Saturday, October 14, 2017

Spinoza's ass

After I had written my blog on Buridan’s ass, I discovered by chance that soon his important comments on Aristotle’s Physics, in which he discusses the case, will be reissued by the Dutch publishing house Brill (see link below). It’s remarkable, however, that Jean Buridan himself didn’t talk about an ass or donkey but that his case is about a dog:
“Suppose that a dog is very hungry and very thirsty. He is placed between a bowl with food and a bowl with water, which are at exactly the same distance left and right of him and everything else is also the same. Then the dog will die of hunger and thirst, for he will look to the one and to the other and has no reason to choose the one or the other. And since the dog cannot go to both sides at the same time, he will stay where he is and he will die of inertia.”
This example is a comment on Aristotle’s reasoning that the earth doesn’t move but is in balance among the celestial bodies, since the earth has no reason to move into one direction or another. But Buridan doesn’t agree with this reasoning at all! For he adds: “This reasoning [in the dog’s case] seems to be false and the same so for what people say about the earth.” (source: see below).
As we see, the contents Buridan’s example is basically the same as the example of the alleged “Buridan’s ass”, but it’s not about a hungry donkey but about a dog. Why then this donkey? Nobody knows who talked first about a donkey. Anyway, many philosophers have commented on the case of “Buridan’s ass”. One of them was Baruch Spinoza. I don’t know whether Spinoza thought that the example had been thought up by Buridan and whether he had read Buridan, but actually his comment is about the same as Buridan’s. Spinoza mentioned the example of “Buridan’s” ass twice in his works: In his Cogitata Metaphysica and in his Ethics. This is what he said about it in his Ethics:
“... I readily grant that a man placed in such a state of equilibrium (namely, where he feels nothing else but hunger and thirst and perceives nothing but such-and-such food and drink at equal distances from him) will die of hunger and thirst. If they ask me whether such a man is not to be reckoned an ass rather than a man, I reply that I do not know, just as I do not know how one should reckon a man who hangs himself, or how one should reckon babies, fools, and madmen.” (Ethics, Proposition 49)
In other words, Spinoza scoffed at “Buridan’s” ass, but didn’t also Buridan scoff at “his” dog, as we just have seen? Man is not an ass. That’s what Spinoza and Buridan agree about.

- Buridan’s text can be found on

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