Walter Burley: A 14th Century Realist

We don’t know precisely when and where Walter Burley was born. But our best guess, given what we know of his education, was that he was born in either 1274 or 1275; and that he was born in the village of Burley-in-Warfdale, Yorkshire.

While the details of his early life are unclear, we do know a great deal about his adult life. A Oxford Master of Arts by 1300 (likely a student at Balliol College), he was a fellow at Merton College for about the first decade of the fourteenth century. Those early years are marked by a significant philosophical output, one focused especially on issues in logic and the philosophy of language. That early period saw a number of commentaries on Aristotle’s Organon (indeed, it produced two commentaries on the De Interpretatione alone). It is in those commentaries that Burley first starts to develop his famous (or infamous, depending on one’s scholarly perspective) theory of the real proposition, a theory of the metaphysics of propositional attitudes and their contents. But his early career is also marked by a number of treatises on philosophy of language and logic proper, in which Burley advances novel and sophisticated accounts of supposition (roughly, a medieval semantic theory) and propositional logic.

By 1310, however, Burley had left he position at Oxford to pursue a degree in theology at Paris – the natural next step for an academic in the scholastic tradition. Coincident with this move was the beginning of Burley’s clerical career, as rector of Welbury, Yorkshire. Yet the position was purely perfunctory, taken by Burley to finance his academic career. He employed a substitute at Welbury (as he would for every other clerical position he would hold). While at Paris, Burley began to write on other philosophical topics, notably natural philosophy (see, e.g., his 1316 commentary on the Physics). But the most significant development at Paris was Burley’s encounter with the works for William Ockham. Burley had been, throughout his career, a defender of moderate realism: the thesis that a common nature is not really distinct from an individual that has it; and Burley’s semantics was made to fit a realism about common natures. Ockham, of course, was a tour de force for nominalism, inaugurating the dominance of that philosophical tradition throughout the rest of the century. Burley’s response was not to capitulate to Ockham (at least not on realism about universals), but to reject the semantics Ockham developed to defend his nominalism, and to¬†modify his own metaphysics, semantics and epistemology in light of Ockham’s attacks on realism in order to meet those attacks.

The first salvo in Burley’s response to Ockham occurred in roughly the same year that he became a Master of Theology: 1324. In that year, Burley publishes his second commentary on the Physics, and in that work Burley begins to systematically defend a form of realism he believes is both highly motivated and resistant to Ockham’s critiques. And Burley seemed to genuinely dislike Ockham. In the 1324 Physics commentary, for example, Burley is at pains to stress that Ockham had not advanced to the title of master, that he was only an ‘inceptor’ or beginner. Later in the work, commenting on Ockham’s views, he comments that one of Ockham’s positions includes “a suggestion any idiot could make.” Nor does Burley disdain for Ockham fade after the 1324 Physics commentary. Even in later works, Burley repeatedly harps on the fact that Ockham is merely an ‘inceptor’, and suggests in one place that Ockham is a heretic.

While after 1324 Burley seems to have Ockham’s nominalism philosophically at the forefront of his mind, most of his activity was directed at political matters. He entered the English court as an associate of the English Barons who deposed King Edward II in 1327. Burley was a member of two diplomatic missions to the Papal court on behalf of King Edward III, including one in 1327 itself. That 1327 mission marked the beginning of Burley’s rising clerical career. That career was aided in part by his close association with Richard de Bury, himself a cleric who would become Chancellor of England in 1334-1335. De Bury sought a court of intellectuals, which included Burley, of course, but also Thomas Fitzralph, Robert Holcott, Thomas Bradwardine, and Richard Kilvington. Burley continued to write philosophy late into his life, and his philosophical career is capped, in many ways, by his great 1337 commentary on the Old Logic: a work which stands as a defense of some of Burley’s most controversial philosophical views. Like his birth year, we are unsure of the year of his death. But most scholars put it just a year after his last work, a commentary on Aristotle’s politics, which was completed in 1343.

Burley’s career was long, productive, and substantial. He was a significant philosophical force in the academy, and a significant political force outside of it. He was, in many ways, a radical traditionalist: he sought to defend the old order, but his defense of that old order was anything but conventional. Indeed, in seeking to defend the old order, Burley often radically departs from it. His defense of the reality of common natures, for example, leads him eventually to an account in which common natures don’t in any meaningful sense constitute to the natures of the things that have them. But the end result is a novel and sophisticated account of meaning, cognition and reality that stands apart both from the traditional views of the thirteenth century and the nominalist views that come to dominate the fourteenth.