I have been called upon to give a fellow philosopher who is not familiar with our Stagirite friend a quick run-down on the soul from an Aristotelian perspective. I have to do it in about four minutes, but there will be time for discussion after, and he is especially interested in contrasting it with Plato's view, which he is more familiar with. Obviously with such a short time allowance, the main difficulty here is pedagogical. This is what I've got so far, and I'd appreciate your input:

First, there is a methodological point that should govern the whole discussion. As Aristotle argues in the first chapter of the Physics, the proper way to proceed in a science is from confused general notions to more determine ones. This has two ramifications for the study of the soul:

  1. The study of the soul, since it concerns a particular kind of body (living bodies), presupposes the general study of nature.
  2. Within the study of the soul, we should define the soul in general before discussing particular kinds of souls or distinguishing the different powers precisely.
So, beginning the examination of the soul in general, we can say that the first phenomenon in need of explanation is the difference between living and non-living creatures. That there is a difference is obvious and need not be argued; rather, it is the reason there is a science here at all. And since this difference is seen among bodily things, the only things we have experience of, this investigation falls to the natural philosopher.

This phenomena can be further specified: in demarcating some creatures as "living," we are first of all observing various activities, principally local motion and perception. But since a living thing is different than a non-living thing even when it is not engaging its activities, as when it sleeps, what we are looking for is deeper than the activities themselves. In trying to define the soul, therefore, we are chiefly looking for the principle of these activities of life. Since there may be many secondary causes which come together to produce a given action, we can also specify that we are looking for the first principle of the activities of life, the root of all other differences we might point to between the living and non-living.

If you are convinced that there are only three things to be discussed in the nature of a thing (namely: form, matter, and the composite), it is not too hard to see that the soul, or the first principle of the activities of life, is the form. For the principle is not the composite, which is the very thing that needs explaining. Neither can it be the matter. It is true that both matter and form are principles of a thing. We might, for instance say that we are healthy by means of the body as a principle, or by means of health as a principle. But having a body is what the living and non-living have in common, not what makes them differ. The form, however, is that by
which the living thing differs from the non-living and principles the activities of life. And it principles these activities by being act, as opposed to the body, which is a principle by being receptive. So we define the soul as the first act of a living body.

Given the time constraints, is there anything you would add, take away, or phrase differently?

1 Comment:

  1. Frater Asinus said...
    Maybe it is too late for this to be of any use to you, but I will give my thoughts anyway.

    I did not understand this claim in the first paragraph after your enumerated points: "That there is a difference is obvious and need not be argued; rather, it is the reason there is a science here at all."

    What I mean is that I take the object quod of the philosophy of nature to be mobile being. It does seem that the distinction between animate and inanimate is the reason we have a science at all, unless you mean that if there were no ensouled things then there would be no science. In which case, it would seem that that is an a posteriori claim and not relevant. I am assuming that I am just missing something obvious. But since I am confused, maybe someone else would be.

    Also, I did not notice a particular connection with Plato. Granted, I am not entirely familiar with Plato's position on the soul. I think that his account is that the soul is a harmony. I am not sure though.

    Such are my thoughts, for what they're worth. Other than that, great summary!

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