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This write-up seeks to take stock of the philosophy of William of Occam , in the context of his position in the history of medieval philosophy and with reference to not just his ‘razor ‘ but also of his views on ethics, politics and epistemology as well. It begins with an account of medieval philosophy and its chronology followed by a brief survey of the problems central to medieval musings. The problem of universals and particulars is then brought in and is discussed with reference to the raging conflict between the realists, on one hand , and the nominalists on the other . The views of Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus ,in reaction to whom , much of the philosophy of William of Occam took shape , are related . What follows is an account of Occam’s razor, its being rooted in Occam’s position on the problem of universals and the distinction he draws between the knowledge capable of being reasoned and the understanding based solely on faith. His ethical and political views are touched and a few comments are made about the impact and relevance of his views in the Middle Ages.

The beginnings of what has come to be classified as the ‘Medieval period ‘ in the historical discourse on philosophy lie in the latter period of the Roman Empire . St Augustine ( c.354-43- AD) can be said to have been the first philosopher of note who drew on Christian theology to develop his philosophical standpoint. The medieval period extends from Boethius and Augustine right up to the 17 the century, so that it becomes a long, intriguing and important phase in the philosophical thinking of the west. The term ‘medium aevum’(Latin for ‘the middle period’), was coined in the Renaissance period to point to what was then looked down upon as the rather inactive and irrational period between the end of ancient era and the progressive , ‘modern’ period. This period, as per common academic practice, is divided into three stages : The early ( c. 4th century AD – 12th century AD) , the high (c.12th century AD-13th century AD) and the late (14th century AD- 17th century AD) middle ages. The early part of the middle period was dominated by a subscription to Platonic tendencies ,so far as the Christianized parts of Europe are concerned, and by an amalgamation, in the middle eastern centres of thought such as Baghdad , of Aristotelian and Neoplatonist ideas with an influence of other elements from the Hellenic philosophy . This was followed by a gradual but widespread revival of the philosophy of Aristotle aided through the prevalent agenda of translation of Aristotelian works from Arabic sources , the institutionalization of universities , the growing prominence of the austere Christian orders of the Franciscans and the Dominicans and the advancement of philosophical schools of the Thomists , Nominalists , Scotists ,etc , known jointly as ‘Scholasiticism ‘. The later portions of the middle ages saw Italian writers of the Renaissance period like Ficino , Mirandola , etc, whose humanistic views seem to be informed by Plato ;thinker-reformers such More and Erasmus ; and the skepticism of Montaigne. Other epochs within the great epoch of the Middle ages with a distinctive character of their own include the ‘The Northern Renaissance ‘ spearheaded by Cardinal Nicolas of Cusa and the Rheinish mystics , The philosophy that developed in the 12th century and so on. Other important names that also are features as important ones in the Middle Ages include those of thinkers of the reformation like Luther and Calvin , those of the counter reformation , the Spanish writer Suarez and Dominican mystics like Eckharts , Suso and others. The classical philosophers meditated on a wide range of issues including those of the problems of existence and that of Divine Nature . However, these meditations would take a decidedly theological turn with the emergence and spread of the Abrahamic relgions – Judaism , Christianity and Islam . Inquiries into cosmology , creation , human nature , purpose of human life , description of the Divine , etc became the chief concerns as the philosophy of the age that followed the ancient period progressed. There was an attempt by some to give rational justification for belief in God. Augustine , Aquinas , Anselm ,Maimonides ,Averroes ,Duns Scotus and Bonaventure were some of the thinkers who attempted to provide a rational base for arguing in favor of the existence of God. Christian Thinkers like Augustine , for whom all things created carry ‘vestigia’ (outlines) of the Holy Trinity , viewed all of creation as ultimately dependent on God . Even in the Islamic world, thinkers like Avicenna expounded on the essence-existence divide by saying that drawing a clear line of distinction between the essential existence of God and the reliant existence of all that is created. Aquinas draws on these views . Some highly original views also emerged from the confluence of the three great monotheistic religions and such a confluence is evident in the writings of Averroes, Aberald , Llull and others. The revival of Aristotle in the High Middle Ages laid ground for the scientific outlook that was the backbone of much of the European intellectual culture . Among the many problems that occupied the attention of the medieval philosophers one was the problem peculiar to most of Aristotelian (And Platonic ) Philosophy – the problem of Universals. Are universals (genera and species ) real substances or do they exist only in the mind ? If they do exist really , is their reality corporeal or incorporeal ? Do they possess an existence independent of the concrete sensible things or do they simple exist in these concrete things ? Different logical treatises that had come down to the scholars of the period answered the question differently. There were primarily three ways to look at the solution : 1) Universals exist prior to and apart from things ( as opined by Plato ) 2) Universals as realities have their existence in the things (as opined by Aristotle) and 3) Universals are just names for particular things – not prior to them , nor in them , but after them . The first two approaches constitute realism, while the last one constitutes nominalism . Martianus Capella was a prominent nominalist . However, the nominalism that had existed till around the 9th and the 10th centuries was a nominalism of a very vague and unclear character based on a partial understanding of Aristotelian logic and a limited vision of the implications of nominalism in logic , metaphysics and epistemology . Its theological implications began to be understood in the eleventh century when Roscelin extended nominalism to his understanding of the Holy Trinity . He put forward an argument of the following nature : Only particular substances exist , general concepts are merely labels and a media through which we define particular objects. Hence there is no single entity denoted by the term ‘ God’ . So the notion of Godhead that we use while speaking of or explaining the Father , Son and the Holy Spirit Is just a name . So there is no single substance God but there are three individual entities . This view was at variance with the traditional Christian view and due to the criticism it received, Nominalism went back into slumber reappearing only occasionally until finally resurrected in the 14th century . The realism in the tradition of Plato dominated much of the 12th century . Much of the Christian intellectual world continued to view God as the sum of three persons. Also , taking a realist position served another purpose . To take general concepts as existing outside the mind meant that the pursuit of truth is not merely a subjective affair but that there is an objective truth , the pursuit of which must be the prime occupation of philosophy . The Christian scholars found this to be an excellent base upon which their could build rational justification for a good number of ecclesiastical ideas. However , in the 14th century , there came about a nominalist revival that was accompanied with an interest in science. At the centre of this revival were the members of the Franciscans at Oxford . The interest in the problem of universals was spurred by Porphyry’s ‘ Isagoge ‘ , a commentary on Aristotle’s ‘ Categories ‘ wherein it was claimed that a substance is an individual entity . Eg: Each horse if of course an individual entity , but the entity represented by universal term ‘ horse’ is also an existing entity . Whereas Peter Aberald took the middle ground between realism and nominalists , the 14th century Franciscans were decidedly nominalists in their approach . Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 )and John Duns Scotus ( c.1265 -1308) both accepted the theory of universals that universals preexist things as forms in the mind of God. Both of them sought to exclude what was thought as demonstrable before them as dogmas . Scotus offered critique over the arguments given in support of Christian and natural theology . The result of this was a systematic elimination of the realm of demonstrable and logical truth from theology . The precepts of theology were deemed not only beyond proof but also unintelligible . Both of them were of the view that instead of trying to reason theological matters out we must believe them sincerely and with all our faith . This approach towards theology influenced the Franciscans William Durand and William of Occam but the latter totally rejected the realist position of Scotus. William of Occam ( 1285/1286-1347) , often referred to as the ‘ venerable inceptor ‘ and ‘ invincible doctor ‘ , was probably a student of Duns Scotus at Oxford . He was born probably in Occam ( also spelt as ‘ Ockham’ ) , in Surrey and entered the Franciscan Order probably in his childhood itself. He delivered lectures on Peter Lombard’s ‘Sentences’ in Paris and produced commentaries the logical works of Aristotle. His most famous works are the ‘Summa totius Logicus Quodlbeta septum ‘( known as the ‘ Summa Logicae ‘ ) and ‘Centiloquium theologicum ‘ . He chose to side with those in the favour of nationalism in the conflict between the Church and the State . In 1324 an accusation was made against him of heresy by a provincial of the Franciscan order who transferred the matter to Avignon, where the Pope resided then. After spending four years in Avignon , he fled with the help of Michael of Cesena and later was protected by Louis of Bavaria . It was in the court of Louis of Bavaria that William of Occam met his death in 1347. For William of Occam (hereafter referred to as ‘Occam’) , only particulars exist and the beginning points of our knowledge are particulars. Universal is only a sign (spoken word ) able to stand for any one of an indefinite number of similar objects (Although he held this view , Occam never himself used the term ‘ nominalism ‘ ). But he did not hold that classification is imposed arbitrarily by the human mind : apart from any mental act , Socrates and Plato are more alike than either is like a donkey , which is why one sign ‘ MAN’ can stand for either of them . besides Socrates and Plato , there is no third entity that is their similarity ; except in the Deity , relative terms signify not relative entities , but absolute entities , connoting certain propositions about them . In fact , only terms in the categories of substance and quality name entities , and all the terms and concepts included in the other eight of Aristotle’s ten categories are connotative .Occam also rejects ‘species’ ( in the sense of a likeness of the things transmitted throught the medium and the sense to the mind or produced in them and as a means of knowing ). Occam’s evident desire for a frugal ontology explains the ascription to him of ‘Occam’s razor ‘. He says in the ‘Commentary on Sentences ‘(1):” Plurality is not to be posited without necessity ‘. Something on the same lines had already been expressed earlier by Peter Aureoli .He says that entities or principles need not be multiplied beyond necessity (‘entia non multiplicanda praeter necessiatem ‘). This phrase however is ascribed to John Punch. The remark in Occam’s own works that comes closest to it is :” It is pointless to do with more what we can do with fewer “( ‘Frustra fit per plura quod potest fiery per pauciora ‘)(2).The importance of the occam’s razor is best captured in the following words :
“From the middle of the Nineteenth Century, nearly every modern book on Logic has contained the words: Entia non sunt multiplicanda, præter necessitatem“ (3)
Occam lays emphasis on what he calls as ‘intuition’. It is the perception through which we gain awareness of a thing and are able to say something about it . When we perceive particulars, we abstract from them the general qualities and so form concepts or universals. To do this , we use no special aspect of our mind , the abstraction is natural . Such universals are merely thoughts in the mind which are expressed in the form of conventional symbols. This does not imply that our judgments are concerned only with ideas. Our judgments, he says are always concerned with things. Universals, therefore, exist neither outside the thing nor in it. Occam views this intuitive knowledge as inclusive of not just our sense-perceptions but also of an awareness of our inner conditions like joy or sorrow or desires and so on. The knowledge of these inner states , he views as being more definite and assured than our sensuous perceptions. In addition, we also possess knowledge , which Occam describes as ‘abstractive ‘ . Such abstractive knowledge is the one we acquire by means of deductive thinking or syllogistic inferences. Basically such knowledge is of knowables that are necessarily true . However, here points out that the all these reasoning-based arguments are ultimately based on principles that are derived via induction from experience. Therefore, our knowledge is built solely upon experience and all that transcends this experience belongs to the territory of faith . So it is impossible to rationally justify the existence of God either by logical means or by experience. We are to depend totally on revelation for the grounding of our theological beliefs. Philosophy is not supposed to back up or support theology as was thought by the earlier scholastic philosophers. Occam was unconventional in his theories of ethics , politics and epistemology. He holds that the precepts of natural laws can be overridden by a command of God . God, possessing absolute freedom of will and thinking , could have oriented the maxims of morality differently too . The adoption of this ethical viewpoint leads him to hypothesize that God , by his absolute power, can cause in us a false ‘ creditive ‘ act indistinguishable from an intuitive cognition . However , Occam does not assume that knowledge is impossible unless we can know whether a seeming intuition is genuine. His philosophy does not seem to lead to skepticism in any sense. In his political views , he rejected that the Pope and the Church’s property exists by the Divine Law . According to Occam , it exists by human convention and law , establish to control greed and quarrelling . This was not acceptable to the Church which at that time was looking for ways to justify the concentration of money and power by the Church instead of by the state. Occam also rejected the ideas of Papal infallibility and that power of the government derives from the Church. Thus , Occam was one of the channels through which the ideas of older canonists and theologians were transmitted to later liberal thinkers. The impact of William of Occam was immense not just in the context of later medieval philosophy but also in the context of the development of logic and the modern sciences. Occam’s views are multifarious and have underpinnings that render attempts to classify him under this or that particular ideology very difficult. Apart from his nominalism , no other ideology clearly and wholly permeate his views. All his views can said to have encompassed are not ideologies themselves as a whole but tendencies towards this or that framework of thinking . It is best illustrated in as in the quote below :
“In his controversial writings William of Ockham appears as the advocate of secular absolutism. He denies the right of the popes to exercise temporal power, or to interfere in any way whatever in the affairs of the Empire. … In philosophy William advocated a reform of Scholasticism both in method and in content. The aim of this reformation movement in general was simplification. This aim he formulated in the celebrated "Law of Parsimony", commonly called "Ockham's Razor": "Entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate". With this tendency towards simplification was united a very marked tendency towards skepticism a distrust, namely, of the ability of the human mind to reach certitude in the most important problems of philosophy. … Ockham's attitude towards the established order in the Church and towards the recognized system of philosophy in the academic world of his day was one of protest. He has, indeed, been called "the first Protestant". Nevertheless, he recognized in his polemical writings the authority of the Church in spiritual matters, and did not diminish that authority in any respect. Similarly, although he rejected the rational demonstration of several truths which are fundamental in the Christian system of theology, he held firmly to the same truths as matters of faith.” (4)

With Occam , the ideological conflict between realism and nominalism took centre stage over the conflict between Thomists and Scotists. Occam’s books were banned by the University of Paris in 1339 and nominalism was rejected by it in 1340 . But other universities provided freedom for the nominalists to express their opinions. Among them were the Universities of Prague ,Vienna , Heidelberg and Cologne. Many eminent thinkers like John Buridan , Albert Of Saxony , Robert Holcot , Heinrich Hembuncht and Gabriel Biel , among others, accepted and forward Occam’s nominalism . Thus, we find that in Occam , we have a revival of a doctrine (Nominalism ) which was at the doorsill of scholasticism and which marks its end as well !


(1) ‘The Development of Logic’ (1962), by William Calvert Kneale, p. 243 (2) )’Summa Totius Logicae’, i. 12 (3) William M. Thorburn, in’ The Myth of Occam's Razor in Mind’, Vol. 27 (1918), p. 345-353 (4) William Turner, in ‘William of Ockham’ in The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)

1) A History Of Philosophy (1914)- F.Thilly (H. Holt and Company)
2) The Cambridge Companion to Ockham (1999)-Edited by P V Spade (Cambridge )
3) Five Texts on the Medieval Problem of Universals: Porphyry,
Boethius, Abelard, Duns Scotus, Ockham (1994) – Edited by P V Spade (Indianapolis: Hackett)

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