What Is a Personality vs. a Soul?


With regard to the concept of personality, we need to begin with a definition. By personality, we understand an organized soul that has come to consciousness of itself. When we present it as such, it seems that a personality has two aspects: organization and self-consciousness. The first mark of the personality is always [its] unity. A soul can be called a personality insofar as the powers within it have come into connection with each other and have penetrated one another. The opposite of personality is thus a soul that is full of oppositions, full of inner confusion—a chaotic, uneven soul. A second mark appears alongside this, in that a soul that has been synthesized like this must also possess a certain degree of self-consciousness. The instinctive must have stepped over into consciousness and clarity.

Immediately, we must add another definition to this: the soul is independent, created by God, with its distinctive functions found in its entire nature and essence, with strivings, capacities that we see coming to the fore in the conscious life, and with which we become acquainted from that conscious life. At the core, at the center in that soul, we call that which forms the foundation of all the psychical phenomena I.

Personality and Worldview

J. H. Bavinck

Personality and Worldview by J. H. Bavinck, translated into English for the first time, examines the relationship between the soul, each human’s unique personality, and worldview. 

At first, this all seems very difficult, but we must begin with some such formulations in order to prevent misunderstandings as far as possible—all the more in psychological investigations where misunderstandings can so easily slip in. Now, however, we must try to acquire more definition in these things. What we have noticed until now is still purely formal; it gives little insight into the accord, the content of the soul that may be considered “personality.” With this, the question naturally arises, What are the psychical capacities that we come across in an organized form in the personality and that by themselves also stand chaotically alongside one another? Which elements are we dealing with that have penetrated and pervaded each other in the personality?


To answer this question, we must first give a closer account of what the soul does, of the manner in which it behaves in life. We can indeed first move toward this [understanding] when we reflect in a detailed way on the phenomena of consciousness, on all that happens in our conscious life.

In the first place, we notice that the soul possesses a great receptive capacity. In our conscious life, we begin to see this as we notice directly that our consciousness stands open to many impressions from the external world. It reflects the external world. The soul is receptive, which is to say, in very many regards it behaves passively and takes into itself what the external world has to say to it. The doors through which these impressions enter it from the external world are what we call the senses. You have the eye, which opens itself up to the world of visible things. It notices lines and colors. The visible world offers itself to us and makes itself known to us. Through this door—the main door, we might well call it—an overwhelming mixture of impressions comes into us, and in taking this up, our eye possesses an exceptionally great acuity and refinement. Further to this, you have the ear, which possesses a simply astonishing sensitivity for all sounds, for tones, for fine nuances in the human voice. You have the tongue and other parts of the mouth and throat, which make us conscious of taste. In short, the soul is almost always busy receiving. The world never stops influencing the soul. This is so strong that nowhere near all the impressions that rush at the soul can come to the consciousness. At this moment there are visible things that want to enter me through my eyes, sounds from the street that reach my ears, all sorts of olfactory sensations, sensations of warmth, taste, and so on that offer themselves to me. My soul is not equipped to experience all of them consciously and simultaneously in a single moment, and thus it must apply a certain selectivity. It does this in its attentiveness. I do not take in all sorts of other impressions that are present, and I focus, for example, only on the sound of the human voice that is speaking to me. But in all this, the soul is receptive. Its posture to the external world is the continuous request “Speak to me!” And the soul itself listens, receives.

In the second place, we can say of the soul that it conserves. We also first begin to see this in the conscious life. As soon as we go after our presuppositions, concepts, and so on, we notice that older images constantly reappear. That shows us that the soul seems to keep a firm hold on old images and that it always carefully preserves them. The soul’s conserving capacity is one of the greatest secrets that it hides within itself. We do not notice that it does this or how it does it, but we see from the results that it seems to happen. The soul does this naturally. It is always doing this by virtue of its own nature, in most cases without us somehow consciously influencing it [to do so].

Now we see the conserving function of the soul coming to the fore in all sorts of different forms. We meet it, for example, in the memory. I can still repeat all sorts of series of words by heart that I learned as a boy at school. We meet it in a different way in recognition. When we see a thing, we can sometimes have a strong feeling that we have seen it before. That is also only possible when the soul seems to have retained an image of it from before. We can also observe the conserving power in remembering. Remembrance always regards our own life. I remember episodes from my early years, I can determine precisely when they happened, how I felt then, and so on. Through remembrance, we have an overview of our own history, and we keep a firm grip on our own past. Now the soul sets to work selectively in the conserving of impressions, and it holds on to some more firmly than to others. It prefers, for example, those impressions in which it is specially interested. Others, to which it was more or less indifferent, are jettisoned as quickly as possible, so as to gain as little ballast as possible. But that it does conserve is sufficiently proved from all sorts of phenomena.

With regard to these things, one more thing must be pointed out. The conserving capacity possessed by the soul is so great that the soul itself often does not know what it has buried in the cellars of the memory. All manner of old memories that it thought it had forgotten long ago can sometimes suddenly resurface in later years. They seem to have lain buried in the dusty depths of the subconscious for years and then suddenly to have been called back to life. That is a secretive occurrence that we cannot pursue in a detailed way, but one thing is indeed sure: the soul anxiously and carefully retains what has happened in the past, so that in later years it may reach a verdict on it.

The soul is so wondrously multifaceted that you can barely imagine its richness adequately.

The third thing that occupies us is the connecting power of the soul. It does not allow the older impressions and all the new impressions that present themselves to it to remain detached from each other. It always brings them into connection with one another. When I see something new, I remember that I once saw something similar; I connect them and draw a conclusion: “Oh, then this or that will happen.” I see the present in the light of the past and the past in connection with the present. Actually, this is what thinking really is. Thinking is nothing other than connecting impressions, noting their relatedness, their inner relations. This can happen in all sorts of forms, in a simple manner, but sometimes also in very complex forms. You always encounter the same psychical power: the soul is never satisfied simply by setting things alongside each other. It must also know [weten] the connection, the link, between them. Because it looks for this, things become clearer to it the longer [it considers them]. It begins to notice that the world is full of thought, that the phenomena in the world are connected to each other.

The psychical capacity, however, is not exhausted by this [connecting]. After all, everything is still objective. The soul goes further and lives its own subjective life. This means that it also steps appreciatively into the reality beyond itself. It says, “I find that red color beautiful”; “I do not like that combination of tones.” It always makes value judgments. It says, “I like it here; I find this room cozy, tasteful.” It judges, “I find this person kind; another irritating, hateful.” It does not move through life like a dead thing; rather, it is bound to the world outside itself by all manner of fine bonds of sympathy, preference, and taste. It does all this naturally. It is a power within itself that it uses naturally in every moment.

It stamps everything with a certain value, be that for good or ill. It enjoys the sun, the light, the majesty of an autumnal scene. The world speaks to it, as though [the soul] is drawn into it. And by what standard does it judge those things? According to its inner norms. It has this balance in its own hands; its own needs are the standard that it lays down for those things. It is always moved by things, sometimes in an almost imperceptibly light way, but sometimes it can be engulfed by love or by hate, by rejection or appreciation.

In the last place, we can say, the soul longs. That is a new power within it. It does not accept the world as the things within it present themselves. Rather, it always wants to bring about changes within it. It re-forms the world according to its own taste. To [the soul], reality is still possibility, from which it can make everything. It actively intervenes in what happens. It exerts itself in influencing things as they occur. It is like a servant that receives and bows down, but it is also a king that rules and even makes his will to be done. It has ideals and pursues them, and it has desires that it seeks to fulfill. And so it advances through life and intervenes in the delicate game of everyday occurrences.

You will admit that we encounter quite a sum of powers in the soul. Passive, in receiving and appreciating, but also active, in connecting and longing. There are those that remain hidden within a person, in conserving and thinking. There are also those that move outward, in the great willing that is rooted in longing. The soul is so wondrously multifaceted that you can barely imagine its richness adequately. It is a fine tool that is suitable for everything, that hides a world of diversity within itself. Only when you can see and imagine that, can you understand and wonder at it.

This article is adapted from Personality and Worldview by J. H. Bavinck.

Related Articles

All Brain, No Soul?

Brad Sickler

The allegation is that we should no longer believe in souls because science has solved the problem of consciousness, leaving nothing for souls to do.

Herman Bavinck: The Man and the Mind

John Bolt

Bavinck wrote theology with the church in mind; he prized evangelical piety; he did not disparage modern learning; he took a genuine interest in the world’s non-Christian religious traditions as important data for Christian theology.

Related Resources

Crossway is a not-for-profit Christian ministry that exists solely for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel through publishing gospel-centered, Bible-centered content. Learn more or donate today at crossway.org/about.