Oresme, Nicole (c. 1320–1382)

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Nicole (Nicholas) Oresme was a Master of Arts and Theology at the University of Paris, royal counsellor, translator into French of Aristotle's works, and bishop of Lisieux. Of humble origin, he was admitted in the College of Navarre in 1348, where he became Grand Master in 1356, after having obtained the license of Master of Theology. He was born in Normandy probably no later than 1320, in a village near Caen (Allemagne, today Fleury-sur-Orne). His ecclesiastical career depended on his university teaching as well as on his conntions with the royal court. The first benefice was granted by Pope Clement VI in 1342, in reply to a supplication list of the University of Paris in order to obtain support for master and students (Oresme is recorded as master); the election to the bishop's chair of Lisieux in 1377 was Charles V's (13641380) reward for Oresme's translations of Aristotle's works, made by royal request. His main ecclesiastical functions were in Normandy, a region with high strategic importance during the wars between France and England. He was appointed canon of Rouen Cathedral in 1362, and two years later he was chosen as dean. He reduced, but did not cut short, his connections with the university and with the royal court in Paris. In 1370 he disputed at the university a quodlibetal question; in 1375 he was charged, together with Simon Fréron and Richard Barbe, to find out if Marsilius of Padua's Defensor Pacis had been translated into French. Oresme translated and commented upon Aristotle's Ethics (Le livre de ethiques d'Aristote ), Politics (Les politiques ), Economics (Le livre de yconomique d'Aristote ), and De Caelo (Le livre du ciel et du monde ). He wrote also in French an elementary treatise on astronomy (Livre de l'éspere ), and a treatise against the astrologers (Livre de divinacions ). He died on July 11, 1382, in Lisieux.

His commentaries on Aristotle's physical writings (Physics, On the heaven, On coming to be and passing away, On the soul, and Methereologics ), as well as his treatises (Ad pauca respicientes, De proportionibus proportionum, De commensurabilitate motuum caeli, De configurationibus qualitatum ) bear witness to his prevailing scientific interests, and above all to his conviction of the importance of using mathematics in dealing with physical problems (qualitative changes, motion, duration). In his commentaries, Oresme discusses the main philosophical issues debated at the University of Paris after the dissemination of William of Ockham's works and the condemnations of John of Mirecourt (1347) and Nicolas of Autrécourt (1348).

The Subject of Human Knowledge and the Certitude of Physical Science

Oresme offered rather original solutions to two very important problems traditionally discussed in the opening questions of medieval commentaries on the physical writings of Aristotle: the subject of human knowledge, and the degree of certitude of physical science. Concerning the first, Oresme rejects the reductionist view, usually attributed to William Ockham, according to which human knowledge concerns exclusively the conclusion of a syllogism, as well as the claim that it deals with singular objects. He believes that human knowledge concerns properly what can be expressed through a proposition (complexe significabile ) rather than through a single term.

On the certitude of physical science, Oresme shares the common position, strongly attacked by Nicolas d'Autrécourt, according to which it does not need the highest degree of certitude typical of mathematics and metaphysics. The convenience of having recourse to mathematics in physical inquiries, however, permits one in some way to extend to physics this highest degree of certitude.

The possibility of applying mathematics to physics is warranted either by widening the field of physical inquiries to a hypothetical, non contradictory state of things, or by assuming the geometrical model of perspective in explaining physical actions like heating. The extension of imaginary cases to physical inquiries actually increases the potential of physics, whose limits coincide with the law of noncontradiction. In his Quaestiones de spera (q. 2), Oresme explicitly upholds the use of mathematical fictions (imaginationes ), like points and lines, in physics, stating that in astronomy (and in the so called scientiae mediae ) truth can not be reached without the aid of mathematics and geometry (he quotes for this solution the authority of Aristotle's De coelo ).

The plurality of worlds and the daily rotation of the earth on its axis while the heavens remain stationarytwo of the topics to which Oresme owes his celebrity among historians of science since Pierre Duhemare such hypothetical cases. Oresme amply discussed the possibility of such hypotheses, concluding always in favor of the traditional view. The relativity of motion is a central issue in the astronomical hypothesis of the earth's daily rotation; Oresme's position concerning the nature of motion is an original attempt to maintain an absolute notion.

Mathematics and Physics

One of Oresme's major contributions to natural philosophy is his solution concerning the "intension and remission of qualities"that is the variation of intensity of qualities, motion, velocity, and every kind of successive thing. De configurationibus qualitatum opens by confirming the utility of making recourse to mathematics in physical inquiries: Intensities of qualities can be easily measured by representing them through geometrical figures, whose one line represents the subject where the quality is distributed (extensio ), on which there are perpendicularly erected lines representing the intensities of the quality (intensio ). The line connecting the higher points of the intensities (linea summitatis ) can immediately inform us about the type of change (uniform, uniformly difform, difform).

Oresme avails himself of this method of graphing the varying of intensities of qualities and motions in order to explain the diversity of actions of physical agents, and also of human passions, occult virtues, aesthetic problems, and magical operations. In his effort to reduce uniformly difform types of variation to uniform ones, Oresme proposes a geometrical demonstration of the so called mean-speed theorem (the distances traversed by two moving objects, the former moving uniformly difformly and the latter uniformly with the mean speed of the former, is the same). Galileo used an analogous geometric demonstration for freely falling bodies in his Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche intorno a due nuove scienze.

Oresme adhered to Thomas Bradwardine's solution, according to which velocity depends on a proportional change of the force as well as of the resistance. In order to double velocity, it is not enough to double force or to halve resistance, but the square of the proportion between force and resistance must also be obtained.

In De proportionibus proportionum III, prop.10, Oresme resorts to mathematics to argue for the high degree of probability of the incommensurability of any two unknown ratios: "because if many unknown ratios are proposed it is most probable that any one would be incommensurable to any other" (E. Grant's translation, p. 247). He proposes a similar argument in De commensurabilitate to support the incommensurability of heavenly circular motions in order to invalidate astrological predictions based on planetary conjunctions, which would be unpredictable.

Modi Rerum

Oresme's Physics commentary contains an original philsophical doctrine concerning the nature of motion, place, and time, and more generally the ontology of natural things. Evidently dissatisfied by the two opposing solutionsthe reductionist, inspired by Ockham, according to which motion is nothing different than the moving object; and the realist, according to which motion is a quality inherent to the moving objectOresme proposed to consider motion, as well as place, time, and other continuous natural things, as complex objects or events rather than as simple qualities and properties. To do that he availed himself also of semantical tools like the meaning of the proposition (complexe significabile ). Oresme was convinced that his solution was able to avoid some ontological problems in natural philosophy: He explicitly quotes intension and remission of qualitative forms, with qualities considered as modi of the substance and not accidental properties inhering to the substance.

See also Aristotle; Bradwardine, Thomas; Duhem, Pierre Maurice Marie; Galileo Galilei; John of Mirecourt; Marsilius of Padua; Mathematics, Foundations of; Medieval Philosophy; Nicolas of Autrecourt; William of Ockham.


On Oresme's biography see: F. Neveux, "Nicole Oresme et le clergé normand du XIVe siècle." In Autour de Nicole Oresme, pp. 936, edited by J. Quillet. Paris: Vrin, 1990; W. J. Courtenay, "The Early Career of Nicole Oresme," ISIS 91 (2000), pp. 542548.

French translations and commentaries: Le livre de ethiques d'Aristote, A. D. Menut, ed. (New York: G. E. Stechert, 1940); Le livre de yconomique d'Aristote, A. D. Menut ed. with English transl., in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, N. S. Vol. 47, Part 2 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1957); Le livre de Politiques d'Aristote, A. D. Menut, ed., in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, N. S. Vol. 60, Part 6 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1970); Le livre du ciel et du monde, A. D. Menut and A. J. Denomy, eds. with English transl. (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1968); Le traité des monnaies (French transl. of De mutationibus monetarum ), ed. L. Wolowski, Petit traité de la première invention des monnaies de Nicolas Oresme, Paris, Guillaumin 1864 (Slatkine Reprints, 1976).

French treatises: Traité de l'espere, ed. J. V. Myers (Syracuse Univ., 1940), and L. M. McCarthy (Toronto Univ., 1943); Le livre de divinacions, G. W. Coopland ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1952).

Latin commentaries and other writings in form of university questions: Quaestiones super Geometriam Euclidis, H. L. L. Busard, ed., (Leiden: Brill, 1961); Quaestiones de sensu, J. Agrimi, ed. (Firenze, 1983); Expositio et Quaestiones in Aristotelis "De anima," B. Patar ed. (Louvain-Paris: Éditions de l'Institut Supérieur de Philosophie-Éditions Peeters, 1995); Quaestiones super De generatione et corruptione, S. Caroti ed. (München: Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1996); Quaestiones super Physicam, S. Kirschner ed. (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1997), the complete edition is in preparation; Quaestio contra divinatores horoscopios, S. Caroti, ed. in Archives d'histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen Âge, 43, 1976, pp. 201310; Quodlibeta, B. Hansen (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1985, partial ed.); Quaestiones super de coelo, C. Kren ed. (Univ. of Wisconsin, 1965); Quaestiones super de spera, G. Droppers ed. (Univ. of Wisconsin, 1966); Quaestiones super quatuor libros Meteororum, S. C. McCluskey ed. (Univ. of Wisconsin, 1974, partial ed.); De visione stellarum, D. E. Burton ed. (Indiana Univ., 2000); Questio utrum aliqua res videatur, J. B. Watson ed. (Harvard Univ., 1973).

Not yet identified is his commentary on the Sentences ; the De perfectione specierum to which Oresme alludes in his De configurationibus (I, 20) is probably part of this commentary. Other theological writings: Tractatus de communicatione idiomatum, E. Borchert, ed. In Beiträge zur Geschichte der Philosophie und Theologie des Mittelalters, 35, München: Aschendorff, 1940, H. 45; Determinatio facta in resumpta in domo Navarrae, ms.

Latin treatises: Algorismus proportionum, M. Curtze ed. (Berlin: Calvary, 1868) and E. Grant ed. (Univ. of Wisconsin, 1957, partial ed.); De proportionibus proportionum, Ad pauca respicientes, E. Grant ed. with English transl. (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1966); De configurationibus qualitatum et motuum, M. Clagett ed. with English transl. (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1968); De commensurabilitate vel incommensurabilitate motuum celi, E. Grant ed. with English transl. (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1971); Tractatus contra iudiciarios astronomos, H. Pruckner ed. (Leipzig-Berlin: Teubner, 1933) and G.W. Coopland ed. with English transl. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1952); Tractatus de mutationibus monetarum, C. Johnson, ed. with English transl. (London: T. Nelson, 1956).

In addition to the pioneer studies of P. Duhem, Le système du monde, 10 vols. (Paris: Herman, 19131959, Vols. IV, VII, VIII, and IX) and A. Maier, Studien zur Naturphilosophie der Spätscholastik, 5 vols. (Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteraturea, 19491958), where Oresme's role in the history of science was highly appreciated, and to the volume of O. Pedersen's Nicole Oresme og hans natufilosofiske System (Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1956, with a French summary), much new material can be found in the introductions to the editions of his works (above all in Clagett's introduction to De configurationibus ). Two conferences have been dedicated to Oresme: Nicolas Oresme. Tradition et innovation chez un intellectuel du XIVe siècle, P. Souffrin, A. Ph. Segonds, eds. (Padova-Paris: Programma e Editori-Les Belles Lettres, 1988, with a very important contribution of H. Hugonnard-Roche, Modalités et argumentation chez Nicole Oresme ) and Autour de Nicole Oresme, J. Quillet ed. (Paris: Vrin, 1990). The n. 3 (2000) of the review Oriens-Occidens. Sciences, mathématiques et philosophie de l'Antiquité à l'Âge classique is partly dedicated to Nicole Oresme's Physics. New material is also in the proceedings of the Parma conference: Quia inter doctores est magna dissensio. Les débats de philosophie naturelle à Paris au XIVe siècle, S. Caroti, J. Celeyrette eds. (Florence: Olschki, 2004).

Stefano Caroti (2005)