Public Lecture: Jackson Lears on "The Return of Animal Spirits"

7 September 2017, 6.00 PM - 7 September 2017, 7.30 PM

Jackson Lears, Rutgers University

Seminar Room 9, University of Liverpool in London, 33 Finsbury Square, London, EC2A 1AG

Jackson Lears (Rutgers University) gave a public lecture as part of the Fate, Luck and Fortune project

Download the Return of Animal Spirits public lecture transcript (PDF, 161kB) and view photos of the evening by David X Green.

Jackson Lears. © David X Green


"I plan to use Keynes's conception of animal spirits as the jumping-off place for reflections on the recent revival of vitalist themes in social, economic, and political thought. Keynes's usage of the term was rooted in the modernist vitalism of the early twentieth century - animal spirits were expressions of a spontaneous “impulse to act,” a vital energy that became a major part of the maelstrom of avant garde thought.

Keynes was talking about investors' motives but the notion of animal spirits has a longer history and broader meanings than economic ones. Recent developments in epigenetics, for example, suggest the possibility of an animated universe, composed of purposeful organisms and “vibrant matter” rather than the programmed creatures and inert matter embedded in the rationalist and positivist traditions.

The emergence of a vitalist naturalism challenges the reductionist neuroscience and pop-evolutionary psychology that complement the managerial ethos of neoliberal political economy. Against the managerial demand for quantifiable utility and predictable outcomes, vitalist naturalism reasserts the claims of uncertainty, contingency, and chance.

The new scientific thought underwrites long-standing romantic and modernist views of nature that for too long have been dismissed as sentimental fantasy, and that may in fact serve as the philosophical basis for a revived environmental politics. Wordsworth, you should be living at this hour."

Speaker biography

Jackson Lears is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University and Editor in Chief of Raritan: a Quarterly Review. He is the author of many books and articles, including, most recently, Something for Nothing: Luck in America (Viking Penguin, 2003) and Rebirth of a Nation, the Making of Modern America, 1877-1920 (Harper Collins, 2009). He has been a regular contributor to The London Review of Books, The New Republic, The Nation, and The New York Review of Books, among other publications. He is now at work on a book with the working title: The Wild Card: Animal Spirits and the Vitalist Strain in Modernity.

Fate, Luck and Fortune project

How do we talk about the risks of our environment? Who do we blame when things go wrong?

This is one of a series of AHRC-funded events which set out to explore how concepts of fate, luck and fortune influence perceptions of agency in different types of narratives concerned with environmental risk.

Jackson Lears © David X Green

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