Ask Meno Questions • Discussion 3

Re: Stephen Rose

In Aristotle’s De Anima or “On the Soul” there is a fine articulation of the universal join between the body and the soul, one so embedded in the marrow of our culture that it moves and shapes our thinking in ways we seldom recognize. Here is one place where I discussed the introductory sections of this earliest textbook in psychology.

Here is a salient excerpt from Aristotle’s text:

  1. The theories of the soul (psyche) handed down by our predecessors have been sufficiently discussed; now let us start afresh, as it were, and try to determine (diorisai) what the soul is, and what definition (logos) of it will be most comprehensive (koinotatos).
  2. We describe one class of existing things as substance (ousia), and this we subdivide into three: (1) matter (hyle), which in itself is not an individual thing, (2) shape (morphe) or form (eidos), in virtue of which individuality is directly attributed, and (3) the compound of the two.
  3. Matter is potentiality (dynamis), while form is realization or actuality (entelecheia), and the word actuality is used in two senses, illustrated by the possession of knowledge (episteme) and the exercise of it (theorein).
  4. Bodies (somata) seem to be pre-eminently substances, and most particularly those which are of natural origin (physica), for these are the sources (archai) from which the rest are derived.
  5. But of natural bodies some have life (zoe) and some have not; by life we mean the capacity for self-sustenance, growth, and decay.
  6. Every natural body (soma physikon), then, which possesses life must be substance, and substance of the compound type (synthete).
  7. But since it is a body of a definite kind, viz., having life, the body (soma) cannot be soul (psyche), for the body is not something predicated of a subject, but rather is itself to be regarded as a subject, i.e., as matter.
  8. So the soul must be substance in the sense of being the form of a natural body, which potentially has life. And substance in this sense is actuality.
  9. The soul, then, is the actuality of the kind of body we have described. But actuality has two senses, analogous to the possession of knowledge and the exercise of it.
  10. Clearly (phaneron) actuality in our present sense is analogous to the possession of knowledge; for both sleep (hypnos) and waking (egregorsis) depend upon the presence of the soul, and waking is analogous to the exercise of knowledge, sleep to its possession (echein) but not its exercise (energein).
  11. Now in one and the same person the possession of knowledge comes first.
  12. The soul may therefore be defined as the first actuality of a natural body potentially possessing life; and such will be any body which possesses organs (organikon).
  13. (The parts of plants are organs too, though very simple ones: e.g., the leaf protects the pericarp, and the pericarp protects the seed; the roots are analogous to the mouth, for both these absorb food.)
  14. If then one is to find a definition which will apply to every soul, it will be “the first actuality of a natural body possessed of organs”.
  15. So one need no more ask (zetein) whether body and soul are one than whether the wax (keros) and the impression (schema) it receives are one, or in general whether the matter of each thing is the same as that of which it is the matter; for admitting that the terms unity and being are used in many senses, the paramount (kyrios) sense is that of actuality.
  16. We have, then, given a general definition of what the soul is: it is substance in the sense of formula (logos), i.e., the essence of such-and-such a body.
  17. Suppose that an implement (organon), e.g. an axe, were a natural body; the substance of the axe would be that which makes it an axe, and this would be its soul; suppose this removed, and it would no longer be an axe, except equivocally. As it is, it remains an axe, because it is not of this kind of body that the soul is the essence or formula, but only of a certain kind of natural body which has in itself a principle of movement and rest.
  18. We must, however, investigate our definition in relation to the parts of the body.
  19. If the eye were a living creature, its soul would be its vision; for this is the substance in the sense of formula of the eye. But the eye is the matter of vision, and if vision fails there is no eye, except in an equivocal sense, as for instance a stone or painted eye.
  20. Now we must apply what we have found true of the part to the whole living body. For the same relation must hold good of the whole of sensation to the whole sentient body qua sentient as obtains between their respective parts.
  21. That which has the capacity to live is not the body which has lost its soul, but that which possesses its soul; so seed and fruit are potentially bodies of this kind.
  22. The waking state is actuality in the same sense as the cutting of the axe or the seeing of the eye, while the soul is actuality in the same sense as the faculty of the eye for seeing, or of the implement for doing its work.
  23. The body is that which exists potentially; but just as the pupil and the faculty of seeing make an eye, so in the other case the soul and body make a living creature.
  24. It is quite clear, then, that neither the soul nor certain parts of it, if it has parts, can be separated from the body; for in some cases the actuality belongs to the parts themselves. Not but what there is nothing to prevent some parts being separated, because they are not actualities of any body.
  25. It is also uncertain (adelon) whether the soul as an actuality bears the same relation to the body as the sailor (ploter) to the ship (ploion).
  26. This must suffice as an attempt to determine in rough outline the nature of the soul.

Aristotle, “On The Soul”, in Aristotle, Volume 8, W.S. Hett (trans.), William Heinemann, London, UK, 1936, 1986.

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4 Responses to Ask Meno Questions • Discussion 3

  1. Stephen C. Rose says:

    Thanks for circulating my jottings! Cheers, S *ShortFormContent at Blogger*

  2. Poor Richard says:

    “o. So one need no more ask (zetein) whether body and soul are one than whether the wax (keros) and the impression (schema) it receives are one…”
    ” x. It is quite clear, then, that neither the soul nor certain parts of it, if it has parts, can be separated from the body…”

    I am pleasantly surprised to find such a modern, non-dual interpretation by Aristotle. I especially like the wax analogy for illustrating the inseparable relations between substance, form, and function. However, the cultural milleu still asserts its power in such nagging questions as:

    “y. It is also uncertain (adelon) whether the soul as an actuality bears the same relation to the body as the sailor (ploter) to the ship (ploion).

    In living organisms as in the greater self-assembling physical universe there is a nearly infinite regression of agency ending only at some veil of mystery imposed by the limits of observation. The sailor is part of the ship, the brain is part of the sailor, the lobes and neural sub-assemblies are part of the brain, the neurons are part of the neural sub-assemblies…etc. IMO there is some amount of agency at every level. If there is a “ghost in the machine” it exists far below the level of anything we know as gross (observable) matter and thus it becomes a matter for parsimonious and skeptical agnosticism. However, given the agency of matter to self-assemble and the agency of neurons to process I/O and make decisions, the agency of the higher composite assemblies and organs is, if anything, progressively less mysterious and less “dual.”


    • Jon Awbrey says:

      That Aristotling Town

      The man’s reputation for dualing exceeds him.
      It’s a mode more the eyebeam of the beholden.
      Western wayfarers will claim him their founder,
      But they founder on the way his meta*physick
      Straddles the narrow straits of their harbor.

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