The Pursuit of the Soul

Psychoanalysis, Soul-making and the Christian Tradition

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Peter Tyler
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury T&T Clark
    , February
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Peter Tyler writes a fascinating, accessible book on how ancient philosophy, Christian theology, and modern psychoanalysis discuss the notion of the soul and its relationship to being human. Tyler reveals both the similarities and differences between these three disciplines and the evolution of their ideas about the soul in various time periods and cultural environments. 

The book's opening chapter explores different ways of speaking about the soul. The next chapter examines Plato's account of the soul, an account that influenced both Christian theology and subsequent philosophy. Specialists in Greek philosophy may disagree or find Tyler's interpretations too simplistic. However, the chapter helpfully introduces Plato's ideas to the book's intended audience of non-philosophers. Plato believed in an eternal, immortal soul that existed before and persisted after bodily death. Plato believed that the soul prepared to be released from the body by the practice of philosophy. He also had a concept of nous, a larger “world soul” not present within Christian tradition. Tyler then goes on to survey briefly the ways in which the soul functions in the major Platonic dialogues including the Phaedrus, the Republic, and the Timaeus.

In the next chapter, Tyler explores Plato's influence on Plotinus and Augustine. He also notes that Plato was not Greek philosophy's only thinker on the soul, and explores other Greek philosophers.  Tyler focuses on Plotinus in particular because of the way his focus on contemplation becomes an important influence on Augustine. The soul for Plotinus longs to return to a home that it cannot find. Reason and philosophy will help guide the soul to its homeland. It is not difficult to hear Plotinus’s echo in Augustine's statement that “our hearts will not rest until they rest in [God].” Tyler then describes how Augustine describes the soul being unable to find its homeland without God's grace; human efforts at philosophy will fall short. 

From the scholastic theology of Augustine, the book continues with theories of the soul in Christian ascetic traditions. This division seems arbitrary since Augustine withdrew to think at times before becoming a bishop. While Origen and others were influenced by Greek philosophy, they believed in a personal God, not an unmoved mover. However, Origen differs from Augustine in that he posits the soul's existence prior to the creation of the body. What all these chapters show is the diversity in both Greek and Christian thought on the soul that is synthesized in different ways in different historical eras and cultural contexts. 

From that first section of the book, which is theological, Tyler turns to the “founding fathers” of psychoanalysis (and the first generation of psychoanalytic thinkers was mostly male) to explore how they described what they considered to be the “soul.” He notes that translations of Freud's work into English by James Strachey replaced Freud's German terms for soul with the English term “mind.” This led to a misunderstanding of Freud's thinking, argues Tyler.

Tyler looks at Otto Rank's notion that psychoanalysis did not consist of “facts” as proposed by Freud but rather it proposed interpretations of human phenomena. Rank refused to “follow along” with what he saw as the medicalization of psychoanalysis and preferred to maintain that it was a humanistic inquiry into selfhood. Such a notion of selfhood cannot be totally restrained by forces of the past in a deterministic manner. Rank foreshadows later work in psychotherapy, such as the existential psychotherapy of Irvin Yalom. However, Tyler's analysis does not extend that far, and one wishes that it did, because Rank moves therapy out of the realm of biology and into the space of creativity and relationship, making room for a different and more creative understanding of the therapeutic relationship. This theme would later be taken up in different ways by feminist Christian writers writing on therapy such as Carter Heyward and Pamela Cooper-White, but again Tyler does not extend his analysis this far. 

From the work of Rank, Tyler turns to James Hillman, a student of Carl Jung. Hillman began as an academic and ended up more of a figure of popular culture. Still, Tyler argues that his early work contained an academic critique of psychology and psychoanalysis, namely that it could not confront the ways that the human mind was oblivious to its own darkness and mystery. He recognized early in his career that “soul” had more of an affinity with religious discourse and “psyche” with scientific discourse. Hillman disconnects the soul from the transcendent but gives much more room to the imagination. 

The final constructive chapters explore a “post-modern turn” in thinking about the soul. Here, Tyler moves too fast for this reviewer. The chapters are insightful but treating thinkers as complex as Thomas Merton, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Rabindranath Tagore in less than twenty pages is a bit too ambitious. One wonders if all these thinkers were necessary for Tyler to make the point that he was trying to make about the nature of the soul. In the same way, his chapter on Edith Stein is less than ten pages. Here, brevity seems to be more of a hindrance to full understanding of the authors presented. Perhaps Tyler has too many voices in the conversation, although he holds the common questions together in a coherent thread which makes for thought-provoking reading. 

The concluding chapter is on the way that soul language continues to be a term through which we can speak about the self in ways that are not contained or explained entirely by science. He calls for an understanding of the soul as the creative and artistic sides of selfhood, as well as the libidinal self, in ways that neither science nor theological metaphysics can explain. This book will be of interest to students in the psychology of religion as well as to pastors, counselors, and pastoral psychotherapists. Its ability to bridge so many voices makes it accessible, and hence we are in Tyler's debt for this informative, wide-ranging, and constructive book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aaron Klink is Chaplain at Pruitt Hospice in Durham, NC.

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dr Peter Tyler is Senior Lecturer and Programme Director of Pastoral Theology at St Mary's University College, Twickenham, UK. Previous publications include St John of the Cross - Outstanding Christian Thinker (Continuum 2010), Sources of Transformation: Revitalising Christian Spirituality (edited with Edward Howells) (Continuum 2010) and The Return to the Mystical: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Teresa of Avila and the Christian Mystical Tradition (Continuum 2011).



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