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William Ockham

Philosophy and Faith with Father Francis Selman      

William Ockham, who was born around the year 1285 and died in 1348, came from the village of that name, Ockham, in Surrey, England. He became a Franciscan friar and was associated with Merton College, Oxford, where scholars can still inspect early manuscripts of his works in the old library. It is useful to know something about Ockham’s philosophy because several of his positions were taken up in modern philosophy with far reaching consequences, especially his nominalism and voluntarism, which I shall explain in due course. Ockham thus provides the bridge between medieval and modern philosophy.

Ockham is especially known for “Ockham’s Razor”. This razor was his resolve to eliminate as many abstract terms from philosophy as possible, expressed in his dictum: “It is vain to do with many what can be done with a few (terms)”. In particular, he wanted to abolish the distinction between the essence and existence of a thing. We might think, like Aquinas, that the essence of, say, an animal, is distinct from its existence, because each animal has its own existence but it shares a common nature with other animals of the same species. Ockham, however, maintained that, as every nature only has real existence in an individual, and Aquinas would have agreed with him so far, therefore every individual has its own nature and there is no such thing as a common nature share by individuals in reality. The difficulty with Ockham’s position, however, is that we have no reason for identifying a lot of animals, say, as bears and calling them all by the same name “bear” unless they really have something in common, a common nature, or, to put this in another way, unless what they have in common is something real. We can only call things by the same name when they have something in common. The Latin word for a name, and noun, was “nomen”, from which we get the word “nominalism”.

Nominalism is the doctrine that our common or general names, words like “bear”, “fox”, “rose”, “daisy”, which are properly the names of natures although we apply them to individual things with those natures, that these common nouns do not name anything real, because there is no such thing as a general nature in reality but only the nature of this and that individual. Thus the name is just a name, hence “nominalism”. Our names, like “fox”, “daisy”, etc., are names of general natures which do not really exist but are only ideas in our minds. The question whether anything universal exists in reality has been much disputed throughout the history of philosophy and is still a live topic today. Plato thought that universals exist in reality: the Horse Farm was the Horse essence existing as an independent object in the world of Ideas. Ockham thought that universal words were just the names of ideas, not of anything real: in other words, universals existed only in the mind. But Aquinas, following Aristotle, took a middle position: he said that our universal words as universals only name something in the mind, for nothing is universal in its actual existence but individual, but the universal ideas in our mind are of something that exists in reality, although it is only found in individuals, namely of natures that can be shares by many individuals; for example, all horses have the horse nature.

It will not be difficult to see the consequences of Ockham’s nominalist view. As there is nothing real in common between individuals, the only things that exist in reality are individuals. The world just consists of individuals. As there is nothing common between them in reality, they are not really related. And unless things are related in some way, we cannot know the causes of things, because cause and effect is a relation between two things, say between a sculptor and her statue. So how can I know that several animals are of the same kind, say bears, ifwhat I suppose to be their common nature is not anything real? Ockham’s answer was, by intuition: I simply intuit that some animals are, for example, bears. As one intuition was never the cause of another intuition for Ockham, it followed that one thing did not cause another. A world that just consists of unrelated individuals is a purely contingent world, that is, a world in which there is no necessity and anything might not happen, for again a cause is a relation.

Ockham’s voluntarism in ethics followed from his nominalism. Voluntarism is the doctrine that actions are not willed by God because they are good in themselves but an action is good simply because it is willed by God: hence, voluntarism, from voluntas, the Latin word for will. On this view, it is always possible for God to will something quite arbitrarily, and hence make it “good” although it is not intrinsically good. If a thing were good simply because God willed it although it was not really so, then it would only be good in name, or nominally good. Hence voluntarism follows from nominalism. The case of God commanding Abraham to kill his son Isaac readily lends itself to a voluntarist interpretation. Voluntarism is also known as “the divine command” theory of ethics. Of course you might want to hold that things are good merely because God wills them. But what follows from the voluntarist theory of Ockham? First, as an action is simply good because God wills it, we can only know what is good by knowing what is God’s will, but we only know God’s will be revelation. Then it would not be possible for all human beings to know just by reason what is good and wrong irrespective of their religious beliefs and even if they have no religious belief. But it is possible for human beings of different religions to agree about morals on the grounds of reason alone, and for atheists equally to agree with believers in God about morality.

Ockham’s motive for advocating voluntarism was his desire to uphold the sovereignty and complete freedom of God: there should be no restriction to what he can will, but whatever God wills is good. Voluntarism may work as long as what is good is what God wills, but what happens when God is left out of the picture, as in the 20th century and today? Then what is good becomes what we will, as in existentialist philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre, according to whom every individual should be free to make up his or her own code of morals, because freedom is more important than anything else. God’s freedom is replaced with our freedom. Thus we see that Ockham’s voluntarist theory of morals, which derived from his nominalism that the world just consists of individuals, has lead to the widespread individualism in western society today, strengthened by the frequent appeal today to individual rights.

Another consequence of Ockham’s philosophy was that it paved the way for the protestant Reformation in the 16th century, which of course had a profound effect on the subsequent history of Europe and Northern America. I give just one example. Luther and protestants have differed from the Catholic Church about the doctrine of justification. Luther held that when we are justified, all this means is that God does not count our sin against us: we are as though without sin. In other words, we are not really changed interiorly when justified, but we are only justified in name, that is, nominally justified. I do not mean that nominalism caused the Reformation but it certainly provided a ready way of thinking for those who differed from the Church. Also the principle of Protestantism is of course of individual conscience. We also see how ethics can follow from a metaphysical position. Indeed ethics depends on metaphysics, that’s our view of reality.