Buridan's ass

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Alternative forms[edit]


After the fourteenth-century French philosopher Jean Buridan, whose philosophy of moral determinism it satirises.

Proper noun[edit]

Buridan's ass

  1. The hypothetical donkey who is placed precisely midway between two sources of food and/or water.
    1. The hypothetical donkey, in context of certainly dying of hunger or thirst by being unable to choose between the two equidistant options.
      • 1985, Jean Buridan, Peter King, Jean Buridan's Logic, Springer, ISBN 9789027719188, page 3:
        Buridan is best-known to philosophers for the example of "Buridan's Ass," starving to death between two equidistant and equally tempting bales of hay, [...]
      • 2003 August 31, Tony Dermody <tdermody@iol.NODAMNJUNK.ie>, “Re: A Few Questions”, in alt.atheism.moderated, Usenet[1], message-ID <2lpcvpdh3zwc$.1mk81eq1qmfo3$.dlg@40tude.net>:
        They remain like Buridan's Ass, in a kind of frozen indecisiveness, between total freedom and total regulation.
      • 2003 September 6, Euro <euro82@excite.com>, “PV's small arrangements with truth”, in alt.activism.death-penalty, Usenet[2], message-ID <4f3f4d56.0309061154.3fea3b3a@posting.google.com>:
        Did you refuse to choose between saving your son sentenced to death penalty and saving your son sentenced to slavery for life? Is that not an indication that you find no difference between them, and are frozen, as Buridan's ass, into an inability to choose between them, and have instead chosen to starve morally, rather than make such a choice?
      • 2003 October 11, Alex Martelli <aleaxit@yahoo.com>, “Re: Python syntax in Lisp and Scheme”, in comp.lang.python, comp.lang.lisp, comp.lang.scheme, Usenet[3], message-ID <gGWhb.200390$hE5.6777507@news1.tin.it>:
        The worst case for productivity is probably when two _perfectly equivalent_ ways exist. Buridan's ass notoriously starved to death in just such a worst-case situation; groups of programmers may not go quite as far, but are sure to waste lots of time & energy deciding.
    2. The hypothetical donkey, as a typical character of a number of philosophical paradoxes involving equally valuable incentives to action, and the nature of the possible choices and outcomes.
      • 1995, Ross Harrison, World, mind, and ethics: essays on the ethical philosophy of Bernard Williams, illustrated edition, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 9780521479301, page 23:
        Since either haystack is better than starvation, and since neither haystack is known to be worse than the other, Buridan's ass has a good reason to choose either. Suppose it chooses haystack A, rejecting haystack B as well as starvation.
      • 2000, Kathryn L. Lynch, Chaucer's philosophical visions, illustrated edition, Boydell & Brewer Ltd, ISBN 9780859916004, page 90:
        This Narrator is like the famous or infamous Buridan's ass, protagonist of a problem or example that, in one form or another, can be found in philosophical discourse from Aristotle to Schpenhauer.
      • 2009, Peter Cave, This sentence is false: an introduction to philosophical paradoxes, Continuum International Publishing Group, ISBN 9781847062192, page 9:
        The ass's commitment to a seeming demand or rationality has damaged his health. Maybe we — and Buridan's ass — should often resist requiring a discriminating reason for rational action.


Buridan's ass (countable and uncountable, plural Buridan's asses)

  1. (countable, chiefly derogatory) A person or organization who doesn't make a choice.
    • 1972, Sir George Edward Gordon Catlin, For God's sake, go!: an autobiography
      The National Peace Council was, I will not say a Buridan's Ass, but a kind of eunuch organisation, unable to take a decision one way or another.
  2. (uncountable, chiefly derogatory) Collectively, people who don't make a choice.
    • 1972, The Statesman[4], volume 22, page 76:
      Not that they are Buridan's ass; they just do not believe in categorical decisions.
    • 2003 August 11, A Planet Visitor <abcxyz@zbqytr.ykq>, “Re: Where is Europe....Where is France”, in alt.activism.death-penalty, Usenet[5], message-ID <tc3ejvkr2qekfefd2fp90esv07vu8fqtcl@4ax.com>:
      You are Buridan's ass, in your immoral refusal to head toward one or the other of what you claim are irresistible allures of 'human rights.'
    • 2005 May 6, Doctor Make U. Feelgood <nappynospam@eatthlink.net>, “Re: Yom Hashoah”, in alt.activism.death-penalty, Usenet[6], message-ID <LIidncWpaYTpj-HfRVn-tQ@giganews.com>:
      You know the opinion you hold. You just will not divulge it... in cowardly fear of him turning on you. And not divulging it will not in the slightest keep him from turning on you whenever he feels like it. Please do not tell me you are Buridan's ass, and have no opinion about this.