1902 Encyclopedia > William of Occam (Ockham)

William of Occam
(William of Ockham)
English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher
(c. 1288 - c. 1348)

WILLIAM OF OCCAM (d. c. 1349), the great English schoolman (Doctor invincibilis), was born in the village of Ockham in the county of Surrey in the end of the 13th century. Scarcely any traces of his early life remain. Un-attested tradition saj^s that the Franciscans persuaded him while yet a boy to enter their order, sent him to Oxford to Merton College, and to Faris, where he was first the pupil, then the successful rival, of the celebrated John Duns Scotus. He was at the height of his fame as a lecturer in the university of Paris when the famous quarrel arose between Philip the Fair and Pope Boniface VIII., but it does not appear that he took any part in the strife. He probably left France about 1314, and there are obscure traces of his presence in Germany, in Italy, and in England during the following seven years. We only know that in 1322 he appeared as the provincial of England at the celebrated assembly of the Franciscan order at Ferugia, and that there he headed the revolt of the Franciscans against Pope John XXII. His share in this revolt and his writings to justify his position gave rise to his trial for heresy before the bishops of Ferrara and Bologna, which resulted in his imprisonment for seventeen weeks in the dungeons of the papal palace at Avignon. He and his companions—Michael of Cesena, general of the order, and Bonagratia—managed to escape, and found their way to Munich, where they formed the most conspicuous members of that band of Franciscans who aided Louis of Bavaria in his long contest with the papal curia. " Defend me with the sword and I will defend you with the pen," was Occam's proposal to Louis ; and from their haven of refuge at Munich the recusant Franciscans sent forth books and pamphlets refuting the extravagant pretensions of papal authority. Michael of Cesena died in 1342, and Occam, who had received from him the official seal of the order, was recognized as general by his party. The date of his death and the place of his burial are both uncertain. He probably died at Munich in 1349, and was buried in the graveyard of the Franciscan convent. Some writers assert that he was reconciled to Bome, and in proof of submission sent the official seal to William Farinerius, who had been ap-pointed general of the order by the pope; others declare that, like Cesena and Bonagratia, he died excommunicate.

William of Occam was the most prominent intellectual leader in an age which witnessed the disintegration of the old scholastic realism, the rise of the theological scepticism of the later Middle Ages, the great contest between pope and emperor which laid the foundations of modern theories of government, and the quarrel between the Roman curia and the Franciscans which showed the long-concealed an-tagonism between the theories of Hildebrand and Francis of Assisi; and he shared in all these movements.

The common account of his philosophical position, that he reintroduced nominalism, which had been in decadence since the days of Roscellimis and Abelard, by teaching that universals were only flatus vocis, is scarcely correct. The expression is nowhere found in his writings. He revived nominalism by collecting and uniting isolated opinions upon the meaning of universals into a compact system, and popularized his views by associating them with the logical principles which were in his day commonly taught in the universities. He linked the doctrines of nominalism on to the principles of the logic of Psellus, which had been intro-duced into the West in the Summulx of Peter of Spain, and made them intelligible to common understandings. His philosophical teaching contains little that was new; and all the details of nominalism had been taught by writers who preceded him. The problem of mediaeval philosophy, however differently stated, was the same question which faces modern thinkers. How comes it that things which are seen as separate individual objects can be thought of in classes, and so science created? What underlies the possibility of using common nouns when everything appre-hended by the senses is a separate subsisting phenomenon 1 Realism solved the problem by supposing something in rerum natura which actually corresponded to the class, and whose proper name was the common noun ; nominalism explained that the logical faculties of the mind grouped individuals by its own powers, and that universals were creations of the mind which thought. The three chief positions in the nominalist solution of the possibility of a common knowledge were all the common property of scho-lastic thinkers before Occam's da"y. It had been currently taught (by iEgidius and by Antonius Andreas) that the principal use of universals, whatever they were in them-selves, was to serve as logical predicates, and in this way bring a variety of subjects together, or, in other words, group individual things in a class. Many of the schoolmen (Walter Burleigh, Durandus, &c.) declared that this logical function of universals was the one thing about them that deserved notice and constituted their essential nature. Durandus and others had asserted that all that universals did was in this logical fashion to bring together several individual objects in such a way that they could be denoted by the same common term. These propositions really ex-haust the essential doctrines of nominalism, and they were all stated and were the common property of scholastic philosophy before Occam's time. What he did was to make nominalism simpler by introducing a way of putting the theory suggested by the Byzantine logic. Psellus and his followers explained many difficulties in logic by showing that in speech words were used like the figures of arithmetic or the signs of algebra. There is no reason why x should mean four sheep except the will of the algebraist who starts with that assumption. In the same way, there is no reason why the word " triangle " should stand for the thought it expresses, or the thought for the infinitude of individual triangles; but by suppositio the one is used for the other, and we can reason with word or thought just as the algebraist can do with his signs. Universals, said Occam, bore the same relation to the infinite number of individuals that signs do to the things signified. The universal, be it a thought or a word, is nothing but a sign which by suppo-sitio is beforehand taken to denote a number of individual things, and is thus the common noun denoting them all.

This way of explaining community of knowledge and of defending nominalism went a good deal deeper, and became a theory of knowledge which led Occam into what was called theological scepticism. Most of the adherents of the mystical schools of the Middle Ages held that the doc-trines of the church were isolated truths, each of which was to be received by a species of enthusiastic intuition, and were incapable either of systematic arrangement in a body of divinity or of being intelligibly comprehended by the mind. Before Occam appeared, mystics taught a theory of theological scepticism which declared that the truths of the Christian faith were to be taken on trust, although the reason might find logical flaws in each one of them. Occam made this theological scepticism almost a commonplace by basing it on his theory of knowledge. All knowledge, he taught, contained a double inadequacy, which arose from the needs of thinking and of expressing thought in language. Words were but signs, inadequate representations of the thoughts they stood for, and the thoughts themselves were inadequate symbols used by sup-positio instead of the individual objects which they repre-sented. The real individual thing was apprehended by a vis intuitiva, in sense, vision, or touch, &c, but, when the mind begins to think or to argue, error may creep in, for thoughts are inadequate expressions, stereotyped aspects, and words are only signs of signs. Theological knowledge is like all other knowledge, theological argumentation has the inadequacy that belongs to every process of thought. The Centilogium Theologicum usually appended to Occam's Commentary on the Sentences of Peter the Lombard contains a consistent application of this theory of knowledge to theo-logical dogmas, every one of which is shown to be irrational, but at the same time true in the vision of faith. The most interesting application of his method, however, is to' be found in the Tractatus de Sacramento Altaris, in which, while accepting as a matter of faith the mediaeval doctrine of the real presence, Occam shows that a much more rational theory might be propounded, and actually sets forth a theory of the Eucharist which was afterwards adopted almost verbatim by Luther, and which is now known as consubstantiation.

Occam was best known during his lifetime and in the succeeding centuries for the part he took in the prolonged contest between Louis of Bavaria and the papal curia. Louis had been legally elected emperor of Germany, but the pope, who claimed that his power to crown gave him the right to veto any election, refused to acknowledge Louis, and espoused the cause of his rival. The contest was prolonged during more than a quarter of a century, and its interest lies chiefly in the writings of a group of men who, sheltered at Munich, published their views on the relations between civil and religious authority, and on the rights of nations. The most remarkable of the many publications which this controversy called forth was undoubtedly the Defensor Pads of Marsilius of Padua; which appeared in 1324 or 1326, and which was the pre-diction of the modern, as Dante's De Monarchia (1311-13) was the epitaph of the mediaeval state. Occam published several treatises in which, while he confines him-self more to the details of the controversy going on before him, there are evident traces of sympathy with the opin-ions of Marsilius. Pope Clement VI. has left on record that Marsilius "was taught his errors by and got them from" William of Occam; if this be true, the Italian jurist must have had private intercourse with the great English schoolman, for all Occam's genuine writings on the contro-versy appeared after the Defensor Pads. In the Opus nonaginta dierum (1330-33), and in its successors, the Tractatus de dogmatihus Johannis XXII. papsi (1333-34), the Compendium errorum Johannis XXII. papx (1335-38), and in the Defensorium contra errores Johannis XXII. papse (1335-39), Occam only incidentally expounds his views as a publicist; the books are mainly, some of them entirely, theological, but they served the purpose of the emperor and of his party, because they cut at the root of the spirit-ual as well as of the temporal supremacy of the pope. In his writing Super potestate summi pontificis octo qusestio-num decisiones (1339-42) Occam attacks the temporal supremacy of the pope, insists on the independence of kingly authority, which he maintains is as much an ordi-nance of God as is spiritual rule, and discusses what is meant by the state. His views on the independence of civil rule were even more decidedly expressed in the Tractatus de jurisdictione imperatoris in causis matrimonialibus, in which, in spite of the mediaeval idea that matrimony is a sacrament, he demands that it belongs to the civil power to decide cases of affinity and to state the prohibited de-grees. His last work, De Electione Caroli VI, restates his opinions upon temporal authority and adds little that is new.

In all his writings against Pope John XXII. Occam inveighs against the pope's opinions and decisions on the value of the life of poverty in the practice of religion. The Compendium errorum selects four papal constitutions which involved a declaration against evangelical poverty, and insists that they are full of heresy. Occam was a sin-cere Franciscan, and believed with his master that salvation was won through rigid imitation of Jesus in His poverty and obedience, and up to his days it had always been pos-sible for Franciscans to follow the rules of their founder within his order. But Pope John XXII. took advantage of a dispute between the more zealous Franciscans and others who had departed from the strict rule of their founder to condemn the doctrine of evangelical poverty, and to excommunicate those who held it. This made many Franciscans question whether, when the pope set his opinion against that of Francis their founder, the pope could be infallible; and some of them were so convinced of the necessity of evangelical poverty for a truly Christian life that they denounced the^pope when he refused them leave to practise it as Antichrist, or the being who stood between Christians and the means of holy living. After Occam's days the opinions of Francis prevailed in many quarters, but the genuine Franciscans had no place within the church. They were Fraticelli, Beghards, Lollards, or other confraternities unrecognized by the church, and in steady opposition to her government.

There is no good monograph on Occam. For an account of his logic, see Prantl, Geschichte der Logik (1855-70); for his philosophy, see Stockl, Geschichte der Philosophie des Mittelalters (1864-66), vol. ii.; for his publicist writings, see Riezler, Die literarischen Widersacher der Päpste zur Zeit Ludwig des Baiers (1874). See also Lindsay's article on "Occam and his connexion with the Preformation," in the Brit. Quart. Review, July 1872. (T. M. L.)


717-1 The famous Disputatio super Potestate Praelatis Ecclesiae, atque Principibus Terrarum commissa, which belongs to this controversy, and has been commonly attributed to Occam, was probably written by Peter Dubois, a Parisian lawyer.

The above article was written by: Prof. T. M. Lindsay, D.D.

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