Soul – Intro
The term soul has many meanings, depending on the different mythical, religious, philosophical or psychological traditions and teachings in which it occurs. In contemporary usage, it often refers to the totality of all emotional and mental processes in human beings. In this sense, “soul” is largely synonymous with “psyche,” the Greek word for soul. However, “soul” can also refer to a principle that is assumed to underlie these emotions and processes, to order them, and also to bring about or influence physical processes.
In addition, there are religious and philosophical concepts in which “soul” refers to an intangible principle that is conceived as the bearer of an individual’s life and its identity that remains constant throughout time. Often associated with this is the assumption that the soul is independent of the body, and thus of physical death, in terms of its existence, and is therefore immortal. Death is interpreted as a process of separation of soul and body. In some traditions it is taught that the soul already exists before conception, that it inhabits and controls the body only temporarily and uses it as a tool or is locked up in it like in a prison. In many such teachings, the immortal soul alone constitutes the person; the transient body is considered insignificant or a burden and hindrance to the soul. Numerous myths and religious dogmas make statements about the fate that awaits the soul after the death of the body. In a large number of teachings it is assumed that a transmigration of souls (reincarnation) takes place, i.e. that the soul has a home in different bodies one after the other.
In the early modern era, from the 17th century onward, the traditional concept of the soul, originating in ancient philosophy, as the life principle of all living beings that controls bodily functions, was increasingly rejected because it was not needed to explain affects and bodily processes. The model of René Descartes, who attributed a soul only to humans and limited its function to thinking, was influential. Descartes’ doctrine was followed by the debate about the “body-soul problem”, which continues and today is the subject of the philosophy of mind. It deals with the question of the relationship between mental and physical states.
In modern philosophy a wide spectrum of strongly divergent approaches is discussed. It ranges from positions that assume the existence of an independent, body-independent soul substance to eliminative materialism, according to which all statements about the mental are inappropriate because nothing in reality corresponds to them; rather, all apparently “mental” states and processes are completely reducible to the biological. Between these radical positions there are different models, which do not deny the reality of the mental, but allow the concept of the soul only conditionally in a more or less weak sense.
The question of the existence of the soul
In discussions during the 20th and 21st century different interpretations of the term “soul” have been proposed and most different points of view on the suitability of the term and on the different concepts of soul have been noted. Roughly stated one can distinguish the following ideas:
- A realism that accepts a “soul” as its own substance, through which thought and feeling and other mental acts emanate and which is only temporarily bound to the body and controls it during this period. The continued existence of the soul after physical death is also defended by some meta-physicists and philosophers of religion. This is mostly equivalent to a Platonic or Cartesian concept of soul.
- A materialism, which rejects the existence of a soul and claims that all talk about the soul, can be reduced to talk about physical and neuronal states.
- Positions which are more difficult to classify, which reject materialism and consider mental things not only real but complex and able to control (e.g. in the sense of a control of bodily states), but do not commit themselves to the concept of a soul in a traditional sense, especially not to its immortality.
A decidedly anti-platonic view of some Christian theologians and philosophers who, in the sense of a holistic anthropology, regard soul and body as a unity. This unity is understood according to the substance-form principle (hylemorphism) as formulated by Aristotle and further developed by Thomas von Aquin. According to this, the soul as part of the body enters into the substantial unity of the individual human being. By “form” is meant not the outer shape, but a life principle forming the body from within.
Possible properties of the soul
The traditional concept of an immortal soul presupposes that it does not consist of parts into which it can be broken, otherwise it would be transient. On the other hand, it is said to have complex interaction with the environment, which is not compatible with the idea that it is absolutely simple and unchanging. Swinburne therefore assumes, within the framework of his dualistic concept, that the human soul has a continuous, complex structure. This he infers from the possible stability of a system of interrelated views and desires of an individual.
Ludwig Wittgenstein has held “that the soul—the subject, etc.—as conceived in today’s superficial psychology is an absurdity. For a complex soul would no longer be a soul.”
Continued existence after death
While materialists deny the existence of a soul and many dualists no longer understand the term soul in a traditional sense, the question of post-mortal survival has again been debated in the past decades and partly answered positively. Lynne Rudder Baker distinguishes seven metaphysical standpoints that affirm the continued existence of a person’s identity after death:
- Immaterialism: the continuity of the person is based on the identity of the soul before and after death.
- Animalism: the continuity of the person is based on the identity of the living organism before and after death.
- Thomism: the continuity of the person is based on the identity of the composite of body and soul before and after death.
- Memory theories: a person is exactly the same before and after death, if there is a psychic continuity.
- Soul as “software”: the identity of the person is comparable to that of software independent of hardware (in this case the brain)
- Soul as information-bearing pattern: the identity of the person is contained in an information-bearing pattern, which is carried by the cells of the body and can be restored after the death of the person.
- Baker discusses the extent to which these positions are suitable as a metaphysical basis for Christian belief in the resurrection. In doing so, she rejects the first six positions and then defends a variant of the seventh.
The soul as a whole and its relation to the spirit
Away from the discussion between dualists and materialists, a concept of soul has developed in the German-speaking world which draws its definition primarily from the fact that it demarcates the soul as a whole against the spirit and its numerous detached components.
For Georg Simmel, spirit is “the objective content of what becomes conscious within the soul in life; soul is, as it were, the form that the spirit, i.e., the logical-conceptual content of thought, assumes for our subjectivity, as our nature.” Spirit is thus objectified soul. Its contents are in parts, while the soul always constitutes the unity of the whole man.
Modern connections to traditional concepts
A tie-in to concepts of soul of ancient origin has occurred in modern times both in religious-worldly contexts and in art. Especially in modern times and up to the present, individuals as well as new religious or ideological movements and communities have emerged with their own doctrines of the soul, which they often justify through subjective observation or experience, i.e., on the basis of personal experience. Often the representatives of these doctrines refer to statements of individual persons who claim to have gained access to knowledge about the soul through their experiences. In some cases it is claimed that the original proclaimers of the doctrines have received new revelations from God, from Christ or from messengers of God or spirit beings.
Other believers of new soul concepts attribute the claimed knowledge to having extrasensory perception ability. Often it is linked to traditional ideas of the soul. As in Platonism and the Platonically influenced Christian tradition, the soul or at least its core is described as an immaterial substance, separable from the body and imperishable. In modern esotericism, numerous concepts based on this basic assumption are widespread. In this context terms such as “self” are also used synonymously with “soul.” In part, these are further developments of thought of Indian origin with corresponding terminology.
A soul is carried to heaven. Oil painting by William Adolphe Bouguereau (1878), Musée du Périgord.
Visual artists have taken up and redesigned the motif of the soul – iconographically as Psyche in the tradition of ancient representations. Sculptors Wolf von Hoyer (1806-1873) and Georgios Bonanos (1863-1940) created sculptures of the winged Psyche. The ascension of the soul after death is depicted in paintings by Antonio Balestra (1666-1740) and William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905), among others. Above all, the Psyche figure from the ancient tale of Cupid and Psyche has enjoyed great, enduring popularity in the visual arts right up until the present.