William of Ockham (1280 - 1349)

William of Ockham (or alternately, Occam) is most well known for Ockham's Razor.

William was a Franciscan friar who believed that the absolute poverty of Christ and the apostles was a necessary ideal. This view, in opposition to the Pope led to his excommunication and imprisonment.

Because of his unpopularity, few of his works have survived in entirety. His philosophy can be described as Augustinian-Platonist, although much influenced by his teacher Duns Scotus.

William of Ockham:
The Invincible Doctor

A good deal of people in scientific and philosophical circles today are familiar with a principle called "Ockham's razor," which states that simplicity is generally favorable to multiplicity. A few of these are familiar with its origin by William of Ockham, a philosopher who lived several hundred years ago, and specialists probably even know a good deal about the man's life. To almost everybody else, this is simply esoteric beyond belief, and even more so is the idea that his criticism of the political and religious state of the world at the time had enough of an impact to gain him the reputation of "the first protestant." Nearly everything William of Ockham contributed to the worlds of philosophy, science, and logic in the fourteenth century has been forgotten or simply absorbed by someone more memorable, and he is remembered only incidentally for his extensive use of Aristotle's Principle of Parsimony, which is now known as Ockham's razor in his honor.

In approximately the year 1280, in or around the village of Ockham – which is quite frequently spelled Occam – in Surrey, England, a boy was born and named William. He grew up to join the Franciscan order and to begin study at Merton college at Oxford. By tradition, it is said that he studied under John Duns Scotus, a prominent teacher of Realism, which is a very difficult claim to evaluate because the dates of Ockham's study have never been clearly decided. Scotus died in the year 1308, and Ockham may have entered the college at any time from 1301 ("William of Ockham." Catholic) to 1310 (Moody 306). In any case, it is evident in his writings that he was very familiar with the works of Scotus. After receiving his bachelor's degree from Oxford, Ockham went to the University of Paris to earn a master's degree in theology and teach for some years between 1315 and 1320, where he wrote several works on physics and logic, drawing from the ideas of Aristotle and Porphyry. ("William of Ockham." Internet)

Ockham soon "resigned his chair at the university in order to devote himself to ecclesiastical politics" ("William of Ockham." Catholic). Many of his ideas brought him into conflict with those in power in the church: he advocated absolute poverty and a great extent of separation between church and state. John Lutterell, the chancellor of Oxford who had prevented Ockham from receiving a teacher's chair there, presented formal charges against him to Pope John XXII, and Ockham was summoned to Avignon. Ockham continued to write while in Avignon, but eventually fled into the protection of Emperor Louis of Bavaria, who also opposed the pope's views.

Ockham spent the rest of his life in excommunication in Munich, continuing to attack the papacy as illegitimate and treasonous and – after Louis's death – trying to reconcile with the church, having realized the hopelessness of his position (Moody 306). He was unable to accomplish this before his death at the hands of the black plague, the exact date of which is uncertain: his tombstone says April 10, 1347, but evidence shows that he was alive in early 1349, so it is possible that the year was recorded inaccurately ("William of Ockham." Internet).

During his period of prolific philosophy at Oxford, Paris, and Avignon, William of Ockham engaged in extensive work on theories of nominalism, realism, and ideas of intuitive and abstractive cognition. His examination of the common natures of all concepts, as well as his critiques of Scotism and Thomism, began the shift towards the "modern way" in western philosophy ("Philosophy"). As a follower of the Scholastic discipline of philosophy, Ockham opposed the Realist view of the world, and emphasized the idea that intuitive concepts draw from empirical experience, whereas abstractive concepts draw only from pure cognition, and as such the latter were universal, and it was from these that ideas of individuals were created. Under Ockham's systems, it is difficult to account for theology as a natural science, and as such a "positive theology" arises directly from faith and revelation, without mixing in any unnecessary assumptions, which would conflict with the principle of parsimony (Moody 307-8).

The principle of parsimony was used by Ockham in many of his works in order to uphold his reasoning. "He invoked it most frequently under such forms as 'Plurality is not to be assumed without necessity' or 'What can be done with fewer [assumptions] is done in vain with more'"(Moody 307). The principle proved to be very useful in preventing "pseudo-explanatory entities" or instances of circular reasoning, as well as eliminating any assumptions that could possibly be done without. This principle was also used to great effect by Durand de Saint-Pourçain, Nicole d'Oresme, and later by Galileo, but its use by Ockham was so often and so sharp that it came to be known as "Ockham's razor," and it is him that we remember for its use ("Ockham"). Ironically, nearly all of Ockham's works were published only in Latin instead of any commonly spoken language, making it less simple for them to be commonly read. This is because that was the only acceptable way to publish scientific works at the time – a convention that did not change until the time of Galileo.

Today, Ockham's razor is used primarily in the judgment of scientific hypotheses, dictating that, among theories that explain the available data equally, the one that is simplest in nature should be chosen. It also applies to many other aspects of life: in civil engineering, a simpler structure that supports the same weight as a more complicated one is inherently more valuable; a computer program written in the fewest possible number of steps works more efficiently and more effectively than a longer one; and a literary work in simple language reaches more people than one that is difficult to understand.

William of Ockham was also known as "doctor invincibilis," or "the invincible doctor." I can find no evidence to suggest where this name might have come from.


There is an excellent portrait of William of Ockham availabe at <<http://www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/BigPictures/Ockham.jpeg>>.

Works Cited

Moody, Ernest A. "William of Ockham." The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Crowell Collier and MacMillan. 1967.

"Ockham, William of." Encyclopædia Britannica. 15th ed. 1997.

"Ockham.jpeg." Turnbull WWW Server. April 1997. School of mathematical and Computational Sciences, University of St. Andrews. July 19, 1999.
<<http://www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/BigPictures/Ockham.jpeg>>

"Philosophy, the History of Western." Encyclopædia Britannica. 15th ed. 1997.

"William of Ockham" Catholic Encyclopedia 1996. Encyclopedia Press, Inc. July 18, 1999.
<<http://www.knight.org/advent/cathen/15636a.htm>>

"William of Ockham " Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. July 18, 1999.
<<http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/o/ockham.htm>>

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