Soul Substance


Thilly, Frank. “Soul Substance.” The Philosophical Review 11, no. 1 (1902): 16. https://doi.org/10.2307/2176928


Before we can attempt to answer the question concerning the substantiality of the soul, we must know what is meant by substance. We may use the term in a logical sense. We mean by substance the logical Prius, that of which we predicate something, something to which the predicate belongs. That which we cannot conceive except as belonging to or as borne by something else we call a mode or accident or attribute or quality of its bearer, the substance. Thus if we cannot think color without thinking it as the color of something to which it belongs, which is its bearer, which has the color, then the colorist called a mode or accident, and its bearer, that which has it, the substance. Here we are dealing with a purely logical relation. So far as logic is concerned, it does not make any difference whether there are any substances or not, or what are the substances in the world. The logician simply says: That which we cannot think without thinking something else as its bearer, as its support, as having it, is called a mode or accident, while that which does not need that particular quality in order to be thought, is substance. If there is anything in nature which cannot be thought without something else as its bearer, then that thing is a mode or accident of something else, it is a mode with respect to that other thing. If all the things in the world cannot be thought except as belonging to something, then they are all modes or accidents of that thing, and this is their substance. If we regard all the qualities and occurrences in nature as being in, or held up by, something that does not need them, but which they need, then that something is the substance of these qualities and occurrences. It makes no difference so far as the notion itself is concerned what the nature of the so-called bearer is, whether it is visible or invisible, whether it is eternal or not, whether it is destructible or indestructible. The notion simply expresses a relation between things. We might conceive the substance as destroyed; its destruction, however, would imply the destruction of its modes, for the modes cannot be thought of as existing without their substance.


We frequently combine other notions with the concept of substance, and conceive the substance not only as the bearer of its modes, but as the cause of its modes, as that from which the modes spring, as that which makes them, as it were. We frequently ascribe powers to it, after the analogy of the human will, which are supposed to produce the modes. Here, the substances conceived as the seat of these powers, and the modes as the effects of the powers.


Now we apply the concept to our experience, to reality. And there is no objection to using the term substance in the logical sense. I have the right to call a thing a substance with respect to certain other things if I cannot think of the latter except as belonging to the former. The thing is a substance with respect to the others, which are the modes. It may be found that what we call a substance with respect to certain modes, cannot really be conceived without some bearer itself. Then that thing becomes the mode of that bearer. Logically, a thing is a substance with respect to something else, and we may call all those things in nature substances which we think of as necessary to the existence of certain qualities or occurrences in the manner mentioned before.


We find, for example, that we cannot think of certain qualities in external nature except as belonging to something else. We ascribe the sound of an object to something which, as we say, has the sound, and without which the sound could not be. That to which the sound is attached in this way is the substance, whatever it may be. We say also that color cannot exist alone, it must be the color of something. This something is the substance to which the color is attached; it is a substance with respect to the color. I may say: The color and the sound cannot be thought except as belonging to a visible and tangible thing. Then the visible and tangible thing is the substance with respect to the sound and color. Or I may say: The visible and tangible thing is itself dependent on something behind it which I cannot see, something which bears or has extension and tangible bulk. Then this invisible thing becomes substance with respect to these qualities.


We may also employ the concept in the mental realm in the same sense. We may conceive our states of consciousness as having a bearer, as being the states of something. If we cannot conceive these states except as attached to something, then that something becomes their substance. I may say states of consciousness cannot be conceived without an ego that has them. Then that ego is their substance. Or I may say I cannot conceive them, without attaching them to a material substratum, therein. Then the brain is substance with respect to them, and they are modes of the brain. Or I may regard them as held up by an invisible immaterial something; then that is substance and they are the modes of this.

In all these cases we use the term substance in a relative sense. We mean that a certain relation exists between two objects of our thought; that if one cannot be conceived except as belonging to the other, we call the one an accident or mode or attribute, the other its substance. Thus, if we think of the color or sounds belonging to the tangible and visible bulk, then the tang bland visible bulk is related to the color and sound as a substance to its attributes or accidents. If we think of the tang bland visible bulk as depending on something else, then this becomes the substance and the tangible and visible bulk the accident. Some thinkers regard as substances what others regard accidents. The only demand that logic makes is that the thing which is called substance be conceived as that which has the mode or accident.


But we do not stop here. We declare not merely that a certain thing is a substance with respect to others, its modes, or accidents, but that certain things are actually substances. We believe that the relations existing in thought are real relations, that the things in the world are substances and accidents, that some are bearers, others are borne. Here we not merely say: If such and such a relation exists between things, then they are related as substance and accident; but the things are so related. Philosophers regard the search for substances or the substance as the primary object of knowledge. On this point thinkers as widely divergent as Plato and Haeckel agree. They may differ to the nature of this substance, and as to its exact relation to the accidents, but that there is a substance or substances is assumed as certain by them.


The concept is used in different meanings, however. We may mean by substance the relatively constant element or elements in our experience, without regarding these as separate, independent entities. Or we may mean by it an entity separates from its accidents. We may conceive of this entity as absolutely or relatively constant or permanent, as eternal, and indestructible, or as temporal and perishable. And we may combine the notion with some notion of causality and look upon the substance as something which produces the accidents out of itself. It is because the term is used in so many different senses, and in combination with so many other concepts, that so much confusion exists with respect to the question we are considering. Let us see how it is employed, and whether we have any right to employ it so.


A physical body is a complex of qualities united by us into whole and referred to a particular space. Some of these qualities are constant in the sense that we perceive them every time we perceive the body, while others change, or disappear entirely. Thus, all bodies perceived by us are extended, all have depowered resistance, we say, all have some color or other, some form or other, some size or other, etc. But the colors may change, the form and size may change, the body may sometimes produce a sound, sometimes not. Extension and resistance, however, are always perceived by us; they are constant in the sense that whenever we perceive a body, we perceive it as extended and as resisting us. We see it with our eyes and touch it with our hands ; its color is not always the same; indeed, when we close our eyes and merely touch it, the color disappears, but it is always extended and always resists more or less. We abstract these constant qualities from the concrete whole constituting a particular physical thing, fix our attention upon them and ignore the rest, and call them the substance of the other qualities, the accidents, or modes. Now, in a certain sense this language is justifiable. In the first place, it is logically justifiable to designate the qualities which we conceive as needing the others in order to be thought, as the accidents. Moreover, we may call a certain quality or qualities substance in the sense that they are always found in union with the others. The essential qualities constitute the substance, the non-essential ones the accidents. The essential ones are the constant ones, particularly those which we get through touch and sight, senses which are constantly used, and hence the most interesting and practically most important ones. Here we do not mean that the constant qualities are separate entities, that they exist apart from the accidents, or that the accidents are produced by them. We conceive of the body as a concrete unity of qualities, and the different qualities as abstractions of thought which have no separate existence.


There is no objection to using the concept substance in this. In the same way, we may use the term in the mental realm. Every state of consciousness, we may say, is a concrete unity of qualities or processes. If we can analyze out of the different states something that is common to them all, something that is constant in the sense that it appears whenever a state of consciousness appears, while other elements change, we may call this the substance, remembering, however, that we mean by it not a separate entity, something apart from the concrete unity mentioned before. If it is true that every state of consciousness is impulsive, that what is broadly called will is invariably presenting the mind, we can call this the essential quality of consciousness, or substance. We may also look at the matter in this way. In every state of consciousness, we have what Kant calls the I think that is, the state is owned, it is the state of someone, it is called mine. We can distinguish in every state a self as knower and a self as known, the 'I' and the 'me,' as James puts it. The self as knower and the self as known are a unity; we never have the one without the other. But the self as known, the so called empirical 'me,' changes constantly, but it is always owned. The self as knower, however, is a common function or process, as constant and essential in the mental realm as space and resistance in matter. We may, therefore, call it a substance in the same sense in which we have just employed the term in the material world, not as a separate entity, but as a substantial entity that produces the particular states of consciousness and is independent of them. We can say that we never have a particular sensation or feeling or act of will alone, that we cannot think of these states except as the states of an ego, that each state is a unity of processes, that this self as knower is the tie, as it were, the function that binds them together.


It is true that we do not experience this ego alone, but neither do we experience space alone. We analyze the ego out of a concrete unity, just as we analyze the space out of a concrete unity. We experience the ego as we experience space, in union with other qualities. It is true also that we do not know what this ego is in the last analysis, but neither do we know what space is in the last analysis. And there is just as much mystery in the notion of a unified body as in the notion of a unified consciousness. Indeed, we can explain our notion of body only by means of this mental function, this synthetic unity of apperception, as Kant calls it. I could not speak of constant qualities, of sameness, if I did not recognize them as the same. I have certain ideas; these ideas I recognize as like ideas which I had before; if I did not so recognize them or identify them, they might come and go forever without my ever calling them the same, without my speaking of them as constant. It is no explanation to say the same states recur, and that thus the notion of constancy or sameness is formed. I may see the same things, so called, every day, but unless the mind recognizes them as the same, identifies them, they are not really the same for me. In the same way, it would be impossible to speak of change without a mind functioning as our mind does. A thing changes only in relation to a thing that remains the same. When a thing comes up in my consciousness again in a modified form, I must recognize a part of it at least as the same; I must remember the whole object as it was before, and have the consciousness of difference between the new and the old one. We see that it would be impossible to form the notion of substance as we have been using the term, without a synthetic mind, without the consciousness of sameness and difference, without a function that recognizes things as the same and different. This function is present every time I see a body, every time Imagine a body, every time I recognize it as the same or perceive it as different, every time, indeed, I have any state of consciousness. In the sense, then, in which we have here been using the term substance, the ego is certainly a substance, yes, we may say, in reality the only substance, the only constant reality which we experience. It is because I can hold things together that I can speak of bodies, it is because I can recognize them, because my ideas are accompanied, as it were, by the feeling of sameness and difference, that I can call certain qualities constant.


But the notion of substance is, as we have already stated, used in yet another sense. We sometimes mean by it something that can exist apart from its accidents, something that has independent existence, something that is actually the bearer of qualities, powers, events, and occurrences. We also frequently combine with the notion used in this sense the notion of absolute permanence; we conceive the substance as something that remains absolutely constant, that persists through all time, as something that always has been, is, and will be, as something that is indestructible. This idea of absolute permanence is not essential to the notion of substance as such, but something added to it. It does not follow from the notion of substance as such that it should be eternal; there is nothing in the idea of substance that would hinder substances from being destroyed. Letups, however, join these two notions of substance and absolute permanence or persistence together, and see how the concept of an indestructible substance is used.


I may analyze out of the so-called physical qualities which I perceive as the constant ones, as before, and regard these qualities as having separate and independent existence. Thus, I may form the conception of matter as an extended and resistant entity, but devoid of any other qualities, and call this substance, something on which all the other qualities in the world somehow depend. I may regard this independent entity, this extended and forceful bearer of everything else, as permanent, as eternal. I may eliminate from the notion all qualities but one, say, force, and regard this as the substance. Or I may eliminate even this and assume the existence of something behind all qualities without giving this thing any quality except the function of holding up all the rest, as it were.


I may form the conception of a spiritual substance in the same way. I may select a constant element in consciousness, an element that is present in all states of consciousness, and call this the soul substance, an independent, separate entity, of which all mental processes are the modes. This entity I may conceive is persistent, as constant in all change. The will, as interpreted by Schopenhauer and many modern psychologists, is a substance in this sense; it is the bearer and cause of all the other states; the intellect is a mere accident of the will. The ego, the self as knower, is regarded by others as such a substance; it is supposed to be a persistent entity, the independent bearer of all states of consciousness.


I may combine the essential qualities of matter and the essential qualities of mind and regard them as the attributes of a substance behind them both. I may say a thinking and extended entity is the bearer, and perhaps substantial cause of all the other qualities in the world, or I may say there is something, the nature of which I do not know, behind the mental and physical facts.


Now what have I done in all these cases? I start out with complexes of qualities, let us say. I either select from this combination certain qualities which are always or frequently present when I have this complex and make entities of them. I assume that they can exist alone, independent, as it were, of the qualities with which they are usually found. In this way I form the notion of a substantial entity called matter. This entity I conceive as having always existed, as persistent, as something that remains identical with itself in change. Its qualities, I say, may change, but that which bears them can never change, is indestructible, eternal. Or I assume the existence of something behind even these qualities, something which I cannot describe, except by saying that it is the bearer of all qualities, and I substantialize this in the same way. I do the same thing in the mental realm. I experience a complex of processes or phases of consciousness, a concrete unity of states, a unity in variety. From this unity I abstract some element that is or seems to be common to all states of consciousness, and make an independent entity of it, a substance. I conceive it as an eternal, indestructible bearer of the passing states, as the unchangeable substratum in which the changes called states of consciousness take place. In all these cases I have simply made entities of abstractions of thought, I hypostasized my ideas. The same thing is done when I go behind the material substance and the soul substance and regard them both as modes, or, bringing in the causal concept also as manifestations or expressions of something behind them both, of which I say nothing except that in it and through it everything else is.


All these conceptions by which substance is conceived as a separate entity seem to me to stand on the same level. If we can abstract certain qualities from the physical things we perceive and make persistent entities of them, it is hard to see why we should not be allowed to do this with the mental processes. It is true we cannot imagine how a state of consciousness can be attached to an immaterial substance, but it is equally true that we cannot imagine how a physical quality can be attached to a material substance. It is just as hard to see how a persistent, unchangeable material substance can be the bearer and cause of qualities and occurrences, as it is to see how a persistent immaterial substance can bear and generate states of consciousness. The materialist is as much of an idealist in the sense of making entities of abstractions of thought as are the spiritualist and dualist. They all make entities of their ideas. An ego or will that has no thoughts is no more of a wonder than matter or pieces of matter that have no qualities but extension or resistance or both. And it is just as hard, if not harder, to deduce the so-called physical world from such an entity called matter, as it is to deduce consciousness from such an ego or will. If nothing can come from nothing, it is just as hard to get anything from an abstract entity called matter, as it is to get anything from an abstract entity called ego or will. And if something can come from nothing, it is just as easy for it to come from a substantial soul from substantial matter.


The truth is, it is just as impossible to talk of a pure matter as it is to talk of a pure ego or a pure will. We never experience pure matter, and if we assume its existence, we cannot account for the qualities which it is supposed to bear or generate. Nor would we ever experience a pure ego or a pure will. We experience concrete bodies in so-called external nature, concrete wholes, unities; we strip these of their qualities, one after another, until we have only one or two left, and imagine that we have now reached the essence of the thing, its substance. In the same way, we strip consciousness of quality after quality until we reach a phase of its which we substantialize. We make a reality of this ultimate in thought, of this highest abstraction, and call it the pure ego, the substantial soul, or the will, as the case may be.


The whole problem of substance as a separate entity in the senses just considered is a purely metaphysical problem. It is as much metaphysics to assume the existence of something corresponding to the abstraction of our thought called matter, whether it be conceived in the form of continuous matter or of atoms, as it is to assume the existence of a substantial ego, whether we conceive this as a universal ego or as particular egos. It is also a purely metaphysical assumption to maintain the existence of a separate entity called a will, whether we conceive it as conscious or unconscious, universal, or particular. And it is equally metaphysical to go a step farther and set up as a reality something behind both matter and mind, as a separate, independent entity that is supposed to produce out of itself the world as it now exists. In all these cases we are dealing with metaphysical hypotheses, and the question to be asked here is: Will they explain the facts? We never experience any one of the things assumed as a separate entity, but only in union with other qualities. The validity of the notion of soul substance, therefore, will depend entirely upon its ability to explain the facts, and the whole problem is coextensive with the problem of philosophy.


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