On The Identity Of The Soul: Do ‘I’ Exist?

What does it mean to have a soul? Is the soul an immortal bridge that enables passage between the material realm of space and time toward an eternal life, or as said by Homer: “[m]any a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures.” Or is it a part of the fabric of consciousness that vehicles experience beyond passive observations, the very terrain that uniquely identifies ‘you’ aside from the social and environmental influences that determine your character? Does the soul actually exist within an indefinite continuum where the death of our bodies is merely transiently corporeal, or is it an epistemic system that attempts to articulate a criterion that draws a singularity to the fundamental question of being?

It raises a number of questions about individuality contained within a complex nucleus and temporal situatedness of an external world. Socrates believed the soul itself is cyclical and demonstrated by an immortality where the very ‘I’ in individuality or the consciousness remains despite re-embodying to a new material form; knowledge can awaken as though we are recollecting a pre-existing intelligence. Socrates assumes that knowledge precedes sense-perception, whereby in the Republic he elucidates two types of a singular mind when discussing Beauty,[1] an ambiguity in our perceptions of the external world that stands midway between being and non-being where the purity of the phenomena exists but impossible to firmly conceive.

This absolute reality, the Forms of Beauty or Good, existed prior to knowledge that we perceive and discover an understanding of through objects in the external world and as such, “discovering that it existed before and is ours, and we compare these things with it, then, just as they exist, so our soul must exist before we are born.”[2] We recollect the Form of Beauty or Good through appearances of sensual experience and thus the knowledge of them already existed, but further to this, the Forms are absolute reality, divine and non-composite.[3] This reality is impenetrable by our senses and if we suppose that somehow we could be free from our bodies and thus from the limitations of sense-experience, we could access this imperceptible realm through our mind or ‘soul’. That while we have a singular mind or a singular identity, our understanding of reality is divided into a schism between consciousness or ‘being’ and sense-experience or ‘not-being’[4].

This dualism was furthered by Descartes where the soul itself is separate to the body, a substance that the cogito – the epistemic ‘I think, therefore I am’ – demonstrates since if ever in doubt of reality, this doubt itself proves that one is thinking and therefore the mind must exist. But if an ‘evil demon’[5] is tricking us into believing that the material world actually exists, the external world can be doubted and therefore both the mind and the body are distinct from one another. As we are capable of imagining ourselves existing without a body, knowledge is attained by both sense-experience and the mind as two separate yet interconnected substances, but the mind is indivisible as it does not contain any physical properties unlike the material world. Imagining ourselves in these Cartesian thought experiment could nevertheless be considered psychological and therefore while we can see or imagine such realities, it does not necessarily imply that these realities actually exist as mind-independent properties; thus imagination is not a process of logic. Indeed, is intentionality – the very nature of our mental states – contingent upon physical properties that exist independent of the mind and therefore relational to objects of the external world, or does it merely require a reference to content and that knowledge does not necessarily require existence but exists within the mind?

An example of this can be whether fictional characters exist; is it an illusion that drives the cognitive mechanism to engage with the external world and though the content is not actually real nonetheless enables real experiences? I am moved with horror and fear when I watch a movie like Irreversible where a woman is brutally beaten and raped, emotions clearly exhibited by the shock, the tears, the physical anxiety and shaking; while aware that the movie is not real and that the woman is in fact an actor, my experience of these emotions show that I must nevertheless believe that her rape actually happened and therefore my mind referenced the content rather than physical properties. The question is, was I moved by such emotional responses because I engaged in a fictional scenario that logically exists or is it merely psychological where I knowingly enabled my imagination to temporarily allow the fictional characters to exist?

Or are our emotional responses also fiction?

If we are moved by an emotional response that is subject to illusory content rather than physical properties, it may well be psychological. Indeed, consider the psychological disorder of hysteria or other somatoform disorders; a person experiencing such symptoms are capable of causing temporary blindness, paralysis and other physical ailments that are inconsistent with any medical or even neurological diagnosis. The physical ailment is apparent, the person is actually experiencing blindness or paralysis, but for no causal reason. It led Freud to discover the unconscious mind and psychoanalytic theory, indeed in his paper Mourning and Melancholia explained how the mind can establish with certainty a fictional reality.[6]

“This opposition can be so intense that a turning away from reality takes place and a clinging to the object through the medium of a hallucinatory wishful psychosis.”[7] Mourning the loss of a loved one, such as when a parent dies, involves sensations that are natural, however melancholia is caused by strong feelings of painful dejection that interest in the world around them along with a capacity to feel or experience happiness is disturbed, destructive to the activity of a healthy ego.

Thus when a person experiences a loss that needn’t be a death but could be a detachment from someone that they love, they are forced to reconcile with the detachment of this loved person and this very detachment arouses unconscious opposition that seeks a substitution to avoid confronting the painful sensation of the experience, so much so that the individual turns away from reality and transfers into a neurotic reality or an unreal reality, a type of disassociation. The condition becomes pathological and they disassociate from their own identity and self-image and while they actually experience and believe their reality to be authentic, their identity is merely simulating a false reality.

Franz Brentano wrote, “[e]very mental phenomenon includes something as object within itself, although they do not do so in the same way. In presentation, something is presented, in judgment something is affirmed or denied, in love loved, in hate hated, in desire desired and so on. This intentional inexistence is characteristic exclusively of mental phenomena. No physical phenomenon exhibits anything like it. We can, therefore, define mental phenomena by saying that they are those phenomena which contain an object intentionally within themselves.”[8]

This ‘intentional inexistence’ purports that the relation between the mind and experience relies on the internal structure of the mind and does not necessarily rely on physical or objective targets. An emotional response needn’t require any relation to real-world characters when all one would need to do is believe in the fictional representation and therefore our imagination is psychological. If we were to deconstruct our mental state to try and ascertain the very essence of these mental acts, would the complete elimination of these illusory presuppositions enable us to distinguish between what is real and what is fictitious? And while postulating this ontological problem, would that be characteristic of an authentic and conscious experience of reality by the soul or one’s very being? If we are unable to obtain actual knowledge of concepts like the soul neither experience actual reality, we become doomed to the limitations of our cognitive processes and language.

Indeed, Kant’ views on the soul and transcendental psychology purport that while we are unable to attain actual knowledge of concepts like the soul, we can rely only on faith. Similar to the Cartesian ‘I think therefore I am,’ epistemologically we reveal that we are or that there is substance to this ‘I’ and this substance is our soul. It is distinct and indivisible, what marks an autonomous identity, but this very ‘I’ is transcendentally illusory.

To become cognisant of the object of this ‘I’ it must be done in the absence of intuition, that is, intuitions are sensual representations experienced with objects that enable cognition as said by Kant, “Objects are therefore given to us by means of sensibility, and it alone affords us intuitions.[9] The illusion, however, is that when we think of this ‘I’ it is not cognition but mere a concept and separate from our sense-experiences. It is impossible to intuit the ‘I’ and therefore the Cartesian proposition of I think therefore I am is impossible as is knowledge of the nature of our soul. We have left with rational psychology.

‘We’ are forever doomed to the epistemic limitations that articulates ‘reality’ as we see it and no ‘I’ exists.


[1] 479a-c
[2] (76d-e)
[3] 78c-79a
[4] 479c
[5] See The Philosophical Writings of Descartes: Volume 3, The Correspondence By René Descartes, p 316
[6] Freud, S. (1917). Mourning and Melancholia. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (1914-1916): On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works, 237-258
[7] Ibid.
[8] Bryce Huebner, Distributing Cognition: A Defense of Collective Mentality, p133
[9] A 19/B 33, see Paralogisms of Pure Reason