Cover Page



Stewart Goetz is Ross Frederick Wicks Distinguished Professor in Philosophy and Religion at Ursinus College. He has written extensively on the philosophy of mind and action theory and his books include Freedom, Teleology, and Evil (2008), Naturalism (with Charles Taliaferro, 2008), and The Soul Hypothesis (edited with Mark Baker, 2011).

Charles Taliaferro is Professor of Philosophy at St. Olaf College. He is on the editorial board of the American Philosophical Quarterly, Religious Studies, Sophia, and Philosophy Compass. His books include Consciousness and the Mind of God (1994, 2004), Naturalism (with Stewart Goetz, 2008), A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, 2nd edition (edited with Paul Draper, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), and The Image in Mind (with Jil Evans, 2010).

Brief Histories of Philosophy

Brief Histories of Philosophy provide both academic and general readers with short, engaging narratives for those concepts that have had a profound effect on philosophical development and human understanding. The word “history” is thus meant in its broadest cultural and social sense. Moreover, although the books are meant to provide a rich sense of historical context, they are also grounded in contemporary issues, as contemporary concern with the subject at hand is what will draw most readers. These books are not merely a tour through the history of ideas, but essays of real intellectual range by scholars of vision and distinction.

Already Published

A Brief History of Happiness by Nicholas P. White

A Brief History of Liberty by David Schmidtz and Jason Brennan

A Brief History of the Soul by Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro


A Brief History of Justice by David Johnston

Title Page

We dedicate this book to Roderick Chisholm, author, teacher, and mentor, and to John Strassburger, friend, colleague, and president emeritus of Ursinus College


We thank Nick Bellorini for inviting us to undertake this project, and Jeff Dean, Tiffany Mok, and Ben Thatcher of Wiley-Blackwell for their kind and generous support. We owe a special debt of gratitude to Manuela Tecusan for absolutely first-rate copy-editing advice. We are also deeply grateful to the John Templeton Foundation for providing financial assistance that supported our work on the book. Finally, we thank Tess Cotter for assistance in preparing the manuscript and Michael DelloBuono for compiling the bibliography.


The current intellectual climate is quite hostile to the idea that we are embodied souls. The idea that there might be more to us than our physical bodies is out of step with contemporary secular philosophy. There is a prevailing assumption that we human beings and other animals are thoroughly physical–chemical realities. To be sure, physio-chemical organisms like us have extraordinary powers and capacities (powers to think and choose, and capacities to feel pleasure and pain), but most philosophers today think this does not make us in any way non-physical or entail that there is more to us than physio-chemical processes. Daniel Dennett offers this summary of the current materialist view of the natural world and the mind:

The prevailing wisdom, variously expressed and argued for, is materialism: there is only one sort of stuff, namely matter—the physical stuff of physics, chemistry, and physiology—and the mind is somehow nothing but a physical phenomenon. In short, the mind is the brain. According to materialists, we can (in principle!) account for every mental phenomenon using the same physical principles, laws and raw materials that suffice to explain radioactivity, continental drift, photosynthesis, reproduction, nutrition, and growth. (Dennett 1991, 33)

From the standpoint of a comprehensive form of materialism, talk about “souls” only makes sense as a metaphor for referring to one’s

values or identity, as for instance in “Jones sold his soul to become a celebrity.” The existence of the soul retains some life in fictional worlds such as J. K. Rowling’s hugely popular Harry Potter books (a soul can be sucked out of a character by the kiss of a dementor) but not in the real world. In Philosophy of Mind, Jaegwon Kim says the following about the soul:

The general idea […] is that because each of us has a soul, we are the kind of conscious, intelligent, and rational creature we are. Strictly speaking, we do not really “have” souls, since we are in an important sense identical with our souls-that is, each of us is a soul. My soul is the thing that I am. Each of us “has a mind,” therefore, because each of us is a mind. All that is probably a bit too speculative, if not totally fantastical, for most of us to swallow. (Kim 2006, 29)

The traditional account of the soul is still mentioned in the average philosophy of mind textbook, but rarely taken seriously. For example, in The Problem of the Soul Owen Flanagan contends that, if we recognize the soul at all, we need to see that it is the very same thing as the brain:

The mind or the soul is the brain. Or better: Consciousness, cognitition, and volition are perfectly natural capacities of fully embodied creatures engaged in complex commerce with the natural and social environments. Humans possess no special capacities, no extra ingredients, that could conceivably do the work of the mind, the soul, or free will as traditionally conceived. (Flanagan 2002, xii)

Is the prevalent materialist outlook beyond challenge? Could there still be a sound case for holding that there is more to being a human (and perhaps an animal, too) than physio-chemical processes?

In this book we explore the history of the idea that we are embodied souls. Many contemporary philosophers who reject the view that we are, or contain, souls yet acknowledge that such a view seems natural, and even a matter of common sense. William Lyons writes that the view “that humans are bodies inhabited and governed in some intimate if mysterious way by minds (or souls) seemed and still seems to be nothing more than good common sense” (Lyons 2001, 9). One way to bring out the apparent common sense of such a stance is to appreciate how we think about death. We often think that, when a person dies, the person either perishes or (if we subscribe to religious traditions) is with God or in some kind of afterlife, heaven or reincarnation. In any case, we often treat a person’s dead body as a corpse (or remains), and not as the same thing as the man himself or the woman herself. Even to allow for the possibility of one’s surviving the death of the body is to court the possibility that one is more than a body. Moreover, it is puzzling to think how it can be that all our sensations, conscious experiences, and so on are the very same thing as brain states. To be sure, there is an evident, clear sense in which our sensations are affected by the brain, and it appears that our bodily processes are affected by our beliefs and desires. But establishing a correlation between the mental and the physical is not the same thing as establishing their identity. Colin McGinn rightly points out the apparent distinction between the mental and the physical:

The property of consciousness itself (or specific conscious states) is not an observable or perceptible property of the brain. You can stare into a living conscious brain, your own or someone else’s, and see there a wide variety of instantiated properties—its shape, colour, texture, etc—but you will not thereby see what the subject is experiencing, the conscious state itself. (McGinn 1991, 10–11)

So, while many contemporary philosophers (including McGinn) deny the traditional belief that we are embodied souls and deny that consciousness is more than brain states, the belief that there is more to us than physical–chemical processes has some initial, commonsense credibility.

As it happens, we actually accept the truth of this apparent commonsense distinction of soul and body. In the philosophy of mind literature, the position we hold would customarily be called substance dualism, though the term “dualism” is so fraught with misunderstanding and meets with such derision that we will only use it sparingly. “Dualism” as a philosophical term is a late invention (so-called dualists, from Plato to Descartes, did not use any equivalent expression in their languages, or any of its cognates). Indeed, ancient Greek does not even have a word for “dualism.” We will, however, pay close attention to all the classical and contemporary objections to “dualism.”

Our aim is to set before you a brief history of the idea that we are embodied souls. We are deeply committed to making this a fair and balanced history, but it will also contain a sustained investigation into what we may gain from this history for our thinking constructively about the soul today. One of our goals in this book is to explain, at least in part, why a history of the soul terminates with an age in which those who are learned deny the very existence of that which is the subject of this book. The arguments of those who deny the soul’s existence are powerful and complex but, we hope to show, unconvincing. Even if we are unsuccessful, we believe that reading a history of the soul written by advocates of the soul will make for a more dramatic and interesting engagement than if the authors were to think that the notion of soul is only of antiquarian interest.

We are convinced that the time is right for a brief history of the soul. While a form of materialism that rejects the soul is the dominant position of the day, not all the materialists are content with the current state of play in their field. A life-long materialist, William Lycan finds himself not persuaded by the philosophical case for dualism; but he is not convinced by the case against it either—nor does he embrace the philosophical case for materialism:

Being a philosopher, of course I would like to think that my stance is rational, held not just instinctively and scientistically and in the mainstream but because the arguments do indeed favor materialism over dualism. But I do not think that, though I used to. My position may be rational, broadly speaking, but not because the arguments favor it: Though the arguments for dualism do (indeed) fail, so do the arguments for materialism. And the standard objections to dualism are not very convincing; if one really manages to be a dualist in the first place, one should not be much impressed by them. (Lycan 2009, 551)

Although Lycan is not persuaded by arguments for dualism, there has been a renaissance of philosophical work on the soul over the past twenty years, which indicates that the case in favor of its existence is better than Lycan estimates. In light of this development, it is timely to consider the arguments for and against different conceptions of the soul (and thus for and against materialism) not just in contemporary philosophy, but also from a comprehensive, historical perspective.

Two final points before we get started: First, we make liberal use of quotations in our brief history, so that the many figures we cover can speak for themselves. We believe that all the main figures we cover have important things to say to us today, and we hope that this history will prompt you to read these fascinating philosophers directly. In a longer history, more of each philosopher would be represented and more philosophers would be part of the story. But here we are aiming to engage both newcomers and seasoned scholars in thinking or re-thinking the history of the soul and its bearing on our own thinking about human nature today.

Second, all subsequent references to the Platonic dialogues and works in the Aristotelian corpus can be consulted in the editions listed in the bibliography. When we wish to specify one translation rather than another for a quoted passage, we add the translator’s name in a bracket.