Defining Soul. Part 2

Copyrighted photo by D. Bridge

The following is taken from my dissertation titled “Tending Aging Souls Through Connection with the Natural World: A Depth-ecopsychological Study” (Bridge, 2018).


            In order to tend the aging soul, we must have an understanding of what is meant by the word soul.  It is a word that is often used and yet seldom defined.  Oftentimes, the words spirit and soul are used interchangeably.  One of my personal quests has been to determine what the concepts of spirit and soul have in common and how they are different.

            The first definition of soul in the online Oxford English Dictionary (OED) (soul, n.d.) is “an essential principle or attribute of life, and related senses” and  “the condition or attribute of life in humans or animals; animate existence; this viewed as a possession of which one is deprived by death.”  The OED also has this to say about soul: “an entity distinct from the body; the essential, immaterial, or spiritual part of a person or animal, as opposed to the physical.”  As related to philosophy or metaphysics, the OED states: “The immaterial or spiritual essence of a living organism divided into one of a number of multiple elements (usually three), based on those distinguished in Platonic philosophy, as rational, sensitive, and appetitive, or human, animal, and vegetable, etc.”  What is a common thread in these is that soul is defined as being separate from the body.  The OED also uses the concept of spirit in defining soul and gives spirit as a synonym for soul.  This, perhaps, contributes to the perpetuation of the way that both words are used interchangeably and without distinction.

Using a dictionary to define soul provides understanding as to how the word is used in language, but does not necessarily bring clarity to what the word refers to itself.  Murray Stein in Jung’s Map of the Soul (1998) wrote that as the words spirit and soul are used in a religious context, they are interchangeable, and they refer to that part of the human existence that is immortal and leaves the body upon death.  Instead of describing an existential entity, he wrote that Jung was acquiring the word soul for psychology as a descriptor for inner human processes.

In order to develop an understanding of soul, I look to the field of depth psychology.  Eugene Bleuler conceived the term depth psychology.  Bleuler was the director of a university hospital, the Burghölzli, in Zurich, Switzerland.  Bleuler had an interest in hypnosis that brought him to a review of the work of Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud.  Carl G. Jung was also influenced by the work of Bleuler, and it is Freud and Jung who would go on to develop work in the area of the unconscious.  Freud equated the life of the soul with psyche (Bettelheim, 1984).  Robert Romanyshyn wrote that soul is the object of study of Jung’s psychology and that “a proper psychology, then, is a science of soul that knows it cannot name soul with any definitive finality” (Romanyshyn, 2007, p. 25).

Many in the field of depth psychology have written at length about soul and about the relationship between soul and spirit.  It is not my intent to summarize this substantial body of work or to arrive at a definitive understanding of soul, spirit, and their relationship.  My intent is to arrive at an understanding of soul as it pertains to the aging person and to how it corresponds to the physical body of that person.  It is quite evident that as a person ages, the care of the physical body begins to require more and more attention, and within our society the field of medicine has made great strides to provide that attention and care.  There are aspects and disciplines of medicine that focus on pathology and trauma, that correct things that have gone wrong.  As we face a greater percentage of the population that is living into old age, medicine has also needed to address the effects of living longer that are not related to trauma or pathology but simply the repercussion of body parts and systems that must be kept in working order for longer periods of time. 

To illustrate the above point:  during the writing of this dissertation I had to have a stress echocardiogram.  I was able to watch the computer screen to see the inner workings of my heart; my actual physical, beating heart.  I was entranced.  I watched the aortic valve open and close at a rate that was greater than once per second.  Optimally, this small section of tissue needs to open and close around 80 times per minute for the entire life span of the individual.  This valve, maybe about two centimeters in size, must keep this motion up without stopping—ever.  For once it stops, so does the whole of the body. 

Cardiac medicine has developed deep understandings of the workings of the heart and developed detailed protocols to address disease or trauma.  There are also guidelines for how to maintain optimal heart health in order to avoid disease or trauma.  But as I lay there watching this tiny flap in my heart opening and closing, I wondered about fatigue.  For how long can any of our physical systems continue to work before the components simply become fatigued and cease to be able to function even without the presence of pathology or trauma?

Now, let us consider the soul.  As far as I know, there is no technology that can provide us a window into the inner workings of the soul as the cardiac ultrasound machine allows us to peer into the inner workings of the heart.  The soul cannot be held in the hand and examined as the heart, or any other organ of the body, can be held and examined in order to learn about its function and what might go wrong or how it might be helped to function at its best capacity.  So, as a person develops across a lifespan, who helps the individual with his or her soul health in the way a medical doctor helps an individual monitor cardiac health and intervene when necessary?  In caring for the physical body, the field of medicine also has developed preventative health care that attempts to circumvent physical health problems.  What services are in place to provide such preventative care for the soul?

The word psychology can be broken into its parts: “psych” derives from the Greek “psyche” that translates as “soul” and the suffix “-ology”, which, of course, means “the study of.”  So it would seem that the field of psychology would be the place to look for the understanding and care of soul.  The field of psychology, however, defines itself as a science, and in so doing, requires that that which is studied is observable and measureable by the five human senses.  Because of this, the conventional field of psychology as it has developed in the United States focuses on “the relationships between brain function and behavior, and the environment and behavior” (“Science of Psychology,” n.d.).  Brain function and behavior are both observable and measurable in ways that soul is not.  In my estimation, the field of psychology has turned away from its historical focus on soul in order to align itself with positivistic science.  This focus may be attributed to the rise in Europe of the scientific revolution that is considered to have begun in the mid-16th century, lasted until near the end of the 18th century, and contributed to the privileging of the physical world over that of spirit and soul.

It is not my desire to discount the great advantages in knowledge that came out of the scientific revolution and the Age of Enlightenment through the centrality of reason and a marked emphasis on the scientific method and reductionism.  I do intend, however, to question the raising of this rational way of knowing into the position of being the primary source of authority and legitimacy to the exclusion of all others.  It is my contention that this raising to primacy of rational, scientific thought is the cause of the dismissing of the study of none observable/measurable phenomena such as soul.  Prior to the 16th century there was not such a distinction, and the study of soul and spirit was undertaken equally with the study of the physical world. 

So what became of soul and spirit?  Generally speaking they became relegated to the purview of religion.  In so doing, they were abandoned by science.  In fact, the study of spirit and soul became part of what the Age of Enlightenment sought to erode through its undermining of the authority of the Church.  Or, if not direct intent, it has become a repercussion brought about by this undermining.  There have been attempts to reconcile the rationalism of the Enlightenment with religious thought such as the work of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant.  However, spirit and soul remain largely outside of scientific thought and relegated to the realm of belief as found in religious thought.  In The New Scientific Spirit (1985), Gaston Bachelard explores how the modern scientific discipline of chemistry derives from alchemy, albeit with the dismissal of the role of spirit and soul. 

The work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung would bring about a new attempt of reconciling the rational and the nonrational worlds.  Both men were trained as medical doctors and as such saw themselves as men of science.  They also approached their research from a scientific mindset.  They both developed theories that involved the unconscious.  Freud postulated that each individual has an unconscious aspect to his or her inner being in which repressed memories, most often negative, and traumatic memories, were housed.  Jung expanded upon the idea of the unconscious so that in addition to a personal unconscious there also existed what he termed the collective, or objective, unconscious.  The collective unconscious is transpersonal in that it does not depend on personal experiences but rather is common to all people.  The collective unconscious is a repository of primordial images that are signs that point to archetypal concepts.  It is this concept of the collective unconscious that differentiates depth psychology from all other forms of conventional psychology.  It is also what makes depth psychology the discipline best poised to understand and tend to soul.

Medical doctors have access to tools that help them see inside of our bodies and enhance the ability to see things that are not readily visible to the naked eye.  Depth psychologists also have ways to look into the soul to assess its condition.  Studying the dreams of an individual is one such tool.  Freud wrote, “The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind” (Freud, 1913/2010, p. 604).  Carl Jung built upon Freud’s work and developed a process for working with dream figures and named this process active imagination.  He describes active imagination as “the most important auxiliary for the production of those contents of the unconscious which lie, as it were, immediately below the threshold of consciousness and, when intensified, are most likely to irrupt spontaneously into the conscious mind” (Jung, 1958/1969, p. 68).  Like dreams, images are central to the process of active imagination and can include primordial images that in turn point to archetypes.  Through exploration of the symbolic meaning of these images as they pertain to the individual, that individual may gain insight into the workings of his or her soul.  It is also through such exploration that we might come to better understand the nature of soul.

Carl Jung formulated the idea that when a tension is encountered between two opposites, a third psychic function arises that supports the union of these two opposites.  He named this third function the transcendent function, stating, “It is called ‘transcendent’ because it makes the transition from one attitude to another organically possible, without the loss of the unconscious” (Jung, 1958/1969, p. 73, [CW 8, para.145]).  In considering the relationship between body, spirit, and soul, one might imagine that body and spirit are the opposites being held in tension.  One might then also imagine that what arises from the tension of these opposites is an energy that then gives way to the creation of a third thing, “a movement out of the suspension of the opposites, a living birth that leads to a new level of being, a new situation” (Jung, 1958/1969, p. 90, [CW 8, para. 189]).  It is my proposition that this third thing that rises from the tension between body and spirit is soul.

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