Does “ens cadit primo in intellectu” and what does this mean?

Note: This is still a work in progress, expect revisions over the next several weeks

St. Thomas holds as true that “ens cadit primo in intellectu” and holds that “ens” is the first expressed concept.


Someone might think that this statement is simply false: not being, but the most specific species is the first thing which “cadit in intellectu”. For, what “falls in the intellect” is the form of the object.1 But, the form of the object is more properly the most specific species than the any of the genera since each thing is what it is because of its form. But the most specific species is that which is predicated in the “what is it” of things only differing in number.

Or, one might think that “falling into the intellect” implies that ens is a form abstracted by the power of the agent intellect. The might argue this as follows: what falls in the intellect is what is received by the potential intellect. But, the potential intellect receives the form of the thing known. Consequently, if being falls first into the intellect it seems that there is some separatable form of being by which each thing is a being.

Sed Contra

Two quotes from St. Thomas indicate that being is the first to fall in the intellect: the first, “Ita quod primo cadit in intellectu ens;”2 the second, “In prima operatione est aliquod primum, quod cadit in conceptione intellectus, scilicet, hoc quod dico ens.”3 Of these, the second is especially notable because it highlights that being is formed “in the conception of the intellect.” That is, being is not a form received by the intellect, but a concept which proceeds from it.


Each thing is said to be known insofar as the intellect is actualized. The intellect is actualized in two senses: in the first sense, some form is received; in the second, a thought is brought forth by means of a received form. That this difference is present is clear: I am not always thinking of something I know (for example, a triangle) but, nevertheless, even when I am not thinking about it, I still know it as I can think of it whenever I please.

Now the first grade is, as Aristotle calls it4 “the state and nature” of knowing: that is, it is knowing insofar as it can be called a state. The second relates to this as a virtuous action is to virtue: it is operation according to a habit.

Now, in every complete operation there must be something which completes that operation:5 in the proper senses, this term is the form impressed on the eye itself; consequently, when the object outside ceases to impress the form, sight ceases. But, the interior senses after the common sense as well as the intellect all operate in the absence of the outside object;6 consequently, the term of their operation cannot be something received by the action of the object upon sense.
Rather, what is received there must stand to the term as a principle to the principled. Thus, not only must there be a term for the operation of abstraction, the impressed (or intelligible) species, there must also be a term for the operation of understanding and this is the expressed species, or concept.7

Now, if, as I will argue later, being is not a form of the object, neither can it be the impressed species. For, the impressed (or intelligible) species is formally the same as the object and consequently must be one of the forms the object has. Being (in the sense of ‘ens’) is not a form in the object and consequently cannot be a species impressed upon the intellect.8 Thus, it must be a concept which the intellect expresses.

Being, which is a concept or expressed species, does not seem to have any corresponding impressed species, which species is it expressed from? I submit that it can be formed from any: for it is a certain “gathering” of all things by reason which orders all things towards substance.9 As such, it is the first, confused, grasp our intellect has upon reality which reason in the art of logic separates out into the various terms and categories.

Thus, I have given the background for movement in our knowledge form the confused to the distinct. This happens whenever we are presented with some new thing: when a new kind of animal is discovered people call it “an animal” or “the funny animal with such-and-such an appearance.” When we do this, we are trying to express the content of the newly received form as best we can. Through experience, we can refine first into the concepts corresponding to the ten categories, and then to the species and genera under each of these categories. Aristotle clearly holds a similar position in these text:

Physics I.1: The Natural path is to go from things which are more known and certain to us toward things which are more known and certain by nature For the more known to us and the simply knowable are not the same. Whence, it is necessary to proceed in this way, from what is less certain by nature but more certain to us toward what is more certain and more knowable by nature.10 But the things which are first obvious and certain to us are rather confused.11

Similarly, in the famous comparison to a battle in the Posterior Analytics, the acquisition of a universal is described in terms of a step-by-step process:

Posterior Analytics II.19: Neither, then, are the habits in us determinately, nor do they come to be from others that are more known; but they come from sensation, just as in a battle, when a retreat has occurred, if one [soldier] stands his ground, another stands, and then another, until they come upon a principle. And the soul is such a thing as to be able to undergo this.12

In these texts, it is seen that the movement of the mind is from what is more graspable, but more confused, to what is less graspable, but more precise. This general account matches up with my account of the status of being as a concept formed by the intellect.

Ad Objectiones

To the first objection, since the intellect knows when it is in act, we can be said to know the most specific species first. Nevertheless, since ‘to know’ is said more properly of the one who not only has the intelligible species, but also expresses its content in a concept, more properly we know ‘being’ first and the most specific species last.

To the second it should be noted that if ‘being’ is some form in each being, it will be necessary that all beings are called ‘being’ univocally. For, univocal names are those of which both the name and the account are the same. If being were a form in those things called beings, then it would be that from which the account of ‘being’ was taken. Consequently, being would be said univocally of all beings.

But, this cannot be since being signifies something intrinsic to the thing. Every name which signifies something intrinsic to the thing either signifies as genus, species, or difference. Genus and species both signify “what a thing is is” while difference signifies “how a thing is what it is.”13 Given this, it is clear that being cannot signify difference since it does not tell us how something is. Similarly, it cannot signify genus since the difference must be something distinct from what is the proper notion of the genus it divides: in man ‘rational’ signifies something other than ‘animal.’ But, ‘non-being’ cannot be a difference since then two things would differ by nothing, that is, they would not differ at all.14 Consequently, being is not a genus and a fortiori it is not the species of anything for the species determines the genus. Thus it is clear that ‘being’ is not said of all beings univocally.

If being is not said of all beings univocally, then from what has been said, it is not a form in each being. Consequently, being cannot be abstracted from the object as an intelligible species.

  1. I hear that Scotus holds this doctrine, but I have not read him nor his account of this.

  2. ST I q.11 a.2 ad 4

    What first falls in the intellect is ens; What falls second second, is that this ens is not that ens, and thus we apprehend division second; third, one; forth, multitude.

    Quod primo cadit in intellectu ens; secundo, quod hoc ens non est illud ens, et sic secundo apprehendimus divisionem; tertio, unum; quarto, multitudinem.

  3. In Metaphysicam Liber 4, lect. 6 n. 10:

    In evidence of this it ought to be known that since there is a twofold operation of the intellect: on, by which it knows that which is, which is called understanding of indivisibles: another by which it composes and divides in both there is something first: in the first operation there is something first which falls in the conception of the intellect, namely, this which I call ens; and something can be conceived by the mind by this operation only if ens is understood

    Ad huius autem evidentiam sciendum est, quod, cum duplex sit operatio intellectus: una, qua
    cognoscit quod quid est, quae vocatur indivisibilium intelligentia: alia, qua componit et dividit: in utroque est aliquod primum: in prima quidem operatione est aliquod primum, quod cadit in conceptione intellectus, scilicet hoc quod dico ens; nec aliquid hac operatione potest mente concipi nisi intelligatur ens.

  4. De Anima L.2 c.5

  5. ST I q.54 a.1 ad 3

  6. See St. Alberts “Digressio declarans gradum abstractionis” in his commentary on the De Anima

  7. Incidentally, there is a two-fold abstraction corresponding to this division: one abstraction is the “universalizing” of some form, another is mentally “separating away” (abs- traho) some aspect of a being in the formation of a concept. With respect to the former, intellect is, as it were, the last step in a chain of abstractions beginning from sense; in the latter, it forms the subjects of mathematics and the divine science (metaphysics).

  8. Neither can the ‘be’ (or ‘esse’) of the object outside be impressed upon the intellect; for, the ‘esse’ of the object outside is singular and proper to this thing alone, while the ‘esse’ it has in the mind is that of a principle of knowledge. Similarly, the matter cannot be impressed upon the intellect since matter is incommunicable: consequently, the only part of the thing outside which can be impressed on the intellect is that thing’s form. Through its relation to this form, the matter is known; and, knowing both matter and form, one knows the essence. Thus, the thing’s form is the sole principle by which it is known. Aquinas makes this clear in the following passage:

    quod forma intelligibilis est quiditas rei. Obiectum enim intellectus est quid, ut dicitur in III de anima. Quiditas autem compositi universalis, ut hominis aut animalis, includit in se materiam universalem, non autem particularem, ut dicitur in VII metaphysicae. Unde intellectus communiter abstrahit a materia signata et condicionibus eius, non autem a materia communi in scientia naturali, quamvis etiam in scientia naturali non consideretur materia nisi in ordine ad formam. Unde etiam forma per prius est de consideratione naturalis quam materia. (Super Boethium De Trinitate, Q.5 a.2 ad 2)

  9. See Metaphysics IV.2 and Categories 2 This implies that analogy is a logical problem since the expressed species is the word. (See St. Thomas’ discussion of the Second Person of the Trinity)

  10. Translation by Dr. Glen Coughlin of Thomas Aquinas College

  11. Translation by Dr. Glen Coughlin of Thomas Aquinas College

  12. From the translation in Thomas Aquinas College’s Freshman Philosophy Manual

  13. From the lectures by Duane Berquist on Logic which are linked in the sidebar of Just Thomism

  14. ST. I q.3 a.5 which refers to III Metaphysics


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