- Croire et savoir: Les principes de la connaissance selon Nicolas d’Autrécourt
Nicholas of Autrecourt has often seemed to be one of those philosophers doomed to be best known for everything but their own ideas. Famously, if inaccurately, dubbed "the Medieval Hume" by one of his first modern critics, the threat or fear of skepticism has in one way or another shaped most subsequent studies of Nicholas's work. While understandable, this really is unfortunate. Nicholas himself clearly states that his philosophical goal was to avoid the skeptical consequences that he believed were latent in the writings of his scholastic peers. In this excellent new work, the first monograph-length study devoted to Nicholas's thought in nearly 60 years, Christophe Grellard goes a long way towards recovering Nicholas's very real contributions to fourteenth-century intellectual life.
Any attempt to interpret Nicholas's thought runs up against one significant problem—few of his works survive. All that remains are a fascinating and lengthy (not to mention, confusing and unfinished) work of natural philosophy, Exigit ordo, and several letters touching on issues in epistemology, cognition, and logic. As a result, even situating Nicholas's thought within the proper intellectual currents of the first decades of the fourteenth century has proven difficult. Whose work influenced him? Who were the objects of his criticism? What were his motives? Until recently, most scholars have attempted to trace the influence of William Ockham on Nicholas's thought. Drawing from recent work on the University of Paris during the fourteenth century, Grellard not only downplays Ockham's influence on Nicholas, but also Nicholas's membership in the faculty of theology. Rather, he stresses Nicholas's ongoing involvement in the arts faculty, where he continued to teach even as he studied for his degree in theology. This has two significant consequences. First, it allows Grellard to treat all of Nicholas's writings as contributions to the practice of natural philosophy. Indeed, in his compelling first chapter, Grellard contends that the initial sections of the Exigit, in which Nicholas famously condemns scholastic Aristotelianism as nothing more than an institutionalized pedagogy of error and untruth, must be read as a plea for a distinction between philosophy and theology, between speculation and faith. Even if Nicholas was not alone at the time in pushing for these distinctions (Ockham and John Buridan had argued along similar lines), Grellard demonstrates that Nicholas's approach was certainly the more radical and extreme. Second, the shift in focus from theology to arts brings with it a shift in Nicholas's most important interlocutors. To begin, Aristotle and Averroes become constant background forces in Nicholas's thought. Moreover, as the final section of Grellard's work makes clear, many of Nicholas's ideas are most usefully understood in light of writings of two other arts masters, John Buridan and Nicole Oresme, rather than in the context of debates among his contemporaries in the theology faculty. [End Page 119]
These initial interpretive decisions shape the overall structure of Grellard's book, which moves, in three parts, from a deft analysis of Nicholas's theory of evidence and probability to his account of the objects of cognition and, finally, to a comparison of Nicholas's and Buridan's epistemological theories. Unlike so many prior studies that begin with Nicholas's famous critique of a fellow theologian's cognitive theories, thereby framing Nicholas's project in terms of theological debates concerning the intuitive cognition of non-existents and God's ability to cause false visions, Grellard begins with Nicholas's positive theory of knowledge. This effectively sidesteps the entire question of Nicholas's skepticism, a question Nicholas himself explicitly tried to avoid. Nicholas comes across as a philosopher keenly aware of the limits of human cognition, yet eager to develop a viable and wholly rational epistemology within those limits. Those limits, Grellard makes clear, have everything to do with appearances, with what we can rationally and legitimately infer about the world based upon what we see...