You are on page 1of 5

John Buridans Writings

Most of Buridan's works are in the form of commentaries on Aristotle. He wrote


both expositiones(expositions), or literal commentaries consisting of detailed, line-by-line
explanations of the meaning of Aristotle's words, and quaestiones (questions), or longer,
critical studies of the philosophical issues raised by them, usually centered on a specific
lemma from the text. Both genres originated in the classroom, a fact which becomes clear
in the references to student queries and student concerns which survive in the written
versions. Like teachers in our own day, Buridan lectured more than once on the same text
over the course of his career, with the result that there are sometimes different versions of
his commentary on the same work. For example, there are three versions of
his Quaestiones on Aristotle's De anima, the last of which identifies itself as the third or
final lecture [tertia sive ultima lectura]. Where there are multiple versions of the same
commentary, their relationship is generally one of increasing length and sophistication over
time.

Buridan commented on virtually all of the major works of Aristotle. In addition to the
entire Organon, there are commentaries on Aristotle's Physics, On the Heavens, On
Generation and Corruption, De Anima, Parva Naturalia, Metaphysics, Nicomachean
Ethics, and Rhetoric.[5] He also wrote a number of shorter, independent treatises on
philosophical topics that were controversial in his day, such as the Tractatus de
relationibus [Treatise on Relations], Tractatus de universalibus [Treatise on
Universals], Tractatus de consequentiis [Treatise on Consequences], and Quaestio de
puncto [Question on <the Nature of> Points]. He was a very prolific author.

But Buridan's masterwork is the Summulae de dialectica [Compendium of Dialectic], a


comprehensive logic textbook which started out as a commentary on the Summulae
logicales or logical compendium of the thirteenth-century dialectician, Peter of Spain,[6] but
soon evolved into an independent work of astonishing breadth and originality. In it,
Buridan redeems the older medieval tradition of Aristotelian logic through the via
moderna [modern way]i.e., the newer, terminist logic that had gradually replaced it.
Because the work was accessible to master and student alike, it became extremely popular
at Paris and in newly-founded universities such as Heidelberg, Prague, and Vienna.

Buridan's other works were almost as widely read as the Summulae. Handwritten copies
and early printed editions were carried by his students and followers throughout Europe,
where they were often used as primary texts in university courses on logic and Aristotelian
philosophy. This meant that the Master would teach Aristotle by reading and explaining
Buridan's commentary to the class. As a result, the via Buridani continued to shape
European thought well into the Renaissance.
Like other medieval philosophers, Buridan has not been fully appreciated because of the
lack of modern editions and translations of his work (see bibliography). The situation
improved with the appearance in 2001 of Gyula Klima's mammoth translation of the
entire Summulae from the (now complete) Latin critical edition of the text. More recently,
an edition of Buridan's commentary On Generation and Corruption has appeared
(Streijger, et al. 2010), and editions of his influential commentaries on the Physics, De
Anima, and Metaphysics are in the works. But knowledge of Latin and the ability to read
medieval manuscripts are still essential if one wishes to study Buridan's thought first-hand.

Buridans language

In the medieval university, arts masters provided students with their basic education in
grammar, logic or dialectic, and Aristotelian philosophy, subjects that embodied the ideals
of literacy and learning in the Middle Ages. What they taught is perhaps best understood as
a specialized language of rational inquiry, which became the foundation for further study in
the faculties of law, medicine, and theology. Students were required to learn, in ascending
order, the exposition and interpretation of authoritative texts (grammar), the structure and
modes of argumentative discourse (logic), and finally, the systematic analysis and
investigation of the order of nature (Aristotelian philosophy). Although he did not write
grammatical treatises,[7] Buridan asserts in the very first section of the Summulae that
positive grammar [grammatica positiva] has to be learned first, by means of which the
master is able to communicate with the disciple, whether it be in Latin, French, Greek, or
Hebrew, or whatever else (S 1.1.1: 6). The disciple's knowledge of logic and Aristotelian
philosophy is built upon this grammatical foundation.

The importance of language in Buridan's philosophy emerges on many levels, all of which
are driven by his pedagogical aims. In logic, grammatical rules are explicitly subsumed as
necessary conditions of the science (scientia) of logic, so that although the logician's notion
of truth and the grammarian's notion of congruence are separable in theory, in practice the
complete significance of a piece of discourse cannot be determined without both. Context is
crucial to interpretation:

We should also note that some might ask whether it is the composite or the divided sense
that is properly expressed by Every man or (a) donkey runs, that is to say, whether only
the term man or the whole subject is distributed. And I say that we have to respond
differently, in accordance with the different manners of speaking and writing. For if
immediately after man there is a sign of division, namely, a pause or a period, then the
proposition will be called divided, and only man will be distributed, but if not, then it will
be called composite, and the whole subject will be distributed. (S 4.2.6: 250; cf. S 9.4,
15th sophism: 91213).
Accordingly, logic is not about some conceptually ideal or canonical language but the
practical art of interpreting actual human discourse:

an utterance [vox] does not have any proper import [virtus propria] in signifying and
suppositing, except from ourselves. So by an agreement of the disputing parties, as in
obligational disputes, we can impose on it a new signification and not use it according to its
common signification. We can also speak figuratively [transsumptive] and ironically,
according to a different signification. But we call a locution proper when we use it
according to the signification commonly and principally given to it, and we call a locution
improper when we use it otherwise, although we can legitimately use it otherwise. So it is
absurd to say that a proposition of an author is false, absolutely speaking, if he puts it forth
incorporating an improper locution, according to which it is true. Instead, we ought to say
that it is true, since it is enunciated according to the sense in which it is true So it
absolutely seems to me that wherever it is evident that an author puts forward a proposition
in a true sense, although not as a proper locution, then to deny that proposition without
qualification would be cantankerous and insolent [dyscolum et protervum]. But to avoid
error, it should be properly pointed out that the proposition is not true in the proper sense,
or by virtue of its proper meaning, and then it has to be shown in which sense it is true. (S
4.3.2: 256; cf. QIP 5: 144145, ll. 800829)

In Buridan's view, the logician cannot expound the meaning of a proposition without
carefully attending to its internal features, i.e., the sense of the particular locutions
incorporated in it, as well as to its external features, i.e., the discourse conditions that
surround it.

This willingness to take human language as it is found, with all of its ambiguities and rough
edges, marks an important difference between Buridan and Ockham, the fourteenth-century
philosopher with whom he is most often compared. Both make the traditional assumption
that propositions, be they spoken, written, or mental, are the bearers of truth and falsity.
Ockham, however, tends to see mental propositions as logically ideal or, in modern
parlance, canonical.[8] The problem with spoken and written propositions is that because
they depend on the meaning conventions of fallible users, they fail to be universal and
logically perspicuous. Thankfully, these shortcomings can be filtered out metalinguistically
once we realize that the meanings of their constituent terms depend on their corresponding
mental concepts, which naturally signify the same for everyone. So in Ockham's logic, the
semantic relation between these concepts and what they signify outside the mind is of
paramount importance; spoken and written terms have semantic properties too, of course,
but in an entirely derivative way. By contrast, Buridan never privileges conceptual
discourse or suggests that the logician might use it systematically to reform spoken or
written language. He holds that spoken and written utterancessometimes he uses the term
utterance [vox] where Ockham has term [terminus]signify concepts primarily: the
capability of speaking was given to us in order that we could signify our concepts to others
and also the capacity of hearing was given to us in order that the concepts of speakers could
be signified to us (S 4.1.2: 222). Accordingly, utterances are imposed to signify things
only through the mediation of the concepts by which those things are conceived (QC 1: 4,
ll. 456). Concepts are just the medium of signification for Buridan, the cognitive or
psychological aspect of the signification of a word.

This difference helps to explain why Buridan uses paradoxes of self-reference to test the
functionality of his logic, whereas Ockham avoids them by claiming that a termor at least
a term in those circumstancescannot refer to itself.[9] Buridan takes seriously the fact that
people can and do utter self-referential propositions, and thinks logicians should say what is
going on when they do. This is really a difference of perspective. As Jol Biard has pointed
out, we can divide medieval logicians into those who try to restrict the possibilities of
human discourse in the direction of what is logically ideal, and those who are willing to
accept a proposition because it is grammatical and because the person who utters it intends
to signify something by it. Ockham, William of Sherwood, and Walter Burley belong to the
former group; Buridan and Thomas Bradwardine to the latter.[10] It also explains why
Buridan tells us that it is not possible to analyze contradictory propositions unless they
have the same subject and predicate in utterance and also in intention (S 9.7, 2nd sophism:
943), and his reminding us that, when testing a proposition for contradictoriness, it is
[sometimes] necessary to add other utterances when contradicting it. For one should
primarily attend to the intention, for we use words only to express the intention (S 9.8,
11th sophism: 979). The logician must above all be a skilled interpreter of human discourse.

For Buridan, linguistic confusion is the source of many of the traditional problems of
metaphysics and natural philosophy. His approach is broadly nominalistic, but Buridan's
nominalism is more of a parsimonious way of doing philosophy than a doctrine about the
ontological or metaphysical status of universals. For example, when a cause is understood
as being actual rather than merely potential, does our conception of it qua cause change in
any way? Aristotle leaves this ambiguous in Metaphysics V.2, but some medieval
philosophers thought it necessary to posit an additional state of affairs to explain the
dynamic aspect of causality, i.e., the fact that a contingent state of affairs needs to be
brought about by some agent. Thus, if we think of God as the cause of Socrates, there must
be something else, God's-being-the-cause-of-Socrates (deum esse causam Sortis), distinct
from both God and Socrates, to account for his existence. This something else then
becomes not only what is signified by the proposition God is the cause of Socrates
(complexe significabile), but also the proper object of our knowledge that God is the cause
of Socrates. Buridan replies by arguing that philosophers who think this way do not know
how to interpret human discourse. They take everything too literally. But we should not be
misled by what a proposition literally says, or seems to say, into thinking that there must be
some new kind of entity corresponding to God's being the cause of Socrates, especially
since such reifying moves do not help us to understand what is happening when a cause
actually causes (QM V.78: 30va33ra).

The same sensitivity to questions of interpretation is evident in his treatment of


propositions in natural philosophy, where he argues that we can meaningfully use
propositions containing terms such as infinite [infinitum] and point [punctum] to express
actual states of affairs without committing ourselves to the existence of infinite magnitudes
or indivisible points. The key is to realize that propositions do not always wear their
meanings on their sleeves. Their component terms can be differently construed (e.g.,
categorematically or syncategorematically), and can even perform different modal
functions, which, depending on how the proposition is read (e.g., in a composite or divided
sense) can change its truth conditions.[11] There will be ambiguities, of course, but Buridan
is steadfast in his assumption that the rational inquirer will always be able to sort them out,
given the right dialectical tools.