William of Ockham and Lorenzo Valla: False Friends. Semantics and Ontological Reduction *

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Lorenzo Valla's attack on scholastic-Aristotelian logic and metaphysics in his Repastinatio dialectice et philosophie has frequently been associated with medieval nominalism. (1) It is not difficult to see why. Valla's attempt to simplify medieval logic and metaphysics seems obviously related to similar attempts by nominalists such as William of Ockham. Both Ockham (ca. 1285-ca. 1349) and Valla (1407-57) admit of only substances and inhering qualities, reducing the ten Aristotelian categories (quantity, relation, time, place, etc.) to these two. (2) Both thinkers show an aversion to abstract entities of various kinds, and attack one as a transcendental term, criticize the notion of privation, equate action with passion, and reject the additional moods of the first figure of the syllogism. Already in his De veris principiis et vera ratione philosophandi contra pseudophilosophos, published in 1553, Mario Nizolio (1488-1567) frequently mentions both names in his praise of nominalist philosophy. (3)

It is therefore not surprising to find various references to Ockham in the source apparatus to the modern critical edition of Valla's Repastinatio, which suggests that he was following in Ockham's footsteps. The editor even speaks of Valla's "occamismo." (4) Other scholars too have emphasized that, in spite of the obvious differences in background and thinking between Ockham and Valla, there are structural similarities at a deeper level. W. Scott Blanchard has argued in a recent article that Valla's critique of the universals and Aristotelian categories "continues late medieval developments in the logic of William of Ockham," and that "his theory of the relationship that exists between language and the world is, with some qualification, broadly nominalistic, and therefore represents a continuation of certain medieval developments." (5) Fubini writes that in the Repastinatio "L'impronto del nominalismo occamistico e qui evidente." (6) The best developed articulation of this position is by Eckhard Kessler, who speaks of "Vallas Anknupfung an Ockham" (Valla's linking up to Ockham). He has argued that "the Ockhamist interpretation of Aristotle's Organon was the foundation of Valla's reform." (7) Likewise, Donald R. Kelley has written on Valla's "rhetorical nominalism." According to him, the rejection by Valla of the traditional transcendentals was "much in the fashion of William of Ockham, who had a similar aversion to arbitrary abstraction." "Like Ockham, Valla was almost unutterably literal-minded, and he tended to regard philosophy as the science of terms, not things. Like Ockham, too, he had a principle of economy, a grammatical kind of 'razor.'" (8)

Others have been more skeptical. In particular, John Monfasani has maintained that "Valla's anti-realist tendencies start from quite a different basis than Ockham's, and Valla's logical system can hardly be accommodated to Ockham's." (9) Moreover, Valla believes in the Augustinian notion of divine illumination, which squares oddly with his alleged nominalism. And the same holds true, according to Monfasani, for his "predestinarianism" which "put him in fundamental opposition to their [i.e., the Ockhamists] voluntarism." (10) When pressed, we would better call him a realist, who believed in the eternal existence of the true ideas, rather than a nominalist. (11)

The aim of this article is to question the dominant interpretation of Valla's thought. It will confirm Monfasani's basic view that the differences are more striking and significant than the alleged similarities by making a comparison between Ockham and Valla, which no scholar has offered so far. In addition, it should be remembered that nominalism is a slippery concept, and can be applied to various disciplines and themes. Valla's views of theological issues such as predestination and free will may place him outside the camp of nominalists, but it is not thereby ruled out that he was a nominalist in his thinking on language. …