Nous (νοῦς) – “…the highest faculty in man” 2

“…the organ of contemplation…, the ‘eye of the heart’…”

The word “nous” has been translated into English as “mind”, “intellect”, and a variety of other meanings as well.  The word “mind” was the choice made by Bishop Kallistos Ware (now Metropolitan Kallistos) and others in their translation of the Philokalia (the collection of Christian mystic writings from the 4th to the 15th centuries).  But our modern conception of “mind” does not really capture the meaning of “nous”.  Some use the word “intellect” as an equivalent. This also misses the nuanced meaning of “nous”.  The problem is that we in the modern world only think of “mind” and “intellect” in terms of our rational, reasoning faculties.  We can start to get a sense of the real meaning of “nous” from the definition contained in the Philokalia itself.  Here, it translates “nous” as “intellect”, but you can see that it is clearly different from our contemporary idea of “intellect”:

the highest faculty in man, through which – provided it is purified – he knows God or the inner essences or principles … of created things by means of direct apprehension or spiritual perception. Unlike the dianoia or reason…, from which it must be carefully distinguished, the intellect [nous] does not function by formulating abstract concepts and then arguing on this basis to a conclusion reached through deductive reasoning, but it understands divine truth by means of immediate experience, intuition or ‘simple cognition’ (the term used by St Isaac the Syrian). The intellect [nous] dwells in the ‘depths of the soul’; it constitutes the innermost aspect of the heart… The intellect [nous] is the organ of contemplation…, the ‘eye of the heart’ (Makarian Homilies).”

A lot of confusion surrounded the term “nous”, clearly.   As a result, many secular philosophers have used it to refer to quite different concepts.  “Nous” has been used to refer to anything from personal mental qualities or abilities all the way to qualities ascribed to God or the cosmos.


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