William of Ockham

Letha Musgrave introduces William of Ockham  a native of Surrey, the Franciscan scientist and philosopher who was deeply involved during his own lifetime in the politics of medieval Church and State.

Often men who help lay the groundwork for great changes in events or in thought never receive just recognition in later centuries. William of Ockham is an example. Usually he is mentioned only in connexion with ‘Ockham’s razor’, the principle that ‘entities are not to be multiplied without necessity’. Although William applied this dictum to the religious issues of his day, it later became a foundation stone of the scientific method.

Also known as the law of parsimony, it requires the scientist to keep hypotheses to a minimum. That is, the simpler a theory or explanation is, the less is the chance for error. Certainly this has been a basic principle of experimentation to the present day. But, important though the ‘razor’ is to science, it is by no means Ockham’s only contribution.

Living at a time when long-accepted beliefs were beginning to be questioned, and when the prestige of the Church itself was suffering from the evils of the ‘Babylonian Captivity’ of the Papacy at Avignon, Ockham well expressed the spirit of his age. Furthermore, his thought contained the germ of ideas later formulated during the Reformation. Such contrasting figures as Machiavelli and Luther were strongly influenced by their study of his works; for political theory, as well as religion, occupied William’s active mind.

In the realm of abstract philosophy he brought the final breakdown of scholasticism and, although he had implicit faith himself, opened the way for scepticism. With his spirit of revolt against authority and his honest search for truth, he was a harbinger of the modern scientific attitude. Nevertheless, because many of the facts of his life are buried in obscurity and, still more, because his works have never been collected and published but are preserved too carefully in European libraries, Ockham has not been properly appreciated.

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