Monday, April 26, 2010

Nous and Concepts

If you show an infant three balls or three apples or three anythings of interest, and then when he isn't looking, you remove one of them, that infant's eyes will look around for the missing one. He knows it's missing.

He can't exactly count. He doesn't have any words ("one, two, three...") or any symbols (1,2,3) so he cannot rightly be said to have numbers. Yet he knows if something is added or subtracted. He plainly sees it and understands what he sees.

That's his nous operating, and it strikes me as a pretty cool example of it.

Nous is the spiritual faculty you so often hear spoken of in Orthodoxy. It truly knows without necessarily having any concepts. Or words. And we see big trouble when a religion becomes a system of concepts. That would be like the child memorizing: "Three minus one is two," without having any experience of what that's all about, without ever having seen it demonstrated, but just taking it on faith, just blindly subscribing to the formula.

Of course, if it's just a formula, that fact also opens it to debate. Upon what authority is the answer two? Is this answer binding upon my conscience? Is it heresy to claim the answer is three? Isn't it narrow-minded (and/or uncharitable) to insist the answer is precisely two and not, say, two and one-tenth?

Orthodoxy is not like that because it is not a system of formulae. Orthodoxy is more immediate, more direct, than any concept; it is like the baby recognizing when something is missing, or added. The words/concepts are just the molds into which we try to fit the Church's Life in Christ and His in us, for the purpose of expressing it, so imperfectly. They are not themselves the objects of our belief.


Anonymous said...

I think this is very well articulated, Anastasia!

Reducing the faith to formulae, rubrics, rules, laws etc., then we only become imitators--homo imitans. However, if we understand why there are such formulae, rules, laws, rubrics, etc., then the Spirit moves within us to follow and practice these with reverence in heart. We are now homo spiritus.

Christopher D. Hall said...

Interesting! I'm still working on grasping "nous" and what it means, so this was helpful!

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

It's the nous that knows the answers to questions that send the cognition into tailspins, such as Descartes' famous, How do I know I exist? Cognitively, that's very hard to prove! Yet you know very clearly you DO exist. That's your nous, not your cognition, by which you know it.

One of the difficulties in grasping what nous is, is precisely that it neither has nor needs concepts and words.

Dixie said...

I think this understanding of nous goes a long way toward explaining why contemporary evangelicalism is constantly evolving. People "know" something is missing from their worship so more and more is fabricated, heaped on, changed, which should satisfy their contemporary tastes...but in the end unless the worship is authentic, is worship in Spirit and can't heap enough on, jazz things up enough or mix and match enough to satisfy. You gotta love 'em...they are trying. The nous knows...