Nous, Phenos, and Watching the World Roll Up

William Shakespeare wrote that “one touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” but we in the Western world have not tended to think this way. Western philosophers have tended to mark off the “noumenal” as unknowable and relegated oneness to the mystical margins.

The high-fallutin word “noumenal” is based on nous, the Greek word often translated as “mind.” The word occurs once in the Gospels, Luke 24:45, “Then he (Jesus) opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (NRSV). Interestingly enough, “nous” in this passage is singular—“mind,” not “minds.” The King James Version says, “Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures.”  I suspect that the author of Luke was not confused in using nous in the singular—the author wished to communicate mind as one, the truth being realized by the disciples was in Luke’s understanding a universal truth.

Nous is the capacity to understand an overarching spiritual—or other non-physical—truth. Contrasted with nous is phenos, from which we get the English word phenomenon—an observable fact. This word does not occur in the Gospels.

The intuition that the world is not as it appears is central to many human religions.  Taoism teaches that the human ability to grasp the reality behind phenomena is impossible, even though there IS one there:

The way that can be walked

Is not The Way (“Tao”).

A name that can be named

Is not the lasting name.


Another Taoist text, the Hua Hu Ching, says, “When all words are exhausted, the truth appears.” This is enough to give Western thinkers the heebie-jeebies. 

Jack Kerouac, a Roman Catholic mystic and student of Buddhism, put it this way:

Discard such definite imaginations of phenomena as your own self, thou human being, thou’rt a numberless mass of sun-motes: each mote a shrine. The same as to your shyness of other selves, selfness as divided into infinite numbers of beings, or selfness as identified as one self existing eternally. Be obliging and noble, be generous with your time and help and possessions, and be kind, because the emptiness of this little place of flesh you carry around and call your soul, your entity, is the same emptiness in every direction of space unmeasurable emptiness, the same, one, and holy emptiness everywhere: why be selfy and unfree, Man God, in your dream? Wake up, thou’rt selfless and free. “Even and upright your mind abides nowhere,” states Hui Neng of China. We’re all in heaven now. (from The Scripture of the Golden Eternity)

The Western world has wrestled with the idea of a reality beyond the seen in a different manner than the Eastern, which has tended to marginalize mystical thought in the Western world, to the point that Christianity is often interpreted as a religion based on magic—physically raising from the dead, physical miracles, and such—rather than a mental and psychological discipline. This magical element is also one reason many have rejected Christianity. (Again with the either/ors!) Yet there are hints of a different understanding of ultimate reality here and there in Western texts. For example, in Saying #111 of the Gospel of Thomas Jesus says,

The heavens and the earth will be rolled up in front of you; those who live out of the One who lives, those will not see death.  As I have said, whoever discovers the world is superior to the world.

Rather than being a description of a day when the earth will roll up, this sounds like a noumenal understanding to me. And who or what is “The One”? Ah!

A name that can be named

Is not the lasting name.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s