The Soul: An Existentialist Point of View

C’est un garcon sans importance collective,

C’est tout juste un individu

Sartre quotes Celine in the motto to his novel La Nausée (1938).


The debate in relation to the soul suffers nowadays from a great lack of clarity. At least part of this cloudiness stems from a confusion among three different viewpoints that are not always reconcilable or mutually intelligible: the scientific point of view (natural sciences and empirical psychology), the therapeutic point of view (especially psychoanalysis) and the philosophical point of view. The goal of this paper is to blow away a little this cloudiness, and to introduce into the discussion a view that has not yet received its proper place in it: existentialism. The scientific approach investigates the soul as if it were an object in the world, a fact. This approach gives priority to objective observations over subjective ones, and steps in the direction of materialization of the soul (the soul becomes the mind and the mind becomes the brain). Transcendental philosophy and psychological therapies explain the relation between the subject and its objects, and by this reveal the subjective dimension of our reality as the ground not only for our objective knowledge but for our ethical life as well. Existentialism, I suggest, makes a further and important step in this direction by focusing on individualistic aspects of human existence, which science could not know and general theories of the subject do not see.

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  1. 1.

    The distinction between ontological knowledge and objective knowledge already appears in Descartes' Meditations as a fundamental distinction that long exists in philosophy (see: Descartes 1978: 97).

  2. 2.

    It was Hume who blazed a trail in this respect, indicating that causality is an empirical—and not logical—relation. Kant, in fact, agrees with Hume, but asserts that causality is one of the necessary forms of experience (category of understanding), and as such is a constitutive condition of objective knowledge. "The Copernican Revolution" which presents the empirical world as "the world of phenomena" (a revolution that Hume, of course, knew not) enables this stance. Both Hume and Kant share a metaphysical skepticism in relation to ontological knowledge (of logical validity) and the new position of knowledge as objective knowledge (of empirical validity).

  3. 3.

    It seems that this distinction was not absorbed even in philosophical literature. Thus, for example, Flanagman (2002: 89) refers to materials (e.g., water, gold) as having an objective existence devoid of any perceptive consciousness (subject) and to mental states as objective states featuring subjective qualities. This problematic approach, which does not differentiate the objective from the ontological, paves the way to the wrong belief that states of mind could be converted into states of brain.

  4. 4.

    It is noteworthy that Heidegger is the first to attempt to disassociate from the concept of subject. For this purpose, he introduces the concept of Dasein as a key concept for comprehending the human being. This is, actually, the fundamental idea that underlies his main book Being and Time (1962).

  5. 5.

    Later, Sartre will add an additional root of human existence: 'being for others' (être pour autrui), see: 1998: 221–302.

  6. 6.

    Sartre asserts in this context that the law of identity is not analytic, but rather a constitutive condition of a specific being, a being-in-itself (the existence of things). It is not analytic since it is not valid in relation to being-for itself, which it is never what it is and it is what it is not (1998: xli). This is an additional point that stresses the departure of this view from the theories of a fixed ego with self-identity ("I am what I am"). See Sartre's discussion of sincerity in the chapter on self-deception (1998: 62–67).

  7. 7.

    This ability of suspension lies at the foundation of philosophical thought. It can be found as early as in the Platonic epoché (έποχή), which was revived by Husserl. It is also the idea behind Kant's philosophy of 'as if' (als ob), which was already used by Descartes, who proposed considering the doubtful as if it were fallacious. In the philosophies of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard this ability is linked to moral judgment. That is to say, Sartre's claim settles well with the way in which many philosophers perceive human consciousness.

  8. 8.

    Frankl (1967: 120), who imports existentialist ideas to psychotherapy, argues under the title “The supra-meaning” that “Logos is deeper than logic”. Logic should be understood in this context as a constitutive element of things, and Logos as a constitutive element of the human being. Frankel emphasizes that “Logos is a Greek word which denotes ‘meaning’” (1967: 98).

  9. 9.

    Socrates himself, toward the end of the dialogue, refers in an ironical manner to his own proofs concerning the immorality of the soul (Plato 2001: 114d).

  10. 10.

    Depression, for example, is a psychological concept, and therefore, any use of this concept assumes the activity of consciousness as its foundation. This means that it is impossible to consider depression in materialistic terms alone.

  11. 11.

    This idea echoes Plato's psychological analysis in "Cave Fable" (Plato 2000: VII: 518c).

  12. 12.

    Kristina Klockars claims that Sartre exchanges the idea of the theory concerning human nature with ontology of human existence, in order to propose a more proper viewpoint in relation to the possibilities of existence of the individual (Klockars 1998: 61). This point stresses the return of existentialist philosophy to ontology, although contrarily to classical ontology, it turns its focus to the existence of the individual within the world, and not to the existence of the world in and of itself.

  13. 13.

    This point is vital also for the controversy of existentialism with structuralism and post-structuralism. Existentialism, as it is asserted in this article, was the first to oppose the perception of the human as a subject (as early as Kierkegaard's criticism against Hegel's philosophy), and Sartre continues to develop this line of thought. Therefore, Nik Farrell Fox is able to explain why criticisms emanating from structuralism and post-structuralism concerning Sartre's conception of the subject are within the realm of "bursting through an open door" (Fox 2003: 25–42). Furthermore, these approaches present humans as objects, if only in the semiotic field, and by this show a lack of awareness to the intrinsic conceptual relation between the concept of object and the concept of subject (a sort of pseudo-positivism).


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Correspondence to Shai Frogel.

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I intentionally choose the term ‘soul’ in order to distinguish my discussion from the philosophy of mind. I believe that the paper justifies this choice.

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Frogel, S. The Soul: An Existentialist Point of View. Hum Stud 33, 191–204 (2010).

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  • Consciousness
  • Existentialism
  • Individual
  • Object
  • Ontology
  • Psychoanalysis
  • Soul
  • Subject