Richard the Sophister

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Richard the Sophister (Richardus Sophista) was an English philosopher/logician who studied at Oxford most likely sometime during the second quarter of the thirteenth century. Richard's identity is uncertain, but he is known to be the author of a collection of logically puzzling sentences, sometimes called “sophisms” or sophismata, entitled Abstractiones, hence his title Magister Abstractionum.


We are still uncertain of the identity of the author of this collection. The colophon appended to the two complete manuscripts of the Abstractiones, suggests that his name was “Richard”.

Expliciunt ista, quae tu, Ricarde Sophista, fecesti, morum flos et doctor logicorum. Dirige scribentis, Spiritus alme, manum. Expliciunt Abstractiones. (Digby 24, f.90rb)

(These [sophisms] are complete, which you, Richard the Sophister, Flower of virtue and teacher of logic, have produced. Turn the scribe's hand [from its task], nurturing Spirit. The Abstractiones are complete.)

"De Rijk suggested the name Richard Fishacre, disagreeing with the suggestion of Richard Fitz-Ralph offered by Macray on the basis that the dating of the text within the second quarter of the thirteenth century is more consistent with Fishacre's chronology.[8] Jan Pinborg suggested the name Richard Rufus also on grounds that the dating of the Abstractiones is consistent with Rufus' being at Oxford.[9] It is generally assumed that the author is English. Pinborg offered one further bit of evidence for the name Richard Rufus in that there is some reason to think that certain doctrines of Richard Rufus, as criticised by Roger Bacon, are in the Abstractiones. The primary doctrine in question attributed to Richard Rufus and criticised by Roger Bacon is, in general terms, that the signification of a name can remain in the absence of any actual thing signified by that name, although, as Bacon suggests, the proponents of this view must supply some kind of “habitual being” for the lost actual significate of such names. It is this doctrine of the “esse habituale” that Bacon finds objectionable. That Richard Rufus does seem to have such a doctrine appears clear in his discussion of the question “Whether Christ while three days in the tomb was a man” (“Utrum Christus in triduo mortis fuerit homo”) in distinction 22, book III of his Sentences Commentary. Paul Streveler


"It would be beyond the scope of this essay to deal with the complexities of both Richard Rufus' treatment of this question as well as Roger Bacon's voiceful criticisms of the notion of the “esse habituale.” The important question here is whether the doctrine espoused by Richard Rufus exactly parallels anything that can be found in the Abstractiones of Richard the Sophister. It is important to find not only terminological similarities but also doctrinal similarities. The terminology within which Richard Rufus makes the above noted distinction is “esse in habitu” versus “esse in actu”, the former he also labels “esse simpliciter”, the latter “esse ut nunc.”[11] Bacon seems to substitute the expression “esse habituale” for the expression “esse in habitu.” Rufus does not use the expression “esse habituale.” As referenced above, Pinborg noticed the expressions “esse consequentiae sive habitudinis” and “esse quod est operatio entis” in the Abstractiones. Bacon also uses the expression “esse habitudinis”, but he seems to recognize a distinction between “esse habituale” and “esse habitudinis”; the latter, he says, “is used about propositions and will be destroyed later when there is talk about propositions.”[12] This remark might indicate that Bacon finds the same doctrinal problem with the “esse habitudinis” that he finds with the “esse habituale” (i.e., it introduces a foil for some kind of fictive being), but we cannot be certain of this, since he never returned to this topic in the Compendium. Richardus Sophista does not use the terminology of “esse habituale/esse actuale”, “esse in habitu/esse in actu” that we find in Bacon and Rufus respectively.[13] Pinborg also noted that William of Ockham criticizes those who make the distinction between “esse consequentiae sive habitudinis” and “esse quod est operatio entis” as ignorant of the simple distinction between hypothetical and categorical propositions, which according to Ockham is all that the distincition amounts to.[14] Pinborg sees Ockham's criticism as possibly making the same point as Bacon, i.e., the terminology invites some kind of talk of fictive being. Although Ockham is probably right to want to eliminate the old terminology in favor of less problematic language, the important questions are whether Richard the Sophister's use of the distinction “esse habitudinis/esse quod est operatio entis” entails anything other than a distinction between types of propositions and whether his use of the distinction comes under the attacks of Roger Bacon on the same way in which these attacks seem relevant to a terminologically similar distinction in Richard Rufus". Paul Streveler

A complete answer to these questions would require not only a detailed examination of the use of this distinction in the resolution of sophisms in the Abstractiones, but also an examination of Richard's position regarding terms that “assert non-being” and his account of negation and negatives generally.[15] These tasks are clearly beyond the scope of this essay. With respect to the first question, it will have to suffice to record here that there are only three places in the Abstractiones where Richard employs the distinction in the resolution of sophisms and in none of these is it clear that this is his favored solution.[16] More importantly, Richard's use of the distinction in the resolution of sophisms seems to match the use made of the same distinction (under the terminology “esse habituale/esse actuale”) by William of Sherwood, that is, as essentially a way of marking a distinction between hypothetical and categorical propositions.[17] It has been successfully argued by Braakhuis that the attacks of Roger Bacon do not apply to William's use of the distinction, even though, of all the authors noted so far, only William's terminology is exactly the same terminology used by Bacon.[18] Thus, if the doctrine under attack by Bacon cannot be attributed to William, neither can it be attributed to Richard the Sophister. It appears, then, that Richard Rufus and Richard the Sophister cannot be identified, at least on the basis of these alleged doctrinal and terminological similarities.


Primary sources


  • Ms B = Brugge, Stedelike Bibliotheek, 497
  • Ms C = Oxford, Corpus Christi College, E 293B
  • Ms D = Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby 24
  • Ms K = København, Det Kongelige Bibliotek, Fragm.1075
  • Ms O = Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby 2
  • Ms P = Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale lat. 14069
  • Ms R = London, British Library, Royal 12.F.xix

Secondary sources

  • Braakhuis, H.A.G., 1981, “English Tracts on Syncategorematic Terms from Robert Bacon to Walter Burley” in English Logic and Semantics, Artistarium, Supplementa 1, Nijmegen.
  • Ebbesen, Sten, 1987, “Talking about what is no more. Texts by Peter of Cornwall, Richard of Clive, Simon of Faversham and Radulphus Brito,” Cahiers de l'Institut du Moyen-Âge Grec et Latin 55, Copenhague.
  • Ebbesen, S., Sirridge, M. and Streveler, P., 2003, “The Pupils of the Master of Abstractions: Abstractiones Digbeianae, Regiae et Venetae”, Cahiers de l'Institut du Moyen-Age Grec et Latin 74, Copenhague 2003.
  • Kopp, Clemens, 1985, Die “Fallaciae ad modum Oxoniae,” Ein Fehlschlußtraktat aus dem 13 Jahrhundert, diss., Köln.
  • Kretzmann, Norman, et al., (eds.), 1982, The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy, Cambridge.
  • Lewry, P.O. (ed.), 1985, The Rise of British Logic: Acts of the Sixth European Symposium on Medieval Logic and Semantics , Papers in Mediaeval Studies 7, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto.
  • de Libera, Alain, 1986, “Les Abstractiones d'Herve le Sophiste (Hervaeus Sophista),” Archives d'Histoire Doctrinale et Littéraire du Moyen Âge, Paris, 163-230.
  • -----, 1985, “La Littérature de Abstractiones et la Tradition Logique d'Oxford” in Lewry 1985.
  • Macray, G.D., 1883, Catalogi Codicum Manuscriptorum Bibliotecae Bodleianae, Pars Nona, Oxford.
  • O'Donnell, J.R., 1941, “The Syncategoremata of William of Sherwood,” Mediaeval Studies 3, 46-93.
  • Pinborg, Jan, 1976, “Magister Abstractionum,” Cahiers de l'Institut du Moyen-Âge Grec et Latin 18, Copenhague, 1-4.
  • Raedts, Peter, 1987, Richard Rufus of Cornwall and the Tradition of Oxford Theology, Oxford.
  • Read, Stephen (ed.), 1993, Sophisms in Medieval Logic and Grammar, Acts of the 8th European Symposium for Medieval Logic and Semantics, Kluwer.
  • de Rijk, L. M., 1962-67, Logica Modernorum, I-II, van Gorcum, Assen.
  • -----, 1974, “Some Thirteenth Century Tracts on the Game of Obligation,” Vivarium 12.
  • -----, 1985, “Walter Burley's Tract ‘de Exclusivis’. An Edition,” Vivarium 23, 23-54.
  • -----, 1986, “Walter Burley's Tract ‘de Exceptivis’. An Edition,” Vivarium 24, 22-49.
  • Spade, Paul Vincent, 1982, “Obligations: Developments in the Fourteenth Century” in Kretzmann, et al. 1982.
  • Stump, Eleonore, 1982, “Obligations: From the Beginning to the Early Fourteenth Century” in Kretzmann, et al. 1982.
  • Streveler, Paul A., 1993, “A Comparative Analysis of the Treatment of Sophisms in MSS Digby 2 and Royal 12 of the Magister Abstractionum,” in Read 1993.



1240 England