Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Thomist Souls Versus Cartesian Souls

Thomas Aquinas considers the soul to be subsistent, but not in the Cartesian sense. Kevin Corcoran quotes Summa Contra Gentiles II.69 to demonstrate this point: "body and soul are not two actually existing substances; instead, one actually existing substance arises from these two" (See Rethinking Human Nature, 38). So it's the human person (body and soul) that constitutes one thing or two incomplete substances for Aquinas and those who follow in his wake.


JimSpace said...

"So it's the human person (body and soul) that constitutes one thing or two incomplete substances."

I would like to ask where the mind resides in this union. I like to think that our mind arises from our brain. Thus, if the brain dies so does the mind. But if the soul is not the body with brain, then how can it represent the person apart from the body? Would they posit that the soul also has a mind in sync with the brain's mind?

Edgar Foster said...


For Aquinas, the soul contains the faculties of intellect and will. So the soul = the mind, but the mind needs to sense things in order to be complete. That's where the body comes into play. Knowing Aristotelian philosophy will shed light on Aquinas' conception of the human person.

Aristotle argued that the soul is the body's form or act (a theory known as hylomorphism). It's what animates the body, permitting it to accomplish corporal activities and function. Aquinas thus would not say that mind arises from brain activity; he thinks mind is completely immaterial (non-physical), and mind is capable of surviving the body's death. Thomists are usually "agnostic" when it comes to the soul's post-mortem state. They don't know how the soul is able to persist or know anything without the body to provide sense perception. I think Thomists would say that the brain technically does not have a mind. Edward Feser has written a book on Aquinas that offers helpful explanations. I believe Kevin Corcoran is also good.

Edgar Foster said...

Here are some thoughts from a Thomist colleague/buddy of mine. I am leaving out his name since I'm posting these quotes without his permission although I don't think he'd mind:

"Off the cuff, I would ask whether JWs recognize any entitative existence of those in Sheol. The Angelic Doctor is virtually agnostic about what can be known about the intermediate state from the viewpoint of natural reason. On his view, even if the soul is a self-subsistent substance, one can hardly be sanguine about it knowing anything, let alone learning anything in that state. But do you/JW's assent to any kind of existence outside of being in God's mind for the departed dead? How do you understand 'spirits in prison' and how do you understand 'absent from the body and present with the Lord'?"

Again, he writes:

Well, Thomas would concede that nihil est in intellectu quod non prius in sensu (I knew you couldn't understand that in English, so I translated it for your benefit!), such that all of our real concepts (in all 3 degrees of abstraction) are abstracted from physical phenomena. In that sense, I would agree that brain processes make possible our grasp of universals.

But here's the point: our physical organs can apprehend only particulars -- the external sense of sight apprehends proper and common sensibles, the internal sense of memory apprehends previously sensed percepts; but our intellects abstract from these universals or common natures.

- Perceived object: "this green apple"
- 1st degree of abstraction: the natural concept, "apple"
- 2nd degree: the geometric concept, "sphere"
- 3rd degree: the metaphysical concept, "substance"

The question then, is: how do we generate/apprehend such concepts if all we have are physical organs, if a physical organ can come into contact only with individuals?

I agree that we don't have to postulate some mysterious, spirit-like thing as a "ghost inside the machine" when speaking of intellects and wills. But the point would be that we have to have some way of speaking about these experiences and abilities we have, and I'd like to know how you think physicalism helps, if you think it does.

[End quote]

JimSpace said...

"I am leaving out his name since I'm posting these quotes without his permission although I don't think he'd mind." LOL OK, there shouldn't be a problem if he's not a member of an anonymous Yahoo group. :-D

Edgar Foster said...

Lol, this interaction was taken from personal communication (email) between me and the colleague. But I'm fairly certain he's not a member of an anonymous Yahoo group. :)