Coffee and the separated soul

St. Thomas has many strands of his account of the separated soul that seem hard to harmonize: on the one hand he says it is not a person, on the other hand he says it gets access to higher objects and attains certain higher rational perfections. The tradition that followed him had to deal with the confusion of how STA both claims that the separated soul is not a person and yet is committed to saying that it is a person in a state of privation. Edward Feser brings both strands of argument together with the idea of a dog missing most of its limbs and sense organs. In one sense it’s a dog, in another sense it’s not a dog any more. The metaphor does a good job at capturing how extreme privations of X can leave us with something that is both X and not X, and it also does a good job at capturing STA’s clear commitment to the goodness of the body and its essential connection to human life and consciousness, but it does not do justice to STA’s clear commitment to, and explicit approval of, the idea that the separated soul is in certain ways more perfect than the soul in a state of union with matter.  In fact, it’s hard to see how one could ever strike a balance between these two demands.

Till coffee comes to the rescue.

If artificial things = M, some M’s are such that we say we have an M when we have just the proximate matter. This is why we say we bought a bookshelf at IKEA when we only bought bookshelf parts, or we bought a model airplane when we only bought a box of injection molded parts. Other times, we say we have an M when we have something more formal and less material: this is how we buy coffee and Kool-aid.*

So if we take Kool-aid (the powder) as a formal cause of Kool-aid (the drink) then we have an analogue to the soul in separation and in union. Death is like the evaporation of all the water from the drink, leaving us with only the powder. This harmonizes the three disparate elements in the thomistic account:

a.) It explains why we refer to both the form in union and separation by the same word. They don’t share a mere lazy name in common either, but the likeness of names speaks to how we can identify both the drink and the powder by the same taste, color, etc. At the same time the metaphor

b.) Allows a clear sense in which the separated form is not the thing in itself. Kool-aid is essentially a drink. It also

c.) Allows a sense in which the separated form is more perfect. Separated Kool-aid, for example, will be sweeter simply in virtue of being less diluted.


* I say “more formal” because, in the strict sense coffee beans and Kool-aid are proximate matter, just as the bookshelf is. The form of coffee is whatever it is that your coffee maker imparts. Still, by the same reasoning super glue is only the proximate matter of superglue, since it cannot fasten (i.e. perform the very act that defines it) until it is exposed to the atmosphere.

Even under this qualification, the metaphor can still do work: it might help to explain STA’s obscure metaphor of “immersion in matter”. Some sorts of matter are clearly more and less like matter- water is more like matter in coffee; air is more like matter for superglue, etc.


  1. Richard A said,

    August 11, 2014 at 2:34 pm

    You offered coffee and only left us with Kool-aid? I feel cheated.

    • August 11, 2014 at 2:42 pm

      It made sense at the time but I’ve since forgotten why. Maybe because it’s easier to visualize getting mix from evaporating Kool-aid than getting grounds out of coffee.

      Just drink my Kool-Aid, Richard.

  2. Richard A said,

    August 11, 2014 at 2:49 pm

    Well, the liquid Kool-Aid is better than Sanka reconstituted.

  3. D.S. Thorne said,

    August 12, 2014 at 11:37 am

    I could see how Chastek’s approach would have value in addressing the cannibalism problem, too.

    ~DS Thorne,

  4. DavidM said,

    August 14, 2014 at 4:31 pm

    In what sense is a maimed dog not a dog any more? How does a maimed dog compare to a very old, or very young dog, or a dog in a coma? It seems to me that there is no sense in which such accidental ascriptions imply that they are *not dogs*.

    • August 14, 2014 at 8:05 pm

      Feser, as I understand him, takes it as intuitive that a maimed dog isn’t what anyone thinks a dog is. He might fill out the argument by pointing out that having four legs is essential to a dog, and so a three-legged one lacks something essential. Some changes of the substance diminish the substane as such, not by making it something else, but by depriving it of something essential to it. Admittedly, it’s trick to get precise about this.

      • PatrickH said,

        August 16, 2014 at 9:02 am

        Doesn’t Feser distinguish between essence (dog-ness) and properties, or proper accidents (four legs)? A maimed dog is a defective dog, not a non-dog.

      • DavidM said,

        August 16, 2014 at 11:52 am

        @PatrickH: Yes, that’s my understanding.

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