebellion against plodding uniformity. So, despite the intellectual hegemony of Benthamite common sense, animal spirits survived and even prospered in nineteenth-century Great Britain and America, both of which were becoming (according to some observers) the most utilitarian societies on earth.

Undomesticated Animal Spirits

Part of what sustained interest in animal spirits was the continuing search for a holistic life force despite the dominance of dualist hierarchy—an enterprise that engaged scientists as well as poets. One can find vitalist tendencies in the epigenetic evolutionary theories of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, in the pantheistic evolution proposed by Erasmus Darwin (Charles’s grandfather), in the Energy that William Blake imagined at the center of the cosmos, and in the riposte of Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Cartesian dualists: not Cogito ergo sum but Sum qui sum—“I am that I am.” Like Erasmus Darwin (and, decades later, Henri Bergson), Coleridge envisioned a generative creative principle pervading existence at all levels from the cosmic to the individual.18

This kind of thinking influenced the young Karl Marx, who reshaped it to suit his developing critique of political economy. As Dipesh Chakrabarty observes, Marx often turned to the vitalist tradition when he described labor power as a “commodity that exists in [the laborer’s] vitality,” which the capitalist purchases and deploys for profit. When the worker receives his wages, “capital has paid him the amount of objectified labor contained in his vital forces.” Capital feasted on life; no wonder Marxists and later anti-monopolists would rail against capitalist vampires, sucking the lifeblood from individuals and communities. From the Marxist perspective, the worker’s “vital forces” were never entirely domesticated to the needs of capital; they remained a source of unpredictable, perhaps revolutionary energy—though this vitalist emphasis would gradually become obscured by the technocratic ethos that dominated Marx’s later writings.19

The young Marx’s concerns were by no means unique. Through the mid-nineteenth century, a variety of observers worried that Americans were squandering their capacity for joy in plodding diligence, leading lives of exhausting routine punctuated occasionally by a desperate search for sensation. As the author of an unsigned article in Harper’s Monthly complained in 1857, “With all our vitality, we are by no means a cheerful people. We exhaust our energies in the hard drudgery of our daily labor, and when we seek pleasure, which we rarely do, it must be highly spiced to arouse our jaded appetites.… We do not know that we have any sport that can truly be called national, unless it be that of heating ourselves into excitement, and cheering our animal spirits by the burning embers of a neighbor’s house.”20 Drudgery bred jaded appetites and frantic efforts to revive them.

The popular need for vicarious excitement helped explain why some men succeeded at electoral politics and others failed. As Andrew Mitchell noted in The Knickerbocker in 1854, the trick was the capacity to make a kind of electric connection to the people; Sam Houston had it, Edward Everett didn’t. “It is nature that makes a man what is called a demagogue, and without a liberal contribution from her of good nature and animal spirits, no cunning contrivances of the intellect will avail much.”21 In the nineteenth century, as in the twentieth, the rise of charismatic political leaders depended less on their intellectual abilities than on their ability to attract a crowd with an almost magnetic force. The utilitarian blandness of liberal modernity demanded the antidote of entertaining politics. Donald Trump was waiting in the wings.

The Clouded Imperial Gaze

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the idea of animal spirits lay at the center of contradictory cultural developments. One was the increasing authority of rationalist and dualist hierarchies, often underwritten by positivist science. The scramble for imperial dominion over dark-skinned peoples combined with the emergence of scientific racism to create more rigid taxonomies—hierarchical distinctions between animality and humanity, wildness and civilization, that were alleged to be rooted in irrefutable scientific observation. Positivist certainty often depended on a re-assertion of a mechanistic vision of the non-human world and an explicit rejection of vitalism. “Is Vitality Vital?” Scientific American asked in 1874: “As indicating a force inherent in and wholly peculiar to living matter, something sui generis, so to speak, [the concept of vitality] is doomed.” About the same time, Thomas Henry Huxley, the positivist apostle of Darwinism, was reasserting the Cartesian view of the “lower animals”: “Though they feel as we do, yet their actions are the results of their physical organization.… They are machines.”22

Yet Huxley’s admission that “they feel as we do” suggested the emergence of an inchoate challenge to dualist orthodoxy. Rising concern about cruelty to animals was rooted not only in Victorian sentiment but also in empirical observation suggesting that animals’ behavior was not as easily explained as Huxley thought. Among the observers was Charles Darwin himself, who wrote “never say lower to higher” in the margin of a page in one of his popularizers’ books, and who noted in 1883 that some animal instincts “one can hardly avoid looking at as mere tricks, and sometimes as play,” such as “an Abyssinian pigeon [that] when fired at, plunges down so as to almost touch the sportsman, then mounts to an immoderate height.” Indeed, Darwin admitted that there were many self-destructive and pointless “instincts” that could only be explained by natural selection if they were reduced to “the grossest utilitarianism”—the sort of admission that contemporary Darwinian reductionists (gross utilitarians all) ignore.23

The rise of respect for animal consciousness had ambiguous consequences for allegedly inferior humans. “There are races of men less intelligent than certain breeds of dogs,” the prominent Boston surgeon Henry Jacob Bigelow announced in 1890.24 The revaluation of animal consciousness betokened a broader cultural movement—the spread of dawning doubts into a full-blown transvaluation of values. The imperial gaze of the Anglophone had depended on conventional assumptions of hierarchy, often ratified by scientific racism, to maintain the gazer’s sense of mastery over various subaltern groups. But by the 1880s and 90s, the view had become clouded and confused around the edges. A kind of imperial primitivism began to assert itself—the implicit, half-conscious recognition that supposedly inferior peoples possessed certain desirable traits that white Anglo-Saxons lacked—a particular spontaneity, a reckless exuberance, a readiness to play—what one might call, in short, animal spirits.

Longings for renewed vitality complicated familiar racist stories of savagery and civilization. One such narrative was based on the belief that even apparently civilized savages were liable to relapse into barbarism at any time. For decades, this tale had been endorsed by scientific expertise and applied to African American men, as a means of asserting that they could not handle freedom and would inevitably retrogress to savagery. In the white racist imagination, the Black Beast continued to dwell alongside Sambo. But the discourse of animal spirits, while it was still pervaded with racist assumptions, offered a way of acknowledging black people’s vitality without invoking its supposedly sinister side. This was a key moment in the history of black-white relations in America, with interesting cultural consequences: White people could begin appropriating supposedly black traits for purposes of reviving their own animal spirits, while actual black people could be demonized and even lynched for revealing theirs. The pursuit of animal spirits could promote projects ranging from therapeutic quests for self-regeneration to fascist programs of revitalization through ethnic cleansing.

During the late nineteenth century, not all Anglo-Americans projected beastly behavior onto dark-skinned others; some still recognized the potential for it within themselves. Robert Louis Stevenson frequently resorted to animal metaphors in describing Mr. Hyde, the diabolical doppelgänger of the impeccable Dr. Jekyll; the young Frank Norris wrote Vandover and the Brute as a Harvard student in the 1890s, the story of a gifted artist brought low by his own bestial other self. Yet about the same time, in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy was comparing his heroine to dozens of animals ranging from leopards to sparrows, all of which suggested her overflowing sensuous vitality, while Helen Wilmans, a popular practitioner of “mind cure” in California, was celebrating “the clawing animal will” as the basis for freeing herself from the tedium of cooking for twenty ranch hands.25 Vitalist impulses led in many directions, from anarchic self-assertion to the immersion of the self in the healing balm of the national will, embodied in the Führer. But nobody could see that cataclysm coming in the banquet years before World War I.

The Vitalist Moment

By the end of the nineteenth century, almost no one on either side of the Atlantic would have linked animal spirits with “depraved appetites,” as Christian moralists had done decades earlier.26 The intellectual climate had changed dramatically. One did not have to be an avant-garde artist to experience the period from the 1890s to the 1920s as an extended Modernist moment, which was also an extended vitalist moment—with Henri Bergson musing on élan vital, Freud and Jung on libidinal energy, William James on regenerative risk. Revaluing instinct, rejecting rationalist dualism, this vitalist strain of Modernist thought insisted that intellect could not be isolated either from bodily experience or from interdependence with the world.

Vitalist Modernism resonated with an emergent worship of “life” as an end in itself, a kind of vernacular lebensphilosophie. It resonated with the ancient search for an elixir linking human beings with the rest of plant and animal creation. D.H. Lawrence caught the yearning when he celebrated “the quick powers that run up the roots of plants and establish the great body of the tree, the tree of life, and run up the feet and legs of man, to establish the heart.” In 1913, the young journalist Randolph Bourne announced, “It has been discovered that the world is alive, and that discovery has almost taken away men’s breaths; it has been discovered that evolution is creative and that we are real factors in that creation.”27 The discovery in question was Bergson’s élan vital, which many Americans equated with benign, irresistible life force, an exhilarating alternative to the austere amorality of natural selection. Bergson became a cult figure in certain circles, and when he came to speak at Columbia University in 1913, the crush of his admirers caused the first traffic jam in American history, on upper Broadway.

The vitalist outlook—more a worldview than a systematic philosophy—celebrated ceaseless possibility amid the ever-shifting flux of experience. Vitalists embraced a psychology of abundance rather than scarcity, of risk rather than prudence; they banished the dark shadows from the unconscious mind, transforming the lair of the beast within into a sunny source of energy—a practically bottomless reservoir of mental powers to be cultivated, called upon in times of stress, and pressed into the service of the pursuit of happiness.

Alongside all the vitalist talk about boundless and free-flowing energy, new institutions arose to contain it—the giant monopoly corporations that emerged in the merger wave at turn of century, and the bureaucratic nation-state that developed during the mobilization for World War I. Yearnings for spontaneous vitality existed in dialectical tension with a new sense of entrapment bred (in part) by the kind of hierarchical organization that exemplified Weber’s iron cage. Emerson had predicted the pattern of self-imprisonment fifty years before: “Every spirit makes its own house, but afterwards the house confines the spirit.”28 Still, animal spirits were constantly seeping across boundaries, escaping efforts to contain them. And most people who noticed this thought it was a good thing.

The incorporation of play into character formation was a characteristic project of the age, surfacing in efforts to attract boys to Sunday school, build muscular Christians, and provide playgrounds for street urchins who might otherwise turn into hooligans. Organized play tamed beasts without and within.

But too much taming could be deadening. Animal spirits that survived into adulthood could become the basis for extraordinary success. Consider the visionary inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Edison (the Steve Jobs of his time). According to his biographer Henry Tyrell, Edison was nothing less than “a new efflorescence of human genius…. He has drawn his strength from the primal elements of nature, and achieved his conquests over the occult but awful forces of the universe.… His is the godlike power to create…overflowing with ideas and animal spirits and restlessly energetic in the exploitations of new experiments.”29 This Promethean figure embodied the ferment of discovery, in contrast with the steady grind of daily routine.

Yet even nine-to-five office jobs were touched by the new emphasis on positive thinking, on achieving success through manipulation of personal magnetism and psychic force. Those qualities had long been self-evidently necessary in professions that required persuasive power. “Lord Campbell…laid it down that three things were necessary to the young barrister’s advancement—the first being high animal spirits, the second high animal spirits, the third high animal spirits,” the London Daily News reported in 1889. By the early twentieth century, ebullient energy was being prescribed for middle managers as well as established professionals. Business competition was a form of playful roughhousing, the landscape architect Frank Waugh told readers of The Independent in 1912, “It is remarkably like a pillow-fight.” This may have been the reductio ad absurdum of the effort to turn work into play.30

Meanwhile, commercial play was also being transformed. From the turn of the century through the 1920s and after, entrepreneurs appropriated animal spirits from black, brown, immigrant, and working-class subcultures, repackaging them as mass-marketed entertainment—vaudeville pratfalls, “off-color” jokes, animal dances (the bunny hop, the turkey trot). Respectable white people began to take the A train en masse uptown to Harlem, in search of elusive animal spirits or maybe mere titillation. “At these times, the Negro drags his captors captive,” the African American novelist James Weldon Johnson wrote in his autobiography.31 Imperial primitivism returned from the colonial periphery to the metropolitan center, and white people embraced the primitivist promise of periodic regeneration.

The notion that black people had a special claim on sensuous energy was more than a projection of white fantasy. African, African American, and Afro-Caribbean writers embraced primitivist vitalism as a key part of their construction of a unique black identity—what became known as Négritude. Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor deployed the rhetoric of Négritude as a strategy of anti-colonial resistance in French Africa and the Caribbean, one that involved the appropriation and reversal of racist epithets and assumptions—a strategy similar to the recent reclaiming of queer by homosexuals.

Even in prosperous times, the vicarious contemplation of animal spirits could create a powerful antidote to workplace anomie. But after the market crashed and the Depression set in, animal spirits were in short supply. Keynes understood this, and made their importance a key part of the explanation of economic life he advanced in The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936). But Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood this too, as he demonstrated brilliantly with the pronouncement that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”32 Somehow, it is appropriate that those words were written by Napoleon Hill, a professional positive thinker and author of the bestseller Think and Grow Rich (1937). The centrality of animal spirits to investment was easily parodied as positive thinking. But those spirits were central, all the same, and their absence made a difference. It would be decades before many capitalists would again embrace the market equivalent of an expedition to the South Pole.

Between Body and Mind

Since the 1930s, animal spirits have preserved an independent intellectual life, as part of the resurfacing of vitalist impulses in political, economic, medical, and cultural discourse. Political vitalism was the most disturbing, as it animated the fascist worship of force and threatened to degenerate into what Eugene McCarraher calls a “religion of power” in the United States. The purest embodiment of that religion was the atheist Ayn Rand, whose pop-Nietzschean celebration of the steely entrepreneur in Atlas Shrugged (1957) led Whittaker Chambers to complain (in National Review) that she “consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it.” The reverence for raw force continues to animate the resurgent cult of entrepreneurship, which for the last several decades has been promoted at least in part by Rand devotees—Alan Greenspan and Paul Ryan being among the more prominent.33

More often, raw force has been wrapped in the comforting rhetoric of “teamwork,” “autonomy,” and “creativity” that animates what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello have called “the new spirit of capitalism”—the pseudo-democratic ethos that maintains labor discipline in a new age of insecurity. Alternately, force has been camouflaged in clouds of techno-millennialist rapture—as in the writing of Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired magazine, who has claimed that capitalism arises from a throbbing web of interconnections—“computer chips, electronic communication networks, robot modules, pharmaceutical searches, software design, and corporate management”—and that “the river of life…flows through it all.”34 So what is there to worry about? Everything is “alive.”

But not all vitalism has been appropriated by apologists for concentrated power. Yearnings to reconnect body and mind remain as fervent as Donne’s need to connect body and soul—and often as imbued with spiritual longing. Much of this ferment has been associated with holistic medicine, from the psychoanalyst Georg Groddeck’s postulate of the It (later the Id)—“a great unconscious force that exists within every person”—to contemporary explorations of qi and other energies. There has also been a strain of vitalist feminism—most prominent in the early novels of Margaret Atwood—that positions its critique of patriarchy as part of a broader challenge to human domination of the non-human world.35

What may be the most enduring recovery of vitalist tradition is underway in the history and philosophy of science, as well as in sciences themselves, in fields such as epigenetics. Among the relevant works are Evelyn Fox Keller’s biography of the geneticist Barbara McClintock, A Feeling for the Organism; Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter; Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos; and Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock. All propose a reanimated—though still naturalistic—vision of the universe. They resist dualism without falling into physicalist reductionism as they explore more fluid ways of thinking about mind-body and self-world relationships.36

Although they rarely use the word vitalism, these writers employ sophisticated vitalist arguments to challenge the reduction of nature to inert matter. They are concerned to bring the conscious mind back into a world picture from which the mechanistic tradition had excluded it—to meld mind and body, and not merely to reduce mind to body. This is an uphill battle, against entrenched adversaries. It turns out that the contemporary revival of nineteenth-century economic thought has been accompanied by a revival of nineteenth-century philosophical thought, as the positivistic assumptions of the contemporary “new atheists” reveal—notably, the assumption that a reified science has answered (or is about to answer) all ultimate questions with quantifiable precision. A focus on animal spirits—and vitalism more broadly—offers a way to re-assert the role of contingency and unpredictability in human and non-human affairs. Against positivist claims of certainty, animal spirits remain a challenge to techno-determinist predictions of an inevitable future, a reminder that every new deal contains the possibility of a wild card.

So the vitalist tradition, by deepening our notions of freedom and choice, reconfigures our understanding of what it means to be human in the modern world. The assorted logics of modernity—economic, political, bureaucratic—have assumed the working out of modern imperatives to be at bottom an impersonal and inevitable process, whether it is the Marxian dialectic or the liberal faith in progress. The vitalist outlook unmasks the supposedly neutral discourse of inevitability for what it is: a prescription for conformity to utilitarian values. To take the force of animal spirits seriously is to challenge the imperatives of the iron cage. This task is more necessary than ever.

Revenge of the Repressed

For decades, techno-determinists from Bill Gates to Thomas Friedman have told us that we must choose to do what we have to do anyway. This rhetorical sleight of hand makes tensions between freedom and determinism disappear in the process of adjustment to ineluctable progress. What we are really being sold is tarted-up labor discipline—a political economy where creativity is equated with staring into a computer screen for sixteen hours a day.

The vitalist tradition provides resources for resistance to the long con of technocratic utopianism. The impulse to unleash animal spirits, to play, is at bottom an impulse toward freedom. “Child and animal play because they enjoy playing and therein lies their freedom,” Johan Huizinga observed. At its most capacious, this freedom fosters self-forgetfulness; it generates ecstasy in the original etymological sense (ekstasis)—getting outside oneself, allowing the boundaries of personal identity to melt away in the process of “being seized” by vital force. “The concept of play merges quite naturally with that of holiness,” Huizinga wrote. “Any Prelude of Bach, any line of tragedy proves it.” The serious play of poesis is inescapably linked to the sacred play of liturgical ritual.37

The revival of the vitalist tradition is timely and necessary—given the failure of the technocratic, managerial worldview to satisfy the material and emotional needs of populations on both sides of the Atlantic. Such failures have occurred before (in the 1930s, for example), with calamitous consequences. The contemporary rise of populist nationalism is not simply a revolt against liberalism but against a particular kind of liberalism—the neoliberalism that sanctifies the free flow of capital above all else, and that reduces politics to the pursuit of common interests by business elites in bed with bureaucratic elites. The recoil from a denatured language of efficiency to a visceral idiom of resentment involves more than a resurgence of racism (though that is surely present); it also implies a hunger for a certain vital force that is at the core of human experience, that animates archaic ideals of community and loyalty as well as equally archaic values of honor and the sacred.

In the presidential election of 2016, the consequences of that hunger surfaced with particular clarity, when a managerial schoolmarm lost out to a buffoonish big shot. More than a few commentators (including some of his sharpest critics) attributed Donald Trump’s triumph at least in part to his “animal magnetism,” the spontaneous unpredictability that contrasted so sharply with the stilted and scripted persona of Hillary Clinton. But the significance of Trump’s victory went beyond the matter of personalities; it suggested a recurring absence in the liberal body politic—an absence that, if not addressed, will be filled by demagogic confidence men like Trump. As long as apologists for modernity continue to promote the empty instrumentalist ideal of technical mastery, and continue to ignore what is truly fundamental to the human person, they will be haunted by the recurrent revenge of the repressed. The denial of what is benign and essential—the playful spontaneity of animal spirits, the yearning for the reunion of body and soul, the release from the iron cage of utilitarian necessity—provokes its return in more dangerous forms.

No one can deny the many successes of modernity, from plumbing to penicillin. In the affluent West and, increasingly, elsewhere, material life is undeniably easier than it was in preindustrial times. So what accounts for the intractable discontent, not only in radical Islamist circles but in what was once the industrial heartland of America—even after the global triumph of capitalism and the supposed end of history? Many of the disaffected are not merely racists or “losers” in the global marketplace (as even sympathetic commentators call them)—unless one considers that many have lost a culture in the anthropological sense: a whole way of life. The collapse of rural and small-town life has devastated people who care about attachments that are threatened, maybe even doomed, by the globalizing imperatives of neoliberal modernity—attachments to family, craft, community, faith, place.

These are the sources of a critique of modernity that has always been more ferocious from the right than from the left—although the social democrat Bernie Sanders effectively challenged the technocratic mantras of inevitability in the 2016 Democratic primaries. But in general, the left has shared the fundamental assumption of liberals, capitalists, and modernizers: More is better. All that remain to be debated, from their view, are questions of procedure and distribution. The difference between Republicans and Democrats is the difference between market liberalism and statist liberalism—although even that distinction has nearly disappeared amid the bipartisan embrace of a common utilitarian framework. What is missing from our public discourse is any acknowledgment of fundamental human needs that include material interests but also transcend them—that lead to what one might call, loosely speaking, the realm of the sacred.

It is hard to talk about the sacred in a society suspicious of dogma and dedicated to tolerance. Yet the worship of market utility has itself become a dogma—as both Trump and Clinton suggested in their differing idioms. Still, few public figures (and even fewer private citizens) are willing to discard non-market values altogether. If we really want to preserve some realm of worth that transcends the merely monetary, we need to break out of the mindset that reduces intelligence to problem solving and values to “best practices.” A recovery of the vitalist tradition could provoke us to think more critically and imaginatively about the purposes of our lives and could help us formulate a political economy based on something more than creative destruction. Animal spirits, in short, are good for thinking about what used to be called the good life, and about how, against all odds, we might somehow live it.


  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).
  6. John Donne, “Of the Progresse of the Soul: The Second Anniversary,” lines 243–46, John Donne: The Complete English Poems, ed. A.J. Smith (New York, NY: Penguin, 1971), 294. The poem is believed to have been written in 1612. For my understanding of Donne, I am deeply indebted to John Carey, John Donne: Life, Mind, and Art (London, England: Faber and Faber, 2011; first published 1981).
  7. Donne on animal spirits quoted in Carey, John Donne, 267.
  8. Descartes quoted in John Sutton, Philosophy and Memory Traces: Descartes to Connectionism (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 103.
  9. George Makari, Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2015), 63, 170.
  10. Emma Rothschild, Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 188.
  11. Thomas Haskell, “Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility, Parts 1 and 2,” American Historical Review 90 (1985): 339–61, 547–66; Rothschild, Economic Sentiments, 156.
  12. Dekker and Fletcher are quoted in Jean-Christophe Agnew, Worlds Apart: Market and Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550–1750 (London, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 57. I discuss the shape-shifting confidence man at length in my book Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1994), ch. 2.
  13. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. R.H. Campbell and A.S. Skinner (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1981), 341. First published 1776.
  14. John Corrigan explored this dynamic exhaustively in Business of the Heart: Religion and Emotion in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001).
  15. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. and trans. Phillips Bradley (New York, NY: Vintage, 1945), vol. 2, 128, 54. First published 1835.
  16. Ibid., 67, 71.
  17. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York, NY: Vintage, 1993), 21. First published 1864.
  18. Jack H. Haeger, “Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Romantic Background to Bergson,” The Crisis in Modernism: Bergson and the Vitalist Controversy, ed. Frederick Burwick and Paul Douglass (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 99.
  19. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 60.
  20. “Are We a Happy People?” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 14 (January 1857), 208.
  21. Andrew Mitchell, “Availability in Candidates for the Presidency,” The Knickerbocker 44 (July 1854), 9.
  22. “Is Vitality Vital?,” Scientific American 30 (February 7, 1874), 80; Thomas Henry Huxley, “On the Hypothesis That Animals Are Automata, and Its History,” The Eclectic Magazine 21 (January 1875), 61.
  23. Charles Darwin, “Posthumous Essay on Instinct,” in George John Romanes, Mental Evolution in Animals (London, England: Kegan Paul, Trench, 1883), 379, 382–83.
  24. Henry Jacob Bigelow, Surgical Anesthesia: Addresses and Other Papers (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1900), 374.
  25. Helen Wilmans quoted in Beryl Satter, Each Mind a Kingdom: American Women, Sexual Purity, and the New Thought Movement, 1875–1920 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999), 233.
  26. See, for example, “Death-Bed Repentance,” Jonesborough (TN) Herald and Tribune, October 5, 1871, 1.
  27. D.H. Lawrence, Etruscan Places: Travels through Forgotten Italy (London, England: I.B. Tauris, 2011; first published 1932), 186; Randolph Bourne, Youth and Life (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1913), 179.
  28. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume IV: The Conduct of Life, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 5, from “Fate,” first published 1851.
  29. Henry Tyrell, “Edison,” Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly 39 (March 1895), 1–2.
  30. “Getting on at the Bar,” London Daily News, February 11, 1889, 7; Frank A. Waugh, “Rough-Housing,” The Independent 72 (January 25, 1912), 183.
  31. James Weldon Johnson, Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson (New York, NY: Viking, 1933), 328.
  32. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933,” in The Public Papers of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Volume Two: The Year of Crisis, 1933, ed. Samuel Rosenman (New York, NY: Random House, 1938), 11–16. Retrieved from History Matters,
  33. Eugene McCarraher, The Enchantments of Mammon: Capitalism and the Moral Imagination (unpublished manuscript, 2008); Whittaker Chambers, “Big Sister Is Watching You,” National Review, December 28, 1957, 594.
  34. Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Gregory Elliot (London, England: Verso, 2005); Kevin Kelly, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1994), 471–72.
  35. Anne Harrington, The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2008), 82–84, 222–25, 229–30. For examples of vitalist feminism, see the essays collected in The Politics of Women’s Spirituality: Essays on the Rise of Spiritual Power in the Feminist Movement, ed. Charlene Spretnak (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1982) and the early novels of Margaret Atwood, especially Surfacing (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1998).
  36. Evelyn Fox Keller, A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock (New York, NY: Henry Holt, 1984); Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012); Jessica Riskin, The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015).
  37. Huizinga, Homo Ludens, 8, 25.

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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