Summary/review by William Brochs-Haukedal

Goetz, S. and Taliaferro, C. (2011): A brief history of the soul.

The soul? Seriously? Most of us (that is we who were born, raised and educated in Scandinavia after WWII) have relegated the soul to the fairytales. Science and electric light took care of that.

On the other hand, deep down many of us also feel that there must be more to being human than the  sleep-work-eat routine carried out by the accidental biological robots that we are led to believe are you and me. If you, like me, have ever entertained thoughts like this, then Goetz and Taliaferro have some good news for you.

First of all they spell out the main philosophical ideas about what we call “soul”, starting with the ancient Greeks. It seems that philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristoteles thought about “the soul” (psyche) as the phenomenon we would call “the principle of life” and probably “consciousness” and “mind”. This may disappoint some, but remember that the book is about philosophy and not religion. And all the same the asked the questions that most people are taken with in the first place: Is the soul something different from the body? And if it is, will it survive the death of the body?

The rest of the book are really thorough and fine-grained discussions of the same questions and their derivatives. The authors take us through Medieval Christianity, Continental thought (represented by not the least R. Descartes), and some relevant British philosophers like Locke. After this tour de force they present a thorough analysis of the main issues associated with a dualistic perspective on humans (the soul is one kind of substance and the body another). Lastly, they turn to current discussions about the soul in contemporary thought (philosophy and science).

So what about the soul, then? Here are some main points you may take home after studying this text:

  1. 1. The soul, philosophically speaking, is evident in our mental life
  2. 2. There are several ways of structuring this, but of greatest interest is the capacity for synthesizing a myriad sense-information into one coherent experience
  3. 3. This phenomenological “space” seems not to be directly related to anything physical (like the brain), although they do (of course) interact.
  4. 4. The hows of point three over is not in any way clear at this point in time
  5. 5. Naturalism/physicalism/materialism have problems of their own (what is matter anyway?) and do not represent “killer” arguments against dualism
  6. 6. Given our current state of knowledge the main issues boils down to beliefs about the nature of Reality
  7. Remember that this is a “Short history of…”. That is probably the reason why the authors did not go into older influences on the idea of souls. The early Egyptians did, after all build religions and even cultures and societies based on beliefs in immortal souls. And they had inherited the idea from even older sources. Also, they barely touch upon issues like practical, psychological and religious consequences of believing (or not) in the existence of souls. And are souls something else or added to the psychological space that makes up our lonely existence? Those, and a host of other questions are not, or very lightly touched upon.
  8. But this is not a criticism detracting from the book’s value. On the contrary, the text demonstrates that there are no philosophical or scientific arguments or facts making inquires into the soul obsolete. And that is really something.
  9. The book is very readable, interesting and (to me) strangely relevant. It gives the reader a firm platform on which to continue studying the concept of “soul” from a philosophical perspective. I would guess that students, scholars, and educated readers interested in this topic are the main targets for this book. I have noticed that other reviewers are also generally positive, but some points out that the authors openly argues for the dualistic perspective of the soul. To me, it is a valuable trait that they actually are open about it.

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