World Association of Psychoalanysis


The melancholic disposition of the mathematical mind according to Henry of Ghent (prive)

Lieven Jonckheere


Today nobody remembers Hendrik De Scheppere (2). On the other hand some people may know him under his Latin names, the "Gandavensis" and "Henricus de Gandavo" - named that way after the medieval city where he was born in the beginning of the thirteenth century.

Generally Henry of Ghent is considered an important scholastic philosopher and theologian. In his own lifetime the "Doctor Solemnis" or Exalted Teacher - as "Henri de Gand" was called at Paris University - was recognised as one of the leading intellectual figures.

Why is it then that this medieval master finally fell into oblivion? In the first place there's the fact that his theory lacked unity. Not unlike psychoanalysis he developed several partial and conflicting doctrines, which he did never try to reconcile in a big synthesis. Consequently already during his lifetime he had the reputation of being a difficult and even ‘inaccessible’ thinker. Not being able to identify him with one particular doctrine, most of his historical critics went on to denounce him as an undecided, even opportunistic eclectic. All the same he was considered a worthy sparring partner for famous British philosophers like John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. However this may be, in his theories Henry of Ghent gradually moved away from the Aristotelian ideal of his times, eventually returning to Plato under the influence of Saint Augustinus. So, at the end of his work in progress, to his own surprise, he turned out to be the champion of the adversaries of that other intellectual star of those days, the "Doctor Angelicus" Saint Thomas Aquinas. No doubt this is another, political reason why afterwards Henry of Ghent was neglected in official catholic history.

Today we are becoming aware that the obscurity of Henry of Ghent is the result of his sustained effort at dialogue with his time, but also the reflection of a social and even psychological realism. Indeed, contrary to the idea we have of scholasticism, Henry of Ghent always had a keen and even clinical eye, and ear, for what Nietzsche calls "Menschliches, allzu Menschliches, la condition humaine" or human limitations.

Take for instance one of his major arguments in his discussion with Aristoteles. According to Henry of Ghent "materia" could be created by God to exist independent of form. Starting from this principle he established a distinction between two kinds of people, between two ‘psychologies’ or ‘subjective structures’. On the one hand you have metaphysical minds. Their thinking is free from conditions of observation, which gives them direct access to matter created by God, without having to pass through observation of form. On the other hand you have mathematical minds. They can only think of something if they can assign it some place in space, even is this place is reduced to a point. So, for Henry of Ghent, mathematics are based on spatial representation, on some form or formalism.

At this point Henry of Ghent makes an important clinical remark: in his experience, in the experience of his time this limitation to spatial representation or form, this metaphysical incapacity of immediate access to matter, is responsible for the melancholic disposition of the mathematical mind. He who tries to measure and calculate all of the "materia", will get depressed. We could also say, referring to Lacan, that mathematics constitute a cowardice towards matter.

The first, obscure roots of this clinical link between mathematics and melancholia are to be found in what is generally considered an apocryphal text of Aristoteles; there for the first time a link between melancholia and genius in general is suggested.

More interesting however is the influence of this conception of Henry of Ghent. On Martin Luther for instance. In one of his rare moments of irony Luther maintained that mathematics make men melancholic, just like medicine makes men ill and theology makes them sinful.

Moreover it is also assumed that the mathematical references in Albrecht Durer's engraving "Melencolia I" stem from his knowledge of the writings of Henry of Ghent on this point.

Coming now to our times, I will not go so far as to pretend that psychoanalysis has been directly influenced by Henry of Ghent. Nevertheless it should be noted that for instance Imre Hermann reasons along similar lines. For Hermann also formalism of mathematics, especially in geometry, is but a reaction-formation against "materia". But contrary to the philosophical conception of Henry of Ghent for Hermann matter is anything but metaphysical: the only matter that matters to psychoanalysis is faecal matter, the dung - which, by the way, is quite in the spirit of Luther (3). I don't know if Hermann or any other psychoanalyst anywhere draws the same conclusion as Henry of Ghent: that formal, mathematical or geometrical reaction-formation against the matter of the anal object has depressing effects.


  1. Introduction to Bernard Burgoyne, "Psychoanalysis: Mathematics,
    Logic and Clinic", December 7th 1996, Gent, lecture organised by the
    Gezelschap voor Psychoanalyse en Psychotherapie.
  2. The Flemish name "De Scheppere" means ‘tailor’, probably his father
    was a tailor ("formator" in the only, Latin, text about his origins).
    Other, romantic sources, identified him, erroneously, with Hendrik
    Goethals, born in the Muide in Gent, in 1217 - in an effort to assign
    him a more noble origin. Thanks to Gita Deneckere, who helped with
    research on Henry of Ghent ("Hendrik van Gent", in Dutch).
  3. See Norman Brown, "Life against Death, The psychoanalytical Meaning
    of History" (the Chapter on 'The protestant era' discusses the
    "Thurmerlebnis" as it is called in Lutheran hagiography, this is the
    fact that knowledge of God's Justice was given to Luther while sitting
    on the privy), Wesleyan University Press, 1959.


"Encyclopaedia Britannica", Fifteenth Edition, 1988, book 5, p. 851.
Huet, F., "Henri de Gand", in: "Les Belges Illustres", Bruxelles,
Librairie Nationale: A. Jamar et Ch. Hen, 1845, troisieme partie, pp.
Macken, R., "Hendrik van Gent", in: "Nationaal Biografisch Woordenboek,
Koninklijke Academien van Belgie", Brussel, Paleis der Academien, 1979,
Dl. 8, pp. 377-396.
Nys, T., "De werking van het menselijk verstand volgens Hendrik van
Gent", Leuven, Nauwelaerts, 1949.