The correlation between mind, body, and soul is an old debate far from reaching its conclusion. Many philosophers have tackled the issue from Plato to Descartes, but Aristotles’ work has been particularly unique. So, what did Aristotle say about the mind? Follow this article to find out.
Soul as a concept exists in many cultures and philosophies. Sometimes it is used synonymously with the mind, whereas some philosophers regard it as a completely different entity. The former is the most authentic way of formalizing a hypothesis on this subject, equating mind with soul and using the term brain for the organ associated with cognitive functions. Likewise, we will use the words mind and soul synonymously in this article.
Questions regarding the soul have been a matter of contention among philosophical circles since ancient times. Soul was a very significant thing for ancient Egyptians and Sumerians. More recently, we have detailed hypotheses presented on these topics by Arab, Indian, Roman, and Greek philosophers. However, Greek philosophers have produced some of the most iconic works regarding the duality of body and soul.
Plato and Aristotle are two Greeks who have given very consequential but equally contrasting ideas on the philosophy of mind. Plato, being a utopian visionary, presented a very abstract hypothesis. According to him, the soul, or mind, is ethereal. He explains it as something that descends from a better, supernatural world and is locked inside a more crude organic body. It is the most common idea on the concept of the soul that many people believe. Though, Aristotle had a different say in this matter.
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Aristotles’ definition: Soul as the actuality of a body
Aristotle, dubbed “the master of those who know,” was considered a more anti-utopian visionary, a complete pragmatist. His idea regarding the correlation between mind and body is based on concrete realism. In Aristotles’ philosophy, the soul is the natural expression of a body projected on reality. According to his philosophical ideas, the soul cannot be explained separately from a body because it is a natural occurrence, i.e., the same part of the organic matter. Thus, it must be described in the same context.
Translating a line from one of his works, Aristotle describes the soul as “the actuality of a body that has life.” You may wonder how he defined life, which surprisingly is quite simple. According to his understanding, anything that can seek or produce its sustenance, can reproduce (both sexually and asexually), and can grow/develop is regarded as “living.” To him, this was the essential criterion to differentiate between living and nonliving. So, once something meets this condition, it will automatically be considered as having a soul.
What does ‘actuality of a body’ mean in simple terms? Consider your smartphone momentarily; it has a plastic case and electronic structure. It also has installed software that is responsible for all its functions. Without the software, a smartphone is nothing but a blank piece of plastic that does nothing, whereas the software cannot exist outside a device. You cannot concretely touch, hear or see the software; you can observe it once it is installed in a machine.
That is the concept of the soul that Aristotle has hypothesized. It is the ‘software’ of the human body. It cannot exist separately and can only be perceived by observing the functions it projects through the human body. Thus, it becomes a general principle of life, an expression of things considered living. It becomes just another form of nature and its consequence on reality.
The concept of dualism: Hylomorphism
Two completely opposite points of view exist regarding the concept of mind-body dualism. One argument claims that the soul, or mind, is an individual, independent, separate existence from the body. The French Philosopher, Rene Descartes, held this view, and his idea is popularly known as Cartesian Dualism.
The other view is the same as Aristotle’s, mind and body are inseparable and cannot ‘meaningfully’ exist without each other. This notion is called Hylomorphism. It is a Greek compound word composed of “hule”, meaning matter, and “morphe”, meaning form. The concept of Hylomorphism is that the mind is the form of the body. In a general sense, it means that matter expresses itself through form.
Aristotle’s concept of mind-body dualism is encapsulated perfectly by the hylomorphism theory. Though, due to the use of very technical language, it may be a challenging idea to grasp. So, let’s look at Hylomorphism through two examples: a classical one and a modern one.
Hermes’ statue: the classical example
Aristotle’s mind-body dualism and matter-form dualism are reflections of each other. Consider the bronze statue of Hermes, a Greek god. The material to be considered as matter or body is bronze. But every lump of bronze is not Hermes’ statue. Thus, here comes the duality of matter and form. The form given to the lump of bronze actualizes its existence, defines its purpose, and makes it distinctly recognizable.
It further raises the question of whether the bronze statue will be melted down and keep its form. Equate this with mind and body. If a body dies, the state, i.e., soul or mind, will die with it. The form cannot exist separately from the matter; similarly, the mind cannot exist beyond the body. It was his idea of duality.
This example was not meant for the mind-body problem; it was part of a solution to a different situation. Aristotle came up with the four-causal framework of explanation to solve the issue of change and generation. He claimed that four factors are enough to explain an object thoroughly. The first two factors are material-cause and form-cause, relating to matter and form.
Many commentators believe that Aristotle’s hylomorphism came to birth due to this framework of explanation. Many philosophers question the inadequacy of this notion as living beings cannot be explained in the context of something as simple as a statue. Though right or wrong is a different matter, the example of the Hermes’ statue clearly demonstrates the point of view Aristotle was discussing concerning the soul and body.
Software: the modern example
PCs and smartphones did not exist at the time of Aristotle, but who would have thought this technology would become a perfect example to explain Aristotle’s dualism? Even better than the typical Hermes’ statue example.
These modern devices have become a part of our everyday life, but very few have observed them from a philosophical angle. All of your devices have an operating system that is the leading software that performs all essential functions and runs other software. It manages memory as well. These operating systems are software; Windows, macOS, Linux, etc. They cannot exist outside of a device. You cannot hold an operating system or feel, smell, taste, or hear it. You can only observe it as a function of the device.
Without the operating system, the device is pretty much ‘dead’, just an empty case without any meaningful purpose. The existence of this device can only be realized if its body and mind are considered. The subject of the device can exist without software but is useless, while the software cannot even exist without a case. It perfectly explains Aristotle’s concept that the mind, or soul is the consequence of a body that cannot live separately. Though, it is the most essential in realizing the natural existence of a body.
Just as different types of software have other functions and capabilities, Aristotle describes various kinds of souls and their diverse potentials.
Aristotle’s classification of souls
Grasping the reality of souls is challenging, and classifying them is even more arduous. Yet, Aristotle has outlined some basic principles that can be used to order the types of souls that exist in our reality. This set of rules directly relates to the ‘parts’ of souls. Just like a body comprises multiple organs, a soul consists of parts defined as functions.
Souls are divided based on the number and degree of complexity of the functions they comprise. Precisely like the software we use, the more complex tasks a program can perform, the higher it ranks. This type of classification can become very labyrinthine, considering the diversity of living organisms that exist globally. To cut it short and to make it understandable, we will focus on the primary triplet of this ordering system.
Plant soul and mind
You may be a little confused after reading this heading; plants are too ‘simple’ to be considered in this convoluted debate. Yet, according to modern science and Aristotle’s theory, plants are considered living organisms. As mentioned, anything that can produce or seek sustenance, grow, and reproduce is considered living, and plants can do all of it.
Aristotle describes the plant soul as verdurous and nourishing. It contains the essential functions of producing its own provisions, growth/healing, and reproduction. Excluding microorganisms, this perfectly fits all plant-like organisms, including fungi and algae. It provides the base classification, the originating point of Aristotle’s system of soul hierarchy. The souls of other organisms add to these functions and become more complex.
Animal soul and mind
The animal soul also contains the essential elements of the plant soul, though with slight modification. Being heterotrophs, they can’t produce their food but depend on other sources. Moreover, the quality of growth and healing among animals is different from plants. Even the reproductive mechanisms of animals are drastically different from that of plants.
Animals need to search for food and sometimes even hunt. For that, they need both awareness of their surroundings and the ability to move, which plants lack. Being more complex organisms than plants biologically, animal souls are more complex than plants’ too. Thus, in addition to the primary three, these souls also have mobility and sensitivity functions. The function of sensitivity can be further divided into the five significant faculties; sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Every animal has at least one out of these five faculties.
Human soul and mind
The human soul gets even more intricate than an animal soul. Human life has way more to it than animal life. Humans are not only reproducing and looking for sustenance, but they are also building civilizations. This concept is something that no animal can even perceive. Progressing with knowledge, developing belief systems, studying this existence, and constantly striving to realize their imaginations, the human mind is a wonder.
Apart from the five functions the animal soul continues, the human soul has the functions of logic and imagination added, thus becoming the soul of the highest order on Earth. According to Aristotle, the processes of reason and imagination are interrelated. Logic encompasses the cognitive capabilities related to material survival, whereas imagination feeds the sense of desire, passion, and judgment.
Humans can reign imagination or realize it through logic, an ability exclusive to the human mind. These functions’ combo and degree of overlap result in morality, traditions, etiquettes, and the concept of virtue and evil. These elements together make the human mind capable of translating the ideas of civilization, wisdom, and laws into reality.
This complexity of the human mind gave rise to more questions about the nature of this higher soul. Trying to find a solution, Aristotle developed another hypothesis that further classifies the human mind into active mind and passive mind, aiming to complete the puzzle.
Aristotle’s classification of human mind
The complexity of the human mind is such that the more you try to grasp it, the more it slips away from your hand. The moment you think you have it is when you realize that you have barely crossed the starting line. Yet, great minds always continue brainstorming. Uncovering the unknown is the most enjoyable task for them.
Similarly, Aristotle kept pondering the topic, and to answer the newly raised questions, he presented an idea of two types of human minds that coexist inside the human body. It is not like a dual personality; it is more like two sides of the same coin. These coexisting, superimposed souls drive both classic and exceptional human behavior.
The active mind is attributed to “make all things” while the passive mind is attributed to “become all things” in Aristotle’s definition. It describes the former related to logical functions, collecting information using the sensitive faculties, processing them, and outputting rational conclusions. The latter, however, is more related to the imaginative function, developing desire, aspirations, belief systems, and idealist elements.
According to Aristotle, it is the basic idea of what the mind and soul are. Of course, different interpretations of his works will be discussed later in this article, entangling more elements of his theory. Moreover, in this article, we will discuss how Aristotle’s idea has influenced modern science in this regard, other ideas contrasting to his own (Plato, Descartes, and Aquinas), different theological perspectives, and also mention some of his notable works on this topic.
Aristotle’s concept of mind, soul, relationship with the material body, and their duality is very realistic. Yet, many notable philosophers have put forward their ideas on the subject as well, with as compelling arguments as Aristotle’s but with drastically different approaches. Quite surprisingly, some of them have proposed very concrete points to prove that the mind, or soul, is a separate, ethereal entity that exists superimposed on the body. Still, if the body dies, the soul is immortal.
Among these thinkers, Greek Philosopher Plato, French Philosopher René Descartes, and Italian Philosopher and Priest St. Thomas Aquinas have proffered the most iconic works, contrasting to or appending to his thought.
Plato was Aristotle’s teacher and colleague at the Academy in Athens, founded by Plato. He delved into mind, body, and soul before Aristotle and presented a concept quite the opposite of what Aristotle would later propose. Plato’s opinion on souls was a very classical one that, even today, most of us are very familiar with. He considered the soul to be ethereal, eternal, and independent of the body it resided in.
Studying Plato’s works, you’ll notice that he uses multiple philosophical terms for the soul. Not only that, but you’ll also find that souls are a very central and significant element in Platonic thought. It is due to his concept that the soul is both the source of life and the mind of a living being. He is attributed with pioneering the idea of combining soul and mind into one entity.
According to Plato, anything that can move independently is classified as living. He discussed that the soul instills the ability of self-motion in a body. He also believed that virtue and evil are attributes of the soul, not the body. Plato held a very supernatural belief regarding the soul, its classification, immortality, and reincarnation, while his concepts proposing the soul as the mind seem pretty concrete. Let us briefly discuss the different aspects of Plato’s philosophy of soul and mind.
Soul as the essence of life
Plato quite clearly attributes ‘life’ to the soul. Something with a soul is alive, and this idea stems from his definition of the living; organisms that can move are counted among the living. According to him, the soul grants this ability to the body, terming the soul as a ‘self-mover’. He believed that the soul is eternal and always in motion, manifesting this consequence in a body, i.e., giving life to it.
Souls as the mind
The first man in history to equate soul and mind was Plato. He believed that the soul provides life and makes a body capable of reason, logic, emotion, and desire. Tying it with the previous concept, Plato harmonized both these points of view by presenting the idea that the soul was both a mover and a thinker. It moves a body using the mental faculty, enabling it to think and act.
Soul as an reincarnating immortal
The soul, according to Plato, was immortal. Even after the body’s expiration, it can exist and even think, opposite to what Aristotle believed. Though Plato also believed that souls reincarnate into other life forms. In the Platonic concept, the punishment for evils or sins was not conducted in hell or the underworld; instead, it was done on Earth by reincarnating the soul into a lesser form.
In Plato’s hierarchy, the souls of men were superior, then came the souls of women, then quadrupeds, fish, and insects. Any man who has done some evil, his body will not receive a punishment; instead, when he dies, his immortal soul will be reincarnated as a woman. And this cycle goes on, as mentioned before.
The 3 parts of a soul
The soul, apart from its life-giving nature, comprises three parts. These three parts mainly refer to the parts of the soul as the mind. Each of them is distinct and together constitutes the complete mental faculty. Plato terms them as:
Logistikon is part of the soul that handles thinking, reasoning, and logical deductions. Thymoides is the part that is responsible for developing emotions, anger, and temper. Epithymetikon is related to appetite, a broadly inclusive term for all desires.
One problem with Plato’s concept is that one of the most elusive properties of the soul remains unexplained, that is, imagination. In contrast, Aristotle, his theory under defines the idea of living and thus limits the potential definition of a soul.
Cartesian concept of mind-body dualism
Mind-Body dualism is one of the most important ideas presented by Descartes. Though relatively simple, this dualism further opens many discussions and new paths warranting more thorough research on mind, body, and soul. Descartes primarily refers to the soul as the mind without any distinction between the two. He proposed that mind and body are two distinct entities; however, they are intimately linked.
The most straightforward distinction between mind and body is that the mind is thinking while the body lacks this ability. Furthermore, the mind is immaterial, while the body is the opposite. Unlike both Aristotle and Plato, Descartes believed that the mind is indivisible; it cannot be broken down into different parts that it is composed of. He said, “When I consider my mind, or myself in so far as I am merely a thinking thing, I am unable to distinguish any part within myself; I understand myself to be something quite single and complete.”
Immortal, thinking, indivisible, and corporeal; these are the attributes Descartes associated with the mind. And to him, the human being, in its completeness, is a union between the mind and the body; the reason can live without the body, but the vice versa is not valid. When you study Descartes, you will realize that his focus is more on describing the union and its consequences, sharply opposite to Aristotle, who presented detailed explanations of the mind, its properties, types, and classification.
St. Thomas Aquinas’ belief regarding the soul
St. Aquinas’ theory of mind and body is built upon the principles set by Aristotle, with little contrast. He tends to elaborate further and develop Aristotle’s concepts, though his argument is more theologically skewed. Furthermore, Aquinas’ idea of the soul’s immortality or existence beyond the death of the body is one of the trickiest to grasp without a clear rationale to back it up.
Like Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, too, believes that the soul is the first principle of life. He emphasizes observing the soul and the body as a composition, like Aristotle, where the best way to describe one is in the context of the other rather than separately. According to Aquinas, the soul is of three types:
These are precisely corresponding to the three major classifications made by Aristotle. Their theories are similar, except for the separation of body and soul. According to Aristotle, as discussed before, the soul cannot exist outside the body as it is an “actuality” of it. However, Aquinas suggests that the soul may exist outside the body, but the existence is meaningless.
Death is not the soul’s demise but rather the separation of body and soul. It was the central belief of St. Aquinas. According to him, the soul and body have some distinct and combined abilities. Once they are separated, the body “corrupts” and loses all its capabilities as it decomposes, but the soul remains, holding some of its abilities merely “in essence.”
This concept of virtually holding on to some abilities without a means to express them is challenging to grasp. This belief arises because Aquinas thought was theologically influenced, and unlike Aristotle’s idea, he believed that God himself could only destroy the soul. Thus unless God destroys it, it must still ‘remain’ in some form when detached from the body.
Aristotle’s notable work: De Anima
When discussing the Aristotelian concepts of mind, body, soul, and psychology, two significant works are always brought up; De Anima and Parva Naturalia. Even though they are about the same topic, their approach is drastically different. De Anima (On the Soul) is more theoretical. It tries to explain the more abstract concepts of soul and mind. Parva Naturalia (Short Treatises on Nature) is more analytical and inquisitive. De Anima is more relevant to our topic.
In this treatise, Aristotle puts forward a theme to ponder and then proposes a method of developing hypotheses. “Whether all affections are common to what has a soul or whether there is some affection peculiar to the soul itself? This is necessary to grasp, but not easy.” (De Anima i 1, 402a 3-5). It is the central question being answered in De Anima from various methodologies and perspectives.
De Anima is divided into three books, each consisting of several chapters. All three investigate and explain a particular theme regarding the soul and its relation with the body.
De Anima: Book I
Aristotle defined the soul in this book and described the correct methodology to inspect its matters. He ponders the nature of the soul and uses it to develop an insightful way to study it.
Rather than studying the matter to find the base definition and formulating other possible reasonings around it, Aristotle took the opposite approach. According to him, the soul’s operations are more evident than its properties. Thus, by clearly defining and building an idea backward from these operations, we can determine its properties and, ultimately, the exact nature of it.
In this book, he focuses on redefining and untangling the functions a soul performs, providing a base definition of the nature of the soul in this process.
De Anima: Book II
In De Anima, Book 2, Aristotle focuses on the more empirical and biological determination of the essence of the soul and mind. Initially, he extensively argues about three expressions of a substance’s existence; matter, form, and a composite of both. He describes the soul as the “first actuality of natural organic body.” (De Anima ii 1, 412 b 5-6). “It is a substance as a form of a natural body which has life in potentiality,” Aristotle further adds. (De Anima ii 1, 412 a 20-1)
After presenting his arguments regarding the soul being a form or expression of the material body, Aristotle describes the definition of a living being and the basic types of souls in relation to their respective functions. He classifies the souls based on this argument and elaborates on the incremental evolution from plant (vegetative) to human (rational) souls. He also introduces the concept of Hylomorphism. He writes,
“It is not necessary to ask whether soul and body are one, just as it is not necessary to ask whether the wax and its shape are one, nor generally whether the matter of each thing and that of which it is the matter are one. Even if one and being are spoken of in several ways, what is properly spoken of is the actuality.” (De Anima ii 1, 412 b 6-9).
De Anima: Book III
In this final part of De Anima, Aristotle writes about the rational soul, classically termed as mind. According to him, reason is neither separate from the soul nor precisely synonymous. Instead, the mind is an attribute of the higher souls responsible for intellect, imagination, and wisdom.
The mind makes the human soul be placed at the top of the Aristotelian hierarchy of souls. He describes it as “the part of the soul by which it knows and understands.” (De Anima iii 4, 429a9–10; cf. iii 3, 428a5; iii 9, 432b26; iii 12, 434b3)
Aristotle writes on mental faculties associated with the mind, extensively describing two major ones; imagining and thinking. He discusses that reason can be divided into the active mind (agent intellect) and the passive mind (possible intellect) because these are two different faculties.
Aristotelian themes on soul
Another unique aspect of Aristotle’s research on this topic is the different themes he places his central concept under and then explains multiple perspectives of it. These themes define various capacities of the soul. He did this to break down the functions of the soul to the point where they become indivisible. From there on, he logically backtracked to develop his theory on mind and soul. Some of the major themes that he discussed are detailed below.
Aristotle believed nutrition to be the most basic function of all souls. Extrapolating from it, he deduced that nutrition also decides between living and non-living. The living needs nourishment, while the non-living do not. He portrays this nourishment as a consequence of life, “the first and most common capacity of the soul, in virtue of which life belongs to all living things.” (De Anima ii 4, 415a24–25)
His observation on nutrition raised three questions; what is nourished? By what is it nourished? What nourishes? He then answered these questions after a detailed argument. In conclusion, “what nourishes is the primary soul; what is nourished is the body which has this soul; and that by which it is nourished is nourishment.” (De Anima ii 4, 416b20–23)
Aristotle describes this as the ability to sense and act. This capacity distinguishes between vegetative and sensitive souls, i.e., between plants and animals. He says touch is the universal and primordial sensation among all sensitive souls, whereas usually, each would have a combination of multiple senses. He says, “Perception comes about with [mental faculty] being changed and affected … for it seems to be a kind of alteration.”
Perception, according to Aristotle, is something that alters a predisposition. With the state of ‘affect’ changing, a soul perceives actuality.
It is the part that thinks, according to Aristotle. Responsible for imagination, analyzing, logic, and reasoning, the mind is the theme that differentiates between sensitive and rational souls, i.e., animals and humans. He further describes what each of these terms curtails, imagination being an altered recalling of sensations and thinking is a different process altogether.
“It is manifest, therefore, that what is called desire is the sort of faculty in the soul which initiates movement.” (De Anima iii 10, 433a31–b1). It is how Aristotle describes the theme of desire. Distinct from the mind, it is an expression of the innate that brings about motion. Aristotle further describes the only part of the soul that is corruptible, how each of these faculties can take ‘command’ and thus the mind must be given command over other faculties.
Aristotle’s contribution to mind, body, and soul is significant. His theoretical analysis was not only philosophical but also quite scientific. The peak of human logical and analytical capabilities is how he tied this fey concept with organic biology, natural sciences, and psychology. Argumentatively, his use of hybrid syllogism and detailed comparisons made this intricate issue far more reasonable. However, the only flaw we may find is his use of highly technical terminologies that may puzzle the readers.
Talking from the perspective of modern science, we will disagree with much of what Aristotle claimed. Though we must realize he had no access to modern methods and equipment, what he hypothesized was not too erroneous. His research and conclusions are remarkable because, unlike his contemporaries, he kept the argument as logical and realistic as possible. Indeed, an Aristotelian specialty.