On the Soul

On the Soul
"Expositio et quaestiones" in Aristoteles De Anima by Jean Buridan, circa 1362

On the Soul (Greek Περὶ Ψυχῆς (Perì Psūchês), Latin De Anima) is a major treatise by Aristotle on the nature of living things. His discussion centres on the kinds of souls possessed by different kinds of living things, distinguished by their different operations. Thus plants have the capacity for nourishment and reproduction, the minimum that must be possessed by any kind of living organism. Lower animals have, in addition, the powers of sense-perception and self-motion (action). Humans have all these as well as intellect.

The notion of soul used by Aristotle is only distantly related to the usual modern conception. He holds that the soul is the form, or essence of any living thing; that it is not a distinct substance from the body that it is in; that it is the possession of soul (of a specific kind) that makes an organism an organism at all, and thus that the notion of a body without a soul, or of a soul in the wrong kind of body, is simply unintelligible. (He argues that some parts of the soul—the intellect—can exist without the body, but most cannot.) It is difficult to reconcile these points with the popular picture of a soul as a sort of spiritual substance "inhabiting" a body. Some commentators have suggested that Aristotle's term soul is better translated as lifeforce[1][2].

In 1855, Charles Collier's published a translation titled On the Vital Principle, however George Henry Lewes found this description also wanting.[3]


Division of chapters

The treatise is divided into three books, and each of the books is divided into chapters (five, twelve, and thirteen, respectively). The treatise is near-universally abbreviated “DA,” for “De anima,” and books and chapters generally referred to by Roman and Arabic numerals, respectively, along with corresponding Bekker numbers. (Thus, “DA I.1, 402a1” means “De anima, book I, chapter 1, Bekker page 402, Bekker column a [the column on the left side of the page], line number 1.)

DA I.1 introduces the theme of the treatise;
DA I.2–5 provide a survey of Aristotle’s predecessors’ views about the soul;
DA II.1–3 gives Aristotle’s definition of soul and outlines his own study of it, which is then pursued as follows:
DA II.4 discusses nutrition and reproduction;
DA II.5–6 discuss sensation in general;
DA II.7–11 discuss each of the five senses (in the following order: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch—one chapter for each);
DA II.12 again takes up the general question of sensation;
DA III.1 argues there are no other senses than the five already mentioned;
DA III.2 discusses the problem of what it means to “sense sensing” (i.e., to “be aware” of sensation);
DA III.3 investigates the nature of imagination;
DA III.4–7 discuss thinking and the intellect, or mind;
DA III.8 rearticulates the definition and nature of soul;
DA III.9–10 discuss the movement of animals possessing all the senses;
DA III.11 discusses the movement of animals possessing only touch;
DA III.12–13 take up the question of what are the minimal constituents of having a soul and being alive.

Book I contains a summary of Aristotle's method of investigation and a dialectical determination of the nature of the soul. He begins by conceding that attempting to define the soul is one of the most difficult questions in the world. But he proposes an ingenious method to tackle the question: just as we can come to know the properties and operations of something through scientific demonstration, i.e. a geometrical proof that a triangle has its interior angles equal to two right angles, since the principle of all scientific demonstration is the essence of the object, so too we can come to know the nature of a thing if we already know its properties and operations. It is like finding the middle term to a syllogism with a known conclusion. Therefore we must seek out such operations of the soul to determine what kind of nature it has. From a consideration of the opinions of his predecessors, a soul, he concludes, will be that in virtue of which living things have life.

Book II contains his scientific determination of the nature of the soul. By dividing substance into its three meanings, namely, matter, form, and what is composed of both, he shows that the soul must be the first actuality of a naturally organised body. This is its form or essence. It cannot be matter because the soul is that in virtue of which things have life, and matter is only being in potency. The rest of the book is divided into a determination of the nature of the nutritive and sensitive souls. (1) All species of living things, plant or animal, must be able to nourish themselves and reproduce others of the same kind. (2) All animals have, in addition to the nutritive power, sense-perception, and thus they all have at least the sense of touch, which he argues is presupposed by all other senses, and the ability to feel pleasure and pain, which is the simplest kind of perception. If they can feel pleasure and pain they also have desire. Some animals in addition have other senses (sight, hearing, taste), and some have more subtle versions of each (the ability to distinguish objects in a complex way, beyond mere pleasure and pain.) He discusses how these function. Some animals have in addition the powers of memory, imagination, and self-motion.

Book III discusses the mind or rational soul, which belongs to humans alone. He argues that thinking is different to both sense-perception and imagination because the senses can never lie and imagination is a power to make something sensed appear again, while thinking can sometimes be false. And since the mind is able to think when it wishes, it must be divided into two faculties: one which contains all the mind's ideas which are able to be considered, and another which brings them into act, i.e. to be actually thinking about them. These are called the possible and agent intellect. The possible intellect is the store-house of all concepts, i.e. universal ideas like "triangle", "tree", "man", "red", etc. When the mind wishes to think, the agent intellect recalls these ideas from the possible intellect and combines them to form thoughts. The agent intellect is also the faculty which abstracts the "whatness" or intelligibility of all sensed objects and stores them in the possible intellect. For example, when a student learns a proof for the Pythagorean theorem, his agent intellect abstracts the intelligibility of all the images his eye senses (and that are a result of the translation by imagination of sense perceptions into immaterial phantasmata), i.e. the triangles and squares in the diagrams, and stores the concepts that make up the proof in his possible intellect. When he wishes to recall the proof, say, for demonstration in class the next day, his agent intellect recalls the concepts and their relations from the possible intellect and formulates the statements that make up the arguments in the proof.

But the argument for the existence of the agent intellect in Chapter V is often misunderstood due to its irritating conciseness. The argument, as interpreted by St Thomas Aquinas, runs something like this: in every nature which is sometimes in potency and act, it is necessary to posit an agent or cause within that genus that, just like art in relation to its suffering matter, brings the object into act. But the soul is sometimes in potency and act. Therefore the soul must have this difference. In other words, since the mind can move from not understanding to understanding and from knowing to thinking, there must be something to cause the mind to go from knowing nothing to knowing something, and from knowing something but not thinking about it to actually thinking about it.

Aristotle also argues that the mind (only the agent intellect) is immaterial, able to exist without the body, and immortal. His arguments are notoriously concise. This has caused much confusion over the centuries, causing a rivalry between different schools of interpretation, most notably, between the Arabian commentator Averroes and St Thomas Aquinas. One argument for its immaterial existence runs like this: if the mind were material, then it would have to possess a corresponding thinking-organ. And since all the senses have their corresponding sense-organs, thinking would then be like sensing. But sensing can never be false, and therefore thinking could never be false. And this is of course untrue. Therefore, Aristotle concludes, the mind is immaterial.

Perhaps the most important but obscure argument in the whole book is Aristotle's demonstration of the immortality of the thinking part of the human soul, also in Chapter V. Taking a premise from his Physics, that as a thing acts, so it is, he argues that since the mind acts with no bodily organ, it exists without the body. And if it exists apart from matter, it therefore cannot be corrupted. And therefore the human mind is immortal.

Arabic Paraphrase

Just as there is an important Arabic paraphrase of Plotinus' Six Enneads -- The Theology of Aristotle, blending it with Aristotle's thought—so there is an Arabic paraphrase of the De Anima, blending it with Plotinus' thought. Thus later Islamic philosophy and European philosophy which built on the Islamic texts were based on this Neoplatonic synthesis.

Some manuscripts


  1. ^ http://www.suite10 1.com/content/aristotles-definition-and-levels-of-soul-a101071 "What Did Aristotle Mean by Soul? Aristotle saw the soul as a life-giving force that animated the body to fulfill its potential. Soul was the directing force and actuality of any living organism and was related to the definitions of growth and reaching one’s full potential. Without it, the body or any living organism would not be actualized and as a result, be “dead,” nothing but mere lifeless matter." Retrieved 01MARCH2011.
  2. ^ http://gowerpublishing.com/default.aspx?page=637&title_id=53&edition_id=129&x=y&promotion_id=db0b0da5-324b-4985-bbd8-fdd23c2d01b5&calcTitle=1&lang=cy-GB "... in the Old Testament and Homeric notions of soul as life-force, through Plato's infusion of an immortal and divine power, Aristotle's functional matter-form theory, the New Testament's doctrine of a double life and a double death, and its culmination in Augustine's Christian-Platonist synthesis." "Contents: Ancient Hebrew and Homeric Greek life-force; Plato, Aristotle and Hellenistic thought; From the New Testament to St Augustine; Medieval Islamic and Christian ideas; Renaissance Platonism, Hermeticism and other heterodoxies; Mind and soul in English from Chaucer to Shakespeare; The triumph of rationalist concepts of mind and intellect; The empiricists’ advocacy of matter designed for thought; Bibliography; Indexes." Retrieved 01MARCH2011.
  3. ^ George Henry Lewes (1864). Aristotle: A Chapter from the History of Science, Including Analyses of Aristotle's Scientific Writings. OCLC 15174038. 

English Translations

Further reading

  • J. Barnes, M. Schofield, & R. Sorabji, Articles on Aristotle, vol. 4, 'Psychology and Aesthetics'. London, 1979.
  • M. Durrant, Aristotle's De Anima in Focus. London, 1993.
  • M. Nussbaum & A. O. Rorty, Essays on Aristotle's De Anima. Oxford, 1992.
  • F. Nuyens, L'évolution de la psychologie d'Aristote. Louvain, 1973.
  • Rüdiger Arnzen, Aristoteles' De anima : eine verlorene spätantike Paraphrase in arabischer und persischer Überlieferung (1998: Leiden, Brill) ISBN 9004106995.

External links

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