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Jean Buridan
Born c. 1301
Died c. 1359 – c. 1362
Alma mater
Era Medieval philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School
Institutions University of Paris
Main interests
Notable ideas
  • Theory of impetus
  • Modernization of Aristotelian logic
  • Buridan's bridge

Jean Buridan ( Latin: Johannes Buridanus; c. 1301c. 1359/62) was an influential 14th century French philosopher.

Buridan was a teacher in the faculty of arts at the University of Paris for his entire career, focusing in particular on logic and the works of Aristotle. Buridan sowed the seeds of the Copernican revolution in Europe. He developed the concept of impetus, the first step toward the modern concept of inertia and an important development in the history of medieval science. His name is most familiar through the thought experiment known as Buridan's ass; however, this thought experiment does not appear in his extant writings.

Life

Education and career

Aristotelis De anima
14th-century manuscript of Buridan's Questions on Aristotle's De anima.

Buridan was born sometime before 1301, perhaps at or near the town of Béthune in Picardy, France, or perhaps elsewhere in the diocese of Arras. He received his education in Paris, first at the Collège du Cardinal Lemoine and then at the University of Paris, receiving his Master of Arts degree and formal license to teach at the latter by the mid-1320s.

Unusually, he spent his entire academic life in the faculty of arts, rather than obtaining the doctorate in law, medicine or theology that typically prepared the way for a career in philosophy. Also unusual for a philosopher of his time, Buridan further maintained his intellectual independence by remaining a secular cleric, rather than joining a religious order. A papal letter of 1330 refers to him as simply, "clericus Atrebatensis diocoesis, magister in artibus [a cleric from the Diocese of Arras and Master of Arts]." As university statutes permitted only those educated in theology to teach or write on the subject, there are no writings from Buridan on either theological matters or commentary of Peter Lombard's Sentences.

Speculation on his reasons for avoiding religious matters have remained uncertain. Most scholars think it is unlikely that he went unnoticed, given his philosophical talents. As well, it is unlikely that he could not afford to study theology, given that he received several bursaries and stipends. Indeed, he is listed in a document from 1350 as being among the teachers capable of supporting themselves without the need for financial assistance from the University. Zupko has speculated that Buridan "deliberately chose to remain among the 'artists [artistae]'," possibly envisioning philosophy as a secular enterprise based on what is evident to both the senses and the intellect, rather than the non-evident truths of theology revealed through scripture and doctrine.

The last appearance of Buridan in historical documents came in 1359, where he was mentioned as the adjudicator in a territorial dispute between the English and Picard nations. It is supposed that he died sometime after then, since one of his benefices was awarded to another person in 1362.

The bishop Albert of Saxony, himself renowned as a logician, was among the most notable of his students.

An ordinance of Louis XI of France in 1473, directed against the nominalists, prohibited the reading of his works.

Legacy

Because of his developments, historians of science Pierre Duhem and Anneliese Maier both saw Buridan as playing an important role in the demise of Aristotelian cosmology. Duhem even called Buridan the forerunner of Galileo. Zupko has disagreed, pointing out that Buridan did not use his theory to transform the science of mechanics, but instead remained a committed Aristotelian in thinking that motion and rest are contrary states and that the universe is finite in extent.

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