Klima JohnBuridansNominalistLogic&c.pdf


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did not hit the pope; that is to say, I hit someone who was no pope then, but who is the pope
now”. 6 This provides a nice illustration of the way Buridan uses carefully regulated language to
make important distinctions discussed in his logic (in this case, in his theory of “appellation”), of
course, not only in such a mundane context, but also in serious philosophical discussions.
This style of doing philosophy, put in these general terms, is of course also the trademark of
modern analytic philosophy, and so in this general sense Buridan could very easily fit into the
ranks of contemporary analytic philosophers.
1.2

Buridan’s modernity

However, there is an even deeper sense of the term in which Buridan is strikingly “modern”. For
what is distinctively “modern” about Buridan’s use of logic in philosophy in contrast to other
medieval philosophers is that he uses it not so much for the refutation of opposing answers to old
questions, but rather for the elimination of old questions and posing of new ones in a new
conceptual framework. For example, a generation before him the questions were: “What are the
common natures signified by our common term?” and “How are they related to singular
entities?” By contrast, Buridan’s question is “Do our common terms signify any common natures
at all?” His resounding “No” in response to this question, however, along with the careful
elaboration of the implications of this answer, obviously renders the old questions moot, but
gives rise to new ones. For example, “What distinguishes a singular term from a common term,
if they both can only signify singulars?”
Therefore, if the mark of modernity in intellectual history is the capability to bring about a
“paradigm-shift” in the sense of re-conceptualizing the problems of an entire field, as it arguably
is, then Buridan was indeed a very modern thinker in this sense. After all, he was the one who
realized, through his deliberately calm, pragmatic, and systematic work, the paradigm-shift
initiated, but never completed, by William Ockham. Buridan’s work eventually established the
new, alternative way of intellectual inquiry, the nominalist via moderna (“the new way”), as
opposed to the realist via antiqua (“the old way”), as they came to be referred to in the latemedieval universities. 7 In the apt words of T. K. Scott:
What Ockham had begun, Buridan continued, but with an even clearer realization of ends in view.
... If Ockham initiated a new way of doing philosophy, Buridan is already a man of the new way. If
Ockham was the evangel of a new creed, Buridan is inescapably its stolid practitioner. ... He is a
nominalist (a much more radical one than Ockham), but he is less concerned to defend
nominalism than to use it. Elaboration of philosophical overviews is replaced by care for important
philosophical detail. 8

6

Faral, E. Jean Buridan: Maître és arts de l'Université de Paris; Extrait de l’histoire littéraire de la France, Tome
XXXVIII, 2e partie. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1950, p. 15. In the English translation I have punctuated Buridan’s
answer to match the doctrinal point he often makes concerning the relevance of word order for making such
distinctions.
7

For a detailed historical discussion of the late-medieval contrast between via antiqua and via moderna see: Moore,
W. L. 1989 “Via Moderna”, in: J. R. Strayer: Dictionary of Middle Ages, New York: Scribner, 1989, vol.12. pp.
406-409.
8

John Buridan, Sophisms on Meaning and Truth, tr. T. K. Scott (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1966.), p. 13.

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