42 - Soul Power: Aristotle's De Anima

Peter tackles the De Anima (“On the Soul”), focusing on the definition of soul as the form of the body and Aristotle’s theory of sensation.

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Further Reading: 

• J. Barnes, M. Schofield, and R. Sorabji (eds), Articles on Aristotle, Vol. 4: Psychology and Aesthetics (London: 1979).

• V. Caston, "Aristotle on Consciousness," Mind 111 (2002), 751-815.

• M. Durrant (ed.), Aristotle’s De Anima in Focus (London: 1993).

• S. Everson, Aristotle on Perception (Oxford: 1997).

• R. Heinaman, "Aristotle and the Mind-Body Problem," Phronesis 35 (1990), 83–102.

• M.C. Nussbaum and A.O. Rorty (eds), Essays on Aristotle’s De Anima (Oxford: 1992).

• C. Shields, "Soul and Body in Aristotle," Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 6 (1988), 103–37.

Stanford Encyclopedia: Aristotle's Psychology

peter l's picture

souled out?

I don't quite understand ... if the soul just *is* a set of potentialities, is it just another name for the total collection of potentialities? in which case it has no independent existence.

or is it meant to *explain* a set of potentialities, in which case it's presumably something separate from them. also, if it's meant to explain them, does Aristotle offer any detail of the explanation? as in a causal explanation?

finally, if objects have various potentials, does Aristotle discuss whether these are actualised by outside forces e.g. the potential of the water to get hot is actualised by dropping a hot rock into it. or are they actualised by internal forces e.g. the potential of a wasp to sting is actualised by the wasp perceiving a threat ... (there are problems here I suppose of distinguishing internal from external 'triggers') ...

Peter Adamson's picture


I'm amazed this is the first comment on this episode! It's been up for quite a while.

Anyway, good questions! I'll take the second one first since it's easier. Plato (in the Phadrus and Laws) had argued that soul is a self-moving thing, and Aristotle basically agrees with that although with qualifications, since the soul is in a sense moved by the thing that it wants (e.g. the food towards which it moves the body). One difference between living and non-living things, if not the difference, is that living things are capable of self-motion.

The first question is harder. Some people take a more reductive view of Aristotle's theory: the soul is just a collection of powers or faculties. This can be supported by passages in Aristotle, like when he says that sight is like the soul of the eye. And then you're right, this implies that soul can't exist independently. I would say this is Aristotle's view.

However other interpreters, especially in later antiquity and the medieval period, thought that Aristotle made an exception at least for intellection, since intellect has no bodily organ. This might be taken to imply that the soul can go on living without the body, but all it would ever be able to do is think (it never needed the body to do this in the first place).