Ens Primum Cognitum


Ens Primum Cognitum in Thomas Aquinas and the Tradition (Boston: Brill, 2017) presents a reading of Thomas Aquinas’ claim that “being” is the first object of the human intellect.  Blending the insights of both the early Thomistic tradition (c.1380–1637AD) and the Leonine Thomistic revival (1879–present), I examine how this claim of Aquinas has been traditionally understood, and what is lacking in that understanding.

While the recent tradition has emphasized the primacy of the real (so-called ens reale) in human recognition of the primum cognitum, I argue that this misinterprets Aquinas, thereby closing off Thomistic philosophy to the broader perspective needed to face the philosophical challenges of today, and propose an alternative interpretation with dramatic epistemological and metaphysical consequences.


The history of this book is probably interesting only to the most interested of parties.  It is, in essence, my doctoral dissertation–with slight alterations–which was written from 2014 to 2016 under the direction of John Deely (1942-2017).  I was intrigued by Deely’s statement one day in class that Martin Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (1927), a book by which I had been captivated but somewhat mystified during my senior year in college, is the only book-length study of which he knew that focused upon “being before the categories,” or what he called Aquinas’ conception of ens primum cognitum.

When I asked Deely about this claim after class, it led to a conversation, which led to another, which led to a breakfast, which led to an independent study on Heidegger, which turned into a lengthy paper on both Heidegger and Aquinas, all of which led to the dissertation.  Initially, the plan was to be a comparative study of both thinkers, but as the work on Aquinas grew, and grew, the investigation of Heidegger became impractical.  Anyone who has ever attempted writing one can attest that the best dissertation is the one which is finished and defensible.  Ultimately, Heidegger appears prominently only in the final pages of the dissertation text which was defended–and those pages have been omitted from this book.

(Which isn’t to say that I’ve lost interest in Heidegger — far from it; my second book, Peirce and Heidegger in Dialogue, should be out sometime in 2018… I hope… Perhaps a work comparing Aquinas and Heidegger will appear in the future… and/or Aquinas and Peirce… or all three? So much to say, so little time in which to say it.)

What I found is that, although he had never quite systematically developed this into a lengthy thesis, Deely proposed a reading of Aquinas unlike what I had found in other Thomists, and one that made more sense to me than what those other Thomists had to say.  Thus while I still find them immensely valuable as guides to Thomas’ thought, a lot of what I write in the book (the first two chapters) consists in an evaluation of Cajetan, Poinsot, Gilson, and Maritain, some of which may come off as rather critical–though I depend on all of them.

The reading I am advancing here of Thomas–that ens primum cognitum is antecedent into any division into the categories or into ens naturae and ens rationis–opens the door for Thomism into the wider world of philosophical discussion, particularly concerning socially-constituted reality, for which it was previously ill-equipped.  The intensely realist and metaphysicalist interpretations of Thomas which prevailed throughout the 20th century, while important for overcoming the idealist quagmire of “modern” philosophy, have not developed the full potential of St. Thomas’ thought.  Perhaps arrogantly, my book tries to rectify this.  At any rate, you can read an excerpt here.