Aristotle's Theory of Soul

Hello, I'm Dr. Anadale and I teach
philosophy at Mount Saint Mary's University and Seminary in Emmitsburg,
Maryland. I want to say a few words today about Aristotle's theory of the soul. I
will talk first about how it contrasts with Plato's dualistic theory of the
soul. I'll say a little bit about first and second actuality, and then I will
talk briefly about the powers of the soul. Now Aristotle's theory of the soul
is best understood in terms of two other doctrines. First, the body and soul are
joined together for Aristotle as matter and form. Like matter and form they are
inseparable. Second, all transitory existence for Aristotle moves from
potentiality to actuality. So, for example, a seed grows into a tree. The seed does not lack the form of the tree and it doesn't like the matter of the tree.
But if it has the same form and the same matter why do we not say that it is
identical to the tree? In a sense it is. In a sense the seed in the tree are the
same thing. But they're not strictly identical. There's something different
about them, and that difference is exactly what Aristotle wants to talk about.
In a similar way we could say that the calf that grows up into a full-grown cow
is not identical with the cow but it plainly is the same being. So how are they
different? Well, in growing the seed produces another embodiment of its form,
that is, the tree. This form was present always as potential but was actualized
through growth and it is the inner telos or entelechy of the seed, of the living
thing, its development or movement from potentiality to actuality constitutes a process of growth as it unfolds over time. Now, thinking about the human soul
as an entelechy allows Aristotle to avoid the dualism of Plato's theory of
the soul. Plato, the Pythagoreans, and even the Stoics tended to see the soul
as inhabiting the body the way a pilot inhabits a ship. Think of the dialogue at
the end of Phaedo, the death scene where Crito asks Socrates, "How should we bury you?" Socrates says, "Any way you can if you can catch me." Then he teases Crito,
saying "Crito imagines that this dead body he will encounter in an hour's time
is actually Socrates, but really the real Socrates will be gone. The real Socrates
is the soul of Socrates. What you'll look at after my death is simply the empty
container that Socrates used to inhabit." This is Plato's dualism about the body
and the soul. But Aristotle holds that the substantial reality of a human being
is the union of body and soul. Without the soul the body does not exist as a
unity and the soul cannot exist apart from its body. One helpful way to think about this, that I get from Jonathan Barnes, is to think: for Aristotle having a soul is rather like having the skill. Nobody thinks of a
carpenter's skill as somehow being a part of the carpenter or inhabiting the
carpenter at some particular place, his hand or his brain or elsewhere. That's
not the kind of thing that skill in carpentry is. That's not the kind of
thing that a soul is either. It's not part of the self; it is an ability or a
skill that the self possesses. It's the power to do certain things that the self
does. Now, one important consequence of this theory of the soul is that each
soul is united to one and only one body. So there can be no transmigration of
souls, there can be no reincarnation, something the Plato believed in, and
there also can be no otherworldly afterlife. There is no ghostly Socrates
floating around in Hades or dwelling up upon the forms. That simply is not
something that happens. An interesting question for Christian theology would be
whether you can take this theory of the soul and combine it with the Christian
doctrine of the resurrection of the body and come up with a workable system of
theology. I'll leave that for the theologians to work it out but it's
worth some attention. Another important consequence is that this doctrine gives
unity to each human being. Aristotle rejects Plato's multi-part
soul. He says I don't feel desire in one part of my soul and anger or shame in a
different part of my soul simultaneously. I have a single soul which has multiple
powers. Now for Aristotle the soul is not a
substance in the fullest sense, but the soul actualizes matter into a composite
and this composite, this actualized matter, actualized body, ensouled body,
that is substance in the fullest sense. Thus for Aristotle the oneness of the
body and soul is not an interesting question. He actually says this (this is
on page 555 of the Mckeon Basic Works of Aristotle). Aristotle writes, "that is why
we can wholly dismiss as unnecessary the question of whether the soul and body
are one. It is as meaningless as to ask whether the wax and the shape given to
it by the stamp are one." Aristotle says this is not an interesting question.
Obviously they are one and inseparable. Let's move on to some interesting
questions. So, an interesting question is going to be for Aristotle: How does the
soul actualize the body? What are these kinds of actualization? So
let me give you an example to explain something of this. The soul for Aristotle
is the first actuality of the body and is therefore inseparable from it. So
think of three people. Arthur: Arthur is totally ignorant about something, let's
say it's the Pythagorean theorem. Arthur does not know the Pythagorean theorem
but he is capable of learning about it. If somebody taught it to him he
could learn, he could have the knowledge, he just doesn't have it right now. That's
Arthur. Now, second person: Bob. Bob knows the Pythagorean theorem but he's not
thinking about it right now because he's asleep. That's my second person, Bob. The
third person, Chris, knows the Pythagorean theorem and is right now explaining it
to someone else. Now, what are we going to say about this? Obviously Arthur's
knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem is potential only. He doesn't have it; he
could conceivably have it, but that's the best we're going to get for Arthur. Bob
has the knowledge in a way. He has acquired it, it's filed away in his mind,
but he's not using it right now because he's doing something else, he's sleeping.
Chris has the knowledge in the fullest possible way: he both possesses the
knowledge and he's putting it to use right now by thinking about it as he explains it to somebody else. So in Aristotle's
language we would say that Chris has actualized his knowledge in two senses:
he possesses it and he's using it, whereas Bob has only the first
actualization. We would say Bob's knowledge is both actual in the sense
that he has the knowledge and potential in the sense that he's not making full
use of the knowledge right now. So there, these are the first and second levels of
actuality…. For Aristotle the soul is the first actuality of the
body. The second actuality of the body is the soul acting. living well. So being
alive is the first actuality, living well is the second actuality. Now the soul for
Aristotle is not a type of activity but instead it is the potential or the
ability to engage in certain kinds of activities, most importantly the
activities of nutrition, sensation, and thought. Furthermore it's not an
undeveloped potential like Arthur's knowledge. Rather it is the actualized
potential to engage in some sorts of activities. So that these are the powers
of the soul: the basic powers of the soul are the powers of nutrition and growth
and these are typical of plants. Add to these the powers of sensation of motion
and of feeling pleasure and pain, and these are the powers that animals have, the
additional powers that animals have in addition to the plant powers. And then
the last powers of the soul are the powers of thought and intellect, which human
beings uniquely possess. And it's possession of those extra powers that
sets us above animals, the same way that animals are set above plants. It's not a
matter of a sort of inter-species bigotry. It's simply that we can do more stuff, we
have more ability to do things with our souls. The same way that animals can do
things that plants can't, we can do things with the intellect, thought, and
understanding that animals are not capable of. Now, about this power of
thought: Aristotle makes an observation that there's something unusual about
thought. It seems potentially to be separable from the soul. Now this might
be a kind… we might suspect this being a kind of backsliding towards a Platonic
dualism. But Aristotle is making an important observation: he's recognizing
that of all the powers of the soul, thought is
somehow different. He says this on page 558 of McKeon: "it alone is capable of
existence in isolation from all other psychic powers." That lead me to speculate
that if there's any part of the soul that could potentially survive death and
separation from the body, it will be the intellectual part of the soul. That's
going to be important for theologians later on. So, to wrap up, let me just
contrast briefly the Aristotelian soul with the Cartesian idea of the soul,
which will be important when we look at modern philosophy later on. Aristotle's
idea of the soul is definitely not Cartesian. There is no distinction in
Aristotle between the inner and outer realms of the soul, there's no sense of
special privilege in my access to a knowledge about my own perceptual states,
my own thoughts or knowledge. Secondly, the soul for Aristotle is not a
substance but a capacity, so the question of how the soul substance relates to the
body substance never comes up for Aristotle. Where that becomes a problem
that occupies Descartes for a tremendous amount of… gives Descartes lot of
difficulty. And finally for Aristotle there's very… the soul has very little to
do with my own sense of individuality, with my own personality, with what
separates me from other beings. That is all going to come from my body, my matter.
The soul is simply going to be that which animates my body, which allows me to be
alive and to exercise the different activities that I actually exercise in
the course of being alive. So that's my brief introduction to Aristotle's theory
of the soul. Thank you for watching today. Goodbye.

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