282. Portrait of the Artist: John Buridan

Posted on 16 July 2017

The hipster’s choice for favorite scholastic, John Buridan, sets out a nominalist theory of knowledge and language, and explains the workings of free will.

Further Reading

• G. Klima (trans.), John Buridan: Summulae de Dialectica (New Haven: 2001).


• J. Biard, Science et nature. La théorie buridanienne du savoir (Paris: 2012).

• E.P. Bos and H.A. Krop (eds), John Buridan: a Master of Arts. Some Aspects of His Philosophy (Nijmegen: 1987).

• G. Klima, John Buridan (New York: 2008).

• J. Pinborg (ed.), The Logic of John Buridan (Copenhagen: 1976).

• J.M.M.H. Thijssen and J. Zupko (eds), The Metaphysics and Natural Philosophy of John Buridan (Leiden: 2001).

• J. Zupko, John Buridan: Portrait of a Fourteenth-Century Arts Master (Notre Dame: 2003).

Thanks to Jack Zupko for his help with this episode!


Jack 16 July 2017

Great episode as always Peter. I don't know if this makes me a hipster, but (with the possible of exception of Abelard) Buridan might just be my favourite scholastic. He strikes me, above all, as clear, agreeable, and concerned with the right issues - quite good qualities indeed.

One point that interests me is your claim that the interests of modern analytic philosophers largely determine the degree of contemporary interest. As someone who largely falls within this tradition and certainly one who shares most of its characteristic biases, I suppose I'd be inclined to support this development. Nevertheless, it does puzzle me a bit. Why, may I ask, would the analytic tradition have more impact than the continental tradition in determining the interests of modern historians? The analytic tradition has traditionally been associated with a relative lack of interest in history, while many continental philosophers by contrast have written extensively about long-dead figures. I know that much of the revival of interest in medieval philosophy outside of theology faculties has been driven by appeals to its relevance for analytics, with emphasis on apparent similarities in method and subjects of interest - the 1980s Cambridge History comes to mind. So is this effect unique to medieval scholasticism? Or is it discernible in historiography of philosophy more generally?

I would say it is a more pervasive phenomenon, certainly also observable in ancient philosophy - and this to some extent even goes for non-English-speaking environments like Germany, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries (but not France - or does that go without saying?). I think the reason is basically demographic: in most research universities, especially in the English speaking world, there are more analytic philosophers than continental philosophers and this has been true for a long time now. Hence historians have been trained more by analytics, especially in the core disciplines. For instance I took courses on Metaphysics, Philosophy of Science etc while at the Notre Dame graduate program and those were taught from an analytic point of view - continental philosophy was also offered (ND is in fact unusually strong in continental) but it was optional. And then you also have to consider that if you are preparing yourself for the job market you have to shape your research in such a way that it can appeal to a panel that is likely to be made up mostly or entirely of analytically oriented philosophers. Of course it is also a self-perpetuating process in that, the more that historians of philosophy become analytic in approach, the more they dominate things like refereeing for journals and book proposals.

In my opinion this is all basically a good thing insofar as it has brought attention to medieval philosophy which has so much to offer the analytically inclined; plus, I am analytically inclined myself and value the clarity and rigor it has brought to the fields I work in. As long as the historian borrows these aspects of analytic philosophy while being careful to avoid anachronism and to take seriously the agendas of past times, then I am happy for them to write in an analytic style and even focus on topics of contemporary interest (though, as you might have noticed, I don't personally think we should restrict our attention to historical texts and topics that are of obvious contemporary interest).

That's quite interesting. I must say I'm a little surprised to hear that your favourable 

I'm really not sure what to make of the influence of analytic philosophy on German, Dutch and Nordic historiography. Should it be seen as an example of a relative decline in the continental tradition there more generally, or merely as indicating that the analytic tradition exercises a disproportionate influence on their historiography?

The other question that raised by your response concerns the nature of French historiography of philosophy: how does the dominance of the continental tradition affect their interests? Figures like Buridan, Abelard and Ockham seem to have benefited in other areas owing to their interest for analytic philosophers. Presumably, this has not occurred in France. What, then, is the state of French historiography? Being a Catholic country, I wouldbe unsurprised if the stale Aquinocentric conception exerts a greater than usual influence. Has the rise of interest in medieval philosophers not named Thomas occurred at all? Has anyone benefited from a perceived relevance to say, phenomenology or existentialism?

Well, I'm not really an expert here, since most of what I have read in French history of philosophy is limited to late antiquity, Islamic and medieval which may not be totally representative. But my impression is that since French philosophical culture has very recent luminaries like Foucault that these scholars surely all learn in their formative years, and this comes out in their scholarship - even just in the writing style insofar as I can judge that. In Germany there is definitely still an Idealist or Heidegger inspired approach to history of philosophy but my anecdotal impression is that it is on the wane.

Jack 19 July 2017

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Thanks Peter. While I'm not sure what to make of that in regards to the future of the analytic-continental divide (notwithstanding of course, whether I'm placing too much weight on a self-confessedly anecdotal statement), it's still very interesting.

I can't help but feel that you haven't really answered my second question though. ( Of course, if it's not an especially easy question to answer, then please feel free to say so - that in itself would answer it better than I'm able to do right now). Figures like Abelard and Buridan have received increased attention because of their perceived relevance to analytic philosophy. Have contintental-influenced histories been been largely immune from that effect? Likewise, have any figures received a parallel increase in attention because of a perceived relevance to continental philosophy?

I think the answer is yes - the example I know best would be Neoplatonism, which receives a lot of attention in France because of its perceived affinity to continental thought, e.g. the idea of late antique "shaping the self" and philosophy as a spiritual exercise, that you get in the work of Pierre Hadot, may be connected to themes in Foucault, and there is quite a bit of work in French on Neoplatonist theories of subjectivity. Of course continental thought is also historically grounded in Hegel and other more recent figures so it is unsurprising that such figures also remain important in France and Germany.

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