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
“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
“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
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.”