Philosopher and precursor of modern science; b. probably Bethune, northern France, toward the end of the thirteenth century; d. after 1358. Few definite facts are known about his life. Except for at least one trip to the Papal Curia at Avignon, his entire career was spent at the University of Paris, where, according to henry of kalkar, he taught for about 50 years. In 1328 he was a master of arts and rector of the university, a post he held again in 1340. In 1342 Pope Clement VI conferred on him a canonry in the church of Arras. In 1348 the bishop of Paris made him chaplain of the church of St. André-des-Arcs. His name headed the list of 22 Parisian masters from Picardy presented to the pope in 1349. He served as a delegate from the "Picard nation, " drawing up in 1347 a statute relating to the administration of finances and to the organization of religious offices for that nation, and in 1357 and 1358, reestablishing peace between the "Picard nation" and the "English nation." The last year in which the name of Buridan is mentioned is 1358; possibly he died soon after that date.
Buridan's philosophy is known chiefly through his commentaries. He wrote Quaestiones in artem veterem (on the Isagoge of Porphyry, the Categories, and On Interpretation ) and Quaestiones in Analytica priora et posteriora, Quaestiones in Topica, and Quaestiones super libro De elenchis. Under the title of Summa logicae he reshaped the Summulae logicales of Peter of Spain (see john xxi), adapting them to nominalist ideas. His natural philosophy is contained in commentaries and questions on the physical treatises of Aristotle: Physics, De caelo et mundo, De generatione et corruptione, Meteorologica, De anima, Parva naturalia, De motibus animalium, and De physiognomia. He wrote similar elaborations of Aristotle's Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, and Politics. Aside from certain indications of relative chronology, the dates of these treatises cannot be determined. He also wrote minor independent works devoted to particular questions. When the royal order of March 1, 1474, ordering the confiscation of all nominalist books was revoked in 1481, there was a revival of interest in Buridan's views; repeated printings were made of his principal works at the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth century.
Buridan was a leading figure in the nominalist current of the fourteenth century, although the exact extent of his faithfulness to william of ockham is a matter of debate. In spite of the judgments of censure passed by the university in 1326, 1339, and 1340 against certain nominalist positions, Buridan's authority was not affected. He was prudently careful to disassociate himself from the extreme nominalism of such men as nicholas of autrecourt and john of mirecourt. Against Nicholas he defended the principle of causality and its application in proving the existence of God; and he engaged in a polemic with John about the distinction between substance and accidents. Although, like Ockham, he tended to enlarge the field of probable truths at the expense of demonstrable truths and to separate more concisely the domain of faith from that of philosophical thought, he maintained his independence on many points, for example, on the idea of science, suppositio, local motion, and time. In the doctrine of the will, he professed an intellectual determinism: the choice between two goods is inevitably determined by the one that is superior to the other; freedom consists only in the power to suspend this choice by a supplementary thought.
Buridan is important mainly for his physical theories, particularly his explanation of local motion by the theory of impetus, which he applied to the motion of the celestial spheres as well as to motion in the sublunary world. Because of this and related theories about the nature of weight and the acceleration of falling bodies, and by his acceptance of Ptolemy's system of astronomy, Buridan is considered a forerunner of leonardo da vinci, Nicolaus copernicus, and Galileo galilei.
Otherwise, his nominalism found a more immediate area of expansion into the new universities, particularly German, which were being founded in growing numbers during this period, and where his former students, now professors (such as albert of saxony and marsilius of inghen), spread his philosophical ideas.
Bibliography: Iohannis Buridani Quaestiones super libros quattuor de caelo et mundo, ed. e. a. moody (Cambridge, Mass.1942). e. faral, "Jean Buridan: Notes sur les manuscrits, les éditions et le contenu de ses ouvrages, " Archives d'histoire doctrinale et littéraire du moyen-âge 21 (1946) : 1–53; "Jean Buridan, maître ès arts de l'Université de Paris, " Histoire littéraire de la France 38 (1949) : 462–605. g. sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, 3 v. in 5 (Baltimore 1927–48) 3.1: 540–546. a. c. crombie, Augustine to Galileo: The History of Science, 400–1650 (Cambridge, Mass. 1953). r. taton, ed., A History of Science, v. 1 Ancient and Medieval Science, tr. a. j. pomerans (New York 1963). m. clagett, The Science of Mechanics in the Middle Ages (Madison 1959). p. m. m. duhem, Le Système du monde: Histoire des doctrines cosmologiques de Platon à Copernic (5 v. Paris 1913–17; repr. 10 v. 1954–59). a. maier, Die Vorläufer Galileis im 14. Jahrhundert (Rome 1949) ; Zwei Grundprobleme der scholastischen Naturphilosophie: Das Problem der intensiven Grösse. Die Impetustheorie (2d ed. Rome 1951) ; An der Grenze von Scholastik und Naturwissenschaft (2d ed. Rome 1952) ; Metaphysische Hintergründe der spätscholastischen Naturphilosophie (Rome 1955) ; Zwischen Philosophie und Mechanik (Rome 1958). m. e. reina, Il problema del linguaggio in Buridano (Vicenza 1959) ; Note sulla psicologia di Buridano (Milan 1959).