People carry around a lot of different mental models of what “a person” is, and frequently resort to diagrams to explain themselves.
The most common one I encountered while growing up was a series of concentric circles neatly dividing a person into separate realms of “body”, “soul” and “spirit”.
What intentional and unintentional statements does this diagrams make? For example, what exactly are we supposed to learn from the Spirit being a small circle inside of the Soul? Are we supposed to think the spirit is a subset of the soul? If so, how do we know this? If not, isn’t the diagram somewhat deceptive?
Here’s one which moves the elements around a bit and attempts to fit in the concepts of “Mind” and “Heart” too.
The Soul Reshuffled
As you might be able to tell from the terms in the labels, Christians often use these diagrams as “Biblical” explanations of particular teachings; but although the Bible differentiates between some of these terms in some cases, there is nothing about “the soul” or “the spirit” or “the heart” to be found in it which resembles these or any other diagrams.
Antoine Fabre d’Olivet thought about it and came up with this:
Whether intentionally or not, all these diagrams look like products of mathematics and geometry. Except that the statements being made are about things which, unlike math and geometry, do not have observable proportions or relationships.
Psychologists have their own famous diagrams:
These don’t seem as much like graphed equations. Maybe they’re supposed to be like anatomical drawings?
Or perhaps they’re like metaphysical “maps”:
But both anatomical and cartographical drawings depend on some kind of measurable observation. We still have no objective way of surveying the psyche. Supposing we could, the very act of doing so would alter its landscape.
In the end, there’s no way I, or anyone, can come up with a “plan” of all the metaphysical aspects of a person that will be of any use to you except as an illustration of my own very subjective ideas.
And perhaps that’s all that Freud and Jung and the Christians were trying to do with these diagrams; maybe they just wanted to illustrate their ideas about our spiritual/psychological makeup. The problem is in dressing up their subjective ideas in the visual style of objective science, when they were not scientifically derived.
There is a better language for creating these kinds of subjective illustrations. It’s called Art.
‘The Thinker’ by Renoir
A person’s psyche1 is a changing mix of thousands of ingredients, including past versions of itself. It may not be possible to diagram a person’s psyche in the same way you would diagram their kidneys — I certainly don’t think it is. It may only be possible to describe it “in portrait,” from select angles. By resorting to art for this purpose, rather than to science, we are being honest with ourselves; we admit that our perspectives on people are limited, complex, and coloured.
I believe that if you could sit and contemplate either of these paintings2 (or high-quality reproductions), you would learn truer things — maybe not about all human souls, but about at least two particular souls — than you would from any pseudoscientific diagram.
- That is, the whole conscious and unconscious being of a person — everything not physically observable. When Christians say “soul” or “spirit”, they generally mean the same thing that Plato meant by Psyche. ↩
- I’m not trying to convey anything terribly nuanced by using these two particular paintings; I just selected two that had individual (vs group) subjects and whose perspective seemed personal and emotional. ↩