The Franciscan friar William of Ockham was an influential philosopher, logistician, ethicist, and theologian who lived from about 1287 to 1347. Ockham (also spelled Occam) is a contraction of the name of the village William grew up in—Oak Hamlet. As a child, he was trained in logic and natural philosophy at London Greyfriars; later, he studied theology at Oxford. He did not finish Oxford before returning to London Greyfriars where he developed and wrote many of his philosophical works. While there, an unknown adversary accused William of heresy, and he was called to the papal court at Avignon, France, to defend himself.
In Avignon, William of Ockham finished one of his major works, Quodlibetal Questions, or Quodlibets. The Latin word quodlibet meant “any whatever,” so Ockham’s book dealt with a broad range of topics as he pondered issues in logic, ontology, philosophical psychology, morality, and theology. William was acquitted of the charges of heresy and was asked to investigate whether or not Pope John XXII’s insistence that Jesus’ disciples did not have to live in poverty, at the mercy of the generosity of others, was biblical. Ockham’s conclusion was that the pope was not only wrong but that he was stubbornly, heretically wrong in the face of facts. This conclusion led other Franciscans to determine that John was not a legitimate pope. Ockham fled to Munich, Bavaria, along with the pope’s Franciscan accusers; Ockham lived out the rest of his life under the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor.
William of Ockham wrote treatises on theology, morality, logic, and politics, including the politics of the church. In metaphysics, William of Ockham is considered a nominalist in that he denied metaphysical universals—that is, general terms such as dog are meaningless apart from the actual thing we call a “dog.”
Ockham is most widely known today for a principle named after him: “Ockham’s Razor”: “For nothing ought to be posited without a reason given, unless it is self-evident or known by experience or proved by the authority of Sacred Scripture” (Sent. I, dist. 30, q. 1). This razor shaves away complicated and extraneous explanations any time a simpler explanation will suffice. Ironically, coming from one who championed logic so heavily, Ockham’s Razor is not a logical law but a philosophical guideline—a handy reference that is true in general, but not an absolute. It basically states that we should not try to justify or explain the existence of anything beyond what is necessary—we should not try to over-complicate things or assume unneeded hypotheticals. And, in the end, the only necessary thing is God.
Such thinking was part of a turning point in Western thought. Where earlier philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas believed theology could be determined through reason, John Duns Scotus and, later, William of Ockham thought not. Philosophy, the natural sciences, and other studies were well served by reason, but God is neither defined nor confined by reason. Ockham and his followers believed in the Divine Command Theory, which states a rule is good if God gives the rule. “Goodness” and “morality” are determined by what God commands, not by any intrinsic quality the rule possesses or the outcome of following the rule. It is a happy result of God’s nature that the rules He gives are for our benefit.
Perhaps because of his dealings with Pope John XXII, Ockham also rejected papal or council authority as the final say on theology and ethics. To Ockham, the only steadfast source of God’s truth was the Scriptures. In regard to salvation, he followed the Catholic line that salvation is the result of virtue and merit, but that our meritorious works rely on a gift of grace from God.
Ockham’s love of logic and philosophy was subdued in the face of his theology. He believed that theology was served by logic and academia in the academic world, but the simplest person could be inspired by the Holy Spirit to understand and communicate spiritual truths. His courageous defiance of the pope and his brilliant presentation of philosophical theories had a significant effect in the Middle Ages and beyond.