Aristotle's On Soul II 1

in Aristotle Selections,
eds. T. Irwin and G. Fine (Hackett Publishing Company, 1995), pp.176ff.

This page revised November 2, 2009

This aims to be a fairly detailed explanation of Aristotle's basic definition of the soul (for living beings in general). The "punch line" for human nature is given at the end but understanding that requires familiarity with what precedes.

1. What three things does Aristotle distinguish at 412a7-9?

(a) matter, which is not a "this" (a concrete particular thing) in its own right;
(b) shape or form which makes matter a this;
and (c) the compound (or the result of putting two factors together) of matter and form (which is a concrete particular thing).

2. Correlate matter and form with actuality and potentiality. (412a10)

Matter is potentiality, form actuality. Aristotle distinguishes two kinds of actuality, the actuality of the state or habit, e.g., knowledge; and the actuality of using the state, e.g., attending to what one knows.

Note how that implies that a form-matter unity is not fully actual, since matter is potentiality; only pure form could be fully actual.

3. What type of body does Aristotle single out now? (412a11-14)

Natural bodies, and among natural bodies (which include simple bodies), living ones.

Are these substances?

Yes, substances as compounds. (Compound=union of matter and form.)

In this treatise, Aristotle distinguishes three meanings of "substance." Another meaning is present in the next item.

4. How does the body exist?

As subject and matter. (In the Categories "subject" is the term used to designate the concrete individual that receives qualities, that stands in relationships to other concrete individuals, etc. Here it is the body as a system of organs that receives soul.

What, then, is the soul? (412a16-22)

Substance as the form of a natural body that is potentially alive.

Note Aristotle's stress on substance as form. His mature view, characteristic of Metaphysics VII and On the Soul is that the primary meaning of substance is the sort of form that is found in living compounds.

5. Distinguish the two kinds of actuality. Use the relationships between knowing something and attending to what one knows, (the faculty of) sight and seeing. (412a23-28; 412b18-24)

Potentiality - Able to learn
First actuality - Knowing something
Second actuality - Attending to, or using, what one knows

Potentiality - The eye
First actuality - Having sight
Second actuality - Seeing

Potentiality - Body
First actuality - Soul
Second actuality - Living (This fits plants, which have the faculty common to all living beings)

6. How does Aristotle define the soul in general? (412a27; 412b5; cf. the whole passage 412b10-11)

(a) the first actuality (= form) of a natural body that is potentially alive (a27);
(b) the first actuality (= form) of a natural organic body (b5);
(c) substance that corresponds to the account, the essence of the thing (b10-11).

Note 1: One scholar, Stephen Everson, argues that the second definition (at 412b5) suggests that "soul" is fully present in the individual sense organs, in other words, "organic body" just means a body that serves as an instrument for the soul. (cf. 412b19-22)

Note 2: the term "account" ("logos") at b10-11 is sometimes translated "definition"; "essence" is a basic Aristotelian term referring to the set of characteristics that causes the typical behavior of a thing; the formal cause of a living thing is identical to its essence.

7. If an axe lost its ability to chop trees, would it still be an axe in the same sense?

No, only an axe homonymously, i.e., by an ambiguous use of the term.

Is a dead animal an animal in the normal sense of the term? (412b10-24)

No, only homonymously. The soul or formal cause contains the essence. No soul, no essence.

8. What bodies that are potentially alive is Aristotle talking about here? (412b25-26)

Those that have soul, ensouled bodies.

What is Aristotle's point here?

That bodies are potentially alive simultaneously with the body-soul union's being alive. (Their potentiality is better understood as similar to the way in which the wood in the bed is potentially a bed than the way the lumber on the lot of the bed-making company is potentially a bed.)

To fully understand this you will need to have read the material above.

How about the human being?

Potentiality (= proximate matter*) - Human Body**
First actuality (= formal cause) - Human Soul***
Second actuality - Living Well****

* Proximate matter is matter relative to its corresponding form. As in this case, proximate matter may have a lot of its own internal structure or arrangement. Proximate matter is contrasted with remote matter, which in this case would be the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire) out of which all terrestrial bodies are ultimately composed, according to Aristotle. The elements are the least definite "bodies.")

** The human body consists of organs characteristic of human beings, e.g., heart, lungs, stomach, eyes, ears, nose, hands, feet, etc.

*** The human soul is the rational soul, which includes faculties for nutrition, growth and reproduction; appetite, sensation (corresponding to seeing, hearing, tasting, etc.), capacity for self-movement, memory, and imagination; and the various capacities of reason (capacities of theoretical, practical and productive reason; active and passive intellect). Intellect is a complex topic beyond the scope of this web page.

Correspondingly, a nonhuman animal's soul is the sensitive soul (corresponding to that animal's type, which includes faculties for nutrition, reproduction, and growth; appetite; sensation; self-movement; and perhaps imagination and memory)

**** Another term for living well is eudaimonia. Aristotle discusses this at length in Nicomachean Ethics books I and X. Second actuality seems to correspond to the final cause. In this sense of final cause it means the highest activity of the specific type of being under discussion. For humans that is rational activity, contemplation (or in the secondary sense, active use of moral virtue and practical wisdom).