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Body and Soul

Plato believes that the essence of who we are can continue to exist after we die. In one of his dialogues, he writes of the prospect of being able to philosophize as a disembodied soul. Plato is not sentimental about his body. The body interferes in his quest for knowing the good. It is difficult for him to philosophize when hungry, sleepy, in pain, or distracted by desires. Without the body, there would be no distractions from contemplating the good. Plato’s view of the soul was unusual for his time. The standard view was to see it as a life-force that gave “breath” to the body. The soul was not thought of as a thinking, autonomous thing. Without the body, the soul was just so much breath.[1]

Western philosophy developed on the basis of Plato’s view that the essential part of who we are is thinking, reflective, and rational. We can see that especially well in the rationalist tradition of philosophy, with Descartes as one of its main figures. By affirming reason over passions and body, Plato opens up to certain ways of looking at mind and consciousness. In humans, the soul—our essence as a consciousness capable of independent existence—comes into the body and into a world of unreason and passions. The passions are not essential to our nature but disturb our conscious life through the body. We are, according to Plato, neither our body nor our passions (desires, emotions, feelings). The love of wisdom is seen as the only noble emotion. This way of looking at thinking as disembodied and without passions has been a recurring theme of the Western intellectual tradition.

Nevertheless, thought is emotionally and bodily grounded in important ways. As the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) noted, what sense could we make of spatial orientations—such as above, below, up, down, left, right, behind, and in front—if we did not have our own body to relate to? On closer inspection, much of our thinking is based on how we cope with the world in terms of our bodies. Neuroscientists have also shown that emotions are key for rationality and human thinking at large. Neurologist Antonio Damasio’s 1994 book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain is an early example of this research (Damasio 1994).

  • [1] The early Greek poet Homer thought of the soul in this way, for example.
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