AskDefine | Define nous

Dictionary Definition



1 common sense; "she has great social nous"
2 that which is responsible for one's thoughts and feelings; the seat of the faculty of reason; "his mind wandered"; "I couldn't get his words out of my head" [syn: mind, head, brain, psyche]

User Contributed Dictionary



  • nous, /naʊs/, /naUs/


nous (uncountable)
  1. The mind or intellect.
  2. common sense; practical intelligence.




Latin nos


  1. (subject pronoun) we
  2. (object pronoun) us, to us

Extensive Definition

Nous (, Greek: or ) is a philosophical term for mind or intellect. Outside of a philosophical context, it is used, in English, to denote "common sense," with a different pronunciation (/naʊs/).

Overview of usage by ancient Greeks

The word nous is somewhat ambiguous, a result of being appropriated by successive philosophers to designate very different concepts.
  • Homer used nous to signify mental activities in general, but in the pre-Socratics it became increasingly identified with knowledge and with reason as opposed to sense perception.
  • Anaxagoras's nous was a mechanical ordering force that formed the world out of an original chaos. It began the development of the cosmos.
  • Plato described it as the immortal, rational part of the soul. It is a godlike kind of thinking in which the truths of conclusions are immediately known without having to understand the preliminary premises.
  • Aristotle asserted that nous was the intellect, as distinguished from sense perception. He divided it into an active and passive nous. The passive is affected by knowledge. The active is an immortal first cause of all subsequent causes in the world.
  • To the Stoics, it was the same as logos. This is the whole cosmic reason. It contains human reason as a part.
  • Plotinus described nous as one of the emanations from divine being.
  • Some modern followers of the God Antinous consider him the oppossite of nous, the irrational, Dionysian aspect of Spirit.


The philosopher Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, born about 500 BC, introduced a new factor, nous (mind), which arranged all other things in their proper order, started them in motion, and continues to control them. In the philosophy of Anaxagoras the most original aspect of the Anaxagoras' system was his doctrine of nous (“mind” or “reason”). The cosmos was formed by mind in two stages: first, by a revolving and mixing process that still continues; and, second, by the development of living things. In the first, all of “the dark” came together to form the night, “the fluid” came like water in some form or other; later thinkers added air, fire, and earth to the list of fundamental elements. There is still controversy as to how his concept of mind is to be all of these particles that had existed in an even mixture, in which nothing could be distinguished, much like the indefinite apeiron of Anaximander. But then nous (intelligence) began at one point to set these particles into a whirling motion, foreseeing that in this way they would become separated from one another and then recombine. He used nous to initiate the process of cosmic development. Anaxagoras wrote:
All other things partake in a portion of everything, while nous is infinite and self-ruled, and is mixed with nothing, but is alone, itself by itself. For if it were not by itself, but were mixed with anything else, it would partake in all things if it were mixed with any; for in everything there is a portion of everything, as has been said by me in what goes before, and the things mixed with it would hinder it, so that it would have power over nothing in the same way that it has now being alone by itself. For it is the thinnest of all things and the purest, and it has all knowledge about everything and the greatest strength; and nous has power over all things, both greater and smaller, that have soul.
Anaxagoras elaborated a quasi-dualistic theory according to which all things have existed from the beginning. Originally they existed in infinitesimal fragments, infinite in number and devoid of arrangement. Amongst these fragments were the seeds of all things which have since emerged by the process of aggregation and segregation, wherein homogeneous fragments came together. These processes are the work of nous which governs and arranges. But this nous (mind) is not incorporeal; it is the thinnest of all things; its action on the particle is conceived materially. It originated a rotatory movement, which arising in one point gradually extended till the whole was in motion, which motion continues and will continue infinitely. By this motion things are gradually constructed not entirely of homogeneous particles, but in each thing with a majority of a certain kind of particle. It is this aggregation which we describe variously as birth, death, maturity, decay, and of which the senses give inaccurate reports. His vague dualism works a very distinct advance upon the crude hylozoism of the early Ionians, and the criticisms of Plato and Aristotle show how highly his work was esteemed. The great danger is that we should credit him with more than he actually thought. His nous was not a spiritual force; it was no omnipotent deity; it is not a pantheistic world soul. But by isolating Reason from all other growths, by representing it as the motor-energy of the Cosmos, in popularizing a term which suggested personality and will, Anaxagoras gave an impetus to ideas which were the basis of Aristotelian philosophy in Greece and in Europe at large.


For Plato it was generally equated with the rational part of the individual soul (to logistikon), although in his Republic it has a special function within this rational part. Plato tended to treat nous as the only immortal part of the soul. In the Timaeus, the title character also calls nous responsible for the creative work of the demiurge or maker who brought rational order to our universe. This craftsman imitated what he perceived in the world of eternal Forms.


Aristotle also considered nous as intellect, distinguished from sense perception. In De Anima (III.3-5) Aristotle divides nous into a passive intellect which is affected by knowledge; and an active intellect, which alone is immortal and eternal. Aristotle (Metaphysics) identifies the Prime Mover with the nous that thinks itself.
In the philosophy of Aristotle the soul (psyche) of a thing is what makes it alive; thus, every living thing, including plant life, has a soul. The mind or intellect (nous) can be described variously as a power, faculty, part, or aspect of the human soul. It should be noted that for Aristotle soul and intellect are not the same. He did not rule out the possibility that intellect might survive without the rest of the soul, as in Plato, but plants have a 'nutritive' soul without a mind.

Alexander of Aphrodisias

In Alexander of Aphrodisias's On the Soul, he contends that the undeveloped reason in man is material (nous hulikos) and inseparable from the body. He argued strongly against the doctrine of immortality. He identified the active intellect (nous poietikos), through whose agency the potential intellect in man becomes actual, with God. In the early Renaissance his doctrine of the soul's mortality was adopted by Pietro Pomponazzi against the Thomists and the Averroists.


Later Platonists distinguished a hierarchy of three separate manifestations of nous, like Numenius of Apamea and for Plotinus nous is a second god (the direct image of the Good) containing within itself the world of intelligible being called demiurge. The Nous holds these intelligible Forms, which exist through its contemplation, and points towards their source in the Good. It signifies a search for order by the part of the soul or mind that knows and thinks. In some philosophical forms of Greek mythology, order was imposed by an anthropomorphic father of all things, the Demiurge.
In Neoplatonism there exists several levels of existence, reality or hypostasises the highest of which is that of the One the Monad, or the Good, which are identical but indescribable and indefinable in human language without conscious being but is the substance of all things. The next lower level is that of nous and or demiurge (pure intellect or reason); the third is that of the soul. There then follows the world perceived by the senses. Finally, at the lowest level there is matter which was only manifest by the nous or demiurge as the mind of men (see idealism).


Of the later Greek and Roman writers the Neoplatonist Plotinus is significant. According to him, objective reason (nous) and intelligence (logiki) as self-moving, becomes the formative influence which reduces dead matter to form. Matter when thus formed becomes a thought (logismoi) and its form is beauty. Objects are ugly so far as they are unacted upon by reason and therefore formless. The creative reason is absolute beauty. There are three degrees or stages of manifested beauty:
  1. that of human reason, which is the highest;
  2. that of the human soul, which is less perfect through its connexion with a material body;
  3. that of real objects, which is the lowest manifestation of all.
As to the precise forms of beauty, he supposed, in opposition to Aristotle, that a single thing not divisible into parts (like the One) might be beautiful through its unity and simplicity. He gives a high place to the beauty of colors in which material darkness is overpowered by light and warmth. In reference to artistic beauty he said that when the artist has notions as models for his creations, these may become more beautiful than natural objects. This is clearly a step away from Plato's doctrine towards our modern conception of artistic idealization. Plotinus maintains, the Intelligence (nous) is an independent existent, requiring nothing outside of itself for subsistence. The Intelligence (nous) may be understood as the storehouse of all potential beings, however only if every potential being is also recognized as an eternal and unchangeable thought in the Divine Mind. Plotinus refers to the Intelligence as God (theos).

Augustinian Neoplatonism

In Augustinian Platonism it is a basis for metaphysical or religious thinking. This must be the result of the presence in the soul of higher realities and their action upon it. In Plotinus the illumination of the soul by Intellect and the One was the permanent cause of man's ability to know eternal reality. Augustine of Hippo was at this point very close to Plotinus, though for him there was a much sharper distinction.
The Form of the Good or "The Idea of the Good" in Plato's philosophy was identified with God by Augustine of Hippo.

Eastern Orthodox Christianity

Nous in Eastern Orthodox Christianity is the eye of the soul. Just as the soul of man, is created by God, man's soul is intelligent and noetic. St Thalassios wrote that God created beings "with a capacity to receive the Spirit and to attain knowledge of Himself; He has brought into existence the senses and sensory perception to serve such beings". Eastern Orthodox Christians hold that God did this by creating mankind with intelligence and noetic faculties. Angels have intelligence and nous, whereas men have reason, nous and sensory perception. This follows the idea that man is a microcosm and an expression of the whole creation or macrocosmos; it is through the healed and corrected nous and the intelligence that man knows and experiences God.
In this belief, soul is created in the image of God. Since God is Trinitarian, Mankind is Nous, Word and Spirit. The same is held true of the soul (or heart): it has nous, word and spirit. To understand this better first an understanding of St Gregory Palamas's teaching that man is a representation of the trinitarian mystery should be addressed. This holds that God is not meant in the sense that the Trinity should be understood anthropomorphically, but man is to be understood in a triune way. Or, that the Trinitarian God is not to be interpreted from the point of view of individual man, but man is interpreted on the basis of the Trinitarian God. And this interpretation is revelatory not merely psychological and human. This means that it is only when a person is within the revelation, as all the saints lived, that he can grasp this understanding completely (see theoria). The second presupposition is that mankind has and is composed of nous, word and spirit like the trinitarian mode of being. Man's nous, word and spirit are not hypostases or individual existences or realities, but activities or energies of the soul. Were as in the case with God or the Persons of the Holy Trinity each are indeed hypostases. So these three components of each individual man are `inseparable from one another' but they do not have a personal character" when in speaking of the being that is mankind.
The nous as the eye of the soul, which some Fathers also call the heart, is the center of man and is where true (spiritual) knowledge is validated. This is seen as true knowledge which is "implanted in the nous as always co-existing with it".



nous in German: Nous
nous in French: Noûs
nous in Dutch: Nous
nous in Japanese: ヌース
nous in Portuguese: Nous
nous in Romanian: Nous
nous in Russian: Нус (философия)
nous in Slovak: Nús
nous in Finnish: Nous
nous in Swedish: Nous
nous in Turkish: Nous

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Logos, Vernunft, World Reason, acuity, acuteness, adroitness, anima mundi, aptitude, aptness, archeus, brain, braininess, brains, brightness, brilliance, clear thinking, cleverness, conception, dexterity, discourse of reason, discursive reason, esprit, flair, genius, giftedness, gifts, gray matter, head, headpiece, infinite spirit, intellect, intellection, intellectual faculty, intelligence, keen-wittedness, keenness, mens, mental alertness, mental capacity, mentality, mercurial mind, mind, native cleverness, nimble mind, nimble-wittedness, nimbleness, oversoul, power of reason, psyche, quick parts, quick thinking, quick wit, quick-wittedness, quickness, ratio, rationality, ready wit, reason, reasoning, reasoning faculty, savvy, sharp-wittedness, sharpness, smartness, smarts, sprightly wit, supreme soul, talent, understanding, universal ego, universal life force, world principle, world soul, world spirit, world-self
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