Monday, September 12, 2011

Buridan contra Fundamentalism and Postmodernism

The meaning of a word has never obliged us [to construe words only in their proper senses, and to concede or deny propositions only according to what is required by their proper senses]. On the contrary, sometimes we must construe words their proper senses, and sometimes in improper senses, as in parabolic or ironic [expressions], or in other ways even more removed from the proper senses. For example, if we read the books of learned authors such as Aristotle or Porphyry, we must construe their words according to the senses those authors have imposed upon them, even if these are improper senses. And so we must concede that, strictly speaking, those words are true because they are true as construed in those senses. But even so, we must say that they have been imposed in such senses, and that if they had been imposed in their proper senses, they would be false. And if people reading the books of learned authors were to construe their words differently than they believe them to have been imposed by their authors, they would be insolent and cantankerous, and unworthy to study or read the books of the philosophers. In the same way, we must say that every word of the Bible and the Gospels is strictly speaking true, and we must construe these words in the senses in which they have been imposed and according to which they are true. And those who do otherwise are mistaken, as well as being blasphemers, or perhaps even heretics. But even so, we can correctly state in connection with many of these words that they are false, if imposed and construed in their proper senses.

The passage is from Buridan's Questions on Porphyry's Isagoge, and the translation is lightly adapted from Jack Zupko's book John Buridan (pages 18-19), which I intend to mine for my next post as well. I find the passage noteworthy for two reasons. First, it shows that the right relationship between doctrinal or biblical formulations and scientific was not worked out under pressure of advancing modernity and the onslaught of independent empirical science, but by philosophy when science was still in its nascent stages and both philosophy and science were flourishing under the purview of the undivided Catholic university. The whole Galileo issue could have been resolved easily by reference to Buridan here (or one might add to any number of other doctors); the reasons it wasn't were cultural, political, and personal, rather than because the Catholic Church was stuck in "dark ages" thinking. The thinking of the high middle ages was in general much more sane, moderate, and temperate than most of that emanating from the post-Reformation battles.

The second thing that strikes me about this passage is its implicit condemnation of much of modern and postmodern academia, of which one besetting sin is its fascination with mining old texts in the service of contemporary "relevance." We can't read an old book properly unless we care about the same things its author cared about, but with our presentist solipsism, narrow-mindedness, and progressive triumphalism, scholars (as much as Hollywood screenwriters) are constantly tempted to read them primarily in the light of our own political, cultural, or ideological concerns. The other day I reread Tolkien's classic lecture Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, which makes the same point, namely that Old English scholars had up until his day used the poem as a data mine for their own interests, without caring about what the poet cared about. The result was that the poem was devalued as scholars pined after the poems they wished had been written instead. Buridan's passage reminds me that you're not going to read Beowulf correctly if you think monsters are stupid and a waste of time, no matter how much you're interested in what it tells you about the Ingeld legend, Scyld Sheafing, or Geatish architecture. And it seems to me that classicists, medievalists, philosophers, scholars of all stripes fall prey to this data-mining temptation across the board.

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