Life Concepts From Aristotle to Darwin: On Vegetable Souls

Cham: Springer Verlag (2018)
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This book traces the history of life-concepts, with a focus on the vegetable souls of Aristotle, investigating how they were interpreted and eventually replaced by evolutionary biology. Philosophers have long struggled with the relationship between physics, physiology, and psychology, asking questions of organization, purpose, and agency. For two millennia, the vegetable soul, nutrition, and reproduction were commonly used to understand basic life and connect it to “higher” animal and vegetable life. Cartesian dualism and mechanism destroyed this bridge and left biology without an organizing principle until Darwin. Modern biology parallels Aristotelian vegetable life-concepts, but remains incompatible with the animal, rational, subjective, and spiritual life-concepts that developed through the centuries. Recent discoveries call for a second look at Aristotle’s ideas – though not their medieval descendants. Life remains an active, chemical process whose cause, identity, and purpose is self-perpetuation.



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What Can Be Revived

Aristotle’s nutritive soul remains one of the best descriptions of organismality or vegetable life. Darwin’s evolution by natural selection explains the complex organization of extant life. Kant’s causal nexus unifies natural selection and the apparent purposiveness of life . We need only make this ... see more

Animal Individuality: The Subjective Self

Animal and subjective life-concepts invoke an interiority not found in biological nominalism, aligned with neither physical nor organismic interiority. The traditional conceptions of sensation and locomotion invoked both a vegetable front end, invariably embodied, and something else, a back end wher... see more

Vegetable Individuality: The Organismal Self

Organismal unity has always been a third thing, between physics and mind. In the twentieth century, biologists proposed regulation and replication, reflecting nutrition and reproduction, as defining features of life. Recent discoveries show that the two categories yield different answers when we try... see more

“Vegetables” Versus Modern Plants

By removing ideas of progress, Darwin turned the ladder of life into a branching tree. As species diverged under natural selection, life became more diverse. There is not just one trajectory, but many. The term “plant” ceased to mean the lower portion of the scala naturae, the chain of life, and sta... see more

Vegetable Significance: Evolution by Natural Selection

Charles Darwin set the foundations for a new paradigm of life by stripping evolution of its normative and progressive elements. He reimagined efficient, formal, and final causes in biology, creating a new synthesis similar to Aristotle’s nutritive soul. Natural selection provides a causal nexus that... see more

The Same and Different: Early Theories of Evolution

In the eighteenth century, evolution began to fill the gap left by vegetable souls. The first broadly evolutionary theories reimagined the ladder of nature, turning an eternal movement into a process in history. Thus, early theories were progressive and only roughly mechanical. Locke and Comte blaze... see more

Ghosts in the Machine: Vitalism

Questions of organismal unity and purpose remained problematic under the mechanical paradigm. Alternative paradigms emerged. Though wildly different, they all attracted the label vitalism for rejecting aspects of the mechanical philosophy. Animists such as Stahl simply opted for a return to vegetabl... see more

Divided Hopes: Physics Versus Metaphysics

The mechanical philosophy created serious problems for accounts of life, often viewed as somewhere between mind and matter. Bacon, Leibniz, and Kant all tried to clarify the mechanical position. They bridged or denied the Cartesian ontological divide, but erected epistemological barriers with very s... see more

Mechanism Displaces the Soul

After Aquinas, the Aristotelian concept of souls, carefully tended for two millennia, started to unravel. William of Ockham introduced nominalism and voluntarism, necessitating observation and leading to empiricism. Luther and Calvin questioned the dual creation and the power of human intellect. In ... see more

Invisible Seeds: Life-Concepts in Augustine

Augustine of Hippo marks the boundary between the Hellenistic world and medieval Christendom. He created a new Platonic synthesis of Christianity and Hellenistic philosophy, characterized by a dual creation, hylomorphic biology, and a subjective human soul with both intellect and will. Augustine sup... see more

Life After Life: Spiritual Life in Christianity

Christian theology began to truly divide physiology and psychology with the introduction of a second life. In Jewish thinking, all life was an expression of Divine action in the world. The New Testament shows elements of this, but also speaks of a second birth and a second death. Spiritual life beca... see more

The Breath of Life: Nephesh in Hebrew Scriptures

Hebrew perspectives shaped medieval theology through the Tanakh and the works of Philo of Alexandria. The term nephesh, describing both human and animal life in Genesis, was translated as psyche, bringing together two different concepts of the soul. The Hebrew nephesh occurred all animals, was clear... see more

Life Divided: Vegetable Life in Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas crafted a new theory of life and souls. Expanding on the divided philosophy of Albert the Great, he pushed humans and vegetables farther apart. Human souls took on the subjective and spiritual life of Augustine in addition to the rational life of Plato and Aristotle. Vegetable and ani... see more

Aristotle Returns: A Second Medieval Synthesis

A second medieval synthesis arose through Muslim transmission of Aristotelian texts. This Aristotelian synthesis maintained subsistent souls but weakened the role of participation in cosmic life. Theologians reinterpreted Aristotle’s four causes, changing souls from dynamic processes into immaterial... see more

Plants Versus Animals in Hellenistic Thought

Greek and Roman philosophers revised and reinterpreted both Plato and Aristotle, fusing their hierarchy of souls into new systems. They focused on the vegetable/animal divide but favored some form of continuity running through all three categories. Epicureans and Stoics, along with contemporary phys... see more

Life in Action: Nutritive Souls in Aristotle

Aristotle saw nutrition as the most fundamental life activity, the ability to turn not-self into self. That activity undergirds and supports all the others. He spoke concretely of three souls, identified by their life activities. Vegetables operate through nutrition and reproduction. They consume re... see more

Three Causes in One: Biological Explanation in Aristotle

Aristotle shifted the discussion from biological motivators to biological activities. His four causes formed a foundation for all explanations. “Material causes” speak to composition; “formal causes” speak to shape, but also interactions with the surrounding world; “efficient causes” speak to extern... see more

Strangely Moved: Appetitive Souls in Plato

Plato used the soul to explain motivations in humans and other life. He provided the first clear delineation of vegetable, animal, and rational life, attributing souls or soul aspects to each. The appetitive soul, present in all living things, drives desires of the flesh. The spirited soul, present ... see more

Greek Life: Psyche and Early Life-Concepts

Greek theories of life clustered around the psyche. Usually translated as “soul,” it can also be thought of as a principle of life. The oldest usage comes from Homer, speaking of human life at its limits. Presocratic philosophers used the soul to make sense of the motion of living things, which is m... see more

Vegetable Souls?

The term “vegetable soul” troubles the ear. The two words have such different contexts that joining them strikes us as either funny or nonsensical. The Aristotelian idea of souls as the efficient, formal, and final cause of life dominated discussions of plant life for roughly two thousand years. And... see more

What Can Be Revived (and What Cannot)

Aristotle’s nutritive soul remains one of the best descriptions of organismality or vegetable life. Darwin’s evolution by natural selection explains the complex organization of extant life. Kant’s causal nexus unifies natural selection (as a string of efficient causes) and the apparent purposiveness... see more

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Life.Bruce Weber - 2008 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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