William of Ockham Essay - Critical Essays

William of Ockham


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.

*Principal Works

Quaestiones in Librum Quartum Sententiarum [Commentary on the Fourth Book of the Sentences] circa 1317

Quaestiones in Librum Secundum Sententiarum [Commentary on the Second Book of the Sentences] circa 1318

Quaestiones in Librum Tertium Sententiarum [Commentary on the Third Book of the Sentences] circa 1318

Quaestiones Variae [Various Questions] circa 1318

Scriptum in Librum Sententiarum Ordinatio [Commentary on the Sentences, Ordinatio] circa 1319-21

Summulae Philosophiae Naturalis [Summary of Natural Philosophy] circa 1319-24

Expositio in Libros Artis Logicae [Commentaries on Logical Works] circa 1321-22

Expositio super Libros Elenchorum Aristotelis [Commentary on Aristotle's Sophistical Refutations] circa 1321-22

Brevis Summa Libri Physicorum [A Short Summary of the Physics] circa 1322-23

Quodlibeta Septem [Quodlibetal Questions] 1322-27

Expositio in Libros Physicorum Aristotelis I-IV [Commentary on Aristotle's Physics, Books 1-4] 1322

Expositio in Libros Physicorum Aristotelis V-VIII [Commentary on Aristotle's Physics, Books 5-8] 1322

Summa Logicae [Summary of Logic] 1322

Tractatus de Corpore Christi [Treatise on the Body of Christ] 1323

Tractatus de Quantitate [Treatise on Quantity] 1323

Quaestiones in Libros Physicorum Aristoelis [Questions on Aristotle's Physics] 1324

Dialogus de Potestate Papae I [Dialogue on the Power of the Pope, Part I] 1332-34

Opus Nonaginta Dierum [Work of Ninety Days] 1332

Epistola ad Fratres Minores [Letter to the Friars Minor] 1334

Venerandorum Vivorum [Of Men Worthy of Veneration] 1335-38

Dialogus de Potestate Papae II, also known as De Dogmatibus Johannis XXII [Dialogue on the Decrees of John XXII] 1335

Tractatus contra Johannem XII [Treatise against Pope John XII] 1335

Compendium Errorum Papae [Compendium of the Errors of the Pope] 1337-38

Tractatus contra Benedictum XII [Treatise against Pope Benedict XII] 1337

An Princeps [On the Right of Kings] 1338-39

Octo Quaestiones [Eight Questions] 1340-42

Breviloquium de Principatu Tyrannico [Brief on Tyrannical Government] 1341-42

Consultatio de Causa Matrimoniali [Advice on the Right of the Emperor to Dispense from an Impediment of Consanguinity] 1341-42

Dialogus de Potestate Papae III [Dialogue on the Power of the Pope, Part 3]; also known as De Gestis circa Fidem Altercantium Orthodoxam [On the Actions of Those Contesting the Orthodox Faith] 1341-46

Tractatus de Imperatorum et Pontificum Potestate [Treatise on Imperial and Pontifical Power] 1347

*All works are philosophical treatises; dates indicated here are dates of composition.

Principal English Translations

"William of Ockham's Commentary on Porphyry: Introduction and English Translation" [translated by Eike-Henner W. Kluge] in Franciscan Studies, Vol. 33, 1973

Ockham's Theory of Propositions, Part II of the Summa Logicae [translated by Alfredo J. Freddosso] 1980

Ockham on Aristotle's Physics [translated by Julian Davies] 1989

Philosophical Writings: A Selection [edited and translated by Philotheus Boehner] 1990

Quodlibetal Questions. 2 vols. [translated by Alfredo J. Freddoso and Francis E. Kelley] 1991

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Philotheus Bohner (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: "The Realistic Conceptualism of William Ockham," Traditio, Vol. IV, 1946, pp. 307-14.

[In the following excerpt, Bȯhner argues that Ockham's doctrine concerning universals is a realistic conceptualism, and that attacks on Ockham for practicing idealistic conceptualism are therefore unfounded.]

Students of medieval scholasticism are accustomed to apply the name 'conceptualism' to Ockham's doctrine concerning the nature and scope of universals. This seems to be an apt designation, provided that its meaning is not burdened with idealistic connotations. Unfortunately, quite a number of neo-scholastics qualify conceptualism as a doctrine which severs the bond...

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Philotheus Boehner (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: An introduction to Ockham: Philosophical Writings, edited by Philotheus Boehner, Thomas Nelson, 1957, pp. xvi-xxix.

[In the following excerpt, Boehner summarizes the guiding principles used in Ockham's writings and explains some of his terminology.]

… III. Ockham's Philosophy

Before drawing the broad outlines of Ockham's philosophy, we must remind the reader that Ockham never expounded it systematically and in its entirety. The Cursus philosophicus in several ponderous tomes is a characteristic product of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century scholasticism, but no scholastic philosopher of the thirteenth or the fourteenth...

(The entire section is 4265 words.)

Marilyn McCord Adams (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "Intuitive Cognition, Certainty, and Scepticism in William Ockham," Traditio, Vol. XXVI, 1970, pp. 389-98.

[In the following essay, Adams summarizes Ockham's doctrine of intuitive cognition, explains why it does not lead to scepticism, and explores some problems in its logic resulting from particular admissions of Ockham.]

Ockham's doctrine of intuitive cognition lies at the heart of his epistemology. As Philotheus Boehner1 and Sebastian Day2 have quite rightly observed, one of the central aims of this doctrine is to answer the question how the intellect can have certain knowledge of contingent states of affairs (including the...

(The entire section is 5277 words.)

Earl R. Woods (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Ockham on Nature and God," The Thomist, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, January, 1973, pp. 69-87.

[In the following essay, Woods examines Ockham's proof for the existence of a first cause and discusses how this proof differs from Aristotle's proof for the existence of God.]


I should like to discuss the Ockhamist argument for the existence of God from efficient causality. In particular, I intend to focus on the relation, in Ockham, between the universe and God, insofar as that relation can be elaborated by reason without the aid of Revelation. Briefly, I desire to indicate the kind of being in which Ockham's proof for the existence of God...

(The entire section is 7278 words.)

Michael J. Loux (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "The Ontology of William of Ockham" in Ockham's Theory of Terms: Part I of "Summa Logicae," by WIlliam of Ockham, translated by Michael J. Loux, University of Notre Dame, 1974, pp. 1-22.

[In the following essay, Loux focuses on some problems inherent in Ockham's use of the terms concrete and abstract.]

The distinctions between singular and general terms, on the one hand, and abstract and concrete terms, on the other, play crucial roles in discussions of ontological issues. Although these dichotomies can be expressed in purely grammatical terms, they have traditionally been thought to point to two over-arching distinctions among things. Philosophers have...

(The entire section is 10513 words.)

Armand Maurer (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Ockham on the Possibility of a Better World," Mediaeval Studies, Vol. XXXVIII, 1976, pp. 291-312.

[In the following essay, Maurer discusses Ockham's views on the limitations of God's powers and compares these views with those held by other theologians, including St. Thomas.]

In his William James lectures, published under the title The Great Chain of Being, Arthur Lovejoy formulated 'the Principle of Plenitude' which he found latent in the philosophy of Plato. This Platonic principle asserts that the universe is full of all conceivable kinds of living things; 'that no genuine potentiality of being can remain unfulfilled, that the extent and abundance of...

(The entire section is 9750 words.)

David W. Clark (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Ockham on Human and Divine Freedom," Franciscan Studies, Vol. 38, 1978, pp. 122-32.

[In the following excerpt, Clark explores Ockham's descriptive definition of causality.]

Toward the end of its vital life, Scholasticism seemed to lapse into a painful second childhood. The very possibility of Scholastic theology was again questioned—this time by the uncompromising philosophy of Latin Averroism. The Parisian Statutes of 1270 and 1277 tried to legislate an alliance between reason and faith but only added to the confusion.1 Early heresies returned to trouble the old age of Scholasticism; a subtle form of Pelagianism, for example, was debated...

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Arthur Stephen McGrade (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Ockham and the Birth of Individual Rights" in Authority and Power, edited by Brian Tierney and Peter Linehan, Cambridge University Press, 1980, pp. 149-65.

[In the following essay, McGrade examines the relationship of Ockham's philosophy to his politics, particularly concerning rights and powers.]

Perhaps the only thing more frustrating than the combination of politics and philosophy is their separation. The idea of a society dominated by philosophy epitomises rigidity, and certainly philosophy does not flourish when it is dominated by society. Yet a social order which cannot sustain deep critical examination of its institutions and values courts corruption,...

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Marilyn McCord Adams (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "The Structure of Ockham's Moral Theory," Franciscan Studies, Vol. 46, 1986, pp. 1-14.

[In the following excerpt, Adams compares and contrasts Ockham's understanding of free will with the ideas of his Franciscan predecessor, Duns Scotus.]

1. Introduction

Ockham's moral theory, like his nominalism, finds its place among the most notorious, and yet widely misunderstood, doctrines of medieval philosophy.

  1. Many take Ockham's as the paradigm of "Divine Command Morality," according to which moral norms are entirely a function of the arbitrary choices of the free will of an omnipotent God. Paul Helm's recent comment is...

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Brian Tierney (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Natural Law and Canon Law in Ockham's Dialogus" in Aspects of Late Medieval Government and Society, edited by J. G. Rowe, University of Toronto Press, 1986, pp. 3-24.

[In the following essay, Tierney traces some of the sources and influences that led to Ockham's theory of natural law.]

An earlier approach to Ockham's theory of natural law, which still finds support in some modern scholarship, emphasized a supposed relationship between the great Franciscan's specific political doctrines and his general philosophical principles. More recently, several scholars have argued that Ockham's political theory can best be understood when it is related to the...

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Calvin G. Normore (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Ockham on Mental Language" in Historical Foundations of Cognitive Science, edited by J. C. Smith, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990, pp. 53-71.

[In the following essay, Normore describes Ockham's concept of mental language and its purposes, highlighting some problems and difficulties associated with it.]

Thanks largely to the work of Noam Chomsky, we have witnessed over the last thirty years a revival of interest in two closely related ideas: that there is a universal grammar, a set of structural features common to every human language, and that the exploration of this grammar is, in part, an exploration of the structure of thought.


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Further Reading

Adams, Marilyn McCord. "Ockham on Identity and Distinction." Franciscan Studies 36, Annual XIV (1976): 5-74.

Analyzes Ockham's understanding of sameness and distinction, Duns Scotus's idea of formal distinction, and Ockham's critique of Scotus's view.

——. "Ockham's Nominalism and Unreal Entities." The Philosophical Review LXXXVI, No. 2 (1977): 144-76.

Examines Ockham's arguments in favor of the objective-existence theory, and his reasoning in later abandoning it.

——. "Ockham's Theory of Natural Signification." The Monist 61, No. 3 (1978): 444-59.

Examines problems with Ockham's theory of natural...

(The entire section is 623 words.)