ANIMAL SPIRITS (Geneva, 4-6 February 2016)

full name / name of organization: 
Sylvie Kleiman-Lafon / Université Paris 8

International conference organised by
Micheline Louis-Courvoisier (UNIGE) and Sylvie Kleiman-Lafon (Université Paris 8)
4-5-6 February 2016, the Hardt Foundation, Geneva.

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

Proposals should be sent, with a short resume and a list of recent publications, to Micheline Louis-Courvoisier ( and Sylvie Kleiman-Lafon ( before May 22, 2015.
Tags: animal spirits, philosophy, literature, medical history, bodily economy, psychology, economy, rhetoric, music.