The Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and
the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry present

Ensoulment: The Soul and the Human Foetus in Historical Perspective


Ensoulment refers to the religious and philosophical idea that the soul is infused in the body of the foetus, to which it is believed to give movement, sensibility, and the potential for self-consciousness and rationality. In other words, the status of a human being. Nowadays, this topic is commonly associated with the bioethical views of Roman Catholicism, but its meaning and understanding have been historically conditioned. In fact, the idea of ensoulment has a long genealogy that can be traced back before the emergence of Christianity, and can reveal a rich history of intellectual exchanges and theoretical controversies. This workshop seeks to explore this history by excavating some of its important episodes.

In antiquity, discussions about whether ensoulment occurred at the moment of conception, sometime during gestation, or at birth long exercised philosophers and physicians, including Aristotle, Hippocrates, Porphyry, Iamblichus, and Galen. Intriguingly, astrologers also had their say in this debate, for the planetary configuration under which the soul emerged in the body was thought to inform the personality traits of the unborn – or new-born – child, as well as the genus and rank of his or her guardian daemon. Fascination with the topic continued throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when inquiries into the nature and stage of development of the foetus’s soul were made across natural philosophy, medical theory, and theology. Important thinkers like Thomas Aquinas, Marsilio Ficino, Agostino Nifo, and Thomas Fienus discussed ensoulment as an important aspect of the constitution and shaping of human nature. While medical thought gradually relinquished concerns about the soul and ensoulment, modern theology engaged in disputes about the time of ensoulment up until the nineteenth century, a crucial time in history of the relationship between science and religion.


  • Professor Philip Almond (IASH/UQ)
  • Professor Han Baltussen (Adelaide)
  • Associate Professor Francesco Borghesi (Sydney)
  • Dr Anna Corrias (HPI/UQ)
  • Ms Paige Donaghy (IASH/UQ)
  • Dr Lucia Pozzi (IASH/UQ)
  • Ms Michelle Pfeffer (IASH/UQ)
  • Dr Karin Sellberg (IASH/UQ)
IASH & HPI invite researchers interested in the history of ideas, history of medicine, and history of science and religion to join this one-day workshop.
Limited spaces available, register your interest here.


10am-4pm, Tuesday 20 August 2019
Location to be advised
The University of Queensland, St Lucia

Enquiries to or 07 334 61465

Event hosts: Dr Lucia Pozzi & Dr Anna Corrias


Image source: Illumination from Jean Mansel, Vie de Nostre Seigneur Jésus Christ, fifteenth century. Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.


Seminar Room, Level 4 Forgan Smith Tower, UQ St Lucia