One of the most provocative thinkers of the 14th century

Oct 2012    

WITHOUT A DOUBT, the 14th century is one of the most tumultuous in the history of Europe. It was the century in which ancient and established institutions were crumbling even as new centres of learning, especially universities, were beginning to proliferate.

This century also saw some of the greatest political upheavals, including the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), which not only radically changed prevailing social perceptions of war, but also ignited nationalistic sentiments in hitherto unprecedented ways.

As the century that witnessed both the Great Famine (1315-1322) and the Plague of the Black Death (1340s-1350s), the 14th century is one in which many lives were lost through the twin scourge of natural calamities and disease. However, despite the chaos, set-backs and uncertainties, this century has produced some of the most brilliant and creative minds in Western intellectual history – Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Francesco Petrarch (1304-74) and Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400).

One of the most interesting theologians in this period is William of Ockham, a Franciscan Friar and scholastic philosopher. Ockham’s life was almost as tumultuous as the period to which he belongs. Although he completed all the requirements for the doctorate at Oxford, he was never awarded the degree.

In 1323, he was ex-communicated for his scathing criticism of Pope John XXII’s pronouncements on monastic poverty, describing it as “heretical, erroneous, stupid, ridiculous, fantastic, insane and defamatory”. He was eventually charged with 56 counts of heresy, and forced to live in exile in Munich for the rest of his life.

He died of the plague at the age of 50. At his death, he left a large body of work in philosophy and theology that would distinguish him as one of the most provocative thinkers of his time. Ockham is not only credited for changing how philosophy was done but also for exerting a significant influence on the 16th century Reformers, especially Martin Luther.

Even people who are generally unfamiliar with Ockham’s works would have heard the well-known phrase “Ockham’s Razor”. This is a principle that the 14 th century thinker introduced to philosophy that is now widely recognised as a significant breakthrough in modern science. According to Ockham, “to employ a number of principles [to explain phenomena] when it is possible to use a few is a waste of time”.

The principle of parisimony, as the “Razor” is sometimes called, basically discourages the unnecessary proliferation of explanations. When this principle is applied in philosophy, it discards as unnecessary the cumbersome positing of dual causation for events. If something can be explained on the basis of natural laws, Ockham argues, there is no need to appeal to a spiritual cause. Parisimony is therefore a philosophical device that he uses to scrape away the encrusted philosophies and theologies of late medieval scholasticism.

One of his most fascinating contributions to philosophy is his view on universals. What is a universal? Simply put, a universal is a quality that is shared by two or more individuals. For example, when we say that Robert and John are wise, we are attributing the universal quality “wisdom” to the two individuals. The debate among medieval theologians and philosophers alike has to do with the ontological status of a universal. Put differently, does a universal (in this case, “wisdom”) have a reality apart from the individuals who possess it? Or is a universal real only in relation to those individuals? Apart from individuals, are universals only ideas in our minds?

THE OLDEST VIEW concerning the status of the universal, commonly associated with Plato, is called transcendental realism. According to this view, a universal is an abstract property that exists independently of the individuals who possess it. Thus, according this view, wisdom will continue to exist as an abstract reality even if John and Robert do not exist. In fact, wisdom will continue to exist even if there are no wise persons in the world.

When Aristotle came unto the scene, however, he modified Plato’s theory of universals significantly. According to Aristotle, a universal has no existence independent of particulars. It exists only in the individual. According to this view, if for whatever reason the world becomes totally devoid of wise persons, wisdom would cease to exist. This Aristotelian view of the status of the universal is called moderate or immanent realism. It is the view that most medieval theologians espouse, including Thomas Aquinas.

Ockham is classified as a nominalist because he rejected realist accounts of universals. According to nominalism, a universal has neither independent reality apart from individuals nor reality in the individuals. Nominalism therefore rejects both the Platonic and Aristotelian versions of realism. According to this view, universals have no extra-mental reality whatsoever. Instead, they are merely mental fictions, signs or categories that we construct in our minds to order reality. Thus, a universal is a sign that we invent to speak about certain common qualities found in a variety of things.

Some scholars, however, maintain that Ockham cannot be strictly categorised as a nominalist because his view appears to be more nuanced. Unlike the medieval nominalists who insist that universals are nothing more than the ideas one concocts to organise experience, Ockham believes that universals are actually capable of representing reality. Thus, theologians like Justo Gonzales and philosophers like Anthony Kenny prefer to describe Ockham as a conceptualist because of his belief that although universals are mental concepts, they are not merely fictions but are capable of conveying something true about reality.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.


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