William of Ockham

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William of Ockham is known for his “razor,” for his logic, and for his nominalistic and empirical viewpoint. Living in the fourteenth century, he was the dominant figure in the movement away from Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and John Duns Scotus, the great system builders of the thirteenth century. He was the inspirer of an empirically and nominalistically inclined movement that contended with the Thomistic, Albertist, Scotist, and Averroistic schools of the next several centuries. However, Ockham was not a skeptic. He undermined and rejected most of the metaphysics and a good deal of the natural theology of his contemporaries, but he was a theologian who accepted the traditional Christian dogmas on faith and who preferred to accept them on faith alone rather than to argue for them on dubious philosophic grounds.

Intuitive and Abstractive Cognition

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His basic inclination toward empiricism is revealed in the distinction between intuitive and abstractive cognition. When we are looking at Socrates, he says, we can see that he is white. In this case, we are aware of the existence of Socrates, of the occurrence of the quality, and of the fact that this individual, Socrates, is white. That is, the senses enable us to know with certainty a contingent fact about the world. This is an instance of what Ockham calls intuitive cognition. However, we can think of Socrates when he is not present and of white when we are not seeing it, and we can think of Socrates as being white. In this case we are cognizing the same things, Socrates and white, and we are entertaining the same proposition, but we do not know that Socrates still exists or that the proposition is true. This is an instance of what Ockham calls abstractive cognition, abstractive not because the terms are abstract, but because we have abstracted from existence.

The terms of the intuitive cognition are sensed and are particular, while the terms of the abstractive cognition are not sensed and are common. In intuitive cognition, the cognition is caused in us by action of the object on our sensory and intellectual faculties, a process that culminates naturally, without any initiative on our part, in the knowledge that Socrates is white. No judgment, at least no explicit one, is involved here, for we simply see that Socrates is white. On the other hand, in abstractive cognition, the cognition is not caused by the object, for either the object is absent or, if present, it is not sufficiently close to produce a clear sensation. Under such circumstances, we scrutinize the data given by memory or sensation and, perhaps, go on deliberately to judge or refrain from judging that something is the case.

In abstractive cognition, an apparently simple idea, such as the concept “Socrates,” must be understood as a complex of common terms, for neither Socrates nor any other individual is operating on us to produce the cognition of him. In such a cognition, we are entertaining such common terms as “intelligent,” “snubnosed,” “white,” and “Athenian” that, when taken together, constitute a complex abstractive term limiting our attention to the one desired individual.

In contrast, in intuitive cognition, we apprehend Socrates in a different manner, for in this case the object itself is producing in us a noncomplex idea of itself. Indeed, we obtain the terms appearing in abstractive cognitions only by attending to and separating in thought the various features of the sensation. Thus, Ockham concludes, all abstractive cognitions depend on prior intuitive ones, and intuitive cognition must be the source of all our knowledge about the world. Furthermore, Ockham says that we intuit or...

(This entire section contains 500 words.)

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sense nothing but individual things, and these are either sensible substances such as Socrates, or sensible properties such as the sensed whiteness of Socrates. Even relations are regarded as properties of groups of individuals.

Cause and the Senses

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When we add to all these considerations Ockham’s razor—”What can be explained by the assumption of fewer things is vainly explained by the assumption of more things”—his nominalistic and empiricistic views follow immediately, for now we have an epistemology that not only makes us start with the senses but also prevents us from going very far beyond them. The senses reveal to us a multitude of sensible individuals and provide us with a great deal of information about them and their temporal and spatial settings, but they do not reveal any necessary connections, causal or otherwise—and the razor prevents us from assuming any.

This epistemology obviously limits the scope of metaphysics but does not quite eliminate it, for the metaphysician can still tell us a little about God. Given the terms “being,” “cause,” and “first,” all of which are derived from experience, and assuming that they are univocal terms, as Ockham does, we can form the complex idea of a being who is a First Cause. Furthermore, given intellectually self-evident principles such as “Every thing has a cause,” we can demonstrate the existence of a First Cause that exists necessarily and that, as the most perfect existent, has intellect and will. However, we cannot prove that there is only one such God or that there might not have been a greater God, and we cannot demonstrate that he has the various features required by Christian dogma.

Contingency of Knowledge

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The sort of world suggested by Ockham’s epistemology is also required by his theology. Like Duns Scotus before him and French philosopher René Descartes after him, Ockham emphasizes God’s will rather than his intellect. God can do nothing that is contradictory, but this fact does not limit his will, for his ideas are not of his essence and are not exemplars between which he must choose. They are his creatures and the world is whatever he has cared to make it. Consequently, the world does not exist necessarily, and within this world nothing follows necessarily from anything else and nothing requires the existence of anything else. This radical contingency stems from God’s complete power over the circumstances in which things shall or shall not come into existence. God ordinarily uses instruments to produce in us the experiences we have, but he could, if he wished, dispense with them and operate on us directly. For instance, Ockham says, it would require a miracle but God could make us see a star even where there actually is no star. That is, we could have exactly the same cognition that is normally caused in us by the star even if there were no star or any other physical cause. Because the seeing of the star is one distinct event and the star itself is another, it is not impossible that either should exist independently of the other.

The possibility of cognition without a corresponding fact reveals a limitation of intuitive cognition, for even though such a cognition makes us certain that something is the case, we could nevertheless be mistaken. Ockham skirts around the threat of skepticism by remarking that although an error of this sort can occur if God interferes with the natural order, miracles are rare. Consequently, the probability of error is insignificantly low. Yet, he acknowledges, it is still the case that our knowledge of the existing world is contingent upon God’s will.

There is a remarkable agreement between Descartes and Ockham concerning the contingency of our knowledge. Because Descartes held a more extreme doctrine about the power of God, he took skepticism more seriously, but, of course, he believed he could escape by using reason. On the other hand, Ockham regarded the risk of empiricism as slight and claimed that it is better to exercise a little faith than to accept the grave risks of rationalism.


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In his writings, Ockham, who was probably the best of medieval logicians, commences his discussion of logic by considering the nature of terms. First, he distinguishes between written, spoken, and conceptual terms. The latter are mental contents that function as private signs of things. Because these mental signs are not deliberately produced by us, but come about naturally through the operation of the object on us, they are called natural signs. Because spoken signs, on the other hand, are sounds that have been conventionally attached to particular mental signs, they are conventional signs. They denote the same object as the associated concept, thus enabling us to communicate what would otherwise be private. Written signs have a similar relation to spoken signs. Ordinarily, when Ockham speaks of terms he has in mind such terms as man,” “animal,” “whiteness,” and “white,” which signify or denote things and which can function as the subject or predicate of a proposition. These terms, which he calls categorematic terms, are to be contrasted with snycategorematic terms such as “every,” “insofar as,” and “some,” which do not denote anything when they stand by themselves. He also distinguishes between concrete terms such as “white” and abstract terms such as “whiteness,” and between discrete terms such as “Socrates” and common terms such as “man.”

A more important distinction is that between absolute terms and connotative terms. An absolute term is one that denotes directly, whereas a connotative term is one that denotes one thing only by connoting another. “Socrates,” “man,” and “whiteness” are absolute terms for they are used to point to, respectively, a specific individual, any one of a number of similar individuals, or to a property. A connotative term such as “white” is not used as a label, for there is no such thing as white. When it is used in a proposition such as “Socrates is white,” it denotes the same object as does the subject term, but it does so by connoting a property of the object; namely, whiteness. The distinction can be formulated in another way. At least some absolute terms, such as “man,” have real definitions in which each term, such as “rational” and “animal,” can denote the same objects as the defined term. Connotative terms have only nominal definitions, for the definition will require a term in the oblique case that cannot denote the same object as does the defined term. Thus “white” may be defined as “that which has the property whiteness,” but “whiteness” does not denote the white thing. In certain definitions, connotative terms may occur, but these can always be defined in turn until we reach definitions that contain absolute terms only. That is, language is grounded in terms that denote only, and cognition is basically a matter of being aware of objects and features of objects by intuitive cognition.

This distinction also brings us back to Ockham’s epistemology by indicating the way in which a proposition is related to the world. Because there are only particulars in the world, each term of a true proposition, such as “Socrates is white,” can refer only to one or more individuals. Such a proposition does not assert that two different things are identical, nor that the subject and predicate are one and the same thing, nor that something inheres in or is part of the subject. In our example, “white” is not another name for Socrates, it is not the name of another individual, and it is not the name of the property whiteness; but it must denote something. It can only denote Socrates, but not, of course, as “Socrates” does. That is, it denotes him indirectly by connoting his whiteness. Predication occurs only if the predicate term denotes the very same object as the subject term, and the predicate term denotes the object not by naming it but by connoting some feature of it.


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In the above discussion, we have mentioned abstract terms such as “whiteness” that are absolute and that denote properties rather than substances. Lest it seem that Ockham was a realist after all, we must turn to his discussion of universals. He denies emphatically that there are universals of either Platonic or Aristotelian varieties, for both doctrines require that something simple be common to many things. This state of affairs, he says, is impossible unless that simple something be plural, a condition that itself is impossible. Furthermore, he says, the problem should be turned around, for because the world is composed of particulars only, the problem is not the way in which some universal thing becomes particularized, but our reason for attributing universality to anything in the first place. The only thing to which we can attribute it is a sign and only by virtue of its function as a sign, for as a mere existent it is as particular as anything else. Thus a universal is a sign or concept that has application to a number of things.

The nature of this universal concept, or common term, can be understood better by considering what it is and how it is produced. First, as a result of intuitive cognition, there occurs in sensation, and then in memory, sensations or images that function as natural signs of the individual objects that cause them. Now, through the medium of these images the intellect notices the similarity of the objects so signified and notes that there could be still other entities similar to them. In noting these similarities, it produces naturally another entity that resembles the particulars in such a manner that it might very well be used as an exemplar for the construction of similar things. Ockham is not clear about the nature of this new entity, but he says that it is produced by ignoring the differences between the similar particulars. The new sign, or universal, is an indeterminate image that could represent any of the determinate particulars that fall under it. However, whatever it is, because it is a natural rather than a conventional sign, this resemblance has come into being as a sign that denotes indifferently any of the particulars it resembles. Ockham says this entity is a fiction only, for because it is not a particular sign produced in us by a particular object, it has no literal counterpart in the world. In Ockham’s terms, if we say “Man is a universal,” and insist that we are saying something is common to many things, then in this proposition, the concept “man” refers to itself (it has “simple supposition”) and not to men (it does not have “personal supposition”), and the concept “universal” is of the second intention (it refers to a mental sign) rather than of the first intention (it does not refer to something other than a sign). That is, the universal “man” is only a concept that can be applied to many things; in the world there are only men.

It is to be noted that Ockham is not a nominalist of the Berkeleian-Humean sort, for his general ideas are not particulars standing for other particulars. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he holds to a kind of conceptualism. Later in his life, he applied his razor to his own doctrine to eliminate the fictitious entity we have just described, for he then argued that because the act that produces the generalized picture must be able to generalize without the assistance of such a picture, such pictures must be superfluous. In the end, then, universals turn out to be acts of the intellect; the other features of his earlier doctrine are retained.

Finally, it is to be noted that though they have different grammatical functions, concrete substantives and their abstract counterparts (such as “man” and “manness”) denote exactly the same things (men). Nonsubstantive qualitative terms such as “white” denote indifferently individuals such as Socrates and a piece of paper; and their abstract counterparts, such as “whiteness,” denote indifferently similar features of individuals, such as a certain sensible feature of Socrates and a similar sensible feature of a piece of paper. In these ways, all common terms, whether they are concrete or abstract, denote particulars and particulars only.

Propositions and Arguments

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Ockham discusses terms in great detail, and he goes on to discuss propositions and arguments. He was concerned primarily with formal syllogistic reasoning, but he did make a number of observations that impinge on the areas we know in symbolic logic as the propositional calculus and modal logic. Among other things, he discussed the truth conditions of conjunctive and disjunctive propositions, reduced “neither-nor” to “and” and “not,” discussed valid arguments of the form “p and q, therefore p,” “p, therefore p or q,” and “p or q, not p, therefore q,” pointed out the related fallacies, and stated Augustus De Morgan’s laws explicitly.

At the end of his treatment of inference, he discussed some very general nonformal rules of inference. Assuming in appropriate cases that we are speaking about a valid argument, they are as follows:1. if the antecedent is true the conclusion cannot be false 2. the premises may be true and the conclusion false 3. the contradictory of the conclusion implies the contradictory of the premise or conjunction of premises 4. whatever is implied by the conclusion is implied by the premises 5. whatever implies the premises implies the conclusion 6. whatever is consistent with the premises is consistent with the conclusion 7. whatever is inconsistent with the conclusion is inconsistent with the premises 8. a contingent proposition cannot follow from a necessary one 9. a contingent proposition cannot imply a contradiction 10. any proposition follows from a contradiction 11. a necessary proposition follows from any proposition

He illustrated the last two with these examples: “You (a man) are a donkey, therefore you are God,” and assuming God is necessarily triune, “You are white, therefore God is triune.” Ockham concluded his discussion by saying that because these rules are not formal they should be used sparingly.


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Additional Reading

Freppert, Lucan. Basis of Morality According to William of Ockham. Chicago, Ill.: Franciscan, 1998. Includes a biography, an autobiography, and letters. Focuses on Ockham’s thoughts on ethics and moral philosophy.

Jacob, E. F. “Ockham as a Political Thinker.” In Essays in the Conciliar Epoch. 2d ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1953. A discussion of Ockham’s impact on political philosophy.

Leff, Gordon. The Dissolution of the Medieval Outlook: An Essay on Intellectual and Spiritual Change in the Fourteenth Century. New York: Harper and Row, 1976. An excellent summary of Ockham’s life and thought.

Leff, Gordon. William of Ockham: The Metamorphosis of Scholastic Discourse. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1975. Leff’s discusses the philosophy of Ockham.

McGrade, Arthur S. The Political Thought of William of Ockham: Personal and Institutional Principles. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1974. An essential text for understanding the thought of Ockham.


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