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In folk belief, spirit is the vital principle or animating force within all living things. As recently as 1628 and 1633 respectively, both William Harvey and René Descartes still speculated that somewhere within the body, in a special locality, there was a "vital spirit" or "vital force", which animated the whole bodily frame, just as the engine in a factory moves the machinery in it.
People have frequently conceived of spirit as a supernatural being, or non-physical entity; for example, a demon, ghost, fairy, or angel. In ancient Islamic terminology however, the term spirit (rūḥ), applies only to "pure" spirits, but not to other invisible creatures, such as jinn, demons and angels.[need quotation to verify]
Historically, spirit has been used to refer to a "subtle" as opposed to "gross" material substance, as put forth in the notable last paragraph of Sir Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica. In English Bibles, "the Spirit" (with a capital "S"), specifically denotes the Holy Spirit.
The concepts of spirit and soul often overlap, and some systems propose that both survive bodily death. "Spirit" can have the sense of "ghost", i.e. a manifestation of the spirit of a deceased person. "Spirit" is also often used to refer to the consciousness or personality.
The word spirit came into Middle English via Old French esperit. Its source is Latin spīritus, whose original meaning was "breath, breathing" and hence "spirit, soul, courage, vigor"; its ultimate origin is a Proto-Indo-European root *(s)peis.
In Latin, spīritus was distinct from Latin anima, whose etymological meaning was also "breathing" (PIE root *h₂enh₁-), yet which had taken a slightly different meaning, namely "soul".
Classical Greek also had a similar distinction between "soul" and "spirit", in each case involving again an etymological sense "breathing":
A distinction between soul and spirit also developed in the Abrahamic religions: Arabic nafs (نفس) opposite rūḥ (روح); Hebrew neshama (נְשָׁמָה nəšâmâh) or nephesh (נֶ֫פֶשׁ nép̄eš) (in Hebrew neshama comes from the root NŠM or "breath") opposite ruach (רוּחַ rúaħ). (Note, however, that in Semitic just as in Indo-European, this dichotomy has not always been as neat historically as it has come to be taken over a long period of development: Both נֶ֫פֶשׁ (root נפשׁ) and רוּחַ (root רוח), as well as cognate words in various Semitic languages, including Arabic, also preserve meanings involving miscellaneous air phenomena: "breath", "wind", and even "odour".)
"Spirit" has acquired a number of meanings:
The connection between spirit and life is one of those problems involving factors of such complexity that we have to be on our guard lest we ourselves get caught in the net of words in which we seek to ensnare these great enigmas. For how can we bring into the orbit of our thought those limitless complexities of life which we call "Spirit" or "Life" unless we clothe them in verbal concepts, themselves mere counters of the intellect? The mistrust of verbal concepts, inconvenient as it is, nevertheless seems to me to be very much in place in speaking of fundamentals. "Spirit" and "Life" are familiar enough words to us, very old acquaintances in fact, pawns that for thousands of years have been pushed back and forth on the thinker's chessboard. The problem must have begun in the grey dawn of time, when someone made the bewildering discovery that the living breath which left the body of the dying man in the last death-rattle meant more than just air in motion. It can scarcely be an accident onomatopoeic words like ruach (Hebrew), ruch (Arabic), roho (Swahili) mean 'spirit' no less clearly than πνεύμα (pneuma, Greek) and spiritus (Latin).
See also: Ruach HaKodesh
Similar concepts in other languages include Greek pneuma, Chinese Ling and hun (靈魂) and Sanskrit akasha / atman (see also prana). Some languages use a word for spirit often closely related (if not synonymous) to mind. Examples include the German Geist (related to the English word ghost) or the French l'esprit. English versions of the Bible most commonly translate the Hebrew word ruach (רוח; wind) as "the spirit."
Alternatively, Hebrew texts commonly use the word nephesh. Kabbalists regard nephesh as one of the five parts of the Jewish soul, where nephesh (animal) refers to the physical being and its animal instincts. Similarly, Scandinavian, Baltic, and Slavic languages, as well as Chinese (气 qi), use the words for breath to express concepts similar to "the spirit".
[...] because of the improvement in philosophy [...] men began to break loose from the trammels of Greek and mediaeval metaphysics, and to realize that a process is not explained by the arbitrary assumption of some hypothetical cause invented to account for it. So long as the phenomena exhibited by living things were regarded, not as manifestations of the properties of the kind of matter of which they were composed, but as mere exhibitions of the activity of an extrinsic independent entity, a pneuma, anima, vital spirit, or vital principle which had temporarily taken up its residence in the body of an animal, but had no more essential connection with that body than a tenant with the house in which he lives, - there was no need for physiological laboratories. [...] Both Harvey and Descartes, however, still believed in a special locally placed vital spirit or vital force, which animated the whole bodily frame as the engine in a great factory moves all the machinery in it.
[...] the spirit and soul which occupied and used the body have withdrawn from it. [...] Soul and spirit both survive death.
GOD — The great I AM; the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-acting, all-wise, all-loving, and eternal; Principle; Mind; Soul; Spirit; Life; Truth; Love; all substance; intelligence.
Various forms of animism, such as Japan's Shinto and African traditional religion, focus on invisible beings that represent or connect with plants, animals (sometimes called 'Animal Fathers'), or landforms (kami): translators usually employ the English word “spirit” when trying to express the idea of such entities.