Died At Age: 60
Born Country: England
Born in: Ockham Civil Parish, United Kingdom
Famous as: Philosopher
Died on: April 10, 1347
Cause of Death: Plague
education: University of Oxford
Who was William of Ockham?
William of Ockham was a 14th century English scholastic philosopher, who belonged to the Franciscan Order. Both a logician and theologian, he is considered to be one of the central figures of thought during the High Middle Ages. An outstanding opponent of Thomas Aquinas, he destroyed the latter’s medieval synthesis of faith and reason. It brought the ire of the Catholic Church upon him, since Aquinas’s work was whole heartedly accepted by the religious body. As a theologian, he went against the mainstream to suggest that God was a matter of faith and thus theology was not a science. In the world of metaphysics, he championed the case for nominalism unlike any other contemporary of his time. In logic, William of Ockham explained how words bear meaning through his version of supposition theory. Similarly, he defended the idea that we ‘perceive’ our surroundings, which forms the base of not only our abstract concepts but also our knowledge about the world. A courageous man with an exceptionally sharp mind, William’s logic to his philosophical debates stood on the foundation of the principle of simplicity. Known today as ‘Occam’s Razor’, it eliminates needless hypothesis in the favor of the simplest evidentiary fact.
Childhood & Early Life
William of Ockham was born in late 1287 or early 1288 in Surrey, England. The suffix ‘Ockham’ refers to the village of his birth in Surrey.
Somewhere between the age of seven and thirteen years, he was taken in by the Order of the Friars Minor, a Franciscan order. He lived at the convent and also received his early education there.
Around 1310, he pursued theological studies, initially at a London Convent. He later enrolled at the University of Oxford.
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In the years 1318-1319, he lectured on Peter Lombard’s ‘Sentences’; the official theology textbook taught in universities until the 16th century, and thus completed his ‘baccalaureus formatus’ (undergraduate).
For the next four years, as he waited for his teaching license, he partook in various disputations of quodlibetic nature, and revised his lectures on Book I of Sentences (called ‘Ordinatio’) for circulation among public.
His teachings, while original and powerful, had become quite controversial among Dominican masters and Duns Scotus partisans. In 1323, John Lutterell, then chancellor of Oxford University, presented 56 propositions extracted from the young inceptor’s writings and accused him of heresy before the papal court in Avignon, France.
As a consequence, Pope John XXII summoned him to Avignon in 1324 and appointed a commission of theologians to look into the incriminating propositions in question. Two years later, the commission came back with strong views of censuring much of William’s propositions; a formal condemnation from the Pope, however, was absent.
In 1327, Michael of Cesena, a minister general of the Franciscan order was summoned to the papal court due to his disagreement with the Pope on the subject of ‘Apostolic Poverty’. By the next year, the two had a serious confrontation over the matter. So, Michael approached William for his academic opinion on the subject matter.
After much research and contemplation, he too concluded that Pope John XXII’s views were not only wrong but outright heretical. As a consequence, he and Michael, after composing and signing an appellate against the Pope, fled from Avignon to Italy on 26 May 1328. He was soon excommunicated for leaving Avignon without permission.
After spending some time on the run, he and his fellow Franciscans eventually found refuge in the court of Louis IV of Bavaria. Since Louis himself was not recognized by the Pope as the Holy Roman Emperor, it turned out to be a mutually serving association.
He moved to Munich with Louis IV of Bavaria in 1330. Under Louis’s protection, he and Michael aided the king in his struggles against Pope John XXII and successive Avignon papacy (Benedict XII and Clement VI) through their writings and timely counsel.
He spent his remaining years in Munich, writing fervently in support of the empire and the Francian notion of Apostolic poverty. In fact, from 1330 to 1339, William wrote roughly 15 political works. In one of them, he sided with the King of England on his decision to levy tax on church property.
Despite being impersonal and abstract, William of Ockham’s writings reveal his passion for logic in theology. ‘Ordinatio’, his commentary on Book I of Sentences showed rational thinking and distinguished not only between the incidental and the necessary but also between evidence and probabilities.
His ‘Opus nonaginta dierum’ (Work of 90 Days) is perhaps the most voluminous of his political works. In it, he clearly states that in certain areas like governance and taxation, the role of the king outweighs that of the church.
Awards & Achievements
William of Ockham is considered by many as the father of modern epistemology. According to him, only existence of humans was verifiable, whereas universals were but a mere abstraction of the human mind.
His logic of giving higher precedence to evidence over degrees of probability is what gave rise to the ‘Occam’s Razor’ a problem-solving principle that many modern analytical fields employ to date.
Family & Personal Life
William of Ockham was at odds with Pope John XXII primarily as both parties had opposite thoughts regarding the doctrine of ‘Apostolic Poverty’. While he was of the idea that members of the order should not own property either as individuals or groups since Christ and his apostles did not, the Avignon papacy was vehemently opposed to the idea.
As per his epitaph, he died on April 10, 1347 at Munich, and was buried in the choir of a Franciscan church there. There are other accounts which suggest he died during the Great Plague, which began around the same time.
William of Ockham’s teaching career was cut short when he had to leave Oxford for Avignon to face the papal court there. And because he never received his doctoral degree that he earned, he is often referred to as the ‘venerable inceptor’.