(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

William of Ockham c. 1285-c. 1347-1349

(Also spelled Occam.) English philosopher and theologian.

Also called "Venerabilis Inceptor" and "Doctor Invincibilus," William of Ockham was the most influential English philosopher of the fourteenth century, as well as one of its most controversial theologians. Although his own solutions to philosophical problems were often sketchy and disappointing, he excelled at invoking inquiry and in critiquing the works of others. One of the most important of the Franciscans, he quarreled with Pope John XXII and two succeeding popes (Benedict XII and Clement VI) over many issues, most notably that of evangelical poverty and its meaning for the Franciscan order. His treatises also include arguments against the papacy's interference in matters of the nation. Though persecuted and excommunicated from the Church in his lifetime, Ockham is now considered a Doctor of the Church. His writings stress logic, but they also show his devotion on matters of faith and salvation. The most famous maxim attributed to him—"Ockham's razor," or the "Law of Parsimony"—states: "Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity." These exact words are not found in any of his writings, but Ockham did express many similar thoughts, for example, "It is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer"; "Plurality should not be assumed without necessity"; and "No plurality should be assumed unless it can be proved by reason, experience, or infallible authority."

Biographical Information

William was born in Surrey, in the village of Ockham, in about 1285. Little is known of his early years, but at about age twelve he entered a Franciscan friary, probably at London. There he studied philosophy for eight years and in 1306 was ordained as a subdeacon at Southwark, London, in the archdiocese of Winchester. Ockham began the study of theology around 1306-07 at Oxford. Some biographers have made the claim that Ockham studied under Duns Scotus, but others consider this unlikely. Ockham's studies included Peter Lawford's Libri Quator Sententiarum (Four Books of Sentences 1157-58), the standard theological textbook used in universities until well into the 1500s. He began his lectures on the Sentences in 1317, completing them around 1319, when he was recognized as an "inceptor," the Oxford equivalent of a bachelor of theology and the reason for later references to him as "Venerable Inceptor." The radical lectures were met with acclaim by some and deep opposition by others, including much of the faculty. Ockham was not given his teaching license (which would have been the normal next step in his career), probably due to opposition by the chancellor of Oxford, John Lutterell. In 1321 Ockham may have returned to the London friary to teach philosophy, or he may have remained in Oxford. As the result of charges of heresy brought by Lutterell (now dismissed from his former post) in 1324, Ockham was summoned to Avignon, at that time the site of the papacy, to face a theological commission. He remained in Avignon for four years while the commission investigated the charges. Although no formal action was taken against him, Ockham's academic career was at an end: he did not serve a term as a regent master, and he was never promoted to master of theology. Nevertheless, he wrote many commentaries and treatises during this time, outlining his philosophical positions on a wide range of issues. In 1328, following a bitter dispute with Pope John XXII concerning Franciscan poverty and questions about the leader's orthodoxy, Ockham fled Avignon for Pisa, where he was given protection by King Ludwig of Bavaria. Ockham was charged with apostasy and excommunicated. Two years later, he settled at the Franciscan friary in Munich. For the next seventeen years, Ockham's dispute expanded into original analyses of the nature of the church, of the relationship between church and state, and of natural law. Ockham died in Munich, but it is not certain when; biographers have long thought that he had fallen victim to the Black Death in 1349, but there is some evidence he may have died in 1347 instead.

Major Works

Ockham's nonpolemical treatises were probably composed between 1317 and 1327. His commentaries on the Sentences are considered to be his most representative work as a whole, although only the first of the four books—termed the Ordinatio—was completed and edited to the satisfaction of the author; the other three have been designated the Reportatio to reflect the fact that they were lectures by Ockham taken down or reported by others. Ockham composed the commentaries on the Sentences in expectation of receiving his doctorate, but that event never took place. Other works of this general period include Summulae Philosophiae Naturalis, commentaries on Aristotle's Physics, and the Summa Logicae, which some critics have deemed his master work. Several issues are emphasized in these works: traditional debates about intelligible and sensible species, concern with the contextual features of language, and the problems of necessity and of the independent existence of acts and relations. Following his excommunication from the Church, Ockham made a dramatic shift in his writings, effectively starting a new career as the writer of polemical works, usually contradictory to the ideas of John XXII (whom Ockham called a heretic). His first work in this new vein was the invective-laden Opus Nonaginta Dierum. In his polemical treatises, including Epistola ad Fratres Minores and Tractatus contra Johannem XXII, he carefully studied papal documents, assessed their use of scripture and their logical validity, and proposed solutions consistent with tradition as he understood it. He often tersely dismissed his opponents' views (for example, calling an agument presented by Thomas Aquinas "puerile," or referring to John XXII as a quarrelsome lawyer). Though it is this reputation for abrasiveness, even arrogance, that has followed Ockham, his later texts are generally reserved, neutral, and offer points both for and against the topic issue. The massive Dialogus de Potestate Papae I makes a self-conscious break with its polemical antecedents by virtue of its systematic, comprehensive, and definitive character.

Critical Reception

There is sharp disagreement among scholars over Ockham's philosophical position. Ockham was considered by the nominalists of the fifteenth century as the founder of their movement, a position many modern scholars have refuted. While some have described him as a scholastic philosopher, others have viewed Ockham as clearly being against scholasticism, which has ties to nominalism, and with ushering in reforms that led to modern philosophy. They view his determination in studying logic without resorting to theology as a tactic meant to encourage scientific research. Some consider him a sceptic; others state that his writings lead away from scepticism. Some view him in Aristotelian terms—Ockham felt that Aristotle had been misinterpreted and set himself the task of restoring his true message. Critics agree that it is important to separate Ockham's own views from those held by the Ockhamist movement, or school, inspired by him. Critics also agree that Ockham's intentions to simplify were probably carried too far, and that many of his arguments, upon close examination, are flawed. While Ockham is generally accepted as the author of fifteen philosophical/theological works and seventeen political works, even these numbers are subject to debate among scholars since several works are of disputed authorship. The matter is made more difficult to resolve because the dates of some of Ockham's works are known only in relation to each other; some works, while featuring Ockham's words, were compilations put together by others; some writings created under his influence were attributed to him both as an honor and as a means of gaining a greater number of readers; and, finally, study of some of Ockham's own views is complicated by the fact that they evolved or changed over his lifetime.