Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self

The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self: An Intellectual History of Personal Identity

Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 400
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self
    Book Description:

    This book traces the development of theories of the self and personal identity from the ancient Greeks to the present day. From Plato and Aristotle to Freud and Foucault, Raymond Martin and John Barresi explore the works of a wide range of thinkers and reveal the larger intellectual trends, controversies, and ideas that have revolutionized the way we think about ourselves.

    The authors open with ancient Greece, where the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, and the materialistic atomists laid the groundwork for future theories. They then discuss the ideas of the church fathers and medieval and Renaissance philosophers, including St. Paul, Philo, Augustine, Aquinas, and Montaigne. In their coverage of the emergence of a new mechanistic conception of nature in the seventeenth century, Martin and Barresi note a shift away from religious and purely philosophical notions of self and personal identity to more scientific and social conceptions, a trend that has continued to the present day. They explore modern philosophy and psychology, including the origins of different traditions within each discipline, and explain both the theoretical relevance of feminism and gender and ethnic studies and also the ways that Derrida and other recent thinkers have challenged the very idea that a unified self or personal identity even exists.

    Martin and Barresi cover a number of issues broached by philosophers and psychologists, such as the existence of a fixed and unchanging self and whether the concept of the soul has a use outside of religious contexts. They address the question of whether notions of the soul and the self are still viable in today's world. Together, they reveal the fascinating ways in which great thinkers have grappled with these and other questions and the astounding impact their ideas have had on the development of self-understanding in the west.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51067-7
    Subjects: Philosophy, Psychology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. 1-8)

    In Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, a convalescing photojournalist, played by Jimmy Stewart, is confined to his third-floor apartment. To amuse himself, he spies on his neighbors. As he spies, he begins to suspect, and then becomes convinced, that one of his neighbors, a middle-aged man, has killed his invalid wife. The Jimmy Stewart character tries to convince his girlfriend, played by Grace Kelly, to accept his theory. She shrugs it off, facilely explaining away his evidence. Then, one evening, suddenly realizing that his theory might be right, she comes over to the window next to where he has been sitting,...

    (pp. 9-28)

    Pre-philosophical Greek attitudes toward the soul and the prospects for surviving bodily death found expression in Homer and subsequently in the mystery cults of Dionysus (Bacchus) and Orpheus. The earliest attempts to grapple with such issues philosophically occurred hundreds of years later, in the sixth century b.c.e., primarily in the philosophies of Pythagoras and Heraclitus.

    In Homer, people had psyches, which survived their bodily deaths. But the survival of a psyche was not the survival of a person. Before bodily death, peoples’ psyches, or life principles, were associated with their breath (pneuma) and movement. Other faculties, most of them associated...

    (pp. 29-38)

    Aristotle’s student, Alexander the Great, conquered most of the known world, in the process spreading Greek culture and language from Egypt to India and creating vital centers of learning, such as Alexandria. However, soon after his early death his empire fell apart. There followed in Greece a long period of dynastic fighting from which Rome emerged as the center of a new empire. Although Roman philosophers invariably took Greek philosophical ideas as their point of departure, they often developed these ideas in interesting ways. Nowhere is this more evident than in their theories of the self and personal identity.


    (pp. 39-54)

    Judaism, Christianity, and Islam developed in the same region of the Middle East and have overlapping scriptural traditions.¹ All three are monotheistic, positing a single all-powerful god, who transcends the natural world, which is his creation. All three portray God not only as the god of their particular group or region, but the god of everyone, everywhere. And all three spawned intellectuals who tried to integrate what was handed down in Scripture with pagan philosophy derived from Greece. Because the three religions had so much in common, their intellectuals faced common problems, such as the problem of evil. The theories...

    (pp. 55-74)

    By the middle of the second century c.e, most of the scriptural documents that would later in the century be collected to form the New Testament were well known to Christian thinkers. Attention turned increasingly to the task of interpreting what was novel and puzzling in these scriptures. This task was bequeathed to a group of classically educated pagans, called apologists, who had converted to Christianity. Their response was to rationalize Christianity using the resources of Greek philosophy. One of their major preoccupations was the problem of evil. Dealing with it tended to focus their attention on the freedom of...

    (pp. 75-92)

    From the end of the Patristic Period to the beginning of the Renaissance, European philosophy divides naturally into two phases: the Early Middle Ages, roughly the sixth through twelfth centuries; and the High Middle Ages, the thirteenth and fourteenth. During the first of these two phases, European philosophers were preoccupied with harmonizing Platonism and Christian revelation. The problem of universals, how a hierarchy of Ideas can be the basis of reality and how the human mind can come to know these Ideas from particulars, were dominant concerns. The metaphysics of personal identity, except in connection with the question of how...

    (pp. 93-108)

    Aristotle’s Categories and De Interpretatione, together with Boethius’s commentaries on them, had long been translated and available to Latin philosophers. From the mid-twelfth to the mid-thirteenth centuries, most of the remaining works of Aristotle were translated and became available. Avicenna and Averroës, both of whom commented extensively on Aristotle, also became available in Latin. These new writings, which contained much hitherto unknown natural science, dazzled Latin intellectuals, who were accustomed to the otherworldly speculations of Christian Neoplatonists. Aristotle’s wide-ranging, systematic approach to scientific knowledge meshed nicely with the new spirit of secular naturalism that independently had begun to make its...

    (pp. 109-122)

    By his own account, Petrarch (1304–1374) was overwhelmed by the view on the summit of Mont Ventoux as he opened his copy of Augustine’s Confessions, intent on meditating on the first passage that struck his eyes. It was this one: “Men go to admire the heights of mountains, the great floods of the sea, the courses of rivers, the shores of the ocean, and the orbits of the stars, and neglect themselves.” Stunned, Petrarch became angry with himself for “still admiring earthly things.” Long ago, he mused, he should have learned from the ancients that “nothing is admirable but...

    (pp. 123-141)

    Even for the purposes of constructing a narrative about theories of the self, the main issue in the seventeenth century was not the self but the emergence of a new approach to science, ushered in by a new theory of the physical world. This approach regarded natural objects as machines and on that basis sought to figure out how they work. The theory was corpuscularism (or, corpuscular mechanism). The transition from old to new took an entire century. However, once the goal of mechanizing nature had taken hold, there would be no turning back. Hence-forth, the entire natural world, eventually...

    (pp. 142-170)

    In 1687, Isaac Newton (1642–1727) published his Principia, perhaps the greatest scientific book ever written. An immediate consequence among thinkers at the forefront of progressive developments was an unprecedented confidence in human reason. These thinkers then wanted to do for “moral philosophy,” which eventually they would call the science of human nature, what Newton had done for “natural philosophy.” In the early seventeenth century, rationalists, such as Descartes, were at the forefront of progressive developments in the investigation of the mind. By the end of the century empiricism’s time had arrived, nowhere more consequentially than in the work of...

    (pp. 171-200)

    Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) was the most influential philosopher of the modern era and one of the most influential of all time. His views on every topic that he considered, and on metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics especially, set the stage for virtually all subsequent philosophical discussions. In addition, he is often credited with creating the rationale for modern political liberalism, with its commitment to the equal dignity of all human beings. Along the way, he spawned a view of the self that has been a major focus of criticism for a large family of twentieth century cultural theorists, including...

    (pp. 201-228)

    At the beginning of the nineteenth century, most progressive intellectuals still held that humans had been made in the image of God. By the end of the century—due primarily to the influence of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx—most held that humans had been made in the image of biology and society. Even earlier in the century, naturalizing tendencies had made an appearance in the guise of physiological inquiry into the brain and psychological inquiry into the development of self concepts. It would take some time for these momentous changes to be fully assimilated into intellectual culture. But when...

    (pp. 229-254)

    The twentieth century began in grand ideologies and ended in narrow specializations. Between the two there was a long night of two World Wars, in the aftermath of which theorists put the knife to optimism, modernism, and the hegemony of Western culture. Many theorists began to think of the self more as a product of culture than as its creator. The last half of the century witnessed rampant, unintegrated scientific specialization; the withering philosophical critiques of deconstruction and postmodernism; the penetrating attack in analytic philosophy on the very concept and importance of personal identity; novel perspectives spawned by feminism, postcolonialism,...

    (pp. 255-289)

    For the modern history of theories of the self, World War II was a watershed. Before the war, the seeds of dissolution of the self had been sown and had even begun to sprout, but this new growth was overshadowed by the luxuriant foliage of expansive theories. In phenomenology especially—but even in analytic philosophy, depth psychology, existential and humanistic psychology, social and developmental psychology, and even critical theory—the self survived. While some of these approaches demoted the self, none dismantled it. Across disciplines, the self had fragmented. Within disciplines, it was still intact. As a consequence, by midcentury...

    (pp. 290-306)

    We began by suggesting that what we really want to know about theories of the self and personal identity—indeed about any part of the past that truly interests us—is “everything that happened and what it means.” We’ve now completed our account of “everything that happened.” It’s time, then, to say “what it means.”

    It is obvious that at the most fundamental level, theories of the self and personal identity are an expression of concern with the self and its ability to endure. As we have seen, Christianity played a decisive role in connecting that concern, as it played...

  18. NOTES
    (pp. 307-346)
    (pp. 347-362)
    (pp. 363-372)
    (pp. 373-390)