Are there any schools of philosophy (or models therein) whose premises non-trivially imply the existence of a metaphysical soul? Or does the concept of a metaphysical soul only exist in practice through direct axiom?

Further clarification by request:

  1. By "non-trivially", I mean no argument as uninteresting as say "all creatures have souls, therefore humans have souls".
  2. By "metaphysical soul", I am intentionally vague and am interested in a somewhat broad range of answers that involve any sort of notion of a non-physical existence tied to a physical existence (which, I believe, is a specific enough concept already).
  3. I refer to some logical structure with the understanding that some arguments in philosophy are not necessarily so formal.

2 Answers 2


Very few, if any, philosophical systems are really presented in an "axioms and their consequences" manner. I'm going to read the question as asking if their are any systems which provided arguments for the existence of a soul in a manner that isn't question begging. (Whether those arguments are satisfactory or persuasive is a different issue.)

A lot hangs on just what you mean by "a metaphysical soul." Depending on what you mean, these may not meet the bill.

Descartes argued that we could not rationally doubt the existence of our minds (which he identified with our soul), but we could doubt the existence of our bodies. On this ground, he took the mind to be metaphysically distinct from the body.

Plato, chiefly in the Republic and the Timaeus argued that we cannot know anything about the physical world as it is in flux, but can know only about the forms. In the Meno, he argued that "learning" is actually recollection of the forms, where we recall what we once knew before the trauma of birth so shocked our persistent soul that we forgot our former knowledge.

Neither of these are straightforward arguments from n premises to the conclusion that souls exist, but then in the context of a philosophical system, one rarely gets such extractable arguments for key claims. Both arguments for the existence of souls are, of course, the subject of hundreds of years of critical commentary. There are also many other examples that could be provided. (For instance, the Stoics held that souls were necessary for awareness.)

  • 1
    Your point about philosophical systems is well taken. Thanks for the modified read and subsequent answer. Commented Jul 6, 2011 at 3:38
  • 2
    @DuckMaestro: You are welcome. Editing your question for clarity (even after answers have come in) is not only allowed, it is encouraged.
    – vanden
    Commented Jul 6, 2011 at 3:46

Lots of philosophers thought they could give a demonstration of the existence of an immaterial soul. Descartes famously gave one in the Sixth Meditation: the 'real distinction' argument. Perhaps the best objections to it were given by Arnauld in his Objections.

EDIT: Some more information, if it helps. The SEP has a brief discussion of Descartes' argument here. Malebranche, the famous Cartesian occasionalist, thought Descartes' argument could work fine with just a clear idea of the nature of matter as extension, without any need for a clear idea of the nature of the soul: see here. Other Cartesians agreed that the account of matter as extension shows the immateriality of the soul.

Another argument is based on the alleged unity of consciousness: since matter is a mere composite assemblage of parts, and I have only one consciousness (as opposed to a multitude of different consciousnesses), then my consciousness cannot be a mode of a material system. Pierre Bayle pushed this argument, as did Leibniz (see here) and Samuel Clarke (see here). Kant attacks it in the Paralogisms section of the 1st Critique, and offers a moral argument for the immortality of the soul in the 2nd Critique.

As for the empiricists, some of them were materialists (Hobbes, Gassendi, and arguably Hume). Berkeley was quite the opposite, arguing that matter was a self-contradictory philosopher's fiction. Locke and Hume both pushed something like an agnostic skepticism when it comes to the underlying substantial nature of the soul: Hume argued that the very question was unintelligible because we have no idea of substance.

I don't know enough about the medievals to know how they argued for the immateriality of the soul. I guess I'd look here for Aquinas's argument.

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