back to PHL200Y home page

back to course outline


Topic #E45

Aristotle, On the Soul i.4-ii.1


16 January 2002

Scribe: Kathryn Semogas


These minutes were spoken on 18 January; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes


Professor Hutchinson began the lecture by referring the class to Book 1, Chapter 3 of Aristotle’s On the Soul.  Here Aristotle gives detailed critiques of the theories about the soul advocated by Democritus, Plato (in the Timaeus) and the Pythagoreans.  At 406b15, Aristotle begins with an examination of Democritus’ idea that atoms that make up the soul are particularly mobile and therefore are the initiators of motion itself in the body.  In other words, the soul is made of matter, but it is highly sensitive and changeable.  Aristotle, however thinks that this attribution of motion to the soul is primitive, since many things which are themselves immobile can foster mobility in other bodies.  This theory is also similar to those of Lucretius and Epicurus, who held that the soul was composed of small, round, tenuous atoms.  All of these notions about the soul fit with a sort of physicalist theory about the nature of the soul.  Professor Hutchinson noted that these ideas all address typical questions such as: what makes the soul have the qualities that it does?  And, where does its power come from?


Next, Aristotle addresses Plato’s ideas about the soul that are presented in the Timaeus.  Professor Hutchinson pointed out that Aristotle’s discussion of Plato’s philosophy seems uncharitable in this case.  He believes that Plato’s theory deserves a more respectful examination.  Aristotle immediately dismisses the picture Plato paints of the soul as being similar to a gyroscope.  He argues that it is impossible for the soul to be made up of gear-like mechanisms, which have actual spatial magnitude.  Professor Hutchison believes that Aristotle is ignoring the metaphorical value of Plato’s description of the soul.  Surely, Plato did not literally mean that the soul is a gyroscope.  Rather, he is presenting an effective picture or model that aids the theorist in picturing the workings of the soul.  This is similar to the way in which we often compare our minds to computers in our time.  For example, when we speak of our brains as being “hard-wired” we are attempting to compare our minds to something more directly tangible.  It is typical that such a model should fall apart when taken literally.  Moreover, Professor Hutchinson noted that if one looks carefully at the Timaeus, it is evident that the circularity that Plato ascribes to the soul is meant to explain its power of awareness.  Thus Plato was not arguing that spinning gears are directly responsible for the motion of the body.  It is important, however, to note that many oral discussions on this subject must have occurred between Plato and Aristotle.  As Aristotle had direct access to the proponent of the philosophy that he was criticizing, this could have led to Aristotle criticizing Plato in this manner. 


There are large conceptual problems with attempting to reduce the soul to anything that is physical or material.  With respect to the significant debate over the location of the soul of the body, Aristotle believed that the soul was found in the heart.  This was later proved incorrect when it was discovered that the brain was the centre of consciousness; Aristotle believed that when a person has a thought, it correlates to the heart, causing cavities to expand and contract, thereby creating movement in the body.  This theory was vaguely correct since it is true that small movements of muscles in the body cause larger movements.  But Aristotle was unaware of how the information that causes movement was transmitted from one part of the body to another.  It may be unreasonable to expect this from Aristotle because this is an extremely complex concept that has only become understood recently.  Aristotle criticizes Plato for the spatiality that he attributes to the soul but fails in his own explanation, which does not outline how messages are sent and received in organic media.


 At 407b13-26, Aristotle discusses the Pythagorean conception of the soul as it has been outlined in various Platonic works.  Their conception involved reincarnation and the transference of a soul from one body to another body.  Against this theory Aristotle asks the following question.  If the Pythagorean idea of reincarnation is correct, then how does the soul move from one species to another species freely?  He believes that it is inconceivable that the soul would have a universal interface that could be applicable to all forms of life.  At this point, Professor Hutchison mentioned that an answer to this question was present in past position papers.  In their response to Aristotle, some students had argued that although one philosophical system is unacceptable to one person, this does not necessarily mean that it cannot function for another person.  They pointed out that it was important not to lose trust in one’s own guidance.  For example, if one is lost in a forest, it is better to pick one path to follow and stick with it rather than not picking a path at all. 


At 407b27-408a5, Aristotle is getting closer to his true definition of the soul.  Here he examines the theory of “harmonia” which means harmony or structure.  Heraclitus noted that the soul had a hidden harmonia or structure, which was superior to the visible structure of the body.  In other words, the latent structure of the soul is superior to the evident structure of the body.  Although this theory seems obscure, it is actually very modern because it outlines the structure of the soul in proportion and relation to parts of the body.  Modern beliefs about the soul involve understanding its blending with various parts of the body.  


Pythagoreans were always striving towards creating equilibrium in our physical nature, which would lead to a harmonious state in the soul.  Aristotle’s chief criticism of this was that describing the soul as just a “blending” with the body is not a thorough enough explanation.  For example, one cannot discover much information about the essence of the brain simply through uncovering its physical proportions and how they relate to the body.  This kind of study gives us some information, but it is too simplistic.  Professor Hutchinson noted that we now know that only some kinds of physical structure can support a soul, i.e.  complex hydrocarbon organisms.  One use of this information could be to examine how the functions of the soul are dependent on physical structure.


Professor Hutchinson then referred to 413a20-b1 where Aristotle discusses the sense of the word “life”.  He noted that Aristotle includes plants in his psychology and uses the term “psyche” in a very broad sense.  At 408a34, Aristotle asks if the soul can be moved or if it changes.  Moreover, is it altered by events or changed by the environment?  Plato thought that the soul was unalterable and once again Aristotle disagrees with his teacher.  He points to the distinction between our emotional and thinking natures, saying that both are rational, but have a strongly incarnate character.  The soul acts because the man does something with the soul.  Even though the soul is involved in the experience of emotion, it is not correct to say that the soul is angry or the soul is happy.  Rather it is better to say that the soul is involved in the feeling of the emotion.  At 408a18-31 Aristotle makes room for the special case of the human soul.  He wants to maintain the belief that it is indestructible and divine.  He argues that this must be the case because of its involvement with thinking, since thought is also something everlasting.  Aristotle explains the problems of an elderly person who experiences physical complications.  His problems stem from his physicality fading away, not because his soul is weakening.  With the recovery of one’s physical faculties, one’s soul would still function effectively.  Here Professor Hutchinson noted that Lucretius and Epicurus would have believed that this was impossible since the soul and the body share such an intricate connection and thus affect one another.


Professor Hutchinson also mentioned that there was much resistance to Aristotle’s view in this case in position papers this week.  Many students resented Aristotle’s anthropocentrism and arrogance in his desire to make the human species special and more important than other species. 


Aristotle’s work is a good example of doxography.  This is scholarly writing that surveys the opinions of others in an attempt to come up with a clearer, more coherent theory.  Aristotle began this tradition and his students followed it.  These types of works have given us much information about the philosophers of whom we would otherwise know little. 


To end the lecture, Professor Hutchinson noted that beginning in Book II, we see a series of definitions but Aristotle has made little progress.  He does make a puzzling statement at 413c3 that has been interpreted as meaning that the soul is inseparable from the body, but again, he allows for the special case of the human soul.  These ideas are developed more concretely in the second chapter.