In Search of the Soul: A Philosophical Essay by John Cottingham - review by Jane O'Grady

Jane O'Grady

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In Search of the Soul: A Philosophical Essay


Princeton University Press 174pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

‘Your immortal soul!’ my father used to shout, brandishing his fist. His lament was also a threat – to me, his teenage daughter, that I stood to lose my soul if I lost my Catholic faith. Nowadays, of course, even religious people are cagey as to whether, or in what way, we could be said to have (or be) souls. And yet, as John Cottingham reminds us, it still makes sense, even without the framework of salvation and afterlife, to talk of Faustian bargains or of the futility of gaining the world at the expense of one’s soul. We see commuter crowds surging over London Bridge through the eyes of Eliot, quoting Dante, as the ‘undone’ souls of Hell, or, like Yeats, think ourselves ‘paltry … unless/Soul clap its hands and sing’. We can still, as the Romantic poets did, feel our souls ‘soar’ like the fast-disappearing skylark. The term ‘soul’, Cottingham says, ‘very often points us not just towards the selves that we are, but towards the better selves we ought to be’.

But though we understand these usages of the term and are moved by them, what does that amount to? Saying you love someone with your whole heart is not to assume that the heart is the organ of love but to express an overwhelming emotion; and surely the

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