Meanings: Nous

January 30, 2018

In a review of Martin Amis’s new collection of essays, The Rub of Time, Dwight Garner quotes Amis on the era of Donald Trump:

 “There’s nothing there. No shame, no honor, no conscience, no knowledge, no curiosity, no decorum, no imagination, no wit, no grip and no nous.”

I think this is a very perceptive take.  It doesn’t emphasize what’s there with the Donald, it emphasizes the lacks, the not-theres.  That’s what really needs to be captured in describing Trump.  The wording of the list is quite something, too.

But what is ‘nous,’ that last item?  That’s a nearly unknown word to American ears, but not to British ones.  Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary on nous:


  • British informal:   Common sense; practical intelligence.  ‘if he had any nous at all, he’d sell the film rights’

  • Philosophy:  The mind or intellect.

It’s from Greek, a term found in Aristotle and in neo-Platonists in speaking of mind.

The impressively substantial Wikipedia entry on the term gives this:

In the Aristotelian scheme, nous is the basic understanding or awareness which allows human beings to think rationally. For Aristotle, this was distinct from the processing of sensory perception, including the use of imagination and memory, which other animals can do. This therefore connects discussion of nous, to discussion of how the human mind sets definitions in a consistent and communicable way, and whether people must be born with some innate potential to understand the same universal categories the same logical ways. Deriving from this it was also sometimes argued, especially in classical and medieval philosophy, that the individual nous must require help of a spiritual and divine type. By this type of account, it came to be argued that the human understanding (nous) somehow stems from this cosmic nous, which is however not just a recipient of order, but a creator of it. Such explanations were influential in the development of medieval accounts of God, the immortality of the soul, and even the motions of the stars, in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, amongst both eclectic philosophers and authors representing all the major faiths of their times.

But Amis means ‘nous’ in the first sense in speaking of one of the things that Trump lacks:  common sense, practical intelligence.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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