Aristotle: De Anima, On Souls and Soullessness

Rufus F.

Rufus is a likeable curmudgeon. He has a PhD in History, sang for a decade in a punk band, and recently moved to NYC after nearly two decades in Canada. He wrote the book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (2021).

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12 Responses

  1. Geoff Arnold says:

    without a soul, it’s hard to understand how “I” am anything but the sum total of those chemical reactions- a series of firing synapses.

    That’s because you aren’t. Why do you want to be? Because your brain is pre-wired to create the illusion of identity.

    Try though I might, I can’t quantify free will without a soul, and the further along we come in mapping out and explaining the neurochemical basis of our behaviors, memories, desires, and ideas, the more it seems that my sense of having a choosing self, and free will along with it, was a mistake after all.

    You are, for all practical purposes, unique. You are a unique collection of experiences, genetics, and random influences, encoded in the biological machine that we call the brain. And the machine includes mechanisms for making choices, based on the unique and varied state that is you.

    But you want it to be more, because you’re wired that way: humans, and many of our ancestors, have brains in which there is a deep association between the individual’s decision-making capability and the way in which our fellow creatures interpret our agency. The best descriptions of these ideas is in the books of Dan Dennett, especially The Intentional Stance and Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. Social stability is enhanced if we feel that our choices are free, and that we are responsible for them, and evolution has selected these adaptations. We see the results in ourselves and other primates. Of course evolution does not plan – there is no design! – and so the possibility that we might come to understand the mechanism and question it was unprecedented.

    The idea of free will and responsibility was a social adaptation for tribal creatures. In humans, it is fused with our dualist instinct to form what you call the soul. Dualism has a number of mutually-reinforcing sources: animism as way of explaining natural forces, an explanation for the subtle distinction between the living and dead, coping with death, understanding social hierarchies, and so forth. The relationship between body and soul or spirit was always rather loose, and not always one-to-one: consider the idea of demonic possession. (Schizophrenia is such a prosaic alternative….)

    Maybe we’re all pieces of driftwood, floating down a river, and convinced that we’re swimming.

    I prefer to think that we are swimming vigorously down the river, amazed by the water and the sky and our our abilities, and occasionally confused by people who dream that they are drifting…Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Geoff Arnold says:

      @Geoff Arnold, That’s probably a better way to put it. I keep wondering how countries with high concentrations of Buddhists answer these questions. I understand that some Buddhists disagree, of course, but I understand him as saying that we have no Self to speak of. This certainly could be correct and does make it easier to let go of craving, but it’s still hard for me to know what exactly we’re doing when we arrest someone for a crime, if that makes sense.Report

  2. Jason Kuznicki says:

    I’ve often wondered whether De Anima was worth a read. I’m still unsure. At best it would be a good description of the experience of having a soul. At worst, it would be a bad description of same.

    Very little in this area strikes me as interesting before the dawn of modern science, to be honest, and some of the claims you cite don’t inspire much confidence:

    “His idea that touching the sensory organ to an object of perception makes it unperceivable.”

    Does Aristotle taste food with his Mind? (More seriously, how does he hold up against Hume?)Report

    • @Jason Kuznicki, De Anima is essentially like course notes, so it’s a pretty easy read. I think you can really skip the whole book on perception, which tells you things like the eye is the organ of sight, and read the rest in an hour.

      What he says about touching the object of perception directly is that, if you hold an object to your eye, you essentially can’t see it, since you can’t get a good image of it. I can accept that without wanting to try it. But he says it’s the same for hearing, which seems incorrect. As for touch, he thinks the organ of perception is deeper than the skin, so he probably means the same thing there- but the organ of perception is still skin, and not something buried under the skin.Report

  3. Boegiboe says:

    Did Aristotle think that light bounced off objects and entered the eye, or did he think the eye projected a kind of action allowing is to see? In other words, how active an agent in sight was the eye for Aristotle? I don’t remember.

    If the answer is that sight is projected from the eye, then the need for some kind of internal, animating energy or spirit–unseen by anyone yet having clear physical effect–to generate sight is inescapable.

    I like Geoff Arnold’s description of what it’s like to know and appreciate that one does not have a soul. It’s similar to my own understanding of my mind.

    I disagree with your statement that “thinking doesn’t begin.” Your words would seem to suggest an ether that populates our bodies with pure Thought, and that our souls are our shares of that Thought. So, when you die, does your soul return to the ether like rain in a pond, or does it now have its own integrity. What gave it integrity? A new energy or force that creates souls? No, I think an understanding of the soul as the engine of free will needs to accept, perhaps axiomatically, that the thinking inside a person starts at some point before which there was no thought and contemporaneously or prior to that, no soul.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Boegiboe says:

      @Boegiboe, I’m just saying that I think Aristotle is saying that “thinking doesn’t begin”; not that I believe it. When he says that it’s eternal and does not at one time exist and another time not exist, that’s all I can make of it- that he thinks it’s some sort of ether that populates our bodies and gives them Thought. And, I suppose, if you try to remember your first thought, or figure out why you can think things that aren’t there, it could seem that way, but, no, I don’t agree with him on that.

      Again, though, it’s a really hard piece and I could be misreading Aristotle.Report

    • Old Georgetowner in reply to Boegiboe says:

      @Boegiboe, Without getting into the greek, Aristotle thought the eye was an active agent.

      Someday, someone is going to re-read The Poetics with this in mind.Report

  4. Sam Hutcheson says:

    The other problem with Aristotle’s soul is that it makes mine seem so inconsequential after all. If the powers that come to me by the soul are essentially the same as those of most animals and all human beings, what makes me different from other living things? I tend to think of the soul as what makes me Me, but here it’s both the essence of me and somehow fulfills the same functions in all living things. It’s just the basic formula of life. Why aren’t living things virtually identical?

    I think the answer to your question, hinted at in previous replies, is that all living things are virtually identical. Our cognition is contained so far down in the weeds, so to speak, that we see minor variations as larger than they actually are.Report

    • @Sam Hutcheson

      we see minor variations as larger than they actually are

      Larger than they actually are? How large is that? And from whose perspective?

      We see those variations that are important to us. Even babies can do so within a few days of birth. Cui bono? To us, all elephants look pretty much the same, but it’s really important for elephants (or, more precisely, their genes) to be able to distinguish between good and bad elephant mates.Report

  5. Chris Floyd says:

    Do you guys have a list of “books I wish someone would write”? Top of my list is a book on the history of the notion of the soul. The sense I get is that Plato’s “soul” is substantially different from Aristotle’s and miles away from the Christian notion, Kant’s notion, etc. I think has left us very confused and conflicted in what we mean by this word that is very very important to us. In fact, in modern times, it seems like “soul” just means “that part of me I think is most important and don’t ask me to be more specific.”

    Rufus, your thoughts here were still useful to this perplexed soul. I look forward to more.Report

  6. Cameron Cornick says:

    There is a confusion on the basis what soul means here. We are holding that the soul talked about is that of self and personality. The original Greek term, that “soul” was used as a proxy for, was psyche. It meant a variety of things and could most essentially be treated as “the principle of life” or “the principle of animation.” It was a study in the third-person. You are attempting to use this evidence in the first-person.

    All life has a soul by this definition of a soul, and one could say that any object also has a soul by loose interpretation. By using this term improperly, we have muddled the investigation.

    Thought is eternal because thought has no beginning and no end. We are not talking about the noun of a single thought, but the general action of thought. If one thinks that nothing exists, then he still thinks. It is axiomatic that thought simply exists from the human perspective. That is the maxim of thought.Report

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