[4.15.10] John Duns Scotus on Intuitive and Abstractive Cognition

John Duns Scotus (the “Subtle Doctor,” 1265/66–1308 AD), in “Quodlibetum,” “Ordinatio” and “Quaestiones super libros de anima” outlines the process of human cognition:

  • Cognition is based on sense perception of the material world, with corporeal organs as substrate. Objects in the external world generate sensible species in the sense-organs.
  • Sensible species are further processed and stored in the internal senses (common sense, sense memory, and imagination). Phantasms are generated by the imagination based on sensible species.
  • In abstractive cognition, the agent intellect abstracts common natures, universals from the phantasms, while intuitive cognition cognizes present singular objects.
  • The possible intellect understands universals and present singular objects and generates discursive knowledge.

The following UML Use Case diagram presents Scotus’s model of the human cognition:

Scotus on intuitive and abstractive cognition

Use cases:

5 EXTRERNAL SENSEs(5 EXTERNAL SENSES) apprehend the sensible quality [sensible species] of an external object (UC1): “The simplest form of sensation, sensation per se, occurs when one of the five external senses apprehends the sensible quality that is its proper object: when sight sees color, for instance, or hearing hears sounds. Speaking more broadly, one sees darkness, or sees a human being. This is sensation per accidens.” (Normore, 2003)
External senses are:  touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste
Common sense(Common sense) distinguishes sensations and perceives what we sense [sensible species], and also time and magnitude (UC2): “the common sense is responsible for distinguishing different sorts of sensations from each other (sounds from sights, for example), and that it is responsible for perceiving that we sense. […] Scotus is happy to affirm, with Aristotle, that the common sense perceives time and magnitude—the common sensibles.” (Cross, 2014)includes UC1
Imagination(Imagination) stores and recalls sense images, sensible species in the absence of their objects; creates phantasms (UC3): “The imagination stores sense images in the absence of their objects, and is the faculty that recalls such images. […] As he sees it, the imagination conjures up things irrespective of their being past […]
[…] So there is a kind of sense cognition that is non-perceptual, and the phantasm is the relevant habit or species that allows for this kind of cognition. There is nothing surprising about this, since no one holds that imagination requires the presence of its objects, or that it is perceptual. The imagination is such that it can have acts whose contents are fixed by the phantasms:
The phantasm … represents with its whole power the object as singular to the imagination (virtuti phantasticae), for there is then an actual imagination of that object in the singular.” (Cross, 2014)
includes UC2, UC4
Sense memorySense memory stores sensible species (UC4): “sense memory has the pastness of its objects attached to it in some way. […] the sense memory is responsible for remembering past sensations, and the objects of those sensations, as past. Scotus maintains that in this kind of recall the cognizer has the past act as her immediate object and the (sensory) object of that act as her remote object. So we have memory of the past as past by having memory of past acts of sensation. Scotus holds that there must be a species impressed by the past sensory act (to make the act relevantly, but of course not really, present to the subject). […]
So the mechanisms of perception require sensible species. But Scotus holds that we have a number of sense operations that are not in fact perceptual: particularly, memory and imagination; and we have some dysfunctional sense operations too, such as hallucination. And, Scotus maintains, all of these require species. First of all, he holds that we need sensible species in order to account for sense memory: not in this case our memory specifically of past sensations, but our memory of the objects of such sensations. […]
As we have seen, Scotus holds that there is a kind of sense memory—memory of past events as past—that requires that the past sensation is the immediate object of recollection” (Cross, 2014)
Agent IntellectAbstractive cognition: (agent intellect) abstracts intelligible species, common natures, universals from phantasms (UC5): “Scotus holds, in good Aristotelian fashion, that there is an agent intellect, and that it is the faculty that (partially) causes intelligible species. […] the agent intellect is as a power for abstracting intelligible species from phantasms […]
The object of abstractive cognition is (standardly) the common nature, but abstraction precludes existence and presence, and in so doing (it seems) basically excludes the individuating feature. Abstraction enables us to grasp the common features of a kind. […]
The content of an abstractive cognition is a universal, a definition: it is a conceptualization of a common nature, sufficient to give some kind of account of such natures, and sufficient to ground the various general predications that we might want to make about kinds of thing.” (Cross, 2014)
includes UC3
Agent Intellect Intuitive cognition: (agent intellect) cognizes present singular objects (UC6): “There is another act of cognizing, which, although we do not experience so evidently in ourselves, is possible. It is precisely of a present object, as present, and of an existent object, as existent. […]
Given that existence is a necessary condition for real presence, it follows that intuitive cognition necessarily has the existent as its object. […]
But a further distinction, between intuitive and abstractive cognition, follows from this, and we need to keep it in mind if we are to understand everything that Scotus says on the matter. I noted that the object of both kinds of cognition is the common nature; and I take it that Scotus would allow too the singular in the case of intuitive cognition, albeit falling short of de re cognition of the singular . But—crucially—the contents of each kind of act are different from each other. Intuitive intellectual cognition acquaints the cognizer with the object, though in such a way that the content of such a cognition can figure in syntactic complexes (to use Scotus’s example, ‘Peter is sitting down’). […] He holds that all propositional knowledge is intellectual, and he seems to suppose that the intellect’s forming contingent propositions about singulars (not, I take it, propositions about singulars de re) requires that all the relevant mental contents inhere in the intellect, not the senses Elsewhere, Scotus gives an example of the kind of thing he has in mind: the intellect can know that Peter is sitting down (sessio Petri), on the basis of which, presumably, it can form the contingent proposition ‘Peter is sitting down’: where the point of the discussion is that the intellect can form (tensed) propositions about ‘the present’, propositions whose contents are simply current perceptual experiences.‘” (Cross, 2014)
inludes UC2
Possible intellect(Possible intellect) knows/understands intelligible species and present objects (UC7): “the possible intellect is the ‘intelligence’ the power for occurently cognizing, for ‘receiving the act of undestanding’. […]
Since, according to Aristotle, again as interpreted by Scotus, the faculty that actually thinks, and that stores intelligible species, is the possible intellect, the possible intellect must include both memory and intelligence.” (Cross, 2014)
includes UC5, UC6, UC8, UC9
Intellectual MemoryIntellectual memory stores intelligible species and past intellective acts (UC8): “Scotus refers to the faculty responsible for storing intelligible species as the ‘memory’ (memoria), and he holds too that the memory is the relevant causal power that produces occurrent cognitions. […]
The idea is that memory—the storehouse for intelligible species in humans causes, jointly with these species, occurrent cognitions. […]
And the possible intellect is the ‘memory’ too, the storehouse for intelligible species and cognitive dispositions. Evidence for this comes from Augustine: scientia is stored in the memory, and the term here is used to refer to habitual cognitions— intelligible species. The point is that the presence of scientia brings it about that the intellect can occurrently cognize without any further change—it is in accidental potency rather than essential potency.” (Cross, 2014)
Intelligence(Intelligence) thinks (UC9): “Following Augustine, at least as interpreted by Scotus, occurrent cognitions inhere in the intelligence, which is thus the power that actually thinks, or that has the relevant operation (or rather, the activity is the soul’s, and the memory grounds the activity […]).
Scotus makes the point as follows, using Augustine’s terminology of the mental word to refer to an occurrent cognition: Therefore, the word can be described as follows: the word is an act of the intelligence, produced by perfect memory, existing only with an actual act of intellection. […] And from these things it is clear that the word pertains neither to the will nor to the memory (because it is the second part of the image, not the first or the third), and consequently it is not an intelligible species or habit, or anything that pertains to the memory. Therefore it is somethingthat pertains to the intelligence.” (Cross, 2014)


ObjectA material object in the external world.generates sensible species in the sense organs.
User of the soulA human person.uses UC7


  • Normore, Calvin G., “Duns Scotus’s Modal Theory”, The Cambridge Companion to Duns Scotus, Cambridge University Press 2003, ed. Thomas Williams
  • Cross, Richard, “Duns Scotus’s Theory of Cognition”, Oxford University Press, 2014
  • Williams, Thomas, “John Duns Scotus“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

First published: 10/6/2021

[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)

Use cases:

FACULTY/FunctionUse CaseRelations
5 senses5 senses impressed by the Object (UC1)
5 senses are:  touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste.
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
INTELLECTFirst operation: (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.'”
INTELLECTSecond operation: (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


ObjectAn object in the external worlduses UC7; UC5
User of the mindA Person


  • 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
Updated: 30/5/2021