Buridan, John

, a Frenchman, born at Bethune in Artois, was a renowned philosopher or schoolman of the fourteenth century. He discharged a professor’s place in the university of Paris with great reputation; and wrote commentaries on Aristotle’s logic, ethics, and metaphysics, which were much esteemed. Some say that he was rector of the university of Paris in 1320. Aventine relates, | that he was a disciple of Ockam; and that, being expelled Paris by the power of the realists, which was superior to that of the nominalists, he went into Germany, where he founded the university of Vienna. “Buridan’s Ass,” has been a kind of proverb a long time in the schools; though nobody has ever pretended to explain it, or to determine with certainty what it meant. He supposed an ass, very hungry, standing betwixt two bushels of oats perfectly equal; or an ass, equally hungry and thirsty, placed betwixt a bushel of oats and a tub of water, both making an equal impression on his organs. After this supposition he used to ask, What will this ass do? If it was answered, He will remain there as he stands: Then, concluded he, he will die of hunger betwixt two bushels of oats; he will die of hunger and thirst with plenty of food and drink before him. This seemed absurd, and the laugh was wholly on his side: But, if it was answered, This ass will not be so stupid as to die of hunger and thirst with such good provision on each side of it: then, concluded he, this ass has free will, or of two weights in equilibre one may stir the other. Leibnitz, in his Theodicea, confutes this fable; he supposes the ass to be between two meadows, and equally inclining to both: concerning this he says, it is a fiction which, in the present course of nature, cannot subsist. Indeed, were the case possible, we must say, that the creature would suffer itself to die of hunger. But the question turns on an impossibility, unless God should purposely interfere to produce such a thing; for the universe cannot be so divided, by a plane drawn through the middle of the ass, cut vertically in its length, so that every thing on each side shall be alike and similar; for neither the parts of the universe, nor the animal’s viscera, are similar, nor in an equal situation on both sides of this vertical plane. Therefore will there always be many things, within and without the ass, which, though imperceptible to us, will determine it to take to one side more than the other. After all this, not very edifying discussion, the world must confess its obligations to Buridan for one of the most common proverbs, denoting hesitation in determining between two objects of equal or nearly equal value. 1


Gen. Dict.—Moreri.—Foppen Bibl. Belg.