(CONTINUED FROM 9/08/10)
ARISTOTLE’S COMPREHENSIVE SOUL-CONCEPT
In Aristotle’s extant texts the concept of psyche is the object of
highly systematic elaboration. He diligently reviewed and interpreted
all the available soul-conceptions of his predecessors in the first book
of De Anima. Aristotle summarizes, synthesizes and, to some extent,
reconfigures previous developments of soul-theories by forging a “psychological”
doctrine that would serve as the basis for further inquires
concerning the mental for almost two thousand years. Descartes, when
creating a paradigm of the soul still extremely influential in our days, was rebelling against Aristotle’s theory of psyche/anima. At the onset of the Cartesian theory of the mind, we witness attempts to overcome
a tradition largely indebted to Aristotle’s systematizing efforts. Before
examining what the Cartesians had to extirpate from Aristotle to form
their own distinctive, “modern” theory of the soul [which, in fact, is a
theory of the mind], I would like to say a few words on an inconsistency
emerging in Aristotle’s doctrine of the soul. This inconsistency is
concerned with the human being as an organic unity of body-and-soul.
This inconsistency will also emerge in Thomas Aquinas’ discussion of
the subsistence of the intellectual soul. Aquinas’ reasons for risking
highly irreconcilable views [such as the substantial unity of body-and soul
and the independent subsistence of the intellectual soul] were
probably different from Aristotle’s. Aquinas was committed to the
immortality of the soul doctrine in Christianity, largely shaped along
Augustinian lines. Whereas it is a fascinating question why Aristotle
introduced the idea of an agent intellect [nous poetikos] as an immortal,
immaterial element of the soul, thereby endangering the unity of
man as body-and-soul? I need to give a short summary of the problem.
The unity of the human self is a central doctrine in Aristotle. The
human being is the organic union of body-and-soul. “The soul . . . is the
primary act of a physical body capable of life.”(De Anima, 412b)43 The
soul is the substantial form of the body. As a unity of matter and form,
body and soul constitute the substance called “this man.” The self is
neither the soul in itself nor the body but, rather, the organic unity of
the two. This organic unity of body-and-soul, however, is endangered
when Aristotle introduces the concept of the agent intellect (nous poetikos)
in a much-disputed section of his De Anima (Book III, Chapter
This intellect is described as “separable, uncompounded
and incapable of being acted on.” Also it “alone is immortal
and perpetual. It does not remember, because it is impassible.” The
question is how this agent intellect becomes attached to the individual
as a composite of body-and-soul? If it is separable and incorruptible,
how does it take part in the substantial life and unity of the individual?
How can we save the substantial unity of body-and-soul if the agent
intellect is separable and ontologically distinct? This problem had been
dogging interpreters for centuries and it gave rise to quite contradictory
views in the texts Alexander of Aphrodisias, Themistios, Averroes
and his followers like Siger of Brabant on the one hand, and Thomistic
interpretations on the other. This passage on nous poetikus in the De
Anima certainly came handy for those Christian commentators who
were trying to synthesize Aristotelian texts with the immortality of the
Etienne Gilson expresses his appreciation of Aristotle’s attempt to
identify a principle in the workings of the psyche that could guarantee
that our soul was more than just the substantial form of the body. Aristotle’s
aspiration especially deserves our attention since he did not
have to subscribe to such a view because a specific religious doctrine
told him so.44 Richard Rorty makes a similar observation: “So even
Aristotle, who spent his life pouring cold water on the metaphysical
extravagancies of his predecessors, suggests that there probably is something
to the notion that the intellect is ‘separable,’ even though nothing
else about the soul is. Aristotle has been praised by Ryleans and
Deweyans for having resisted dualism by thinking of ‘soul’ as no more
ontologically distinct from the human body than were the frog’s abilities
to catch flies and flee snakes ontologically distinct from the frog’s body.
But this ‘naturalistic’ view of soul did not prevent Aristotle from arguing
that since the intellect had the power of receiving the form of, for example,
froghood . . . and taking it on itself without thereby becoming a frog,
the intellect (nouV) must be something very special indeed.”45
Finally, I would like to return to another specialty of the Aristotelian
soul-concept that made Descartes balk and demand radical reinterpretation.
Following the idea of soul as the substantial form of the body,
Aristotle introduced different kinds of souls or different levels of the
soul’s operations in the second book of his De Anima. He did not want
to identify the soul with the intellect. He did not even want to restrict
the realm of the soul to mental operations. Soul, as the first actuality of
the body, was also the principle of life, nutrition, reproduction, and
locomotion. Aristotle’s soul concept is amazingly liberal and incomparably
less anthropocentric than Descartes’.46 His sensitivity to the multiple
forms of soul probably emerged from meticulous observations of the animal kingdom. Aristotle’s resistance to draw “exact lines of
demarcation” between species representing different levels on the
scale of being is also manifest in his inclusive soul-concept.47 The Aristotelian
discourse on vegetative and locomotive souls may seem somewhat
strange or archaic for us. In fact, we are not talking about soulbody
dualism any more but our problem is mind-body dualism. We do
not have a “philosophy of soul” but we do concern ourselves with philosophy
of mind. It is also reasonable to ask whether the discipline
“psychology” should instead be called “nousology” or “mensology”?
These questions can be a topic of further investigations.
BY Gabor Katona†
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Richard Rorty: Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Princeton:
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43Aristotle: De Anima, translated K. Foster and S. Humphries, New
Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1965.
44E. Gilson: The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, New York: Charles
Scribner’s Son, 1940, p. 177.
45Richard Rorty: Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1979, p. 40.
46Concerning Descartes’ redefinition of anima and his separation of
life from consciousness see: R. Sorabji: Animal Minds and Human
Morals, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994. R. McRae: Descartes’
Definition of Thought, in Cartesian Studies, Oxford: Oxford University
Press. Ch. H. Kahn: Sensation and Consciousness in Aristotle’s Psychology,
in Articles on Aristotle, New York: St. Martin Press, 1979. F.
Solmsen: Antecedents of Aristotle’s Psychology and Scale of Beings,
American Journal of Philology (76), 1955. N. Malcolm: Thoughtless
Brutes, in The Nature of Mind, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
W. Matson: Why Isn’t the Mind-Body Problem Ancient, in Mind, Matter,
and Method, Minneapolis, 1966. G. B. Matthews: Consciousness
and Life, Philosophy, 1977/January.
47Aristotle, the systematic observer of nature, writes: “Just as in man
we find knowledge, wisdom and sagacity, so in certain animals there
exists some natural capacity akin to these. . . . Nature proceeds little by
little from things lifeless to animal life in such a way that it is impossible
to determine the exact line of demarcation . . .”(Aristotle: History
of Animals, in The Mind – Oxford Readers, edited by Daniel Robinson,
Oxford – New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 237.)