Body and Mind Seminar Fall 2020 with Professor Lisa Raphals, University of California, Riverside | Body, Mind, Spirit, and Soul: Comparative Semantics

Written by Ryan Harte

The Center for Hellenic Studies would like to extend their greatest thanks and appreciation to all of those who participated in the December 7, 2020, meeting of the Body and Mind Seminar, in particular, Professor Lisa Raphals (this seminar series’ organizer) for her talk: “Body, Mind, Soul, and Spirit: Comparative Semantics.”

Raphals presented work from her current project, a comparative study of mind, body, spirit, and soul across ancient Greek and early Chinese sources. Rather than simply pick out a concept like “the body” in Greece and see whether and how China has a comparable concept, Raphals instead suggested that comparative work begin from exploring problematics. For example, she noted how Cartesian mind-body dualism is one outcome of a wider cultural attempt to prioritize rationality and an analytic system of knowledge that requires a separation of the knowing subject from the known object. By comparing these larger problematics, scholars can better understand how and why different cultures conceive of something like the mind or the body without projecting the assumptions of one culture onto another.

Raphals set out to (i) question the terms of mind-body-spirit debates, (ii) present semantic fields of relevant terms from both Ancient Greek and Classical Chinese, and (iii) show how the Chinese sources raise questions for our more familiar Greek-based categories. Of notable interest was Raphals’ use of sources ranging from medical texts, philosophical classics, recently excavated manuscripts, and poetry.

Raphals proceeded via semantic fields from Greek and Chinese to focus on terms for the body, for the spirit or soul, and for the mind. A recurring theme in each case was that not only do the ancient terms not map neatly onto our modern categories but that they actively challenge them. Raphals pointed out, for example, how there is no single word for “body” in Ancient Greek, and she instead divided body terms into those that refer to the living body and those that refer to the dead body. Even this distinction was too simplistic though, and she went on to note that Greek views of the body do not fully separate physiology from psychology such that, for instance, parts of the body are often described and classed not by their location or physical property but by their affective characteristics. In the case of the body in China, Raphals highlighted a lexical wealth of “body terms,” each of which emphasizes different dimensions of the body. The ti, for example, is roughly the whole collection of physical parts, whereas the xing or “form” is the delineated shape or outline of the body. In the case of ti, a major feature is the relation of parts and wholes, whereas for xing the concern is more with the inner versus the outer parts of the body.

For the semantic field of spirit or soul, Raphals briefly surveyed a wide range of Greek terms including thumos, psychē, pneuma, and others, all of which are multifaceted and difficult to translate. She noted the importance of historical and generic setting; for example, how psychē in Homeric contexts is closer to “principle of life” than to anything even remotely cognitive or identity-bearing, as is the case in Plato. On the Chinese side of spirit terms, Raphals explained that the semantic field is smaller, honing in only on the term shen, but she went on to show that there are several types or versions of shen. The oldest use of the term refers to external spirits and forces (sometime supernatural) that can be harnessed, banished, or placated through certain ritual behaviors. Shen also comes to include certain humans with notable “spirit-like” powers or awareness. A final sense of the term is comparable to Homeric psychē: a kind of vital essence that must be cultivated and managed, called jing. Raphals also touched briefly on hun and po, two ambiguous terms often translated as “soul” and which have a contested and unclear history.

The final nexus of comparison, mind, followed a similar structure as spirit: an array of Greek terms on the one side and a single but multifaceted Chinese term on the other. Here again Raphals emphasized the importance of seeing how these terms evolve and take on different features. In the Greek, thumbs, phrēn, ētor, kradiē, nous, and others all take on distinct but sometimes interrelated psychological functions depending on context. In Chinese, xin (“heart-mind”) refers to the physical organ as well as the seat of cognition and emotion, though, usually, not the principle or essence of life itself. Rather, xin is sometimes described as a container for shen (“spirit”).

Raphals ended by asking us to reconsider some of our entrenched models for thinking about the mind and body. She raised the possibility of a tripartite view being perhaps more applicable than a dualistic one. Such a model might emphasize a material body, a “spirit” or life-force that interacts with the body to one degree or another, and a “mind” that in turn interacts with both and is the seat of cognition or personal identity. Questions like “what are we cultivating when we talk about self- or ethical-cultivation?” might require radically different answers on such a model.

One audience question asked about the evolution of psychē in later, philosophical uses: does Plato maintain any early sense of Homeric psychē as “breath” with its bodily connotations, or does he entirely disassociate it from the physical in rethinking it as an intellectual essence of a person’s identity? Another question turned to comparative issues of morality: for example, in the Odyssey, Telemachus defines manhood as having achieved an understanding of right and wrong—where in the schema of mind-spirit-body might something like morality inhere?

We would like to extend a special thanks to Professor Lisa Raphals from the University of California, Riverside, for her work as organizer of this semester’s Body and Mind Seminar Series. Questions of how our bodies relate to our minds and spirits are of central importance to several disciplines and are becoming an important focus of study in several areas of Classics. This fall semester seminar investigates current research and methodologies in conceptualizing perspectives on the body and its relation to mind, soul, or spirit in the ancient Mediterranean. Topics include perspectives from anthropology, the history of sport, epic, gender medicine, the study of language and metaphor, philosophical debates, and practices of cult and sacrifice. Any interested researchers should write to for more details about the series schedule.