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Mortal Imitations of Divine Life
The Nature of the Soul in Aristotle's De Anima
By Eli Diamond
Northwestern University PressCopyright © 2015 Northwestern University Press
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Defining the Soul — The Serial Logic of De Anima II.1–3
Any interpretation of the overall aim and argument of the De Anima must be able to reconcile its reading with Aristotle's methodological reflections in that treatise. Unfortunately Aristotle's treatment of how to study the soul in De Anima II.1–3 is notoriously difficult to interpret. In general terms, the steps of Aristotle's argument can be broken up in the following way:
He starts by offering three different permutations of a general definition of soul.
He then moves on to criticize this definition as being not sufficiently explanatory.
He begins afresh by looking at the multiplicity of different souls, arriving at a new definition which, paradoxically, seems substantially identical to the general one he criticized and seemed to reject.
He then appeals to a pyramidal ordering of the various kinds of soul which make any common definition seem "laughable."
Tracing Aristotle's intention through this labyrinthine logic has proved extremely frustrating for those left behind to make sense of these three puzzling chapters, a fact that is clearly demonstrated by the plethora of divergent (and often diametrically opposed) interpretations. The collective interpretative energy expended in trying to grasp what Aristotle is outlining as his method is understandable, for without some clue into his overall approach to the question of soul, discerning the aim and structure of the argument of the De Anima as a whole is nearly impossible.
Interpretations of these methodological chapters of De Anima fall roughly into four kinds. One view is that the "most common definition" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of II.1 adequately grasps the nature of soul, and what follows in II.2 is not a criticism and overcoming of the imperfections of that definition, but rather a proof reconfirming the first definition, this time starting from the effects that are better known to us and moving to the universal definition. Another view is that the opening of II.2 rejects the definition in II.1 not because of its content but because of its form — it does not make explicit the cause of soul. On this view, the definition of soul by its individual activities is shown to be adequate by producing a syllogism whose conclusion at the end of II.2 is the same as the proposed definition from II.1. A third view looks to Aristotle's analysis in II.3 of the serial logic of soul and sees therein a denial that a definition [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of all soul is even possible, beyond particular definitions of each individual soul. Certain others, acknowledging the importance of the critique of a common definition, yet wanting to preserve the result of the previous two chapters, see no incompatibility between having both the common genus of soul of the first two chapters and the particular definitions of the series existing independently yet complementing each other.
In the reading of II.1–3 that follows, I argue that it is only by showing the connections between the three chapters that one can see how each step of Aristotle's argumentation constitutes an indispensable stage of an emerging view of how to give a definition [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] which captures the essence of all soul. As opposed to the view of many modern interpreters, I want to show that every step of Aristotle's argument in these chapters is coherently connected, that each passage is necessitated by and follows logically from what precedes it. The end of the argument is not already present and explicit from the beginning through each of its steps. Yet this does not mean that the various passages are arbitrarily connected. The stages of the argument are incomplete but important steps leading toward the discovery of the principle and end of the investigation. It is the role of the interpreter to grasp the transitions between the various stages of Aristotle's argumentation, and only once one does this can the overall sense of Aristotle's methodological reflections in these chapters be discerned.
Yet it is not simply the unity of the three chapters which must be discerned. Although it is rarely noted by interpreters, Aristotle moves back and forth between the problem of how to give a proper definition of soul and the problem of the status of the parts of soul and their unity. Even in book I, aporiai about finding an explanation which includes all souls directly precede the aporiai about the parts of soul. The sections on the parts of the soul have always been thought to be digressions from the main argument on method. Yet understanding Aristotle's intentions in these chapters is not possible until one grasps how his reflections on the unity of the soul's parts do not in fact form digressions from the consideration of the method of definition. They simply form the epistemological and ontological sides of the same question, both of which are only answered once the serial unity of all soul is introduced in II.3.
The purpose of finding a definition [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of soul is the very same purpose which Aristotle sets out for his treatise as a whole: to reveal the soul's nature [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and its most fundamental essence (I.1.402a7–8). Aristotle begins with the Platonic approach of grasping what is identical and common in all instances of soul, the universal idea or self-identical genus present in the multiplicity: what Aristotle calls the most common definition [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], one which Aristotle concludes gives a "sketch" of what the soul is. The soul defined in this general form is the first activity of the soul which emerges in its development, the bare activity of self-maintenance which constitutes the minimum requirement for its continued living. In II.2, however, this kind of definition is criticized for only stating the fact that soul is without making explicit the cause of why it is. One must begin again, moving from what is most unclear in itself but most apparent, to what is most knowable according to reason [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. From this Aristotle moves to look at the variety of different souls. But the most common definition is not simply abandoned at this point for the multiplicity of various souls. Rather, by identifying the first appearance of living being as that without which the animate would be inanimate, it points to where one must begin in investigating the various kinds of soul. What is most common to all souls is actually the most primitive stage of soul's development, the point from which the truly objective approach should begin. Chapter II.2 thus makes clear that the parts of each soul are not independent, but simply instrumental to the realization of one actuality present throughout, and consequently, the soul is not ultimately defined by the various lower parts or potentialities, but by the fullest actuality and realization of this potentiality.
Finally, in II.3, Aristotle shows through the comparison of nutrition in the animal and in the plant that what appeared to be most common and identical in all souls, the capacity for self-nourishment, actually becomes a fundamentally different activity as it occurs in different formal contexts: though an analogy exists between nutrition in the plant and the animal, looking at the two activities as synonymous is a mistake. The logic of the series is discovered by this realization. At each higher level of soul, that which was sought by the activity of the lower becomes matter, instrumental potentiality, existing purely for the sake of the realization of the higher activity; in fact the lower faculties realize themselves more fully within the context of the higher activity of soul. Once we arrive at the human soul and the appearance of intellect as the final term of the series and that for the sake of which the lower faculties exist, we have discovered the "nature" of the soul in and of itself, for "the nature [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of a thing is its end [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. For what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature." All the souls are in turn defined through the final term, for they all exist within it as potential. The account [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] connecting all souls is not something which exists merely in the mind of the philosopher, but in the very object itself. The ontological and epistemological questions thus become one in the solution to both.
This analysis of II.1–3 confirms a recent insight of Christopher Shields into Aristotle's view of life: that for Aristotle in De Anima, life — and consequently soul, since it is the principle of life in mortal beings — has the structure of a core-dependent homonymy, in which all kinds of soul are defined in reference to its one central meaning. This focal or core meaning of life is not (as is usually believed) the most common and primitive biological conception of life, its nutritive activities, but rather the highest and most complete sense of life, its intellective activity, which appears first in the human, but belongs most properly to the eternal self-contemplation of God. In Shields's terms, "life" is a core-dependent homonym, whose core is divine contemplation and whose non-core instances (the hierarchy of souls) are derivative from this focal meaning. Certain interpreters have recently brought to the fore the importance throughout the Aristotelian corpus of the core-dependent homonymy ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], pros hen legomena) structure, and specifically cases where the various senses of a concept are ordered in an ascending hierarchy. In an important treatment of the serial structure of the Categories, Kyle Fraser has clearly shown that the categories of being share the same structure at various degrees of refinement and explicitness, a structure which only becomes clear in the category of substance upon which all the other non-substantial categories depend. In turn, among substances, the full nature of substance is only fully manifest in the divine activity of thinking. That the investigation of life would extend this argumentative structure is natural, since, as Aristotle writes, "being for living things is life" (II.4.415b13). Yet when Fraser refers to the parallel between the serial ordering of the categories and the serial ordering of souls in De Anima, he understands substance as the focal meaning of being to be analogous to the nutritive soul of plants as the focal meaning of soul and life. For just as the only one of the categories which can exist independently from the others in the series is substance, so too the only soul which can exist independently of the others is the nutritive soul in plants. I want to correct this view of De Anima by bringing it more into agreement with the structure of Fraser's analysis of Aristotle's Metaphysics. The nature of life (and of soul as the principle of life) lies in thought, and most perfectly in the uninterrupted thought of God.
To make this point, a careful analysis of De Anima II.1–3 is crucial. For those who think that the focal sense of life and soul are the nutritive activities, the most common definition [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of II.1 is the most adequate account [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], and, though it may or may not need to be argued in another form (i.e., the formulation of soul at the end of II.2), it gives the proper substantive content and nature of the essence of soul. For those who deny that life and soul are best understood by the structure of a serially ordered core-dependent [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] relation, the unrelated definitions of each individual kind of soul at II.2.413b12–13 along with the denial of any common definition at II.3.414b25–28 is Aristotle's final word, that the only definitions possible are unrelated definitions of each kind of soul separately. I would like to show, however, through a careful analysis of book II.1–3, that the argument can only be understood as stages along the way to the final view that the nature of soul is found in the ultimate term of the series, thinking, which is the final cause of all the posterior senses and which manifests most clearly the structure of the same living activity which is present at different levels of articulation along the hierarchy. By proceeding this way Aristotle's account of soul finds a middle ground between the pure synonymy of the variety of souls and their unconnected homonymy.
In this way, the argument of II.1–3 answers the puzzle articulated in I.1 about how to know the essence and attributes of soul. Aristotle there outlines a threat of circularity which presents itself: knowing the attributes of a being helps to grasp its essence, while the attributes are only known through the essence to which they belong. This circularity would mean that neither the attributes nor the essence could be known. On the current interpretation, II.1–3 does exhibit a certain circularity, though one that is not vicious and escapes the impasse. The most common definition gives a preliminary grasp of the essence of soul by identifying the genus common to the various kinds of soul. This then makes the attributes or particular powers of soul apparent, so that one can then identify all members in the series of soul. But it is only by understanding the order of the series of souls, and then reaching the summit of this series, that one genuinely fully grasps the nature and essence of soul, by understanding the final and formal cause of soul: mind [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].
In order to establish this interpretation, I will first look briefly at the most common definition of II.1 in the light of Johannes Hübner's excellent interpretation of that chapter, and I then will offer a closer, line-by-line interpretation of De Anima II.2–3, to show how Aristotle both incorporates and then gradually moves beyond this most general account [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] as adequately defining the nature of soul. As a way of confirming this interpretation, I will conclude with some reflections on Aristotle's methodological remarks in De Caelo and the Politics, showing how what he calls his "regular way of proceeding" is, on my reading, the same in these three works.
De Anima II.1
There are several puzzling questions that arise concerning the status of the most common definition of soul offered in II.1. In what way does the result of his investigation of previous thinkers inform his own new beginning? In book I the previous history leads us to see soul as defined primarily through motion and perception: it is thus surprising to see the soul defined in II.1 as primarily living in a way that even plants and sleeping beings live, unconscious and unmoving. And if this bare living, unconscious and unmoving, is in fact the substance of soul, what status do the subsequent activities have? Put in another way, is thinking merely an abstraction from the fundamental sense of life, or is thinking rather the fullest realization of life? More generally, what is the reason for seeking the most common definition [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in II.1, and how is it used in what follows in II.2–3? What is the relation of this most common definition in II.1 and the nutritive soul [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which, when discussed in II.4, is referred to as the "first and most common power of soul [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]," that according to which all things have life? For the most common definition is not any one kind of soul, although perhaps it is closest to the nutritive soul of plants. These are questions that cannot be answered with reference to II.1 alone, but should be kept in mind when considering the function of II.1 in the overall argument.
Aristotle opens book II of De Anima by proclaiming the analysis of previous opinions on the soul to be closed, signaling a new beginning to the investigation. He formulates two related questions: "Let us return again as if from the beginning, attempting to define what is soul and what would be the most general account of it [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (II.1.412a4–6). At the outset it seems that the answer to the first question might be found in the answer to the second: we can best find out what soul is by giving the account that is most inclusive of all soul. If we find what is common to each soul, that in which all members of the genus equally partake, this would quite plausibly give us an account of what is the nature and essence of soul. We will see, however, that as we proceed through chapters II.1–3, the identity of these two questions becomes problematic. The [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (that is, the conjunction linking the question "what is the soul" with the question "what is its most common definition") in II.1 first appears epexegetical (the two appear to be equivalent); in II.2 it becomes apparently disjunctive (the two become mutually exclusive); and by II.3, the most common definition is revealed to be a necessary but incomplete moment on the way to establishing Aristotle's further goal of defining the soul through the series.
Excerpted from Mortal Imitations of Divine Life by Eli Diamond. Copyright © 2015 Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
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