PHIL 181: Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature

Lecture 3

 - Parts of the Soul I


Professor Gendler reviews four instances of intrapersonal divisions that have appeared in philosophy, literature, psychology, and neuroscience: Plato’s division between reason, spirit, and appetite; Hume’s division between reason and passion; Freud’s division between id, ego, and superego; and four divisions discussed by Jonathan Haidt (mind/body, left brain/right brain, old brain/new brain, and controlled/automatic thought). A discussion of a particularly vivid passage from Plato’s Phaedrus concludes the lecture.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature

PHIL 181 - Lecture 3 - Parts of the Soul I

Chapter 1. Dividing the Soul: Overview [00:00:00]

Professor Tamar Gendler: All right. So today’s lecture is a lecture about the parts of the soul. And I want to begin with some passages, two from the ancient Greek literary tradition, and two from contemporary mass culture, which bring out the extent to which it is part of the common understanding of human nature that we are often conflicted within ourselves.

So in The Republic, the book from which we have been reading excerpts, Plato’s Socrates tells a story about a man who is tempted to act against his better judgment. And this is the story of Leontius, and it goes as follows.

“Leontius, the son of Aglaion, was coming up from the Piraeus along the outside of the north wall of the city when he saw some corpses lying at the executioner’s feet. He had,” says Socrates using Plato’s terminology of appetite, “He had an appetite to look at them. But at the same time, he was disgusted and turned away. For a time,” the story goes on, “he struggled with himself and covered his face. But finally, overpowered by appetite, he pushed his eyes wide open and rushed towards the corpses, saying, ‘Look for yourselves, you evil wretches! Take your fill of the beautiful sight.’”

Now, we’ll talk more in today’s lecture about the particular picture that Plato has in mind when he speaks of the tripartite soul as involving this force that he calls appetite. But the basic description that we have here doesn’t rest in any way on a particular Platonic framework. The idea that one can, on the one hand, feel compelled to do something–eat a piece of chocolate cake, check one’s Facebook page–those are temptations that one can try to control, and struggle with oneself about.

And the narrative that will take place in the next four or five lectures is about what sorts of strategies are available for us, given that these kinds of conflicts inevitably arise? So that’s our first example from the ancient tradition of a kind of conflict; a conflict between a drive of appetite, on the one hand, and a drive of a certain kind of self-regulation on the other.

Second example comes from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. A long story in which, in the passage that we’re reading, a character Medea has, against her better judgment, found herself in love with a young man named Jason. And here I’m using a seventeenth century translation that’s actually in rhyming couplets.

“Meanwhile Medea, seiz’d with fierce desire,

By reason strives to quench the raging fire;

But strives in vain! Some God (she said) withstands,

and reason’s baffl’d counsel countermands.”

So here’s Medea, seized with desire, trying to control herself through reason, telling herself: it’s absurd to be in love with this young man, it’s a violation of other obligations that she has. But she strived in vain. She has the feeling of having been overtaken by a force outside herself, and what reason is telling her to do is overridden. It continues–this is a rhyming version of the passage that’s actually quoted in prose form in the Jonathan Haidt that we read for today–continues–this is now in Medea’s voice.

“But love, resistless love, my soul invades

Discretion this, affection that persuades.

I see the right, and I approve it too,

Condemn the wrong–and yet the wrong pursue.”

So this feeling of seeing what is right, endorsing what is right, condemning what is wrong, and yet nonetheless finding oneself doing what lies against one’s better judgment is a fundamental trope in the Western literary tradition. It’s a fundamental trope in the Eastern philosophical tradition. And it’s an extraordinarily familiar feeling in all of our lives.

Third example of the kind of tension that is picked out by this talk of parts of the soul comes from today’s Internet. Here’s a piece about last year’s Sweet Sixteen bracketing decision. And here’s the headline: “Emotions and analysis conflict when picking Sweet Sixteen winners.” “Most of you,” says this post, “involved in NCAA pools, had difficult decisions last week trying to decide whether your hearts were trying to lead you astray. ‘It’s difficult,’” he says, echoing Medea, echoing Plato, to remove emotion during (now in his own words), “what many consider to be the best post-season in sports.” And he goes on to describe how difficult it is to take reason’s mandate and select a team to which you don’t bear emotional connections.

But we don’t find this only in the context of sportsmanship. Here’s a fourth example of the sort of conflict of the soul that Plato is talking about. This one comes from the great arbiter of mass culture, Oprah. “Listen up,” says Oprah, on Oprah’s webpage, “Why Being in your Heart is Better than in your Bead.” So in this regard, those of you who have done the reading know that, if we had clickers, she is agreeing with Plato, or Hume? Is she agreeing with Plato–left hands–Plato or Hume?

Excellent. Good. So Plato’s idea is that reason is in charge. Hume’s suggestion in the passage that we read, he says, reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions. Now, Hume isn’t exactly saying what Oprah is saying here. That’s something we’ll have a chance to talk about more in sections. But again, we see, just as we saw in the story of Leontius, the story of Medea, the story of choosing your winning team in basketball betting, and here in Oprah, this idea that the soul has parts, that there are conflicts within us.

Chapter 2. Plato, Hume and Freud [00:07:57]

So what I want to do in today’s lecture is to talk through with you the five readings which I assigned for today, three required, two supplementary, each of which attempts to give voice through identification of a taxonomy to this idea that we are pulled sometimes in one direction and sometimes in another.

So the first, which I’ll talk about in detail later in the lecture, is Plato’s division between reason, spirit, and appetite. The second is Hume’s discussion of the relation between reason and passion. And Jonathan Haidt, in the book that we read the first chapter of today, presents a wonderful metaphor there, for understanding the relation between, on the one hand, reason–the part of ourselves to which we have direct, conscious access, and over which we have direct regulative control–and the other mass of drives and instincts which compose us, which he suggests we can understand as an elephant which we seek to control through whatever mechanisms are possible.

Hume’s suggestion, in the passage that we read, is that the drive and the impetus towards motion comes through, to continue with the metaphor, the creature whose feet are on the ground. So although it is the case that there’s a kind of steering that’s possible on the part of the rider, the impetus towards action comes from those parts of us over which we don’t have direct rational control.

And this idea that we are a bundle of drives that pull us in various directions lies at the heart of the incredibly influential, though highly controversial, picture of the human mind that Sigmund Freud presented in the first half of the century. So Freud’s idea is that each of us, when we are born, are a bundle of incoherent desires and needs and passions. We have a desire to eat, we have a desire for certain kinds of comfort, we have incredibly vivid sexual desires. And those desires have no degree of consistency about them. They pull us in every direction, and they cause us to act in ways that aim at their satisfaction.

The story of human development, says Freud, is the story of going on to develop two kinds of regulative capacities. The one, which he calls the ego, is a part of the self that is sensitive to reality. It recognizes that you can’t simultaneously want to kill your brother and marry your brother, because if your brother is dead, you can’t marry him. It may recognize, in fact, that you want neither to kill your brother nor marry your brother, though that bit of information may come from the third part.

So we have this bundle of passions that pull us in various directions. And on top of that, as we develop, comes a part of ourselves which is sensitive to reality. And as that happens, we become conscious of our experience. So whereas these desires pull us in various ways without our even being aware of it, the ego, the sense of self, is something to which we have reflective access.

As we go on to interact with others in the world, we get information about appropriate ways in which to regulate ourselves so as to conform with the norms of society. And as we internalize those, and take them to be part of what we ourselves endorse, they become what Freud calls the superego, sometimes thought of as the conscience.

So the picture here is that there are all sorts of unconscious parts of ourselves, some of which are drives that pull us to do things like eat and procreate, some of which are aspects more sensitive to the constraints of reality, some of which are the norms of society. And then on top of that, in a rather smaller part of ourselves, is an aspect of which we are conscious.

Now, there are details of the Freudian picture which have been discredited for all sorts of reasons. But the basic idea that we have unconscious pulls in directions which we disavow, has become, I think, part of how it is that Western culture self-conceives. I think it’s almost impossible to underestimate the extent to which the Freudian picture underlies twentieth century literature, twentieth century film, and twentieth century self-understanding.

Notice that the Freudian picture, though it has three parts, isn’t exactly the Platonic picture. Appetite and id roughly correspond, but spirit is not the same thing as ego; and reason and superego where are only roughly correlated. Those of you who are intrigued by this discussion can go back and look in this week’s reading, and read Freud’s own presentation of the theory that I’ve just described.

The fourth distinction which I’ll go on to discuss in the main part of the lecture is a contemporary extension between system one and system two, or between a sort of automatic heuristic processing system and a rational reflective processing system. And as I said, I’ll talk about that in the bulk part of the lecture.

Chapter 3. Haidt’s Four Divisions [00:15:28]

I want to just now introduce our fifth set of divisions. And these are the four divisions which Jonathan Haidt identifies in the opening chapter. So as you know, [that] we read the Plato, we had the option of reading the Hume, the option of reading the Freud, we read the Evans piece, and we read the Haidt.

So Haidt’s first distinction is between what he calls mind and body. And what he points out there is that though much of our bodily regulation happens through the brain, there are independent loci of processing. In particular, the gut, our digestive organs, can run relatively independently of the brain, and he provides some examples of that.

But strikingly, one of the things that he does not discuss is the famous example of Mike, the headless rooster, who was a rooster–here he is on the cover of Life magazine–who soon after the Second World War was beheaded, and who went on to live for another 18 months, perfectly happily. Here he is dancing. And if you go on YouTube, you can actually watch a live version of Mike the headless chicken. Those of you who have pledged to turn off your Internet: I’m regretting it now.

So the point about Mike the headless chicken is that there’s a whole bunch of motor control representations that take place not in the organ where one would typically expect it, in the head, but rather along the spinal cord in various ways. The first division to which Haidt adverts is the fact that it’s actually a biological feature of us. That regulation of action happens through all sorts of biological processes, some of which are located up here, and others of which communicate with the parts of our limbs and so on, only through lower parts of the spinal cord.

The second division that Haidt reminds us of the importance of is the division between left brain and right brain. As many of you know, we have running along the middle of our heads something called the corpus callosum, which connects all the stuff that happens on the right side of our head to all the stuff that happens on the left side of our head.

It turns out that in certain kinds of epileptic patients, the only way to cure their epilepsy, their electric seizures that run across the brain, is by severing the corpus callosum. And by doing so, for medically necessary reasons, science has discovered the degree to which the processing that goes on in the two sides of the brain is relatively independent. Basically, everything that comes in through the right visual field is processed in the brain’s left hemisphere, and everything that comes in through the left visual field is processed in the brain’s right hemisphere.

And though many features of the brain are duplicated across the hemisphere, others of them are localized. In particular, in the brains of right-handed people, language is a right [correction: left] hemisphere activity. And so Haidt describes some famous research done in the 1950s by the neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga in which a patient who had been subject to a severing of the corpus callosum, is presented with some images that either come in through the left visual field and consequently are processed on the right side of the brain, or images that come in from the right visual field, and consequently are processed on the left side of the brain.

Interestingly, because information processed on the left side of the brain, sorry, on the right side of the brain isn’t linguistically available–I believe I misspoke earlier. The language center is on the left, in right-handed people–isn’t linguistically available, when the subject looks at something that comes in over here, there’s no linguistic processing of what he sees. But when he’s asked to explain what it is that is in his visual field, he engages in what Gazzaniga called confabulation.

So the gentleman here has been shown with this side of the brain a bunch of images of snow, and he is asked to choose–remember, this is right brain, so it’s left hand–something that goes with them. And so he selects with his left hand, controlled by the right brain from the left visual field, a shovel, something which would be enormously useful if you had snow.

Meanwhile, the left side of his brain through the right eye, controlling the right hand, sees a chicken claw and selects a chicken. So one side of his brain sees a chicken claw, and selecting the thing that goes with it, selects the chicken. The other side of his brain sees the snow, and selecting the thing that goes with it, selects the shovel. So far, so good. I’ve told you the brain is segregated in these sorts of ways, so it isn’t surprising that the right side is selecting something that goes with what it saw, and the left side, and selecting something that goes with what it saw.

What happens next? What happens next is that the man looks down at the shovel and the chicken, which he has selected, and is confronted with the question of why he has chosen those things. Now, as far as the language center of his brain goes, he has no idea why he’s chosen the chicken claw. Right? That information hasn’t entered into the part of his brain where the linguistic processing is taking place.

Nonetheless, what he does is something called confabulate. He says, Oh. I picked the shovel because I need to shovel out the chicken coop. He comes up with an explanation for why it is that he has chosen as he has chosen.

And in cases of hypnosis, there is a similar phenomenology. Subjects will find themselves onstage with their arms and legs in a particular way, and immediately come up with a confabulated explanation for it is why that they are doing what they are doing.

We are quite typically people who read our behavior off our experiences. And when we talk about emotion and self-understanding, we will come back to this issue.

So the point about left and right brain is two-fold. The first is that this is a second example of a biological underpinning of the idea that we are divided in certain ways. And the second is the idea of confabulation in the sense that–to use the rider-elephant metaphor–it’s as if the rider thinks that it’s his feet that are on the ground rather than the elephant’s.

The third division which Haidt describes to us is the division between what he calls old brain and new brain. Roughly, the parts of our brain, the brain stem and subcortical regions, that we share with nonhuman animals, and the parts of our brain that are much more highly developed in human beings, namely the cortical region and in particular, the prefrontal cortex. And Haidt tells there a story, which is useful for understanding how it is that self-regulation, occurs.

So my guess is that many of you have seen some version of these famous images of this person. Anybody know the name of this person? Yeah?

Student: Phineas Gage.

Professor Tamar Gendler: Phineas Gage. This is Phineas Gage, who was a railroad worker in the nineteenth century who was tamping down some dynamite as part of his job as a railroad worker. And the dynamite exploded, and this long metal pole went through his brain.

But, like Mike the headless chicken, Phineas Gage was a survivor, and in fact did not die, but went to live for many more years. In reconstructing the accident, it’s become clear that the damage, which the pole did, was to an area of Gage’s brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Right up here is the prefrontal cortex.

And the result of the accident which happened to Gage was like what happened to the University of Virginia schoolteacher that Haidt describes in his story. There was a loss of capacity for a certain kind of self-regulation.

So in some ways, like Medea, though Gage was able to see what the normatively correct thing to do was–to see what he ought to do, to understand it, to explain it, to articulate it, to say what would be socially appropriate–he found himself unable to act on what it was that he thought would be a better idea. So he would say something like, you shouldn’t yell and scream when you’re upset in a public setting. He would understand that that sort of behavior was inappropriate, but he would nonetheless find himself unable to act on that. He would end up doing what Freud would say his id told him to do, or what Plato would say his appetite told him to do.

Again and again, it’s been discovered in subjects with damage to the prefrontal cortex that they face difficulties with self-regulation. So it looks like at least one of the places where what Plato would call reason seats itself is in this particular part of the brain. And, in fact, there is reasonably good evidence that individuals who suffer, for example, from attention hyperactivity deficit disorder, ADHD, have lower prefrontal cortex function than those who do not.

So when Haidt speaks of old brain–a part of the brain that we share with beings who act on instinct–and new brain–cortex, and in particular, the parts of the cortex that are especially well-developed in human beings, like PFC–one of the things that he is talking about is this capacity for self-regulation. And when we talk about weakness of the will in roughly five classes, we’ll talk about some of the ways in which we can exploit the fact that we have these complex brains capable of learning patterns both though our old systems and through our new ones.

So we are capable of regulation both in the way that dogs and cats are. If you want to train your cat not to go on the couch, saying, “Please don’t go on the couch, you’ll leave fur there, and my aunt is allergic,” is in fact not an effective way to train your cat not to go on the couch. To train your cat not to go on the couch you need to do something like put a crinkly piece of paper there that makes an ugly noise every time she sits down. Or perhaps spray her gently with a water bottle whenever she goes on the couch. In so doing, you set up associations between being on the couch and a negative outcome, and you change her associations with it. But you don’t do it in a way that engages reflective self-regulation.

We as human beings with both old brain and new can regulate ourselves in the way that we regulate and train animals through associating certain activities with positive things and other activities with negative ones. But we can also do so making use of a kind of reflection and self-regulation that involves a certain kind of self-control. And we’ll talk about that more in later lectures.

So what I want to do now, having given you first some literary texts in which we have articulated the idea of the soul being divided, and then quickly run through the various divisions that we read about today, is to–Oh, sorry! There’s a fourth example from Jonathan Haidt. What I want to do, really, is to tell you about controlled and automatic processing, and then do what I said I would just do.

So some of you, at the conclusion of this class, are going to walk from this room, perhaps by taking an elevator, over to a lecture in another part of WLH that is taught by John Bargh. And what I want to describe for you here is a study that John Bargh did roughly fifteen years ago, that brings out the relation between controlled and automatic processing.

So Bargh brought subjects into his laboratory, and had them engage in what’s called a scrambled sentence task. The scrambled sentence task is a task where you’re given a list of words, say, five words: he, beautiful, doorway, relevant, Thursday. And you’re asked to put four of them into a sentence. In so doing, you’re forced to engage with the meanings of the words. The only idea of the scrambled sentence task is to get you thinking about various words.

So subjects in this study were presented either with a set of words that were just a wide range of words, or with a set of words, a portion of which had terms typically associated with the elderly. Words like wrinkly, and bingo, and Florida. Those subjects who unscrambled the sentences that had words associated with the elderly presumably had primed in their minds the idea of old person.

And then the dependent variable, DV, which Bargh measured, was how long it took the people, when they left the study, to walk to the elevator. So subjects who had engaged in the typical scrambled sentence task walked quite quickly to the elevator. But those who had been given words associated with the elderly went very slowly. Indeed, subjects who were in the ordinary condition took just over seven seconds to get to the elevator, whereas subjects who had been primed with words associated with the elderly took more than a second and a half longer to get there.

Now, presumably this was not because they were consciously thinking, “oh, I’ve got to get to my bingo game.” It was because an image of something had been evoked in their mind unconsciously, beneath the level of awareness, and it ended up affecting their behavior.

And in a series of studies that Bargh went on to do over the next few years, and which he continues to do now, he found this effect over and over again. So for example, some subjects were primed with terms that had to do with politeness, others with terms that had to do with rudeness, and the dependent variable, the thing which he was measuring, was how likely they were to interrupt the experimenter when they needed to get information from the experimenter. Those primed with words associated with politeness waited almost fifteen minutes, whereas those primed with words associated with rudeness went up right away, and interrupted the experimenter.

More recently, in the domain of embodied cognition, he’s been looking at things like, what happens if you hold a warm or a cold coffee cup before you evaluate a résumé, and subjects who have, in the elevator, helped the experimenter by (“could you just hold my mug, please?”) holding a warm mug, as opposed to (“could you just hold my mug, please”) holding a cold mug, were more likely to evaluate the résumé positively. That is, a sense of warmth in one domain brings with it a sense of warmth in the other. So that’s the fourth division. OK.

Chapter 4. Plato’s Division Between Reason, Spirit, and Appetite [00:36:12]

So what I want to do in the last ten minutes of lecture is to talk about the two texts that I haven’t discussed already. First, Plato’s division into reason, spirit, and appetite, and secondly, the material on dual processing. Though since next lecture is explicitly about dual processing, if we don’t get all the way through that material, I’ll begin next lecture with it.

So in the somewhat salacious material from Plato that I had you read today–I hope you read it: It’s really great and really fun. So in it, Plato–here’s a wonderful depiction of it by a philosopher named John Holbo who lives in Singapore. Plato describes the three parts of the human soul. The first is what he calls reason, or logos; this is represented here by the chariots here. The second, spirit, sometimes translated as honor, or thumos. And the third, appetite, or epithumos.

Now Plato presents a number of metaphors by which we can understand this. In the Republic, in a passage which we’re reading for early next week, he describes reason as a human being, spirit as a lion, and appetite as a multi-headed beast. And in the passage that we read for today, from the Phaedrus, he describes reason as “a charioteer,” spirit as “a good horse, noble in frame, well-jointed, with a high neck and regal bearing. His coat is white and he is controllable by word alone.” Appetite, by contrast, on the Platonic picture, is “a great crooked jumble of limbs with a short bull neck, a pug nose, dark skin, bloodshot white eyes, companion to wild boasts and indecency, shaggy around the ears, deaf as a post, barely yielding to the horsewhip and the goad combined.”

And Plato goes on to describe in the passage that we read today, a rather exciting event, where a man of Athens has fallen in love with a young boy, and the brown horse within him, his appetites, are ready to engage in those activities which fell into the category of things that Freud talked about in the id. And I don’t mean that he wanted to eat lunch with the young boy. Whereas spirit is attracted, but recognizes the ways in which there are social norms, and the charioteer is involved in trying to keep them in line.

So Socrates writes of the process by which the charioteer tries to bring the dark horse into line, as the dark horse basically tries to get the man to embrace his young beloved. So he says: “the promised time arrives, the horses pretend to have forgotten what they were told by the charioteer. It reminds them. The horse struggles. It neighs. It pulls them forward. It forces them to approach the boy again with the same proposition, and as soon as they are near, it drops its head, straightens its tail, bites the bit, and pulls towards the boy without any shame at all.”

The charioteer–that is, reason, self-regulation, the superego, the prefrontal cortex–is struck with the same feelings as before, where he feels like this is not activity that he wants to engage in. “Only worse, and he’s falling back as he would from a starting gate. He violently yanks the bit back out of the teeth of the insolent horse, harder this time, so that he bloodies its foul-speaking tongue and jaws, sets its legs and haunches firmly on the ground, and causes it to stop.”

Now this idea that one of the ways in which we learn to control our passions is by training ourselves as we would train a wild animal through the creation of negative associations with certain sorts of activities is, in fact, a fundamental insight about how human self-regulation takes place. And with respect to truly forceful passions, sexual appetites in particular, a kind of self-regulation that involves an equally forceful antidote is crucial.

Plato’s picture is that in the well-ordered soul, reason, the charioteer, does the ruling, and that spirit and appetite are, through a process of self-regulation, tamed and trained. So what the Republic, the book from which we’ve been reading excerpts, describes is a process by which the rational part of ourselves can come to be in control of our spirits and our appetites.

Plato actually tells the story by means of a controlling metaphor, which is that he compares the structure of the human soul to the structure of a city. And he says that just as in the human soul, there is reason, there is spirit, and there is appetite, so, too, in a well-structured city, there are guardians, those governed by reason; auxiliaries, roughly soldiers, those governed by honor; and a kind of worker, who is governed by appetite.

And moving back and forth between the individual and the society, Plato goes on to describe a series of processes through which the wills and desires and impulses of, on the one hand, the auxiliaries and the workers, and, on the other hand, spirit and appetite, can be brought into harmony with what reason dictates. And it will turn out, we’ll find out in three lectures, that this kind of harmony is the answer that he’s going to offer to Glaucon’s question about why it is intrinsically valuable to act in a moral way.

So that concludes the presentation of Plato’s tripartite soul. What we will do next lecture is to talk about the discussion of dual processing accounts in the context of the two pieces that we’re reading for next class. The first, as you may know, or may have seen, is Daniel Kahneman’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, and you have your choice of either listening to the speech or reading a somewhat more detailed article in which we describes its content. And the second is a piece that I’ve written on a notion that I call alief, which tries to bring together some of the ideas that we have today. So I hope to see many of you back on Thursday.

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]