"Ockhamism" is a term used by some historians of medieval philosophy to characterize the critical and skeptical attitude toward natural theology and traditional metaphysics that became prevalent in the fourteenth century and is ascribed to the influence of William of Ockham (c. 1285–1349). There is little historical basis for speaking of an Ockhamist school, since Ockham had scarcely any avowed disciples; nor was the critical attitude toward natural theology initiated by him, although his logical criteria of demonstration and evidence undoubtedly gave it a powerful implementation. With these reservations one may, in a general sense, attach Ockham's name to the movement of thought that, in the fourteenth century, closed out the medieval enterprise of synthesizing Aristotelian philosophy with Christian theology and initiated new lines of development that led toward the scientific empiricism of the seventeenth century. The Ockhamist or nominalist movement was known in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as the "modern way" (via moderna ), and was contrasted with the "old way" (via antiqua ) associated with thirteenth-century Scholasticism.
One may distinguish two main phases of this movement of fourteenth-century thought. The first phase, occurring between 1330 and 1350, was marked by the rapid spread of Ockham's doctrines and method among the theologians and philosophers teaching at the universities of Oxford and Paris, where Ockham's logical techniques were used in criticism of the older scholastic tradition. The second phase, less directly associated with Ockham's own teachings, commenced around 1350 and involved what may be described as a reconstruction of philosophy, and of theology as well, on foundations compatible with Ockham's empiricism and nominalism.
Critique of Scholasticism
The influence of Ockham's logic and of his nominalistic critique of the thirteenth-century metaphysical syntheses of philosophy and theology was exhibited at Oxford in the work of Adam Wodeham (d. 1349), a Franciscan who had studied with Ockham, and of Robert Holkot (d. 1349), a Dominican theologian who lectured at Oxford around 1330 and later taught at Cambridge. Holkot was an outspoken nominalist who minced no words in stating that theology is not a science and that its doctrines can in no way be demonstrated or even comprehended by human reason. Christian dogma, for Holkot, was accepted by an act of will, on the authority of the church.
Thomas Bradwardine (c. 1290–1349) reacted against what he regarded as a new Pelagianism embodied in the Ockhamist interpretation of revealed theology, but he used Ockham's logical techniques to draw deterministic consequences from the doctrine of divine omnipotence, invoking the authority of Augustine for his views. Other Oxford teachers influenced by Ockham, and particularly by his logical methods, included Richard Swineshead ("the Calculator"), John Dumbleton, William Heytesbury, and Richard Billingham.
The "Modern Way"
It was at Paris, more than at Oxford, that Ockham's influence led, after an initial resistance, to establishment of a relatively stable, and in some respects scientifically fruitful, philosophical school that endured and spread through central Europe in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries.
One of the first Parisian theologians to embrace Ockham's doctrines was John of Mirecourt, a Cistercian monk who lectured on Peter Lombard's Sentences in 1344–1345. His skeptical treatment of the arguments of traditional theology led to a condemnation by the theological faculty at Paris of articles taken from his lectures. In many respects Mirecourt's positions resembled those of Holkot, by whom he may have been influenced.
Another victim of disciplinary action by the authorities of the University of Paris was Nicolas of Autrecourt, who was condemned to burn publicly, in November 1347, his letters to Bernard of Arezzo and his treatise Exigit ordo executionis. Nicolas, reacting to the Ockhamist thesis that God, by his absolute power, could cause an intuitive cognition of a nonexistent object, or could cause sensible qualities to exist without any substance being qualified by them, held that the only things of which man can have certain knowledge are the qualities perceived by his five senses, the acts or affections of his own mind, and those propositions logically evident by the principle of contradiction. From this he argued that we have no ground for belief in substances or for making inferences on the basis of causal relations, and he asserted that the whole philosophy of Aristotle is a fictitious construction devoid of any evidence or even of probability, since it rests on the assumption of substances and of causal necessities that are neither logically nor empirically evident. Preferring certainty to the Ockhamist "hypothesis of nature," Nicolas turned Ockham's critique of metaphysical necessity against Ockham's own empiricism and was rebuked by John Buridan for demanding absolute evidence, or logical necessity, in a domain of inquiry in which only conditional evidence based on the assumption of a common course of nature is appropriate.
In the hands of Buridan, a teacher on the faculty of arts at Paris, Ockham's logic, theory of knowledge, and nominalistic ontology were made the basis of a natural philosophy or physics of empirical type, within which Buridan developed the impetus theory of projectile motion and gravitational acceleration and subjected the assumptions of Aristotelian physics and cosmology to critical analysis in terms of empirical criteria of evidence. Buridan's reconstruction of natural philosophy as a positive and empirically based science of observable phenomena undermined the Aristotelian tradition and provided some of the main starting points for the development of modern mechanics in the seventeenth century.
At the same time a theologian of Paris, Gregory of Rimini (d. 1358), who became general of the order of Augustinian Hermits, made a constructive use of Ockhamist methods and doctrines in a theological synthesis of nominalism and Augustinianism; although he took issue with both Ockham and Buridan on some issues of metaphysics, the later Scholastics regarded him as a modern theologian of the nominalist group.
Natural philosophy, as distinguished from theology, was dominated by the moderately Ockhamist tradition established at Paris by Buridan, developed by Albert of Saxony and Nicholas of Oresme, and carried to the new universities of central Europe by Albert, Marsilius of Inghen, Henry of Hainbuch, and Henry of Oyta. A document drawn up by the faculty of the University of Cologne in 1425 speaks of the period of preeminence of the via moderna as the century of Buridan (saeculum Buridani ), indicating that the Ockhamism of the later fourteenth century had become associated with Buridan and his followers more than with Ockham.
The Ockhamist divorce of Christian theology from Aristotelian metaphysics, with the corresponding emphasis on religious faith and the tradition of the Church Fathers as foundation of Christian doctrine, was reflected in the popular religious movement associated with the school of Deventer and the devotio moderna and in the criticisms of the scholastic methods of theological disputation and argument made by Jean de Gerson at the end of the fourteenth century. Gabriel Biel (c. 1410–1495) was the last influential theologian of the Ockhamist school, and in his work the influence of Gerson, Gregory of Rimini, Holkot, and of Ockham himself brought together the diverse strands of this nominalist tradition in a doctrine with strong religious emphasis.
Ockhamism, as a well-developed philosophical and religious tradition, was submerged by the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, as well as by the humanist revolt against the medieval cultural tradition. However, its leading ideas, in the liberation of both the Christian faith and the scientific investigation of nature from dogmatic Aristotelianism, remained operative outside the schools and bore fruit in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
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