Jean Buridan Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: A distinguished natural philosopher, Buridan wrote critical commentaries on the works of Aristotle and laid the foundations of the modern science of mechanics.

Early Life

Jean Buridan was born in northern France toward the end of the thirteenth century and received his early education at church schools in the diocese of Arras. His great intellectual gifts were soon manifested, and he went, as a young cleric, to study at the University of Paris. He studied philosophy and was profoundly influenced by Ockhamism. William of Ockham, an English Franciscan, espoused nominalism, a doctrine holding that individuals are the primary reality and that universal concepts have no objective referents but are only mental descriptions for similar features among individuals. Buridan’s later writings often reflect Ockham’s ideas and methods.

After receiving his master of arts degree around 1320, Buridan became a lecturer in natural, metaphysical, and moral philosophy at the University of Paris. He quickly achieved recognition as a gifted philosopher, but he remained a secular cleric rather than becoming a member of a religious order, and he never sought a degree in theology. Nevertheless, he was willing to introduce theology into physical questions; for example, he argued that God could create a vacuum even though Aristotle posited the vacuum’s impossibility. As a teacher and writer, Buridan was not a narrow specialist and he felt free to discuss problems as wide-ranging as the dogmas of the Christian faith and the formation of mountains.

The first documentary mention of Buridan is dated February 2, 1328, and the occasion was his appointment as university rector. The document shows that he was held in high esteem by his colleagues, and records in the Vatican indicate that benefices and honors were conferred on him several times during his successful career as a lecturer and administrator. Around 1330, he traveled south to visit the papal court at Avignon and en route he climbed Mount Ventoux to make some meteorological observations.

In 1340 he again became rector of the University of Paris, and in that capacity he signed, on December 29, 1340, a statute strongly condemning certain members of the faculty of arts for applying strict logical analysis to scriptural texts without sufficiently considering the holy authors’ intentions. Many scholars think that this decree was directed against Nicholas of Autrecourt, a rival Scholastic philosopher whose skeptical views have since garnered for him the name “the medieval Hume.” The mild temperament discernible in many of Buridan’s writings was set aside when he attacked Nicholas’ errors. These condemnations, however, were not anti-Ockhamist, since Ockham’s philosophy was firmly based on the principle of natural causation, which is what was impugned by Nicholas. Throughout Buridan’s career, he used Ockham’s doctrines to defend both natural knowledge and real secondary causes.

Life’s Work

Aristotle’s fourth century b.c.e. writings profoundly influenced Europeans in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and Buridan’s extant writings consist almost entirely of detailed commentaries on Aristotelian treatises. These writings clearly derived from his lectures at the University of Paris, whose curriculum was largely based on the study of Aristotle’s works. For example, Buridan wrote commentaries on Physica (Physics), De caelo (On the Heavens), Metaphysica (Metaphysics), De anima (On the Soul), Politica (Politics), De sensu et sensibilibus (On Sense and Sensibles), and Ethica Nicomachea (Nichomachean Ethics).

Although much of his work evolved from his study of Aristotle, Buridan was not merely an explicator of Aristotelian ideas. On the contrary, he leveled some devastating attacks against this great philosopher, and he used these criticisms to develop his own ideas, which were themselves important advances in scientific and philosophical thought. This approach can be seen in Buridan’s works on logic, where, while commenting on Aristotle, he develops a method now known as logical analysis. He used this method to formulate philosophical problems as questions about the meaning and reference of terms and the truth condition of sentences. In his primer on logic, Summula de dialectica (1487), as in his other logical works (Sophismata, 1488, and Consequentie, 1493), Buridan showed himself to be a follower of logica moderna (the new logic), in which Aristotle’s logic was reconstructed on new foundations. Buridan achieved this reconstruction through the theory of the supposition of terms. Medieval logicians used the word “term” to designate descriptive signs occupying the subject or predicate positions in propositions. Ockham defined supposition as the “standing for something else” of a term in a proposition. In his opinion, as in Buridan’s, what primarily determined the supposition, or referential use, of a subject or predicate term in a proposition was the verb.

Buridan went beyond Ockham by applying the new logic to many problems never before treated by anyone. One such problem was the analysis of statements in indirect discourse. Since the terms occurring in the subordinate clauses of sentences in indirect discourse purport to designate what actually is said to be known, the question of what such terms denote boils down to the question of what kinds of entities constitute the object of knowledge. Do these terms stand for really existing individual things or Platonic essences or simply the words themselves?

Buridan’s most extensive treatment of this problem is found in Sophismata, a work devoted to the analysis of paradoxical statements that appear to be both true and false. The famous “liar” paradox is an example: Is the statement “What I am now saying is false” true or false? According to Aristotelian logic, this statement is true if it is false and false if it is true. Buridan thought that the person who makes that statement and says nothing else really is saying something false, because this sentence has to be considered together with the circumstances of its utterance, and one of these circumstances is that sentences cannot be both true and false. Thus, in this case the sentence and its circumstances make the statement false.

In philosophy Buridan was a moderate nominalist; he supported the condemnation of both the radical Ockhamism of Nicholas and the extreme Aristotelianism of the followers of...

(The entire section is 2742 words.)