An Old, Tricky Question

Do we see with our eyes or through them? The question begs another of the metaphysical variety: Are persons composite beings, or can they be said to be essentially an x rather than -- or even more than -- a y, a "soul" rather than a "body" for instance? A Platonist would say that I see through my eyes, because the "real I" is my soul rather than my body. There are many who would criticize this crudely dualistic view, and contend that human beings are indissolubly whole, words like soul and body and flesh merely pointing to different aspects of our being.

The subject is taken up in a fine article on immortality in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The examiner, Antony Flew, contends that the issue revolves around the meaning attached to "person words." Below is the relevant passage from his article, followed by a few thoughts and questions.

"Soul as the person. Socrates is talking with Alcibiades [Plato: Alcibiades I], and the question is raised, 'What are we, and what is talking with what?' The conclusion is that we are our souls. The argument runs in this way. In speaking, we use words. The user and the thing used are always different. We use our hands, our eyes, our whole bodies. Thus, I cannot be my body. Yet it is agreed that I must be my soul, my body, or a combination of both. However, because the user and the thing used are always different and because I use my body, I cannot be either my body or my body and soul combined. Thus, I must be my soul.

"Considering how vital the conclusion is, Plato's argument may seem inadequate. But if, sympathetically, we call in the rest of Plato's writings to provide supplementary evidence, it becomes clear that it has to be taken as the epitome of many arguments. For Plato constantly talked of the phenomenon of self-control and the lack of it and of all those times when we are inclined to speak of being let down or dragged down by the weaknesses or by the excessive strength of the body or some part of it. Few concepts are, in the ordinary narrow sense, more typically Platonic.

"In all the innumerable cases of bodily control or lack of it, it is possible to produce arguments of basically the same form, and it is not at all necessary to appeal to the assumption, which may not seem as obvious to everyone today as it did to Plato's Alcibiades, that I must be my soul, my body, or both. Thus, starting from the known fact that our eyes sometimes play tricks on us, we may go on to argue that this shows that we see not with, but through, them, that they are, as it were, built-in optical instruments (compare Theaetetus 184c ff.). Or, again, noting how natural and entirely proper it is to describe someone on some desperate occasion 'flogging on his protesting body,' we may infer that we drive our bodies as we drive our cars. In every case the Platonic conclusion, expressed in a more modern idiom, would be that the personal pronouns, personal names, and all other person words, words which clearly must refer to something and which, it seems, equally clearly cannot refer to bodies, the only available corporeal objects, the conclusion is that these are the objects to which we apply the term 'souls.'

"This conclusion is wrong, however, and all arguments of this kind are misguided. It is not true that person words are words for any sort of incorporeal objects. People are what you meet. We do not meet only the sinewy containers in which other people are kept, and they do not encounter only the fleshy houses that we ourselves inhabit. It is therefore wrong to suggest that the word 'person' is equivalent to the word 'soul' in this sense of 'soul' and, hence, to imply that it is contradictory to deny that people are incorporeal objects...This basic fact about the meanings of person words is central and fundamental to the entire problem.

"To deal in detail here with all the variations on the present argument would be impossible. The mistake involved in all such arguments seems to be that of insisting that because expressions like 'that person' are, for one reason or another, not synonymous with 'that human body' and because we use all sorts of idioms in which I and my body are spoken of as if they were two substances, there must therefore be a special class of incorporeal objects for person words to refer to. This false conclusion seems to be one more product of the perennially disastrous unum nomen, unum nominatum theory of meaning -- the misconception that every different class of word must refer to a different class of object. The truth seems to be that in this area we have a vastly rich and idiomatic vocabulary that provides us with all manner of subtle linguistic instruments, all of which we employ to say things about one sort of inordinately complicated but essentially corporeal creature, ourselves."


1. The author says that people "are what you meet. We do not meet only the sinewy containers in which other people are kept, and they do not encounter only the fleshy houses that we ourselves inhabit."

The statement above conflates the relational dimension with the metaphysical. The confusion proceeds from the sentence, "people are what you meet." Up to that point the question centered on the metaphysics of human identity, of what we as persons are essentially. By adding the phrase "what you meet," the word "are" takes on a whole new meaning.

In one sense the sentence is glaringly false. People who are no better than loose acquaintances are considerably more than they're able to present to us in the moment. The "deeper" person, the more intimate self is almost always hidden from casual encounters, and revealed only to a loved one or spouse. Even in friendships, the totality of the other's interior world is often not revealed, so that the person we meet is not simply that figure standing in front of us.

The author means to say that persons appear always to us as wholes, and that this is one reason for rejecting Platonic dualism. But is he not changing the jurisdiction of the matter? Can an observation of how we normally relate to one another be advanced as evidence against a strictly metaphysical position?

2. Most of us would agree that the whole of a person is greater than the sum of his biological and constituent parts, and even of the sum of his feelings and thoughts. Doesn't the word "soul" point adequately to the deepest aspect of human being -- to "the me that is really me," the "me that may not be revealed to someone by my nose or eyes or laugh"? Isn't it consonant with any spiritual rendering of personhood?

3. In The Realm of Spirit, George Santayana writes, "here we come upon a paradox: that spirit, the most inward of things and the most vital, should find its purest affinities in remote and abstract regions, in mathematics, in music, in truth, in the wider aspects of nature and history, and should find its greatest enemies, its worst torments, at home...How does this come about? Under what auspices does a moral dimension, mechanically non-existent and biologically idle, attach itself to physical life?"

Santayana says that the spirit is that "most inward of things and the most vital." Is there a difference between saying this and saying "I am my soul"?

Further reading: Plato and The Theory of Forms.