John Buridan. By Gyula Klima, edited by Brian Davies


(Great Medieval Thinkers) . Pp. xiv, 352 , Oxford , Oxford University Press , 2009 , $29.95 .

This book is an introduction to the thought of the Parisian Master, John Buridan, a great logician of 14th century, who embraced the via moderna initiated by Ockham and made it his own. But it is also a kind of apology by Gyula Klima on behalf of Buridan for the astonishing relevance of his thought to the concerns of modern analytical philosophy in general and modern logic and epistemology specifically. Klima, a first rate logician in his own right, insists on Buridan's ability to speak to a modern audience. He, therefore, crafts a book that aims to give Buridan a voice at the table of contemporary thought.

By the time the reader reaches the end of the book, it is clear that one of Klima's largest objectives is to build a convincing case for the value of the peculiar form that Buridan's nominalism takes. He shows how Buridan's views on semantics, logic, and epistemology can both dispense with many of the superfluous entities associated with various forms of realism and still provide a legitimate avenue for genuinely scientific knowledge. Klima characterizes this position as one of ‘essentialist nominalism’.

The heavy lifting of this book occurs in the early chapters. The fourth chapter, in particular, is a nearly one hundred page overview of the various logical mechanics of Buridan's system. Klima does an excellent job of trying to lead the reader to clarity and away from confusion. But someone not as deeply immersed in logic as Klima will still find these chapters daunting. Additionally, as an introduction, these early chapters are systematic in nature rather historical. We are not led through the chronological and progressive development of Buridan's body of work. Rather, Klima synthesizes this body of work into a cohesive system beforehand and then attempts to explain that system from the ground up.

With these fundamental chapters in place, Klima is able to return to his primary task of making Buridan's voice speak to modern ears. This comes out most forcefully when he explains how Buridan approaches the question of skepticism. David Hume, Thomas Reid and Willard Quine are the main dialogue partners here. Being a nominalist, Buridan remains open and will always remain open to the possibility of total deception by an evil demon hypothesis. However, because of the essentialist character of his thought, he can feel rather confident that, assuming the natural occurrence of things continues, real and reliable knowledge is possible. Klima describes this, not as an outright rejection of the evil demon type skepticism, but as a learning to live with a lower criteria of what counts as knowledge and certainty.

In the end, this is an admirable book that takes on an immensely difficult subject matter. What is more, it proceeds with the kind of precision and clarity that allows any serious reader the opportunity to learn from it and reach a high level of understanding. To be sure, those who come to this book looking for a detailed account of Buridan's historical life, his role at the University of Paris, his contemporaries, and the nature of their disputes will be disappointed. While Klima will tempt us with some of this information, it typically remains only a passing remark. And though such historical information might be valuable in its own right and would perhaps fill out the picture Klima has given, the book should not faulted because it spends little time here. The fact of the matter is that Jack Zupko, in his book John Buridan: Portrait of a Fourteenth-Century Arts Master, has already provided much of this historical information. Klima rightly sees no need to repeat Zupko's work. But even more to point, to provide such a historical narrative is not Klima's express purpose. His goal is rather to provide a systematic account of Buridan's logic and to argue for its continued vitality within a modern intellectual milieu that often thinks the Middle Ages has nothing left to teach us. Given this goal, Klima's book can only be viewed as a success.