William of Occam

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

William of Occam

William of Occam (both: ŏk´əm), c.1285–c.1349, English scholastic philosopher. A Franciscan, Occam studied and taught at Oxford from c.1310 until 1324, when he was summoned to the papal court at Avignon to answer charges of heresy in his writings. He waited there until 1328 for a judgment. When it appeared that Pope John XXII was about to condemn his position Occam fled to the protection of Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV, whom he supported in his struggle with Pope John. He is thought to have died in the black plague that swept Europe in the middle of the 14th cent. Occam's teachings mark an important break with previous medieval philosophy, especially with the Aristotelian realism of St. Thomas Aquinas. A nominalist, he denied that the forms of knowledge corresponded to those of being. He saw our concepts to be naturally occasioned by the world, but thought could not be taken as a measure of being. Specifically, Occam denied the existence of universals except in our minds and in language. An empiricist, Occam disputed the self-evidence of principles of Aristotelian logic (like the final cause) and of Christian theology (like the existence of God). For this reason Occam severely restricted the province of philosophy in order to safeguard theology, denying the competence of reason in matters of faith. Just as he had maintained a distinction between our concepts and being, he saw creation not as a necessary consequence of the divine intellect, as Aquinas had, but as an expression of God's limitless will. In the area of logic, where he had great influence, he is remembered for his use of the principle of parsimony, formulated as "Occam's razor," which enjoined economy in explanation with the axiom, "What can be done with fewer [assumptions] is done in vain with more." Like Marsilius of Padua, Occam strongly opposed the temporal power of the pope and wrote numerous works on the subject. His Dialogus is a thorough discussion of political theories.

See his philosophical writings (tr. and ed. by P. Boehner, 1957); biography by M. M. Adams (2 vol., 1986); see also E. A. Moody, The Logic of William of Ockham (1935, repr. 1965); A. S. McCrade, The Political Thought of William of Ockham (1974).

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