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Nous (UK: /ns/,[1] US: /ns/), sometimes equated to intellect or intelligence, is a term from classical philosophy for the faculty of the human mind necessary for understanding what is true or real. English words such as "understanding" are sometimes used, but three commonly used philosophical terms come directly from classical languages: νοῦς or νόος (from Ancient Greek), intellēctus and intellegentia (from Latin). To describe the activity of this faculty, the word "intellection" is sometimes used in philosophical contexts, as well as the Greek words noēsis and noeîn (νόησις, νοεῖν). This activity is understood in a similar way (at least in some contexts) to the modern concept of intuition.

In philosophy, common English translations include "understanding" and "mind"; or sometimes "thought" or "reason" (in the sense of that which reasons, not the activity of reasoning).[2][3] It is also often described as something equivalent to perception except that it works within the mind ("the mind's eye").[4] It has been suggested that the basic meaning is something like "awareness".[5] In colloquial British English, nous also denotes "good sense", which is close to one everyday meaning it had in Ancient Greece.

This happens

The lower of the two levels, labeled specifically as "prophecy" (nubuwwa), is enjoyed by men who have not yet perfected their intellect, whereas the higher, which Alfarabi sometimes specifically names "revelation" (w-ḥ-y), comes exclusively to those who stand at the stage of acquired intellect.

This happens in the imagination (Arabic mutakhayyila; Greek phantasia), a faculty of the mind already described by Aristotle, which al Farabi described as serving the rational part of the soul (Arabic ʿaql; Greek nous). This faculty of imagination stores sense perceptions (maḥsūsāt), disassembles or recombines them, creates figurative or symbolic images (muḥākāt) of them which then appear in dreams, visualizes present and predicted events in a way different from conscious deliberation (rawiyya). This is under the influence, according to Al Farabi, of the active intellect. Theoretical truth can only be received by this faculty in a figurative or symbolic form, because the imagination is a physical capability and can not receive theoretical information in a proper abstract form. This rarely comes in a waking state, but more often in dreams. The lower type of prophecy is the best possible for the imaginative faculty, but the higher type of prophecy requires not only a receptive imagination, but also the condition of an "acquired intellect", where the human nous is in "conjunction" with the active intellect in the sense of God. Such a prophet is also a philosopher. When a philosopher-prophet has the necessary leadership qualities, he becomes philosopher-king.[54]

In terms of cosmology, according to Davidson (p. 82) "Avicenna's universe has a structure virtually identical with the structure of Alfarabi's" but there are differences in details. As in Al Farabi, there are several levels of intellect, intelligence or nous, each of the higher ones being associated with a celestial sphere. Avicenna however details three different types of effect which each of these higher intellects has, each "thinks" both the necessary existence and the possible being of the intelligence one level higher. And each "emanates" downwards the body and soul of its own celestial sphere, and also the intellect at the next lowest level. The active intellect, as in Alfarabi, is the last in the chain. Avicenna sees active intellect as the cause not only of intelligible thought and the forms in the "sublunar" world we people live, but also the matter. (In other words, three effects.)[55]

Concerning the workings of the human soul, Avicenna, like Al Farabi, sees the "material intellect" or potential intellect as something that is not material. He believed the soul was incorporeal, and the potential intellect was a disposition of it which was in the soul from birth. As in Al Farabi there are two further stages of potential for thinking, which are not yet actual thinking, first the mind acquires the most basic

Concerning the workings of the human soul, Avicenna, like Al Farabi, sees the "material intellect" or potential intellect as something that is not material. He believed the soul was incorporeal, and the potential intellect was a disposition of it which was in the soul from birth. As in Al Farabi there are two further stages of potential for thinking, which are not yet actual thinking, first the mind acquires the most basic intelligible thoughts which we can not think in any other way, such as "the whole is greater than the part", then comes a second level of derivative intelligible thoughts which could be thought.[55] Concerning the actualization of thought, Avicenna applies the term "to two different things, to actual human thought, irrespective of the intellectual progress a man has made, and to actual thought when human intellectual development is complete", as in Al Farabi.[56]

When reasoning in the sense of deriving conclusions from syllogisms, Avicenna says people are using a physical "cogitative" faculty (mufakkira, fikra) of the soul, which can err. The human cogitative faculty is the same as the "compositive imaginative faculty (mutakhayyila) in reference to the animal soul".[57] But some people can use "insight" to avoid this step and derive conclusions directly by conjoining with the active intellect.[58]

Once a thought has been learned in a soul, the physical faculties of sense perception and imagination become unnecessary, and as a person acquires more thoughts, their soul becomes less connected to their body.[59] For Avicenna, different from the normal Aristotelian position, all of the soul is by nature immortal. But the level of intellectual development does affect the type of afterlife that the soul can have. Only a soul which has reached the highest type of conjunction with the active intellect can form a perfect conjunction with it after the death of the body, and this is a supreme eudaimonia. Lesser intellectual achievement means a less happy or even painful afterlife.[60]

Concerning prophecy, Avicenna identifies a broader range of possibilities which fit into this model, which is still similar to that of Al Farabi.[61]

Averroes came to be regarded even in Europe as "the Commentator" to "the Philosopher", Aristotle, and his study of the questions surrounding the nous were very influential amongst Jewish and Christian philosophers, with some aspects being quite controversial. According to Herbert Davidson, Averroes' doctrine concerning nous can be divided into two periods. In the first, neoplatonic emanationism, not found in the original works of Aristotle, was combined with a naturalistic explanation of the human material intellect. "It also insists on the material intellect's having an active intellect as a direct object of thought and conjoining with the active intellect, notions never expressed in the Aristotelian canon." It was this presentation which Jewish philosophers such as Moses Narboni and Gersonides understood to be Averroes'. In the later model of the universe, which was transmitted to Christian philosophers, Averroes "dismisses emanationism and explains the generation of living beings in the sublunar world naturalistically, all in the name of a more genuine Aristotelianism. Yet it abandons the earlier naturalistic conception of the human material intellect and transforms the material intellect into something wholly un-Aristotelian, a single transcendent entity serving all mankind. It nominally salvages human conjunction with the active intellect, but in words that have little content."[62]

This position, that humankind shares one active intellect, was taken up by Parisian philosophers such as Siger of Brabant, but also widely rejected by philosophers such as Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Ramon Lull, and Duns Scotus. Des

This position, that humankind shares one active intellect, was taken up by Parisian philosophers such as Siger of Brabant, but also widely rejected by philosophers such as Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Ramon Lull, and Duns Scotus. Despite being widely considered heretical, the position was later defended by many more European philosophers including John of Jandun, who was the primary link bringing this doctrine from Paris to Bologna. After him this position continued to be defended and also rejected by various writers in northern Italy. In the 16th century it finally became a less common position after the renewal of an "Alexandrian" position based on that of Alexander of Aphrodisias, associated with Pietro Pomponazzi.[63]

The Christian New Testament makes mention of the nous or noos, generally translated in modern English as "mind", but also showing a link to God's will or law:

  • Romans 7:23, refers to the law (nomos) of God which is the law in the writer's nous, as opposed to the law of sin which is in the body.
  • Christian fathers a sound or pure nous is considered essential to the cultivation of wisdom.[64]

    Philosophers influencing western Christianity

    While philosophical works were not commonly read or taught in the early Middle Ages in most of Europe, the works of authors like Boethius and Augustine of Hippo formed an important exception. Both were influenced by neoplatonism, and were amongst the older works that were still known in the time of the Carolingian Renaissance, and the beginnings of Scholasticism.

    In his early years Augustine was heavily influenced by Manichaeism and afterwards by the Neoplatonism of Plotinus.[65] After his conversion to Christianity and baptism (387), he developed his own approach to philosophy and theology, accommodating a variety of methods and different perspectives.[66]

    Augustine used Neoplatonism selectively. He used both the neoplatonic Nous, and the Platonic Form of the Good (or "The Idea of the Good") as equivalent terms for the Christian God, or at least for one particular aspect of God. For example, God, nous, can act directly upon matter, and not only through souls, and con

    While philosophical works were not commonly read or taught in the early Middle Ages in most of Europe, the works of authors like Boethius and Augustine of Hippo formed an important exception. Both were influenced by neoplatonism, and were amongst the older works that were still known in the time of the Carolingian Renaissance, and the beginnings of Scholasticism.

    In his early years Augustine was heavily influenced by Manichaeism and afterwards by the Neoplatonism of Plotinus.[65] After his conversion to Christianity and baptism (387), he developed

    In his early years Augustine was heavily influenced by Manichaeism and afterwards by the Neoplatonism of Plotinus.[65] After his conversion to Christianity and baptism (387), he developed his own approach to philosophy and theology, accommodating a variety of methods and different perspectives.[66]

    Augustine used Neoplatonism selectively. He used both the neoplatonic Nous, and the Platonic Form of the Good (or "The Idea of the Good") as equivalent terms for the Christian God, or at least for one particular aspect of God. For example, God, nous, can act directly upon matter, and not only through souls, and concerning the souls through which it works upon the world experienced by humanity, some are treated as angels.[31]

    Scholasticism becomes more clearly defined much later, as the peculiar native type of philosophy in medieval catholic Europe. In this period, Aristotle became "the Philosopher", and scholastic philosophers, like their Jewish and Muslim contemporaries, studied the concept of the intellectus on the basis not only of Aristotle, but also late classical interpreters like Augustine and Boethius. A European tradition of new and direct interpretations of Aristotle developed which was eventually strong enough to argue with partial success against some of the interpretations of Aristotle from the Islamic world, most notably Averroes' doctrine of their being one "active intellect" for all humanity. Notable "Catholic" (as opposed to Averroist) Aristotelians included Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, the founder of Thomism, which exists to this day in various forms. Concerning the nous, Thomism agrees with those Aristotelians who insist that the intellect is immaterial and separate from any bodily organs, but as per Christian doctrine, the whole of the human soul is immortal, not only the intellect.

    The human nous in Eastern Orthodox Christianity is the "eye of the heart or soul" or the "mind of the heart".[67][68][69][70] The soul of man, is created by God in His image, man's soul is intelligent and noetic. Saint Thalassius of Syria 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.[71]

    Human reasoning is not enough: there will always remain an "irrational residue" which escapes analysis and which can not be expressed in concepts: it is this unknowable depth of things, that which constitutes their true, indefinable essence that also reflects the origin of things in God. In Eastern Christianity it i

    Human reasoning is not enough: there will always remain an "irrational residue" which escapes analysis and which can not be expressed in concepts: it is this unknowable depth of things, that which constitutes their true, indefinable essence that also reflects the origin of things in God. In Eastern Christianity it is by faith or intuitive truth that this component of an object’s existence is grasped.[72] Though God through his energies draws us to him, his essence remains inaccessible.[72] The operation of faith being the means of free will by which mankind faces the future or unknown, these noetic operations contained in the concept of insight or noesis.[73] Faith (pistis) is therefore sometimes used interchangeably with noesis in Eastern Christianity.

    Angels have intelligence and nous, whereas men have reason, both logos and dianoia, nous and sensory perception. This follows the idea that man is a microcosm and an expression of the whole creation or macrocosmos. The human nous was darkened after the Fall of Man (which was the result of the rebellion of reason against the nous),[74] but after the purification (healing or correction) of the nous (achieved through ascetic practices like hesychasm), the human nous (the "eye of the heart") will see God's uncreated Light (and feel God's uncreated love and beauty, at which point the nous will start the unceasing prayer of the heart) and become illuminated, allowing the person to become an orthodox theologian.[67][75][76]

    In this belief, the soul is created in the image of God. Since God is Trinitarian, Mankind is Nous, reason, both logos and dianoia, 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 Saint 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 - whereas 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 or ontology that is mankind. The nous as the eye of the soul, which some Fathers also call the heart, is the centre 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".[77]

    The so-called "early modern" philosophers of western Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries established arguments which led to the establishment of modern science as a methodical approach to improve the welfare of humanity by learning to control nature. As such, speculation about metaphysics, which cannot be used for anything practical, and which can never be confirmed against the reality we experience, started to be deliberately avoided, especially according to the so-called "empiricist" arguments of philosophers such as Bacon, Hobbes, Locke and Hume. The Latin motto "nihil in intellectu nisi prius fuerit in sensu" (nothing in the intellect without first being in the senses) has been described as the "guiding principle of empiricism" in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.[78] (This was in fact an old Aristotelian doctrine, which they took up, but as discussed above Aristotelians still believed that the senses on their own were not enough to explain the mind.)

    These philosophers explain the intellect as something developed from experience of sensations, being interpreted by the brain in a physical way, and nothing else, which means that absolute knowledge is impossible. For Bacon, Hobbes and Locke, who wrote

    These philosophers explain the intellect as something developed from experience of sensations, being interpreted by the brain in a physical way, and nothing else, which means that absolute knowledge is impossible. For Bacon, Hobbes and Locke, who wrote in both English and Latin, "intellectus" was translated as "understanding".[79] Far from seeing it as secure way to perceive the truth about reality, Bacon, for example, actually named the intellectus in his Novum Organum, and the proœmium to his Great Instauration, as a major source of wrong conclusions, because it is biased in many ways, for example towards over-generalizing. For this reason, modern science should be methodical, in order not to be misled by the weak human intellect. He felt that lesser known Greek philosophers such as Democritus "who did not suppose a mind or reason in the frame of things", have been arrogantly dismissed because of Aristotelianism leading to a situation in his time wherein "the search of the physical causes hath been neglected, and passed in silence".[80] The intellect or understanding was the subject of Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding.[81]

    These philosophers also tended not to emphasize the distinction between reason and intellect, describing the peculiar universal or abstract definitions of human understanding as being man-made and resulting from reason itself.[82] Hume even questioned the distinctness or peculiarity of human understanding and reason, compared to other types of associative or imaginative thinking found in some other animals.[83] In modern science during this time, Newton is sometimes described as more empiricist compared to Leibniz.

    On the other hand, into modern times some philosophers have continued to propose that the human mind has an in-born ("a priori") ability to know the truth conclusively, and these philosophers have needed to argue that the human mind has direct and intuitive ideas about nature, and this means it can not be limited entirely to what can be known from sense perception. Amongst the early modern philosophers, some such as Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Kant, tend to be distinguished from the empiricists as rationalists, and to some extent at least some of them are called idealists, and their writings on the intellect or understanding present various doubts about empiricism, and in some cases they argued for positions which appear more similar to those of medieval and classical philosophers.

    The first in this series of modern rationalists, Descartes, is credited with defining a "mind-body problem" which is a major subject of discussion for university philosophy courses. According to the presentation his 2nd Meditation, the human mind and body are different in kind, and while Descartes agrees with Hobbes for example that the human body works like a clockwork mechanism, and its workings include memory and imagination, the real human is the thinking being, a soul, which is not part of that mechanism. Descartes explicitly refused to divide this soul into its traditional parts such as intellect and reason, saying that these things were indivisible aspects of the soul. Descartes was therefore a dualist, but very much in opposition to traditional Aristotelian dualism. In his 6th Meditation he deliberately uses traditional terms and states that his active faculty of giving ideas to his thought must be corporeal, because the things perceived are clearly external to his own thinking and corporeal, while his passive faculty must be incorporeal (unless God is deliberately deceiving us, and then in this case the active faculty would be from God). This is the opposite of the traditional explanation found for example in Alexander of Aphrodisias and discussed above, for whom the passive intellect is material, while the active intellect is not. One result is that in many Aristotelian conceptions of the nous, for example that of Thomas Aquinas, the senses are still a source of all the intellect's conceptions. However, with the strict separation of mind and body proposed by Descartes, it becomes possible to propose that there can be thought about objects never perceived with the body's senses, such as a thousand sided geometrical figure. Gassendi objected to this distinction between the imagination and the intellect in Descartes.[84] Hobbes also objected, and according to his own philosophical approach asserted that the "triangle in the mind comes from the triangle we have seen" and "essence in so far as it is distinguished from existence is nothing else than a union of names by means of the verb is". Descartes, in his reply to this objection insisted that this traditional distinction between essence and existence is "known to all".[85]

    His contemporary Blaise Pascal, criticised him in similar words to those used by Plato's Socrates concerning Anaxagoras, discussed above, saying that "I cannot forgive Descartes; in all his philosophy, Descartes did his best to dispense with God. But Descartes could not avoid prodding God to set the world in motion with a snap of his lordly fingers; after that, he had no more use for God."[86]

    Descartes argued that when the intellect does a job of helping people interpret what they perceive, not with the help of an intellect which enters from outside, but because each human mind comes into being with innate God-given ideas, more similar then, to Plato's theory of anamnesis, only not requiring reincarnation. Apart from such examples as the geometrical definition of a triangle, another example is the idea of God, according to the 3rd Meditation. Error, according to the 4th Meditation, comes about because people make judgments about things which are not in the intellect or understanding. This is possible because the human will, being free, is not limited like the human intellect.

    Spinoza, though considered a Cartesian and a rationalist, rejected Cartesian dualism and idealism. In his "pantheistic" approach, explained for example in his Ethics, God is the same as nature, the human intellect is just the same as the human will. The divine intellect of nature is quite different from human intellect, because it is finite, but Spinoza does accept that the human intellect is a part of the infinite divine intellect.

    Leibniz, in comparison to the guiding principle of the empiricists described above, added some words nihil in intellectu nisi prius fuerit in sensu, nisi intellectus ipsi ("nothing in the intellect without first being in the senses" except the intellect itself).[78] Despite being at the forefront of modern science, and modernist philosophy, in his writings he still referred to the active and passive intellect, a divine intellect, and the immortality of the active intellect.

    Berkeley, partly in reaction to Locke, also attempted to reintroduce an "immaterialism" into early modern philosophy (later referred to as "subjective idealism" by others). He argued that individuals can only know sensations and ideas of objects, not abstractions such as "matter", and that ideas depend on perceiving minds for their very existence. This belief later became immortalized in the dictum, esse est percipi ("to be is to be perceived"). As in classical and medieval philosophy, Berkeley believed understanding had to be explained by divine intervention, and that all our ideas are put in our mind by God.

    Hume accepted some of Berkeley's corrections of Locke, but in answer insisted, as had Bacon and Hobbes, that absolute knowledge is not possible, and that all attempts to show how it could be possible have logical problems. Hume's writings remain highly influential on all philosophy afterwards, and are for example considered by Kant to have shaken him from an intellectual slumber.

    Kant, a turning point in modern philosophy, agreed with some classical philosophers and Leibniz that the intellect itself, although it needed sensory experience for understanding to begin, needs something else in order to make sense of the incoming sense information. In his formulation the intellect (Verstand) has a priori or innate principles which it has before thinking even starts. Kant represents the starting point of German idealism and a new phase of modernity, while empiricist philosophy has also continued beyond Hume to the present day.

    One of the results of the early modern philosophy has been the increasing creation of specialist fields of science, in areas that were once considered part of philosophy, and infant cognitive development and perception now tend to be discussed more within the sciences of psychology and neuroscience than in philosophy.

    Modern mainstream thinking on the mind is not dualist, and sees anything innate in the mind as being a result of genetic and developmental factors which allow the mind to develop. Overall it accepts far less innate "knowledge" (or clear pre-dispositions to particular types of knowledge) than most of the c

    Modern mainstream thinking on the mind is not dualist, and sees anything innate in the mind as being a result of genetic and developmental factors which allow the mind to develop. Overall it accepts far less innate "knowledge" (or clear pre-dispositions to particular types of knowledge) than most of the classical and medieval theories derived from philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and Al Farabi.

    Apart from discussions about the history of philosophical discussion on this subject, contemporary philosophical discussion concerning this point has continued concerning what the ethical implications are of the different alternatives still considered likely.

    Classical conceptions of nous are still discussed seriously in theology. There is also still discussion of classical nous in non-mainstream metaphysics or spiritualism, such as Noetics, promoted for example by the Institute of Noetic Sciences.