Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Burley on empty names

I have been reading the early fourteenth century writer Walter Burley. He was working at the same place (Oxford) and the same time (late 1290s) as Scotus, and I wanted to understand how Burley approaches certain questions mentioned by Scotus. In his Questions on the Perihermenias, written in 1301, edited by Stephen Brown (Franciscan Studies 34 (1974) 200-295), question 4, Burley considers the question of whether existence is the same as essence, and in part of that question (4.44) he considers whether propositions like 'Caesar is a man' and 'a man is an animal' are eternally and necessarily true (even if Caesar no longer exists, and even if no man were existing).

He claims that nothing is actually in a real genus, unless it actually exists (nihil est in genere reali actualiter nisi actu exsistat). This (he says) follows from what Aristotle says in Metaphysics 6 at the end, where he divides being into being outside the mind, and a sort of diminished being in the mind, which he excludes from consideration. True being is divided into the ten categories, and so every category of being is true being outside the mind. Thus 'Caesar is a man' is false. He also mentions an argument that Scotus considers in his questions on the Perihermenias, namely Averroes' dictum that in substantial change, a thing loses its name and definition.

He considers the objection (4.54) that every proposition in which genus is predicated of species is necessary, such as 'A man is an animal' and 'a rose is a substance'. He replies that such propositions do not have to be necessary, nor true, unless the species necessarily has being. If 'man exists' is necesary and always true, then 'a man is an animal' is necessary and always true. Otherwise not.

This is opposite to the Scotus' conclusion. Scotus finds that 'Caesar is a man' is true, and he holds that essential propositions (which are sort of our 'analytic propositions') are eternally and necessarily.

Whether the two men met, we do not really know. One source (article "Walter Burley", by Mary Sommers, Blackwell Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages) claims that Walter attended Scotus' lectures in 1298, but does not identify her source (beyond the three secondary sources mentioned in the article, I am following these up).

On the question of whether existence and essence are the same, Walter agrees with the opinion of Godfrey of Fontaines (a writer that Scotus was certainly familiar with). Perhaps more about Godfrey later, when I finally track down the elusive De Wulf editions of his work.

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