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Jean Buridan

French scholastic philosopher of the fourteenth century

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Buridan, JEAN, French scholastic philosopher of the fourteenth century, b. at Bethune, in the district of Artois towards the end of the thirteenth century; date of death unknown. He studied at the University of Paris under the Nominalist, William of Occam, became professor in the faculty of arts, procurator of the Picardy “Nation”, and (in 1327) rector of the university. In 1345, he was one of the ambassadors sent by the university to the papal court at Avignon. He is also said to have assisted in founding the University of Vienna. It is probable, however, that Buridan never went to Vienna, for it is certain that he was in Paris in 1358, and Father Denifle has shown (Chartul. Univ., Paris II, 646) that the University of Vienna was not founded until 1365, when Buridan was so old that he could hardly have undertaken such a journey. His principal works are “Compendium Logicae”, “Summa de Dialectich”, and “Commentaries” on the works of Aristotle, the most important of the last being those on the “Politics”. A complete edition was published by Dullard, Paris, 1500, and has frequently been reprinted, e.g. Oxford, 1637, London, 1641.

Buridan was not a theologian. In philosophy he belonged to the Nominalist, or Terminist school of Occam, to which he adhered in spite of reiterated condemnation. He adhered, also, to that peculiar form of scepticism which appeared in Scholastic philosophy at that time, and which arose from the growing sense of the inadequacy of reason to solve the highest problems of thought. In his “Compendium Logicae” he developed at length the art of finding the middle term of a demonstration, and this, in the course of time (it is first mentioned in 1514), came to be known as “The Bridge of Asses”, i.e. the bridge by which stupid scholars were enabled to pass from the minor or major, to the middle, term of syllogism. Still better known is the phrase “Buridan’s Ass“, which refers to the “case” of a hungry donkey placed between two loads of hay, equal as to quantity and quality and equally distant. The animal so placed, argued the dialectician, could never decide to which load of hay he should turn, and, in consequence, would die of hunger. The “case” is not found in Buridan’s writings (though the problem it proposes is to be found in Aristotle), and may well have been invented by an opponent to show the absurdity of Buridan’s doctrine.

That doctrine began by denying the distinction between the different faculties of the soul. Will and intellect, said Buridan, are the same. Hence, to say that the will is free in any sense except that in which the intellect also is free, is to say that the will is freer than itself. The freedom of the will is the freedom of the whole soul, Human freedom consists, then, in the power of choosing between two or more desirable alternatives (libertas oppositionis). When the intellect presents one alternative as better (higher) than the other, the will must choose the former. When the will presents two alternatives as equally desirable, there can be no choice. (Here, probably, the opponent introduced the example of the ass, to ridicule Buridan’s position.) The will, however, has still an expedient. It can postpone its decision, direct the intellect to consider one alternative only, and when the other alternative, even though it be better (higher), has dropped out of consciousness, the will can come to a decision and choose, if, indeed, its act can now be called a choice at all. Buridan, therefore, maintains that in a conflict of motives the stronger motive always prevails—the will is “determined” by the strongest motive. He is not a voluntarist. The will, he says, is inferior to the intellect, because the former presupposes the action of the latter, and depends on it. And it is by means of the intellect, and not by means of the will, that man lays hold of supreme happiness.


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