Back to article index


Aristotle in the Nicomachaean Ethics (Books VI and VII) outlines 'five qualities through which the mind [ψυχη] achieves truth in affirmation or denial, namely Art or technical skill [τεχνη], Scientific Knowledge [επιστημη], Prudence [φρονησις], Wisdom [σοφια], and Intelligence [νους]' (Loeb translation, VI.iii.1).

In 1924-5, shortly before the publication of his best known work, Being and Time, in 1927, Heidegger gave a lecture course on Plato's dialogue The Sophist. He began by discussing these five approaches to knowledge. The passage I've just quoted is rendered in the English translation of Heidegger's text:

''Hence there are five ways human dasein [ψυχη] discloses beings in affirmation and denial. And these are know-how (in taking care, manipulating, producing) [τεχνη], science [επιστημη], circumspection (insight) [φρονησις], understanding [σοφια], and perceptual discernment [νους].' (p.15) 

I'm going to simplify the argument in a manner that Heidegger would regard as quite scandalous and suggest that the problem Heidegger is facing - I'm tempted to suggest the whole problem of Heidegger's philosophy - is that in our age τεχνη, επιστημη, and φρονησις have gained a monopoly of our intellectual life at the expense of σοφια and νους. And this, if we agreed with him, would pose a problem for those of us who claim to be interested in 'philosophy' which is, of course, the love of σοφια.

So what is meant by σοφια and νους? Heidegger in the Sophist commentary - which, we must remember, is early Heidegger - says that the first four of these - τεχνη, επιστημη, φρονησις and σοφια - are susceptible to the λογος, that is to say, the word. They can be spoken about. Aristotle defines human being as the ζωον λογον εχον - the living thing that has the word - that is able to speak. The νους, however, on this understanding of the term (it is a word with many different interpretations) is the direct perception of truth and as such is not susceptible to expression in words. Heidegger (p.41) says of it:

'On the whole Aristotle has transmitted to us very little about νους; it is the phenomenon which causes him the most difficulty ... In anticipation, it must be said that νους as such is not a possibility of the Being of man - yet insofar as intending and perceiving are characteristic of human dasein, νους can still be found in man. Aristotle calls this νους ... the "so-called νους." This νους in the human soul is not a νοειν, a straightforward seeing, but a διανοειν, because the human soul is determined by λογος.' It has to be capable of being put into words.

He goes on to say, however, that 'Aristotle is able to characterise σοφια as νους και επιστημη, as an unconcealing (truth) which on the one hand assumes in a certain sense the unconcealing (truth) of νους, and on the other hand has the scientific character of επιστημη'.

All this is of interest to me as an Orthodox Christian because in the Orthodox Christian understanding, when humankind - Heidegger's dasein - acquired 'the knowledge of good and evil', we lost the 'noetic faculty', the νους. Or at least the noetic faculty - understood as the means of direct communication with God - was damaged. Perhaps we could say now that the νοειν, direct perception, became a διανοειν, perception dependent on words and therefore on rational interpretation.  Obviously we're talking here about a particular sort of direct perception, not just the observation of things around us. Though it includes the observation of things around us. In lectures given in 1930, published as The Essence of Truth, Heidegger comments (in standard phenomenological mode, the sort of thing you find in Being and Time) that when we see a red book we don't just see the colour 'red'; we see the book. But we cannot see a book if we don't know what a book is. We need the assistance of the word 'book'. On that modest level, the διανοειν works perfectly well. But what of what we might call 'higher' things?

The key guide to Orthodox thinking, the Philokalia, sees the ascetic life as an effort to restore the noetic faculty, and what is then seen/experienced directly is the λογοι, explained in the Palmer, Sherrard, Ware translation as the 'inner essences' of created things: 'We practise the virtues in order to achieve contemplation of the inner essences (logoi) of created things, and from this we pass to contemplation of the Logos who gives them their being; and He manifests Himself when we are in a state of prayer. The state of prayer is one of dispassion, which by virtue of the most intense longing transports to the noetic realm the intellect that longs for wisdom.' (Evagrius the Solitary - 4th/5th century - 'On Prayer', § 52&53, Philokalia, Vol 1, pp.61-2).

Without succumbing to the temptation (if indeed he felt it) to evoke the Λογος as Christ Heidegger in later writings (notably the lectures on Heraclitus, 1943-4) elaborates at some length on the Greek use of the word as he understands it. If I say that he considers 'Λογος as the self-disclosing, all-uniting One ... the for-gathering that dispenses the origin and thereby retains it', that might be enough to indicate that we're talking about something different from the words we use in ordinary conversation, or even the chain of thoughts we normally associate with the word 'logic'.

In the passage Heidegger is referring to, on σοφια combining νους and επιστημη, Aristotle says (VI.vii.4-7, Loeb translation):

'These considerations therefore show that Wisdom [σοφια] is both Scientific Knowledge [επιστημη] and Intuitive Knowledge [νους] as regards the things of the most exalted nature. This is why people say that men like Anaxagoras and Thales 'may be wise [σοφους] but are not prudent [φρονιμοuς] when they see them display ignorance of their own interests; and while admitting them to possess a knowledge that is rare, marvellous, difficult and even superhuman, they yet declare this knowledge to be useless, because these sages do not seek to know the things that are good for human beings.'

So we are talking about 'things of the most exalted nature', that are 'rare, marvellous, difficult and even superhuman.' Aristotle talks about 'universal' and 'unchanging' truths. We might say 'eternal' truths. In Heidegger's summary (Plato's Sophist, p.47):

'Because σοφια is the most rigorous science, it pursues the ... most desirable objects of knowledge, namely, that which always is, αει, in such a way that it thereby uncovers the αρχαι (the origins, the first principles).'