John Buridan: Portrait of a Fourteenth-Century Arts Master (review)

Journal of the History of Philosophy 42 (2):219-220 (2004)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Journal of the History of Philosophy 42.2 (2004) 219-220 [Access article in PDF] Jack Zupko. John Buridan: Portrait of a Fourteenth-Century Arts Master. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003. Pp. xix + 446. Cloth, $70.00. Paper, $40.00. What does the name "John Buridan" call to mind? For many, including medievalists, not much at all—at best, perhaps, a set of apparently unrelated ideas: nominalism; an impetus theory of projectile motion; and a peculiar account of the will (although "Buridan's ass," the indecisive donkey caught between two equally appetizing bales of hay, is not found in Buridan's writing). In correcting this ignorance—an injustice to arguably the most famous and influential philosopher of the early-to-mid-fourteenth century—the temptation might have been to articulate Buridan's "positions" on "the big questions," allowing readers to fit Buridan into received categories. Thankfully, the present work, the first book-length study of Buridan in any language, resists this temptation. The John Buridan that emerges from Jack Zupko's skillful "exercise in philosophical portraiture" doesn't serve to simply fill gaps in our awareness of the historical record, but to enlighten and challenge our understanding of the practice of philosophy and the study of its history.Zupko emphasizes throughout that Buridan was a teacher, a master of arts in Paris. Buridan's pedagogical concerns help make sense of his central work in logic. As the basis for his arts lectures, Buridan chose Peter of Spain's Summulae Logicales, but in commenting on Peter, Buridan moves beyond creative exegisis to comprehensive renovation. Buridan (c. 1300-c. 1361) naturally wanted to accommodate terminist or via moderna supposition theory; but more importantly, he wanted a logic text that would set out a general plan of philosophical inquiry, "a compendium of methods, a 'how-to' book for the philosopher" (135). Buridan thus designed his own Summulae de Dialectica as a new authoritative logic text, and Zupko persuasively argues that its "nominalism" should be understood as less a set of doctrines in theoretical logic, than a program of logical practice, an education in logic as the ars artium, the universal intellectual tool.Zupko's portrait of "Buridan's vision of the philosophical enterprise" is thus appropriately divided into two parts. The first summarizes Buridan's method as described in the individual treatises of his Summulae. The second displays the method in practice, rehearsing and evaluating some of Buridan's arguments on various subjects. Many scholars will gravitate first to the latter part, where Zupko offers important interpretations and clarifications of Buridan's views. In these chapters, Zupko helps us to appreciate, among other things: how the problem of universals served to help Buridan define the scope of philosophy (ch. 10); the philosophical modesty of Buridan's account of the intellectual soul's presence in the body (ch. 11); the relationship between Buridan's epistemology and the skepticism of his Parisian contemporary Nicholas of Autrecourt (ch. 12); the sense in which Buridan is an "empiricist," viz an epistemic naturalist and reliabilist (ch. 13); how Buridan regarded moral psychology as applied physics, treating virtue as a kind of impetus (ch. 14); how Buridan's account of freedom can be regarded as a "perfection" of Thomistic intellectualism (ch. 15).Throughout these discussions, Zupko always keeps in sight his larger purpose of illustrating Buridan's conception of philosophical inquiry. Zupko makes much of the fact that [End Page 219] Buridan never wrote as a theologian, remaining his entire career in the arts faculty, where he wanted logic to organize secular inquiry. As Zupko notes, in this way Buridan's scholastic project seems to prefigure the "modern." But Buridan seems modern in another way as well. As Zupko points out in his "Introduction," though a cleric, Buridan never joined a religious order, so that his ideas developed independently of the Franciscan and Dominican traditions. He was, then, a teacher without a tradition—at least without deliberate allegiance to tradition, although he was in many ways the product of traditional scholastic intellectual discipline.Perhaps this...

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Joshua P. Hochschild
Mount St. Mary's University


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