The entry for "l’âme", the soul, spans an entire twenty-six encyclopedia pages and is surely one of the longest entries in the series. It covers both the human soul and the animal soul, and it starts by raising four questions about the soul:
1. What is its origin?
2. What is its nature?
3. What is its destiny?
4. What are the beings in which it resides?
The author of this particular article, Claude Yvon, explains that there are a multitude of opinions on the soul and that it has been a highly debated subject throughout history. He explores the prominent ideas and theories, from those of the ancient Greek philosophers and Cicero to Spinoza and Descartes.
On one hand, there are philosophers who see the soul as a “pure quality” that is necessarily destroyed when the being in which it resides dies. Most philosophers, however, view the soul as a “subsistence…[that] is nothing more than a part of a whole.”
The article continues as such for about fifteen pages and then turns specifically to “l’Âme Des Bêtes,” or the animal soul. At this time, the author addresses the fact that of the four initial questions raised about the soul, philosophers have had the most interest in the question of its nature. This part of the article is essentially a discussion and critique of the Cartesian automata model, which is one of Rene Descartes’ most famous philosophies. According to the article, Descartes was forcibly led to distinguish between the soul and the body. He classified humans as “pure machines,” or automata, which explained objections against the immortality of the soul and the goodness of God, two issues that were very central in Descartes’ work. In the automata model, the human body is viewed as a machine, and the soul is a separate entity that controls emotion and intellect. It is not hard to understand why Descartes reasoned that the body is a machine: our blood flows, our organs work, and our balance stabilizes all on their own. Bodily functions work independently of human control and the human mind. Yvon investigates views of different thinkers on the Cartesian model, and then he offers his own analysis on the theory as a whole and its validity. This evaluation of Descartes is noteworthy, but like many other interesting things I have come across, it is too long to discuss here.
As a student of philosophy, I was naturally drawn to this article because it addresses what is one of the most debated metaphysical questions among philosophers. I was not surprised in the least bit by the article’s length or by its reflective discussion. Treatises on the question of the soul are simultaneously fascinating and frustrating because they seem to give plausible options but never a truly definitive answer. I studied Descartes and the Cartesian model in a western philosophy class I took last fall, so I was particularly interested in the second half of the article.
Descartes is a really interesting guy -- read more about him and his work here.