Recap: Lisa Raphals on Psyche Reconsidered

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 last meeting of the Comparatism Seminar. We would also like to thank Lisa Raphals for her talk: “Considering Comparables: Psyche Reconsidered.”

In contrast to many other talks in this seminar series that began from considerations of comparative methodology, Raphals jumped immediately into early Greek and Chinese sources to lay out the variety of ancient views on psyche and spirit. Her lecture drew on a recently completed book about mind and body in early China as well as an in-progress book that takes those same issues in a comparative direction with ancient Greece. She began by surveying various uses of psyche in the extant literature, from the Homeric poems up through Plato, with particular attention to its appearance in medical discourse. Raphals pointed out, for example, that whereas psyche is a “life force” in Homer, it takes on increasingly complex psychological roles in later centuries. This is not necessarily due to any simplistic historical evolution but rather to a diminishing in the importance of other psychological terms such as phren or thumos.

Of particular importance in Raphals’ talk was the relationship between philosophical and medical discourse on psyche. Medical texts, she explained, evidence the first appearance of the psyche as an object of therapy, a model Plato then borrowed and modified extensively. In philosophical discourse, psyche became not just an object of therapy but a moral object to be treated, the ignorance of which needed to be eliminated through dialectic. Raphals emphasized that Plato’s dialogues also show the first recorded treatment of the psyche as separated from the body along the lines we commonly associate with dualism. She cautioned, however, that a more productive and accurate way to think of mind/body distinctions is along a spectrum, with very few texts displaying either a hard materialism or dualism.

Raphals turned next to early Chinese materials and offered a brief overview of various psychosomatic terms and their conceptual apparati. Unlike in Greek sources where psyche eventually came to subsume and encompass most psychological functions, Chinese sources maintain more of a plurality. Raphals began here outlining two models of spirit found in early China. The first groups spirit and mind together as rulers over the physical body. The second, which Raphals described as tripartite, depicts mind, spirit, and body as all separate and working in various combinations— indeed, the spirit is sometimes depicted as allied with the body against the mind.

Raphals presented several texts on these issues. For example, the Guanzi depicts the mind (xin 心) ruling over the body analogously to a ruler governing a state. In the Mencius, the body is a container for vital energy (qi 氣) and commanded by the will (also xin 心). In the Zhuangzi, we see in contrast a relatively anti-mind (xin 心) rhetoric in favor of cultivating the spirit (shen 神).

Raphals then turned from those early Chinese philosophical texts to medical texts, particularly the Huangdi Neijing. Here she emphasized again that simplistic mind-body dualisms get in the way, giving the example of how the “five viscera” (wuzang 五臟) or “five organs” are each associated with certain psychological functions and characteristics in addition to their obvious physical importance. Xin 心 is the literal heart while simultaneously the seat of consciousness, both reasoning and feeling. Meanwhile, shen 神 is “spirit,” which is also a kind of general life force that houses in different parts of the body at different times.

In concluding, Raphals noted several comparative implications of her work. She noted how psyche and shen 神 (“spirit”) both originate as terms for a living creature’s life force but then take on more specific qualities and roles depending on the historical context. She also observed that the medical and philosophical discourses in ancient Greece appear to be more antagonistic than in China where they developed in parallel rather than competition. Raphals’ talk spawned several questions from the audience as well, one of which asked about Aristotle’s claim that the thumos of people in Asia lacks certain qualities and is thus passive and irenic. Raphals suggested that the claim reveals more about Aristotle’s own political motivations than any real medical observation. Another question raised the fundamental issue of why humanities scholars might compare at all, to which Raphals suggested comparison as a way to parochialize our own traditions and assumptions.

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 Comparatism Seminar Series. Comparatism has become a key issue in Classical Studies, both within the ancient Mediterranean and more broadly. This one-semester seminar investigates current research and methodologies. Topics include perspectives from anthropology, epic, gender, the study of language and metaphor, philosophical debates, and practices of cult and sacrifice.