What Is A Soul?

What Is A Soul?

The Japanese Footbridge, by Calude Monet

Here is another example of amateur spelunking from the early nineties, just when I was becoming curious about such matters:

What is a soul? All my life I have been told that humans consist of soul and body. Some say, “I have a soul and I live in a body,” as if a soul is a possession one purchases at Wal-Mart.

Once when I was a child, I went to a “revival,” where the preacher was talking about the soul burning in hell. I wondered what that could mean.

The teachings of the Pythagoreans point to the soul as being immortal, imperishable, uncreated, and unlimited. They say it is air, wind, or breath (pneuma), and that it comes from the Upper Air, which steers the kosmos. This Upper Air is pure and very rarefied. It is always in motion, and it is that which moves the gods (planets). The soul is in exile from this upper region. It is imprisoned in the body, which is like a tomb. By purifying itself after many reincarnations, the soul can break free of the Lower Air and return to the Upper Air, where it then becomes god-like.

Obviously, this is mythical language. The soul is not just air or breath or wind in a literal sense. So, how does this language help me to understand what a soul is? Perhaps the question itself is flawed to begin with. Can we even say what a soul is? Doesn’t the copula, “is,” infer that the soul is an object just as a chair is an object? If so, then the question. “What is a soul,” is worthless because the soul cannot be an object. Objects are empirically experienced. I cannot empirically experience a soul, at least not in the way I experience the chair I am now sitting in.

I am wondering whether soul is similar to Heidegger’s idea of Dasein. Could these be connected? It seems a promising path to follow, since I am having so much difficulty viewing the soul as an object.

I recall my paper last quarter on Heidegger’s idea of ready-to-handedness and the musicianship of Jimi Hendrix. The relation between the musician and his or her instrument, when the two fuse and perform as one, seems akin to what Heidegger meant by ready-to-handedness. Could this be the relation, the mode of being which is characteristic of soul? Is this the Being-energy which Pythagoras claims is immortal, and that passes from one body to another until it finds release in the Upper Air, where it becomes divine? Is Dasein the same as soul? Could the Upper Air be a metaphor for authenticity?

Aristotle wrote that the Pythagoreans claim “the soul is a sort of attunement (harmonia); for attunement is a synthesis and blending of opposites” (De Anima 407b 28). . . Is Dasein like this? Perhaps it is, for Dasein is not set over against the world of objects as in the subject/object dichotomy. Rather, the dichotomy is transcended, where Dasein is not “in the world,” in a spatial sense, but is the world. As Heidegger says, “The world is not a way of characterizing those entities which Dasein essentially is not; it is rather a characteristic of Dasein itself” (qtd. in Stumpf 465). This is demonstrated in the previously mentioned example of a musician and his or her instrument fusing and becoming one, i.e., ready-to-handedness.
Perhaps this harmony, this transcendence is what the Pythagoreans meant by soul.

I’m uncertain about this. Pythagoras would want to include animals and plants in his teaching on the soul, whereas Heidegger is referring to humans only, as far as I can tell.


Stumpf, Samuel Enoch. Socrates to Sartre. New York: McGraw-Hill,


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