May 25, 2012

Quote of the Day: What is a Soul?

In my last post, I discussed a variety of conceptions of the soul in the history of Christian thought and of Western philosophy more generally. One of the points I was making is that, for an ancient Greek (or Latin) writer, talking about a 'soul' (Gr. psuche, Lat. anima) does not automatically mean believing in something immaterial. Today (while reading Antoine Arnauld's On True and False Ideas, ch. 24), I came across a passage from Augustine which makes this quite clear. Augustine is arguing that the soul is immaterial, i.e. he's defending substance dualism. Here's how he describes his opponents' views:

[Sometimes the soul] thinks itself to be a corporeal thing; and since it is perfectly conscious of its own superiority, by which it rules the body, it has hence come to pass that the question has been raised what part of the body has the greater power in the body; and the opinion has been held that this is the mind, nay, that it is even the whole soul altogether. And some accordingly think it to be the blood, others the brain, others the heart ... Others, again, have believed the soul to be made up of very minute and individual corpustules, which they call atoms, meeting in themselves and cohering. Others have said that its substance is air, others fire. Others have been of opinion that it is no substance at all, since they could not think any substance unless it is body, and they did not find that the soul was body; but it was in their opinion the tempering together itself of our body, or the combining together of the elements, by which that flesh is as it were conjoined [this might be a reference to the Aristotelian theory, but I'm not sure -Kenny]. And hence all of these have held the soul to be mortal; since, whether it were body, or some combination of body, certainly it could not in either case continue always without death. But they who have held its substance to be some kind of life the reverse of corporeal, since they have found it to be a life that animates and quickens every living body, have by consequence striven also, according as each was able, to prove it immortal, since life cannot be without life.

For as to that fifth kind of body, I know not what, which some have added to the four well-known elements of the world, and have said that the soul was made of this, I do not think we need spend time in discussing it in this place. For either they mean by body what we mean by it, viz., that of which a part is less than the whole in extension of place, and they are to be reckoned among those who have believed the mind to be corporeal: or if they call either all substance, or all changeable substance, body, whereas they know that not all substance is contained in extension of place by any length and breadth and height, we need not contend with them about a question of words.

- Augustine, On the Holy Trinity, tr. Haddan, book 10, chapter 7

Augustine does not characterize this as a debate about the existence of the soul, but rather (as he puts it in the title of the chapter), as a debate about 'the substance of the soul,' i.e. whether it is made out of normal matter, celestial matter (the 'fifth kind' of the second paragraph), or no matter. The view that the soul isn't really a substance, that it's just a particular organization of the body, is on the table, but the view that there's no such thing as a soul is not, and this despite the fact that Augustine is clearly arguing against avowed materialists.

Posted by Kenny at May 25, 2012 10:25 AM
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