Does Embodied Cognition Support a Hylomorphic View of the Soul?

Rebekah Wallace
Sunday 19 June 2022
  1. Introduction
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

There has been increasing interest in embodiment in both neuroscience and Christian theology, and this has led to a focus on theological anthropology, especially regarding its implications for the soul. Many Christians believe that there must be some form of transcendent human identity distinct from our embodied existence to sustain a Christian eschatology. This is because there must be some account of how human beings can be judged after death, and how they might experience Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory in the state between physical resurrection and death. Also, if there is no separate, transcendental identity, at the resurrection, when we are given new and glorified bodies, we could not logically say we are the same person since presumably our glorified bodies will not be of the same constitutional make-up. In addition, we don’t know if our heavenly bodies will be like our earthly bodies, since we are told that we will be given spiritual bodies at the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:44). There is a worry that placing too much emphasis on the body could lead to a reductive physicalist view in which the human being is “nothing but” the physical make-up, eschewing any possibility of continuity between death and the resurrection of the body.

Additionally, the notion of a supernatural soul has often been associated in the Christian tradition, and in the Western tradition more generally, with mind, many would say due to the influence of Descartes. There is a metaphysical problem of the physical and non-physical realm, and mind and soul are often used interchangeably because they are presumed to be a non-physical principle of agency. Because of this, discussions around the soul are treated almost synonymously as questions of mind in much of the analytic philosophical tradition (Swinburne 2013; Swinburne 2019e). Taking this as a starting point, theories in the cognitive sciences like embodied cognition could seriously challenge the supernatural soul because there is increasing proof that our minds cannot exist independently of our bodies. Thought itself, studies in the cognitive sciences show, is inextricably linked with our embodiment, whether it be that it is influenced by emotional and affective states, or conscious thought determined and directed by our bodily make-up. This is because the mind, according to embodied cognition, is not a separate substance. It is neither “located” in the brain, nor anywhere else. Instead, the mind is an emergent property of a living body and its interaction with the environment (Varela 1993; Shapiro 2012; Clark 1999; Lakoff and Johnson 2003).

I argue that embodied cognition does challenge Christian views of the soul which rest on substance dualism because such Cartesian dualism cannot adequately account for the relationship between body and soul according to modern cognitive neuroscience. Therefore, substance dualism cannot be a solution to the problem of continuity after death, and a transcendental soul cannot be the seat of our identity. I equally contend, however, that this does not mean that Christians need to embrace physicalism (either reductive or non-reductive). Instead, I propose that embodied cognition supports a form of hylomorphic dualism which safeguards against both physicalism and against the problems of mind-body dualism. Hylomorphic dualism is a philosophical framework for understanding the relationship between matter and form, and in living things this form is called the soul. It was appropriated from Aristotle for theological purposes by Thomas Aquinas where it has played a significant role in Catholic Christian theology. I show that, far from challenging Christian notions of the soul, some forms of embodied cognition support a Thomist hylomorphic view of the soul/body relationship which is in line with Catholic theology, and therefore not at odds with a large portion of the Western Christian monotheistic tradition (Stump 1995; De Haan 2017; Dodds 2009).

2. Fields of Study

2.1 Christian Theological Anthropology

Christian theological anthropology aims at seeing the human person in all its wholeness and integration (O’Callaghan 2013) but unlike anthropology alone, it aims to do this not just by accounting for humans nested in culturally-embedded, linguistically rich lives. Christian theological anthropology must take into account the relational nature of human beings with God, our spirituality, and the implications of this for doctrines of sin and salvation (Thomas 2012). This means that the knowledge of human nature informs theology from an anthropocentric perspective (Pannenberg 2014).

From a philosophical perspective, there are three main views in Christian theological anthropology identified by Millard Erickson which capture the major avenues of approach to the human soul. These are trichotomism, dichotomism, and monism (Erickson 2013). I will handle the last two first as they are often the dominant views in philosophical approaches to theological anthropology. The dichotomist view, known by its more popular name of dualism, is often ascribed to Plato and in its contemporary form is denominated Cartesian dualism; I will here call this substance dualism. This is often equated with dualism pure and simple, but we will see below that there is another form of dualism which is not substance dualism. The main tenet of substance dualism is that the human identity resides in a soul which is non-physical and inhabits a body which has physicality or extension. This separates the world into a physical and a non-physical world and allows for the continuation of the soul after the death of the physical body. Although dualism is largely seen as problematic in philosophy of mind because of problems relating mind and body and the epistemological challenges of knowing the “exterior” world, it remains in the minds of many Christians the most viable option for accounting for an afterlife, judgment of the soul, and continuity of human identity (Swinburne 2019).

Monism claims that the human person is of one substance, though monism comes in several different forms. In idealism the mind is the primary substance, in physicalism the body. Patrick Brecker calls this mental monism and physical monism (cited in Dodds 2009). He breaks this last category down further by saying that physical monism comes in the flavors of reductive physicalism and non-reductive physicalism in which the emergent properties of the body can have top-down causal effects and the whole cannot be reduced to the physical parts. This last view states that the soul is not independent of the body, but it cannot be reduced to the body. A proponent of this is Nancey Murphy who argues from a Biblical perspective that the dualist view of the mind or soul is anachronistic, and that modernity has read into ancient texts what was not actually there in the first place. Her non-reductive physicalism aims to navigate a middle way between substance dualism and reductive physicalism by seeing the mind as an emergent property of bodily process, while at the same time irreducible to these processes.

Trichotomism is the view that the human person is made up of three parts, body, spirit, and soul. Although this is often found in Biblical anthropology, following the Pauline view of the human person as body, soul, and spirit, it is often unclear if there is equally a type of philosophical monism underlying this view as proponents seem to propose that this means the whole embodied person. N.T. Wright, for example, proposes that the Pauline view of the body/soul relationship is more holistic. He uses the body, soul, spirit example to propose a type of holism in which these aspects of the human person are not separate substances. This, in his words, means that there is not a substance dualism, but it is not quite clear the ways in which the spirit/soul/body should be designated. Many Biblical anthropologists seem not to fall into any of these categories because they sideline the philosophical questions of whether or not the three parts of the human soul are substances or in what way they might relate, taking a more theologically-heavy and exegetical approach. N.T. Wright, for example, proposes what he calls “eschatological integration” (Wright 2011) in which “Christian anthropology must necessarily ask, not, what are human beings in themselves, but, what are human beings called to do and be as part of the creator’s design?”.

But, as he points out, “it simply won’t do to demonstrate that the NT [New Testament] shows awareness of aspects of human life which appear to be non-material and to conclude from that that some kind of ‘dualism’ is therefore envisaged, or the ‘soul’ thereby proved. . . it seems to be almost ridiculously arbitrary to lump together such things as soul, mind, consciousness, sensation as though they are all part of the same second, non-physical reality. Why ‘dualism’? Why not five, ten, twenty different ‘parts’? And – a key question – is ‘parts’ really the right image in the first place?”. While this is an interesting theological perspective, I will to some extent leave Biblical holism and the tripartite view to the side. Though it is possible to have a holistic Biblical view and be dualist (Cooper 2018; Churchouse 2022), there either seems to be a type of physicalism implied in these accounts, or the question of substance does not get addressed at all, favoring more relational and holistic approaches. These accounts, then, still need a more robust philosophical underpinning, and this is in part because I am treating theological anthropology as a subset of larger questions of philosophical anthropology (Thomas 2012).

There is also a fourth way (Dodds 2009) and that is Thomistic hylomorphism. Substance dualism and monism (and its two horns of reductive and non-reductive physicalism) maintain a substance-based view in which mind and matter are essentially separate. In the substance dualist view there are two substances, in the monist view, only one substance is valid (either mind or matter). In other words, the dichotomy does not disappear simply because one element is removed or invalidated. Hylomorphism suggests that matter and mind are related to each other in a fundamentally different way. Hylomorphic dualism is holistic in that it does not separate the human person into parts but presumes the whole functioning human in light of which the soul exercises capacities through the material cause of the body. This means that “the soul, in fact, is the principle of all bodily operations . . . it is the soul that gives being to the composite” (Eitenmiller 2019). This composite is the human person of which the physicality of the body is the material cause, and the soul is the formal cause.

2.2 Cognitive Sciences – Embodied Cognition

The cognitive sciences have increasingly shown that the self is nowhere to be found (Dennet 1992). Instead, it seems that the cognitive sciences must operate on materialism. Embodied cognition supports the presupposition that the mind doesn’t exist as a separate entity, but, unlike, traditional cognitivist approaches which propose that the mind is a set of computational and symbol manipulating processes (largely of the brain), embodied cognition shows that the mind is an emergent property of the body acting in an environment. Embodied cognition encompasses the four dimensions of the experience of an embodied, cognizing being, which has given rise to 4E cognition (4E stands for Embodied, Embedded, Enacted, Extended). It rests on the fundamental discovery that an embodied organism exists by definition in an environment (embedded), in a network of relations (extended), and with action-oriented systems that allow for goal-directed movement (enacted). As a research paradigm it shares similarities with phenomenology and grew in popularity from around the 1970s, when the cognitive sciences turned attention to the study of the self in a non-reflective way which could capture the importance of the immediacy of experience. It spans a host of fields in linguistics (Lakoff and Johnson 2003), Robotics (Webb 1996; Brooks 1991), Philosophy of Mind (Clark 1999; Shapiro 2012; Varela 1993), and cognitive neuroscience (Damasio 2004). Although there is as yet no unified discipline or even agreement on basic definitions of such common terms as embodiment (Shapiro 2012), it can be seen as a variety of goal-connected research programs which all aim to circumvent dualist approaches to the mind by re-situating thought as substantially embodied.

Antonio Damasio has shown that thought and even consciousness itself is directed by pre-consciousness, bodily responses to the world that orient our perception. For example, patients with prosopagnosia or face blindness won’t be able to consciously identify the faces of family and friends out of a sequence of photos, however, their skin conductance response changes depending on whether or not the photo is of someone the patient knows (Tranel and Damasio 1988). Likewise, Lakoff and Johnson have shown that even completely “abstract” concepts such as justice have embodied bases and that language itself is metaphorical, where embodied experiences stand in for basic concepts which then relate in more and more intricate ways to form complex metaphors all of which are bodily based. An example of this would be when we say that stock market prices rise, we gain this from our experience of piling up physical objects which increase in height the more you add.

Because of the diversity of disciplines and research programs, I will focus on a specific version of embodied cognition (EC) known as autopoietic enactivism. Autopoietic enactivism was first developed by polymath Francisco Varela and colleagues Evan Thompson and Eleonor Rosch in their book The Embodied Mind. The main tenet of this version of EC is that there is a deep continuity of life and mind. This means that mind emerges as a property of a whole, living organism in interaction with its environment. It emphasizes the autonomy (autopoiesis) of systems in that they are self-organizing. This means in the most basic biological living organism there is some level of cognition, what Giovanna Colombetti calls affect-cognition (Colombetti 2014). This is essentially a non-apathy toward one’s own existence. Because biological systems are self-organizing, they are cognitive in that they move and navigate the world as a whole system, notably in the effort to maintain the integrity of the system.

Identity, then, is not centralized in a substance separate from the body, a mind or soul, but rather is the process of a whole organism, in its self-constitution, differentiating itself from an environment with which it remains structurally coupled (Varela 1997). This structural coupling means that the organism enacts a domain of distinctions and emerges as a system against a world of significance for it (Varela 1997). In other words, we don’t merely see objects in the world, something which a computational, input-output view of cognition might suppose, but interact with the world as significant for the type of embodied being that we are. Thus, action and identity are intimately tied. Embodied cognition is thus similar to one of its precursors, the ecological psychology of J. J. Gibson and uses the theory of affordances. Thus, a branch is not a neutral “object” but rather for a sparrow it is a nice perch while for a six-year-old it is a perfect place to hang a swing. Objects are what they are in relation to the being which interacts with them with specific needs and goals (however unconscious). Mind then, has two important features (1) it both emerges and therefore is non-localized and (2) because it is inherently coupled with the world (structural coupling) it is the product of a whole, self-organizing (i.e. living) system interacting with this environment.

3. Discussion

Any theologically acceptable theory of the soul must account for both individual identity over time, including after death and before bodily resurrection, and at the same time it must account for the central importance of the body in this identity. This last point is essential if it is to cohere with the evidence in the cognitive sciences which show thought to be an embodied activity. Hitherto it has seemed that in order to hold the first, the second must be compromised or vice versa. If substance dualism is the only way to account for the continuity of the soul after death, then embodied cognition would seem to disprove the existence of a supernatural soul. Embodied cognition shows that there is no separate substance of mind which accounts for the capacities of the human subject. In addition, studies in cognitive neuroscience are showing that thought is not neutral, as if it were the product of some disembodied system, but rather is always and inherently affectively informed and directed. This shows that the body is an organ of thought, rather than thought taking place within a separate thinking substance which then only either influences the physical body or is influenced by it.

It would seem, philosophically, that the only two options are either substance dualism or physicalism. But as Eleonore Stump has pointed out, Christians need not commit to either substance dualism or physicalism. In fact, she makes the claim that this has not historically been the case for one of the major monotheistic Christian traditions, Catholicism. There is another option which has been part of the Catholic tradition since Thomas Aquinas appropriated Aristotle’s anthropology. That is, hylomorphic dualism. Hylomorphism rethinks the connection between matter and form. In hylomorphism, the soul is the form of the body. It is the organizing principle of matter as a wax impression informs the wax. This has to do with Aristotle’s four causes, the material, the formal, the efficient, and the final cause, all of which are preconditions of existence. Anything that exists has these four causes as a condition of existence because for Aristotle “the hallmark of causality is ontological dependence” (Dodds 2021). Matter at the most basic level, then, has form because form is a condition of its existence. Matter without form would be “Prime Matter” which is none other than pure potential; it has no actual existence (Stump 1995; Dodds 2009). Form is the actualizing principle of potential. This type of form is substantial form, unlike a statue which has accidental form by being shaped out of matter. Substantial form doesn’t just give something shape, it makes that something what it is, it gives it its essence.

When it comes to the form of living things, this is called the soul. This soul gives more than just the accidental shape of flesh, but rather it is a living soul which is the substantial form of the body. This means the form, or soul, is what gives a living thing its essence qua living thing, rather than the body being given shape like a statue and then infused with some animating principle. We are not flesh statues with a soul infused. It is “in virtue of this one form, a human being exists as an actual being, as a material object, as a living thing, as an animal, and as a human being with cognitive capacities” (Stump 1995).

Thus, just like embodied cognition proposes, the dynamic aspect of mind/soul is important. According to Daniel De Haan, “for hylomorphism, form, organization, or structure is a dynamic intrinsic ordering principle of the organized materials, especially in the case of the organizational form of living beings.” (De Haan 2017). This emphasis on the dynamic has equally been pointed out by Grant Gillett who says in his book From Aristotle to Cognitive Neuroscience, “. . . neurocognitive development is inherently autopoietic or self-making, a capacity of the active intellect, as in a tendentious interpretation of [Aristotle’s] De Anima.” In so saying, Gillett asserts that “several key points emerge from this . . . that converge with embodied cognition theory and enactivism” (Gillet 2018). Although Gillett references Aristotle, Aquinas carried this over into his theology. So, according to Eleonor Stump, “form, for Aquinas is not static but dynamic, something that includes the functioning of and the causal interactions among the parts” (Stump 1995). This means, among other things, that for the hylomorphist as for the embodied cognition theorists, action and identity are intimately related. “Since what a thing is determines how a thing acts, the source of a thing’s being is also the ground of its action” (Dodds 2009). This obviously could have further implications which are just beginning to be explored, such as how embodied cognition might accord with Thomistic virtue theory to account for habit and character (Paolozzi 2015; Brown 2013; Spezio 2015).

Embodied cognition also seems to support a holistic view of the human person because it shows how the entire organism as a self-constituting system interacts with the environment which gives rise to the emergence of its cognitive capacities. This is in line with the Thomistic idea that the body and soul are not separate substances, but the soul is the operating principle of the material cause which is the body. This places the importance on the whole first, out of which parts are differentiated rather than a parts-oriented approach. Terrence Deacon calls this thinking that starts from the whole “organic logic” versus “engineering logic” which focuses on building up the parts to the whole (Deacon 2016). Embodied cognition accords with Stump’s statement regarding Aquinas that “mental properties are emergent, on this view, insofar as they are features which are dependent on the configuration and composition of the whole; they are not identical to the properties of the material parts of the whole, but they emerge from the properties and dynamic interactions of those parts” (Stump 1995). This holistic approach has led Daniel Weiss to conclude that embodied cognition shows resonances with Classical Rabbinic literature although more work is yet to be done on embodied cognition and specifically Biblical views of the human person (Weiss 2013).

Because systems are self-organizing according to embodied cognition, this means that the goal of the process is the continuation of the process itself. This is in line with Aristotle’s account of final causality. Teleology is not the same as an efficient cause directing something towards an end. In other words, it is not an external design or conscious objective. Rather, as Mary Midgley puts it: “The word teleology . . . does not cover just conscious human purposes but the whole of function. Aristotle, who first worked out this form of explanation, never thought of it as arising from the purposes of a creative god . . . He used it simply for the kind of questioning which asks what particular things are for – what they do for the organism that owns them, what is their telos, their end or aim in the context where they belong. As he pointed out, this kind of reasoning is so indispensable in biology, and the aims it seeks are usually so obvious, that no other way of thinking can displace it. It is simply a fact that all organisms constantly strive towards their own survival, their health, their well-being, their general fulfilment and their reproduction” (Midgley 2011).

If this were expressed in the language of embodied cognition we could say it has “operational closure” in that the whole, not just a thing, but a process of self-organization, is the final cause towards which the various parts are working. As Varela puts it, “a system that has operational closure is one in which the results of its processes are those processes themselves. The notion of operational closure is thus a way of specifying classes of processes that, in their very operation, turn back upon themselves to form autonomous networks. Such networks do not fall into the class of systems defined by external mechanisms of control (heteronomy) but rather into the class of systems defined by internal mechanisms of self-organization (autonomy)” (Varela 1993). Thus, David Oderberg will say, “in biology…  following Aristotle… there is a special kind of unity. Terence Irwin puts it thus when commenting on Aristotle’s discussion of animal souls: ‘… a collection of flesh and bones constitutes a single living organism in so far as it is teleologically organized; the activities of the single organism are the final cause of the movements of the different parts’” (Oderberg 2017).

This wholeness is intimately linked with the emergence which is at the core of embodied theories of mind according to autopoietic enactivism, allowing the mind to be non-localized. It also squares with Aquinas. Eleonore Stump says, “on Aquinas’s account, the fact that material objects are composites of matter and form means that material objects can have emergent properties of this sort, and these emergent properties may bring with them further emergent properties, such as causal potentialities which belong to the whole but not it its parts” (Stump 1995). This accords with Varela’s view of mind as a society, following Minsky and Seymour. Although there are individual agents, these agents make up agencies, which then interact with other agencies at various levels of emergence. This has been replicated by Barbara Webb to show how cricket mating behavior can be recreated with no central processing unit but instead overlapping systems of behavioral constraints. Because of this emergent nature, the capacities of the soul (among which are cognitive capacities) are non-localized (Stump 1995) and therefore the produce of the entire, acting system. As Stump points out, quoting Aquinas, “We can say that the soul understands . . . in the same way that we can say that the eye sees; but it would be more appropriate to say that a human being understands by means of the soul.”

A potential problem: The body, then, would seem to be the whole human person, with the formal cause of the soul, not one half of a person, the physical half of a physical/non-physical divide infused with a separate soul. But how does the soul continue after it is separated from the body which it informs? Even if the soul continues, does it have enough individual identity to allow for judgment and can it experience reward or punishment? Aquinas asserted that the formal cause makes something not just generally the type of thing that it is, but it also gives particularity, it makes it “this” particular thing (Stump 1995). Thus, there is individuality in the form itself, even when it is not functioning as the organizing principle of the body. And so, “when all that is left of a human being after death is the soul, individuality persists on Aquinas’s account” (Stump, 1995).

In addition, human souls are “the amphibians of this metaphysical world, occupying a niche in both the material and the spiritual realm” (Stump 1995). This is because the human soul is both something which configures and something which is configured. The analogy Stump gives is of the CAT/Enhancer-Binding Protein which is “one of the proteins known to play an important role in regulating gene expression.” The way it works is that “in its active form, the molecule is a dimer with an alpha helix coil. On Aquinas’s way of thinking about material objects, the form of C/EBP is the configuration of the dimer, including the alpha helix coil; and the dimer subunits constitute the matter”. Of course, it can be broken into smaller units, but for our purposes it both configures DNA and is itself a configuration. Thus, “in the transition from configuring matter to not configuring matter, the human soul doesn’t undergo any radical metaphysical transformation or category switching, any more than the molecule C/EBP does when it goes from not configuring to configuring DNA. It remains what it always was, something configured with an ability to configure other things” (Stump 1995).

This leads to the main difference between substance dualism and hylomorphic dualism because, as Stump points out, “Descartes’s soul doesn’t inform matter to constitute a body.” In other words, it is only configured not also a configurer. This leads her to conclude that “in consequence of this difference, Aquinas’s account is not vulnerable to the two main problems thought to afflict Cartesian dualism, namely, that it can’t explain the nature of the causal interaction between soul and body and that it divides cognitive functions into those that can be implemented only in the soul and those that can be implemented only in the body. On Aquinas’s account, there is no efficient [emphasis mine] causal interaction between the soul and the matter it informs, and all cognitive functions can be implemented in the body” (Stump 1995).

Although some would say there is a sense in which this means the person is not complete without the body (De Haan and Dahn 2019), even if this were the case this does not mean that we cannot be judged or enjoy the fruits (or endure the torments) of the afterlife before resurrection (Dodds 2009). This is because, “by the same philosophical principle that action follows being, we have reason to say that, after death, once the human form has an existence or being apart from its co-principle of possibility-of-being [prime matter], it will be able to act (to know and to will) without its co-principle (however much the form may be an incomplete substance without that co-principle)” (Dodds 2009).

4. Conclusion

Since hylomorphism both allows the soul to continue after death and allows for the retention of individuality, it does not pose problems for a Christian eschatology. Instead, it offers a viable philosophical framework which does not fall prey to either the problems of substance dualism or monism. Furthermore, out of the various options presented, hylomorphism seems to be supported by discoveries in the cognitive sciences such as embodied cognition. It accounts for the autonomous, enactive, emergent nature of mind as the operating principle of a whole organism. When we use the word “body” in common parlance we often tacitly equate body with mere extension without form, thus, thinking dualistically. But body should be seen as the material cause of the whole human person with the soul as the formal cause.

As Aristotle says, the soul is to the body as sight is to the eye, but as Stump points out, Aquinas clearly illustrates that although we say the eye sees, we should properly say that the human being sees, and so with understanding or any other cognitive capacities we can say that the whole person understands by means of the soul. This is counter to a dualism in which “there can be no unity of the human person, unless one chooses to identify the person with only one of the dual elements” (Dodds 2009). The impoverished understanding of causes in the modern scientific framework (Dodds 2021) means that we look for efficient causes only, though the soul and body do not act on each other as efficient causes as we have seen. This shows that “certain philosophical anthropologies have already pre-determined the horizon of research and, therefore, neuroscience achievements, if understood in these terms, in advance have a limited field of interpretation. . . a different anthropological framework or just being open to different frameworks, probably would have offered a different interpretation of the neuroscientific research findings” (Horvat 2016). Hopefully with the increasing engagement between embodied cognition and theology, this horizon can continue to expand.


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Cite this article

Wallace, Rebekah. 2022. “Does Embodied Cognition Support a Hylomorphic View of the Soul?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 9).

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Rebekah Wallace 
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