The “Soul”

There’s a lot of (mostly very obscure) talk about “the soul” here and elsewhere. (Is it supposed to be different from you, your “mind,” your “ego” etc.? Is it some combo of [some of] them, or what?)  A friend recently passed along the following quote from psychologist James Hillman that I thought was nice–and maybe demystifying–at least a little bit.

By soul I mean, first of all, a perspective rather than a substance, a viewpoint toward things rather than a thing itself. This perspective is reflective; it mediates events and makes differences between ourselves and everything that happens. Between us and events, between the doer and the deed, there is a reflective moment — and soul-making means differentiating this middle ground.

It is as if consciousness rests upon a self-sustaining and imagining substrate — an inner place or deeper person or ongoing presence — that is simply there even when all our subjectivity, ego, and consciousness go into eclipse. Soul appears as a factor independent of the events in which we are immersed. Though I cannot identify soul with anything else, I also can never grasp it apart from other things, perhaps because it is like a reflection in a flowing mirror, or like the moon which mediates only borrowed light. But just this peculiar and paradoxical intervening variable gives one the sense of having or being soul. However intangible and indefinable it is, soul carries highest importance in hierarchies of human values, frequently being identified with the principle of life and even of divinity.

In another attempt upon the idea of soul I suggest that the word refers to that unknown component which makes meaning possible, turns events into experiences, is communicated in love, and has a religious concern. These four qualifications I had already put forth some years ago. I had begun to use the term freely, usually interchangeably with psyche (from Greek) and anima (from Latin). Now I am adding three necessary modifications. First, soul refers to the deepening of events into  experiences; second, the significance soul makes possible, whether in love or in religious concern, derives from its special relation with death. And third, by soul I mean the imaginative possibility in our natures, the experiencing through reflective speculation, dream, image, fantasy — that mode which recognizes all realities as primarily symbolic or metaphorical.”

James Hillman — Re-Visioning Psychology

776 thoughts on “The “Soul”

  1. CharlieM: Be honest, have you ever read Steiner’s“The Philosophy of Freedom”?

    A few pages seemed to me more than sufficient. And if my reading in bad philosophy is not entirely up to your standards, let me ask you: how much of the legitimate literature in the field have you worked through?

    Why should one read Steiner when there is Russell or Leibniz or Kant or Quine? It’s like asking a fiction fan how much Danielle Steel they’ve read. Life’s too short to spend a lot of time on crapola.

  2. I don’t think it makes sense, phenomenologically or neurologically, to suppose that perception is a concept-free process, a purely passive taking-in of how things are, and that concepts then get to work on it.

    Rather, I think that perception is an active process that involved bodily movement. That’s why I prefer to talk about “sensorimotor abilities” or “sensorimotor skills” rather than “the senses”.

    Concepts, on my view, are just the practical habits of classification and discrimination by means of which an animal engages in meaningful transactions with its environment. Of course if the conceptual structures had no relationship with the causal structure of the world, then the actions guided by those concepts would not be causally efficacious (or the causal efficacy of those actions would be inexplicable).

    There is, however, a ‘moment’ (so to speak) of receptivity in perception — what C. I. Lewis called “the given” and Sellars called “sheer receptivity”. The idea roughly, is that in veridical perception, the conceptually-structured constructions of the imagination are constrained by the objects of perception in ways that they are not so constrained during hallucinations or dreams.

    I think that there’s a good transcendental argument for that view. Sellars gets at it in the course of his interpretations of Kant. Working it out explicitly and carefully is my main project for the next few days (when I’m not grading finals).

    The predictive processing theory of neurocomputation gives a precise subpersonal model of this process: in veridical perception, sense-receptors convey prediction errors to the cognitive areas that are generating models (predictions) of the causal structure of the world. Perception is veridical (or more precisely: veridical enough) when there is a feedback loop between predictions and prediction errors, so that predictions are generated, prediction errors conveyed to the prediction-generating areas, the next round of predictions is generated that will reduce the prediction errors, and so.

    Prediction error minimization is the neurocomputation of perception (and also of action), and there’s no clean line to be drawn between concepts and intuitions. Rather we should see perception and action as involving a feedback loop between spontaneity (top-down processing) and receptivity (bottom-up processing).

    I think that the neurocomputational picture being developed by Karl Friston, Chris Frith, Jakob Howhy, and Andy Clark is remarkably consistent with the phenomenology of embodied perception that begins with Husserl and Merleau-Ponty and gets further enriched by Samuel Todes, Shaun Gallagher, Drew Leder, Alva Noe, and Evan Thompson. That’s where the really interesting work in philosophy of mind is happening.

  3. walto: A few pages seemed to me more than sufficient. And if my reading in bad philosophy is not entirely up to your standards, let me ask you: how much of the legitimate literature in the field have you worked through?

    Why should one read Steiner when there is Russell or Leibniz or Kant or Quine? It’s like asking a fiction fan how much Danielle Steel they’ve read. Life’s too short to spend a lot of time on crapola.

    FWIW, my view of Steiner is not very high either. Steiner began his career as a corrector (“editor”) with a publication of Goethe’s works and moved on to work at Goethe’s archive. Deeply impressed with Goethe, he attributed his own theosophical esotericism to Goethe. He also met with Nietzsche when Nietzsche was already incapable of communication and he gained access to Nietzsche’s archives. Deeply impressed with Nietzsche too, he again attributed his own theosophical esotericism to Nietzsche.

    There are two main schools of interpretation of Nietzsche: Walter Kaufmann and Rudolf Steiner. Every atheist fan of Nietzsche should take a look at Steiner’s work on Nietsche to complete the picture of potential interpretations.

  4. Kantian Naturalist: There is, however, a ‘moment’ (so to speak) of receptivity in perception — what C. I. Lewis called “the given” and Sellars called “sheer receptivity”.

    “Given” translates to Latin as “data”, a very important and useful word. It’s different from “information” – that which is ostensibly conveyed by the data. Amazingly, hardly any theory of information makes this relevant distinction – the theories are really calculating data (i.e. discrete events or objects), not information (i.e. the message). ID theory talks about the message, but only by failure to understand that e.g. “Shannon information” has no information in it in the relevant sense, only data.

    The ‘moment’ in question is none other than contact (at best – perception of data; at worst, any random thing or event). The contact may mean something or it may mean nothing. When billiard balls run into each other, there’s no meaning in it – billiard balls feel nothing. When a human is touched, a whole universe may unfold.

  5. I agree that sheer receptivity cannot be mere causal impingement. Causal impingements are only meaningful or significant for a sentient organism.

    I would maybe want to dispute the importance of Kauffmann and Steiner for interpretations of Nietzsche, at least among professional philosophers. But I do agree that the Nietzsche who is ruthlessly skeptical and destructive of traditional metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics needs to be balanced against the Nietzsche who is explicitly creating new myths and new values. Nietzsche is a naturalist, but he is not just a naturalist, and arguably not really an atheist.

  6. Kantian Naturalist: I would maybe want to dispute the importance of Kauffmann and Steiner for interpretations of Nietzsche, at least among professional philosophers. But I do agree that the Nietzsche who is ruthlessly skeptical and destructive of traditional metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics needs to be balanced against the Nietzsche who is explicitly creating new myths and new values. Nietzsche is a naturalist, but he is not just a naturalist, and arguably not really an atheist.

    So there’s also a Kantian Naturalist school of interpretation of Nietzsche. As for me, I submit that Nietzsche did philology (ramblings on antique literature) rather than philosophy (systematic metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and the like).

  7. Erik: So there’s also a Kantian Naturalist school of interpretation of Nietzsche.

    Well, I do have a dissertation and two published articles on him, but I don’t think my take on Nietzsche is all that profound or original.

    As for me, I submit that Nietzsche did philology (ramblings on antique literature) rather than philosophy (systematic metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and the like).

    He certainly wasn’t systematic! Consistent, yes; systematic, no. But I do think he’s as important as Kant and Hegel.

    One way of seeing my long-term ambition in philosophy, I think, is to integrate Hegel’s critique of Kant with Nietzsche’s critique of Kant. The gist, as it currently figures in my thinking, is to see that mutual recognition (a key Hegelian theme) is necessary for the best kind of cognitive grip on reality that is possible for us to have, given that we are prone to systematic biases and deficits of the kind that Nietzsche described in his perspectivalism.

    The rest of what I do — my work on Dewey, Sellars, cognitive science, critical theory — is just a set of tools for fleshing that out.

    Needless to say, it’s an insurmountable task. “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp/ Or what’s a heaven for?”

  8. newton: CharlieM: By that definition how can you have perception without thinking?

    Or without senses

    Of course sense organs are necessary for perception, but without anything to integrate that which is received through the senses there would be no knowledge. You are able to say the eye senses light only because you have the concepts “eye” and “light” and it is only through thinking that you have these concepts. Your knowledge begins with thinking. And the task of philosophy is concerned with gaining knowledge through thinking not with gaining sight through the eyes.

  9. newton: You have it backwards, if everyone had the same objective truth there would be no need to listen to others.It is the subjectiveness which gives life variety.

    What if everyone had some of the same objective truth but often rejected it for their own subjective opinions? At the same time what if some had a little more objective truth than others? Still at the same time what if objective truth could be applied subjectively to each person’s situation.

    There is some variety for you with out sacrificing truth 😉

    peace

  10. CharlieM: Of course sense organs are necessary for perception, but without anything to integrate that which is received through the senses there would be no knowledge. You are able to say the eye senses light only because you have the concepts “eye” and “light” and it is only through thinking that you have these concepts. Your knowledge begins with thinking. And the task of philosophy is concerned with gaining knowledge through thinking not with gaining sight through the eyes.

    I don’t think there’s any great difficulty in affirming that sensations and concepts are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for perception. A creature must have both in order to have perceptual experiences. That’s just what Kant pointed out, in his criticisms of both empiricism and rationalism.

    But although Kant correctly saw that sensations and concepts had to be integrated somehow, I do not think that he had really figured out how they are integrated. “The productive imagination” is more a name for the problem than a solution to it.

    And there is, nevertheless, the further question as to whether we can have any knowledge that is not in some way or other dependent on the senses. My view, like Kant’s, is that we cannot.

    I do think, against Kant and with Peirce, that we can have knowledge of things in themselves, but that is not obtained by ‘bypassing” the senses; it is obtained by comparing the predictive successes of current scientific theories with those of their predecessors.

    In other words, Peirce’s signature accomplishment (one of them, anyway) is to show that we can have knowledge of the noumena even though Kant is right about the dependence of knowledge on phenomena. Kant himself was unable to recognize this because he never doubted that there is only one single and invariant conceptual framework within which any empirical knowledge is possible.

  11. walto: A few pages seemed to me more than sufficient. And if my reading in bad philosophy is not entirely up to your standards, let me ask you: how much of the legitimate literature in the field have you worked through?

    When I was a young man and I was a bit disillusioned with life I started asking myself some deep questions. I worked through the philosophy and religion section of my local library. Kant’s, “Critique of Pure Reason”, and some of Plato’s works were among the books I remember reading .

    One book that was on the shelf was Steiner’s Philosophy of Freedom” After reading it I read some more Steiner. At first I thought some of his ideas were just to unbelievable to even contemplate. Then I began to wonder if it was my own prejudices and preconceptions that were preventing me from even considering them. And I now believe that much of the time it was.

    As for other writers, I now have quite a large collection of books on many subjects by various authors such as Aristotle, Hume, Russell, St Augustine, Emerson, Dawkins, Darwin, Nietzsche, Jung, Jerry Coyne, Michael Behe, Owen Barfield, Simone Weil, Karl Marx and many more. I try to read the works of authors with as varied positions as possible.

    Why should one read Steiner when there is Russell or Leibniz or Kant or Quine? It’s like asking a fiction fan how much Danielle Steel they’ve read. Life’s too short to spend a lot of time on crapola.

    No, its like offering a criticism of Danielle Steel’s works after having just a cursory glance at her novels. I don’t mind if you never read Steiner again, I just don’t see how you can criticise his philosophy in a meaningful way from this position.

  12. CharlieM,

    CharlieM: No, its like offering a criticism of Danielle Steel’s works after having just a cursory glance at her novels.

    Hahaha, you go read several Steel novels and be sure to give us a complete review. For my part, I promise not to read any Steel before I get to Steiner.

    Charlie, there’s a nice passage in a Thackeray novel about a hack playwright that reminds me of Steiner and why you like him:

    Those who know the play of the ‘Stranger,’ are aware that the remarks made by the various characters are not valuable in themselves, either for their sound sense, their novelty of observation, or their poetic fancy. In fact, if a man were to say it was a stupid play, he would not be far wrong. Nobody ever talked so. If we meet idiots in life, as will happen, it is a great mercy that they do not use such absurdly fine words. The Stranger’s talk is sham, like the book he reads and the hair he wears, and the bank he sits on, and the diamond ring he makes play with—but, in the midst of the balderdash, there runs that reality of love, children, and forgiveness of wrong, which will be listened to wherever it is preached, and sets all the world sympathising.

    Just as you don’t care if I don’t read him, I don’t care if you do. It’s foolishness, but you obviously get something out of it. We only live once, and it’s your life to waste, just as you want to.

  13. fifthmonarchyman: What if everyone had some of the same objective truth but often rejected it for their own subjective opinions?

    I would say the objective truth should be more persuasive.

    At the same time what if some had a little more objective truth than others?

    My guess is if you think that , you don’t.

    Still at the same time what if objective truth could be applied subjectively to each person’s situation.

    How could it be otherwise? Objective truth seems like your perfect triangle , it is only perfect in the abstract,once applied it is subjective.

  14. newton: I would say the objective truth should be more persuasive.

    That is just your very subjective opinion

    newton: My guess is if you think that , you don’t.

    Again according to your worldview there is no way for you to ever know if it is more than a guess…….. And you are fine with that remember

    newton: How could it be otherwise? Objective truth seems like your perfect triangle , it is only perfect in the abstract,once applied it is subjective.

    Ever hear of the incarnation.
    It’s when the subjective and the objective form a perfect unity.

    peace

  15. fifthmonarchyman: That is just your very subjective opinion

    If your premise is correct it may be the objective truth opinion.

    Again according to your worldview there is no way for you to ever know if it is more than a guess…….. And you are fine with that remember

    If your premise is correct maybe I do

    Ever hear of the incarnation.
    It’s when the subjective and the objective form a perfect unity.

    So it is still subjective.

  16. walto: And there’s much dancing and other forms of ultra-rejoicing!

    “Lexus , where the subjective and objective form perfect unity”

  17. Kantian Naturalist:
    I don’t think it makes sense, phenomenologically or neurologically, to suppose that perception is a concept-free process, a purely passive taking-in of how things are, and that concepts then get to work on it.

    I agree that there is no such thing as bare perception. But the act can be considered separately for analytical purposes.

    Concepts do not work on anything. Concepts are arrived at through thinking.

    Rather, I think that perception is an active process that involved bodily movement. That’s why I prefer to talk about “sensorimotor abilities” or “sensorimotor skills” rather than “the senses”.

    You should pay careful attention to how you began that statement, “I think”.

    Concepts, on my view, are just the practical habits of classification and discrimination by means of which an animal engages in meaningful transactions with its environment. Of course if the conceptual structures had no relationship with the causal structure of the world, then the actions guided by those concepts would not be causally efficacious (or the causal efficacy of those actions would be inexplicable).

    Do you think that concepts are held in the minds of animals in the same way as they are in humans? Are there any other animals who have concepts such as cause and effect, organism, space and the like?

    There is, however, a ‘moment’ (so to speak) of receptivity in perception — what C. I. Lewis called “the given” and Sellars called “sheer receptivity”. The idea roughly, is that in veridical perception, the conceptually-structured constructions of the imagination are constrained by the objects of perception in ways that they are not so constrained during hallucinations or dreams.

    I think that there’s a good transcendental argument for that view. Sellars gets at it in the course of his interpretations of Kant. Working it out explicitly and carefully is my main project for the next few days (when I’m not grading finals).

    The predictive processing theory of neurocomputation gives a precise subpersonal model of this process: in veridical perception, sense-receptors convey prediction errors to the cognitive areas that are generating models (predictions) of the causal structure of the world. Perception is veridical (or more precisely: veridical enough) when there is a feedback loop between predictions and prediction errors, so that predictions are generated, prediction errors conveyed to the prediction-generating areas, the next round of predictions is generated that will reduce the prediction errors, and so.

    Prediction error minimization is the neurocomputation of perception (and also of action), and there’s no clean line to be drawn between concepts and intuitions. Rather we should see perception and action as involving a feedback loop between spontaneity (top-down processing) and receptivity (bottom-up processing).

    I think that the neurocomputational picture being developed by Karl Friston, Chris Frith, Jakob Howhy, and Andy Clark is remarkably consistent with the phenomenology of embodied perception that begins with Husserl and Merleau-Ponty and gets further enriched by Samuel Todes, Shaun Gallagher, Drew Leder, Alva Noe, and Evan Thompson. That’s where the really interesting work in philosophy of mind is happening.

    You linked earlier to Jakob Howhy’s, “The Predictive Mind”

    Here is an excerpt from a review by Jona Vance, Northern Arizona University

    How does your brain generate accurate perceptual experiences? How does it initiate action? How does it do virtually everything else it does? Jakob Hohwy’s book provides an ambitious, controversial answer. He argues that one mechanism explains everything the brain does, from “perception [to] action and everything mental in between”

    This is exactly what I was talking about regarding beginning from a point where assumptions have already been made. The physical brain is made the starting point. I would say that this is an unjustified assumption.

  18. CharlieM: Or without senses

    Of course sense organs are necessary for perception, but without anything to integrate that which is received through the senses there would be no knowledge.

    True and without anything to integrate there would be no knowledge.

    You are able to say the eye senses light only because you have the concepts “eye” and “light” and it is only through thinking that you have these concepts.

    Yes, thinking is the realm of concepts

    Your knowledge begins with thinking. And the task of philosophy is concerned with gaining knowledge through thinking not with gaining sight through the eyes.

    Seems right , the question is what is the task of perception

  19. CharlieM: I agree that there is no such thing as bare perception. But the act can be considered separately for analytical purposes.

    Of course we can distinguish between the conceptual and non-conceptual elements of perception. That’s exactly what I’ve been stressing in this entire conversation.

    Concepts do not work on anything. Concepts are arrived at through thinking.

    I think that’s a mistake. Firstly, I think that concepts are classifications. They are ways of classifying, and that in turn requires discriminating. I think of “knowing-how” as more basic than “knowing-that.” To have the concept of something is to know how to do certain things.

    For example, to have the concept of “bicycle” is to know how to distinguish bicycles from non-bicycles, how to engage with things of that sort in the appropriate ways, and what sorts of things cannot engage with (to have the concept of bicycle is to know that one can’t eat a bicycle, and fish can’t ride them).

    It is true that we become aware of what our concepts are by reflecting on them, but that doesn’t mean that “thought” creates concepts or discovers them in some realm distinct from the world of ordinary bodily experience.

    You should pay careful attention to how you began that statement, “I think”.

    The fact that philosophy involves assertions about one’s beliefs doesn’t entail that thought is ontologically fundamental. That’s just a mistake.

    Do you think that concepts are held in the minds of animals in the same way as they are in humans? Are there any other animals who have concepts such as cause and effect, organism, space and the like?

    I don’t know what “held in the minds of animals in the same way as they are in humans” means. But I don’t think that concepts are held in any minds at all. I think of concepts as ways of classifying, and that makes them types of habits or behaviors.

    By my lights, any animal that can reliably classify and infer in causal domains — for example, engage in counterfactual reasoning modeled as “if I were to do X, then Y would probably happen” — has a conceptually structured understanding of causal relations.

    I don’t think that it’s possible to become aware of one’s concepts without language (or something like language), but I think it’s chauvinistic to assume that nonhumans lack concepts just because they lack language.

    This is exactly what I was talking about regarding beginning from a point where assumptions have already been made. The physical brain is made the starting point. I would say that this is an unjustified assumption.

    The proof of the pudding is in the eating: if Hohwy’s model can explain perception and action in terms of neurocomputational functions, and does so better than competing models, then it works well enough. What you see as an unjustified assumption, I see as a hypothesis to be tested. The test lies in whether it can successfully explain what it purports to explain. If you think that it can’t, then it’s on you to tell us just where the explanation fails.

    By the way, I do not think that Hohwy’s model works. The criticisms of his work in “The anticipating brain is not a scientist: the free-energy principle from an ecological-enactive perspective” (Bruineberg et al. in Synthese:1-28 (2016)) strike me as quite decisive against it. I still want to understand how the model is supposed to work, nevertheless.

  20. Kantian Naturalist: I don’t think that it’s possible to become aware of one’s concepts without language (or something like language), but I think it’s chauvinistic to assume that nonhumans lack concepts just because they lack language.

    I think that for consistency you should also add that it’s chauvinistic to think that nonhumans lack language. According to you, they just have a different sort of language. Monkey talk and fly buzz, those can be conceptual languages, because to say otherwise is chauvinistic.

  21. walto: CharlieM: No, its like offering a criticism of Danielle Steel’s works after having just a cursory glance at her novels.

    I think some evolutionists claim the “theory of evolution” is hidden somewhere in her books.

  22. Erik: I think that for consistency you should also add that it’s chauvinistic to think that nonhumans lack language. According to you, they just have a different sort of language. Monkey talk and fly buzz, those can be conceptual languages, because to say otherwise is chauvinistic.

    False.

    The reason why I attribute concepts to non-human animals is because of a theory of what concepts are. The view I prefer has been ably defended by Camp in her “Putting thoughts to work: Concepts, systematicity, and stimulus-independence” (Elisabeth Camp, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 78 (2):275-311 (2009).). On her view:

    I argue that we can reconcile two seemingly incompatible traditions for thinking about concepts. On the one hand, many cognitive scientists assume that the systematic redeployment of representational abilities suffices for having concepts. On the other hand, a long philosophical tradition maintains that language is necessary for genuinely conceptual thought. I argue that on a theoretically useful and empirically plausible concept of ‘concept’, it is necessary and sufficient for conceptual thought that a thinker be able to entertain many of the potential thoughts produced by recombining her representational abilities apart from a direct confrontation with the states of affairs being represented. Such representational abilities support a cognitive engagement with the world that is flexible, abstract, and active.

    On the other hand, I do not think that non-humans have language per se, because their communication systems lack both (i) the recursive structure of syntax and (ii) displaced reference, or the ability to refer to things that are not perceptually present.

  23. Kantian Naturalist: False.

    Look, you made some odd point about being chauvinistic. Let’s see again what you said.

    Kantian Naturalist: I don’t think that it’s possible to become aware of one’s concepts without language (or something like language), but I think it’s chauvinistic to assume that nonhumans lack concepts just because they lack language.

    Now, either you accuse somebody of chauvinism here or not. And you just might be chauvinistic in your own terms. Depends on the definition of chauvinism most of all. Whatever point you are trying to make about chauvinism here, it’s quite counter-productive to whatever other point you are trying to make.

    As to your other point (relation of concepts and language), your quote brings in something that you seem to ignore:

    Elisabeth Camp: I argue that on a theoretically useful and empirically plausible concept of ‘concept’, it is necessary and sufficient for conceptual thought that a thinker be able to entertain many of the potential thoughts produced by recombining her representational abilities apart from a direct confrontation with the states of affairs being represented.

    What is this saying? It asserts that concepts exist if a thinker is able to “entertain many of the potential thoughts produced by recombining…” The crux of the matter for me is this: Is this a conscious mental activity or not? How does one “entertain” thoughts without being aware of them?

    If having concepts means being aware of them (that’s what Camp seems to be saying and I’d agree), then this goes against your assumption, “I don’t think that it’s possible to become aware of one’s concepts without language…”

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