The Rise And Fall Of Soul And Self

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This book traces the development of theories of the self and personal identity from the ancient Greeks to the present day. From Plato and Aristotle to Freud and Foucault, Raymond Martin and John Barresi explore the works of a wide range of thinkers and reveal the larger intellectual trends, controversies, and ideas that have revolutionized the way we think about ourselves.

The authors open with ancient Greece, where the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, and the materialistic atomists laid the groundwork for future theories. They then discuss the ideas of the church fathers and medieval and Renaissance philosophers, including St. Paul, Philo, Augustine, Aquinas, and Montaigne. In their coverage of the emergence of a new mechanistic conception of nature in the seventeenth century, Martin and Barresi note a shift away from religious and purely philosophical notions of self and personal identity to more scientific and social conceptions, a trend that has continued to the present day. They explore modern philosophy and psychology, including the origins of different traditions within each discipline, and explain both the theoretical relevance of feminism and gender and ethnic studies and also the ways that Derrida and other recent thinkers have challenged the very idea that a unified self or personal identity even exists.

Martin and Barresi cover a number of issues broached by philosophers and psychologists, such as the existence of a fixed and unchanging self and whether the concept of the soul has a use outside of religious contexts. They address the question of whether notions of the soul and the self are still viable in today's world. Together, they reveal the fascinating ways in which great thinkers have grappled with these and other questions and the astounding impact their ideas have had on the development of self-understanding in the west.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Ideas Book Review - Chris Scott

The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self is... destined to become a benchmark of sorts.

New Scientist - Simon Blackburn

Barresi and Martin provide an enjoyable and rich account of the history of personal identity in Western thought.

Financial Times - Christian Tyler

This solid book faithfully and intelligibly summarises the ideas of all the western figures who have tackled personal identity.


Martin and Barresi offer a succinct but comprehensive history of the concept of self. Their work is uniquely successful... Highly recommended.

Ideas Book Review
The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self is probably destined to become a benchmark of sorts.

— Chris Scott

The Globe and Mail
The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self is... destined to become a benchmark of sorts.

— Chris Scott

New Scientist
Barresi and Martin provide an enjoyable and rich account of the history of personal identity in Western thought.

— Simon Blackburn

Financial Times
This solid book faithfully and intelligibly summarises the ideas of all the western figures who have tackled personal identity.

— Christian Tyler


Martin and Barresi offer a succinct but comprehensive history of the concept of self. Their work is uniquely successful... Highly recommended.


Inviting, informative, and free of mystification and arrogance.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231137447
  • Publisher: Columbia University
  • Publication date: 7/1/2006
  • Pages: 394
  • Product dimensions: 1.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 6.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Raymond Martin is professor and chair of the department of philosophy at Union College. He is the author of several books, including Self-Concern: An Experiential Approach to What Matters in Survival.John Barresi is retired professor of psychology and philosophy at Dalhousie University and the coauthor (with Raymond Martin) of Naturalization of the Soul: Self and Personal Identity in the Eighteenth Century.

Columbia University Press

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Read an Excerpt

The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self

An Intellectual History of Personal Identity
By Raymond Martin John Barresi

Columbia University Press

Copyright © 2006 Columbia University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-231-13744-3


In Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, a convalescing photojournalist, played by Jimmy Stewart, is confined to his third-floor apartment. To amuse himself, he spies on his neighbors. As he spies, he begins to suspect, and then becomes convinced, that one of his neighbors, a middle-aged man, has killed his invalid wife. The Jimmy Stewart character tries to convince his girlfriend, played by Grace Kelly, to accept his theory. She shrugs it off, facilely explaining away his evidence. Then, one evening, suddenly realizing that his theory might be right, she comes over to the window next to where he has been sitting, peers out across the courtyard toward the murder suspect's apartment, and asks the Jimmy Stewart character to start from the beginning and tell her everything that happened and what it means.

For those parts of the past that interest us, everything that happened and what it means is what many of us who are curious about the past really want to know. The word everything has to be taken with a grain of salt. In the example above, what the Grace Kelley character really wants to know is not literally"everything that happened" but everything that happened that it would be relevant and helpful to know in determining whether the Jimmy Stewart character's murder theory is correct. Her request for what everything that happened means is for an explanation of how the different pieces of the puzzle-the evidence-fit together to yield a coherent picture of unfolding events. Similarly, in the present book, we are not going to try to tell literally everything that happened in the evolution of theories of the self and of personal identity. Rather, our goal is to tell everything that happened that is relevant and helpful to understanding why theory followed the course that it did-from its earliest beginnings to the present day. The meaning we are after is what this story can tell us about the enterprise of human self-understanding, including current attempts to understand the self and personal identity. By theories of the self we mean explicit theories that tell us what sort of thing the self is, if indeed it even is a thing. By theories of personal identity, we mean primarily theories of personal identity over time, that is, theories that explain why a person, or self, at one time is or is not the same person or self as someone at some other time.

In the West, views about the nature of the self and of personal identity first surfaced in ancient Greece. But at that time, so far as we know, there was no sustained, continuing discussion of these issues. That is, there is no record of theorists explaining what they did and did not like about earlier proposals and then suggesting new alternatives to better deal with outstanding issues. Rather, different theorists made proposals on a variety of related issues, for the most part without explicitly discussing what their predecessors had to say or why they themselves did or did not take a different view. For instance, in Plato's dialogue Phaedo, Socrates discusses self and personal identity in connection with his inquiry into the possibility of survival of bodily death, but when Aristotle made a radically different proposal for how the soul should be understood, he did so without directly discussing Socrates' (or Plato's) view.

A continuous tradition of discussion of self and personal-identity issues began in the second century C.E., during the Patristic Period. This discussion was motivated primarily by the need to make sense of the Christian dogma of the postmortem resurrection of normal humans. At first, the church fathers, who had been trained in Greek philosophy, drew primarily upon Stoicism. Later, they drew upon Platonism. In the Latin West, Aristotelianism did not enter the discussion in a serious way until the thirteenth century. The other great tradition in classical Greece, materialistic atomism, of which Stoicism was one variety, reentered the discussion in the seventeenth century as the main theoretical underpinning for the rise of modern science. Since then, materialistic atomism, in one form or another, has remained the backdrop for the most influential discussions of the problems of self and personal identity.

As modern science came to the fore, the primarily religious concerns of the Patristic Period began to wane. Nevertheless, resurrection remained a preoccupation of most self and personal-identity theorists throughout the eighteenth century. Ironically, beginning in the 1960s modern equivalents of resurrection burst back onto center stage in the debate over personal identity. However, in our own times resurrection scenarios entered the discussion in the guise of science-fiction examples. The earlier discussion occurred in the context of developing a religious theology adequate to understanding personal persistence into an afterlife and the latter in that of developing a secular philosophy adequate to understanding the possibility of persistence in this life. In the former discussion, the issue was how to explain what we know to be true, in the latter, whether it is even possible to explain what we ordinarily assume to be true. Yet, as we shall see, in this case as in so many others in the debate over personal identity, the same issues keep recurring in a different guise.

So where to begin? In ancient Greece, of course. One of the earliest indications of interest in the problem of personal identity occurs in a scene from a play written in the fifth century B.C.E. by the comic playwright Epicharmus. In this scene, a lender asks a debtor to pay up. The debtor replies by asking the lender whether he agrees that anything that undergoes change, such as a pile of pebbles to which one pebble has been added or removed, thereby becomes a different thing. The lender says that he agrees with that. "Well, then," says the debtor, "aren't people constantly undergoing changes?" "Yes," replies the lender. "So," says the debtor, "it follows that I'm not the same person as the one who was indebted to you and, so, I owe you nothing." The lender then hits the debtor, who protests loudly at being abused. The lender replies that the debtor's complaint is misdirected since he-the lender-is not the same person as the one who hit him a moment before.

An interesting-borderline amazing-thing about this scene is that it suggests that even in fifth-century-B.C.E. Greece, the puzzle of what it is about a thing that accounts for its persisting over time and through changes could be appreciated even by theater audiences. Another interesting thing about the scene is its more specific content: both debtor and lender have a point. Everyone is always changing. So, in a very strict sense of same person, every time someone changes, even a little, he or she ceases to exist: the debtor is not the same person as the one who borrowed the money, the lender not the same person as the one who hit the debtor. This very strict sense of same person is not an everyday notion but the product of a philosophical theory. It is also not a very useful sense of same person-unless you owe someone money!

In everyday life, we want to be able to say such things as, "I saw you at the play last night," and have what we say be true. If everyone is constantly changing and every change in a person results in his or her ceasing to exist, no such remarks could ever be true. Assuming that such remarks sometimes are true, there must be a sense of same person according to which someone can remain the same person in spite of changing. Saying what this sense is, or what these senses are, is the philosophical problem of personal identity.

In ancient Greece, the attempt to solve this problem took place in a larger philosophical context in which change and permanence, not just of people but of everything was an issue. At that time, many thinkers-apparently even many theatergoers-believed that all composite material objects, including human bodies, are constantly changing. They were aware that people often talk about objects that change, including human bodies and the people whose bodies they are, as if these things remain the same over the period in which they change. Finally, they were aware that some ideal objects, such as geometrical squares and triangles, seem not to change at all and also aware that sometimes we can have secure knowledge, such as the Pythagorean theorem, about such ideal objects. On what basis, if at all, they asked, can one talk meaningfully, and perhaps even acquire knowledge, about human bodies and persons that remain the same over time and through changes? This was their question.

Greek thinkers came up with three sorts of answers to this question. One was that there is a changeless realm, like the ideal realm of geometrical objects, which is beyond the ever-changing material world and that one's essential self-one's psyche (or, soul)-resides in this changeless realm and thereby ensures one's personal immortality. This answer, due to Plato and subsequently endorsed by Christianity, would inspire countless generations of Western thinkers. Another answer, due to Aristotle, was that there is a changeless dimension within every material object, which allows material objects, including human beings, to remain the same in spite of changing but which may not ensure one's personal immortality. Finally, the materialistic atomists, a third tradition of Greek thinkers, argued that both change and stability in material objects are the product of changeless, material atoms coming together and pulling apart. These thinkers reasoned that often more or less long-lasting configurations of atoms are named and, hence, become available to be known. People, or at least their material bodies, the atomists reasoned, are temporary configurations of this sort. The question of which of these three theories best accounts for personal identity, or even for bodily identity, fueled subsequent personal-identity theory.

Today almost all theorists accept modern physical science as the backdrop against which self and personal persistence must be explained. Hence, they assume some version or other of materialist atomism. One difference this makes, as we shall see, is that whereas for Plato, and then subsequently for Platonic Christianity, the soul is something intrinsically unified and therefore available to explain lesser degrees of unity in other things, in our own times the soul's descendent, the self, has become theorized as something that lacks unity and that itself requires an explanation. In other words, whereas what used to do the explanatory work was the perfect unity of an incomposite immaterial soul, what now does it is the imperfect unity of a composite material body. In addition, theories of the self and of personal identity once invariably were parts of larger all- inclusive worldviews, but today they are so far removed from being connected to the big picture that self-theorists in different disciplines often lack even a common framework in terms of which they can understand and discuss one another's work. In sum, whereas previously theory was integrated and the self one, in our own times, theory has become variegated and the self fragmented. Accompanying this twofold transition from unity to fragmentation has been a closely related one in which the soul began as unquestionably real and the self ended as arguably a fiction. What all of this means is something to which we shall return.

In telling the story of how thinkers in the West explicitly conceived of selves, or persons, and then tried on that basis to account for personal identity, we have tried to strike a balance between what would be required in order to tell two rather different types of stories. One of these would explain the views of thinkers in their specific historical contexts-on their own terms, so to speak. In this account, the story would be told with little regard to subsequent developments. The other would highlight those aspects of thought that were of more lasting interest or that seem relevant to contemporary concerns. There is tension between these two types of stories. Provided that one strikes a good balance between the two, this tension, we believe, is not destructive but creative. We try to strike a good balance.

We have also had to strike a different sort of balance, having to do with how much discussion to include of interpretational controversy over the views of the theorists we discuss. What we have tried to do, for the most part, is to write in a way that is sensitive to such controversy without actually discussing it explicitly. The alternative was to write a book that is substantially longer than this one. Instead of discussing interpretational controversy, our goal has been to provide a clear, concise account of the most consequential core of each theorist's views: what the theorist said and was taken to have said by his peers and by subsequent thinkers.


Excerpted from The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self by Raymond Martin John Barresi Copyright © 2006 by Columbia University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction1. From Myth to Science2. Individualism and Subjectivity3. People of the Book4. Resurrected Self5. The Stream Divides6. Aristotelian Synthesis7. Care of the Soul8. Mechanization of Nature9. Naturalizing the Soul10. Philosophy of Spirit11. Science of Human Nature12. Before the Fall13. Paradise Lost14. Everything That Happened and What It MeansNotesReferencesIndex

Columbia University Press

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