The notion of the soul has a long and problematic history, but perhaps surprisingly it has a power and resonance that are still very much alive today. As will be shown in the opening chapter, it is liable to occur in many different contexts, in literary and poetical writings, as well as in ordinary speech, when human beings speak about what matters deeply to them. It surfaces when people talk about the powerful human need to find our true “self” or identity; when they wrestle with the task of leading integrated and morally worthwhile lives; when they search for the love and affection that can give meaning to our existence, or the joy that arises from the sense of being at one with another human being, or in harmony with the natural world. So far from being the exclusive concern of theologians or historians of ideas, the concept of the soul, as I shall hope to show, is one that has a claim to be central to our thinking about what it is to be human.
Human life is a formidable challenge, but we are all necessarily engaged in the struggle to fulfil what is best in our nature, to realize our true selves, and thereby find meaning and completion. The picture of “humanity in quest of the soul,” as the first chapter’s title puts it, seems to me—for many reasons, which I shall be exploring in what follows—a resonant and fruitful way of expressing this idea. Nothing, of course, compels us to use this terminology. Philosophical discourse is seldom if ever a matter of coercive argument, but has more to do with trying to show how certain frameworks of interpretation are hospitable to coming to terms with existential and moral challenges inherent in our human predicament