Paper Fragment An experiment in

…While there are significant differences between the two views, they can also be brought together into a certain harmony- where what is true and fitting in each can compliment what is false or awkward in the other. This harmony is best seen when we realize that the words “soul” and “alive” and “self” are often used analogously, i.e. they are often used of many things which do not have the same definition, but share an instructive likeness. Diverse analogous terms do not need to be contradictory: very often they are compliment each other, as an examination of the pre-modern and Cartesian accounts of the soul will make clear.

Part One

The Pre-Modern Account of the Soul

The first properly philosophical attempts to articulate the nature of the soul saw it as the principle of life: the soul is whatever a living body has that a non-living body lacks. This account is sufficiently vague as to allow for a diversity of responses: Lucretius said that a living body is animated by atoms of a particular kind, others said that life resulted from a certain arrangement of the parts of the body i.e. that the soul stands to the body like a shape stands to a statue. Others, like Plato, said that the soul makes the body to be alive like a person might make a marionette appear alive: it “pulls the strings” i.e. the soul is in the body like a driver is in a car. All these accounts agree that the soul is what makes a thing to be alive, and that therefore it is “in” the body in a certain way: either as a material part is in a material whole, or as a shape is in a medium (e.g. marble or clay), or as an operator is in the operated upon.

It did not take long for the account of how the soul is “in” the body to reach a very subtle degree of abstraction. Aristotle transcends all the accounts of the soul’s interiority by making it in the body as form is in matter. This distinction is a very subtle one. Take for example, a tree. A tree has a certain ability to become certain other things, e.g. one can turn it into a desk, or a toothpick, or a set of bowling pins. But to make it any of these things, one has to destroy the tree; we certainly must change the definition of what we had to what we make. There is something about the tree that can become something else, but there is also something about the tree that cannot be something else: either it is a tree, or not. Whatever can become something else is called “matter” whatever can’t be something else is called “form”. The soul is said to be in the body of a living thing as form is in matter- it is what makes the intrinsically changeable and indefinite (either a bowling pin, or a tree, or a toothpick) to be a definite thing (this particular tree)

The account of the soul as a principle of life is sufficiently general and non-committal as to allow for a widespread acceptance, regardless of what particular account we give of how a soul is in a body. There is certainly some difference between a living and a dead body, even if the difference is only an apparent one. The presence or absence of a soul is said to constitute the difference between life and death; and we must either explain this difference, or explain it away. In antiquity, this difference was usually taken to be a real difference, and therefore the soul was taken to be a real i.e. a non-apparent thing. No attempt was made to reduce life and death to some common and more universal reality.

But though it is relatively innocuous to posit the soul as the principle of life, there are difficulties in doing so. For if we say that the soul is the principle of life, then we are committed to saying that all living things have souls. But it strikes many people as odd to talk about the “the soul of a carrot” or “the soul of a fish”. Souls seem to be only in human beings, or at least they are most perfectly in human beings. It is not enough for the soul to explain the difference between life and death; it must also explain the difference between one kind of life and another. If what makes a person to be alive were the same sort of thing as what makes a fish or a carrot to be alive, then we would expect the lives of fish, carrots, and people have the same sorts of lives. Whatever similarities we might note among all living things; e.g. nutrition and growth, will not sufficiently account for every kind of life. One has to talk about more than nutrition and growth if they want to give a full explanation of what it means for an animal or a person to be alive- we lose more kinds of things in death than our abilities to digest and grow.

The account of the soul as a principle of life is prone to reductionism; it can easily collapse human and animal life into the life of mere plants. The account, at its best, is forced to assert that the word “life” doesn’t mean exactly the same thing when it is said of a plant, an animal, or a human being. On the one hand, this helps to explain the tendency we have to say that fish and carrots don’t have souls- because the word “soul” doesn’t mean exactly the same thing to a plant, an animal, and a person. But on the other hand the account of the soul must be made more full if it is to be an account of a human soul. We must say more about the life that the soul is a principle of…


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