William of Ockham, also known as William of Occam, lived approximately from 1288-1290 to 1348-1349. He may have been born in Ockham, in the English county of Surrey, or possibly Ockham in the county of Yorkshire. No one knows much about William’s early life, except for his ordination as a Franciscan friar and his position teaching at Oxford.
Ockham was an empiricist, which means he believed that we gain knowledge purely through observation and experience, and not through reason. Therefore, belief in God is a matter of faith. This stance denies the conclusions of many other philosophers who had worked hard to prove God’s existence through reason.
William of Ockham’s key work is The Sum of Logic, centering on his understanding of logic.
Ockham’s Razor is a methodological principle stating that if there are two possible explanations for the same data, then the simplest is most likely the correct one, and the more complicated explanation is typically incorrect.
In William of Ockham’s theory, simplicity is everything – and complexity is, without exception, something to avoid.
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According to Bertrand Russell, William of Ockham actually says, “It is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer.” In other words, says Russell, “…if everything in some science can be interpreted without assuming this or that hypothetical entity, there is no ground for assuming it.”
Russell posits that Ockham’s Razor works well in logic, although maybe not so well in metaphysics.
A modern example of Ockham’s razor might be the sighting of strange lights in the night sky on the eve of a holiday. We might speculate that these are alien spacecraft from the outer reaches of the universe, checking out our planet with a view to possible invasion. Or – they could simply be a couple of Chinese lanterns. According to Ockham’s theory, the explanation is more likely (if not conclusively) to be the latter.
William of Ockham’s Theory of Nominalism
Russell explains William of Ockham’s theory on universals, or attributes which things have in common. Ockham held a position of denial which we know as “nominalism.” Nominalism says there are no universals; they simply do not exist. Only particular “things” exist.
Supposed universals such as redness, species and humanity are human inventions or concepts. Russell’s summary of William’s position is as follows: “Reality is composed ultimately of simple singulars, created by God, and which survive independently.”
According to this philosophy, nothing depends on any other entity for its existence, and change is simply the rearrangement and reordering of single things.
William both denies and attempts to destroy St. Thomas Aquinas’s work in reconciling faith and reason. He claims we cannot prove God’s existence through reason and, therefore, our belief is solely a matter of faith. This did not make him popular with the Catholic Church. As Jeremy Harwood says, “… he rejected all the attempts that previous philosophers had made to use reason to prove God’s existence.”
Some serious confrontations between Ockham and the Catholic church began in 1327.
Michael de Cesena: Property Heresy Resolved
William was responsible for resolving a heresy charge against Michael de Cesena, the head of the Franciscan order to which William belonged.
In “Franciscan Schoolmen,” History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell explains: “…there had been an arrangement by which the property left to the friars was given to them by the Pope, who allowed them the benefit of it without the sin of ownership. This was ended by John XXII, who said they should accept outright ownership. At this, a majority of the order, headed by Michael of Cesena, rebelled.”
William received orders to go to the Pope’s court in Avignon to investigate this charge, and found in favour of Michael of Cesena and against Pope John XXII–an honest but dangerous position for the plucky Franciscan friar.
William of Ockham’s Philosophical Legacy
Many considered William’s beliefs radical and highly controversial in their time, and he suffered for them both in his career and in his personal life. It is to his credit that he did not waver from his convictions.
He fled from Avignon after the heresy debacle, and the pope subsequently excommunicated him in 1328. Fortunately for him, Ludwig of Bavaria offered him sanctuary at his court. Scholars believe that William of Ockham never reconciled with his Church and may have died of the Black Death which raged during the year 1349.
Ockham: Scholar, Pioneer, Visionary
William was a learned scholar of courage, vigour and integrity and a pioneer of the (then) new philosophical approach to empiricism. He was a visionary whose work, says Harwood, “…anticipated the logic… of Bertrand Russell, and the early thoughts of Ludwig Wittgenstein many centuries later.”