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Mulla Sadra famously held that the human soul is “corporeal (jismani) in origination”. With this, people often say, he radically departed from Avicenna’s view that the soul is an incorporeal being from the very beginning of its existence. But those who claim such a departure on Sadra’s part don’t really clarify what the Sadrian doctrine precisely amounts to. Maybe that’s even partly Sadra’s fault – I don’t know. Whatever the case may be, point is: their unclarity about the content of the doctrine, as far as I’m concerned, renders any claim about a ‘radical departure’ suspect. That’s why here, I want to try my hand at clarifying what I think the Sadrian claim amounts to, and thereby clarify the way I think he departs from Avicenna. By the end, you’ll hopefully see that the Sadrian view can be cashed out in two ways: in one way, it entails no departure at all, to say nothing of a ‘radical’ one. But in the other way, it definitely marks a real difference between the two. Consider the following observations.

The thought in the claim “the soul is corporeal in origination” seems to be something like:

      When the soul comes to be at t, it is corporeal at t

Now there are several senses of ‘corporeal’. Here are at least three. One sense of ‘corporeal’ is ‘body’, defined as: ‘a substance in which one can posit three dimensions’. On this understanding of corporeal, the Sadrian would then be saying:

  1. When the soul comes to be at t, it is a body at t

Another sense of ‘corporeal’ is ‘a faculty or a power (quwwa) of a body’, by which I mean a capacity whose exercise depends on the body. Typical examples are: the capacity to heat, the capacity of nutrition, the capacity to smell, etc. Read this way, the Sadrian would be saying:

  1. When the soul comes to be at t, it is a capacity of a body at t

A third sense of ‘corporeal’ is ‘a form inhering in matter’. A ‘form inhering in matter’ – a corporeal form – is the sort of form that can’t exist without matter. The reason is because all the powers of that form depend on matter. The difference between this sense of corporeal and sense 2 is that sense 2 construes the soul as one (or more) of the powers of the form, whereas this sense construes the soul as the form itself that is a principle of the power(s).  So understood, the Sadrian claim would be:

  1. When the soul comes to be at t, it is a form inhering in matter at t

Right, so in light of the above distinctions, how should we understand the Sadrian doctrine that the soul is ‘corporeal in origination’?

Definitely not in sense 1; otherwise, they’d be no difference between a regular case of a body coming into being and a soul coming into being. But presumably Sadra thinks there is such a difference. And the difference is obvious too: it’s the one between a living thing and a non-living thing coming into being. (But then again, perhaps Sadra doesn’t think it’s so obvious insofar as he holds to a kind of panpsychism – the view that awareness (shu’ur) is a feature of all of grades of being). Furthermore, the claim so understood would also entail that the relation between a soul and a body would, really, be the relation between two substantially different bodies.  Whatever its philosophical worth, attributing this sort of account to Sadra is textually highly implausible.

What about sense 2? Putting aside textual reasons, here’s a philosophical reason why I don’t think this option could be what he intends with that doctrine. Suppose the soul’s being corporeal in origination means that it is a bodily capacity. Now either it is just one of the capacities of the body, more than one, or the totality of the capacities of the body. Whatever the case though, the trouble is that Sadra also holds that the soul, through substantial motion, eventually becomes an immaterial substance – “spiritual (ruhani) in subsistence”, as he puts it. But if that’s so, it would mean that a capacity, or a set of capacities, of the body transform somehow into an immaterial substance. How is that not plain nonsense? How can a capacity, an accident – under the category of quality – become a substance, to say nothing of an immaterial substance?! And why doesn’t the body itself become an immaterial substance in the way its capacities do? Many more criticisms of this option can be made, but I’ll leave it at that.

That leaves us with sense 3, which seems the most sensible interpretation of the Sadrian doctrine. The idea is: the soul is corporeal in that it starts off its temporal career as a bodily form, which means all its activities at the beginning for some time require matter for their exercise; then, gradually, given substantial motion, it becomes more and more independent of matter in its activities, until it reaches a stage in which it substantially and existentially transcends matter altogether.

Ok, assuming that is what Sadra meant by the soul’s corporeal origination, here’s a reason to think there’s no departure so far: insofar as the soul is a form (on sense 3), it is something incorporeal; for all forms, as forms, are incorporeal. They are the sorts of items that together with matter constitute a material substance that falls under a given sortal. And the Avicennian is in agreement with that. So, it seems, no real difference at the end of the day. But, actually, there is a difference at the end of the day; it only seems that there isn’t because ‘incorporeal’ is said in many ways as well. Incorporeal qua being a form is incorporeal in the weak sense. And though both may agree that the soul is incorporeal in this weaker sense, there’s a stronger sense of incorporeal about which they don’t agree in characterizing the soul at the beginning of its existence, namely, incorporeal as self-subsistent (qa’im bi-dhatihi), i.e., substantially independent from matter. Unlike Avicenna, Sadra is not of the opinion that the soul is characterized by this kind of incorporeality as a given; rather, for him, it only attains it at the end of a long process of substantial motion.

I for one don’t think his sort of view is sustainable. But whatever you think of this view, it clearly marks a real difference between him the Shaykh.