Though the age of the system-makers had passed, philosophy was still vigorous; indeed in the fourteenth century it shook the whole dogmatic structure of Christendom. A change of emphasis ended the sway of the theologians in philosophy: the leading thinkers now took a major interest in science, like Buridan, or in economics, like Oresme, or in Church organization, like Nicholas of Cusa, or in politics, like Pierre Dubois and Marsilius of Padua. Intellectually these men were quite the equal of Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Siger de Brabant, Bonaventura, and Duns Scotus.

Scholasticism—both as a method of argument and exposition and as an attempt to show the consistency of reason with faith—continued to dominate the northern universities. Aquinas was canonized in 1323; thereafter his fellow Dominicans, especially at Louvain and Cologne, felt it a point of honor to maintain his doctrine against all challenges. The Franciscans, as a loyal opposition, preferred to follow Augustine and Duns Scotus. One unmoored Dominican, William Durand of Saint-Pourçain, shocked his order by going over to the Scotists. At thirty-eight (c. 1308) he began a vast commentary, which he finished in old age. As he progressed he abandoned Aristotle and Aquinas, and proposed to put reason above the authority of “any doctor, however famous or solemn”—here was a philosopher with some sense of humor.53 While remaining overtly orthodox in theology, he prepared for the uncompromising nominalism of Ockham by restoring the conceptualism of Abélard: only individual things exist; all abstract or general ideas are merely the useful shorthand concepts of the mind. William’s friends called him Doctor Resolutissimus; his opponents called him Durus Durandus—Durand the Hard—and warmed themselves with the hope that the fires of hell would soften him at last.

William of Ockham was much harder, but did not wait till death to burn; his whole life was one of hot controversy, cooled only by occasional imprisonment, and the compulsion of the times to phrase his heat in Scholastic form. He admitted in philosophy no authority but experience and reason. He took his theorems passionately, and set half of Europe by the ears in defending his views. His life, adventures, and aims prefigure Voltaire’s, and perhaps his effect was as great.

We cannot say precisely where or when he was born; probably at Ockham in Surrey, toward the end of the thirteenth century. While yet young he entered the Franciscan order, and about the age of twelve he was sent to Oxford as a bright lad who would surely be a shining light in the Church. At Oxford, and perhaps at Paris, he felt the influence of another subtle Franciscan, Duns Scotus; for though he opposed the “realism” of Scotus, he carried his predecessor’s rationalist critique of philosophy and theology many steps further to a skepticism that would dissolve alike religious dogmas and scientific laws. He taught for six years at Oxford, and may have taught at Paris. Apparently before 1324—while still a tyro in his twenties—he wrote commentaries on Aristotle and Peter Lombard, and his most influential book, Summa totius logicae—a summary of all logic.

It seems at first sampling to be a dreary desert of logic-chopping and technical terminology, a lifeless procession of definitions, divisions, subdivisions, distinctions, classifications, and subtleties. Ockham knew all about “semantics”; he deplored the inaccuracy of the terms used in philosophy, and spent half his time trying to make them more precise. He resented the Gothic edifice of abstractions—one mounted upon the other like arches in superimposed tiers—that medieval thought had raised. We cannot find in his extant works precisely the famous formula that tradition called “Ockham’s razor”: entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem—entities are not to be multiplied beyond need. But he expressed the principle in other terms again and again: pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate—a plurality (of entities or causes or factors) is not to be posited (or assumed) without necessity;54 and frustra fit per plura quod potest fieri per pauciora—it is vain to seek to accomplish or explain by assuming several entities or causes what can be explained by fewer.55 The principle was not new; Aquinas had accepted it, Scotus had used it.56 But in Ockham’s hands it became a deadly weapon, cutting away a hundred occult fancies and grandiose abstractions.

Applying the principle to epistemology, Ockham judged it needless to assume, as the source and material of knowledge, anything more than sensations. From these arise memory (sensation revived), perception (sensation interpreted through memory), imagination (memories combined), anticipation (memory projected), thought (memories compared), and experience (memories interpreted through thought). “Nothing can be an object of the nterior sense” (thought) “without having been an object of the exterior sense” (sensation);57 here is Locke’s empiricism 300 years before Locke. All that we ever perceive outside ourselves is individual entities—specific persons, places, things, actions, shapes, colors, tastes, odors, pressures, temperatures, sounds; and the words by which we denote these are “words of first intention” or primary intent, directly referring to what we interpret as external realities. By noting and abstracting the common features of similar entities so perceived, we may arrive at general or abstract ideas—man, virtue, height, sweetness, heat, music, eloquence; and the words by which we denote such abstractions are “words of second intention,” referring to conceptions derived from perceptions. These “universals” are never experienced in sensation; they are termini, signa, nomina—terms, signs, names—for generalizations extremely useful (and dangerous) in thought or reason, in science, philosophy, and theology; they are not objects existing outside the mind. “Everything outside the mind is singular, numerically one.”58Reason is magnificent, but its conclusions have meaning only in so far as they refer to experience—i.e., to the perception of individual entities, or the performance of individual acts; otherwise its conclusions are vain and perhaps deceptive abstractions. How much nonsense is talked or written by mistaking ideas for things, abstractions for realities! Abstract thought fulfills its function only when it leads to specific statements about specific things.

From this “nominalism” Ockham moved with devastating recklessness into every field of philosophy and theology. Both metaphysics and science, he announced, are precarious generalizations, since our experience is only of individual entities in a narrowly restricted area and time; it is mere arrogance on our part to assume the universal and eternal validity of the general propositions and “natural laws” that we derive from this tiny sector of reality. Our knowledge is molded and limited by our means and ways of perceiving things (this is Kant before Kant); it is locked un in the prison of our minds, and it must not pretend to be the objective or ultimate truth about anything.59

As for the soul, it too is an abstraction. It never appears in our sensations or perceptions, external or internal; all that we perceive is will, the ego asserting itself in every action and thought. Reason itself and all the glory of intellect are tools of the will; the intellect is merely the will thinking, seeking its ends by thought.60 (This is Schopenhauer.)

God Himself seems to fall before this razor philosophy. Ockham (like Kant) found no conclusive force in any of the arguments used to prove the existence of deity. He rejected Aristotle’s notion that the chain of motions or causes compels us to assume a Prime Mover or First Cause; an “infinite regress” of motions or causes is no more inconceivable than the unmoved Mover or uncaused Cause of Aristotle’s theology.61 Since nothing can be known save through direct perception, we can never have any clear knowledge that God exists—non potest sciri evidenter quod Deus est.62 That God is omnipotent or infinite, omniscient or benevolent or personal, cannot be shown by reason; much less can reason prove that there are three persons in one God, or that God became man to atone for Adam and Eve’s disobedience, or that the Son of God is present in the consecrated Host.63 Nor is monotheism more rational than polytheism; there may be more worlds than one, and more gods to govern them.64

What then remained of the majestic edifice of Christian faith, its lovely myths and songs and art, its God-given morality, its fortifying hope? Ockham recoiled before the ruin of theology by reason, and in a desperate effort to save a social order based on a moral code based on religious belief, he proposed at last to sacrifice reason on the altar of faith. Though it cannot be proved, it is probable that God exists, and that He has endowed each of us with an immortal soul.65 We must distinguish (as Averroës and Duns Scotus had advised) between theological truth and philosophical truth, and humbly accept in faith what proud reason doubts.

It was too much to expect that this caudal appendage in honor of “practical reason” would be accepted by the Church as atoning for Ockham’s critique of pure reason. Pope John XXII ordered an ecclesiastical inquiry into the “abominable heresies” of the young friar, and summoned him to appear at the papal court in Avignon. Ockham came, for we find him, in 1328, in a papal prison there, with two other Franciscans. The three escaped, and fled to Aiguesmortes; they embarked in a small boat, and were picked up by a galley that took them to Louis of Bavaria at Pisa. The Pope excommunicated them, the Emperor protected them. William accompanied Louis to Munich, joined Marsilius of Padua there, lived in an anti-papal Franciscan monastery, and issued from it a torrent of books and pamphlets against the power and heresies of the popes in general, and of John XXII in particular.

As he had in his metaphysics outdone the skepticism of Scotus, so now in his practical theory Ockham carried to daring conclusions the anticlericalism of Marsilius of Padua. He applied his “razor” to the dogmas and rites that the Church had added to early Christianity, and demanded a return to the simpler creed and worship of the New Testament. In a pugnacious Centiloquium theologicum he brought before the tribunal of his reason a hundred dogmas of the Church, and argued that many of them led logically to intolerable absurdities. If, for example, Mary is the Mother of God, and God is father of us all, Mary is the mother of her father.66 Ockham questioned the Apostolic Succession of the popes, and their infallibility; on the contrary, he urged, many of them had-been heretics, and some had been criminals.67 He advocated a lenient treatment of heresy, proposing that all expression of opinion be left free except for the dissemination of conscious falsehood.68 What Christianity needed, he thought, was a return from the Church to Christ, from wealth and power to simplicity of life and humility of rule. The Church should be defined not as the clergy alone but as the whole Christian community. This entire fellowship, including the women, should choose representatives, including women, to a general council, and this council should choose and govern the pope. Church and state should be under one head.69

The state itself should be subject to the will of the people, for in them is vested all final sovereignty on the earth. They delegate their right of legislation and administration to a king or emperor on the understanding that he will enact laws for the welfare of all. If the common good requires it, private property may be abolished.70 If the ruler commits a great crime, or is guilty of negligence so extreme that it threatens the survival of the state, the people may justly depose him.

We know little of Ockham’s fate. The beer of Munich could not console him for the lost wine of Paris. He compared himself to John the Evangelist on Patmos, but he dared not leave the protective orbit of the Emperor. According to a Franciscan chronicler the rebel in his final years signed a recantation of his heresies. Perhaps the reconciliation of Louis with the Church made this advisable; and William may have come to feel that to question the truth of a religion’s dogmas is jejune. He died of the Black Death in 1349 or 1350, still in the prime of life.71

Long before his death he was recognized as the most forceful thinker of his age, and the universities shook with disputes over his philosophy. Many theologians accepted his view that the basic tenets of the Christian religion could not be proved by reason;72 and the distinction between philosophical truth and religious truth was as widely spread in the fourteenth century as is today the tacit truce between scientific inquiry and religious ministrations. At Oxford a school of Ockhamists took form, called itself the via moderna(as Abélard had called his conceptualism 300 years before), and smiled at the metaphysical realism of Scotus and Aquinas.73 The modernists were especially victorious in the universities of Central Europe; Huss at Prague and Luther at Erfurt were taught nominalism, and may have been conditioned by it for their revolt. At Paris the university authorities forbade (1339–40) the teaching of Ockham’s views, but many of the students, and some masters, acclaimed him as the standard-bearer of free thought, and more than once the opposed factions, as in our times, fought with words and fists in the cafés or the streets.74 It was probably in reaction against Ockhamism that Thomas à Kempis condemned philosophy in The Imitation of Christ.

Ockham played a part, if only as a voice, in the uprising of the nationalist state against the universalist Church. His propaganda for ecclesiastical poverty influenced Wyclif, and his assaults upon the papacy, as well as his constant appeal from the Church to the Bible and early Christianity, prepared for Luther, who ranked Ockham as the “chiefest and most ingenious of Scholastic doctors.”75 His voluntarism and individualism expressed in advance the heady spirit of the Renaissance. His skepticism passed down to Ramus and Montaigne, perhaps to Erasmus; his subjectivist limitation of knowledge to ideas foreshadowed Berkeley; his attempt to rescue faith through “practical reason” anticipated Kant. Though philosophically an idealist, his emphasis on sensation as the sole source of knowledge gave him a place in the procession of empirical English philosophy from Roger and Francis Bacon through Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Mill, and Spencer to Bertrand Russell. His occasional sallies into physical science—his perception of a law of inertia, his doctrine of action at a distance—stimulated thinkers from Jean Buridan to Isaac Newton.76 The general effect of his work, like that of Duns Scotus, was to undermine the basic assumption of Scholasticism—that medieval Christian dogma could be proved by reason. Scholasticism maintained till the seventeenth century a pallid post-mortem existence, but it never recovered from these blows.

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