preserved in the phrase “Buridan’s ass”), or in learned histories of science, mentioning his
historically important impetus theory.
Yet, the fact that Buridan’s ideas were doomed to near-oblivion as a result of the changing
interests of an emerging new intelligentsia of the early modern period is no more evidence for
the philosophical irrelevance of his ideas than the general decline of logic in the same period can
be evidence for the irrelevance of logical analysis to philosophical inquiry. Indeed, now that we
have sufficient historical distance from the mostly ideological concerns of the new intelligentsia
of that period, and yet we have academic concerns that are sometimes strikingly similar to those
of the scholastic philosophers, we should seriously reconsider their often unduly forgotten ideas.
This holds especially in the case of someone like John Buridan, whose work sometimes quite
directly addresses our own philosophical questions.
A “medieval analytic philosopher”
To be sure, John Buridan was very much a philosopher of his own time, the late Middle Ages.
Still, he would surprisingly well fit into a contemporary philosophy department. This is no doubt
partly because, unlike many other great thinkers of the Middle Ages, he was a professional
philosopher, and not a theologian, as were, for example, Aquinas, Scotus, and Ockham. 4
However, this alone would not be sufficient for a good fit. Other great professional medieval
philosophers – Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia come to mind – would be very difficult to
fit into a modern department. For if what makes for a “good fit” is an overlap of interests and
general approach, then these philosophers’ interests and approach would mostly be regarded by
most modern philosophers as idiosyncratic, at best, or indeed downright nonsensical. On the
other hand, Buridan’s philosophical interests and his general approach to philosophical problems
would probably be considered as providing sometimes curious, but certainly intriguing and wellargued alternatives to our contemporary ways of doing philosophy. As Peter King, the first
English translator of Buridan’s treatises on suppositions and consequences aptly remarked:
Buridan’s medieval voice speaks directly to modern concerns: the attempt to create a genuinely
nominalistic semantics; paradoxes of self-reference; the nature of inferential connections;
canonical language; meaning and reference; the theory of valid argument. It is to be hoped that
Buridan can reclaim his lost reputation among contemporary philosophers for his penetrating and
incisive views on these and other matters. 5
What primarily accounts for this striking “modernity” of Buridan’s philosophy is his
characteristically self-reflective style of doing philosophy. While using his conceptual tools in
approaching philosophical problems in general, he is also constantly reflecting on the use of
these tools themselves, paying careful attention to not only what we are talking about, but also
how we are talking about it.
In a typical anecdote – which is best characterized by the Italian saying: se non è vero è ben
trovato – Buridan was once asked by the pope, Clement VI, with whom they had some scuffle in
their youth: “Why did you hit the pope?”. To which Buridan answered: “It is the pope I hit, but I
This is also due to recent changes in contemporary philosophy, which in its current cycle is much more
sympathetic to the scholastic enterprise than early modern philosophers were.
P. King, Jean Buridan’s Logic (Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1985), p. 4.