Telegraph, November 11, 2007

I’m not sure it matters all that much if people imagine that their souls are nebulous entities, like a better class of ghost. For at the same time, we seem quite capable of realising that it is each one of us who at heart acts well or despicably, and may be bound for heaven or for hell.

So we seem torn between the idea that our soul is something else (amorphously attached to us as bodily creatures), and the idea that our soul is the real us, which survives our bodily death to get its deserts in a future life.

These are imaginative, pre-philosophical notions. But last weekend I found myself plunged in an attempt to lay hold of the soul in rigorously philosophical terms.

It couldn’t have happened in more congenial surroundings, the lovely stone-built university city of St Andrews poised between its cliff-top promontory and an empty sweep of sand running north to the river Eden. Never mind the golf, we were there to consider the work of the great English philosopher of the later 20th century, G E M Anscombe (1919-2001).

Elizabeth Anscombe, as she was known outside her books, was a prime interpreter of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). Many people, she acknowledged, have taken Wittgenstein for a behaviourist: they think he denied the “inner”. That he was a behaviourist she vehemently denied.

One problem had been the popular notion of body and soul. This picked up what was thought to be a dualist division made by Descartes in the 17th century. Since his day people have supposed that sensation and mental images belong to the “immaterial”. But “a medieval philosopher would have been surprised to hear” such a categorisation, Anscombe notes. Following Aristotle, the medievals would have said that animals had souls and felt sensation and entertained mental images (dogs dream); yet animals’ souls were neither immaterial nor immortal.

I must say that I’m quite happy thinking of the human soul as the form of the body, in the Aristotelian sense of the principle that gives it both its shape and the properties that it displays while alive. Men or women are able to act because of the union between matter (of which their bodies are made) and form (which makes them specimens of the human species, not dead lumps of meat). But in a paper written in 1979 (found in Human Life, Action and Ethics, published by the University of St Andrews) Anscombe comes at this question by way of an observation that Wittgenstein makes in his Philosophical Investigations.

Imagine you are pointing at something, because of its shape or its colour. There is nothing about the bodily action that indicates whether it’s the shape or colour that is meant. As Wittgenstein remarks, although there is, for example, no experience characteristic of pointing to a chess piece “as a piece”, all the same “one can say, ‘I mean that this piece is called the “king”, not this particular bit of wood I am pointing at’.”

What are we to make of this? “Because we can’t give any one bodily action,” he says, “which we call pointing to the shape (as opposed, for example, to the colour), we say that a spiritual activity corresponds to these words. Where our language suggests a body, and there is none, there, we should like to say, is a spirit.”

This is taken by some readers as meaning that we are mistaken to conclude that a spirit is present when language suggests a body and there is none. For Anscombe it is an answer to dualists who suppose that an immaterial activity such as thinking is “an immaterial event in an immaterial medium”. Pointing is a bodily act, but it is not as a bodily act that pointing to a colour is distinguished. Yet nor is it “pointing by a different sort of substance, an immaterial one”. Her formulation is that “this bodily act is an act of man qua spirit” – by a member of the human species insofar as he is spirit.

I can’t say that it is an easy way of thinking about ourselves, but Anscombe’s explanation, as far as it goes, preserves the unity of the human creature, and its spiritual capabilities.