The Modern Way and the Triumph of Nominalism

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The Modern Way and the Triumph of Nominalism

The War of the Ways.

The disintegration of the medieval synthesis played itself out in what Germans call die Wegestreit, the "war of the ways." The situation was parallel to that which prevailed among Greek philosophers following the death of Aristotle: those with a philosophical bent would join one of the existing schools, learn its teachings, then do battle with the rival schools. The Dominicans had adopted the "Thomist way" after the teachings of Thomas Aquinas; its major challenger, favored by the Franciscans, was the "Scotist way" after the teachings of John Scotus. By mid-fourteenth century these were already seen as the old ways, and many embraced what was called the "modern way" ("modern" being a relative term), that is, the movement begun by William of Ockham (c. 1285–1347) and his followers.


introduction: This passage from Ockham provides an example of the philosophical definition of a key term ("Universal") in scholastic philosophy. It also demonstrates the use of analogy to clarify discussion.

I maintain that a universal is not something real that exists in a subject [of inherence], either inside or outside the mind, but that it has being only as a thought-object in the mind. It is a kind of mental picture which as a thought-object has a being similar to that which the thing outside the mind has in its real existence. What I mean is this: the intellect, seeing a thing outside the mind, forms in the mind a picture resembling it, in such a way that if the mind had the power to produce as it has the power to picture, it would produce by this act a real outside thing which would be only numerically distinct from the former real thing. The case would be similar, analogously speaking, to the activity of an artist. For just as the artist who sees a house or a building outside the mind first pictures in the mind a similar house and later produces a similar house in reality which is only numerically distinct from the first, so in our case the picture in the mind that we get from seeing something outside would act as a pattern. For just as the imagined house would be a pattern for the architect, if he who imagines it had the power to produce it in reality, so likewise the other picture would be a pattern for him who forms it. And this can be called a universal, because it is a pattern and relates indifferently to all the singular things outside the mind. Because of the similarity between its being as a thought-object and the being of like things outside the mind, it can stand for such things. And in this way a universal is not the result of generation, but of abstraction, which is only a kind of mental picturing.

source: William of Ockham in Philosophical Writings: A Selection. Ed. and Trans. Philotheus Boehner (Indianapolis and N.Y.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957): 44.

Sword and Pen

Although Ockham finished the requirement for his degree of Master of Theology, he never held the one chair that had been assigned to the Franciscans at Oxford; and because he had "incepted," that is, that he had merely begun his studies, he has been given the sobriquet "Venerable Inceptor." Before his turn came to occupy the chair, he was accused of heresy by John Lutterell, the chancellor of the university and a fanatical Thomist. Subsequently summoned to Avignon, the city to which the papacy had relocated, he waited from 1324 to 1328 at the papal court while a committee examined his writings for suspicious teachings. Before a verdict was rendered, however, he became enmeshed in a controversy over the extreme version of poverty practiced by a wing of the Franciscan Order called the "Spirituals." Convinced that the pope had fallen into heresy, he fled with the deposed General of the Order, Michael of Cessena.

Seeking the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor, Ludwig of Bavaria, whose election the pope had refused to ratify, Ockham and his companions journeyed south to Italy, where the emperor was engaged in a military campaign. One version of what ensued, which is probably apocryphal, is that Friar William knelt before Emperor Ludwig and said: "Protect me with your sword, and I will defend you with my pen." Whatever the accuracy of the incident, Ockham in truth spent his remaining years in Munich under the emperor's protection, where he engaged in political writing, all of it polemical in nature. It is now fairly certain that the sentence of excommunication that was imposed on him was never lifted, and in all probability he died of the plague that swept through Europe in 1348–1350. Today his final resting place is marked by a boss in the pavement at the entrance to an underground parking garage in downtown Munich.

Ockham's Razor.

If distrust of the reasoning power is in evidence in the thought of Scotus, a skeptical attitude became a hallmark of the modern way. Whereas St. Thomas opened his Summa of theology with a discussion of theology as a science, Ockham refused to grant it such status, asserting that theology is based on faith, not on evidence. He likewise limited the scope of theology in positing that only those truths that lead to salvation are considered "theological." William's philosophical obsession was the individual, which for him was the sole reality. Scotus's multiplication of formal realities, like his haecceitas "this-ness," were pointless distinctions and mere subtleties that needed to be trimmed away. Ockham's relentless wielding of the principle of philosophical economy became known as his "razor."

Intuitive Knowledge.

This abandonment of realism ("no universal is existent in any way whatsoever outside the mind of the knower," he wrote) also entails for Ockham the abdication of abstractive knowledge. The latter can no more be shown to be real than the universals. According to Ockham, it is only possible to know individual things, and that knowledge is intuitive, not abstractive. For example, if a man has a pet, Buckfield, he attaches that knowledge to a sign, which in his language is "dog"; there is, however, no such thing as canine nature, either in reality or in the mind. Furthermore, what is intuited immediately is not the thing, but the sense image or "phantasm" of the thing. In this atomization of the knowing process, it is generally presumed that the image is caused by the thing, but of this there can be no certainty. The image may be an illusion, a dream, the result of a piece of bad meat; it may for that matter be caused by God, who after all possesses absolute power. For example, a point of light in the night sky is assumed to be a star. Was that image truly caused by the heavenly body so many light-years away? Ockham claimed that there was no way to be certain of this. In modern times, it is known that some of the lights in the night sky are stars that have long ago ceased to exist, but because of the vast distances their light is just now reaching our planet. Ockham would have been fascinated with this notion.


Marilyn McCord Adams, William Ockham. 2 vols. (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987).

Armand Maurer, The Philosophy of William of Ockham in the Light of Its Principles (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1999).

Timothy B. Noone, "William of Ockham," in A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Eds. Jorge J. E. Gracia and Timothy B. Noone (London: Blackwell, 2003): 696–712.

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The Modern Way and the Triumph of Nominalism

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