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Topic #E44

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

16 January 2002

Scribe: Antony Hanson


These minutes were not spoken; for another version, go to the spoken minutes


              Beginning at B.1, C.3, on p.17, Aristotle interprets three views of the soul: Democritus’, Plato’s (using the Timaeus), and the Pythagorean (using the Phaedo).    Aristotle criticizes Democritus’ atomist view of the soul at 406b15 on p.17:


Some go as far as to hold that the movements which the soul imparts to the body in which it is are the same in kind as those with which it itself is moved…Democritutus says that the spherical atoms owing to their own ceaseless movements draw the whole body after them and so produce its movements.


Democritus believed that the atoms of the soul were of the smallest kind, round, highly mobile and tenuous.  Democritus argued that the soul was material and had a sensitive material structure that had the capacity to register change.  On the other hand, Aristotle took Democritus’ theory to be somewhat primitive.  Aristotle states that many mobile things are composed of immobile parts.  Therefore, Aristotle provides a strong argument, which can be considered right in this case.  Similar to Democritus, the Epicureans, Pythagoreans and Lucretius favoured a materialist theory in terms of shape and size.  The Pythagoreans also believed the atoms of the soul were small, round, mobile, and tenuous.  The Epicureans believed that the function of thinking was special and the particular substance for thought atoms was even more sensitive than the rest of the soul.


Aristotle’s response to Plato’s Timaeus is probably right, although it is unnecessarily harsh and uncharitable.  Prof. Hutchinson did his best to present Plato’s theories, such as homeostasis and the gyroscope.  Aristotle mocked Plato’s model of the soul as being literally extended in space and spinning round and round.  It was too much for Aristotle to believe the soul had actual space and magnitude.  Aristotle could have been more charitable by taking Plato’s model more metaphorically.  Take computer models for instance, it can be useful for considering people’s mental states as his or her RAM.  We do not literally think there is an actual  hardwire or chip in the person’s head.   However, this is exactly the fashion Aristotle uses to dismiss and belittle Plato’s gyroscope.  The circularity of the gyroscope is not meant to explain movement, rather facts and truths.  The spinning is not responsible for mobility. 


Aristotle presents his own mechanical view of movement in On the Movement of Animals, where he espouses an organic-mechanical conception.  Aristotle believed the center of the soul was the heart.  However, Galen proved Aristotle wrong when Galen surgically cut a long vein of a bird, proving that the brain was the center of sensation and consciousness.  Aristotle’s description of movement as a gearing process proves to hold true.   He explained the movements of the heart as the expansion and contraction of muscles.  His explanation of the gearing up of tendons, ligaments and cartilage in for example, the lever action of moving an arm is for the most part correct.  However, Aristotle was unaware how information/signals traveled, therefore his theory is a failure too.  His crudely spatial organic-mechanical theory could not express the transition from thought to movement. 


At 407b13-26 on p.26, which still discusses Plato, Aristotle drives home the attack:


The view we have just been examining, in company with most theories about the soul, involves the following absurdity: they all join the soul to a body, or place it in a body, without adding any specification of the reason of their union…This is as absurd as to say that the art of the carpentry could embody itself in flutes; each art must use its tools, each soul its body.


Aristotle is saying that the same soul cannot be air-dropped into different organisms and animals, such as into a carrot, fox, or woman.  The interface is relevant; there is no universal interface. 


                  Prof. Hutchinson’s mother believes in reincarnation, but he chooses not to ridicule her.  He acknowledges that it gives her comfort to believe in what she does, and that it could possibly be true.  This very thing was mentioned in a position paper, where a fantasy or philosophical delusion may be more functional for one and not another.  Philosophy guides us and it is better to have one than none.  For example, if you are lost in a forest it is best to choose a direction and stick to it than not to choose one at all.


                  At 407b27 - 408a5 on p.18-19, Aristotle discusses the structure (or ‘harmony’ or harmonia, in Greek) of the soul which is discussed in Plato’s Phaedo.  Heraclitus had said that hidden structure is superior to evident structure.  He believes the soul is not a thing in the same way the mind is not a separate thing, rather it consists in a blended relationship with the body. 


                  The Pythagoreans strove for discipline, regimen, and regularity for honing and purifying their souls.  At the same time, Aristotle criticizes the blended or proportional theory as being too simple.  A ratio of 2:1 is not a good description of the soul and it does not seem enough of an explanation.  It is worth stating on certain physical natures and beings.  The soul can subsist only in an atmosphere of hydro-carbon.  Without hydrogen and oxygen a mind cannot be sustained, not on earth, but possibly on other planets.  We cannot measure the ingredients of the brain, it is much more complex than what Aristotle knew. 


Question: “Then someone with a damaged brain doesn’t possess a soul?”

A damaged brain has a poor power of cognition and does not enjoy all the powers.  There is a hierarchy of powers.  One has to be deceased to not possess a soul. 


At Book 2, Chp.2, 413a20-b1, on p.25, we read:


But ‘life’ has many senses, and we say that something is alive if any one of the following is present: intelligence, perception, locomotion and being stationary…For this reason all plants are also thought to be alive, for they plainly have in them this sort of ability of principle, by means of which they get bigger and smaller in opposite directions.  For they don’t grow upwards without growing downwards…


This discusses the psychology of plants and the spirit of living things with soul. 


                  408a34 - 408b18 on p.19-20 raises the questions: Can the soul be moved or changed or altered by its environment? Plato said some of it is alterable, whereas, Aristotle disagrees.  He says:


We speak of the soul as being pained or pleased, being bold or fearful, being angry, perceiving, thinking.  All these are regarded as modes of movement, and hence it might be inferred that the soul is moved.  This, however, does not necessarily follow. 


We have emotions and thoughts, which is the fundamental division of our rational nature as animate mammals.  However, the soul is not moved by emotions.  Even though the soul is involved with emotions, it is the person who feels the emotion. 


                  At 408a18-31 Aristotle says that thought is incapable of being destroyed.  This is a very Platonic view.  Aristotle is confident that the soul is divine, indestructible and claims, “The incapacity of old age is due to an attribute not of the soul but of its vehicle, as occurs in drunkenness or disease.”  Aristotle believes that the soul is invaluable and insusceptible to change.  The soul does not become rusty with old age, rather it remains undiminished within the body and cannot see out.  Therefore, Aristotle leaves room for the idea of the unchangeable soul.  However, Prof. Hutchinson agrees with Epicurus that that soul is so tightly unified with the body that the soul must also decline with the body. 


                  There is a strong consensus in the position papers that resent Aristotle’s view that the world is here for the sole purpose of supporting human beings.  Schools are on a campaign to espouse that the self-centering of the human species is not a good or wise thing.  Nowadays, this is a very unpopular view. 


                  At 409a24 on p.23, Aristotle’s doxographic method (scholarly collecting the opinions of other scholars) provides us with a precious source for otherwise lost scholarly material.  Aristotle was the first great doxographer, who sifted through earlier writings.  


                  Book 2, Chp.1, provides a series of three definitions.  At 413a3-9 on p.25, Aristotle provides a very elusive passage that remains a true mystery to this day.  This is very frustrating because Aristotle is possibly making scientific exceptions for a different form of life.  Here, Aristotle is trying to make a case for all of nature, where humans are the pinnacle and the special exception.