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Throughout the 14th century, scholastic education based on reading past works to acquire truths, slowly began to transform into a more dynamic form of philosophy where knowledge was gained through experimenting and going beyond the book. Yet, it never truly got to the point where it could be titled dynamic education; however it did go through a transition which separated it from its previous 13th century form of teaching and learning. William of Ockham lived in this transitional period, and produced many of his works during the early half of the 14th century. Ockham is considered to be the “missing link” between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by some historians, because of his skeptical form of writing theories, and radical views in theology among other subjects.

Although William of Ockham lived in the early part of the 14th century, where scholastic education still held a great influence due to its history of ruling the educational system for over a hundred years, Ockham spent most of his life challenging that very same scholastic upbringing. He did so with works such as his theory, Ockham’s Razor, and his earlier work, the commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences, which created much controversy. Not only did he demonstrate his radical thinking through his writing, but also through his actions, such as his actions against the Pope of the time, John XXII.

The term "scholastic philosophy" was brought up, and was widely used throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth century, mainly because this was their form of education—the process of taking in philosophical learning from the past, but without challenging it. Mainly, they were interested in learning theories which had Arabic and Greek sources. Fourteenth century scholastic philosophy, or scholasticism, slowly began focusing on adapting these ideas instead of just taking them as they were. This is where William of Ockham comes in (Boehner ix). It is commonly thought that William of Ockham was born before 1290 A.D., (though the date is not exactly known) in Surrey at a village near London called Ockham, hence his last name (Adams xv). He’s believed to have entered the Franciscan order, also known as the “Greyfriars”, at a very early age (Spade n.p.). The first time Ockham’s name appears is February 26, 1306 where he was ordained subdeacon of Southwark. This took place in Diocese of Winchester, and on June 19, 1318 he was licensed to hear confessionals (Adams xv).

Before he was licensed to hear confessionals, though, he began his higher education at an institution of the London Greyfriars. This was a whole day’s ride away from Ockham, but was worth it, as it was a distinguished place considered only second to the Universities of Paris and Oxford. It is most likely that William of Ockham got his “grade school” education at Greyfriars, and then went on to study basic logic, and science, or what we might consider “high school” education at around the age of fourteen in the same institution of Greyfriars (Spade n.p.). Around 1309 it is believed Ockham began his studies of theology at Oxford University. The work of Dan Scotus was very influential at Oxford University at the time, and could have very well influenced Ockham as well.

Ockham’s pattern of study probably followed the normal course work for theology students at the time. This included five years of study, with two years of lectures on the Bible, followed by two more years of lectures on Peter Lombard’s Sentences, then it would finish off with a four year period where no teaching was done, but instead preaching and disputes were granted or assigned. By completing this course the students would gain the title “Magister”, or Master. Though Ockham finished his studies, he never obtained this title of Master. For that reason he was called “Inceptor”, or beginner (Kretzmann 1). It is believed he was not able to acquire his title of Master; because there were already many others in line ahead of him for this position, and because of the strong opposition the chancellor of the Oxford at the time, John Lutterell, had to Ockham (Adams xv).

Just because William of Ockham never earned the title of Master, also known as Magister acturegens, does not mean he was not part of the academic scene and controversy. His “housemates” (or “roommates") were two other very important and well known Franciscan thinkers. Their names were Walter Chatton and Adam Wodeham. Both of them were harsh critics of Ockham’s views and theories (Spade n.p.). The discussions he held with them, especially with Walter Chatton, who he would later live with after teaching at the stadium generale in London until 1324, greatly influenced his philosophical works later in life (Adams xv). Ockham spent most of his time writing after his schooling, and is believed to have finished his Commentary of the Sentences by Peter Lombard around 1322 (Goddu 3). This is considered to be one of his more significant written works due to the fact that it caused great controversy, so much so that it formed his future path.

Sometime in 1323 John Lutterell, now former chancellor of Oxford, wrote complaining to the pope at the time, John XXII, of what he considered to be orthodoxy in about fifty-six of Ockham’s propositions, taken from his commentary of the Sentences by Peter Lombard. Though it took it’s time, in 1324 Ockham was finally summoned to Avignon as a reply to the charges John Lutterell had made about some propositions in the commentary on Lombard’s Sentences (Klocker 1). Some of the condemned propositions were:

Article 2. That intuitive knowledge of a creature considered as such does not necessarily concern the creature’s existence or non-existence, nor does it look toward existence rather than non-existence.
Article 5. When predicting wisdom or existence of God, the predication is not about God himself but only a certain concept (of God).
Article 10. That intelligence and will which are predicated of God are not God; just as no attribute is the same as the Divine Essence.
Article 30. That nothing is known or understood of any substance; science is only of concepts.
Article 38. That there is no relation of reason of God to creatures.
Article 41. That genus is not intrinsic to the thing of which it is the genus.
Article 54. That a proposition such as “God is wisdom, goodness, life” is not intelligible (Klocker 4).

Even after several years and the harsh criticism of the commission against Ockham, there were never any charges made, and the whole process never had a real conclusion (Klocker 1).

William of Ockham continued his many writings after leaving Avignon in 1328. This was mostly due to the fear of getting charged for his questioning and radical views concerning his commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences. Ockham first stopped in Pisa, before finally ending up in Munich. The Master General of the Franciscans, Michael of Cesena followed, and accompanied him all the way to Munich where he stayed with him. But while still in Avignon he seemed to have had plenty of time to develop his founding ideas and theories (Klocker 1). The core of William of Ockham’s nominalism philosophy is that nothing is a universal, unless he states, that in its signification it is signifying many things. But what is a universal? Panaccio describes it as, “Universals in the Porphyrian sense – genus, species, differentia, proprium and accident – were traditionally defined as what can be predicated of many” (Klocker 10). Unlike other philosophers that may take on this point of view, though, Ockham insists that the only thing that can be predicated of anything is a sign (Panaccio 10). To many historians William of Ockham’s experimental views such as his theory on universals, and his previous writings like the commentary of Sentences, could be viewed as Ockham being a negative critic of early scholasticism and even Duns Scotus’ philosophies, which he gathered influence from during his time spent at Oxford (Klocker 3). As Ockham stated, “There is no assent in respect of a thing because nothing is said when I assent to a stone or an ox” (Leff 238). He claims that only by forming what we understand into a proposition can we then assent it or dissent it as being true or false, proving that he is just supporting individual and analytical thinking, not necessarily being negative about scholasticism (Leff 238).

Another of Ockham’s famously skeptical philosophies is the rejection of the so-called “species-theory” developed by intellectuals which included Roger Bacon, and John Peckham. This theory held the belief that for human awareness to take place, external things had to enter the mind of understanding. The representatives of these external things that could penetrate the mind were called “species”. The first of these species was called the species in medio, and the second was the sensible species. The third of these species were called the intelligible species; these are the species Ockham rejected. Ockham uses his most famous theory, Ockham’s Razor, to argue his point (Panaccio 27-28). The Razor theory basically states: “Since intellectual cognition can be accounted for with acts and habitus alone, intelligible species, seen as extra entities, are not needed” (Panaccio 29). In other words he is saying that there is no need to have more than the minimum assumptions, for anymore would be unnecessary. Ockham goes on to defy this well-known theory by considering five cognitive functions people might try to attribute to the intelligible species, and then proves that all five are still possible without the intelligible species (Panaccio 29).

It can be seen that Ockham’s form of arguing these various theories comes from accepting the Aristotelian conception that demonstrative knowledge is universal, and necessary. Even, though Ockham does not consider any of his arguments anything more than proofs or persuasions, the form is always taken from a general or broader principle as the main matter, which is an Aristotle framework (Leff 67). Moody also expresses the similarity between the way Ockham, and Aristotle went about criticisms:

That Ockham’s criticisms of the carious scholastic doctrines of universalia in re, or ante rem, as objects of knowledge, is equivalent to a rejection of the foundation of science as it was conceived by Aristotle (Moody 3).

Another famously recognized or commonly accepted principle – especially by the Thomists – was the different divisions of functions of the intuitive and abstractive cognitions. Ockham rejected this as well, mostly because he felt that intellectual intuition can also reach the individual thing in the concrete much like the sensory intuition, meaning that the different intuitions weren’t so divided, but instead shared certain functions. Therefore, he does not believe in the dividing up of these intuitions, because they are capable of the same things (Panaccio 7).

Though some historians and individuals may argue that Ockham’s “innovative” theories weren’t so “innovative,” including all four of his Logical Commentaries, and the Exposition on the Physics. It can also be pointed out that these works of his were written at a time in which Ockham still found himself teaching and would have had to lecture in a very scholastic way (Leff 81). William of Ockham’s theories are actually thought to be so different and influential that even though a school or institution of Ockham can’t be found today, some of his very own concepts on physics gave birth to modern physics (Boehner li).

After William of Ockham’s many accomplished writings in Avignon, and even after, he ended up under the protection of Louis of Bavaria in Munich, who the pope did not recognize as the Holy Roman Emperor (Adams xvi). While Ockham was there he joined with Louis and started investigating the pope, John XXII, becoming a political activist in doing so. This involvement was most likely due to the push, and influence of Michael of Cesena, the Master General of the Franciscans. Michael of Cesena and William of Ockham were both concerned over the Franciscan and apostolic poverty (Goddu 1-2). The Franciscan and apostolic poverty view concerned the statement that the apostles and Christ, which they followed, did not possess property either private or common. This raised the question of whether the friars and pope should then own properties if Christ and his apostles had not (Boehner xiii). However, the Franciscan and apostolic poverty was not the only issue that Ockham challenged the pope with, he also took on the challenge of eliminating the secular power, and challenging the papal power. Ockham was not only able to get rid of specific religious basis for secular power from the medieval Christian society, but also in a much broader context (McGrade 85-86). Due to these many confrontations with the pope, though, both William of Ockham and Louis of Bavaria were excommunicated in 1328 A.D. It wasn’t till 1374 A.D. that Ockham finally appealed to Rome for reconciliation with the church (Klocker 2). Ockham did not hear back in time if his request had been accepted by the Church or not, because in April 10, 1347 he passed away in Munich, according to his epitaph. It is believed he passed away from the Black Death, or plague (Adams xvi).

William of Ockham’s life was filled with much controversy and struggle, especially for a philosopher of his time. This transitional period was only made more prominent by his controversial works such as the commentary on Sentences, and his Razor principle, which if he would have written in the 13th century would not have been accepted at all by the society due to his radical views (Moody 1-2). Along with his rejection of many well established philosophies, Ockham also went outside his norm and challenged the pope’s values and power. In every aspect of his life he pushed the limits of scholasticism and the status quo to begin the movement of modern philosophy and sciences. It is easy to see why leading historians and authors such as Gordon Leff, and Harry Klocker refer to William of Ockham as the missing link.





William of Ockham: the Missing Link


Page Author: Angelica Orta

Saturday, 11-Feb-2012 14:19



Adams, Marilyn M. C. William Ockham. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987. xv, xvi, 1.

Goddu, André. The Physics of William of Ockham. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1984. 1-3.

Klocker, Harry R. William of Ockham and the Divine Freedom. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1996. 1-4.

Leff, Gordon. William of Ockham: The Metamorphosis of Scholastic Discourse. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1975. Xiii, 67, 81, 238.

McGrade, Arthur S. The Political Thought of William of Ockham: Personal and Institutional Principles. London: Cambridge University Press, 1974. 68-77, 85-86.

Moody, Ernest A. The Logic of William of Ockham. New York: Russell & Russell, 1965. 1-3.

Panaccio, Claude. Ockham on Concepts. Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate Pub, 2004. 7, 10, 27-30.

Spade, Paul Vincent and Panaccio, Claude, "William of Ockham", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

William,Marilyn M. C. Adams, and Norman Kretzmann. Predestination, God's Foreknowledge, and Future Contingents. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1969. 1-2.

William and Philotheus Boehner. Philosophical Writings. London: Nelson, 1967. Xiii, xvii, ix, li.


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