Tuesday, December 1, 2009

William of Ockham - Father or Minimalism and Nominalism

William of Ockham, from stained glass window a...

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William of Ockham (ca. 1285 – 1349) was a Franciscan friar and philosopher from a village called Ockham (near Ripley, Surrey), England. William devoted to a life to extreme poverty and minimalism and nominalism.

As a follower of Saint Francis we can easily understand his minimalism, since Franciscans were submitted to a vow of poverty. Who can be more of a minimalist than a poor Franciscan friar who only owned one pair of sandals and one mendicant tunic! As for nominalism, this needs to be explained.

The best way to understand nominalism is to contrast it to its opposite view: Realism. While ‘realism’ invents a world of reality that corresponds exactly to the world of thought, ‘nominalism,’ on the contrary, replicates the external objects with individual and particular names and thoughts. Therefore, nominalism denies the existence of abstract and universal concepts, and refuses to admit that the mind has the power of engendering them.

Because of William’s emphasis on ways of knowing, many scholars refer to him as the father of modern epistemology and modern philosophy—Descartes and Kant notwithstanding. To him only individuals exist, rather than supra-individual universals, essences, or forms. Furthermore, he held that universals are the products the human mind and have no extra-mental existence. So what we have then is a basic Aristotelian position against an Augustinian-Platonic one.

The modern English spelling of the village where William was born is ‘Ockham,’ and because French medieval scholars spelled it as ‘Occam,’ we can still see his name printed as William Occam. In addition, Ockham studied and wrote treatises on logic. And what we most remember him for is the principle that’s known as Ockham’s Razor. Despite the fact that he actually never announced such a principle, philosophical books are laden with allusions to it. The most cited versions are:
Plurality should not be posited without necessity.
Plurality ought never be posited without necessity.
It is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer.

Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy says:
‘It is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer.’ That is to say, if everything in some science can be interpreted without assuming this or that hypothetical entity, there is no ground for assuming it. I have myself found this a most fruitful principle in logical analysis.

But many careless and unscrupulous writers invoke William’s ‘razor’ principle as authority in order to buttress their own doubtful arguments. For example, atheists often apply Occam's razor in arguing against the existence of God adducing that God is an unnecessary hypothesis. Why throw in another spice into the broth when the argument is salty enough?

Having been excommunicated by Pope John XXII, William sought the protection of the German emperor Louis. Not given to wasting words he bluntly asked the emperor: “Do you defend me with the sword? And I will defend you with the pen.” Assurances given William proceeded to write a treatise demonstrating that Pope John was a heretic. After Saint Thomas Aquinas, William of Occam is perhaps the most influential medieval thinker. Unlike others, he looked forward rather than backwards —e.g., Dante, who still believed in monsters, hell, and Satan as a devourer of sinners. In this light, the reformist Martin Luther preferred him over many other schoolmen or scholastics.

Occam’s relevancy today:
The one version I like and use in my teaching is: ‘At the end of the day the simplest answer is usually the right one.’
In writing, when a writer gets too florid and showy, using excessive and gushy language, the result is purple prose—which is a turn off. That is why when we read monosyllabic prose such as Hemingway’s we react with delight.
In mathematics, the most elegant proof is usually the most minimalist and direct. In a democracy the two-party system seems to work well. Three or more parties dilute the vote and nations end up with the worst leaders.
In physics, Einstein’s E = mc2 would have pleased William of Occam.

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