Mulla Sadra’s Idea of Soul-Body Relation and its Consquences in Psychology

Kamal Kharrazi

The issue of mind or soul and its relation to body is a philosophical one. Undoubtedly, no psychological theory can proceed to scientific explanation without adopting a position in this regard. Some theoricians tried to exclude such a concept from their theories, but they failed to do so, and in the end they had to adopt a position of their own making in this regard. The role and the importance of this philosophical issue can be traced only in dynamic explanations of psychological theories. In other words, the the philosophical viewpot of a psychological theory is concerning the relation between soul and body, the more explicit that theory will be. In this article, for the purpose of reviewing the position adopted by contemporary psychology on soul-body relation, we are going to introduce Mulla Sadra’s philosophical point of view as a firm basis on which psychological researches have to be made. Thus, this article has been presented in three parts: (a) soul-body relation in contemporary psychology, (b) Mulla Sadra’s theory on soul-body relation, and (c) the consequences of Mulla Sadra’s theory in psychology.

1. Soul-body relation in contemporary psychology

The contemporary psychology has been developed mainly in the current century[1]. In the 19th century, philosophical thoughts under the influence of Hegelian thoughts, had built-in idealistic slogans, but the 20th century, witnessed a fundamental opposition to such idealism. In the United States, this opposition manifested itself in the form of pragmatism, and refutation of Hegelian thoughts by some philosophers such as Dewey. In Germany and ex-Soviet Union, such refutation emerged in the form of Marxism and Marx’s complete disapproval of Hegelianism. In Britain, it appeared in the from of a conflict between analytic philosophers such as Moore and the Hegelian thoughts. The emergence of such an atmosphere which was openly or secretly prevailing over materialism and naturalism, paved the way for the development of such psychological theories which have implicitly or explicitly shown tendencies toward denying soul.

In the realm of psychoanalysis, Freud explicitly declared that, unlike his predecessors who took spirit as an essential part in man, he considered instinct as the base of man’s psychological being. [2]  However, the scientific system of psychoanalysis deals with instinctive energies, their repression, defense mechanisms of repressed energies, nervous disorders caused by repression and ways of their treatment. According to Freud, no psychological phenomenon, can be correctly explained without mentioning the role of the instinct therein. For example, the dire need of man for ideal perfection does in no way arise from an inherent tendency towards becoming a transcendental or spiritual being, but it stems from defense mechanisms of repressed energies. [3]

In certain research works, carried out in ex-Soviet Union, by both Pavlov and subsequent researchers such as Vigowtski and Luria, the philosophical perspective of materialism has been explicitly or implicitly prevalent. In this regard, Luria writes: “Pavlovian psychophysiology provides a materialistic base for our studies about mind…Vigowtski was also a prominent Marxist theorecian among us… Influenced by Marx, Wigowtski came to the conclusion that the roots of the highest forms of conscious behavior should be traced in social relations between the individual and the external world.” [4] In other words, the interaction between material physiological conditions and material socio-economic conditions, put together, will give rise to psychological phenomena. Mind and mental characteristics are regarded, at the most, as an epiphenomenon in comparison with the above-mentioned material conditions.

According to behaviorists, the existence of mind, as an entity in man, has been denied. What are called mental or psychological characterics, are, in fact, behavioral or motional characteristics existing in organism, or the consequences of behaviors conditioned by environment. For example, Watson [5] does not regard thinking anything other than the speaking of man with himself, while the act of speaking with self is nothing but a series of motional and muscular habits appearing in speaking organs. Like Watson, Skinner also denies mind as an entity, and regards mental and psychological characteristics as observable behaviors stimulated and reinforced by environmental rectifiers. Thus, mind is regarded, in line with the intellectual spirit of pragmatism, to be the determinant of behavior.

 Gestalt psychologists paid special attention to mental capabilities. They believed that, without taking such capabilities into account, perceptual and psychological phenomena cannot be explained well. Yet Gestalt psychologists were after the explanation of these mental capabilities through physical perspectives. Kuhler explicitly regards Gestalt psychology a sort of applied field physics; and deems Gestalt as corresponding to field in physics. Ultimately, mental capabilities and characteristics are searched out in the structure of brain. Kuhler believes that Gestalt theory of psychology is in no way in conflict with materialism; rather it is in harmony both with materialism and with that kind of parallelism of mind and brain called epiphenomenon parallelism. [6]

Epistemology, which has been introduced and developed in recent years, unlike some of the above-mentioned viewpoints, reserves a prominent place for mind in psychological explanations. Here, “mind” does not suggest an immaterial entity such as “soul”. For example, Piaget (1986) says: “Structuralism calls our attention to a separation between individual subject, (which does not come to the scene at all) and epistemic subject, that is, to the same perceptual core, which is common among all those who are at the same level.” [7] Piaget means that if we believe in structuralism (as he himself believed), then we cannot regard the reality of individual’s being related to an internal and immaterial soul (or to individual subject) as Descartes did. In structuralism, if we are to speak of a subject, we have to regard it as a structure, which similarly exists in a stage of psychological development in various individuals. Such a structure can exist in the form of artificial intelligence in a machine, too.

With the brief review that we have made of the main views on contemporary psychology, we clearly observe that psychologists strongly denied the existence of soul as an immaterial entity in the body. Such denial, as it was said, was uttered in the face of domination of idealistic thoughts. But as far as psychological explanation is concerned psychologists were confronted with the problem of facing a dualistic entity with two different motives of behavior and action if they accepted the veracity of body-soul relation. Such Behavior and action can be motivated, on the one hand, by body and on the other hand by psychical motives such as desire and will. Thus it can be said that the foregoing denial has been, to some extent, justified; since philosophical base of such dualism (body and soul) is not strong enough, and creates certain difficulties in the way of giving philosophical and scientific explanations. However, we proceed at this time to describe Mulla Sadra’s views on soul-body relation with a view to assessing the extent of their ability in providing a stronger philosophical base for psychological explanations.

2. Mulla Sadra’s doctrine of soul-body relation

Mulla Sadra denies soul to exist before the existence of body. He also rejects the idea that immaterial soul comes down to, and settles in body as a separate thing. He even doubts the validity of the view that immaterial soul is descended to fetus in womb; since this necessitates the idleness and futility of soul in a container like womb, wherein all high activities of soul such as perception and intellection are rendered impossible, and this is quite far from and alien to supreme Wisdom, which governs the course of creation as well as the universe. [8]

Mulla Sadra believes that soul is created corporeally. That is, there exists at first corporeal soulless matter. Then, under certain conditions, soul comes into being gradually through matter and its substantial motion. When fetus settles in its place it starts its evolution on the strength of trans-substantial motion. The fetus first takes a natural mineral shape. Then, because of further evolution, it takes a vegetative form. At this stage, the corporeal matter is mature enough to take on perception; but as long as it is devoid of sense under the influence of environment, there exists no room for soul therein. After having found vegetative form within womb, and been influenced both by external factors, and their stimulants, the corporeal matter passively takes on sense, and then the earliest form of perception takes place. Thus, the first manifestation of soul occurs. Here it could be said that soul is created out of corporeal matter. At this stage, however, soul is nothing but sense and passive reaction, that is, far from being a solid and independent substance, it is extremely weak and borders corporeal matter. Furthermore, soul at this stage still remains in the form of dormant sense and sense perception which need to be stimulated. However, unity between the sensing thing and the sensible thing means that soul which is the sensing thing, and the perceptual form which is the sensible thing, are one and the same thing. By receiving external stimulants, fetus gains more powerful sense perception, and to the same extent the substance of soul is strengthened. [9]

However, matter and soul are similar in that that they both have states and motions, yet they are different in that that the motions of matter are in succession; each earlier motion is annihilated by subsequent motion, and they have no, lasting inter-connection, while the motions of soul are inter-connected and are piled up together one after another. [10] Thus, emotions and sense perceptions brought about in fetus, are inter-connected and accumulated, and it is in this way that the substance of soul is continuously and increasingly strengthened.

When an infant is born, the dimensions of her/his sense perceptions start growing, and with the activation of senses such as those of taste, sight, and hearing, soul starts gaining increasing perception and emotions; and thus, soul’s trance-substantial motion is exposed to more intensification.

Then imaginary perceptions come into being. With the abundance of sense perceptions, which are gained through actual interaction between body and things and with their accumulation in soul, sense of imagination is enabled to make images of things and retain them even in the absence of those things. Since imaginary forms are less (than sense forms) dependent on things, then they are less immaterial than sense forms. That is to say, soul, which is now able to make and retain, imaginary forms, attains a higher degree of immateriality; and through its perceptions, becomes relatively independent of things, and is enabled to have some perception of things in its own world, without being influenced by them. But since soul, at this stage, is nothing but a conglomeration of motions and states or a pile of successive perceptual forms, it cannot be said that soul is a thing, and bears imaginary forms; It should be said that the imagining and the imagined are both one and the same (i.e. union of the imagining and the imagined).

With the accumulation of imaginary and sensory forms, soul, becomes, more intensified, through its trans-substantial motion, then it is enabled to perceive particular concepts. While imaginary forms are to some extent independent of things and sensible, they are subject to particular forms of sense perception. Compared with them, particular concepts are more independent of particular sensory forms; but embrace a pattern of characteristics common to both imaginary and sensory forms thus accumulated. Nevertheless particular concepts need to be considered in relation to the relevant patterns. For example, a pattern of unidentified wolves, suggestive of enmity, and imprinted in child’s mind becomes conceivable as soon as their imaginary and sensory forms are called up in mind. Thus, it is made clear that soul is still in full relation and unity with body, and if it cannot establish a relation with sensory and imaginary forms through bodily senses, its trans-substantial motions cannot, as a result, be intensified. Through such sensory and imaginary stimulations, soul is enabled to perceive particular concepts and to gain a new power, which is called faculty of estimation. At this time, there exists a union of soul and perceptual activity; that is, nothing soul is but perception of particular concepts.

After perceiving particular concepts, trans-substantial motions of soul enable soul to perceive universal concepts. Universal concepts are perceived through reason. In other words, at this stage, soul has been so much intensified that reason appears therein. Unlike some other philosophers, Mulla Sadra does not regard faculty of estimation, already mentioned, as a faculty distinct from faculty of reason; since faculty of estimation is, indeed, the same faculty of reason, which has appeared in a state of relation and belonging to imaginary forms. Therefore, concepts, whether universal or particular, are perceived by reason; it is evident, however, that universal concepts are more separate and immaterial. [11]

At this stage soul will be more immaterial. Of course, at the beginning of this stage, soul’s ability to abstract has not reached its culmination. Such culmination is not reached unless man has dealt with universal concepts and his mind has been engaged in thinking over at this level. It is in the middle age that the rational aspect of soul comes into actuality, whereas before that, ability of mind to perceive the ineligibles was only in the making, and its realization and actualization subsequently depends on mental activities in the realm of universal concepts. At this level, soul is just the same as rational perceptions, and union of intellect and the intelligible has occurred.

Thus, Mulla Sadra believes that soul evolves gradually in body; its relation to body is not the same as the relation between one thing and another, and soul and body are intertwined as a real unit. For example, the relation between soul and body is not like the relation between carpenter and saw, but it is like the relation between form and matter of a chair, which manifest themselves in one and the same existence. But as we saw, soul attains, in its substantial motion, increasingly, degrees of immateriality so that it can no longer be regarded as being at the level of body and bodily states. All faculties, gained by soul in the course of its trans-substantial motion, are present in union (soul, in its unity, includes all faculties). Unlike Peripatetic philosophers, who believe that soul in itself develops faculties which deal with particular affairs, but by itself deals with universal ones, Mulla Sadra is of the view that soul by itself is present and governs the functioning of all its faculties.

Of course, participation of soul, can be both weak and strong in degrees. That is, soul’s participation at the level of its own faculties is weak in degrees. Mulla Sadra says that, according to some mystics, the relation between soul and its faculties, is like the relation between God and angels in which, though they are connected and inseparable, nonetheless, God reigns supreme. [12] 

3. Consequences of Mulla Sadra’s theory in psychology

Mulla Sadra’s theory of soul-body relation clearly rejects two kinds of psychology: one is the psychology based on philosophical dualism according to which, whatever cannot be related to body is related to an immaterial entity, called soul, which is settled in body. The other is a psychology which relies on materialistic monism, which denies soul’s existence, and explains all psychological behaviors and phenomena through resort to physiology or neurophysiology.

 An example of researches of the former psychology can be found in philosophical and scientific writings of Popper and Eccles (1986). In their writings they have tried to introduce Cartesian dualism as a psychological basis. Chomski also in his studies related to explanation of language, turns to Cartesian thought from philosophical point of view. Chomski, however, shuns Cartesian dualism and tries to replace Cartesian immaterial soul by man’s genetic structure; and he takes refuge in the latter psychology, of which examples related in contemporary history were given in the earlier part of this article.

A psychology to be approved of by Sadrian philosophy, should begin with a sort of wholism. Since soul is not fully present in body as of the beginning of its creation, and is a supplement to body only when they are both in union, then body and soul, put together, form an integrated and inseparable whole. And since soul, at every stage (sensory, imaginary, and rational), is just the same as perceptions gained at that stage, then a sort of coordination can be established among studies of physiology, neurology, and psychology. In other words, initial intertwining of soul and body lays grounds for physiological and neurological findings to become a better and more precise understanding of soul.

The initial simple wholism, however, gradually pave the way for a more detailed and complex wholism. Along with soul’s trans-substantial motion and its attainment of increasing degrees of immateriality, soul and body appear as separate entities. But as it was said in the second part of discussion, unlike Peripatetics Mulla Sadra does not regard the relation between soul and its faculties as separable. According to him, soul is always present in all its own faculties. Thus, while wholism always exists, a sort of separation between soul and body is nonetheless apparent. As long as wholism does exist, physiological and neurological findings can be useful in recognizing soul; since there is an inseparable relation between soul and body. But because of the high levels which are attained by immaterial soul, some psychological phenomena cannot be explained without resort to soul. For example, studies of thinking process show that when rational perceptions become possible for soul, investigation of motional and muscular habits of speaking organs (which Watson was after) cannot and should not be regarded as adequate, nor should neuro-physiological investigations be regarded as adequate to explain thought and its characteristics (which Churchland (1986) was after in his eliminative materialism).

Thus, a psychology in line with Sadrian philosophy, has to proceed on a middle course – a course which ends (a) neither in pure subjectivism, which looks for everything in the immaterial soul, or even worse, takes immaterial soul settled in body as a pivot on which everything should depend, (b) nor in reductionism, which explains every phenomenon in the realm of high psychological activities, in terms of material and neurological states. 



1 20th century.

2. Yankelouich, 1971, Ego and Instinct, p. 88.

3 Freud, Beyond the Leisure Principle, p. 645.

4 Luria, A.R. (1979), The Making of Mind, pp. 43-44.

5 Watson, J.B. (1924), Behaviorism, 1924, chapter 10.

6 quoted from Popper and Eccles, 1986, The Self and its Brain.

7 Piaget, J. (1968), Structuralism, p. 138.

8 Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar, translated by Muslih, p. 172.

9 Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar, vol. 9, p. 112.

10 Mishkut al-Dini, Nazari be falsafaye Sadr al-Din Shirazi, 1345, pp. 70-71.

11 Mulla Sadra, al-Asfar, translated by Muslih, p. 273.

12 al-Asfar, vol. 9, p. 84. 



- Chomski, Nuam, Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter of the History of Rationalist Thought, translated by Ahmad Tahirian, Hermes Publication, 1377 AH solar.

- Shirazi, Sadr al-Din Muhammed, al-Asfar, vol. 9, published in Beirut.    

- Shirazi, Sadr al- Din Muhammed, al-Asfar, translated by Jawad Muslih, Tehran University Press, 1352.

- Mishkut al-Dini, ‘Abdul Muhisn, Nazari be falsafaye Sadr al- Din Shirazi, Bunyad-i Farhang- i Iran Publication, 1345.

- Churchland, P.S. (1986),. Neuro-philosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-brain, Cambridge: MIT Press/Bradford Books.

- Popper, K.R. and Eccles, J.C. (1986), The Self and its Brain, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

- Piaget, J. (1968), Structuralism, New York: Basic Books.

- Freud, Z. (1968), Beyond the Leisure Principle, in Freud Great books, vol. 54, London: Encyclopedia Britanica, inc.

- Luria, A.R. (1979), The Making of Mind, edited by M. Cole, and S. Cole Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

- Watson, J.B. (1924), Behaviorism, People’s Institute Publishing Company Inc.

- Yandelouich, D. and Barret, W. (1971), Ego and Instinct, New York: Vintage Books.



 Print This Document

Save This Document on Your System