Individualization And The Idea of Vital Energy
Greeks had pneuma and psyche, the Chinese have qi, the Hindus have prana, the Polynesians have mana, the Judeo-Christians have the soul... It seems every culture has a concept denoting to some sort of non-corporeal energy, possessed by the individual, that causes their actions. The more primitive the culture, the more this energy is also believed to cause the actions of other inanimate entities.
What's up with that?
It is possible, and correct, to simply dismiss these concepts as mystical floating abstractions - they are, after all supernatural, and therefore wrong. This dismissal, however, does not answer the question of why this particular mystical idea is so universal. I believe the answer lies in Man's psycho-epistemology.
We form concepts based on the information we perceive directly through percepts. There is nothing in direct perception that automatically tells us the difference between a mental and a concrete existent. It takes quite a high degree of abstraction to realize that the very vivid image of a table I see in front of me is a concrete entity, but the fainter image of a table I can conjure up in my head only exists in my mind.
This is evidenced by the fact that, even in our very secular and individualistic society, children still take years to properly make that distinction. More evidence for that can be found in the fact that certain mental illnesses, like schizophrenia, that primarily affect the conceptual faculty, hinder one's ability to differentiate between mental and concrete.
As Erich Neumann points out, one of the first steps in developing an individualized personality is realizing you can act. That is the realization that you can, through an act of volition, make certain parts of your body move, and use them to move other entities around you. This is, essentially, the perception of something other than your physical self, responsible for your physical actions.
Over the course of individualization, and the psycho-epistemic adoption of the reality principle, we learn to properly differentiate between mental and concrete. We differentiate between purposeful and automatic motion - realizing that other entities do not possess volition. We also realize that "mental" is a wider concept than "volitional" - that things such as emotions, outside our direct control, are also mental existents.
Individualization, however, requires a lot of discrete steps, and this is why the "soul" idea takes many forms. The animistic tribal man who believes the wind is moved by a "soul" still hasn't differentiated between conscious and unconscious. The Christian who believes in a soul has, yet still believes that his consciousness can directly change the world, through things like prayer. The new-age "law of attraction" type of mystic goes a step further, and tries to posit some sort of naturalistic version of that process, usually using a shallow understanding of quantum physics. Those are, however, different instances of the same psycho-epistemological trait: the failure to differentiate between self and not-self.
It's important to understand how the psychological development of individuals work. Without it, we can't understand history, as we must assume every civilization thought like we do. Without it, we can't understand contemporary politics, for the same reason. On a more individual context, we can't understand our own irrationalities, and how to overcome them, without understanding the logic by which irrationality operates.
- April 9th, 2020