WILLIAM OF OCKHAM
William of Ockham was born in Ockham, England, around 1285. He joined the Franciscan order and studied at Oxford University. In 1324 he was accused of heresy and was denied a license to teach. He was involved in theological controversies and took refuge in Munich under the protection of Emperor Ludwig of Bavaria. He died in 1349.
Ockham is best known for the “Law of Parsimony” or “Ockham's Razor”: “Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.” In other words, other things being equal, we should always adopt the simpler explanation.
Ockham applied this principle to the problem of universals and particulars. All there is are particular things or substances. The notion of universals is an unnecessary invention. There is no real universal apart from the particular thing. This position is called Nominalism as distinguished from Realism, the view that universals exist apart from individual substances. Ockham has been viewed as the founder of Nominalism. An early letter from the Nominalist masters of the University of Paris to King Louis XI in 1473 sets forth the Nominalist position.
Those doctors are called Nominalists who do not multiply the things principally signified by terms
in accordance with the multiplication of the terms. Realists, however, are those who contend on
the contrary that things are multiplied according to the multiplicity of terms. For example, Nom-
inalists say that divinity and wisdom are one and the same thing altogether, because everything
which is in God, is God. But realists say that the divine wisdom is divided from divinity.
Again, those are called Nominalists who show diligence and zeal in understanding all the prop-
erties of terms on which the truth and falsity of a sentence depends, and without which the per-
fect judgment of the truth and falsity of propositions cannot be made. These properties are: sup-
position, appellation, ampliation, restriction, exponible distribution. They especially understand
obligations and the nature of the insoluble, the true foundation of dialectical arguments and their
failure. Being instructed in these things, they easily understand concerning any given argumenta-
tion whether it is good or bad. But the Realists neglect all these things, and they condemn them,
saying, “We proceed to things, we have no concern for terms.” Against them Master John Ger-
son said, “While you proceed to things, neglecting terms, you fall into complete ignorance of
things themselves.” This is in his treatise on the Magnificat; and he added that the said Realists
involve themselves in inexplicable difficulties, since they seek difficulty where there is none, un-
less it is logical difficulty.1
1 Translated by James J. Walsh from the text of Ehrle, Der Sentenzenkommentater Peters von Can-
dida in Philosophy in the Middle Ages, ed. Arthur Hyman and James J. Walsh (Indianapolis: Hack-
ett Publishing Co., 1973), p. 649f.