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soul, the vital, immaterial, life principle, generally conceived as existing within humans and sometimes within all living things, inanimate objects, and the universe as a whole. Religion and philosophy have long been concerned with the nature of the soul in their attempts to understand existence and the meaning of life.

Differing Views of the Soul

In more primitive religions (forms of animism and spiritism), the soul is often conceived as controlling both motor and mental processes; death, the cessation of these processes, is thus viewed as caused by the departure of the soul. Pantheism denies the individuation of human souls, and materialism declares the soul nonexistent. One of the widespread concepts in religion is that of immortality, which almost always postulates the existence of a soul that lives apart from the body after death.

In early Hebrew thought, soul connoted the life principle, but in later times the concept of a soul independent of the body arose. The soul of the righteous was seen as achieving immortality, rejoining the resurrected body at the end of days. Similarly, in Islam, a person's soul is, according to the Qur'an, the original spirit that God breathed into Adam. Its seat is the heart and it is endowed with two basic impulses—good and evil. After death the souls of the pious stay near Allah and will be reunited with their risen bodies on the Day of Judgment.

In Eastern religions, which do not stress individual salvation, the emphasis is placed on transcendent principles embodied in a multiplicity of gods (see world soul). The Hindu and Buddhist doctrines of reincarnation do not posit the existence of an individual soul, but rather stress the closeness of the human person, in successive transformations, to an overriding principle of virtue, piety, and peace.

No distinction between the rational soul (i.e., the soul of a person in scholastic Christianity) and others is made in many systems; such a distinction is quite impossible in most forms of reincarnation and of transmigration of souls. The soul of humanity when such is conceived as existing is called the world soul, or anima mundi. For many Western philosophers the term soul is synonymous with mind (e.g., René Descartes). Others, although asserting its undefinability, have seen it as a useful element in a system of ethics (e.g., Immanuel Kant). This undefinability has led yet others to reject the idea of a soul and to postulate ethical systems based upon a different conception of human nature (e.g., William James).

The Soul in Christianity

In Christianity the soul is all important. However, because the Bible does not give a formal definition of the concept, Christian interpretations vary greatly. Under the influence of the Neoplatonists, the soul often came to be set over against the body in a dualistic concept that posited a God-given soul distinct from an inferior, earth-bound body. Scholasticism (specifically that of St. Thomas Aquinas) studied the soul in great elaboration, and the scholastic definition of the soul as “substantial form of the body” obviates many philosophical difficulties. The nature of humanity is involved in the whole consideration of the soul; hence the term “rational soul” for the distinctive soul of humans. The soul of beasts is called the “animal soul” and that of plants the “vegetative soul.” The scholastics considered the rational soul alone as immortal and capable of union with God.

The origin of the soul has been a controversial question in Christian history. Two points of view may be distinguished: creationism, which posits that God creates each individual soul in a special act of creation (at the time of conception according to some or that of birth according to others), and traducianism, which suggests that the parents in begetting the child beget the soul too. The creationist principle has been generally held sway in Christianity.

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a concept, whose expression historically altered views of man’s inner world. In religion, idealist philosophy, and psychology, “soul” is the concept of a special nonmaterial substance that is independent of the body. The concept of the soul can be traced to animistic ideas concerning a special force dwelling in the bodies of man and animals (sometimes, in plants) and departing from the body during sleep or at death. The concept reflects the development of mythological, religious, philosophical, and scientific thinking about the nature of man and marks the formation of the subject of psychology. In the history of philosophy the soul was comprehended by contrasting it with the body as an object (the soul as the dynamic force); with the organic body (the soul as the active life source); with the spirit (the soul as the individual manifestation of the universal spiritual substance or as the unique personal principle created by god); and with the external social forms of human behavior (the soul as the inner world of man—his self-consciousness).

In its early stages, ancient Greek natural philosophy was imbued with ideas about the universal animation of the cosmos (hylozoism). According to Democritus and Epicurus, the soul is corporeal and made of spherical, moving atoms. The idea of the soul as a special non-corporeal and immortal essence was voiced by the Pythagoreans, who also viewed it as the basis of harmony for the parts of the body. This idea was further developed by Plato and the Neoplatonists (Plotinus and Proclus). Plato considered the “universal soul” one of the universal principles of being—an eternal dynamic source, the source of self-movement, which unites the world of immutable ideas and the world of mutable corporeal objects. The individual human soul was the image and outflow of the universal soul.

Aristotle was the father of the scientific approach to the study of the soul as the “form” (eidos) of the living body (from the point of view of the Aristotelian division of form and matter). He examined the soul in the context of his teachings about purposefulness in the development of organic nature, and he understood the soul to be the entelechy (realization) of the body—the principle of its purposeful activity. Three types of souls were distinguished by him: the nutritive soul (vegetative), sensitive soul (animal soul, capable of sensory perception, desire, and movement), and rational soul (specifically human). Aristotle outlined the main problem of psychology as a study of relationships between the mental capacities and organic processes. Elements of Platonic and Aristotelian teachings about the soul were absorbed by Scholasticism and reworked in conformity with Christian ideas of the immortality, individual uniqueness, and personal character of the soul.

In modern European philosophy the term “soul” began to be used to signify man’s inner world. The dualistic metaphysics of Descartes distinguishes the soul and the body as two independent substances. The soul is spirit and is manifested in various states and acts of consciousness; the body is material and extensional. Animals were viewed by Descartes as live automatons, devoid of souls. From Descartes to the German psychologists E. H. Weber and G. Fechner, the question of the interaction of the soul and the body has been discussed primarily as a psychophysical problem. Descartes’ dualistic ideas formed the basis of both the empirical sensory (J. Locke) and rationalistic (G. Leibniz) traditions in interpreting the soul. Thus, Leibniz sees the soul as a closed substance (monad) with two basic capacities—feelings (senses) and desires. Locke, refusing to discuss the nature of the soul as a metaphysical issue, called for limitation of the study to mental phenomena—the sensations and ideas as their combinations. Thus, he provided a basis for associationism in psychology. In describing the human ego as a simple bundle of representations, D. Hume subjected to doubt the idea of the soul’s substantive nature, the demonstration that this idea cannot be derived from empirical description of mental life. Kant’s criticism of rationalistic psychology extended the concept of the soul beyond human experience into the realm of transcendental ideas that make human cognition possible. He adopted a schema proposed by the German psychologist I. Tetens that divided mental capacities into mind, will, and feeling. Post-Kantian German classical idealism has endeavored to overcome the Cartesian dichotomy of the soul and the body through an understanding of their common origin in the spirit (Schelling and Hegel).

In experimental psychology, which has developed since the mid-19th century, the concept of the soul has been displaced to a considerable degree by the concept of psychics. At the end of the 19th century the need for an integral approach to man and his psychic life reanimated the interest in the problem of the soul as the inner life of man, which gives motivation and purposefulness to his behavior and activity. In their analysis of the psyche, a number of schools of thought distinguish its components (sensations, feelings, acts, and conditions) and try to reveal the mechanisms of their interrelationship (for example, association, intuition, capacity, and gestalt). Other schools have also emerged that consider primarily the content of consciousness of the acting and reflective ego (philosophy of life, “understanding psychology,” and phenomenology). In this sense, the soul may be understood as the inner (as opposed to outer behavior), the integral (as opposed to separate elementary psychic features and functions), the spiritual (ideal substance as opposed to the material physiological substratum), and the active (active realization of the personality as opposed to reactive accommodation or adaptation of the organism).

In Soviet psychology the term “soul” is sometimes used as a synonym of “psychics,” which is regarded by Marxist philosophy as a subjective image of the objective world, this world being a product of sociohistorical development.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. the spirit or immaterial part of man, the seat of human personality, intellect, will, and emotions, regarded as an entity that survives the body after death
2. Christianity the spiritual part of a person, capable of redemption from the power of sin through divine grace
a. a type of Black music resulting from the addition of jazz, gospel, and pop elements to the urban blues style
b. (as modifier): a soul singer
4. of or relating to Black Americans and their culture
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005