We are not intuitive monists — but then, what are we?

I have recently been watching the fascinating iTunes lectures by Tamar Gendler on the philosophy of human nature. Two of the lectures discuss what she terms "parts of the soul", but what I will here rather cumbersomely refer to as "parts of human personhood". Reviewing the western tradition, Gendler traces our tendency to subdivide the human person into parts to a continuous tradition in western philosophy and psychology. She discusses, amongst others, Plato's distinction between appetite, ratio and spirit, Freud's division between id, ego and superego, and more recently, the immensely popular division in cognitive psychology between system 1 (phylogenetically old, unconscious, and fast) and system 2 (more philogenetically novel, under conscious control and slow).

Such divisions of human personhood are cross-culturally ubiquitous…

The Egyptians had a complex distinction between several mental parts (e.g., Ren, Ba, Ka, Sheut, and Ib) and parts of the human body. Chinese philosophy and folk psychology distinguish, amongst other things, the mind (heart) and life force (chi). This culturally widespread tendency suggests that distinguishing parts of personhood might be the spontaneous outputs of universal cognitive processes. We are not intuitive monists. What features of human cognition can explain our tendency to divide non-physical aspects of human personhood? And what are the parts that we intuitively distinguish? These two questions turn out to be surprisingly hard to address, but I believe their answers are fundamentally related.

One influential attempt, coming from Paul Bloom (e.g., 2005), holds that humans are Cartesian mind-body dualists. Bloom proposes that this tendency is due to the existence of two distinct ways of reasoning about the physical and the mental. We use very different inferences when we want to explain someone's behavior through internal mental states (beliefs, desires), than when we want to explain purely physical states of affairs like one ball colliding with another ball. Thus, it becomes quite intuitive and natural to continue to imagine a deceased person's mental states as existing in a separate dimension, even when that person is no longer able to physically act. Bloom reasoned that all children are intuitive Cartesian dualists: they think of the mind as an aphysical entity, distinct from the physical body. One problem with this picture, as Hodge (2008) pointed out, is that Cartesian dualism is a relatively rare view. Descartes held it, of course, but the folk religious beliefs we see around us are much more complex. To complicate matters further, some religions (such as Christianity and Islam) do not envisage life after death in a disembodied state, but as very much a resurrection of body and mind. Hodge proposed that our intuitive personhood is tripartite: mind, body, and soul.

Richert and Harris (2008) also make this tripartite distinction (body, mind and soul). They propose that the concept of soul develops in young children independently of the concept of mind. The mind is regarded as more cognitive, whereas the soul is regarded as associated with spiritual functions. The picture gets further complicated, however, as intuitive belief in a life force or vital energy may be distinct from the concepts of soul, mind and body (see Inagaki & Hatano 2004). Life force is a non-mental causal force that accounts for biological health and well-being (Roazzi et al 2013). The concept is pervasive in Eastern philosophies and religion (e.g., the concept of chi), but seems to be present in young children cross-culturally. The health bar in computer games, which can get depleted or replenished as one gets injured or receives nourishment, provides a nice illustration. It indicates that even for westerners who do not have life force in their ontology, it is intuitive to reason with this concept.

Perhaps our intuitive conceptualization of the mental can be further subdivided into intuitive inferences about the intellect on the one hand, and inferences about desires and emotions on the other. The tendency to see the ratio as a separate faculty, independent from emotions, is indeed quite widespread. We find it not only in Plato's distinction between ratio, appetite and spirit, Hume's distinction between reason, the passions, and will, or in Freud's ego, id and superego, but also, e.g., in Jainism, where one has the obligation to avoid harming others, but especially to harm those with senses, such as animals, and those with ratio, such as humans. Remarkably, Winer et al (2009) found that young children (first-graders) are more likely to see the heart as the locus of emotions, such as happiness and sadness, whereas they regard cognitive processes (e.g., remembering facts) as located in the brain. This tendency decreases as children get older, with an increasing tendency to locate all mental processes in the brain.

I think that the final picture of our intuitive conceptualization of human personhood will be quite nuanced and complex, with finer subdivisions than currently suggested in the literature (e.g., Bloom's body-mind dualism or Richert and Harris' body-mind-soul tripartition). Why are humans not intuitive monists? Why do we continue to grant a separate ontological status to parts of the person, in spite of the influence of methodologically naturalistic and physicalistic views on personhood (e.g., cognitive neuroscience)?

One way to explain this pervasive tendency is to take an evolutionary perspective. Other humans were, of course, of vital importance in our evolutionary history. To act adaptively, our inferences about them would have to be quite fine-grained. Such inferences could include keeping track of someone's health (using the concept of life force as a heuristic), their tendency to be influenced by desires and emotions (Plato's appetite; Hume's passions, system 1, etc), their ability to make inferences, memory and other cognitive capacities (ratio, system 2, etc). Such fine-grained inferences would be useful: for instance, keeping in mind that someone is not very clever (appealing to an intuitive concept of ratio) might be useful in direct and indirect social interactions.

Ideally, such an evolutionary picture should be supported by rich anthropological and psychological data, documenting how people reason about the mental in diverse cultures, as I expect beliefs about non-physical personhood will be affected by societal and other cognitive attractors (e.g., ways of organizing social relationships). But I expect this sort of more systematic investigation will reveal that we are not intuitive Cartesian dualists — nor do we have a straightforward distinction between body, soul and mind.


Bloom, P. (2005). Descartes' baby: How the science of child development explains what makes us human. Vintage.

Hodge, K. M. (2008). Descartes' mistake: How afterlife beliefs challenge the assumption that humans are intuitive Cartesian substance dualists. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 8(3-4), 3-4.

Inagaki, K., & Hatano, G. (2004). Vitalistic causality in young children's naive biology. Trends in cognitive sciences, 8(8), 356-362.

Richert, R. A., & Harris, P. L. (2008). Dualism revisited: Body vs. mind vs. soul. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 8(1-2), 1-2.

Roazzi, M., Nyhof, M., & Johnson, C. (2013). Mind, Soul and Spirit: Conceptions of Immaterial Identity in Different Cultures. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 23(1), 75-86.

Winer, G. A., Cottrell, J. E., & Bica, L. A. (2009). When hearts, hands, and feet trump brains: Centralist versus peripheralist responses in children and adults. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 27(2), 343-364.



  • comment-avatar
    Benson Saler 23 January 2013 (05:08)

    Helen, You may find it interesting to consider claims that Godfrey Lienhardt advances in “Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka” (1961): “The Dinka have no conception which at all closely corresponds to our popular modern conception of the ‘mind’, as mediating and, as it were, storing up the experiences of the self. There is for them no such interior entity to appear, on reflection, to stand between the experiencing self at any given moment and what is or has been an exterior influence upon the self. So it seems that what we should call in some cases the ‘memories’ of experiences, and regard therefore as in some way intrinsic and interior to the remembering person and modified in their effect upon him by that interiority, appear to the Dinka as exteriorly acting upon him, as were the sources from which they derived. Hence it would be impossible to suggest to Dinka that a powerful dream was ‘only’ a dream…They do not make the kind of distinction between the psyche and the world which would make such interpretations significant for them.” (1961:149) It is not, Lienhardt maintains, “a simple matter to divide the Dinka believer, for analytic purposes, from what he believes in, and to describe the latter then in isolation from him as the ‘object’ of his belief” (1961:155). Furthermore, even when we piece together the various assertions that Dinka make about the Powers, Lienhardt warns us, we should not expect those assertions “to have the connectedness and logical consistency of reflective thought.” (1961:156).

  • comment-avatar
    Dan Sperber 26 January 2013 (11:06)

    Thank you, Helen, for this very insightful post! The nuanced picture that you convincingly argue for (and that Benson Saler further illustrates in his comment) raises, I believe, the following question. To what extent or in what sense is all this a question about ontology? “Ontology” of course means many different things both within and outside of philosophy. In anthropology (and in developmental psychology), it is mostly used to refer to the major categories of objects with causal powers that are – implicitly rather than explicitly – distinguished by ordinary people in their causal judgments. In particular, “Cartesian dualism” is used to describe the cognitive practice of seeing causes as being either physical or mental, without reduction of the one to the other or of the two to some more basic category. Monism and Cartesian dualism are rather daring, historically situated philosophical views that each raises many further philosophical or scientific problems. Why should we expect to find them or versions of them in folk-ontology?

    Why should we expect, in fact, all folk claims about entities or about causal powers to fall under a small number of basic categories? The study of causal cognition (see for instance the book Causal Cognition that Ann and David Premack and I have edited in 2000) suggests that people use a variety of causal explanation schemas, or heuristics, or modes of construal that in part are complementary, in part in competition. These schemas are not that easily partitioned in a few basic categories. Why should they be? Who, apart from philosophers, seriously cares about having a plausible integrated account or classification at the highest level of all that there is or of all that has causal powers? Scientists or at least most scientists don’t: they aim at an integrated account of some specific domain and, in practice, are not particularly bothered by the lack of an overall schema. Ontological issues are even more irrelevant to our ordinary lives.

    Still, it could be that we implicitly subscribe to an ontological system in our explanations and descriptions. Maybe. I however – and you too if I understand you well – read the evidence as suggesting that ordinary cognition aims at relevance rather than at systematicity per se, that therefore it is not concerned with the fact that, analytically, a messy and possibly inconsistent ontology might be shown to be implicit in its practices, and that it is not committed to any such implicit ontology.

    In fact, if one wants to draw some inspiration from philosophical ontology in order to investigate ordinary cognition, rather than looking at the monism-dualism debate, a more promising way might be to draw inspiration from Aristotelian categories (substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, and so on) and their rich posterity and to look for the ontology (or ontologies) in this other sense implicit in the structure of human languages. This direction of research, actively pursued by many semanticists, has not, as far as I know, been that influential among anthropologists or developmental psychologists.

  • comment-avatar
    Helen De Cruz 27 January 2013 (10:44)

    Dear Dan and Benson,

    Thank you for these comments! The Dinka case is very interesting. The question I was addressing in the blogpost is to what extent our intuitive ontology (as Pascal Boyer terms it) is reflected in our folk ontologies. In the 1980s and further on, a lot of developmental psychology was concerned (and is still concerned) with outlining domains of “core knowledge”, fairly coherent domains of intuitive ontology such as intuitive physics, geometry, theory of mind, etc that regulate and constrain the development of our cultural belief systems. A lot of the literature, in cognitive science of religion and elsewhere, seems to presuppose that folk ontologies reflect intuitive ontologies more or less directly.
    I am now more inclined to think, along with Dan’s suggestion, that attempts to find direct reflections of intuitive ontology in folk ontology will be mostly unsuccessful. For all domains that we survey, e.g., geometry, theory of mind, there seem to be several culture-specific beliefs and heuristics. Nevertheless, there is an important role for cognition and culture studies in outlining how the development of these culture-specific systems can be constrained. To give an example I’ve recently stumbled upon: I am currently reading a book on Shintoism, entitled “The essence of Shinto”, by Motohisa Yamakage (a Shinto priest). Interestingly, Shintoism holds that the human person consists of one spirit (that has the potential of becoming Kami) four souls (of which 2 are perishable) and one body. None of these 4 souls corresponds to our concept of mind. Rather, the distinctions are more fine grained (e.g., there is a soul that regulates love, social relationships and other other-directed emotions).
    But while it may be quite intuitive to see the capacity for relationships as a distinguishable part of human personhood, many cultures do not make this distinction (Western folk psychological notions do not, for instance).
    So what we will need is a new theoretical framework to link cognition with culture. The notion of cognitive attractors that Dan developed in earlier publications (e.g., Explaining Culture, 1996) can do useful conceptual work here.

  • comment-avatar
    K. Mitch Hodge 30 January 2013 (11:09)

    Hello Helen, Benson, and Dan,

    This is an interesting discussion on a topic I have been thinking about for some time (which is funny for me since I found the topic of personal identity so boring when I first studied it years ago). I think this discussion is headed in the direction that I have been thinking for some time (since at least, 2008). I tend to agree with Michael Tye (2003) that personhood (at best) is a fuzzy concept. It is ill-defined and underdetermined in most cases. I will attempt to elucidate how I think this works after I clear up a confusion.

    I want to be clear that I do not propose, nor do I endorse, the tripartite view of humans as minds, bodies, and souls. While I think this might be a dominant cultural view in the West, I do not think, nor do I hold out any hope, that this view is shared universally. When I made that comment in 2008 I was specifically contrasting the Western Cartesian substance dualism view with what I found to be the more likely Western folk view. Moreover, the main thrust of my arguments there were that (contrary to the proposals of Bering (2002, 2006) and Bloom (2004, 2007)) humans do not rid the deceased of bodily representations when humans represent the deceased in the (an) afterlife. To my mind, at least, humans continue to represent the afterliving deceased in (at least) enough bodily form to continue to carry out their social obligations with both the living and their fellow deceased. The main representational problem for Cartesian substance dualism is that it is difficult (if not unimaginable; Hodge (2011b); Kim (2001); Sorabji (2006)) to represent a disembodied mind as taking an (inter)active role in her environment. From this, I developed the view I call social embodiment which rests upon the cognitive processes of offline social reasoning and taking the intentional stance toward the afterliving deceased (Hodge, 2011a, 2012). I am not proposing that all aspects of the body representationally survive: it is unlikely that most would imagine the afterliving deceased with most internal organs or with the need to defecate, but representations which are part of our normal social processing information about humans in general, and the decedent in particular, would play a role in such representations.

    While I do think that how we represent the afterliving deceased can be used to inform our folk intuitions about personhood for the living, I see no reason to assume that the representations of the two would be, or should be, identical. I think more research needs to be done to find out what the similarities and differences may be. I know that some philosophers have thought that looking at how we represent the afterliving deceased can tell us what the essential parts of a person are, but I think caution needs to be taken here. No doubt some categories, properties, essences (whatever you want to call them) will be shared, but there is no reason to assume that they will all be shared, or given the same priority across the two representations.

    I think it a strange thing to propose that who we are, what we are—i.e., personhood, is a fuzzy concept. Surely, the one thing about which we should be the most clear is that. But alas, I fear this is not the case. Dennett’s fun read, “Where am I?” (1981) elucidates many of the problems that are to be encountered when one tries to make necessary any (normally considered essential) aspect of a person. His later work (1992), I think, has a great deal of plausible potential for how the folk represent the self—namely as the gravity that holds the story of their lives together. This would make aspects of the person that are relevant to the particular “running” narrative take center stage. Thus, how we represent ourselves is highly context-sensitive (which I (Hodge, 2012) think is also the case with representing the afterliving deceased).

    Bering, J. (2002). Intuitive Conceptions of Dead Agents’ Minds: The Natural Foundations of Afterlife Beliefs as Phenomenological Boundary. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 2(4), 263-308.

    Bering, J. M. (2006). The Folk Psychology of Souls. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 29, 1-46.

    Bloom, P. (2004). Descartes’ Baby: How Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human. London: Arrow Books.

    Bloom, P. (2007). Religion Is Natural. Developmental Science, 10(1), 147 – 151.

    Dennett, D. (1992). The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity. In F. S. Kessel (Ed.), Self and Consciousness : Multiple Perspectives (pp. 103 – 115). Hillsdale, N.J.: L. Erlbaum.

    Dennett, D. C. (1981). Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology: Mit press.

    Hodge, K. M. (2011a). On Imagining the Afterlife. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 11(3-4), 367-389. doi: 10.1163/156853711X591305

    Hodge, K. M. (2011b). Why Immortality Alone Will Not Get Me to the Afterlife. Philosophical Psychology, 24(3), 395-410. doi: 10.1080/09515089.2011.559620

    Hodge, K. M. (2012). Context Sensitivity and the Folk Psychology of Souls: Why Bering Et. Al. Got the Findings They Did. In D. Evers, M. Fuller, A. Jackelén & T. Smedes (Eds.), Is Religion Natural? (pp. 49-63). New York: T & T Clark International.

    Kim, J. (2001). Lonely Souls: Causality and Substance Dualism. In K. Corcoran (Ed.), Soul, Body, and Survival: Essays on the Metaphysics of Human Persons (pp. 30-43). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

    Sorabji, R. (2006). Self: Ancient and Modern Insights About Individuality, Life, and Death. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Tye, M. (2003). Consciousness and Persons: Unity and Identity. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

  • comment-avatar
    Helen De Cruz 31 January 2013 (16:46)

    Hi Mitch: the view on personhood as a fuzzy and moreover context-dependent concept strikes me as very plausible. This brings me to a related issue: how coherent and stable are concepts that are part of our intuitive ontology? This debate has gone on for a few decades now. For example, one school of thought holds that our intuitive beliefs about, eg the origin of species or the shape of the earth, have a strong conceptual structure and even a theory-like character. When these beliefs change, they transform in a way that is analogous to scientific revolutions (see eg the work by Vosniadou, Brewer, Samarapungavan, and to some extent also Carey and Spelke). Alternatively, authors like Keil have held that our intuitive conceptual knowledge is fuzzy, shallow, and not always entirely coherent. This latter claim strikes me as more plausible in the light of the empirical data.

    What I’m trying to say here is that perhaps personhood is not exceptional in that respect. Our intuitive concept of the biological also seems to be context-specific (sometimes placing more emphasis on potential for growth and development, sometimes on animacy etc). If that’s the case, we may have to rethink the notion of core knowledge, which is now often spelled out in terms of core knowledge domains like intuitive physics, biology, and psychology. Such divisions seem to me somewhat artificial and create the impression that we make clear, coherent conceptual distinctions (which is often not the case).