Buridan’s Ass

I am in the position of having too many equally-delightful books to choose from.  I’m at or near the beginning in each, none of them are gripping novels (I’ve finished those), but they’re all interesting works of non-fiction I’ve been wanting to read for some time but . . . can’t decide between.  The pull of each is not quite strong enough to overcome the others’.

One’s on the history of walking, one on botany, one on the history of light, one that one I’m slowly reading on the timeless way of building, one on the histories of theories about people other than Shakespeare writing Shakespeare.  I’ve actually started the walking one; the history of theories about Shakespeare is sitting on my couch; the others are piled in various points in my living room.

This is not to mention the other books I’m reading, for work or pleasure: a commentary on Dante, Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, a book of poems by Leonard Cohen, a translation of Hesiod, a garden catalogue that just arrived in the mail, a book on the art of writing characters that I was loaned months ago and haven’t finished.

Jean Buridan was a medieval philosopher, famous for a logical illustration about a donkey — the eponymous creature of my post title.  The idea is that a donkey, placed between two equally desirable piles of hay, would logically be unable to choose between them, and therefore starve.  I’ve been thinking about it because I had to explain the reference to my students on Monday.

Buridan’s ass, being an illustration of a problem in logic, requires a perfectly logical donkey (which would likely be what we might consider an ass).  I have very little actual experience of donkeys, but my acquaintance in the literature of their nature and condition leads me to believe that they, like human beings, are very often not perfectly logical.

There is, of course, the equal unlikelihood of there being a choice between two perfectly identically-attractive options.  This was Diderot’s point, in the reference I was explaining to my students.  But there’s another point I think could be made, this one to do with the imperfectly logical nature of human beings: that is, faced with two equally attractive options, the human — and, I suspect, the donkey — does not always choose according to the real value of the two piles of hay, or even make his choice by lot, which would seem the properly logical method.

Rather, I reckon he usually turns to the thistle.

In my case, I read a book by Gordon Korman called Son of Interflux, which I like rather a lot, but I can’t pretend it’s anything but delightfully silly (and meant for teenagers); and I’ve been playing various time-sucking games on the internet.  Not the most logical, or even the most pleasant, option.

Ah, well.

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One thought on “Buridan’s Ass

  1. Pingback: Shakespeare and the Autobiographical Model of Fiction « The Rose and Phoenix Inn

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