William of Ockham, fourteenth-century Scholastic philosopher and controversial writer, b. at or near the village of Ockham in Surrey, England, about 1280; d. probably at Munich, about 1349. He is said to have studied at Merton College, Oxford, and to have had John Duns Scotus for teacher. At an early age he entered the Order of St. Francis. Towards 1310 he went to Paris, where he may have had Scotus once more for a teacher. About 1320 he became a teacher (magister) at the University of Paris. During this portion of his career he composed his works on Aristotelean physics and on logic. In 1323 he resigned his chair at the university in order to devote himself to ecclesiastical politics. In the controversies which were waged at that time between the advocates of the papacy and those who supported the claims of the civil power, he threw his lot with the imperial party, and contributed to the polemical literature of the day a number of pamphlets and treatises, of which the most important are “Opus nonaginta dierum”, “Compendium errorum Joannis Papae XXII”, “Quaestiones octo de auctoritate summi pontificis”. He was cited before the pontifical Court at Avignon in 1328, but managed to escape and join John of Jandun and Marsilius of Padua, who had taken refuge at the Court of Louis of Bavaria. It was to Louis that he made the boastful offer, “Tu me defendas gladio; ego te defendam calamo”.
In his controversial writings William of Ockham appears as the advocate of secular absolutism. He denies the right of the popes to exercise temporal power, or to interfere in any way whatever in the affairs of the Empire. He even went so far as to advocate the validity of the adulterous marriage of Louis’s son, on the grounds of political expediency, and the absolute power of the State in such matters. In philosophy William advocated a reform of Scholasticism both in method and in content. The aim of this reformation movement in general was simplification. This aim he formulated in the celebrated “Law of Parcimony”, commonly called “Ockham’s Razor”: “Entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate”. With this tendency towards simplification was united a very marked tendency towards skepticism, a distrust, namely, of the ability of the human mind to reach certitude in the most important problems of philosophy. Thus, in the process of simplification, he denied the existence of intentional species, rejected the distinction between essence and existence, and protested against the Thomistic doctrine of active and passive intellect. His skepticism appears in his doctrine that human reason can prove neither the immortality of the soul nor the existence, unity, and infinity of God. These truths, he teaches, are known to us by Revelation alone. In ethics he is a voluntarist, maintaining that all distinction between right and wrong depends on the will of God. William’s best known contribution to Scholastic philosophy is his theory of universals, which is a modified form of Nominalism, more closely allied to Conceptualism than to Nominalism of the extreme type. The universal, he says, has no existence in the world of reality. Real things are known to us by intuitive knowledge, and not by abstraction. The universal is the object of abstractive knowledge. Therefore, the universal concept has for its object, not a reality existing in the world outside us, but an internal representation which is a product of the understanding itself and which “supposes” in the mind, for the things to which the mind attributes it, that is it holds, for the time being, the place of the things which it represents. It is the term of the reflective act of the mind. Hence the universal is not a mere word, as Roscelin taught, nor a sermo, as Abelard held, namely the word as used in the sentence, but the mental substitute for real things, and the term of the reflective process. For this reason Ockham has been called a “Terminist”, to distinguish him from Nominalists and Conceptualists.
Ockham’s attitude towards the established order in the Church and towards the recognized system of philosophy in the academic world of his day was one of protest. He has, indeed, been called “the first Protestant”. Nevertheless, he recognized in his polemical writings the authority of the Church in spiritual matters, and did not diminish that authority in any respect. Similarly, although he rejected the rational demonstration of everal truths which are fundamental in the Christian system of theology, he held firmly to the same truths as matters of faith. His effort to simplify Scholasticism was no doubt well-intentioned, and the fact that simplification was the fashion in those days would seem to indicate that a reform was needed. The over-refined subtleties of discussion among the Scholastics themselves, the multiplication of “formalities” by the followers of Scotus, the undue importance attached by some of the Thomists to their interpretation of the intentional species, and the introduction of the abstruse system of terminology which exceeded the bounds of good taste and moderation—all these indicated that the period of decay of Scholasticism had set in. On the other hand, it must be said that, while his purpose may have been the best, and while his effort was directed towards correcting an abuse that really existed, Ockham carried his process of simplification too far, and sacrificed much that was essential in Scholasticism while trying to rid Scholasticism of faults which were incidental.