Date of Award

Fall 2013

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Twetten, David

Second Advisor

Taylor, Richard

Third Advisor

Goldin, Owen


Aquinas’ famous comments in his early Scriptum on the Sentences (In I Sent., d. 38, q. 1, a. 3) regarding the intellect’s apprehension of essence and esse have traditionally been interpreted as grounding Aquinas’ doctrine on the judgment of esse. For Aquinas, it appears, what the intellect apprehends in a simple concept is essence. Since esse, for him, is not an essence, it cannot, on the received view, be the object of conceptualization. Therefore, esse is grasped by the intellect only in judgment. The claim that no genuine concept of esse is possible, however, is inconsistent with Aquinas’ theory of signification. A term’s signification is constituted, at least in part, in its “signing relation” with some “concept” in the mind. If, as on the traditional reading, there is no concept of esse, the term ‘esse’ is left without signification. To respond that the term ‘esse’ signs, not a concept, but the judgment in which esse is apprehended is in direct conflict with Aquinas’ claim elsewhere that no term, including ‘ens’ and ‘esse’, signifies a judgment. I propose an alternative interpretation to In I Sent., d. 38, q. 1, a. 3, one that allows for the possibility of a conceptual apprehension of esse. The alternative reading explains Aquinas’ remarks there in light of the theoretical context of the discussion, in particular the theory of propositions and their objects. I show how and why Aquinas develops a distinctive theory of the object of the proposition, that it is concerned with “the esse of a thing” as a complex. Although this complex includes the simple act of being, as for the traditional position (contrary to its major critics), it cannot be reduced to anything simple. Despite the Sentences’ affirmation of a real distinction between a thing’s esse and essence, to which correspond two different operations of the intellect, it does not follow that the human intellect cannot conceive esse, just as it conceives essences, in a simple conception.

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