On whether or not the soul is a substance

The ontological status of the soul is a question Khajeh Nasir al-Din Tusi takes up at  Book I, ch.II of his Akhlaq-i Nasiri. I want to here briefly look at the argument he adduces. The conclusion Tusi seeks for is that the soul is indeed a substance and not an accident (of any sort). The basis on which he draws this conclusion, and which he takes as sufficient evidence to justify the judgment that the soul cannot be an accident, is the incongruity he perceives between what is essential to all accidentality and what is essential to the soul. After presenting the argument, I will then raise a number of shobbohat against it, all of which I’ll leave unanswered for the time being.

Here then is Tusi’s argument in full:

I say that every existent that is, save the Necessary Being (be He exalted and sanctified!), is either a substance or an accident. The demonstration thereof, apt to this occasion, is as follows. (In the case of) every existent that is (one of two situations arises): either its existence can be consequent on another existent being, other than itself, which existent being is independent in itself, e.g., blackness, which inheres in a body, or the shape of a bed, which is a consequence of the existence of wood; for if the body be not, blackness cannot be, and if wood (or some substitute) be not, the form of a bed cannot be. Such an existent being is called ‘accident’. Or it may be otherwise: (the existent being) can in itself have independence, without consequence to another independent [being], like the body and the wood in the aforementioned examples. Such is called a ‘substance’. This division having been established, I say: it is not the case that the essence and reality of man should be an accident; for the property of an accident is that it should be predicated of, and received by, another thing, which itself has independence, thus to be the sustainer and recipient of that accident. In this manner, the essence of man is the sustainer and recipient of the forms of the intelligibles and the ideas of things perceived, one form and idea constantly appearing therein while another passes away; and such a property is contrary to accidentality. Thus the soul cannot be an accident; but since it is not an accident, it being evident that an existent being is either a substance or an accident, therefore the soul is a substance.

The above proof can be syllogistically formulated in at least two ways, call them (a) and (b). Both ways, I think, amount to the same thing, the difference only being that one of them (i.e., (a)) explicitly introduces a term which is only implicit in Tusi’s actual text. Although I’ll state both ways, only proofs for the premises of (b) will be provided as its wording is closer to that of Tusi’s text itself. The two formulations are:

(a) Every finite existent is either a substance or an accident
The soul is not an accident
Therefore, the soul is a substance

(b) Every existent, except the Necessary Being, is either a substance or an     accident
The soul is not an accident
Therefore, the soul is a substance

Proof of the major: the existence of every existent, as Tusi says, is either “consequent on another existent being, other than itself, which existent being is independent in itself, […], [s]uch an existent being is called ‘accident’. Or it may be otherwise: (the existent being) can in itself have independence, without consequence to another independent [being], […], [s]uch [an existent] is called a ‘substance’.” Proof of the minor: As Tusi says, the “property of an accident is that it should be predicated of, and received by, another thing, which itself has independence [in being], [and as a result can] thus be the sustainer and recipient of that accident. [But] the [soul] is the sustainer and recipient of the forms of the intelligibles and the ideas of things perceived, one form and idea constantly appearing therein while another passes away; and such a property is contrary to accidentality.” And the conclusion would then follow, namely, that the soul cannot be an accident and is therefore a substance.

Having said all that, let’s now state some objections to the argument as it stands:

obj 1. Someone may take issue with formulation (a), saying it contains a hidden premise i.e., ‘the soul is finite’. So, unless this premise can be proven, the conclusion will not follow.

obj 2. Someone may say formulation (b) too contains a hidden premise i.e., ‘the soul is not the Necessary Being’. As with (a), the conclusion will not be established unless this is proven.

obj 3. Someone may deny the minor by objecting that the soul is the form of the body. As such, it is not a substance but a constituent (i.e., formal) part of a complete substance i.e., the soul-body composite that is an individual man. Now a part of a substance is not itself a substance.

obj 4. Someone may also deny the minor by disputing its proof, saying that the soul is not in fact the receptacle of the intelligibles but rather the composite (i.e., soul and body) is. If the composite is the receptacle, then the reason the soul was thought to be a substance is undermined. Hence, it cannot then be considered a substance.

obj 5. Again someone may deny the minor, this time, as a sort of variation on the 3rd objection, by noting that the receptacle of the soul is primary matter. After all, it is the combination of primary matter with form that gives rise to particular material substances (e.g., man). Hence, insofar as prime matter receives the soul, the soul as a consequence will be characterized by that property of all accidents which Tusi mentions above and which is so crucial to his argument. As such, it will be an accident (i.e., of prime matter), not a substance.

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7 thoughts on “On whether or not the soul is a substance

  1. salam sheikh.

    I am with you on objection 1. But even if the soul assumed to be infinite, as sheikh arabi calls it ‘an ocean without shore’, wouldn’t it (the soul) still be considered a substance?

    I think this metaphysical reality (soul) has to be a substance in order for it to subsist in the matter (body) which gives life to it. It is indeed the essence that determines manness or horseness distinct from each other, not mere sense perception of the accidental bodily features of a man or a horse. That is because a deformed man is still a man and a deformed horse is still a horse respectively due to the their substances, in which, essence is an attribute of it.

    Plus, if the soul is not a substance, then it should be an accident, meaning post cessation of existence in the temporal world it will not survive. If the soul does not survive bodily death, then it is not a substance, but this point has greatly been put in hundreds of pages by Plato in the phaedo that the soul does survive post death (of the body).

    Objection 2 also can be rectified by saying that the soul ‘is a necessary existent through the Necessary Existent’. Again it has to be since it is a reality, and since realities don’t change, the soul has to be a substance which is a reality, meaning it gives reality to receptacles to create or actualize either horse or man by giving essence to matter.

    Objection 3 seems straight forward, but probably not. Because again, the body cannot be the part of a substance since, even plato and aristotle? did not consider receptacle – which, along with essence, universal and genus that make the definition of a substance – to be the matter. Yes indeed the person as a whole becomes complete by fusion or composition of form and body, but the form is a metaphysical reality and the body or matter a physical reality. Since form is equivalent to the essence (or soul), hence only it can be considered substance, not the body (or matter).

    salam

    1. salam,

      “I am with you on objection 1. But even if the soul assumed to be infinite, as sheikh arabi calls it ‘an ocean without shore’, wouldn’t it (the soul) still be considered a substance?”

      i don’t think that quote from Ibn ‘Arabi is relevant. the infinity here has to do with existence, that is, whether or not the soul is (actually) infinite in existence or finite. if it was infinite in existence, then no i don’t think it can be considered a substance because God, who is infinite in existence, is not a substance.

      “I think this metaphysical reality (soul) has to be a substance in order for it to subsist in the matter (body) which gives life to it. […].”

      matter (the body) does not give life to the soul. it’s the other away around. that’s what you probably meant, right?

      “Plus, if the soul is not a substance, then it should be an accident, meaning post cessation of existence in the temporal world it will not survive. If the soul does not survive bodily death, then it is not a substance, but this point has greatly been put in hundreds of pages by Plato in the phaedo that the soul does survive post death (of the body).”

      right. But the soul’s post-mortem existence is a secondary question at this point. What first needs to be established whether or not it’s a substance.

      “Objection 2 also can be rectified by saying that the soul ‘is a necessary existent through the Necessary Existent’. […].”

      yes, if it’s shown that the soul exists through the Necessary Existent, then it will also be shown that it is not the Necessary Existent.

      “Objection 3 seems straight forward, but probably not. Because again, the body cannot be the part of a substance since, even plato and aristotle? did not consider receptacle – which, along with essence, universal and genus that make the definition of a substance – to be the matter. Yes indeed the person as a whole becomes complete by fusion or composition of form and body, but the form is a metaphysical reality and the body or matter a physical reality. Since form is equivalent to the essence (or soul), hence only it can be considered substance, not the body (or matter).”

      i don’t think this answers the objection. it’s a bit confusing around the middle too. the objection is that a substance is not form alone or matter alone but *both* form and matter together. hence, what receives the intelligibles Tusi has in mind, the objection goes, is the *composite* of form and matter (i.e., whole person) and not just the form (i.e., soul) alone. so, what is needed to defend Tusi is a proof that the soul *alone*is the receptacle of the intelligibles and not the soul-body composite.

      1. Salam

        If God, for the sake of argument, let’s assume, is not Substance, then a question arises: what is God? It is known that the soul, traditionally, is something emerged from God (as He breathed in to the clay by giving Adam life). So the soul must have a metaphysical reality and a substance due to which all things are existent, alive, distinct and similar, and other characteristics.

      2. Salam,

        I’m not sure I follow. The Qur’anic verse about breathing into Adam is open to interpretation. But even if we interpret it in your way, why would it follow that the soul is a substance?

  2. salam

    It would follow that the soul is a substance because it emerges or emanates from the Universal Substance (al-jawhar al-kull), or called the Breadth of the All-Merciful. Since all humans are same, meaning has one essence (manness), therefore, it is inferred that all humans are made of one substance or soul which make them man. And that vindicates they have one substance or soul which is their reality, and it is not changing. All the accidents are integrated in to man when temporalized, and that is why body is not a substance because it changes (i.e., it changes from state to state or form to form).

  3. If the soul is an accident, then the soul has no power to act and it is not an agent in any way and it cannot cause movement of the body. But the soul does cause the movement of the body and so it cannot be an accident.

    The soul is a substance because it can admit opposite things such as movement/rest, speaking/silence, knowledge/ignorance, etc, but the soul itself remains the same. This is only befitting of a substance not an accident.

    1. with regards to your first argument, you need to prove the major premise, i.e., why accidents cannot act. for there are prima facie counter-examples to that statement, e.g., heat, which is an accident, causing burning, or habits, which are accidents, causing one to act in a given way.

      with regards to your second argument, the term ‘admit’ is ambiguous. if you mean, “is a subject of” in the sense of something in which something else inheres, your conclusion does not follow; for the body is the subject of contraries like motion/rest, speaking/silence, and etc., per se. the soul does not undergo motion strictly speaking, but only per accidens. (for a proof of this claim, see the Physics, VI.10.240b8-241a25). the case of knowledge i would agree is different though; that is, the subject of knowledge is the soul itself, not the composite, nor the body alone. but this proposition is what the fourth objection challenges and so it needs to be demonstrated.

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