Skip to main content

William of Ockham


WILLIAM OF OCKHAM (1280?1349?), English philosopher and theologian. William of Ockham was born between 1280 and 1285 at Ockham in Surrey, England. He entered the Franciscan order and studied at the Franciscan house in Oxford but without taking his doctorate; hence his title of "Venerable Inceptor," which indicated that he had not received a degree.

Ockham's career is divided into two phases. During the first phase he wrote his major theological, philosophical, and logical works; the most important were his Commentary on the Sentences and his Sum of Logic. The second phase began when in 1328 he fled from the papal court at Avignon with the general of the Franciscan order, Michael of Cesena, to the German emperor Ludwig of Bavaria, at Munich. Ludwig had become the adversary of John XXII, and Ockham joined the other Franciscan dissidents there who had quarreled with the pope over his denial of the Franciscan claim to be following Christ's life of absolute poverty. Ockham, who had originally been summoned to Avignon to answer accusations of error in some of his theological and philosophical doctrines, spent the remainder of his life polemicizing against papal claims to absolute jurisdiction in temporal and spiritual matters. He died at Munich, probably in 1349.

Ockham was the most influential thinker of the later Middle Ages. Philosophically, he was the first to found his outlook upon the discrepancy between the individual nature of all created being and the universal nature of the concepts and terms constituting our proper knowledge. Since, he said, only individuals were real, all universal and general notions only had real, as opposed to conceptual or grammatical, meaning if they referred to real individual things. In contrast to the overwhelming weight of medieval tradition, Ockham held that there were no such things as universal natures or essences. Instead, therefore, of seeking to explain the individual as the particularization of the universal, as in the statement that the individual man Socrates is the expression of the essence humanity, or that a white object is the manifestation of the quality whiteness, Ockham inverted the order and sought to explain how the mind arrives at the universal concept of humanity or whiteness from exclusive experience of individual men or white objects. He did so psychologically, logically, and grammatically by seeking to show how the mind forms concepts and what their relation is to the terms and propositions in which knowledge of them is expressed. He thereby gave a new direction to philosophical inquiry, which effectively denied an independent place to meta-physics.

Theologically, the effect was to undermine the bases for a natural theology, since whatever lay outside intuitive experience of individual things lacked evidential status. Not only did that exclude proofs, as opposed to persuasions, for God's existence, but it confined theological discourse to the elucidation of the meaning of the articles of faith rather than providing rational support for their truth. Their truth was a matter of belief. And central to belief was the Christian's recognition of God's omnipotence. By Ockham's time, the affirmation of God's omnipotence had assumed a new importance, partly at least in response to the determinism of Greek and Arabic philosophy. It had come to be expressed in the distinction between God's ordained power (potentia ordinata), the power by which he governed the workings of the universe he had created, and his absolute power (potentia absoluta ), which denoted his omnipotence taken solely in itself without relation to any order, and so is limited by nothing other than logical self-contradiction, which would have impaired it.

It was Ockham who more than anyone gave this distinction the currency which it acquired in the middle of the fourteenth century. He applied it to restate the accepted Christian truth that God could do directly (or indeed differently or not at all) what, ordinarily, by his ordained power, he did by secondary causes. Ockham was thereby reaffirming God's role as the direct ruler as well as creator of the universe. What was novel was the range and frequency of Ockham's application of God's omnipotence to virtually every aspect of creation: nature, knowledge, and matters of belief. Thus God himself could directly cause or conserve an effect that normally had a natural cause: the Eucharist, for example, where the appearance of the elements of the bread and wine could remain after consecration without any longer existing as physical substances. Similarly, absolutely, God could cause direct intuitive knowledge of an object that was not immediately present to the knower. He could do so, not by creating an illusion that what appeared to exist did not really exist, but by himself directly conserving knowledge of an object that was real but not present, such as someone seen in Oxford who was at Rome. Theologically, the implications were perhaps most far-reaching of alland here Ockham was following Duns Scotusby substituting God's immediate agency for the agency of the church, above all in directly accepting individuals for eternal life without the requisites of sacramental grace. God was thereby rewarding an individual action or will and not the preceding grace that ordinarily an individual had first to receive as the condition of the reward. Although neither Duns Scotus nor Ockham went beyond stating such a conclusion as the consequence of God's freedom from created forms, many of their successors gave the notion much wider application, which virtually denuded sacramental grace of its intrinsic efficacy. The effect was to reinforce the tendency in the religious outlook of the later Middle Ages to make God's will the sole arbiter in individual justification and predestination. It had as its accompaniment a corresponding stress upon individual religious experience based upon faith as the foundation of all theological discourse and alone bringing certainty in a contingent universe.

The extent of Ockham's influence during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries can be seen in the dominance of the so-called nominalist school that developed first at Paris University and then spread to the new universities founded throughout the German-speaking lands. Its hallmarks were precisely an emphasis upon God's absolute power and therefore on the immediacy of God's will in deciding whom to justify and accept for eternal life. With Ockham's attack upon the concept of the pope's plenitude of power, and his insistence upon the sole authority of faith residing in every believer to decide questions of doctrine, he did perhaps more than any other single thinker to transform the philosophical and theological outlook of the later Middle Ages.

See Also



Authoritative accounts of Ockham's philosophy can be found in Marilyn McCord Adams's William Ockham, 2 vols. (Notre Dame, Ind., 1987), Léon Baudry's Guillaume d'Occam (Paris, 1949), Philotheus Boehner's Collected Articles on Ockham, edited by Eligius Buytaert (New York, 1958), Jürgen Miethke's Ockhams Weg zur Sozialphilosophie (Berlin, 1969), Paul Vignaux's article "Occam" in Dictionaire de théologie catholique (Paris, 1931), and my own William of Ockham: The Metamorphosis of Scholastic Discourse (Manchester, 1975).

Gordon Leff (1987 and 2005)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"William of Ockham." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 18 Aug. 2018 <>.

"William of Ockham." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (August 18, 2018).

"William of Ockham." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved August 18, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.