[4.14.4] Henry of Ghent on Intentional Distinction of Essence and Being

Henry of Ghent (“Doctor Solemnis”, 1217?, d. 1293 AD) in Quodlibet II, q. 8 and V. q. 6 writes about ontology by analyzing the relation of thing, essence and being (existence):

  • He agrees with Avicenna (see [3.3.1]) that every thing (res) possesses its essence (quidditas), which differs from its being (existence).
  • An essence can be considered in itself, independently of its physical (or mental) existence. This means that being is not part of its content, so the essence – being distinction is not based on reason alone. 
  • On the other hand, being includes the concept of essence. “Being and essence are therefore different intentions, not different things.” So we have an intentional distinction between essence and being.
  • Essences have a natural tendency towards non-being. Their existence depends on God’s creative and supportive act.

The following OntoUML diagram presents Henry of Ghent’s ontological model:

Henry of Ghent on intentional distinction of essence and being in an external (material) thing
ThingAn enduring external material substance, a thing (res).
Essence“For Henry (as for Avicenna) every res possesses its own “certitude” (certitudo) that makes it what it is. Certitudo here means stability, consistency, and ontological self-identity: a triangle is a triangle and nothing else, white is white and nothing else. 
Certitudo thus expresses the objective content by which every thing is identical to itself and is distinguished from other things; in other words, certitudo expresses the essence or quidditas of a thing (“unaquaeque res habet certitudinem propriam quae est eius quidditas” — “every thing possesses its own certitude, which is its essence”). This content can be considered in itself, as independent from its physical or mental existence. In an absolute sense, every essence possesses a double indifference: with regard to actual existence or non-existence (essence in itself is simply possible), and with regard to universality and particularity. These last two aspects are really conjoined. Essence is particular in that it receives its subsistence in a given suppositum (concrete individual entity) from something-other-than-itself, while it is universal in that it is abstracted by the intellect from these singular supposita, in which it exists as one in many, in order to become predicable by many.
Yet in itself essence is just essence: “essentia est essentia tantum”. Even though for both Avicenna and Henry thing (res) and being (ens) are primary notions (or rather intentions — intentiones — the sense of which we shall soon clarify), intentio de re seems to have a certain precedence over intentio de esse, at least logically, in virtue of its double indifference.
shared part of Thing
Accident“anything that belongs to a thing, being external to the intention of its essence, can be called an accident.”exclusive part of Thing
Being“We still need to clarify in what sense existence can be said to be concomitant with essence. Being has access to essence from the outside, in the sense that it does not strictly belong to the essential nature of a res, except in the case of God.
If this were not the case, a thing (every thing) would not simply be possible in itself, but necesse esse (necessary being) on a par with God. Instead, being seems to be an accident, or rather it has almost the mode of an accident (Quodl. I, q. 9). Nevertheless, it is not an accident in the real sense, since it is not added to something pre-existing, but is rather that by virtue of which a thing exists. In other words, we cannot refer here to the Aristotelian definition of accident (that which has its being in another thing or inheres in a subject), but once again to the broader definition given by Avicenna, according to which anything that belongs to a thing, being external to the intention of its essence, can be called an accident (“Sed intelligendum quod ‘accidens’ accipitur hic largissime, secundum quod iuxta modum loquendi Avicennae ‘accidens’ rei appellatur omne quod convenit ei et est extra intentionem suae essentiae”; Quodl. II, q. 8, ed. Wielockx, p. 48, ll. 21-23). In this sense an accident is anything that is external to the intentio of a res as absolute essence, without ever being really distinct from it. With regard to essence, actual being (that is, ratio suppositi) represents an accident of this type. Being is therefore an intentio that occurs to essence without adding anything real, and so it differs from essence only intentionally.”
charaterizes Essence
TendencyTo Non-Being“every creatural essence tends naturally toward non-being [tendency to non-being] (in Avicennian terms, no possible essence, in the absence of a cause for its existence, could exist), though this inclination can be reversed by an external cause.
No essence of a thing is so rigidly oriented toward nothing that it cannot receive being-in-act through a divine action. Similarly, even when placed, in act no thing ever possesses its being in an ultimate way: if God were to withdraw His support, it would fall into non-being.”
charaterizes Essence
IntentionalDistinctionBeing and Essence according to Henry are the same thing,
“While two distinct things differ in a real sense, all that gives rise to different concepts, albeit founded in the same simple thing, differs intentionally (“diversa intentione sunt quae fundata in simplicitate eisudem rei diversos de se formant conceptus.”; Quodl. V, q. 12, ed. 1518, f. 171rT). In an intentional distinction, in other words, the very same thing is expressed by different concepts in different ways. From this perspective, an intentional distinction seems akin to a purely logical (or reasoned) distinction, to the point that the two are often confused (“frequenter intentio ratio appellatur.”; Quodl. V, q. 12, ed. 1518, f. 171rV). Nevertheless, in the first case, one of the concepts excludes the other (one can be thought of separately, in the absence of the other), whereas in the case of a distinction based on reason the various concepts are perfectly compatible (“in diversis secundum intentionem unus conceptus secundum unum modum excludit alium secundum alium modum, non sic autem differentia sola ratione.”; Quodl. V, q. 12, ed. 1518, f. 171rV). As Henry explicitly states, this means that everything that differs in intention differs in reason too, but not vice versa. Unlike a purely logical distinction, an intentional distinction always implies a form of composition, even though this is minor with regard to that implied by a real difference. […]
The distinction between being and essence belongs to the last mode [intentional distinction]. Since being is not a real accident inhering in a subject, it makes no sense to speak of a real distinction. Instead, the distinction depends on the fact that the intellect uses different concepts to indicate the being of a thing, on the one hand, and that which a thing is, on the other.
Nevertheless, since essence can be thought of independently from its being, and being is not part of its content, we cannot refer here to a distinction based on reason alone. In other words, whereas the concept of actual existence always includes the concept of essence, the contrary is not true, since essence can be thought of without its being (as affirmed by Avicenna). Being and essence are therefore different intentions, not different things (as instead was maintained by Giles of Rome in his long dispute with Henry). This intentional distinction is in itself sufficient to refute the conclusion that every essence is its being.”
relates Being and Essence
GodMonotheistic Godprovides and supports Being


  • All citations from: Porro, Pasquale, “Henry of Ghent”The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  • Pickavé, Martin, “Henry of Ghent on Individuation, Essence and Being”, A Companion to Henry of Ghent, Brill, 2011, Gordon A.Wilson (ed)

First published: 25/3/2021

[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)
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