Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

How Are Souls Related to Bodies? A Study of John Buridan

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

How Are Souls Related to Bodies? A Study of John Buridan

Article excerpt

MEDIEVAL PHILOSOPHERS HAD NO SINGLE RESPONSE to the difficult question of how souls are related to the bodies they animate. In this respect, the theory of psychological inherence advanced by the noted Parisian philosoppher John Buridan is a case in point. Buridan offers different accounts of the soul-body relation, depending upon which of two main varieties of natural, animate substance he is explaining. In the case of human beings, he defends a version of immanent dualism: the thesis that the soul is an immaterial, everlasting, and created (as opposed to naturally generated) entity, actually inhering in each and every body it animates, and thus numerically many.(1) But when his explanandum is the relation between nonhuman animal or plant souls and their bodies, Buridan is a materialist; that is, he regards the sensitive and vegetative souls of such creatures as no more than collections of material, extended powers exhaustively defined by their biological functions, and hence as corruptible as the particular arrangements of matter they happen to animate.

In the larger context of medieval Aristotelianism, the fact that Buridan has a hybrid approach to the question of psychological inherence is neither remarkable nor especially interesting. Obviously, some combination of materialism and dualism seems called for if the soul-body relation is to be explained in a way that is both naturalistic and consistent with the possibility of personal immortality for some class(es) of corporeal, animate things. What is both remarkable and interesting, however, is the way in which Buridan manages the details of his hybrid account, that is, the particular explanations he gives under its materialistic and dualistic aspects.

My aim in this paper is to examine Buridan's answer to the very basic question of what it means for the soul to inhere in the body. This question is discussed at several junctures in the third and final version of his Questions on Aristotle's De anima (hereafter "QDA"),(2) though as we shall see below, his explanation of how nonhuman souls inhere in their bodies is of a piece with the more general theory of inherence presented in his other writings.


Nonhuman Souls. The question of how the soul inheres in the body is first addressed as such in QDA 2.7. Like virtually all of the questions in this work, QDA 2.7 is based on a lemma from Aristotle's De anima: in this instance, the observation in De anima 2.2 that it is possible for some plants and animals to survive physical division, from which we are to conclude that before division, their souls are actually one but potentially many.(3) For Buridan, this claim raises the question of how we are to understand the presence of the soul's nutritive and sensitive powers in corporeal bodies: in what sense does the whole soul of an organism inhere in its body if a single division of the quantitative parts of that body gives rise to two new whole souls? Since QDA 2, like De anima 2, addresses the nature and function of the sensitive part of the soul, Buridan gives his answer in the context of the psychology of brute or nonhuman animals, creatures whose souls are paradigmatically sensitive.

In the main part of QDA 2.7, Buridan introduces four metaphysical principles which he takes to govern the inherence of nonhuman animal souls, and thus also to explain how the sensitive and vegetative souls of such creatures can be in each part of their bodies. I shall discuss each of these principles in turn, and then examine Buridan's dualistic account of the relation between human souls and their bodies in QDA 3.

A. The Extensionality Principle. The first principle governing the inherence of nonhuman souls in their bodies is attributed to Aristotle and defined as follows: "The vegetative soul, sensitive soul, and so forth in a horse are not distinct in different parts of the body, but the vegetative, sensitive, and appetitive [souls] are extended throughout the whole body of the animal [per totum corpus animalis extensa est]" (QDA 2. …

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