Phaedo 97c speaks about Anaxagoras that he says "that it is the mind that arranges and causes all things. I was pleased with this theory of cause, and it seemed to me to be somehow right that the mind should be the cause of all things, and I thought, 'If this is so, the mind in arranging things arranges everything and establishes each thing as it is best for it to be."

What does Anaxagoras means by "the mind" ? Is it the same as Nous ? Or he meant the human mind ? If he meant the latter, what did he mean by that ?

3 Answers 3


By "mind" Anaxagoras meant a cosmic element, not merely the human mind. This can be seen in Socrates' account of his expectations from Anaxagoras, a bit after the passage that you quoted:

And I rejoiced to think that I had found in Anaxagoras a teacher of the causes of existence such as I desired, and I imagined that he would tell me first whether the earth is flat or round; and whichever was true, he would proceed to explain the cause and the necessity of this being so . . . and if he said that the earth was in the centre, he would further explain that this position was the best, and I should be satisfied with the explanation given, and not want any other sort of cause. And I thought that I would then go on and ask him about the sun and moon and stars, and that he would explain to me their comparative swiftness, and their returnings and various states, active and passive, and how all of them were for the best.

That is, Anaxagoras' theory of "mind" related to such matters as whether the earth is flat or round, whether the earth was in the centre of the universe, and as to the movement (and lack thereof) of the sun, the moon and the stars.

Therefore it is plain that Anaxagoras' "mind" was not merely the human one.

As Socrates related further, he was disappointed with Anaxagoras' theory. The mind was supposed to be the source of order in the universe. But it turned out that Anaxagoras' cosmic "mind" was quasi- mechanical, and not sovereign, in the sense that it did not order things according to what it considered to be the best manner.

Socrates did not know, of course, the neoplatonists, but he would apparently be more content with their version of cosmic mind (nous) than with that of Anaxagoras'.
(Edit - some elaboration: Anaxagoras' nous is performing tasks, like rotating and separating the other cosmic elements. Socrates, as reported in the Phaedo, did not consider those tasks directed at what was overall best. The neo-Platonists, on the other hand, followed Plato in depicting the cosmic nous as aiming at the best. Plato placed the Form of the good above all the other eternal Forms, signalling that the Forms represented what was overall best. The neoplatonists placed the cosmic Nous under the cosmic One, which they identified with the platonic Good.)

  • 2
    You are right concerning Anaxagoras speaking about the cosmic mind; I corrected my answer.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 22:05
  • Can you explain a little further as to why Socrates would have preferred the neoplatonists to Anaxagoras? Or would you prefer I asked a separate question? Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 17:05
  • @MoziburUllah I added a little elaboration to the last paragraph. Commented Oct 24, 2015 at 18:07

from wiki:

Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, born about 500 BC, is the first person who is definitely known to have explained the concept of a nous (mind), which arranged all other things in the cosmos in their proper order, started them in a rotating motion, and continuing to control them to some extent, having an especially strong connection with living things. Amongst Pre-Socratic philosophers before Anaxagoras, other philosophers had proposed a similar ordering human-like principle causing life and the rotation of the heavens.

According to Anaxagoras the cosmos is made of infinitely divisible matter, every bit of which can inherently become anything, except Mind (νους), which is also matter, but which can only be found separated from this general mixture, or else mixed into living things, or in other words in the Greek terminology of the time, things with a soul (ψυχή). Anaxagoras wrote:

All other things partake in a portion of everything, while nous is infinite and self-ruled, and is mixed with nothing, but is alone, itself by itself. For if it were not by itself, but were mixed with anything else, it would partake in all things if it were mixed with any; for in everything there is a portion of everything, as has been said by me in what goes before, and the things mixed with it would hinder it, so that it would have power over nothing in the same way that it has now being alone by itself. For it is the thinnest of all things and the purest, and it has all knowledge about everything and the greatest strength; and nous has power over all things, both greater and smaller, that have soul.

Concerning cosmology, Anaxagoras, like some Greek philosophers already before him, believed the cosmos was revolving, and had formed into its visible order as a result of such revolving causing a separating and mixing of different types of elements. Nous, in his system, originally caused this revolving motion to start, but it does not necessarily continue to play a role once the mechanical motion has started. His description was in other words (shockingly for the time) corporeal or mechanical, with the moon made of earth, the sun and stars made of red hot metal (beliefs Socrates was later accused of holding during his trial) and nous itself being a physical fine type of matter which also gathered and concentrated with the development of the cosmos. This nous (mind) is not incorporeal; it is the thinnest of all things. The distinction between nous and other things nevertheless causes his scheme to sometimes be described as a peculiar kind of dualism.

Anaxagoras' concept of nous was distinct from later platonic and neoplatonic cosmologies in many ways, which were also influenced by Eleatic, Pythagorean and other pre Socratic ideas, as well as the Socratics themselves.



In neoplatonism:

The Nous (usually translated as "Intellect", or "Intelligence" in this context, or sometimes "mind" or "reason") is described as God, or more precisely an image of God, often referred to as the Creator. (Δημιουργός). It thinks its own contents, which are thoughts, equated to the Platonic ideas or forms (είδη). The thinking of this Intellect is the highest activity of life. The actualization (ενεργεία) of this thinking is the being of the forms. This Intellect is the first principle or foundation of existence. The One is prior to it, but not in the sense that a normal cause is prior to an effect, but instead Intellect is called an emanation of the One. The One is the possibility of this foundation of existence.


  • 2
    You are right concerning Anaxagoras speaking about the cosmic mind; I corrected my answer.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 22:06
  • This is similar to the Logos in Christianity. Also in Judaism when G-d created the world He said "Abara Kadabara" which means something like "I create as I speak" or "I speak thus I create".
    – mil
    Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 14:52

The passage which starts at Plato: Phaedo 97c1 uses the Greek word nous.

In general, nous means "mind, sense, intelligence". Here it means mind.

It is the usual term used to denote the human mind. But as John and Ram emphasize in their answer, in this passage Anaxagoras uses mind figuratively with the meaning cosmic mind. Later in 98c4, Socrates in his ironic allusion to Anaxagoras uses the term mind with the meaning human mind.

Note. Due to John's and Ram's answer I corrected my original reply.

  • I noticed from your profile that you have a great and vast knowledge in religions and Mathematics and Physics, I admire that and I myself want to have such knowledge !!
    – mil
    Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 17:20

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