- Nicolas d'Autrécourt et la Faculté des Arts de Paris (1317-1340)
This book is a coherent set of papers resulting from a conference organized by its editors, Stefano Caroti and Christophe Grellard. In the opening paper, William Courtenay rightly observes that the 1330s are an understudied period in the intellectual history of the University of Paris, especially with respect to its arts faculty. One of the predominant reasons for this neglect is that hardly any writings from arts masters of this period have been transmitted to us, even though we know the names of over two hundred of them (a number which does not include advanced students from other faculties who might have been teaching arts). One of the masters whose writings have been preserved is Nicholas of Autrecourt (c. 1300–69). He figures in almost any survey of medieval philosophy as the thinker whose views were investigated and condemned by the papal authorities, and whose works were burned in 1347. By some good fortune, we possess a few letters, a treatise on philosophy (known by its first words, 'Exigit ordo'), and one disputation in theology—not a very impressive oeuvre in size, if we compare it, for instance, to that of his contemporary, John Buridan. Yet, over the last decade, historians of medieval philosophy have come to recognize more and more that Autrecourt was a very interesting and creative thinker. Although there were a few earlier studies devoted to his thought, this new appreciation stems from Zénon Kaluza's 1995 biography of Nicholas, which opened the way to new studies of hitherto neglected aspects of his teaching by Kaluza himself, Christophe Grellard, and numerous others.
In particular, it has become increasingly clear that Autrecourt was not a promoter of skepticism, as many previous interpreters believed. Instead, he combated the epistemology of one of his opponents, Bernard of Arezzo, by pointing out its absurd skeptical consequences. As Autrecourt himself claims, "I am evidently certain of the objects of the five senses and of my own acts." Or, in other words, for Autrecourt, what appears, exists. The paper by Dominik Perler investigates a bit further the ontological basis for this position. How can Autrecourt put so much confidence in the reliability of our senses in view of God's absolute power to do whatever does not include a contradiction, or in view of the possibility of sensory delusion? Autrecourt's position relies on the thesis that there exists a necessary relation between the mental act and its object. The intellect assimilates an external object, meaning that the object "configurates" (configuratio) the mental act such that object and act become inseparable. Not even God can dissolve the necessary link between them. They become identical, though with different modes of being.
Why is Nicholas so sure that the link between object and mental act is necessary rather than contingent, as Ockham had held? He does not explicitly discuss other epistemological models, but to him, the thesis that what appears exists seems the most probable. His position has been labeled direct realism by recent interpreters, including myself. It is clear, however, as Dallas Denery II rightly emphasizes, that Autrecourt presents his position as probable; he does not defend a blind, anti-skeptical dogmatism. Read positively, Denery thinks that Autrecourt presents a contrast between theology and philosophy, where theology deals with truths of faith and philosophy with probable speculation. In the end, Autrecourt's message to the readers of the Exigit was that they should focus on the truths of Scripture rather than engage in idle philosophical speculation—a puzzling message for a work devoted to topics that were discussed at the arts faculty. But then again, the Exigit ordo is an unruly text: [End Page 172] its edition is imperfect, and some of its parts may be draft versions whose consistency still poses many challenges to scholars. Even the dating of the work is controversial. As William Courtenay suggests, it may have originated...