Psuche, life and the soul

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    Michael James
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    Let’s begin at the beginning and note firstly, that the word “Psuche” in Greek is the etymological root of “Psyche”, which does not exclusively mean “mind” as some commentators have stipulated. The Greek expression has a broader meaning which is going to be important in characterizing the central question or questions the subject is concerned with. Psuche means life. You may wonder, ladies and gentlemen what is meant by life, i.e. what the Greeks were thinking about when they used the expression. The Greek classical narrator, Homer, apparently used the expression to refer to what was lacking in bodies strewn lifelessly on a battlefield. This has been misinterpreted over the ages in two directions. Firstly certain very concrete interpreters thought that it meant “breath”: the dead soldiers were no longer breathing. This was obviously in a sense incorrect, yet life surely cannot be the name of a simple biological phenomenon involving an exchange of gases necessary for activity: surely it must in some sense refer to the activity of living itself in a broader sense. Secondly, some more abstract interpreters thought that “psuche” must refer to some spiritual substance that was no longer present in the bodies of the soldiers, namely, their souls. These interpreters were of course armed with a particular theory about reality as a whole which divides it into two entities, a physical entity like the body which breaths, senses, and moves, and a mental entity which in some curious fashion is able to have experiences even when separated from a physical body. One needs to be in some sense conscious if experience is to be possible, it was argued, and thus was born the idea that Psuche meant something like “consciousness”.

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