May 10, 2004

Zupko book studies 14th century philosopher       

By Rachel Robertson

When Jack Zupko sat down to write a book about 14th century philosopher John Buridan, he realized he was missing something. Although he had studied and written about Buridan’s philosophy of mind and natural philosophy (physics and cosmology), he recognized that writing a book about the Paris arts master required something more.

“I just got this feeling that I wasn’t seeing the forest,” said Zupko, associate professor of philosophy. “I was seeing all these individual parts, but I was missing the thing that would unify it all and bring the different parts together.”

In order find the elusive unifier, Zupko had to move beyond his training as an analytic historian of philosophy (which focuses more on identifying and analyzing specific arguments rather than providing a synoptic overview) and find a new path. He found inspiration in a 1986 book, written by colleague Mark Jordan in the religion department, about Thomas Aquinas (Ordering Wisdom: The Hierarchy of Philosophical Discourses in Aquinas).

The book gave Zupko the idea to take what he knew about Buridan and place it in the context of Buridan’s own understanding of philosophy to discover what was unique and important about him. The result was John Buridan: Portrait of a 14th Century Arts Master, published last year by University of Notre Dame Press.

“People were influenced by this man and read his work because he did things differently,” Zupko said. “Not because he had different beliefs or subscribed to different doctrines, but because he had a new method of doing philosophy that was very unconventional.”

In fact, how Buridan led his life was unconventional. At a time when successful masters of arts (teachers of philosophy) usually went on to get higher degrees in theology, law or medicine, Buridan did not. Nor was he a member of a religious order, such as the Dominicans or Franciscans, as was common for academics. He distinguished himself by pursuing philosophy rather than theology, remaining in the arts faculty where he could focus on the study and teaching of what he felt was proper to philosophy: logic, metaphysics and natural philosophy of the arts.

Explaining Burridan’s perspective, Zupko said, “The idea is that philosophical inquiry proceeds without using any assumptions or starting points that come from faith or religious doctrine.

“In other words,” he continued, “we can ask questions about the nature of the trinity or divine omnipotence and so on, but that’s theology. Philosophy, on the other hand, begins from what is evident to our own senses and understanding. Descartes has always been thought of as the first modern philosopher. The argument in my book is that, in fact, the first steps toward modernity were taken in the 14th century, when Buridan placed philosophy on a secular foundation.”

Buridan’s logical masterwork, Summulae de Dialectica, spells out the method of inquiry he applied to a wide range of philosophical questions first posed by Aristotle. Zupko followed this layout in his own book, dividing it into two parts: method and practice.

“I begin with logic and language and reconstruct [Burridan’s] views in each of the main areas of logic, as it was taught by him and as he understood the logic curriculum,” said Zupko. “Then in the second part, I show how those teachings and ideas are applied to metaphysics in natural philosophy.”

Zupko’s book is the only comprehensive study of Buridan in any language. Noting that important fact, Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries selected it as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2003. But its author does not predict all audiences will receive the book as warmly.

“My approach in reconstructing Buridan’s thought from Buridan’s own perspective as a master of arts in Paris will not sit well with some scholars,” Zupko said. “But since he shares with early modern thinkers an interest in method, we do him a disservice if we ask only how he contributed to the debates of his great medieval predecessors—Buridan was already a man of the new era.”