William of Ockham, is, along with Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus, among the most prominent figures in the history of philosophy and theology during the High Middle Ages. He hailed from the British Isles, from the village of that name in Surrey. He became a Franciscan friar and studied and taught at Oxford University, although he never became a fully qualified “master of theology” and hence the nickname, Venerabilis Inceptor, “Venerable Beginner”. There he was accused of teaching dangerous doctrines by John Lutterell, the chancellor of the University. Lutterell went to Avignon in 1323 and denounced Ockham for maintaining heretical positions. Ockham was summoned there by Pope John XXII and a commission of six theologians was set up to examine the charges. It censured 51 positions taken from his works but no formal condemnation followed. In 1327, the Minister General of the Franciscans, Michael of Cesena was summoned to Avignon in connection with the dispute on Franciscan poverty on which the Franciscans and Pope John XXII had divergent views. Michael charged Ockham to examine the papal pronouncements on this subject till then. Ockham in his study concluded that Pope John XXII was not only wrong but had taken up heretical positions which infuriated the Pope. Sensing that it was not safe to remain there, Michael of Cesena, Ockham, and a few other sympathetic Franciscans fled Avignon and went into exile and finally took refuge in Bavaria under the protection of Louis of Bavaria where he remained till his death in 1347. In 1328 he was excommunicated and in 1331 he was sentenced to expulsion from the Franciscan order and to perpetual imprisonment. During those years he wrote many violently polemical works against the pope and the papacy.
William Ockham was a vigorous, critical and independent thinker, philosopher and theologian. He contributed to the development of formal logic, and all his works display a logician’s approach. He eliminated the notion, then generally accepted, of the existence of universals. Only individual things exist and they are directly apprehended by the mind. This intuitive knowledge is naturally caused. On the theological side much of Ockham’s thinking is determined by his resolute attempt to eliminate anything that limited God’s omnipotence and freedom. But God’s omnipotence cannot philosophically proved. It has to be accepted on faith through revelation. The same is true of his omniscience. Ockham also criticized the traditional proofs of the existence of God as not philosophically demonstrable. In short he destroyed the conception of the relationship between philosophy and theology as elaborated by Scholasticism. Ockham, like Duns Scotus, also emphasized the primacy of love over knowledge, of will over intellect, both in God and in humankind. Our response, therefore, should be one of love more than of knowledge. Aquinas’ order of importance was thus subtly altered. He also stressed the freedom and transcendence of God and individuality within creation. He struggled against what he saw as the dangers of reducing God to human categories of thought and of exaggerating the similarities among humans at the expense of their uniqueness. He sought to simplify both philosophical and theological discourse. “Beings (and therefore explanations) should not be multiplied unnecessarily” (entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem) was the dictum attributed to him, “Ockham’s Razor” as it came to be called. Ockham saw his task as the purification of Aristotle’s teaching and Christian theology of unwanted assumptions such as the existence of universals. His radical criticism of the prevailing belief in the reality of universals, his grounding of human knowledge in intuitive cognition and his rethinking of the relation of theology to philosophy marked the beginning of what was later characterized as the via moderna as opposed to the via antiqua, represented by the Thomists and Scotists. By his interest in singulars rather than universals, intuition rather than abstraction and induction rather than deduction, he prepared the ground for a more scientific approach to reality. Ockham exercised enormous influence on the intellectual life of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. His philosophical and theological influence pervaded the universities for centuries and he is considered the inspirer of Nominalism, a highly influential philosophical concept. His political theories played an important part in the development of the conciliar movement of the 14th and 15th centuries.
(Professor of Church History at Oriens Theological College, Shillong)