The survivalism debate

Edward Feser distinguishes two accounts of post-mortem existence:

Survivalism is the label that has come to be attached to the view that the human being in some way continues to exist after death.  It is defended by (among others) Thomist philosophers like David Oderberg and Eleonore Stump.  Corruptionism is the label that has come to be attached to the view that the human being ceases to exist after death

Feser’s fundamental argument for his own survivalism is:

The human soul exists after death.  But a soul is a substantial form, and a substantial form only exists when informing the substance of which it is the form.  So, the substance of which the human soul is the form must exist after death.  But that substance is a human being, where a human being is a single substance rather than two substances.  So, the human being must exist after death.

Here’s my friendly challenge to both sides:

This debate fails to address what people – including Thomas – mean by existence after death, and when we consider existence after death in this way Feser’s views are best described as a sort of corruptionism. 

I don’t say this in search of a fight but in the hope of pressing a point where I see Thomism needing development. Now let me explain my challenge:

Life and existence are sorts of act, but act is either first act (mere existence) or second (acting and operating). Most people who raise the question of life after death – including Thomas – mean life as a properly human second act, e.g. an act with some conscious awareness of the isle of the blessed, or a Near Death Experience, or its punishment, purging, or beatitude. True, the Greek and Hebrew underworld suggest something like mere existence without operation, but both of these proved to be muddled and unsustainable ideas that had to be resolved into either accepting post-mortem second act or denying post-mortem existence altogether, and neither is an acceptable position for a Christian philosopher.

Feser’s arguments for survivalism are consistent with the denying the (second act) existence of the person after death, and his anthropology points decisively in this direction. He’s always compared the separated soul to a mutilated animal, but a maximally mutilated organism cannot have its highest operations in second act. St. Thomas partially agrees with this so far as he denies that a separated soul understands things by abstraction, which is the highest personal act of the person in union with the body, but to leave it at this would ignore Thomas’s extensive discussion of the soul’s non-abstractive cognition when separated from the body.

Put in modo Scholasticorum:

1.) People have always understood the question of “existence after death” as the existence in second act of the person, not mere first act existence or the maintenance of an act of any kind that is not properly personal.  Those who deny such existence after death deserve to be called corruptionists. Call them reformed corruptionists.

2.) Feser gives no account of the existence of the person in second act and his anthropology cannot support one since the highest operations of an organism are incompatible with the greatest possible mutilation of that organism.

3.) Therefore, Feser’s thomism is a denial of what people have always understood as the existence of the person after death and can reasonably be understood as a kind of corruptionism.

I think St. Thomas’s anthropological committments are unstable and that the best way to harmonize them all is to recognize that hylomophism has a limited scope of applicability to the person since the theory arose to solve the properly natural and inter-cosmic problem of becoming and human existence is not limited to the properly natural and inter-cosmic. A soul in separation is not a mutilated person but in the second of his three stages of life, the first two of which a philosopher can understand. Informed by revelation, the hypothesis I’d want to explore is that physical death is a punishment only in connection with vice (though this vice became practically unavoidable by the same act that gave physical death) and the Resurrection is not a mere return to union with the body but a transcendence of the person in a state of union and separation.


  1. Georgios Scholarios said,

    March 28, 2016 at 11:54 am

    Feser does say that the soul does have second act of existence, but he is quieter about it because he believes it on the grounds of revelation, not because of philosophical argument:

    “To be sure, prior to the resurrection, he does not yet have his body restored to him, and thus exists only as a radically incomplete human being. (Fortunately, the beatific vision more than makes up for this temporary loss, so overall St. Peter is of course in a very good state.)”

    • March 28, 2016 at 3:13 pm

      Right. I was restricting myself to his philosophy, though this theological point seems like an awkward fit with it. Feser is also silent about the many natural perfections that STA attributes to the separated soul, though STA argues for them using just philosophy.

      While I admit the body does complete the person in the resurrection it has to do so in a way that preserves the perfection of the separated state, and a mere return to purely abstractive cognition is not going to do this. What we see in the risen Christ remedies the imperfections of physical existence as much as it remedies the imperfections of the separated soul; and it restores the perfections of the body just as much as it preserves the perfections of separation from it.

      Here is my thesis: Thomas’s “order of the soul to the body” is (in fact, though not for STA) an order to the resurrected body, and this body in turn does not merely restore physicality but transcends both it and the state of separation. In the same way that the soul has a natural desire for beatitude that it can only achieve by grace or know by revelation, so too the human soul has an intrinsic, natural order to the resurrected transcendence of both body and separation-from-body though it cannot achieve this except by grace or know this except by revelation.

    • phamilton said,

      March 28, 2016 at 5:46 pm

      James, this series of posts has been great. I was thinking about Ed’s post, and the tensions associated with it this morning, and I was considering something like your solution. It obviously has its attractions. However, I have a few questions.

      First, upon an Aristotelian analysis, it’s hard to see how the soul is not in some sense the form of the body. The soul is what makes the matter a human body, just as the material soul of a squirrel makes the matter a squirrel body. It’s hard to see a) how we would arrive at your solution prior to revelation (which in itself doesn’t seem problematic), and b) how we could avoid drawing Aristotle’s conclusion that the soul is the form of the body at the level of natural reason (which does seem problematic). It would seem to concede that human reason has little it can say about the soul’s relationship to the natural body. This is very counterintuitive to me, because it seems that what we really have difficulty explaining is the soul’s relationship to a resurrected/spiritual body, a body which doesn’t corrupt, can pass through walls, etc; not its relationship to the natural body.

      Second, what is it about the resurrected body which makes it capable of receiving the soul as form, which the natural body lacks? What changes in the body from natural to resurrected that makes it capable of receiving form, whereas previously it could not?

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