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Animal spirits

Les esprits animaux

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Published on Thursday, March 19, 2015


Avant de devenir métaphore, les esprits animaux ont été considérés, aussi bien dans les théories philosophiques, théologiques que médicales, comme de minuscules corps, subtils, invisibles mais bien réels. Pour tous ils forment le lien pneumatique entre le corps et l’âme, entre l’esprit et la matière. Ils prennent la place du pneuma antique pour former une substance vaporeuse indéfinissable. Ils sont responsables de nos mouvements et de nos sensations ; ils influencent notre imagination et notre jugement. Délaissés à la fin du dix-huitième siècle, ils sont repris par Keynes qui leur attribue les comportement irrationels qui régissent certains processus économiques. Ils seront l'objet d'un colloque qui se tiendra les 4, 5 et 6 février 2016, à l'Université de Genève.



In the opening chapter of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne presents the animal spirits as a biological inheritance passed on from father to son. Because of their movements and activity, they are responsible for all the events — successes or failures — of human existence. Almost two centuries later, John Maynard Keynes used the same concept in his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936), and attributed the irrational behaviour of economic operations to the animal spirits: they are the driving force behind the actions of homo economicus, inciting action despite the uncertainties and risks inherent to the profession.

Before becoming a metaphor, animal spirits were conceived of as minute and subtle bodies by philosophers, theologists and physicians. Invisible but real, they were thought to be a pneumatic link between body and soul, matter and spirit. They replaced the pneuma of the Ancients and became an indefinable and vaporous substance: air or fire for Francis Bacon, a bright, mobile and pure flame for Descartes, an oily fluid for John Quincy and comparable to air or wind for Willis, who defined them as infinitesimal particles circulating through the nervous system, while for Mandeville they evolved in our blood vessels and digestive system. Responsible for our movements and sensations, they were also thought to influence our imagination and understanding. Their behaviour and their texture were directly determined by their environment (sleep, physical exercise, food, intellectual activity and even breathing) and they, in turn, influenced the good health of the body and mind (in Ficino, Montaigne, Bacon, Du Laurens, Purcell or Kinneir). In epistolary consultations, English-speaking patients often referred to the animal spirits to describe their conditions to their physicians, while this was rarely the case in the medical correspondence of French-speaking patients.

Much discussed through the end of the eighteenth century, they quickly disappeared from the general economy of the body as they failed to fit into an increasingly rational scientific discourse. Largely ignored by twentieth-century historians, they have recently attracted the attention of researchers and are now considered as transversal objects of study in a renewed scientific approach to the history of the body, of passions, and of the organic link between physiology and psychology (see, for example, the work of Elena Carrera, Heather Beatty, Clark Lawlor or Richard Sugg). We invite proposals for 20mn papers, in English or French, on a wide range of topics related to the animal spirits, without any chronological constraint. Topics might include:

  • Animal spirits and the passions
  • Animal spirits, experience, and the writing of the self
  • Animal spirits and literature
  • Animal spirits and philosophy
  • Animal spirits and rhetoric
  • Animal spirits as metaphor
  • Animal spirits and bodily economy (digestion, the nervous system, sexuality, diseases)
  • Animal spirits and economic theory
  • Animal spirits and music

Guidelines submission

Proposals should be sent, with a short resume and a list of recent publications, to Micheline Louis-Courvoisier (Micheline.Louis-Courvoisier@unige.ch) and Sylvie Kleiman-Lafon (skleiman-lafon@univ-paris8.fr)

before May 22, 2015.

Date and place : 4-5-6 February 2016, the Hardt Foundation, Geneva.

International conference organised by

  • Micheline Louis-Courvoisier (UNIGE)
  • Sylvie Kleiman-Lafon (Université Paris 8)


  • Fondation Hardt
    Geneva, Switzerland


  • Friday, May 22, 2015


  • esprit, animal, métaphore, médecine, économie corporelle, rhétorique, musique


  • Sylvie Kleiman-Lafon
    courriel : sylvie [dot] kleiman-lafon [at] univ-paris8 [dot] fr
  • Micheline Louis-Courvoisier
    courriel : micheline [dot] louis-courvoisier [at] unige [dot] ch

Information source

  • Sylvie Kleiman-Lafon
    courriel : sylvie [dot] kleiman-lafon [at] univ-paris8 [dot] fr


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Animal spirits », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Thursday, March 19, 2015, https://doi.org/10.58079/s96

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