William of Ockham was an English philosopher, theologian and a Franciscan friar, known as one of the greatest figures of medieval thought. He is considered to be the father of nominalism and modern epistemology and is famous for devising the principle of Ockham’s razor. He is known for great contributions to philosophy, theology and logic. His opinions led him to excommunication and he was only rehabilitated after his death.
A little is known about Ockham’s background. His parents remain unknown, as well as the information on the possible siblings. We can conclude from his name that he was born in a small place called Ockham in the Surrey County, which is located in the southeastern part of England.
Obscure data is available when it comes to the early years of William of Ockham. It is presumed that he grew up in the local All Saints’ Church and that he was accepted into the Franciscan order when he was about fourteen years old. He probably received his education by the London convent which was the center of education for the region in which Ockham lived. Archbishop of Canterbury ordained him as a sub-deacon in 1306.
It is believed that Ockham was also among the students that went to Paris to continue their training. After the return, in 1809 Ockham went to the Oxford University to study theology. At the time Peter Lombard’s Book of Sentences was an essential theologian literature for anyone who aimed for a higher degree. All students were asked to comment on this book, and when Ockham held a lecture where he presented them, he was first noticed as a student with some bold stances. Despite that, in 1318 he got the permission to hear confessions and got his bachelor’s degree in 1320.
Ockham started teaching in a Franciscan school in 1321, lecturing on natural philosophy and logic. He used the next couple of years to write significant works on the topic in question, with Summa Logicae singling out as a monumental, three-volume piece. This is believed to have been the most extensive logical treatise between Aristotle and Bolzano, who lived in the 19th century.
However, many strongly opposed Ockham’s stances and he had to explain them to both his provincial chapter and the Papal Court in Avignon, who accused him of being heretical. When he was invited to hand over his writings and lectures for examination in 1324, he decided to move to Avignon. In a misfortunate turn of events for Ockham, they were examined for heresy by John Lutterell, former chancellor of the Oxford University who considered Ockham a heretic when they were together at the university.
There were in total 49 charges that Ockham was tried for. However, he was waiting for the process to be finished and a decision to be made, he decided to study pronouncements concerning the collective poverty made by the current Pope John XXII. He concentrated on the Christ’s and the apostles’ poverty and logically concluded that the pronouncements are in accordance with the ones that were made by previous popes. Ockham started to believe that the religious system is corrupt and he even denounced Pope John XXII with written charges, claiming he is no true pope.
Surprisingly or not, he found certain support with fellow Franciscans, and they’ve decided to flee from Avignon in 1328. Ockham and his followers found support in Emperor Ludwig of Bavaria, who was previously excommunicated and thus was on no great terms with the Pope. Soon, John XXII excluded Ockham and his friends from the Catholic Church, too. Ockham was in Pisa at the time but when he found out that a warrant for his arrest had been issued, he moved to Munich, where he enjoyed the Emperor Ludwig’s protection and, although the authorities located Ockham, they couldn’t arrest him.
Ockham joined the Franciscan convent in Munich and began writing treatises about the relations between church and state. This work was sponsored by the Emperor so Ockham advocated that the emperor should have control over both church and state. He concentrated on these works and he somewhat neglected philosophy and logic.
Ockham died in 1347, probably due to natural causes. Pope Innocent VI rehabilitated him in 1359, after confirming that his philosophy was never officially pronounced as heretical.
Ockham was a devoted Catholic that joined the Franciscan order early in his life. After raising controversy with some of his stances and opinions, he was excommunicated by Pope John XXII in 1328. However, his philosophy was never officially condemned as heretical, and he was rehabilitated by Pope Innocent XI in 1359.
He became politically active later in his life, when he wrote numerous treatises where he advocated that Emperor Ludwig of Bavaria should have supreme control over both church and state. It remains a dilemma whether these were his personal stances or he wrote these treatises because they were sponsored by Emperor Ludwig.
Ockham was influenced by Aristotle and mostly supported his ideas. When it comes to philosophy, he discussed the issue of universals, asking if anything in our reality exists that can be in correspondence with our general concepts and words. Ockham stated mathematical terms by using conditional form and didn’t feel as necessary to suppose that mathematical entities actually exist to make them useful. He is considered to be a father not only of nominalism but also of epistemology.
He made significant contributions in the mathematical logic, where he considered a three-valued logic – here, propositions can take one of three truth values. It is incredible that it was in the 20th century when this became important for the science of mathematics and Ockham was studying it more than 500 years earlier.
Ockham defined a conjunctive proposition in the Summa Logicae as a mixture of more than one categorical proposition that are connected by “and”. Similarly, a disjunctive proposition is a mixture of more categorical propositions that are connected by “or”. A conjunctive is only true if all conjuncts are true, and a disjunctive is true only if some of the disjunctions are true.
However, he is most famous for his Ockham’s razor principle. Basically, this principle suggests that when one is constructing a theory, he should always make sure to incline towards simplicity, without the need to complicate explanation of things too much.
"It is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer"
He was a modest and peaceful man, who offered some very innovative stances and opinions based on logic and reasoning.
: Ockham didn't need luxury, and his physical appearance was modest, in accordance with the fact that he was a friar.
“"William of Ockham was certainly among the most imaginative, competent, and prolific of Medieval logicians. The scope of the apparently original concepts, problems, and results found in his works is impressive, if not astounding" - Corcoran”
Philosophers & Thinkers
Aristotle, Peter John Olivi
Emperor Ludwig of Bavaria
Ockham never married and didn't have any children.