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Henry of Ghent (early 13th century–1293)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-B050-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 15, 2024, from

Article Summary

Perhaps the most influential theologian between Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure in the third quarter of the thirteenth century and John Duns Scotus at the beginning of the fourteenth century, Henry of Ghent stands at a turning point in scholastic philosophy. He was a defender of traditional Neoplatonic positions and has often been seen as the epitome of thirteenth-century Augustinianism. Yet his convoluted metaphysics and a theory of knowledge weaving together Neoplatonic and Aristotelian strands inspired novel philosophical trends in the fourteenth century, particularly among Franciscan thinkers. His work thus constituted the point of departure for scholastic giants like Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, who not only used him as a foil against which to articulate their own system of thought but also absorbed much of his fundamental philosophical outlook and terminology.

Characteristic of Henry’s metaphysics was an essentialism so pronounced that critics accused him of positing a realm of essences separate from worldly actuality. In his defence, Henry insisted that essences, though prior to actual existence, were separate only as grounded in the divine exemplars of things, but the Platonism of his approach struck his contemporaries as extraordinary nonetheless. Ironically, Henry’s understanding of essence as congruent with intellectual coherence provided an opening for a more logic-based analysis of modality, especially possibility, in succeeding thinkers such as Duns Scotus.

The emphasis on essence re-emerged in Henry’s theory of knowledge, and at least in his early writings he offered a vision of knowing truth through divine illumination often taken as paradigmatic of medieval Augustinianism. Even his later attempts to cast epistemology in a more Aristotelian light retained the insistence that true knowledge somehow entails access to the exemplary essences in God’s mind. The same essentialism led Henry to formulate what he called an a priori proof for God’s existence, best approximation in the thirteenth century to Anselm’s ontological argument. Again, however, Henry’s Augustinianism provided an unintended springboard for innovation, leading to Duns Scotus’ theory of the univocity of being and metaphysical proof of God’s existence.

Citing this article:
Marrone, Steven P.. Henry of Ghent (early 13th century–1293), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-B050-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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