Archive for the ‘Medieval philosophy’ Category

William of Ockham: the razor

tumblr_lkbnplBW571qcsdmhWilliam of Ockham was (in)famous for his uncomplicated approach to philosophical matters. It was William’s view that the theses of scholastic philosophy and natural theology had become too cumbersome. As a solution he advanced a reform of both method and content with the primary aim of creating a more simple theological system.

Ockham has a principle of parsimony named after him – Occam’s razor. This has often lead to the misconception that William was the innovator of parsimonious thought. However, an endorsement of simplicity can be found as far as back as Aristotle:

We may assume the superiority ceteris paribus of the demonstration which derives from fewer postulates or hypotheses.

Posterior analytics

And Aquinas also writes:

If a thing can be done adequately by means of one, it is superfluous to do it by means of several; for we observe that nature does not employ two instruments where one suffices.

In fact, many similar advocates of simplicity can be found commonly through scholastic writings.

So why is the principle named after Ockham? Many commentators offer the theory that because of William’s zealous application of reforming simplicity to scholastic philosophy, the principle of parsimony has in modern times come to bear his name.

William of Ockham: voluntarism, conceptualism and universals

William_of_OckhamWilliam of Ockham (1288 – 1348) was an English Friar and influential scholastic philosopher . He is believed to have been born in Ockham (hence the name “of Ockham”). He was a pupil of Duns Scotus.

Although William is well known for the principle of parsimony which bears his name, Occam’s razor, there is nothing particularly Ockham-ite about it – the principle itself is as at least old as the ancient Greeks (more on that in a future post). However, Ockham’s more influential work often goes unmentioned, most likely because of its theological nature. It is often said that if Descartes is the father of modernism, than William is its grandfather.

Shortly before Ockham’s rise to prominence, there was a growing disquiet among scholastic philosophers that Aquinas’ Aristotelian philosophy had locked God within a rationalist straight-jacket. For if Aquinas were correct about natural law and if natural substances really did have natures and essences, then it would appear at first glance that there were limitations upon God’s power. For example, according to Aquinas the nature of man causes the act of murder or adultery to always be bad for us – and there can be no way for God to change that. Per Aquinas this is not a real limitation of God’s power, because omnipotence cannot include the power to bring about a contradiction – however, other philosophers took a different view.

Like Scotus, Ockham was a voluntarist (though it is important to note that Ockham’s voluntarism is much stronger than Scotus’). Ockham, affirming the supremacy of the divine will over the divine intellect, encounters a problem: if universals are real (i.e. natures and essences exist in things as Aquinas/Aristotle say) then voluntarism cannot be true. Ockham’s solution is simple: the denial of the reality of universals. William adopts a conceptualist position on universals: while the universal (or concept) exists in the mind beholding a certain particular, it does not exist in the particular itself. Because there are no universals or common natures, there can only be a collection of unrelated individuals (and arguably the rise of modern individualism). With universals removed from the picture, God is free to will as he chooses.

The consequences of Ockham’s voluntarism and conceptualism were disastrous to natural theology. As the capricious divine will is paramount, there can be nothing in nature which gives man access to theological truth. Accordingly, Ockham emphasises the role of faith and divine revelation in the life of the believer – in this way Ockham is a forerunner to modern fideists such as Kierkegaard.

Duns Scotus and voluntarism


As discussed previously, Aquinas follows Aristotle’s intellectualism in regards to the relationship of the will and the intellect. That is to say, movements of the will are informed by the intellect, which has the power of perceiving what is good. In this way, the intellect is primary to the will.

Voluntarism involves a reversal of this idea – that it is the will which determines which objects are good while remaining itself in-determined. The Latin root of the English word voluntarism is voluntas; meaning the will, desire and also arbitrariness.

Duns Scotus was one of the most famous proponents of voluntarism in medieval times, and his ideas were largely influential on his pupil William of Ockham.

Due to his voluntarism, Scotus’ views on natural law were  in stark contrast to those of Aquinas. For Aquinas, God’s reason is primary and the source of morality; therefore, man as a rational animal is capable of comprehending his own essence and what is good for him. According to Scotus, God’s actions cannot be entirely explained through the use of reason and morality is an act of his will. I will explore the consequences of this idea in further posts regarding William of Ockham.

Duns Scotus: univocal being and haecceity Scotus was a medieval Catholic scholastic philosopher who lived from 1266 – 1308 AD. Scotus’ nickname was the “Subtle Doctor”, because his work  was remarkably nuanced and detailed while being broad. His ideas were widely influential, with his most famous student being William of Ockham.

Scotus is famous for disagreeing with Aquinas’ ideas regarding being as analogy. Recall that Aquinas argued that all contingent things have a distinction between their essence and existence. Scotus denies this notion, instead preferring the idea that being is univocal – and creatures differ only from the creator in degrees rather than type of being. Scotus contends that under this view firmer knowledge of God can be drawn from the study of creatures – as when a creature is good it is good in the same way (i.e. univocally) as is God.  As an argument for his position, Scotus says that because we cannot fathom anything of an essence without it existing, we need not make any distinction between essence and existence.

Scotus also introduced a novel principle of individuation called the “haecceity”. Scotus agrees with the Aristotelian orthodoxy that man has a nature. For example, one may study Socrates and Plato and find that they commonly share a human nature – this Scotus creatively calls “common nature”. However, there is a principle of indivuation acting in both Socrates and Plato which grants them their unity as individuals. The haecceity is unique and non-repeatable, where as the common nature of humanity is repeatable and exemplified many times over.

Aquinas on being as analogy

In his Five Ways, Aquinas sets out to establish the existence of a being that is “pure actuality“. The Five Ways also attempts to prove the necessity of this purely actual being. By necessity, Aquinas (along with most philosophers) means a being which is self-existent i.e. non-contingent. According to Aquinas (who follows Aristotle), God does not participate in forms the way creatures (or contingent things) do. When God is said to be good, wise or powerful etc. he simply is these things in himself; for example when God is said to be good he is not only good but goodness itself. In other words, whatever God is he is essentially – and because God exists, then he is existence itself. In addition, because existence is part of his essence he cannot fail to exist.

But what of contingent things? Aquinas says that we exist (or be) by participation rather by essence. Similarly, if we are good we are simply good by partaking in goodness itself. In this way, there is a dissimilarity between what the creature is and what the creature has that is not found in God. The creature, whose essence cannot exist by itself, must then be actualised into existence. What follows is that existence is not a thing or source, but rather a principle of being.

Yet, there is a similarity between everything that is by virtue of its being. Aquinas argues that this relationship cannot be univocal (i.e. having only one possible meaning) because the difference between God and his creatures in regards to their manner of being is too great. Thomas also contends that this relationship cannot be equivocal (i.e. open to multiple interpretations and meanings) because then the relationship between God and man would become indeterminate and ultimately unintelligible. Finally, Aquinas puts forth his thesis of analogical being, where the relationship between the creature’s and God’s being show a correspondence or similarity, but are not the same.

Ultimately, Aquinas steers away from Aristotle (who states that being is substance) by postulating that “being is not a genus, since it is not predicated univocally but only analogically”.

Who’s the boss: Aquinas on the relationship between the will and the intellect

youre-not-the-boss-of-me-t-shirt-400x330In the previous post, I examined Aquinas’ thesis of natural law. It was mentioned that man differs from animals on account of the moral character endowed by his rationality. However, the question naturally arises: which of the intellect or the will is the higher power, and which is primary in man’s movement?

The conundrum is clear: one must will to understand, but one can not will what one does not understand.

Aquinas answers this problem by stating that things can be moved in different ways. Firstly, something can be moved according to its end (or final cause). In this way the intellect moves the will, as the understanding of a good thing becomes the object of the will.

Secondly, a thing can be moved effectively by an efficient cause. This efficient cause becomes the agent of change (i.e. it is the mover of the moved), in this manner that will is the efficient cause (or mover) of the intellect; and in fact all the powers of the soul.

So which of the intellect or will is the higher power? Aquinas answers by saying that intellect is nobler because the intellect has as its object the very idea (or essence/form) of good, whereas the instantiation of a particular good is the object of the will.

Thomas Aquinas: the natural law

justice1To most people in the modern era the concept of natural law is nebulous and fuzzy. This is largely due to a fundamental difference between modern and classical/medieval philosophy, but more on that later.

In the Aristotelian tradition within which medieval philosophers such as Aquinas worked, natural substances have essences or natures – that is to say they possess a formal and final cause. These formal and final causes direct the substance toward certain natural ends. For example, the natural end of a tree is to undertake photosynthesis. The tree which absorbs nutrients and water from the ground through its roots and sunlight through its leaves is a good tree; conversely a sick tree who cannot perform these actions is a bad tree.

Thus under this view , goodness is simply a natural substance being reduced in potentiality to actuality according to its form and end. However, in human beings this scheme takes on a notably different character, a moral character. People are different from trees and other animals because of their rationality, and as such are distinctly moral agents.

Aquinas famously sums up natural law as a self-evident principle “that good is to be pursued and evil avoided”. Aquinas argues that it is self-evident that in every choice we choose according to some perceived good or ill. Following that, because man is rational he is capable of perceiving the ends that are set forth for him by his essence. In this way, Aquinas stands in stark contract to the skeptic Pyrrho. Aquinas then concludes that the final cause of the intellect and reason itself is the pursuit of truth and goodness.

But why is natural law not considered relevant in our modern time? This is because of the mechanistic and atomistic nature of the modern Cartesian view of the cosmos. According to this philosophy, there are no essences, natures, forms or final causes. As such, what is good for man becomes a matter of social convention.