[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

[4.13.2] Peter Olivi on Perception, Attention, Cognition and Free Will

Peter John Olivi (ca. 1248–1298 AD) in Quaestiones in secundum librum sententiarum discusses the structure of the human soul, and aspects of sense perception, cognition, and free will:

  • He criticizes the Aristotelian conception of the soul’s knowledge-generating process (see [1.3.6]) because of its passivity. According to this model, the knowledge-generating process depends on the external objects. Olivi (as St Augustine) insists that perception and knowledge cannot be based on passive reception of external stimuli, but must be understood as active processes because the soul is ontologically superior over the body. He sustains that attention is the function that actively controls perception (see also Kilwardby’s similar model [4.12.2]).
  • Perception is realized in the common sense, not in the sense organs.
  • Common sense assures the phenomenal unity of a humans’ psychological acts, a faculty capable of performing a series of complex functions, like attentionestimationperception (see also Avicenna [3.3.3])sensitive memory, imagination, and cogitation.
  • He emphasizes the free will’s role as a principal function of the soul’s rational/intellectual part (see also [4.13.1]).

The following UML Use Case diagram presents Olivi’s model of the human soul:

Peter Olivi on perception, attention, cognition and free will

Use cases:

FACULTY/FunctionRelated Use CaseRelations
5 sense organs5 SENSE ORGANS impressed by object (UC1)relates to Object
COMMON SENSEPrecieves as one and distinguishes the object (UC2): “Olivi’s basic idea is that perception, understood as awareness of the object of sensation, requires that attention be directed towards the senses and their objects:
‘if my eyes are accidentally directed toward an object, but I am concentrating on some philosophical question, the object does not appear to me. Or, as Olivi remarks, if I am asleep or daydreaming, I do not perceive the objects that are before my eyes, even if my eyes are wide open: frequently, there are many passions in our senses that do not appear to us. This is patent when someone sleeps with his eyes, ears and nostrils wide open. Passions that take place in the senses are not then actual perceptions, even though they are specifically (secundum speciem) the same passions that take place in those who are awake.’ […]
There were two functions traditionally attributed to the common sense: it brought together information provided by the different external senses, and it discerned between objects of the different external senses. The first function explained the fact that we are able to perceive objects of the different external senses as one. For instance, when I see a frog and hear its croaking, I perceive the visible qualities (colour, shape) and the audible qualities (croaking) as belonging to the same creature.
Since my eyes cannot hear the croaking and my ears are not able to see the colour and the shape of the frog, the ability to combine these qualities must be attributed to a faculty that apprehends the information provided by both eyes and ears. This is the first basic function of the common sense.
The other basic function of the common sense was to distinguish between objects of the different external senses.” (Toivanen, 2007)
includes UC1; extends UC3
COMMON SENSE/AttentionFocuses attention on the object to be cognized (UC3): “Olivi’s basic idea is that perception, understood as awareness of the object of sensation, requires that attention be directed towards the senses and their objects” (Toivanen, 2007)includes UC2
COMMON SENSE/ Estimation (potentia aestimativa)(Estimation) apprehends harmfulness and usefulness of objects (UC4): “Contrary to the traditional view, Olivi thinks that estimation can be explained by a special kind of apprehension of external objects. An estimative act of apprehension, brought out by the common sense, suffices to explain the apprehension of harmfulness and usefulness of objects. [,,,]
The common sense perceives the burning of the hand and apprehends that the fire is harmful to the hand and to the wellbeing of the child: the common sense estimates that fire is harmful. The child hopefully learns that one should not play with fire, and it is precisely this learning that is important, since only someone who has learnt that fire is harmful estimates it as such. How does this type of learning happen?
Olivi argues that there can be habitus in the common sense (or even in the external senses). When the child perceives that fire is harmful, the perception generates a habitus in the common sense, and this habitus affects the subsequent perceptions of fire.” (Toivanen, 2007)
includes UC2
COMMON SENSE/ Sensitive memory(Sensitive memory) retains objects and events as memory species of objects (UC5): “The next faculty that Olivi analyses is the sensitive memory, which is associated with two different functions. The first function is retaining apprehended things and events, so that they can be later recalled in the mind. […]
The memory does this by retaining so-called memory species (species memorialis), which are like images of external objects.” (Toivanen, 2007)
includes UC2
COMMON SENSE/ Sensitive memory(Sensitive memory) recalls memory species of objects (UC6): “The second function is recalling the retained things in the mind.” (Toivanen, 2007)includes UC5
COMMON SENSE/ Sensitive memory(Sensitive memory) recognizes known objects (UC7): “recognizing a present object as an object one has apprehended earlier.” (Toivanen, 2007)includes UC5
COMMON SENSE/ Imagination (potentia
(Imagination) apprehends absent objects (UC8): “The first function, i.e. to apprehend absent yet real objects, must be a function of the common sense, since apprehension is interconnected to the basic functions of the common sense. Olivi accepts that there is a phenomenal difference between apprehending present objects and absent objects: it is a different thing to perceive a frog, than to imagine one. However, Olivi does not accept that there is an ontological difference between the faculties. He stresses that we are normally able to notice a difference between perception and imagination:
‘For the act of discerning that an imaginary species is not an external object but something else, is nobler than just imagining the object. But the discernment happens through the common sense, because this [viz. the difference between an imagined and a real object] is discerned only while awake, and it takes place thus: the one who discerns, notices that the image of the absent objects is not situated outside the particular senses and neither is it apprehended by them.
Therefore, it is necessary that the very same power then compares the act of imagining to the acts of the external senses, and perceives and judges there to be a perceptible (sensibilis) difference between them. However, it is clear that to apprehend the acts of the senses – when they take place – and to make judgements of them, belongs only to the common sense. Therefore, to apprehend the acts of the imagination and to make judgements of them also belong to it. This is, to my mind, the most powerful argument among the aforementioned, because it is also proved by internal and frequent experience.’
Olivi’s argument is that the act by which we apprehend that an object is imagined, and not perceived, must be an act of the common sense. This is because only the common sense can apprehend whether the external senses are active or inactive. Some claimed that the faculty that makes this comparison is the intellect, but Olivi rejects this claim by arguing that animals are also able to make the distinction. Even though there is a henomenal difference between imagining an absent object and apprehending a present one, there is no ontological difference on the level of faculties: the same faculty, the common sense, which acts in both cases, performs both functions.” (Toivanen, 2007)
includes UC2
COMMON SENSE/ Imagination(Imagination) combines objects (UC9): “The other function commonly attributed to the imagination was that of combining retained species in order to make new ones. It was thought that at least human beings were able to imagine things they had never seen or perceived otherwise. Combining retained species explained the ability to imagine, say, a golden mountain. Olivi attributes this function to the common sense. According to him, only humans are able to merge species with each other and in that way imagine a golden mountain. This ability is denied to other animals, since they lack intellectual capacities. Reason can govern the imaginative operations, and when it does, two species can be apprehended together in a way that makes them appear as one species.
Characteristically, this view reveals that Olivi understands that the operation of the composition of species takes place in the active faculty, i.e. in the common sense. The species of a mountain and the species of gold are not actually merged but they both function simultaneously /442/ (or in such a way that there is only an imperceptible interval) as objects of an act of the common sense.45 The two species remain separate, but the act is directed at both, resulting in the imaginative act of a golden mountain. The argument, which Olivi uses to prove that imagining absent objects is a function of the common sense, is also suited to prove that composition of species belongs to the common sense.” (Toivanen, 2007)
includes UC8
COMMON SENSE/ Cogitation (potentia
(Cogitation) combines and compares information received from memory, estimation, imagination (UC10): “cogitation (potentia cogitativa) synthesizes all the information provided by the other four internal senses” (Toivanen, 2007)includes UC4; UC6; UC9
INTELLECTAbstractive acts produces concepts/words (UC11): “According to Olivi, concepts or words are not products of intellectual acts. A concept is nothing but the act by means of which the intellect selectively attends to the kind‐specific characteristics of an object, ignoring whatever individuating features it might have. In Olivi’s own words:
‘The first abstraction of universal characteristics occurs in the mere act of abstractive consideration of the real ratio of a common or specific nature without attending or considering the ratio of its individuation. But nothing objective that is different from the foresaid act of consideration is really abstracted or formed from this.’
It is my intellectual act itself that represents the kind‐specific characteristics of an object. In Olivi’s own words, when I selectively attend to the kind‐ specific characteristics of an object, these come to exist ‘intentionally or representatively in the act itself.’” (Adriaenssen, 2014)
includes UC10
INTELLECT/ Intellectual memory(Intellectual memory) retains memory species of concepts/words (12): “As we have seen above, Olivi believes that cognitive acts leave species in our memory just as signet rings leave their imprints on a piece of wax. For example, when I engage in a thought of John’s human aspect exclusively, a memory‐species pertaining to John’s human aspect is generated and subsequently stored in intellectual memory. When, after John has disappeared, I want to think of his humanity again (rather than of his individuality), I, as it were, return to this memory‐species. In Olivi’s own words, my initial thought of John’s human nature causes ‘some species in memory, which afterwards remains in us after the act of thought has ceased to be, and we return to it when afterwards we want to recall the things that we first intellectually considered as present in their absence.'”(Adriaenssen, 2014)Includes UC11
INTELLECT/ Intellectual memory(Intellectual memory) recalls memory species of concepts/words (13)Includes UC12
INTELLECT/Free will (liberum arbitrium)(Free will) initiates action (UC14) “Since Olivi thinks that the attitudes that distinguish us as rational creatures are founded on free will, giving up on free will would be to abandon most of what makes us human. We would cease to be what we properly are, persons, and we would become only “intellectual beasts […] Having proved that human beings have free will, Olivi sets out to explain what he means by freedom. His conception obviously belongs within the libertarian camp in the free will debate, and the central aspect of it is that in order to be free, the will must be active and capable of reflexively moving itself to action. True, the will’s choices are not necessitated by reason or anything other than by the will itself, but Olivi does not merely conclude that the will is not necessitated; the further conclusion he reaches is that the will, until it makes a choice, is entirely undetermined one way or another, and that it determines itself in the direction it chooses” (Pasnau, Toivanen, 2018)


ObjectAn object in the external worldUC1
User of the soulA human person.uses UC11, UC13, UC14


  • Toivanen, Juhana, “Peter Olivi on Internal Senses”, British Journal for the History of Philosophy 15 (3) 2007: 427–454.
  • Adriaenssen, Han Thomas, “Peter John Olivi and Peter Auriol on Conceptual Thought”, Oxford Studies in Medieval Philosophy 2 (2014): 67-97
  • Pasnau, Robert and Juhana Toivanen, “Peter John Olivi”The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  • Pasnau, Robert, “Olivi on the Metaphysics of Soul”, Medieval Philosophy and Theology 6 (1997), 109-132
  • J.F. Silva & J. Toivanen, “The Active Nature of the Soul,” Vivarium 48 (2010): 245–278.

First published: 25/2/2021
Updated: 14/3/2021