Ockham, William

(William of Occam)
(ca. 1288–1347)
   One of the most significant theologians and philosophers of late medieval Europe,William of Ockham is generally considered to be the first “nominalist” thinker, so called because his position on universals held that they were only names, or terms, and unlike specific individuals, did not exist in reality. Ockham is also famous for his writings on logic, wherein he formulated the famous “Ockham’s razor”—the dictum that the simplest explanation is likely the truth. Though his philosophical contributions are significant, it should be remembered that Ockham thought of himself as a theologian first, and specifically as a Franciscan theologian, since he belonged to that order. He spent much of the latter part of his life in conflict with the pope over ideas of ecclesiastical poverty, a doctrine of some interest to followers of St. FRANCIS.
   Born around 1288, most likely in the village of Ockham in Surrey,William joined the Franciscan order as a teenager. He was ordained a subdeacon in 1306, and in about 1309 went to study at Oxford. He began giving lectures on PETER LOMBARD’s Sentences in 1317, and quickly achieved an international reputation in the field of logic, developing the formula that became his “razor”: “plurality should not be assumed without necessity” (Adams 1987, I, 156). His opinions were controversial, however, and he was never awarded a chair at Oxford. After 1321, he seems to have left Oxford to teach in London. Probably all of his nonpolitical writings were written before 1324, when he was summoned to Avignon to answer charges of heresy, chiefly in his famous commentary on the Sentences. In 1326, a papal commission censured 51 of Ockham’s propositions, though none was ever officially condemned by the pope.
   The papacy had been located at Avignon since the beginning of the century, and Ockham found it a den of corruption.While waiting for his own case to be decided, he met the general of the Franciscan Order,Michael of Cesena, who was involved in a controversy with Pope John XXII over belief in the poverty of Jesus and his disciples, and its implication for the church—a doctrine the pope was planning to condemn. Ockham joined Cesena in defending the doctrine of ecclesiastical poverty. In 1328, he and Cesena fled from Avignon and joined the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Louis of Bavaria in Munich. From here the excommunicated Ockham wrote a number of attacks on the pope, accusing him of seven separate heresies and a number of other errors, including claiming more power than God ever intended for a single person. For the last two decades of his life, Ockham remained under the emperor’s protection and continued to publish political treatises against the power of John XXII and subsequent popes. He died in Munich on April 10, 1347, and was buried at the Franciscan church there. Some believe that he died of the BLACK DEATH, though most scholars now find that unlikely.
   Ockham’s most important works are his commentary on the Sentences, called the Ordinatio (1321–23), his chief work on logic, called the Summa logicae (ca. 1323), and the Quodlibeta septum (ca. 1323). His chief political works, written mainly from Munich, include the Opus nonaginta dierum and the Dialogus. It is important to remember that in all of his writings, Ockham was working within the Franciscan tradition. This is obvious in his political writings, stemming from the controversy over ecclesiastical poverty. But his philosophical and theological tracts are equally Franciscan in their concerns, often building upon or reacting to his great Franciscan predecessor DUNS SCOTUS. In general Ockham bases his theology and philosophy on two basic principles: first, that God’s power is absolute, and cannot be limited by anything but his own will. This is God’s potentia absoluta, his power considered in and of itself. God’s power in creation—his creation of natural laws, for instance—is God’s potentia ordinata, his power as exercised in the world. But Ockham insists that all creation is contingent on God, and that God is not limited by the laws of his creation except as far as he himself wills it. The second chief principle is that nothing actually exists except individuals and their qualities, and all human experience consists of our knowledge of these individuals—the chief feature of nominalism. It is important to note that the via moderna, the chief school of Western philosophy for the two centuries following Ockham, is based essentially on these principles. Further, in his political writings, Ockham’s insistence on the separation of church and state anticipates modern political philosophy. In short, his influence on late medieval thinkers, writers as well as theologians, was profound, and a number of scholars have recently examined the influence of nominalism on texts like Chaucer’s CLERK’S TALE and other writings. Ockham also influenced reforming theologians who followed him, particularly those who advocated general councils to govern the church in the early 15th century.
   ■ Adams, Marilyn McCord. William Ockham. 2 vols. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987.
   ■ Boehner, Philotheus, ed. and trans. William of Ockham: Philosophical Writings: A Selection. Edinburgh: Nelson and Sons, 1962.
   ■ Courtenay,William J. Schools and Scholars in Fourteenth- Century England. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987.
   ■ Peck, Russell A. “Chaucer and the Nominalist Questions,” Speculum 53 (1978): 745–760.
   ■ Ruud, Jay. “Chaucer and Nominalism: The Envoy to Bukton,”Mediaevalia 10 (1984): 199–212.
   ■ Spade, Paul Vincent. The Cambridge Companion to Ockham. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
   ■ Utz, Richard J. Literary Nominalism and the Theory of Rereading Late Medieval Texts: A New Research Paradigm. Medieval Studies, 5. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1995.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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