The Soul


You may think you have one. Or you may even think you are one. Or you may be sceptical about the whole topic. Perhaps, that is, you may suppose that the entire notion of the soul is little more than an outmoded if quaint way of thinking about living beings, a way of thinking the utility of which has faded as against the march of the empirical sciences: what used to be explained by the soul is now explained by biology, psychology, and neurophysiology. 

Some, especially those of a theistic cast of mind, will resist that conclusion, perhaps because they suppose that the very notion of the soul is irredeemably religious, such that its consideration lies outside the purview of empirical science. Here, though, it bears reflecting that there were souls before there were religions, or, at any rate, before there was Christianity. We will accordingly investigate two ways of thinking about the soul, one broadly speaking presupposing the truth of theism and another not. Is either of these approaches to the soul to be preferred? Is either defensible? 

Our dominant question is simple and direct: what is the soul? In service of answering this question, we will consider a fair number of ancillary questions, mainly in allied areas of metaphysics and philosophy of mind. Having come to some conclusion about our dominant question we will pose another: do souls exist? 

One cautionary note: 'Though going along, traversing every road, you would not discover the limits of the soul: so deep is its account (λόγος).' —Heracleitus (B 45). 

Course Information:

PHIL 20254 

  • Professor Shields
  • Seminar Meetings: TR 9.35-10.50 Bond Hall 106

Office Hours and Contact Information:

  • Office: Malloy Hall 327
  • Office hours: W 8.30-10.30 and by appointment. Note that I will conduct office hours over Zoom, at least for start of term. Sometime around mid-term I will re-evaluate this situation in hopes of converting to live meetings. 
  • e-mail: 

  • N.b. I prefer e-mail to telephone as a manner of student contact.  I make an effort to answer student e-mails promptly, but please be aware that I measure promptness in this domain in days rather than hours or minutes. 

Required Texts:

  • Plato, Phaedo, tr. G. M. A. Grube (Hackett: 1987)
  • Aristotle, On the Soul, tr. Fred D. Miller, Jr. (Oxford: 2018)
  • Augustine, Confessions, tr. T. Williams (Hackett: 2019)
  •  Cottingham, John, In Search of the Soul (Princeton: 2020)

    • All but the last of these works are available in other translations. In this connection, I am sometimes asked whether other translations might be used in place of those selected. That would be inadvisable, since some translations are better than others, and in my judgment those selected all reach a high standard, something that cannot be said of all commercially available translations. Moreover, working from the same translations will help us develop a shared seminar experience. That said, I note that these titles are available in various electronic formats, as well as in paperback.  Do feel free to use any format you wish, so long as you have access to it during our seminar meetings. 
  • Please adhere to this reading schedule

Requirements and Protocol:

Students will write three papers, in the neighbourhood of 1,000-1,500 words each. 

I will suggest topics for each of the papers. You are, however, welcome to ignore these suggestions and write on a pertinent topic of your own choosing, but only if that topic is approved by me at least one week in advance of the due date. 

The due dates are:   

  • Essay One: 8 March
  • Essay Two: 6 April
  • Essay Three: 7 May

These papers are to be submitted electronically in  a main-stream word-processing format or (if you use something non-standard) as .pdf documents, to me at the e-mail address given above. (If the ND system generates another address for me, no worries: they all come to the same place.)  Papers will be accepted until 17.00 on their due dates.

Additionally, students will give brief presentations pairwise, summarizing and raising critical questions pertinent to In Search of the Soul. A sign up sheet will be made available on Google Docs. 

Attendance is expected at all seminar meetings.

Lecture Slides:

© Christopher Shields 2014