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Although it is true that Aquinas and Ockham disagreed on most issues, Aquinas had many other critics, and Ockham did not criticize Aquinas any more than he did others. It is fair enough, however, to say that Ockham was a major force of change at the end of the Middle Ages. He was a courageous man with an uncommonly sharp mind. His philosophy was radical in his day and continues to provide insight into current philosophical debates. In metaphysics, Ockham champions nominalism, the view that universal essences, such as humanity or whiteness, are nothing more than concepts in the mind.
He develops an Aristotelian ontology, admitting only individual substances and qualities. These perceptions give rise to all of our abstract concepts and provide knowledge of the world. In logic, Ockham presents a version of supposition theory to support his commitment to mental language. Supposition theory had various purposes in medieval logic, one of which was to explain how words bear meaning. Theologically, Ockham is a fideist, maintaining that belief in God is a matter of faith rather than knowledge.
Against the mainstream, he insists that theology is not a science and rejects all the alleged proofs of the existence of God. In the Euthyphro dialogue, Plato B. Although most philosophers affirm the latter, divine command theorists affirm the former. In political theory, Ockham advances the notion of rights, separation of church and state, and freedom of speech. Very little biographical information about Ockham survives. There is a record of his ordination in the year From this, we infer that he was born between and , presumably in the small town of Ockham, twenty-five miles southwest of London, England.
The medieval church in this town, All Saints, recently installed a stained glass window of Ockham because it is probably the church in which he grew up. Most likely, he spoke Middle English and wrote exclusively in Latin. From there, he pursued a degree in theology at Oxford University. He never completed it, however, because in he was summoned to the papal court, which had been moved from Rome to Avignon, to answer to charges of heresy.
Ockham remained in Avignon under a loose form of house arrest for four years while the papacy carried out its investigation. Through this ordeal Ockham became convinced that the papacy was corrupt and finally decided to flee with some other Franciscans on trial there. On May 26, they escaped in the night on stolen horses to the court of Louis of Bavaria, a would-be emperor, who had his own reasons for opposing the Pope.
They were all ex-communicated and hunted down but never captured. After a brief and unsuccessful campaign in Italy, Louis and his entourage settled in Munich. Ockham spent the rest of his days there as a political activist, writing treatises against the papacy.
Ockham died sometime between and , unreconciled with the Catholic Church. Methodologically, Ockham fits comfortably within the analytic philosophical tradition. He considers himself a devoted follower of Aristotle B. Ockham may simply have a unique understanding of Aristotle or he may be using Aristotle as cover for developing views he knew would be threatening to the status quo. Aside from Aristotle, the French Franciscan philosopher Peter John Olivi — was the single most important influence on Ockham.
Olivi is an extremely original thinker, pioneering direct realism, nominalism, metaphysical libertarianism, and many of the same political views that Ockham defends later in his career. One notable difference between the two, however, is that, while Ockham loves Aristotle, Olivi hates him. Ockham never acknowledges Olivi because Olivi was condemned as a heretic.
Ockham published several philosophical works before losing official status as an academic. The first was his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard , a standard requirement for medieval theology students. By commenting on this book, students would learn the art of argumentation while at the same time developing their own views.
As a student, Ockham also wrote several commentaries on the works of Aristotle. We do not know exactly when it was written, but it is the latest of his academic works. After the Avignon affair, Ockham wrote and circulated several political treatises unofficially, the most important of which is his Dialogue on the Power of the Emperor and the Pope. Ockham did not invent this principle; it is found in Aristotle, Aquinas, and other philosophers Ockham read.
Although Ockham never even makes an argument for the validity of the principle, he uses it in many striking ways, and this is how it became associated with him. For some, the principle of simplicity implies that the world is maximally simple.
Aquinas, for example, argues that nature does not employ two instruments where one suffices. We know today that nature is often redundant in both form and function. Although medieval philosophers were largely ignorant of evolutionary biology, they did affirm the existence of an omnipotent God, which is alone enough to render the assumption that the world is maximally simple suspicious. In any case, Ockham never makes this assumption and he does not use the popular formulation of the principle.
For Ockham, the principle of simplicity limits the multiplication of hypotheses not necessarily entities. At one level, this is just common sense. Suppose your car suddenly stops running and your fuel gauge indicates an empty gas tank. It would be silly to hypothesize both that you are out of gas and that you are out of oil. You need only one hypothesis to explain what has happened. Some would object that the principle of simplicity cannot guarantee truth. The gas gauge on your car may be broken or the empty gas tank may be just one of several things wrong with the car.
In response to this objection, one might point out that the principle of simplicity does not tell us which theory is true but only which theory is more likely to be true. Moreover, if there is some other of damage, such as a blinking oil gage, then there is a further fact to explain, warranting an additional hypothesis. Although the razor seems like common sense in everyday situations, when used in science, it can have surprising and powerful effects. Nevertheless, not everyone approves of the razor. He declares that if three things are not enough to verify an affirmative proposition about things, a fourth must be added, and so on.
Still others complain that there is no objective way to determine which of two theories is simpler. Often a theory that is simpler in one way is more complicated in another way. At bottom, Ockham advocates simplicity in order to reduce the risk of error. Every hypothesis carries the possibility that it may be wrong. The more hypotheses you accept, the more you increase your risk.
Ockham strove to avoid error at all times, even if it meant abandoning well-loved, traditional beliefs. This approach helped to earn him his reputation as destroyer of the medieval synthesis of faith and reason. One of the most basic challenges in metaphysics is to explain how it is that things are the same despite differences.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus — B. Every day everything changes a little bit and everywhere you go you find new things. Heraclitus concludes from such observations that nothing ever remains the same. All reality is in flux.
The problem with seeing the world this way is that it le to radical skepticism: if nothing stays the same from moment to moment and from place to place, then we can never really be certain about anything. Moreover, if Heraclitus is right, it seems science is impossible. We could learn the properties of a chemical here today and still have no basis for knowing its properties someplace else tomorrow. Needless to say, most people would prefer to avoid skepticism. Besides, it seems obvious that science is not impossible. Studying the world really does enable us to know how things are over time and across distances.
The fact that things change through time and vary from place to place does not seem to prevent us from having knowledge. From this, some philosophers, such as Plato and Augustine , draw the conclusion that Heraclitus was wrong to suppose that everything is in flux.
Something stays the same, something that lays underneath the changing and varying surfaces we perceive, namely, the universal essence of things. For example, although individual human beings change from day to day and vary from place to place, they all share the universal essence of humanity, which is eternally the same.
Likewise for dogs, trees, rocks, and even qualities—there must be a universal essence of blueness, heat, love, and anything else one can think of. Universal essences are not physical realities; if you dissect a human being, you will not find humanity inside like a kidney or a lung!
Nevertheless, universal essences are metaphysical realities: they provide the invisible structure of things. Although there are various different versions of metaphysical realism, they are all deed to secure a foundation for knowledge. It seems you have a choice: either you accept metaphysical realism or you are stuck with skepticism.
Ockham, however, argues that this is a false dilemma. He rejects metaphysical realism and skepticism in favor of nominalism: the view that universal essences are concepts in the mind. Earlier nominalists such as the French philosopher Roscelin , had advanced the more radical view that universal essences are just names that have no basis in reality. For example, when comes in contact with different human beings over time, he begins to form the concept of humanity.
The realist would say that he has detected the invisible common structure of these individuals. Ockham, in contrast, insists that the child has merely perceived similarities that fit naturally under one concept. It is tempting to assume that Ockham rejects metaphysical realism because of the principle of simplicity. After all, realism requires believing in invisible entities that might not actually exist. As a matter of fact, however, Ockham never uses the razor to attack realism.
And on closer examination, this makes sense: the realist position is that the existence of universal essences is a hypothesis necessary to explain how science is possible. Since Ockham was just as concerned as everyone else to avoid skepticism, he might have been persuaded by such an argument. Ockham has a much deeper worry about realism: he is convinced it is incoherent. Incoherence is the most serious charge a philosopher can level against a theory because it means that the theory contains a contradiction—and contradictions cannot be true.
Ockham asserts that metaphysical realism cannot be true because it holds that a universal essence is one thing and many things at the same time. The form of humanity is one thing, because it is what all humans have in common, but it is also many things because it provides an invisible structure of each individual one of us.
This is to say that it is both one thing and not one thing at the same time, which is a contradiction. Realists claim that this apparent contradiction can be explained in various ways. Ockham insists, however, that no matter how you explain it, there is no way to avoid the fact that the notion of a universal essence is an impossible hypothesis.
He writes,. There is no universal outside the mind really existing in individual substances or in the essences of things…. The reason is that everything that is not many things is necessarily one thing in and consequently a singular thing. Ockham presents a thought experiment to prove universal essences do not exist. He writes that, according to realism,. For, if he were to annihilate one individual, he would destroy the whole that is essentially that individual and, consequently, he would destroy the universal that is in it and in others of the same essence.
Other things of the same essence would not remain, for they could not continue to exist without the universal that constitutes a part of them. Since God is omnipotent, he should be able to annihilate a human being. But the universal form of humanity lies within that human being. So, by destroying the individual, he will destroy the universal. And if he destroys the universal, which is humanity, then he destroys all the other humans as well. The realist may wish to reply that destroying an individual human destroys only part of the universal humanity. But this contradicts the original assertion that the universal humanity is a single shared essence that is eternally the same for everyone!
For Ockham, this problem decisively defeats realism and leaves us with the nominalist alternative that universals are concepts caused in our minds when we perceive similar individuals. To support this alternative, Ockham develops an empiricist epistemology. Epistemology is the study of knowledge: what is it, and how do we come to have it?Love in ockham
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