Aristotle on the Soul

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Aristotle on the Soul

Aristotle’s notion differs from the usual conception of a soul as some sort of substance occupying the body, existing separately and eternally. To him, the soul is the essence of a living thing. The soul is what makes an organism an organism at all by actualizing its potential for life, and it’s constituted by its capacity for activities essential to that specific type of being. His investigation into the nature of the soul demonstrates basic principles of his philosophical theories at work, including Hylomorphism, potentiality and actuality, and his four causes. His use of these theories in analyzing and teasing out the complexities of the soul make for a cohesive and comprehensive study, easily amenable with his other works. In this paper I will analyze his notion of the soul as described in De Anima, recounting how he came to define the soul, the explanation of the soul, how the souls of different kinds of ensouled beings differ, and his unique concept of how the soul is related to the body. Aristotle begins Book 1 of De Anima by stating that since the soul is a principle of animals, and here I will interpret animals to mean more broadly beings, describing its essence has implications beyond its obvious scope. In unfolding the nature of the soul, it is possible to determine which attributes belong to the soul alone and which belong to the organism in virtue of having a soul (Aristotle, De Anima 402a). So besides exploring the nature of life, his analysis will also seek to answer the question of whether all mental states (of the soul) are also material states of the body, or whether some attributes of the soul are unique to it. In doing so, we are confronted with the interesting implication of Aristotle’s position on the mind/body problem, to which I will get to later on. Returning to the question at hand (what is the soul?), Aristotle starts his investigation by use of his explanatory theory of Hylomorphism, which states that substances are compounds of matter and form, and change occurs when form actualizes matter (Shields). There are three sorts of substances; form, matter, and the compound of form and matter. Matter is potentiality and form is actuality. Form actualizes matter, which possesses the potential to be what it is. So using Aristotle’s example of a bronze statue, the matter, in this case the bronze, only actualizes it’s potential of being a statue when it acquires the form, or the shape and features. Of interest is the third kind of substance, compounds, which make up living beings. The body is the substance as matter, so the soul is the substance as form or shape. Here we get to Aristotle’s preliminary definition of the soul as the actuality of a natural body having life potentially (Aristotle, De Anima 412). It is in virtue of this form, the soul, that makes an organism alive. Without the soul, the body would only have the capacity for life potentially, and so the soul is the essence (the form) of living things. This preliminary definition is taken a step further when Aristotle identifies the soul as the “first actuality of a natural body that is potentially alive” (Aristotle, De Anima 412a). He claims that the actuality that is the soul is like the actuality that is knowledge, in that we speak of it in two ways. We can distinguish between a state of knowing x and a state of attending to the knowledge of x, where the latter is more of an active process. The passive of state of knowing x is the first actuality, first because it must necessarily come prior to attending or remembering that knowledge i.e. potential precedes actual. Similarly, the soul of a sleeping person is like the passive state, the first actuality, while the soul of an awake person is like the active state. The soul must be the first actuality, for if not we would be forced to say a sleeping animal lacks a soul, a conclusion we do not want to make (Aristotle, De Anima 412a-412b). First actuality seems to...
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