Burley, Walter (c. 1274–c. 1345)

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(c. 1274c. 1345)

Walter Burley, renowned logician, natural philosopher and theologian, was born in 1274 or 1275, perhaps at Burley-in-Wharfedale or Burley, near Leeds, in Yorkshire, England. He studied and taught both at Oxford (c. 1294c.1309) and at the University of Paris (c.13091327). Based in England from 13271341, he perhaps spent his last years in retirement in southern France and Italy (13411344).


Burley was a master of arts by 1301 and is mentioned as a fellow of Merton College in 1305. He appears to have heard John Duns Scotus lecture on the Sentences, probably in the academic year 12981299, and adopts some Scotistic positions in later works: that being qua being is the primary and adequate object of the intellect, and that the intellect understands the singular as singular. If Burley began to study theology at Oxford, he and William of Ockham, whose studies began c.13071308, may have been fellow students. Burley's writings from this period, as Jan Pinborg (19371982) has rightly observed, "comprise an almost complete course of logic," including Quaestiones in librum Perihermeneias and Quaestiones super librum Posterior Analytics, as well as treatments of specific topics, De suppositionibus and De consequentiis. There are commentaries on Aristotle's natural philosophy as well, including Questions on the De anima of Aristotle, Book 3.


Burley's career in Paris, assuming some prior study of theology, could be reconstructed as follows. Between 1309 and 1314 he was an auditor of lectures on the scriptures and the Sentences of Peter Lombard, from 1314 to 1317 a biblicus (lecturer) on the scriptures, and from 1317 to 1318 a sententiarius although his lectures on the Sentences are lost. The Tractatus Primus, however, recounts a controversy on accidental form with his master, Thomas Wilton, which arose out of his principium on Book IV. Its argumentation exhibits a layering of logic and physics in a way that makes Burley a precursor of the Oxford calculators, such as Richard Swineshead and John Dumbleton (fourteenth century). In support of his claim that contrary forms, such as hot and cold, belong to the same ultimate species, he argues first from logic that things equidistant from an extreme are of the same species. Then, from Aristotle in natural philosophy, he argues that if a cooled body is immediately reheated, at some instant, B, preceding the first instant the body is cold, A, it will have a degree of heat, and at some instant, C, succeeding A, it will have a degree of cold, both of which degrees will be formally equidistant from maximum heat and thus in the same species. This argument also reflects contemporary debates over first, the latitude of forms, the intensive range of possible degrees that an instance of a species of quality may possess; and second, the first and last instants of change, the subject also of his disputatio at Toulouse, De primo et ultimo instanti of the same period.

In 1321, now a priest, he received his last leave of absence for two years of study and had completed his studies by the end of 1323 at the latest. He is referred to as doctor of sacred theology in 1324. His teaching career was short since he had left Paris by the beginning of 1327.

Burley and Ockham

Perhaps in the same year (13171318) that Burley was lecturing on the Sentences at Paris, William Ockham was doing likewise at Oxford. It is clear that from his first exposure to Ockham's Sentences commentary, Burley found it necessary to oppose him on a number of important issues in logic and natural philosophy. It was not a one-sided engagement. Ockham borrows from Burley's Tractatus primus (before 1324) in his Quaestiones on the Physics, which Burley in turn uses and criticizes in his own final commentary on the Physics, the first six books of which were written after 13247. In the Summa logicae Ockham both uses and attacks Burley's De suppositionibus. Burley counterattacks in his second version (after 1323) of De puritate artis logicae. While Ockham's Logic is organized in the traditional way around terms, propositions, and arguments, Burley's is organized around the general rules of consequences, thus giving priority to propositional logic.

Burley's explanation of the supposition of terms differs from Ockham's, who holds that first, universals do not exist in re, and second, that they are not constitutive parts of the essence of individuals. On the contrary, Burley holds that universals do exist in re although not apart from singulars. Therefore, according to Burley, when the term human in a sentence has simple supposition or stands for what is common or universal, it stands for what it primarily signifies: the humanness in Socrates or Plato. For Ockham, however, when human has simple supposition, it stands for a common concept, humanness in the mind. The only thing a term can signify or refer to is the individual, for instance when human supposits personally for Socrates, Plato, and so on. Burley eventually ceded ground to Ockham on the issue of universals as constitutive parts, holding that the universal form merely discloses the individual's essence (for instance, human). Ockham's position that universals are only general concepts implies that science, which is of the universal, must be about spoken, written, and mental propositions while for Burley, science is founded on real propositions, that is, propositions whose subjects and predicates are real entities, either singular or universal, but whose copulas are purely mental.

As well as resisting Ockham's reduction of res to singular things, Burley objects to Ockham's reduction of Aristotle's categories to substance and quality. In his De formis, (c. 13241326), he holds that quantity is a form separate from the quantified body, and he also argues that motion is a form over and above the body in motion, increased and decreased by a succession of specifically distinct forms (De intensione et remissione formarum, written after 1323). This explanation, which can be calls a succession theory, extends to all changes in the degree of a quality a thing may possess: how the just person comes to have more justice, or that something cold becomes somewhat hot. Every increase in justice or heat, every acceleration of motion, results from the acquisition of a new, more perfect form and the loss of the old, less perfect form.


Burley's departure from Paris was coincident with the coronation of Edward III (13121377), who sent him with a deputation in February 1327 to the papal court in Avignon and again in 1330, now as one of the king's beloved clerks, men in the royal service, usually of humble beginnings, who were often the king's agents on diplomatic missions. Again, from September 1338 until Easter 1339, Burley went "beyond the seas on the king's service" (Calendar of Patent Rolls, 13381340, p. 123).

Burley's academic career ended when he left Paris, and it seems that he had no significant scholarly projects in hand during the next seven years. However, some time after Richard Bury was enthroned as bishop at Durham in 1334, Burley became a member of his household. Bury's patronage and the intellectual energy of the circle he gathered around him would fuel Burley's renewed career as a scholar.

Between 1334 and 1337 Burley completed a commentary on Books 16 of the Ethics, added Books 7 and 8 to his final commentary on the Physics, and revised his commentary on the Ars vetus. He began to revise the commentary on Ethics 16 and add a commentary on 710 in 13381339. In the commentaries on the Physics and Ars vetus are found Burley's references to the moderni, those thinkers encountered first during his Paris years, who threaten the purity of the font of all philosophy: Aristotle. The doctrines that Burley identifies as being those of the moderni are not confined to any single philosophical discipline, and appear, by Burley's account, to form a systemic threat to philosophy itself. His commentary on Aristotle's Politics, begun in 13381339, is, along with his Ethics commentary, heavily dependent on Thomas Aquinas's expositions of those works (written between 12691272). Nevertheless, they contain doctrines original with Burley, for example, in the Politics, that of the "co-rulership" of kings with those who are "their friends and the friends of the government" (fol. 186r ) and doctrinal divergences from Aquinas, for example, in the Ethics, the role of the speculative intellect in understanding the precepts of natural law (1500, fol. 103r ).

Upon completion of the four expositions of Aristotle (c.1340), Burley, who was now in his mid-sixties, appears to have sought some disengagement from the rigors and antagonisms of scholarly life, which may have led to his journey to Italy, probably in 1341.

Southern France and Italy

In 1341 Burley engaged in a disputatio de quolibet in the arts faculty at Bologna, an event that has been connected with his supposed Averroism. Burley was not an Averroist, however, if this term implies someone who adopts positions contrary to the Christian faith on the authority of Averroes. This is clear from the beginning of his career in his questions on De anima, Book 3, where he concludes that "neither is the material intellect one in all, nor also the agent intellect" (3.44). Then in Paris, where his master was the Averroist Wilton, his short work De potentiis animae reiterates this position.

The De vita et moribus philosophorum was long thought to have been the fruit of Burley's retirement in southern Europe. However, large sections from it are found in a manuscript dated 1326, when Burley was in Paris, which, together with the claim that no attribution of the work to him is earlier than the fifteenth century, has led to a presumption against Burley's authorship of this immensely popular work. Nevertheless, this evidence is not conclusive, and given his habits of appropriating large amounts of text from other authors and frequently reworking his own texts, it is not impossible that the De vita et moribus philosophorum passed through Burley's hands at some point in its history.

On 23 November 1343, Burley was in Avignon to present a copy of his commentary on the Politics to his old Parisian acquaintance Pierre Roger, now Clement VI (12911352). This gift, complete with an elegant letter and a miniature showing the presentation, could have been both in appreciation and expectation of further patronage. Indeed, Burley obtained the rectory at Great Chart, Kent, on 19 June 1344, the last date he is known to have been alive.

Walter Burley exerted considerable influence both on his contemporaries and on philosophical thought into the sixteenth century, to which the number of early printed editions of his commentaries on Aristotle testify. This influence may be attributed, firstly, to the originality and the clarity of the positions he maintained in the controversies of his day, both in logic and natural philosophy. He contributed significantly to the debates concerning supposition theory, consequences, obligationes, and sophismata. In natural philosophy his theory of the first and last instants of change, which distinguishes between permanent and successive things or states, becomes a standard view, and the succession position, which he defends in his classic work, On the Intension and Remission of Forms, is frequently cited, being both opposed and defended, into the sixteenth century.

His skill at the traditional exercise of commentary on Aristotle was also acknowledged. In glossed Latin manuscripts of Aristotle and Averroes, he is one of the commentators most frequently cited, especially in connection with the Ethics, Politics, Physics, and logical works of Aristotle. In addition, manuscripts of Burley's commentaries on these works had a wide circulation. Early printed editions of an important collection of auctoritates of Aristotle and other philosophers carry his textual comments, along with those of Averroes, Robert Grosseteste, Albert the Great, and Thomas Aquinas. A revival of interest in Burley's thought, particularly his logic and natural philosophy, was underway by the 1960s, and earlier assessments of him as an unworthy opponent of Ockham have not survived a closer study of his work, which has revealed its originality and depth.

See also Albert the Great; Aristotle; Averroes; Averroism; Duns Scotus, John; Grosseteste, Robert; Peter Lombard; Swineshead, Richard; Thomas Aquinas, St.; William of Ockham.


works by burley

De formis, edited by F. J. D. Scott. Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1970.

Commentary on Ethics. Venice, 1481, 1500.

De intensione et remissione formarum. Venice, 1496.

Commentary on Logica Vetus. Venice, 1497.

Commentary on Physics. Venice, 1509, 1524.

De vita et moribus philosophorum, edited by H. Knust. Stuttgard: Tübingen, 1866.

De puritate artis logicae tractatus longior, with a revised edition of the Tractatus brevior, edited by P. Boehner. St. Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute Publications, 1955.

De primo et ultimo instanti, edited by H. and C. Shapiro, Archiv fur Geschichte der Philosophie 47 (1965): 157173.

De potentiis animae, edited by M. J. Kitchel. Mediaeval Studies 33 (1971): 85113.

De suppositionibus, edited by S. F. Brown. Franciscan Studies 32 (1972): 1564.

Quaestiones in librum Perihermeneias, edited by S. F. Brown. Franciscan Studies 34 (1974): 200295.

De consequentiis, edited by N. J. Green-Pedersen. Franciscan Studies 40 (1980): 102166.

Questions on the De anima of Aristotle, edited by E. A. Synan. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1997.

On the purity of the Art of Logic: The Shorter and the Longer Treatises. Translated by P. V. Spade. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

Quaestiones super librum Posterior Analytics, edited by M. Sommers. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2000.

works on burley

Conti, A. D. "Ontology in Walter Burley's Last Commentary on the Ars vetus." Franciscan Studies 50 (1990): 120176.

De Rijk, L. M. "Burley's So-Called Tractatus primus, with an edition of the additional quaestio Utrum contradictio sit maxima oppositio." Vivarium 24 (1996): 6191.

Krieger, Gerhard. "Studies on Walter Burley 19891997." Vivarium 37 (1) (1999): 94100.

Martin, C. "Walter Burley." In Oxford Studies Presented to Daniel Callus, Oxford Historical Society, 194230. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964.

Nederman, C. J. "Kings, Peers, and Parliament: Virtue and Corulership in Walter Burley's Commentarius in VIII libros politicorum Aristotelis." Albion 24 (3) (1992): 391407.

Ottman, Jennifer, and Rega Wood. "Walter Burley: His Life and Works." Vivarium 37 (1) (1999): 123.

Pinborg, J. "Walter Burley on Exclusives." English Logic and Semantics, Acts of the 4th European Symposium on Medieval Logic and Semantics. Leiden: Nijmegen, 2327 June 1979. Reprinted in J. Pinborg. Medieval Semantics: Selected Studies on Medieval Logic and Grammar. London: Variorum, 1984.

Sylla, E. D. "Infinite Indivisibles and Continuity in Fourteenth-Century Theories of Alteration." In Infinity and Continuity in Ancient and Medieval Thought, edited by N. Kretzmann, 231257, 322330. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982.

Sylla, E. D. "Medieval Concepts of the Latitude of Forms: The Oxford Calculators." Archives d'Histoire Doctrinale et Littéraire du Moyen Âge 40 (1973): 223283.

Sylla, E. D. "Ockham and the Mertonians." History of the University of Oxford. Vol. 1: Early Oxford Schools, edited by J. I. Catto, 607558. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 19842000.

Sylla, E. D. "Repertorium Mertonense." Mediaeval Studies 31 (1969): 185208.

Weisheipl, J. A. "Ockham and Some Mertonians." Mediaeval Studies 30 (1968): 174188.

Wood, Rega. "Studies on Walter Burley, 19681988." Bulletin de Philosophie Médiévale 30 (1988): 233250.

Mary Sommers (2005)