John of Mirecourt (Fourteenth Century)

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(fourteenth century)

John of Mirecourt belongs to a generation of philosopher-theologians discussing the nature of knowledge and especially the varieties of evidence for human knowledge. Biographical information on him is scarce, but he lectured on the Sentences of Peter Lombard (c. 10951160) at the University of Paris in 13441345. Propositions taken from his work were condemned by the chancellor in 1347. His two apologies are the best-known writings by him, although his commentary on Lombard's Sentences has also survived. Traditionally, Mirecourt has been described as a skeptic associated with Nicholas of Autrecourt (c. 1300after 1350). Research in the last decades of the twentieth century gave a somewhat more accurate picture of his epistemology, but other areas of his philosophy, like his theory of ethics and the will, have not been examined.

In his epistemology Mirecourt distinguishes between abstractive and intuitive cognition, following William of Ockham (c. 1285?1349), John Duns Scotus (1266?1308), and some earlier scholars. Abstractive cognition can be defined as a cognition that can be had without its object being present, while intuitive cognition is dependent of the presence of its object and allows (or even produces) evident knowledge that the object exists. For example, when one sees Peter, one gains an intuitive cognition with Peter as the object of the cognition and is able to give evident assent to the proposition "Peter exists." In abstractive cognition the object need not be present, and thus the examples are often of a conceptual or mathematical nature.

According to Mirecourt's classification, suspicion, opinion, and conjecture constitute inevident assent. In contrast, evident assent is firm belief, which, as he sees it, can be either supranatural or grounded in natural causes. Mirecourt concentrates more on the latter. There are cases where it is impossible that evident assent is wrong, and Mirecourt talks in this context of special evidence. Evidence reducible to the certainty of first principles is like this. Mirecourt's examples include: "If it is a man, it is an animal" and "God is God." The latter is a logical truth, but the former shows that he has in mind also conceptual necessities. Surpassing the border of what may be called analytic truth, there is also special evidence that something exists. Mirecourt proves this by saying, "If one doubts whether something exists or whether one exists, one has to concede that it follows evidently: One doubts whether something exists, therefore one exists, since if one did not exist, one would not doubt. So it follows: one exists, therefore something exists" (In I librum Sententiarum, q. 6). Here, knowledge of one's own existence is shown to have special evidence. Mirecourt continues by pointing out that nothing else is known to exist with infallible evidence.

Not all natural evidence is special. Mirecourt faces the skeptical challenge that any belief without special evidence could be false by God's absolute power. Our ordinary experiences could thus be like dreams or hallucinations. Just like René Descartes (15961649) some centuries later, Mirecourt accepts that this is in some sense possible. Nevertheless, Mirecourt thinks that ordinary experiences can constitute genuine knowledge and thus he is not really a skeptic in the classical sense.

See also Descartes, René; Duns Scotus, John; Nicolas of Autrecourt; Peter Lombard; William of Ockham.


works by mirecourt

In I librum Sententiarum (Commentary on Book I of the Sentences ). Preliminary edition at Massimo Parodi's web site at

Apologiae, edited by F. Stegmüller in his article "Die zwei Apologien des Jean de Mirecourt." Recherches de théologie ancienne et médièvale 5 (1933): 4078 and 192204.

works on mirecourt

Courtenay, William. "John of Mirecourt and Gregory of Rimini on Whether God Can Undo the Past." Recherches de théologie ancienne et médièvale 39 (1972): 224256 and 40 (1973): 147174.

Parodi, Massimo. "Questioni inedite tratte dal I libro del Commento alle Sentenze di Giovanni di Mirecourt (qq. 1316)." Medioevo 3 (1977): 237284.

Mikko Yrjönsuuri (2005)

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