Aristotle’s sui generis account of life

Aristotle claims that the first answer one needs in discussing the soul is whether it is a substance or accident, and the all-important answer he needs is whether it is actual or potential. Most of what he says about the soul and makes his account sui generis arises from the way he answers both these question at once.

He first divides substance by act and potency, saying that the category can be taken either as matter, form or the composite whole made from both. He makes soul substance in the sense of form of a natural body potentially alive.

Form as actuality is either the readiness of operation (first act) or the operation itself (second act.) Soul is actuality in the first sense as opposed to the second, e.g. a readiness to breathe and not actual breathing, a readiness to sense and not actual sensing, as readiness for operation is present in living beings sleeping or hibernating.

Form as substance is divided from accidental form. Both are forms of a body, but they differ because the body’s loss of a substantial form leaves a corpse that is not the body except equivocally.

So understood it is impossible for soul to be either a platonic man or a naturalist emergent form since the platonic man makes soul what Aristotle called a composite and the naturalist makes soul an accidental form arising from some accident like the relation or quality or quantity of subatomic particles. Neither account allows the living body to leave a corpse that is not the body except equivocally, in the platonic case because the soul moves the body from without and so cannot account for the presence of an intrinsic principle within it; in the naturalist case because soul is an effect of a body and so its loss cannot be the cause of an intrinsic change. This makes Aristotelians the odd man out in the contemporary debates between dualism and physicalism, and we should resist all attempts to fold us into one side or the other. Depending on how one squints he can start believing that the Aristotelian account will boil down to either physicalism or dualism, but whenever you try to boil down Aristotle’s account you’ll find that most of what is essential in it was in the evaporate, and that what is left is not his account except equivocally.

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