On the Soul



''On the Soul'' (
Greek Greek may refer to: Greece Anything of, from, or related to Greece, a country in Southern Europe: *Greeks, an ethnic group. *Greek language, a branch of the Indo-European language family. **Proto-Greek language, the assumed last common ancestor ...
: , ''Peri Psychēs'';
Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally a dialect spoken in the lower Tiber area (then known as Latium) around present-day Rome, but through ...
: ''De Anima'') is a major
treatise A treatise is a Formality, formal and systematic written discourse on some subject, generally longer and treating it in greater depth than an essay, and more concerned with investigating or exposing the principles of the subject and its conclusi ...
written by
Aristotle Aristotle (; grc-gre, Ἀριστοτέλης ''Aristotélēs'', ; 384–322 BC) was a Greek philosopher and polymath during the Classical Greece, Classical period in Ancient Greece. Taught by Plato, he was the founder of the Peripatet ...
c. 350 BC. His discussion centres on the kinds of
soul In many religious and philosophical traditions, there is a belief that a soul is "the immaterial aspect or essence of a human being". Etymology The Modern English noun '':wikt:soul, soul'' is derived from Old English ''sāwol, sāwel''. The ea ...
s possessed by different kinds of living things, distinguished by their different operations. Thus plants have the capacity for nourishment and reproduction, the minimum that must be possessed by any kind of living
organism In biology, an organism () is any life, living system that functions as an individual entity. All organisms are composed of cells (cell theory). Organisms are classified by taxonomy (biology), taxonomy into groups such as Multicellular o ...
. Lower animals have, in addition, the powers of sense-perception and self-motion (action). Humans have all these as well as
intellect In the study of the human mind, intellect refers to, describes, and identifies the ability of the human mind to reach correct conclusions about what is truth, true and what is falsehood, false in reality; and how to problem solving, solve proble ...
. Aristotle holds that the soul (''
psyche Psyche (''Psyché'' in French) is the Greek term for "soul In many religious and philosophical traditions, there is a belief that a soul is "the immaterial aspect or essence of a human being". Etymology The Modern English noun '':wikt:soul, s ...
'', ψυχή) is the ''form'', or ''essence'' of any living thing; it is not a distinct substance from the body that it is in. It is the possession of a soul (of a specific kind) that makes an organism an organism at all, and thus that the notion of a body without a soul, or of a soul in the wrong kind of body, is simply unintelligible. (He argues that some parts of the soul — the intellect — can exist without the body, but most cannot.) In 1855, Charles Collier published a translation titled ''On the Vital Principle''.
George Henry Lewes George Henry Lewes (; 18 April 1817 – 30 November 1878) was an English philosopher and critic of literature and theatre. He was also an amateur Physiology, physiologist. American feminist Margaret Fuller called Lewes a "witty, French, flippa ...
, however, found this description also wanting.

Division of chapters

The treatise is divided into three books, and each of the books is divided into chapters (five, twelve, and thirteen, respectively). The treatise is near-universally abbreviated “DA,” for “De anima,” and books and chapters generally referred to by Roman and Arabic numerals, respectively, along with corresponding Bekker numbers. (Thus, “DA I.1, 402a1” means “De anima, book I, chapter 1, Bekker page 402, Bekker column a he column on the left side of the page line number 1.)

Book I

DA I.1 introduces the theme of the treatise;
DA I.2–5 provide a survey of Aristotle’s predecessors’ views about the soul

Book II

DA II.1–3 gives Aristotle's definition of soul and outlines his own study of it, which is then pursued as follows:
DA II.4 discusses nutrition and reproduction;
DA II.5–6 discuss sensation in general;
DA II.7–11 discuss each of the five senses (in the following order: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch—one chapter for each);
DA II.12 again takes up the general question of sensation;

Book III

DA III.1 argues there are no other senses than the five already mentioned;
DA III.2 discusses the problem of what it means to “sense sensing” (i.e., to “be aware” of sensation);
DA III.3 investigates the nature of imagination;
DA III.4–7 discuss thinking and the intellect, or mind;
DA III.8 articulates the definition and nature of soul;
DA III.9–10 discuss the movement of animals possessing all the senses;
DA III.11 discusses the movement of animals possessing only touch;
DA III.12–13 take up the question of what are the minimal constituents of having a soul and being alive.


Book I contains a summary of Aristotle's method of investigation and a dialectical determination of the nature of the soul. He begins by conceding that attempting to define the soul is one of the most difficult questions in the world. But he proposes an ingenious method to tackle the question: Just as we can come to know the properties and operations of something through scientific demonstration, i.e. a geometrical proof that a triangle has its interior angles equal to two right angles, since the principle of all scientific demonstration is the essence of the object, so too we can come to know the nature of a thing if we already know its properties and operations. It is like finding the middle term to a
syllogism A syllogism ( grc-gre, συλλογισμός, ''syllogismos'', 'conclusion, inference') is a kind of logical argument An argument is a statement or group of statements called premises intended to determine the degree of truth or acceptability ...
with a known conclusion. Therefore, we must seek out such operations of the soul to determine what kind of nature it has. From a consideration of the opinions of his predecessors, a soul, he concludes, will be that in virtue of which living things have life. Book II contains his scientific determination of the nature of the soul, an element of his biology. By dividing substance into its three meanings (matter, form, and what is composed of both), he shows that the soul must be the first actuality of a natural, organized body. This is its form or essence. It cannot be matter because the soul is that in virtue of which things have life, and matter is only being in potency. The rest of the book is divided into a determination of the nature of the ''nutritive'' and ''sensitive'' souls. :(1) All species of living things, plant or animal, must be able to nourish themselves, and reproduce others of the same kind. :(2) All animals have, in addition to the nutritive power, sense-perception, and thus they all have at least the sense of touch, which he argues is presupposed by all other senses, and the ability to feel pleasure and pain, which is the simplest kind of perception. If they can feel pleasure and pain they also have desire. Some animals in addition have other senses (sight, hearing, taste), and some have more subtle versions of each (the ability to distinguish objects in a complex way, beyond mere
pleasure Pleasure refers to experience that feels good, that involves the enjoyment of something. It contrasts with pain or suffering, which are forms of feeling bad. It is closely related to value, desire and action: humans and other conscious animals ...
pain Pain is a distressing feeling often caused by intense or damaging stimuli. The International Association for the Study of Pain defines pain as "an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with, or resembling that associated with, ...
.) He discusses how these function. Some animals have in addition the powers of
memory Memory is the faculty of the mind by which data or information is Encoding (memory), encoded, stored, and retrieved when needed. It is the retention of information over time for the purpose of influencing future action. If Foresight (psycholo ...
imagination Imagination is the production or simulation of novel objects, sensations, and ideas in the mind without any immediate input of the senses. Stefan Szczelkun characterises it as the forming of experiences in one's mind, which can be re-creations o ...
, and self-motion. Book III discusses the mind or rational soul, which belongs to humans alone. He argues that thinking is different from both sense-perception and imagination because the senses can never lie and imagination is a power to make something sensed appear again, while thinking can sometimes be false. And since the mind is able to think when it wishes, it must be divided into two faculties: One which contains all the mind's ideas which are able to be considered, and another which brings them into action, i.e. to be actually thinking about them. These are called the ''possible'' and ''agent'' intellect. The possible intellect is an " unscribed tablet" and the store-house of all concepts, i.e. universal ideas like "triangle", "tree", "man", "red", etc. When the mind wishes to think, the agent intellect recalls these ideas from the possible intellect and combines them to form thoughts. The agent intellect is also the faculty which abstracts the "whatness" or intelligibility of all sensed objects and stores them in the possible intellect. For example, when a student learns a proof for the Pythagorean theorem, his agent intellect abstracts the intelligibility of all the images his eye senses (and that are a result of the translation by imagination of sense perceptions into immaterial phantasmata), i.e. the triangles and squares in the diagrams, and stores the concepts that make up the proof in his possible intellect. When he wishes to recall the proof, say, for demonstration in class the next day, his agent intellect recalls the concepts and their relations from the possible intellect and formulates the statements that make up the arguments in the proof. The argument for the existence of the agent intellect in Chapter V perhaps due to its concision has been interpreted in a variety of ways. One standard scholastic interpretation is given in the ''Commentary on De anima'' begun by
Thomas Aquinas Thomas Aquinas, Dominican Order, OP (; it, Tommaso d'Aquino, lit=Thomas of Aquino, Italy, Aquino; 1225 – 7 March 1274) was an Italian Dominican Order, Dominican friar and Catholic priest, priest who was an influential List of Catholic philo ...
. Aquinas' commentary is based on the new translation of the text from the Greek completed by Aquinas' Dominican associate
William of Moerbeke William of Moerbeke, O.P. ( nl, Willem van Moerbeke; la, Guillelmus de Morbeka; 1215–35 – 1286), was a prolific medieval translator of philosophical, medical, and scientific texts from Greek language into Latin, enabled by the period ...
Viterbo Viterbo (; Central Italian, Viterbese: ; lat-med, Viterbium) is a city and ''comune'' in the Lazio region of central Italy, the Capital city, capital of the province of Viterbo. It conquered and absorbed the neighboring town of Ferento (see Fe ...
in 1267. The argument, as interpreted by
Thomas Aquinas Thomas Aquinas, Dominican Order, OP (; it, Tommaso d'Aquino, lit=Thomas of Aquino, Italy, Aquino; 1225 – 7 March 1274) was an Italian Dominican Order, Dominican friar and Catholic priest, priest who was an influential List of Catholic philo ...
, runs something like this: In every nature which is sometimes in potency and act, it is necessary to posit an agent or cause within that genus that, just like art in relation to its suffering matter, brings the object into act. But the soul is sometimes in potency and act. Therefore, the soul must have this difference. In other words, since the mind can move from not understanding to understanding and from knowing to thinking, there must be something to cause the mind to go from knowing nothing to knowing something, and from knowing something but not thinking about it to actually thinking about it. Aristotle also argues that the mind (only the agent intellect) is immaterial, able to exist without the body, and immortal. His arguments are notoriously concise. This has caused much confusion over the centuries, causing a rivalry between different schools of interpretation, most notably, between the Arabian commentator
Averroes Ibn Rushd ( ar, ; Arabic name, full name in ; 14 April 112611 December 1198), often Latinization of names, Latinized as Averroes ( ), was an Al-Andalus, Andalusian polymath and Faqīh, jurist who wrote about many subjects, including philosoph ...
Thomas Aquinas Thomas Aquinas, Dominican Order, OP (; it, Tommaso d'Aquino, lit=Thomas of Aquino, Italy, Aquino; 1225 – 7 March 1274) was an Italian Dominican Order, Dominican friar and Catholic priest, priest who was an influential List of Catholic philo ...
. One argument for its immaterial existence runs like this: if the mind were material, then it would have to possess a corresponding thinking-organ. And since all the senses have their corresponding sense-organs, thinking would then be like sensing. But sensing can never be false, and therefore thinking could never be false. And this is of course untrue. Therefore, Aristotle concludes, the mind is immaterial. Perhaps the most important but obscure argument in the whole book is Aristotle's demonstration of the
immortality Immortality is the concept of eternal life. #Biological immortality, Some modern species may possess biological immortality. Some scientists, futurists, and philosophers have theorized about the immortality of the human body, with some sugges ...
of the thinking part of the human soul, also in Chapter V. Taking a premise from his ''
Physics Physics is the natural science that studies matter, its Elementary particle, fundamental constituents, its motion and behavior through Spacetime, space and time, and the related entities of energy and force. "Physical science is that depar ...
'', that as a thing acts, so it is, he argues that since the active principle in our mind acts with no bodily organ, it can exist without the body. And if it exists apart from matter, it therefore cannot be corrupted. And therefore there exists a mind which is immortal. As to what mind Aristotle is referring to in Chapter V (i.e. divine, human, or a kind of world soul), has represented a hot topic of discussion for centuries. The most likely is probably the interpretation of
Alexander of Aphrodisias Alexander of Aphrodisias ( grc-gre, Ἀλέξανδρος ὁ Ἀφροδισιεύς, translit=Alexandros ho Aphrodisieus; AD) was a Peripatetic school, Peripatetic philosopher and the most celebrated of the Ancient Greek Commentaries on Aristo ...
, likening Aristotle's immortal mind to an impersonal activity, ultimately represented by God.

Arabic paraphrase

In Late Antiquity, Aristotelian texts became re-interpreted in terms of
Neoplatonism Neoplatonism is a strand of Platonism, Platonic philosophy that emerged in the 3rd century AD against the background of Hellenistic philosophy and Hellenistic religion, religion. The term does not encapsulate a set of ideas as much as a chain of ...
. There is a paraphrase of ''De Anima'' which survives in the Arabic tradition which reflects such a Neoplatonic synthesis. The text was translated into Persian in the 13th century. It is likely based on a Greek original which is no longer extant, and which was further syncretised in the heterogeneous process of adoption into early Arabic literature. A later Arabic translation of ''De Anima'' into Arabic is due to
Ishaq ibn Hunayn Abū Yaʿqūb Isḥāq ibn Ḥunayn ( ar, إسحاق بن حنين) (c. 830 Baghdad, – c. 910-1) was an influential Arab Medicine in medieval Islam, physician and translator, known for writing the first biography of physicians in the Arabic lan ...
(d. 910). Ibn Zura (d. 1008) made a translation into Arabic from Syriac. The Arabic versions show a complicated history of mutual influence.
Avicenna Ibn Sina ( fa, ابن سینا; 980 – June 1037 CE), commonly known in the West as Avicenna (), was a Persians, Persian polymath who is regarded as one of the most significant physicians, astronomers, philosophers, and writers of the ...
(d. 1037) wrote a commentary on ''De Anima'', which was translated into Latin by
Michael Scotus Michael Scot (Latin: Michael Scotus; 1175 – ) was a Scottish mathematician and scholar in the Middle Ages. He was educated at University of Oxford, Oxford and University of Paris, Paris, and worked in Bologna and Toledo, Spain, Toledo, where ...
Averroes Ibn Rushd ( ar, ; Arabic name, full name in ; 14 April 112611 December 1198), often Latinization of names, Latinized as Averroes ( ), was an Al-Andalus, Andalusian polymath and Faqīh, jurist who wrote about many subjects, including philosoph ...
(d. 1198) used two Arabic translations, mostly relying on the one by Ishaq ibn Hunayn, but occasionally quoting the older one as an alternative. Zerahiah ben Shealtiel Ḥen translated Aristotle's ''De anima'' from Arabic into Hebrew in 1284. Both Averroes and Zerahiah used the translation by Ibn Zura.Josep Puig Montada
Aristotle's On the Soul in the Arabic tradition
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (2012).

Some manuscripts

English translations

* Mark Shiffman, ''De Anima: On the Soul'', (Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing/R. Pullins Co, 2011). * Joe Sachs, ''Aristotle's On the Soul and On Memory and Recollection'' (Green Lion Press, 2001). * Hugh Lawson-Tancred, ''De Anima (On the Soul) ''(Penguin Classics, 1986). * Hippocrates Apostle, ''Aristotle's On the Soul'', (Grinell, Iowa: Peripatetic Press, 1981). * D.W. Hamlyn, ''Aristotle De Anima, Books II and III (with passages from Book I), translated with Introduction and Notes by D.W. Hamlyn, with a Report on Recent Work and a Revised Bibliography by Christopher Shields'' (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968). * Walter Stanley Hett, ''On the Soul'' (Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press "Loeb Classical Library", 1957). * John Alexander Smith, ''On the Soul'' (1931) *
MIT Internet Classics Archive

Google Books
Classics in the History of Psychology


* R. D. Hicks, ''Aristotle De Anima with Translation, Introduction, and Notes'' (Cambridge University Press, 1907). *
Free Audiobook (Public Domain) of De Anima at Archive.org
* Edwin Wallace, ''Aristotle's Psychology in Greek and English, with Introduction and Notes by Edwin Wallace'' (Cambridge University Press, 1882). *
* Thomas Taylor, ''On the Soul'' (Prometheus Trust, 2003, 1808).



Further reading

* Rüdiger Arnzen, ''Aristoteles' De anima : eine verlorene spätantike Paraphrase in arabischer und persischer Überlieferung'', Leiden, Brill, 1998 . * J. Barnes, M. Schofield, & R. Sorabji, ''Articles on Aristotle'', vol. 4, 'Psychology and Aesthetics'. London, 1979. * M. Durrant, ''Aristotle's De Anima in Focus''. London, 1993. * M. Nussbaum & A. O. Rorty, ''Essays on Aristotle's De Anima''. Oxford, 1992. * F. Nuyens, ''L'évolution de la psychologie d'Aristote''. Louvain, 1973.

External links

*Greek text
''Mikros Apoplous'' (HTML)
*English text

* {{Authority control Works by Aristotle Natural philosophy Philosophy of mind literature Philosophy of Aristotle