William of Ockham Analysis


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

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 entire section is 500 words.)

Cause and the Senses

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

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...

(The entire section is 401 words.)


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...

(The entire section is 645 words.)


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...

(The entire section is 714 words.)

Propositions and Arguments

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...

(The entire section is 289 words.)


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,...

(The entire section is 143 words.)