Occam’s contribution to medieval philosophy is located within logic and metaphysics, not necessarily ‘reason and faith’. But, he does have his importance to this project. Top among these principles is the idea that has since come to be known as “Occam’s Razor”. The second is his denial that there are universal entities. Professor Williams remarks that he will go in-depth to both of these views before relating them to the project of ‘faith seeking understanding’.

The Principle of Ontological Parsimony is what some thinkers know Occam best for or more popularly known as Occam’s Razor. Occam expressed this principle like so “Plurality is not to be posited without necessity” which is simply a fancy way of saying that if something can be expressed using four things then it would do well for the person to use just four things and not five. Philosophically, this was not a new idea; it is, of course, common for thinkers to not to want and appeal to things which do not exist, which are not essential for the argument. In fact, in the 14th century, some people called this idea “Scotus’s Rule”. (Williams adds that as far as he can find, no one thought of calling it Occam’s Razor until 1836.)

So, yes, Occam was not the first to make use of this rule, but he was the first to make such an extensive use of it. For example, Occam thought that many philosophers had far too much recourse to assorted entities; two things are related so let’s have a special kind of entity called a ‘relation’, something undergoes an action, so let’s have an entity called a passion and so on. Occam’s problem with these entities is that every time one was admitted into a philosophy one had to explain how and why they were related to other entities. In the end, it became a claptrap. By using the Razor, Occam “pairs down his metaphysical system to something manageable”. He is interested in keeping things as simple as can be without losing the depth.

To be clear, Occam’s Razor does not argue against entities—relations—existing but simply argues against having a lackadaisical reason for them existing; an entity should not exist without a compelling reason for them to exist. In relation to the project of reason and faith, Occam’s razor is not only not often discussed but represents a destabilizing force. To understand why Williams remarks that we will have to take the ‘long way’ around and examine the metaphysics of the Razor which will construe its relation to Reason while the re-introduction of some theological elements constitutes the Faith aspect of the Razor.

Occam’s wields the Razor in relation to the Aristotelian doctrine of the Categories; Aristotle had recognized ten different categories: substance, quantity, quality, relation, action, passion, time, place, position, and habit. There was always a debate as to whether the categories were a classification of words or a classification of entities, are they about language or are they about metaphysics? Scotus had held that the categories were a classification of entities, they are not merely a guide to language but a guide to the kind of things that there are, that there are ten irreducible categories of Being. This was not an unusual position. As far as Occam was concerned, however, there were only two important categories—substance and quality; Substances are beings capable of independent existence. Qualities are the characteristics of substances. That’s it.

Scotus had argued that when two things are related, there is an actual being in the category of relation. Supposed that two philosophers are pale. If so, then both philosophers are similar to one another. According to Scotus, this means that Philosopher A bears the relation of similarity to Philosopher B. That means there is an entity called Similarity to Philosopher B in addition to paleness itself. Same for the other philosopher which will have an entity called Similarity to Philosopher A.

Occam takes aim at this idea by analyzing statements that appear to refer to relational entities. Take the statement “Socrates is similar to Plato” what do we need in order for that statement to be true? Paleness, primarily, if both are in fact pale. This way, one gets the Quality for “free”, so to speak. So, this idea of “Similarity to Plato”/ ”Similarity to Socrates” is superfluous.

Occam’s second strategy is to rely on the spirit of the Condemnation of 1277 and relies on the power of God’s logical prowess in being able to do anything that is logically possible. For example, if two entities are distinct, then God can create one without creating the other. If the relation of “Similarity to Plato” really is a distinct entity, then God could create that relation by itself. God could create that relation and put it in Socrates even if Plato was never going to exist. Such seems absurd.

And so, Occam proceeds to eliminate all of the qualities like so other than Substance (Plato, horses, oak trees, etc.) and Quality (Paleness, brownness, etc.). With both of these, we can do everything we need to do in metaphysics. However, we cannot do everything in theology. This is where the easy path of tracing between Aquinas and Scotus begins to unravel.

In theology, there is a mild need for relational entities. Take the doctrine of the Trinity, for example; without relational thinking, there is no way to distinguish the three persons; the Son is distinguished from the Father due to the filial relation of “Sonship”. The Holy Spirit is distinguished from the Father and the Son by the real relation of Spiration or Procession. These relations can’t be analyzed away like with the similarities of philosophers as these relations are fully real.

Occam is simply trying to give a coherent account of the Trinity which aligns with Christian orthodoxy. But, by retaining for exclusively theological purposes, ideas that Reason alone has no use for, Occam has destabilized the medieval accommodation between Faith and Reason. Because this destabilization is something that Williams will take up in the next lecture, he turns to Occam’s denial of Universals.

The problem with universals is the problem of what if anything is the reality of something like whiteness. Beyond the particulars of specific whitenesses (clouds, snow, paper, etc.) is there a universal whiteness? If so, then what sort of thing is that and what sets it apart from the particular whitenesses?

Boethius had once defined a universal as a constituent of something; Boviness for cows, as an example, would be a fundamental characteristic of bovines present in every cow. Medievals, in general, accepted the presence of universals though many disagreed on the specifics. Why so many agreed on the fundamentals of universals is that universals helped with epistemology; that is, they are useful for grounding knowledge and the language which expresses such knowledge. In three ways, universals make themselves known by (1) providing objects for the intellects, (2) providing subject matter for the sciences, and (3) without universals, the predicates we use in describing things won’t actually refer to anything. Universals explain the difference between sensation and understanding, they ground predication, and they provide a subject matter for the sciences. The flipside, though, is that universals make things much harder in metaphysics.

It is hard to pin down what a universal is in theology because they behave in odd ways. For example, universals are one and yet many; the universal red is one thing but, yet it also exists in everything which is it, red. How can one thing exist but also simultaneously in many things? Universals are also “in” things but also “separate” from them; the universal “Man” or “Humanity” exists but must also exist in every man. How is this possible? Occam argues that the very idea of universal entities is incoherent. Occam’s actual argument is more complicated than we really need to follow since he takes the views of several of his predecessors and his contemporaries, and argues against them one by one. For now, it is enough to know that he rejects them. End of story.

Occam argues that universals are not needed for epistemological purposes. Same for the idea that universals are objects are the intellect, he simply denies it. Occam says that when he has the sensation of a dog, for example, that sensation is limited to that particular dog, it is a particular dog that registers with his sense organs. But, when I understand “dogs” that understanding simply means that I understand all dogs, not that I understand “dogness” per se. That is the difference between sensation and intellectual understanding. Not their objects but their scope; the scope of sensation is a single item; the scope of intellectual understanding is the scope of all intellectual items of a given kind.

Occam gives a similar understanding of the universality of the sciences. We don’t need universal entities to provide objects for the sciences. Rather, what we need are sentences which give us general terms; to take an easy example, take the claim that “cats are mammals”. Occam says that that claim is not about the mysterious universal entity of cathood but about particular cats. What makes it a scientific and universal claim is that it contains general terms (cat, mammal). The general terms because they apply to many things but they are not the names of universal entities and they don’t need to be in order for scientific statements to be universal statements.

Finally, Occam explains how one can ground predication without recourse to universal entities. All’s we need to give an objective basis to the statement “the rose is red” is the rose and its redness. Again, substances and qualities are all we need. The particular redness of the particular rose will do the trick in place of an overly complicated universal. The concept is general but not because it is the concept of a universal entity but because that concept can be applied to many distinct things.

Occam’s nominalism—his denial of universals—was widely influential and some historians of medieval thought, especially those partial to Thomas Aquinas, have regarded it as the beginning of all the philosophical and theological ills of modernity. At this point, Williams goes on a tangent about the history of Occam’s thought and since it is rather lengthy and not directly relevant, I will not reprint such musings and leave Occam’s legacy to you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s