Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Soul versus Spirit

People often use “soul” and “spirit” interchangeably. That can get confusing, because the two terms denote concepts that differ in subtle but important ways, especially in writers of the ancient world.

It helped me tremendously to learn (from Aristotle) that the soul of an organism – plant, animal, human – is its form. When that form is united to matter – when matter assumes that form and concretely expresses the values that it specifies (as height, weight, rationality, homeostasy, volition, motility, consciousness, and so forth) – the union is an integrity, a single being with both formal and material character: a body ensouled, a soul embodied. It then lives.

The life of an organism is its spirit. This is clear from the etymology of “spirit,” from the Latin spirare, “to breathe.”

Forms in and of themselves have no concrete actuality. Rather than themselves real, they are ways of being real. So the soul by itself is not a subject of experience. Nor by the same token is the body by itself a subject of experience. But a body ensouled is alive, and can be a subject of experience.

Not all sorts of souls need to be embodied in order to live. There are other sorts of lives than embodied lives. Angels, for example, are not embodied. Nevertheless they live – not in the sense that they eat, drink, breathe, and so forth, but in the sense that they can act and are subjects of experience (although not of the sensations mediated by bodies (sensation is not the only medium of experience)). It is not uncommon to hear angels described as “purely spiritual” beings, but this expression is not quite accurate: all spirits are spiritual, it’s just that some are embodied, some not. Angels then should properly be described as immaterial.

I grant of course that this distinction can get muddled even in Greek and Latin. Pneuma and spiritus can both be translated pretty reliably as spirit; but psyche and anima can be translated either as soul or as spirit, depending upon the context. I find nevertheless that, when I bear clearly in mind the distinction between soul and spirit that I have here set forth, it is easy to tell when an ancient author is using anima or psyche to mean the soul properly so called, and when to mean a soul concretely implemented in a life: a spirit.

46 thoughts on “Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Soul versus Spirit

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    • Ruach is wind, spirit, breath, ghost; it is pneuma, spiritus. Nephesh is soul, anima, psyche. Like anima and psyche, nephesh is susceptible to translation as spirit or life.

      So, in all four languages – Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and English – the term for the form of the living being is sometimes used to denote the life of the living being. This does make some sense, for where there is no soul, obviously there can be no life of the soul; and, what is more, where the soul is concretely actualized (whether in a material embodiment, or not), there is the life of that soul.

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  3. I came across a post elsewhere not long ago that addressed this very subject: According to that author, the spirit is the highest intellectual faculty of the soul, analogous to the head’s relationship to the body.

    • Thanks for this link, Ian. Marshall is a formidable guy.

      The difficulty in his treatment of this subject is that his language tilts toward speaking of the soul as a substantial being in its own right – as itself a thing, rather than as the form of a thing. This construction is all too easy for moderns, for we have all been raised as Cartesians. But it leads us toward the Gnostic notion of a spiritual or subtle “body” that is the counterpart of the material body.

      Marshall cites Hebrews 4:12 as the locus classicus on the topic:

      For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

      He comments:

      Tripartite advocates point here showing that “soul and spirit” are distinguished and thus separate. The problem here is that if soul and spirit are different entities …

      He recognizes the problem! Marshall goes on to characterize the soul as the “life force” in living organisms, and the intellect – the conscious mind – as the highest faculty of that life force. A force is not an entity, but an operation of some entity, so that’s an improvement. Still, “force” is usually deployed as a dimension of efficient causation, so that we get a mental image of the soul pushing the body around. That again is an image of the soul as a substantial entity in its own right, a subtle body disparate from the carnal body; and that lands us back in the mind/body problem.

      We might more carefully put the same notion by saying that the soul is the principle of life in living organisms. A principle, NB, is an idea: a form. It is not a substantial thing in its own right. Insofar then as matter is informed by a soul, it lives. The soul is the “life idea;” its concrete implementation in a substantial thing is an instance of life. Insofar as matter is informed by a form that includes the high faculty of intellection present in the souls of rational beings such as angels and men, it is intelligent: both mindful and rational.

  4. Aristotle says there can be no form (soul) without matter but the more you look into it, the more he is not saying what a modern thinks he is saying. As you say, soul, form and essence all end up merging into pretty much the same concept. Only form is knowable and is responsible for the substance (form and matter) being what it is. But matter (hyle) is not necessarily physical. Letters are the hyle of a word, words are the hyle of a sentence, sentences are the hyle of a paragraph, etc.. What is form and what is matter depends largely on the level of abstraction being considered.

    I follow Plato and Plotinus in recognizing form as a higher reality. So in Plotinus’ nomenclature you have body, psyche, nous and The One. In that case, psyche = mind, nous = soul, and The One, pure Spirit. In that way of thinking, Spirit = Godhead, Being from which all else emanates. At least, I don’t have a better word for it. The Form of the Good. Each level becomes progressively more abstract and all-encompassing.

    Also, for Plotinus, each level looks to the level above for its perfection. So psyche looks to nous. We each have some notion of justice (the level of psyche, ego, mind) but this notion will be imperfect as we seek to ascertain justice itself existing at the level of Form in Nous.

    “Psyche” also means “breath” and thus has the implication of an animating principle.

    But I also like Aristotle’s three kinds of souls – nutritive, sensitive, rational – because it shows continuity and yet difference among all living things.

      • Matter is the capacity to take form. We could think of it as the raw potentiality for things to happen. If the capacity to take form were not real – if there were not really a potential for things to happen – then there could be no taking of forms. So, yes, matter exists; but it is not actual until it takes some form specified somewhere on the wave function.

        NB that the matter itself is not doing that taking of form. As a mere capacity to take form, matter is inert in itself. It is not a thing, but a character of some thing, that has the capacity to take form, thus actualizing that form in matter.

        The $64 question: if matter is taking the form, who is putting the form?

    • matter (hyle) is not necessarily physical.

      That’s a crucial point.

      Each level becomes progressively more abstract and all-encompassing … Also, for Plotinus, each level looks to the level above for its perfection.

      It is important to remember in this connection that, as ultimate, the One is basic to all the other levels. This means that the other levels are abstracted from the One. The physical is the most abstract, the most partial and particular, and the least concrete, of the levels. This is why “each level looks to the level above for its perfection.” It’s a counterintuitive notion, but it follows inexorably from the ultimacy of the One.

    • I didn’t mean to suggest that the soul is a form that the body approaches, but that the soul is the form of the body, period full stop. Now, there is to be sure an ideal form of the body, to which the actual form of the body more or less closely approximates. There is the form of me as I ought rightly to be, and there is the form of me as I am, which by comparison to its ideal is defective in many ways.

      But whether or not it achieves its ideal form, every actual entity has a form.

      How do things change while remaining the same? Well, they don’t; you can’t change without changing. The thing to remember is that some features of a thing can change without making it a different sort of thing altogether, while others cannot change without destroying it as what it had been, and constituting it as something else.

      How?

      For every moment of a person’s life, there is a different form. What connects a string of such moments together as a personal career? The forms of all those moments share certain distinguishing properties that persist while other properties come and go. Aristotle called the former the “essential” properties of a thing, that make it what it is, and without which it would be something else altogether. The latter he called “accidental.” It is accidental to the form of Kristor right now that it specifies him as wakeful and seated, bearded and ten-fingered. It is essential to it that specifies him as male and human.

      • It seems like the only thing that truly connects the different moments of a person’s life in an unchanging manner is consciousness. But it also seems like “soul” refers to something deeper than consciousness. Put another way, consciousness does not seem to be a form of the body. Is this your understanding?

      • But consciousness changes all the time. Not just with respect to its contents, but with respect to its tone, its feeling. It is one of the *least* stable aspects of a personal career.

        There is the form of consciousness, which is an aspect of the soul – and thus an aspect of the form of the living body – and then there is consciousness itself, as experienced, which is an aspect of the life of the spirit – the soul implemented in a concrete life.

      • When I use the term consciousness I mean awareness. I guess you could argue that the ability to be aware or conscious changes. But I think this change results from the ego overlaying itself onto consciousness. So it is really the ego that is changing and not the pure awareness underneath it all.

      • But we all experience extended periods of unconsciousness every day. What connects the you of waking to the you of falling asleep? Not consciousness, clearly, or awareness.

        We avoid the problem if we say simply that consciousness is one of the things that concatenates the moments of our lives.

      • All the evidence we have, without exception, is evidence we are aware of. By definition, we can’t have awareness of evidence that we are not aware of. So we can’t have evidence that the only sort of evidence we can have – the sort we are aware of – is illusory. All the evidence we can possibly have points to the suggestion that our conscious awareness is not illusory.

    • If there is no waking self, then there is no waking self to suffer the illusion that he is a waking self. So the illusion isn’t happening. It isn’t an illusion; it isn’t anything at all.

      This applies to the illusion of your waking self’s experience of the thought that the waking self is illusory. It’s not even an illusion. Your thought that the waking self is illusory *doesn’t exist.*

      You see this problem, right?

      • Again, it is the sense of self that is theoretically illusory not consciousness. As such, consciousness itself can experience the illusion of being a separate entity when its true nature is a unified field of consciousness.

      • But all you have done with this move is propose that consciousness is the true waking self that is having the illusory experience of being a separate entity which is a waking self. You still end up with a subject of experience – someone who is having the illusory experience of being a waking self.

        And *all* of the experience suffered by that someone – that hypothetically undifferentiated field of consciousness – has the character of being suffered by a differentiated self. *All* the experiences of that undifferentiated field of consciousness indicate that it is a differentiated self.

        There is, in other words, zero basis in the experience of that hypothetically undifferentiated field of consciousness that could warrant the notion that it is not a differentiated self. On the contrary, *all the evidence that consciousness has ever had, or can conceivably have,* supports the notion that it is indeed a differentiated self – a someone – having experiences.

        What philosophical problem is solved by proposing a hypothesis that contradicts all our experience? How does it help us understand our experience to suggest that all our experience is illusory – that it is not really our experience at all?

        Note that what you have done here is to reify consciousness. You have treated a property of substantial concrete things – consciousness – as if it were a substantial, concrete thing in its own right. This then enabled you to suppose that consciousness could itself have experiences (some veridical, some (such as, ex hypothesi, the experience of being a differentiated self) illusory). But consciousness *just is* the property of experiencing. The reification of that property leads you to propose then, in effect, that experiencing itself has experiences. It’s like suggesting that running itself runs.

      • There are people who have had first hand experience with transcending ego consciousness. This is what the Sanskrit word “Samadhi” describes. True most people do not experience this in their every day life but that does not mean that it does not exist necessarily.

      • Such transcendence of quotidian subjective experience is to the experience of a transcendent subject.

        The yogi cannot have first-hand experience of having no first-hand experience.

        No subject, no experience. There’s no getting around this principle.

      • I agree there’s no getting around that principle whilst in quotidian consciousness. But using quotidian terminology to define transcendent experience is not really adequate to the task.

      • Well then, nothing you say about transcendent experience can make any sense. Including any of the stuff you have here said. That stuff about our consciousness itself experiencing the illusion of being a separate entity when its true nature is a unified field of consciousness? On your own account, it’s all nonsense; an illusion.

        Winston, you are like a Cretan insisting that all Cretans always lie.

        If you stick to your guns and insist that what you say doesn’t need to make sense, then there is no possibility of having a true conversation with you; for that is the impermeable perspective of the insane.

    • You wrote:

      … using quotidian terminology to define transcendent experience is not really adequate to the task.

      If transcendent experience can’t be treated using the only terminology we have – the terminology under which experience is a condition of a subject – then there’s no way that we can talk about transcendent experience intelligibly. We might still go ahead and talk about it, to be sure; but in doing so, we couldn’t truly be characterized as making sense, but rather only as spouting high-sounding blather.

      NB: there is a way we can talk about transcendent experience intelligibly, but it does not involve the rejection of language. It involves rather the *extremely careful and precise* use of language.

      I grant of course that no map can capture all the important and interesting features of the territory. But this is a very far cry from saying that no map can be adequate in any way.

      • To be fair I said that it is “not really adequate to the task” which it isn’t. This does not mean that it cannot be used but we must accept that it will not capture the full meaning of what we are talking about.

        Have you ever had a transcendent experience, Kristor?

      • I wrote:

        No subject, no experience. There’s no getting around this principle.

        To try to get around this principle – to get around the inexorable logic it expresses – you replied:

        I agree there’s no getting around that principle whilst in quotidian consciousness. But using quotidian terminology to define transcendent experience is not really adequate to the task.

        To which I responded:

        Well then, nothing you say about transcendent experience can make any sense. Including any of the stuff you have here said. That stuff about our consciousness itself experiencing the illusion of being a separate entity when its true nature is a unified field of consciousness? On your own account, it’s all nonsense; an illusion.

        Now you temper your critique of the adequacy of language (ergo of logic) to transcendent experience:

        To be fair I said that it is “not really adequate to the task” which it isn’t. This does not mean that it cannot be used but we must accept that it will not capture the full meaning of what we are talking about.

        To repeat what I had already written on that same point:

        I grant of course that no map can capture all the important and interesting features of the territory. But this is a very far cry from saying that no map can be adequate in any way.

        If language were not adequate to transcendent experience *in any way,* then there would be no way at all that we could discuss it intelligibly. But obviously language is adequate to transcendent experience in some ways, so that we can indeed talk intelligibly about it.

        Now, one of the criteria of intelligibility is logical coherence. If in talking about transcendent experience (or anything else) you find yourself saying something illogical, then there is a problem with your thinking. You’ve gone off the rails somewhere, and must try to get back on. For, logic is inexorable. You can’t fight it.

        So: if by definition there can in logic be no experience except of some subject, then that’s all there is to it. Any contrary conclusion must somehow be false.

        Have you ever had a transcendent experience, Kristor?

        Yes. But note that it was I who had that transcendent experience. I can say that I had it only under the condition that the ego is not an illusion. In that case, there was this utterly transcendent experience, and I am the one who suffered it. Thanks be to God, amen, amen.

        But if the ego is an illusion, then no, I could never really have had that experience; nor might I have had the illusory experience of having that experience; nor might I now be either writing to you, or suffering the illusion of writing to you. If the ego is an illusion, then I don’t remember my experiences, nor do I experience the illusion of remembering them. The memory, the illusion, the experience: these are things that just never happen. This experience, right now, whatever it is? Not happening.

        Surely you can see the difficulties you’ve wrangled yourself into here, can’t you?

        The self does not cease to exist in the mystical ascent. On the contrary, it expands, even as its experience intensifies. Caught up in that experience I am far more real, more true, more concrete than at ordinary moments. Words cannot capture it, but they can surely speak true or false of it. Meister Eckhart spoke truly of it when he characterized it as spatiosissimus: utmost spaciousness.

      • So you’re sticking with illogic. OK.

        But understand: this means that there is no reason to talk to you, or to listen to what you say.

        Your transcendent experience has revealed to you that the ego is illusory. Except that it wasn’t your experience, because you don’t really exist, and so nor did the experience really happen. Nothing was revealed, because there was no one there to whom it could have been revealed. You don’t really exist, so there is no one who writes under the handle Winston Scrooge. Thus the notion that the ego does not really exist has not been proposed by Winston Scrooge; for there is no such person.

        Indeed, if the ego does not exist, then the belief that the ego does not exist does not itself exist; for, there is no one out there who believes it.

      • If that’s how you feel compelled to look at it. But I don’t think it is illogical to say that everyday language is inadequate to describe the transcendent. In fact I believe the definition of transcendent is “apart from and not subject to the limitations of the material universe”.

      • I didn’t say that it is illogical to say that everyday language is inadequate to describe the transcendent. It is however illogical to say that the waking conscious self is an illusion.

        Logic is not merely a limitation of our material universe. It is the limit of being as such, in any universe. You *can’t* transcend logic. What is not logical cannot possibly happen. Logic transcends and founds all things. Logos, they call him. “Without him was not anything made, that was made.”

      • I never said the waking conscious self is an illusion. I offered the possibility that the egoic sense of self is an illusion. I did not make a claim that this is true mind you. But I also don’t know that this is not the case.

      • You wrote:

        Perhaps consciousness is the universal and the you of waking is an egoic illusion.

        I’m not suggesting consciousness is illusory, just the egoic sense of self that we attach to it.

        … consciousness itself can experience the illusion of being a separate entity …

        All that sure reads to me as a suggestion that the sense of the waking consciousness that it is a separate entity is illusory. And to say that x is illusory is to say that it doesn’t exist.

        Perhaps you should explain how “our sense that we exist as separate entities is illusory” does not entail that we don’t exist as separate entities.

      • We are constantly changing and yet we think of ourselves as essentially the same. It is arguable that this sense of essential sameness is in large part an illusion. Not that it has no existence necessarily but that our perception of its existence is inaccurate at best. And maybe ultimately all consciousness is consubstantial.

      • OK, good; now you are talking sensibly again. Or perhaps it is just that you are expressing yourself more clearly. Either way: thanks!

        How does *anything* change and yet remain itself? Something like Aristotle’s distinction between essential and accidental properties seems like the only option that comports with experience. The other options are that there is no change at all, or that nothing remains itself as it changes – which both radically contradict our experience.

        The problem with the ancient suggestion that minds are all consubstantial is that it forecloses any account of the utterly pervasive, inescapable experience that they are not. Lots of ingenious explanations have been proposed, but all fail.

        And there seems to be no good reason to propose that consubstantiality. Doing so solves no problems. Indeed, the existence of many minds is not a problem in the first place; collapsing them all into one introduces lots of insoluble problems. So, why go there?

        The only reason is to explain how a Many might have arisen from the One of Plotinus. Creatio ex nihilo is an answer that satisfies me.

  5. I think the issue is that we all find life unsatisfying. The question is why? Is it not reasonable to assume that the feeling of dissatisfaction arises from a real place? That it is not some latent adolescent claw of ego but rather an authentic cry of the soul to reunite with its source?

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  7. I find it’s easiest to stick to “pneuma”/”psyche” when I want to make the distinction clear, or communicate it to others. People find it fairly easy to grasp the psyche : soul : formal cause relationship.

    “Pneuma” is more difficult because at birth the concept had connotations which clustered around a pre-modern way of thinking about nature – which linked the invisible, the immaterial, and intangible in a certain way which is no longer strongly intuitive. I don’t think “life = spirit” is quite right; would it be better to define spirit(s) as the efficient cause by which the soul animates the body? I don’t want to commit too strongly to that exact phrasing (which sounds dualistic), but you get the idea.

    Btw, I’ve found that a recurring stumbling block for the godless is that they interpret “Holy Spirit” to mean the psyche of God.

    • … would it be better to define spirit(s) as the efficient cause by which the soul animates the body? I don’t want to commit too strongly to that exact phrasing (which sounds dualistic), but you get the idea.

      I’m pretty sure that leads to trouble (as, it seems, you suspect). Identifying the spirit with one of the four factors of substantial being opens up a regress: what is the efficient cause of the spirit?

      It is I think safer to treat the spirit as the process in virtue of which concrete substantial things come into being. This makes it a motion, rather than one of the factors of that motion, that each influence it.

      Btw, I’ve found that a recurring stumbling block for the godless is that they interpret “Holy Spirit” to mean the psyche of God.

      How do the godless misconstrue the theistic concept they reject? Let me count the ways. Or no, good Heavens, don’t let me get started.

      Of course, the faithful are not far behind them, I often find. If I hear one more preacher say that the Holy Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son, I’ll bust a vessel.

      Pneuma / psyche works for me.

      • >Identifying the spirit with one of the four factors of substantial being opens up a regress: what is the efficient cause of the spirit?

        I don’t see it as a regress so much as an ambiguity with potential for equivocation. For example, there are many cases where talk about spiritus/pneuma is best understood as talk about the nervous system. In the ancient world, this was one perfectly logical subset of the connotations “spirit” carried, although it had some funny ramifications for how they thought about the interrelations within the greater set.

        Now, is there any vicious regress when I ask how nerves cause corporeal movements? No, not really; I can shift to different orders of explanation, of course (from neurology to electricity and biochemistry, then down to physics, then to particle physics), but that’s just a features of efficient causation in general.

      • Well, ambiguities with potential for equivocation are just the sorts of things that can lead to confusion. It’s good to clear them up when we can. One of the charming aspects of philosophical skeleton keys is that by a careful differentiation of terms they resolve a host of otherwise intractable difficulties. The mess just … vanishes.

        One such mare’s nest is the mind / body problem, or the interaction problem. If as Descartes and most moderns suppose the mind is quite a different sort of substance than the body, how on Earth do they affect each other?

        Now in a sense the interaction problem isn’t a distinct problem at all, but rather only a species of the general problem of causation, thus of change, thus of motion: how does one thing give rise to a different thing? Solve the problem of motion, and the problem of interaction between mind and body, if such there be, is solved. So, I am not too worked up about the interaction problem.

        Nevertheless the Cartesian account of the human being makes it two things rather than one, thereby introducing an interaction between two entities that calls out for a causal explanation. Descartes multiplies explanatory entities. This is rather a perverse result, for one of Descartes’ motivations was to hack at Scholastic – i.e., Aristotelian – anthropology with Ockham’s Razor.

        We must be wary of introducing entities by an undue reification of properties. Whitehead called it the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness. It generates a lot of stubble for Ockham’s Razor.

        Aristotle treated the human being as a single substantial entity. Under Aristotelian anthropology, the interaction problem does not arise.

        Notably, the four sorts of cause that Aristotle notices are not themselves substantial beings, but rather aspects of substantial beings. The four causes do not affect each other; they are not steps in a causal sequence, but come together all at once in a substantial being. Nor do they therefore themselves push on anything; for they are not actual in themselves. They rather limit the substantial being, and characterize it.

        And the substantial being is an integrity. We can parse its many causes under the headings Aristotle has given us, but that act is an abstraction in thought, which cannot be enacted on a concrete substantial being without destroying it.

        It is substantial beings that affect each other, in four different ways: formal, final, material, and efficient.

        Now, notwithstanding all that, it does seem to me that in saying that the spirit might be the efficient cause that amalgamates the soul and the body, you might be meaning something not too different from what I mean in saying that the spirit is the process, motion, act, or life in virtue of which that amalgamation occurs. The difference then between our two statements would be that I would view the operation of the spirit as the amalgamation and integration of *all four* types of causal factors of the substantial being, whereas you seem to be suggesting that it is perhaps just one of them, operating on the others – with the potentially problematic results I discuss just above.

        The difficulty with my approach is that it begs the question, whence the act of being? It is just here that I raise my hands and shrug my shoulders. Whence this moment of my life? Whence my power, in this moment, of deciding (however partially) how it shall be constituted, and what its act and intended effects shall be? How is it that this moment of my life can somehow have the power to decide its own character, even though – as not yet fully definite, that decision being ever yet still in the offing – it is not yet anything concrete, is not yet actual, and cannot therefore have actual powers, or for that matter any other properties?

        What grounds the motion of becoming?

        It’s a thundering great mystery. This is why Whitehead puts Creativity – that in virtue of which creatures come to be – in the Category of the Ultimate. It is why theology insists that creatures cannot themselves create, or therefore comprehend creation.

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