Do Names Have Souls?

The Metaphysics of Onomastics, and the Severe Incompleteness of Our Approved List of Philosophical Problems

Don’t forget to listen to the most recent episode of my podcast, “What Is X?” with my exceptionally lucid guest Danielle Carr, talking about Mental Health, and what it is.


Psychology, as a scientific discipline in its own right, appears towards the end of the nineteenth century at roughly the moment when it is no longer possible in respectable institutions to speak of the soul. To put this another way, the science of the soul, which is all the word “psychology” means, begins only when those concerned with it declare the soul off-limits within the scope of their science. This might seem paradoxical, but in fact it is a common pattern: “biology” comes into its own, too, only when it ceases for the most part to look for that special je-ne-sais-quoi we call “life” that would somehow place living beings at a different ontological rank on some imagined “scale of being” from helium or silica, and just gets down to the business of accounting for how a certain class of carbon-based compounds do their thing. Philosophy for its part would still be able to talk about the soul in some limited contexts, but typically only as an occasion for investigating other conceptual problems or as shorthand for the gedankenexperimental fiction of a fully disembodied conscious being. Still, “Does the soul exist?” remains even today a legitimate topic of inquiry in a typical Intro to Philosophy course, though I suspect many instructors rush at the beginning of this segment to reassure their students that they personally know full well that it does not.


What you will not find anywhere in the current practice of philosophy is any serious examination of a perfectly reasonable follow-up question: “The soul of what?”

Even if we typically only introduce the first question as a warm-up exercise, in the form of René Descartes’s Cogito argument (“I think, therefore I am… a thinking thing”), say, on the way to an investigation of more contemporary philosophical problems where we are free to leave the soul behind, when we do this we consistently fail to detect how much larger the second question is, how wide a portal it opens up to consideration of the vast range of ways in which different human cultures in different times and places have identified what we might call somewhat inadequately the “nodes of psychic identity”.

Even within the history of Western natural philosophy there is a considerable range of available positions to take up regarding the question of what, exactly, gets to have a soul. Until the early modern period the most common view was that everything in nature has either a soul or at least something “soul-like”, a “form”, in virtue of which it may be said to be the sort of thing it is. Thus the immaterial form of quicksilver, rather than any microstructural composition of non-descript fundamental particles, is what made quicksilver quicksilver.

Our presumption that by “the soul” one can only mean “human soul” is thus a consequence of the significant work of shrinking the circle of ensouled beings, effected over the course of the seventeenth century. And even in the period we find contemporaries and successors of Descartes, that most vocal advocate of soul-austerity, projecting souls or soul-like principles into a surprising variety of hosts. In the broadly Paracelsian tradition of “chemical philosophy” (with distal roots in Arabic natural philosophy), virtually every natural substance has a spiritus that can be isolated through experimental means: the spiritus vini or spirit of wine, the spiritus panis or spirit of bread, and so on. This is the special quality that makes these substances what they are, one that is easier to conceptualize in the case of wine, perhaps, since it seems to have an irreducible power, even if today we know full well the molecular composition of alcohol, to interact with and to “go to work on” our own souls, even if we think we know full well that our souls don’t strictly speaking exist, but only emerge from the activity of our neurons.

This folk conception of “spirit” still lingers in our lexicon, when we use the word to describe whiskey, vodka, and so on. It is not that distilled alcohols are intrinsically more “spirited” than wine, but only that unlike beer and wine and mead, for which traditions of more or less passive fermentation go back several millennia, “hard spirits” absolutely require the alchemical apparatus of distillation —the purpose of which was to isolate the purest “essence” of any given substance—, in order to be produced, and were really only thrust on the world (initiating an epidemic that is still with us today) in the golden age of experimental alchemy with all its alembics and stills. Nor is wine, in turn, any more spirited than bread, whose spirit seems concentrated in particular in its leaven, which somehow makes a thick mass of dough grow into a beautiful lattice of connective tissues separated by bubbles that, at least right after you take the bread out of the oven, seem to contain the warm breath of life within them (see the early pages of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon for a wonderful portrayal of a colonial American natural philosopher’s belief that “bread is alive”). And so on for anything else you might wish to subject to chemical analysis: everything, even what is seemingly lifeless and inert, lacking bubbles or a “kick” of any sort, will be discovered on examination to have its own spirit: spirit of glass, spirit of lead, spirit of chalk.


Of course, these “spirits” are not eternal, immaterial souls of the sort Descartes had in mind when he came up with the Cogito argument. But even he saw them as sufficiently analogous to what is meant by “soul” that he spent considerable energy seeking to eradicate them from the world as part of his scorched-earth campaign against animism. But again, this campaign was by no means supported by everyone in the era, and would not become hegemonic in learnèd circles arguably until the nineteenth century. So it seems at least somewhat strange that, even as we rush to present ourselves in front of our students as respectable materialists when we teach Cartesian dualism as a warm-up exercise before passing on to the “real” philosophical problems, we nonetheless accept at face value and without further consideration Descartes’s own presumption that if souls or soul-like principles are to exist anywhere at all, then they exist only as the loci of personal identity of a particular species of animal — to wit, human beings.

This presumption evades the historical fact that many of Descartes’s contemporaries and early successors saw souls all over the place. This was particularly so not just in the substances studied by chemists, but in the analysis of the hierarchical functioning of living bodies. The chemical philosopher Jean-Baptiste van Helmont (1580-1644) hypothesized the existence within a living animal body of not just a single animating principle or soul, but also of multiple subordinate souls responsible for the gestion of each organ: the “cardianax” for the heart, the “gastrianax” for the stomach, and so on, so many little assistant managers working under the single soul-boss that alone can rightly be called the “I”. And why stop there? Properly understood, G. W. Leibniz’s theory of monads, still hastily taught in many standard “history of modern philosophy” courses, effectively multiplies van Helmont’s theory of subordinate souls to infinity. Absolutely everything in the world, Leibniz thinks, results from the activity of infinite ensembles of immaterial perceivers, all standing towards one another in relations of subordination and domination in consequence of the relative degrees of clarity and confusion of their perceptions.

This is a theory that, properly understood, is at least as “weird” as anything you will find in the ethnographic record of our species, in all the delirious systems human beings have, individually and collectively, come up with to represent to themselves the constitution of our world. And yet it lies squarely within the canon of Western philosophy, and is defended by a paragon figure of modern philosophy who by his own lights is simply trying to refine and even out some of the lingering problems in the mechanical philosophy of Descartes — Leibniz saw his French predecessor as basically on the right track, even if he got stalled in the “antechamber” of philosophy and failed to detect the existence of the metaphysical atoms of substance, the monads, supporting all of what we take to be “reality”.

The truth is, though, that nothing is weird in itself, or rather, every possible representation of what makes up the world is equally weird, once you stop and think about it. This probably has something to do with the fact that the world itself is intrinsically weird; there really should have been nothing, yet somehow we got stuck with something, so obviously whatever that something turns out to be, whether it’s atoms in a void or an idea in the mind of God, is going to be weird (“Not how the world is, but that it is, is the mystical,” someone said).



But anyhow so far we’ve really only scratched the surface of the field of possible bearers of psychic identity, as we’ve been concentrating on corporeal entities (whatever those are, ultimately) — the things you encounter in everyday phenomenological space: bread, booze, human bodies.

Other candidates present themselves. Speech, or words in their manifestation as spoken language, have been taken up as the locus of something like psychic unity or substantial identity in various intellectual traditions of the world, notably in the theory of śabda or “speech sound” as articulated by the second-century BCE Sanskrit grammarian Kātyāyana, as well as at other moments in the schools of Orthodox Indian philosophy and in certain currents of Buddhism, where the meaning that accompanies a spoken sound is conceptualized as a sort of principle of unity that binds the complex of phonemes together and makes them transmit a unitary idea in much the same way that an animal soul binds the organs of the body together and makes that assemblage of organs into the precise sort of thing it is. At least when spoken, words, like bread, seem to have the breath of life in them — the consonants are their connective tissues, the vowels their bubbles. This is why, in many classical traditions, written texts are seen as mere lifeless approximations or Ersätze for what alone can count as language in the full sense: living, spoken words.

Now of course these words, like the spirit of bread or wine for the European alchemists, are typically not represented as immortal, in the way that Descartes hopes to prove the human soul is. Accounts of the relationship between individual spoken utterances and the abstract word they instantiate will differ according to tradition and author. But here as well the lack of permanence should not prevent us from imagining that a spoken word, which flashes into existence and then seems to evaporate within seconds, can have nothing soul-like about it. After all, a firm commitment to impermanence is the starting point of many venerable philosophical traditions. In the sixth-century CE Buddhist philosopher Dignāga we find for example a theory of “momentary quality atoms” which flash into and out of existence like the pulses of a strobe light. If something can be momentary and still count as an “atom” —that is, as the sort of thing Democritus held to be indestructible by definition— then surely something that is momentary can also count as a “soul”.


A special category of words in turn has often presented itself as a particularly compelling candidate for the role of soul-bearer. I have in mind proper names — peculiar animals in several respects. One is that, if we see the utterance of a common noun as the appearance in the world of an individual evanescent soul-word that belongs to the universal and eternal kind represented by the meaning of the word itself —in Sanskrit for example this would be the distinction between the śabda as “speech sound” on the one hand, and the often deified Vāc or “Speech itself” on the other—, it remains extremely difficult to say what meaning a proper name is traducing when it is uttered.

Such names often seem to have more of a pronominal function than common nouns, which is to say they “don’t mean shit” in themselves —as Butch nicely puts it in Pulp Fiction, of at least American names, when asked what his own name means—, but only stand indexically for something else: thus “Butch” does nothing but point at “that guy”. Yet we also know from the comparative study of onomastics that some system of personal names or other serves a vital function in the structuring of social reality in all human societies, including ours. Ours, for one thing, generally involves binomials, as if we were each a little Linnean category of one, both picking us out in our irreducible individuality by our “given name”, which used to be called our “Christian name” (we’ll get back to this key point in a moment), and placing us —at least traditionally, though the system has been breaking down somewhat in recent years— within a paternal lineage by means of our “last name” or “family name”.

This is one way to go about things, a relatively simple way, as it happens, when compared with other onomastic systems throughout the world. It is in fact very common within these systems, notably throughout Amazonia, for an “individual” person to have different names at different stages of life, and in relations with different people at the same stage of life, including a “secret” name that is conceptualized as the “true” name, which virtually no one knows and whose utterance is taboo. We have vestiges of such a system in our own society (I am called “Monsieur Smith” by some people, “Professor Smith” by others, “Justin” by others, and secret names I will not reveal to you by others still), but for the most part it is taken for granted that there is one name behind all the contextual variants, a “real” name, established in “legal” documents, that this name is not at all taboo but in fact highly orthophemistic and correct, and that this name “rigidly designates” an individual person throughout their life, no matter what nicknames or professional designations they might take on.

In some societies, though, it is not so much that an individual person has several names, as rather that the names themselves designate several different persons, each localized at different moments, under different circumstances or at different stages of life, in the same human body. The names themselves, in other words, are the loci of psychic identity, not the body. Again, we still have vestiges of this. Queen Elizabeth II of Canada, for example, is not the same “person” as Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But these are different ceremonial persons, no longer generally perceived as metaphysical persons. But then again, before we went and tried to metaphysicalize persons, to make them into one stable thing across their lives, “personae” were in their essence nothing more than masks. In many societies, it may be, there remains no difference between the ceremonial and the metaphysical. Or, to put this point differently, what we call “metaphysics” and attempt to render explicit as a specialized domain of human activity remains in some societies entirely integrated into the life of ceremony.


I may be exaggerating the prevalence of the “name-as-mask” theory, and indeed it must be acknowledged that in many non-Western societies given names appear to function much like what we call “Christian names”: as a way of picking out a stable individual across the course of their life. But notice that Christian names do not just mark out a unique individual, totally separate from and non-identical with everyone else. Rather, these names serve to integrate a person into a particular community with a particular history, by identifying that individual with an ancestor, who in the case of Christianity is conceptualized as a saint.

Before vital-statistics records kept us rigidly anchored to a particular date of birth, it was much more common for Christians to celebrate not their “birthday” (which my grandmother always superciliously insisted on calling a “birthday anniversary”), but rather their “saint day”, or, which is the same, their “name day”. In some corners of Christendom, notably those under the reign of the Orthodox Church, the saint day still stands alongside the birthday as an occasion for celebration: the religious calendar is effectively still in competition with the administrative state as the determinant of individual identity. But notice the slight yet important difference in the nature of the celebration: the birthday celebrates the irreducible individual, while the name day celebrates the incorporation of the individual into a collective body, and conceptualizes that individual as a sort of iteration of a timelessly existing St. George or Mary.

It should be fairly obvious that properly understood what we are looking at here is a sort of theory of metempsychosis: some newborn little George is not entirely his own person, and never will be; we can pick him out as an individual by means of the modern state’s record-keeping, but what he really is, according to the tradition that sets the onomastic rules that gave him his name, is just another of the countless reappearances throughout history of St. George. The saint is the ultimate ancestor, but the choice of name may also be mediated by a more recent George, a grandfather for example, whom the newborn calls to memory for some idiosyncratic reason known only to the family.

In The People of the Polar North (1908), similarly, the Greenlandic-Danish explorer and ethnographer Knud Rasmussen (1879-1933) offers a poignant description of the naming of a newborn girl, where an elder woman declares, on inspecting the baby and seeing some likeness to the girl’s deceased grandmother, whom she had personally known, that the grandmother has “returned”. The girl is given the name of her grandmother in accordance with this “recognition”. But what has really happened here? Does anyone believe the grandmother’s soul has reincarnated? Or is this just a façon de parler that accompanies the act of name-giving? Or, perhaps, is reincarnation nothing other, in the Arctic as in the Balkans, than the recycling of a name that places the newborn in spiritual continuity with the ancestors?

Reincarnation, in other words, becomes a good deal more plausible when we consider the profoundly communitarian context in which it typically occurs, in which to be born as a person is to traduce the ancestors, and to take up a place in a lineage that entirely shapes the meaning of present social reality. It is a good deal more plausible, that is, when the name, rather than the newborn’s body, is conceptualized as the soul-bearer.



Seen in this light, the suggestion that the body “has” a soul, or perhaps that the soul “has” a body, is not so much a timeless philosophical theory, as it is a consequence of a particular local historical process, of which Descartes is a harbinger and perhaps a prophet. This is the process of the individualization of personhood, of the idea that what it is to be a person has more to do with one’s birthday, so to speak, than with one’s name day, more to do with one’s unique vital statistics, than with one’s uptake into a community.

In this respect, you might say that the mind-body problem as we understand it has been administered into existence with the rise of the modern state. In the generations since Descartes, record-keeping has only grown more central to the lives of individual people, and the “DOB” has grown ever more important for nailing our identity down. I myself typically have to offer it up several times a week, on government websites for example, alongside my “legal” name and what Americans have intimately termed my “social” [security number], in order to aid the state in determining who I “really” am. This information is much more important to the state, of course, than the fact that I am a reincarnation of St. Justin Martyr, who was fed to the lions while wearing the purple robes of the Pythagoreans, insisting to the very end that philosophy and Christianity are not incompatible.

To make the biological body the anchor of our personhood, and the locus of whatever psychic identity we are afforded in an era in which the science of the psyche is no longer actually about the soul, is in effect to play by the state’s rules in the way we think of ourselves. As philosophers, we are in fact under no obligation to do this.


If I had to choose one bit of writing that epitomizes everything I find disappointing about the discipline of philosophy as it is currently conceived, I would probably pick Liz Harman’s 2007 article, “How Is the Ethics of Stem-Cell Research Different from the Ethics of Abortion?

This work, I take it, is representative of what may be called the “normal science” of analytic ethics in the early twenty-first century. Here I think I can skip the details, while inviting you to read it for yourself. What sticks with me whenever I recall it is a line that is likely so anodyne as to have passed unnoticed by most readers. Harman describes and supports something she calls the “Ever Conscious View”, according to which “[a] being has moral status at a time just in case it is alive at that time and there is a time in its life at which it is conscious.” She then asks us to consider plants, which fail to have moral status so defined because there is no time, she believes she is justified in supposing —presumably on the basis of the scientific expertise of others—, at which plants are conscious. From here in turn Harman infers that fetuses and embryos that will die before ever becoming conscious “are much more similar to plants than to persons or animals, considering the properties that seem relevant to having moral status.”

It is Harman’s position on fetuses and embryos that has generated at least some controversy in the past, but I would like to “queer” the matter at hand, in the etymological sense of that term —to plow querdurch right through the framing it expects us to adopt—, and to stick with the purportedly unproblematic problem of plants.

Might plants in fact have moral status? It depends whom you ask, and which plants you are asking about, and which social and symbolic function they take up within a given society. Some plants, for some people, are divine; some are taboo; some plants are some people’s cross-cousins, while other people are the cross-cousins of kangaroos or crocodiles; some plants can only be eaten after performing the appropriate rituals of sacrifice, while others can be consumed unceremoniously. It all depends, and to think that you know what “the” moral status of “plants” is just because you have consulted a certain class of experts in a single culture is really only to betray your ignorance about the tremendous range of possible ways of carving the world up, of attributing value, and of making sense of things. Philosophy in this vein remains a kind of guide to bourgeois manners, rather than a sounding of the depths of human existence.

The real dark matter that gives the universe of human thought its generally undetected weight is made up of all the ways of accounting for the constitution of the world that our particular parochial tradition has never even thought of considering. Over the past few years, under considerable political pressure to rebrand as “diverse”, philosophers have begun at least to pretend to take an interest in “non-Western” belief systems. But until this discipline starts approaching the full diversity of thought, taking the measure of the dark matter instead of simply going and looking for answers in other traditions to the questions it has already declared without real investigation to be “timeless”, it will remain just as parochial as it proudly was before these past few years of institutional pressure to pretend we are not Eurocentric.

Suggested further reading:

Gabrielle Vom Bruck and Barbara Bodenhorn (eds.), The Anthropology of Names and Naming, Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Diego Rosa Pedroso, “A Potência do nome: Política onomástica no rio Uaupés,” Campos 21/1 (2020).

Another weekend I might otherwise have spent playing pickleball with the fellas, or whatever it is normal people do, spent here instead, writing this ‘stack. Here are three ways you can help me to justify this gross work-life imbalance:

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