Primum cognitum: Bonaventure and Aquinas on the Foundations of Knowledge

Doctoral Dissertation


Although anticipated in crucial respects by the Greek and Arabic philosophical traditions, the doctrine of a primum cognitum remains primarily a scholastic invention, receiving its first systematic treatments at the hand of thirteenth-century Latin scholastic theologians. The problem of what is first known sits at the center of a broad constellation of philosophical and theological issues. It concerns, above all, the determination of what stands at the basis of all our cognitive activities: is there something whose knowledge is presupposed by the knowledge of all other things, but that does not, of its own, presuppose anything else? The resolution of knowledge into its most basic components ultimately arrives at the knowledge of something whose own intelligibility is presupposed by, and included in, the intelligibility of everything else, but that does not presuppose anything beyond itself. Because it is the radical starting point of cognition, the primum cognitum opens up the horizon of all our cognitive possibilities; it defines the scope of what is cognitively available to us: whatever we could ever come to know must be known in light of, and in connection to, that which is first known.

This dissertation contributes towards reconstructing the origins and early stages of the development of this debate by closely examining Bonaventure and Aquinas’s accounts of what is first known. After explaining in the introduction the particular historical and intellectual circumstances surrounding the appearance of this concern and the contemporary attempts in secondary literature to account for it, the body of the dissertation is devoted to the detailed study of each thinker’s views. Bonaventure and Aquinas stand each at opposite sides of this philosophical divide: the primum cognitum is either God or being. By espousing these solutions, they embody the fundamental mentality that each solution conveys and that is clearly manifested in their corresponding understanding of the issues that are theoretically associated with an adequate treatment of this problem. By systematically reconstructing Bonaventure and Aquinas’s accounts of what is first known, the dissertation shows how the treatment of this issue was made possible, and fostered, by an emerging awareness of the broad range of theoretically connected issues it involves. These connections were sometimes implicitly operative in their writings, while other times they were explicitly voiced, and correspondingly addressed. They are all, however, unavoidable components of an elaborate doctrine of what is first known. As revealed from the study of Bonaventure and Aquinas’s thought, these issues include: (i) the necessity of divine illumination for cognition; (ii) the transcendental concepts of the mind; (iii) the proper and formal object(s) of the human intellect; (iv) our natural knowledge of God; (v) the discussion concerning the subject matter of the science of metaphysics; (vi) the analogy (or univocity) of being; and (vii) distinct and confused knowledge. The dissertation shows that the founding contributions of Bonaventure and Aquinas on both sides of this important philosophical divide fundamentally set the stage for later thinkers by either explicitly addressing the relevant issues theoretically involved in the systematic treatment of this problem or by at least raising those questions and drawing attention to them. Whatever subsequent scholastic authors thought of the primum cognitum, their views could not avoid addressing the same issues first raised by Bonaventure and Aquinas, and usually in the very same terms and contexts in which they first addressed them.


Attribute NameValues
Author Daniel Contreras
Contributor Richard Cross, Committee Member
Contributor Stephen D. Dumont, Research Director
Contributor Therese Cory, Committee Member
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline Medieval Studies
Degree Name Doctor of Philosophy
Banner Code
  • PHD-MI

Defense Date
  • 2020-03-26

Submission Date 2020-04-08
Record Visibility Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

Departments and Units
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