Individuality, Ensoulment, Selfhood

For a philosopher, I do a shockingly small amount of metaphysics. This is usually not a problem: I can handle basic issues in materialism and idealism, for instance, and tackle mind-body monisms and dualisms with my students, and my scholarship is in political philosophy and I generally argue, along with Rawls, that matters of justice and political institutions must be resolved without settling the imponderable metaphysical issues. Recently, I’ve found that I need to think about singularity with much more rigor than I am used to doing, in order to resolve some issues in Heidegger and Arendt scholarship on agency and action, and so I’m returning to the classic metaphysical issue of ensoulment with some trepidation. If anyone’s reading, I’d love some suggestions or comments.

Our use of the word ‘individuality’ to describe selfhood is sort of strange, if you think about it. The word ‘individual’ merely denotes something that cannot be split, something un-divide-able. We’ve been using this term ‘individual’ for so long to describe a kind of independence and authenticity that that original meaning of the word has been lost. The claim of individuality is a claim to simplicity: I am pure agent, pure knower, not an assembly of constituent functions or parts. 

For contemporary readers, one of the weirdest moments in Kant’s mammoth Critique of Pure Reason is when he takes up the question of atoms.  In the second antinomy, he endeavors to prove that reason can lead us to conclude both that there can’t possibly be an indivisible entity and that there must be. A lot of commentators claim that this is actually a commentary on Liebniz’s monadology, and that certainly seems right to me. They also claim that this passage is a commentary of ensoulment. Here’s how that argument goes: an absolutely simple and undividable substance is eternal, right? For to destroy a thing would normally mean to deconstitute it, to reduce it to its parts. To pass from being to non-being without an act of destruction or corruption would be a challenge to all beings who might just as inexplicably cease to be at all. Thus, if individuality is both impossible and necessary, then there is something to my selfhood, and yours, that is both impossible and necessary: perhaps you can strip away my memories or inclinations, but something in me is individual, indestructible, and infinite.

Without really specifying what that indivisible thing is, we can still name it. We’re talking about ‘souls.’ A genealogy of that concept leads us to Christian metaphysics, with all its freighted implications for selfhood, responsibility, and freedom, and to the Greek ‘pysche,’ the breath that animates our lives, the movement that tends towards the Good.

Augustine found the question of ensoulment quite challenging, especially because he had to find a model for ensoulment that could also bind us to Adam’s sin in an original way without crediting the creator-God with responsibility for making us defective. He never works out a view in metaphysical terms: most of this gets resolved in terms of the doctrine of baptism and original sin, and in his dispute with the Pelagians. In short, the metaphysical questions are transmuted into political ones. He tried a lot of different hypotheses: that our souls are (1) sent by God to inhabit our bodies, that they (2) volunteer for the post, that they are (3) created by God to accompany our bodies, or that they are (4) created as an offspring from a Adam’s soul in much the same way as our bodies are produced by amorous entanglement. To these we can also add the Neoplatonist view (5) that ensoulment is a indivualization of the One through the error of desire. No matter what their origin story, souls can choose to survive the death of the body and join God in eternal contemplation of his creation. Or not, in which case they unbecome or something like that: they choose non-being, i.e. sin, and that’s what they get. 

In Aristotle, the notion of a soul as the motive force of the body and of thought raises the specter that souls are quite easily destructable when the body dies. If anything survives my death, it is the utterly impersonal potentiality of thought, always oriented towards and striving to achieve the Good, the Prime Mover that thinks its own thought eternally, or in other versions, the nous poieticos, the productive intellect that makes the world. (I’d really appreciate some good cites on productive v. active intellect in Aristotle, as a lot of scholarship seems to subsume this question under potentiality/activity questions rather than poiesis.) The most a living human can hope for is that her thoughts might touch or contemplate the Good or, perhaps, participate in its making/production. You can see how Aristotle’s views could have influenced Plotinus, who could have influenced Augustine, but how does this genealogy of ideas resolve the metaphysics?

Contemporary views of the psyche assume that we’re far from individual: we’re an assemblage of functions, and as such we’re quite easily destroyed or corrupted by trauma and experience. Our souls are the creation of our genetic, neurochemical, and parental configurations, and at best there are certain structures: ego, id, superego; repression, lack, sublimation; imaginary, real, symbolic that are permanent or basic to all human beings. These functions structure our selfhood, but ultimately this all exists as the projection of a materal substrate, the brain. Such divisible selves are not and never could be pure, incorruptible, or eternal. Singularity is a myth, just as atoms are themselves nothing more than waveforms in the cosmic string. The self that dies when I die, the being who considers his own death or acts in the public realm, is nothing more than a figment of language, a syntactical construct that emerges when a child was taught to say ‘I’ and ‘me’ and to assign its actions to that grammatical construct.

Ok, that’s what about all I know on the subject. What am I missing?






One response to “Individuality, Ensoulment, Selfhood”

  1. Rob W Avatar

    I think that both the soul and the concept of the individual are just a thing that evolution created within animals and humans to make us more likely to protect our own lives and the lives of others. In other words, our self-examination could be untruthful because our minds are designed to decieve ourselves to make us more likely to reproduce.

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