William of Ockham

c.1280-c.1349. Medieval Scholastic theologian and philosopher. Born in Surrey, England, he entered the Franciscan Order about 1310 and studied at Oxford between 1318 and 1324. His ideas led to a summons to Avignon (1324) to answer charges of heresy. A dispute between Pope John XXII* and the Spiritual Franciscans was then at its height, and William identified himself with the Spirituals in opposition to John. In 1328 he left the city and went to the court of the emperor Louis of Bavaria. Excommunicated, William is supposed to have said to the emperor: “You defend me with your sword and I will defend you with my pen.” From 1328 until his death he produced powerful defenses of the imperial theory against those who favored the pope. After Louis's death in 1347 William made an effort to be reconciled with his order and the church, but the outcome of this attempt is not known.

His writings fall into two groups associated with the two phases of his life. While working for Louis (1333-47) he wrote works about the relation of church and state such as Dialogus Inter Magistrum et Discipulum, Octo Quaestiones Super Potestate ac Dignitate Papali, and Tractatus de Imperatorum et Pontificum Potestate. The nonpolitical works that contain his contributions to philosophy and theology were written while he was at Avignon and Oxford (1317-28). These include lectures on Peter Lombard's* Sentences, an explanation of Aristotle's* Physics, commentaries and treatises on logic and natural science. His most important philosophical work is Summa Logicae, which he completed before he left Avignon.

Ockham criticized the accommodation of the philosophical system of Aristotle with Christian doctrine that had been fashioned by the thirteenth-century Schoolmen such as Thomas Aquinas.* This method had tried to achieve an accord between faith and reason by reinterpretation of the philosophical assumptions of Aristotle. Its purpose was to keep the philosophic system of Aristotelianism intact. Franciscan scholars from Bonaventure to Duns Scotus tried to argue for the Christian faith by destroying Aristotle's philosophy. All of these thirteenth- century systems, however, depended on the doctrine of Realism. Oakham rejected this teaching on the basis of a radical empiricism in which the base of knowledge is direct experience of individual things (Nominalism*). Involved in his explanation of reality is his view that “What can be done with fewer assumptions is done in vain with more” (“Ockham's Razor”). Called the via moderna as opposed to the via antiqua of Aquinas, Ockham's Nominalism was of great significance for science, since it suggested that natural phenomena could be investigated rationally. God to Ockham, however, was above all knowledge. He cannot be apprehended by reason, as the Thomists taught, or by illumination, as the Augustinians believed, but only by faith.

E.A. Moody, The Logic of William of Ockham (1935); M.H. Carre, Realists and Nominalists (1946); P. Boehner, Collected Articles on Ockham (1956) and (ed.), Ockham: Philosophical Writings (1957); H. Shapiro, Motion, Time and Place According to William of Ockham (1957).