I'm trying to translate a french expression

La tolérance est "un apprentissage sur l'instinct".

which literaly means "tolerance is a learning over instincts" ("instinct" in french doesn't refer to a specific instinct but to "primal urges in general") (Thanks Crazy Eyes!).

This handy expression pictures a learning "against" the instinct, it reminds that the learning is made above instincts, to control it or to cover it. It pictures a learning that gain ground against the instinct.

I did google my try "learning over the instinct" if that's the right one, it seems that I'm the first one to use it... Any idea?

Thanks to crazy eyes and stoneyB, I updated my question.

Which one would best fit (in a social scientist style):

  1. tolerance is the fruit of a learning process over "instinct" (or "primal urge", primal instinct)
  2. tolerance is the fruit of a learning process that conquers instinct
  • What does "the global instinct" mean? I'm guessing your context is essentially dealing with the nature/nuture distinction, but I think you should probably just use more words to convey exactly what you mean, rather than looking for a short expression along the lines of the French one. Culturally-acquired behaviours that override instinctive behaviours, for example. Oct 10, 2014 at 17:49
  • 1
    I believe he's talking about primal urges in general. Also, I think he's looking for a way to translate a French proverb.
    – Crazy Eyes
    Oct 10, 2014 at 21:41
  • @CrazyEyes Yes! Not really a "proverb" but an expression. Thanks for that!
    – JinSnow
    Oct 15, 2014 at 11:50

2 Answers 2


There are some interesting lexical problems in translating this French expression.

First, we do not use the word learning to signify an instance of learning something. Although the verb learn is aspectually an 'accomplishment', acquisition of new knowledge or a new skill, the gerund is used to denote either the 'activity', the process of learning, or a very abstract property acquired by the learner, that of being learnéd.

(If the technical terms 'accomplishment' and 'activity' are not familiar to you there is a brief introduction at our aspect tag-wiki.)

Consequently, the gerund acts as a non-count noun: we do not speak of a learning or of learnings. (Google does report a very few instances of these in pedagogical literature; but these occur in contexts which do not suggest that their authors possess any great literary skill.) I know of no standard term for a single instance of acquiring new knowledge; you might get away with an apprehension or an appropriation as the equivalent of un apprentissage, but you would have to be careful to define it beforehand, or use it in a context in which the meaning was clear.

Instinct has somewhat different constraints. In English, unlike French, generalities and abstractions are usually expressed without an article. We speak of human faculties or capabilities as bare instinct, intelligence, sentiment, power, and use an article only when such a capability is directed toward a specific object: an instinct for self-preservation, the power to resist.

Finally, I can think of no preposition which by itself expresses that one entity has ascendancy over another. We really need a verb or verb derivative for that: learning's mastery of instinct, the defeat of instinct by learning.

So I don't believe there's any hope of retaining the structure of the French expression. The closest I can come to what (I think) you are trying to express is something much wordier, like:

... an instance of achieving learning in the face of instinctual resistance ...

Your specification of what is learned makes it possible to express this somewhat less clunkily:

Tolerance must be learned; and to learn tolerance, instinct must be overcome.
Tolerance is acquired by overcoming instinct.
Tolerance runs counter to our instincts: it must be learned, and instinct overcome.

  • thanks for your detailed answer! About learning: according to this website, merriam-webster.com/dictionary/learning the noun "learning" can be both: the activity and the "skill gained from learning". For instance "They were people of good education and considerable learning". In the french expression "learning" would fit into both a "learning process" (activity) but as a skill gained, so it doesn't matter which one the English translation uses as long as the general idea remains. (I have updated my question with more context).
    – JinSnow
    Oct 15, 2014 at 14:34
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    @GuillaumeCombot Yes, learning may be what is acquired, and I will revise to include that; but observe that it is not some specific skill but a quality of general "learnedness". Oct 15, 2014 at 14:46
  • So just to be sure: "learning" is never use to define something specific that has been learned, is that right?
    – JinSnow
    Oct 15, 2014 at 14:52
  • @GuillaumeCombot As I said, I've seen it used that way occasionally; but it is not an ordinary use, and to my ear it comes off as ed-school jargon. Oct 15, 2014 at 15:02
  • the "must be" add a (moral) sense I want to avoid. What about "tolerance is the fruit/result of a learning process that conquers/overcomes instinct".
    – JinSnow
    Oct 15, 2014 at 15:02

"Controlling your urges" or "controlling your instincts" would be quite close depending on the context in which you use the expression. I'm not sure if you're using this as a phrase within a sentence, or a proverb or slogan to be said on its own. As a proverb, a more wordy, but precise, way to translate it would be something like "cognitive thought conquers primal instinct." Or even just "Learning conquers instinct."


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