[4.14.3] Henry of Ghent on Concept Formation and Verbum Mentis

Henry of Ghent (“Doctor Solemnis”, 1217?, d. 1293 AD) Quodlibet Quodlibet IV, q. 8 examines concept formation and the mental word’s role (verbum mentis).

  • Henry, inspired by Augustine (see [2.6.3]), sustains, “that the human mind, as imago Dei, has a fundamentally trinitarian structure; it comprises understanding, will and memoria, the most basic cognitive capacity.”
  • Henry, based on Aristotle, thinks that the human intellect or understanding is both passive-receptive and active-constructive.
  • The first step towards concept formation is the sense impression by an external object, which is processed further by the universal sense.
  • Understanding in a first step is the formation of a simple, undifferentiated concept in the intellect. At this level, the intellect grasps, e.g., that a circle is a plane geometrical figure.
  • In a second step, intellect, through an active, discursive process, grasps the concept’s essence, using some prior concepts stored in the memory. This way forms a precise and accurate definition represented in mind by mental word (verbum mentis). E.g., the mathematical definition of the circle.
  • The will, as a self-mover, directs the intellect (see also [4.14.2])to invest the necessary effort to create the verbum mentis.

The  UML Use Case diagram below presents Henry of Ghent’s model of the concept formation:

Henry of Ghent on concept formation and verbum mentis (mental word)
FACULTY/FunctionUse CaseRelations
5 senses5 senses impressed by the Object (UC1)
Universal senseUniversal sense combines particular sense-impressions of one object (UC2): “Henry applies this principle to our cognitive capacities, as instances of a patient’s undergoing change naturally, from the five external senses and the so-called universal sense, which combines
particular sense-impressions of one object”
includes UC1
INTELLECT(First level INTELLECT) understands the object by forming a simple concept of it (UC3): “Human intellect’s first operation is a change brought about by an object (a universal in representational content) that is understood, or thought about, by the intellect. The act of understanding is constituted by both the intellect (as the subject) and something intelligible (the object). The result of this first operation is a simple, as yet undifferentiated concept of the object of cognition. Such an initial, simple concept is representative of some thing (notitia de re) and a manifestation of it, although in a cognitively and conceptually imperfect manner: ‘This concept of the thing is, as it were, some confused and indefinitemanifestation of it since through it a thing is cognized as something confused and indistinct that is definable, like a circle, which is not completely cognized by the intellect until [the intellect] forms in itself the definition of the circle, by cognizing about it that it is a plane (geometrical) figure etc.’ […]
In other words, the thing’s essential characteristics are not yet conceptually distinct; no complete definitional account can yet be given of what the object is. A circle that is expressed in such an ‘indefinite manifestation’ may appear indistinct froman ellipsis or other figures, and hence it is not (yet) completely cognized as what it is.”
includes UC2, UC4
Imaginative powerUse imaginative power (UC4): “At times he even hazarded to call such cognition a “fantastical understanding” (intellectus phantasticus) in obvious reference to the inner-sense power, imagination or ‘phantasia.'”
INTELLECT(Second level INTELLECT) produces mental word (UC5): “For Henry the intellect’s activity of understanding is not completed until (donec) it comes to rest in a mental word [verbum mentis], which provides the desired definitional account of a given object, through which it cognizes the object’s essence. Moreover, the intellect is set up to achieve not merely a nominal definition but a real definition of a thing’s essence. This is, ideally, the result of the second operation, the active, discursive function of the intellect“.
E.g. at this level the content of the mental word circle looks like: circle is the set of all points in the plane that are a fixed distance (the radius) from a fixed point (the centre).
includes UC3, UC6
MEMORYStore prior concepts and mental words (in the intellectual MEMORY) (UC6): “For Henry a mental word requires forming a concept or account on the basis of some other, prior concept, which is accessible in intellectual memory.While Augustine in De trinitate explains that a mental word is primarily a conscious actualization of cognitive content accessible via the memoria, Henry interprets Augustine differently because Henry thinks that a mental word is a newly formed, numerically distinct concept based on some prior concept in intellectual memory.”
WILLWILL directs INTELLECT to Object (UC7): “For when the receptive intellect has been informed with a simple, confused concept of what a thing is, for instance of a man or horse, or white or black, the will that delights in the cognized thing (though incompletely since it has not been cognized completely) is excited to come to know through the intellect what is left [to be cognized], so that it might completely delight in something completely cognized, according to what Augustine says in De trinitate, Book X, chapter I: ‘That something is known, but not fully known, is the reason the mind desires to know what is left [to be known about it].’ For this reason the will through its command moves the intellect so that it may attend to what is already cognized in a confused manner and cognize it to a greater extent. The intellect that is moved by the command of the will and by its own active power, fixes its gaze on the thing that is cognized more strongly and sharply and strives to penetrate [to] the interior features of what is cognized in a confused way, so that it may cognize clearly what it is in the parts that make up its essence.'”includes UC5


  • All citations from: Goehring, Bernd, “Henry of Ghent on the Verbum Mentis”, A Companion to Henry of Ghent, Brill, 2011, Gordon A.Wilson (ed)
  • Porro, Pasquale, “Henry of Ghent”The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

First published: 18/3/2021

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