Skip to main content



A philosophical and theological system of thought based on the teachings of william of ockham that flourished in the universities of Europe during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Characteristics. This philosophical and theological movement has not been adequately characterized by historians, nor has the label "Ockhamist" a completely definite connotation. Even those upon whom the name is imposed exhibit great variety in their theological thinking and are not infrequently opposed to one another. There are, however, general trends that are characteristic of the movement and that have caused it to be referred to as the via moderna as opposed to the via antiqua of the earlier scholastics.

Conceptualism. The most basic notion is, perhaps, the note of conceptualism that began to enter into explanations of knowledge. According to this theory, the terms in a proposition signify a concept that stands for some extramental reality. This concept is a sign that can refer to one thing or to many. As a sign it is a mental reality and, like any reality, is itself singular and unique. It is universal only insofar as it can stand for many. Hence, its universality is purely functional and does not in any sense refer to a common nature possessed by many things outside the mind. This makes necessary a whole new logic of supposition, that is, the manner in which terms stand for things, and gives a new turn to the old Aristotelian logic.

Singulars. Reality itself is a collection of absolute singulars, the distinguishable units of which are things and qualities. All other modifications of things are reduced to the reality of the things themselves. Things are similar, for example, because they are themselves; quantity is indistinguishable from the thing in its magnitude. Such a universe of unique singulars cannot have any necessary connections between the beings that compose it. Furthermore, since singulars depend for their being on the will of God and since the will of God can accomplish anything that does not involve a contradiction, it is always possible to have one given singular without another. Since, for example, an effect is different from its cause, it is possible for God to sustain the effect without its proper cause.

Motion. Another characteristic distinctive of Ockhamism, worth mentioning because it can serve to differentiate this movement from other types of nominalism, is its attitude toward motion. Ockham denied the existence of motion as an entity separate from the moving body, holding that motion was merely a term replacing a series of statements that the body was now here, now there, and so on. Others who are commonly referred to as nominalists, such as john buridan, albert of saxony, and nicholas oresme, were not only convinced of the reality of motion but, through their attempts to discover its proper cause, contributed to the origin of modern science (see M. Clagett).

Divine Will. The theory of divine omnipotence based on what God can will without contradiction is one of the dominant themes in later Ockhamism. It is basically an attempt to overcome the necessitarianism of Greek philosophy, a necessitarianism that Ockham thought the whole theory of the divine ideas had failed to solve. In place of a universe conceived as an expression of divine intelligibility, there is posited a universe radically contingent upon the divine will, even to the natures of things themselves. The same notion appears in ethics and morality, in which sin comes to be equated with prohibition and good is determined by the will of God instead of by any intrinsic intelligibility. Most of the Ockhamists went so far as to assert that God could command someone to hate Him. And why not, if good and evil are completely determined by what God wills them to be?

Knowledge. The experience one has of such a universe of unique singulars can never be more than a de facto association of many such singulars. There is an intuitive grasp of the individual thing sensibly affecting one here and now. All other knowledge is abstract knowledge. Since, in the first place, there is no necessity in such a universe and since relationship is not a reality distinct from the things themselves, there is no hope of establishing the necessity of the causal proposition. As a result, the conclusions of the natural sciences and of the philosophy of nature became at best highly probable propositions. Neither do the traditional arguments for the existence of God based on efficient, formal, and final causality any longer provide a demonstration for such existence. The same can be said about the existence of the human soul and its immortality.

Role of Faith. Hence, many of the conclusions that previous scholastic theologians considered to be capable of rational demonstration were made matters of faith only. The result was an ever widening gap between philosophy and theology, or better, perhaps, the relegation of philosophy to the status of a quasi-science of predictability about the events in nature and a corresponding skepticism about the validity of metaphysics. H. Oberman is probably correct when he questions the retreat to faith as stemming entirely from the low opinion of knowledge prevalent among Ockhamistic thinkers [The Harvest of Medieval Theology (Cambridge, Mass. 1963) 35]. But neither are the alternatives he suggests completely satisfactory. There may be other reasons; but granting the Ockhamistic metaphysics and logic, there is little else that can be done except to restrict drastically the range of human reason.

Chief Proponents. The via moderna had its influence, and the main themes of the movement appear consistently in the works of such men as robert holcot, adam wodham, gregory of rimini, peter of ailly, and Ockham's commentator, Gabriel biel. The two men who seem to represent best the extremes of the position are john of mirecourt and nicholas of autrecourt.

John of Mirecourt divides all knowledge into that which is evident and that which is held with fear of error. Evident knowledge in the strictest sense is that which can be reduced to the principle of contradiction. Experiential knowledge is also evident, but it is never capable of leading to a strict demonstration. The proofs for God's existence and the causal proposition are classed under the knowledge that is held with fear of error. The theme of the divine omnipotent will shows up strongly also. God can cause any act, including the act of hatred of Himself. John also thought an act could be contrary to the natural law without being demeritorious.

Nicholas of Autrecourt held also that the only certain knowledge was that which could be reduced to the principle of contradiction. Experience provides certain knowledge, but in a universe of individuals the existence of one thing can never be inferred from the existence of another. It is impossible for logic to detect any necessary connections in nature. Nicholas also repeated John of Mire-court's opinion that God could cause an act of hatred of Himself. In his philosophy of nature, Nicholas returned to the old Greek atomism, preferring it to the hylomorphic theory of Aristotle. Besides, a universe of disparate atoms with no necessary connections between them was all the more dependent on God.

Others, such as John Buridan, marsilius of inghen, and Nicholas of Oresme, made use of Ockham's logic, although they differed from Ockham in their analyses of the world of nature.

Influence. The University of Paris issued condemnations against Ockham in 1339 and against John of Mire-court in 1347. In 1346 the Holy See condemned Nicholas of Autrecourt. Nevertheless, the movement continued to flourish. Terminist logic became prevalent not only in Paris and Oxford, but also at the universities of Heidelberg, Vienna, Erfurt, and Leipzig.

It would be inaccurate to maintain a direct influence of John of Mirecourt or Nicholas of Autrecourt on modern and contemporary empiricism. Christian theologians such as these were logicians and philosophers only in a secondary way. Nevertheless, there are some striking resemblances between the philosophizing of the late Middle Ages and such modern empiricists as J. locke and D. hume. And the logic of supposition, with its emphasis on functionality, is not too far divorced from the approach of contemporary linguistic analysis.

Criticism. With its world of absolutely singular entities and its rejection of any necessary connection between them, Ockhamism effectively destroyed any certain knowledge of that world beyond the intuitive grasp of an immediately present sense object. Since all abstract knowledge had nothing to do with existence, such knowledge could be at best a logic of possibilities with only an indirect reference to the real order. These possibilities, moreover, were abstracted from sensible experience. Hence, metaphysics was reduced to a logic of concepts that could not transcend the material world from which such concepts were taken. The causal relationship became a way of thinking about experience, rather than an insight grounded in the actual relationships between things. The rejection of any proof for the existence of God based on efficient or final causality was simply a necessary conclusion from such premises.

There is little reason to be surprised, then, when revelation and faith began more and more to take over conclusions held as rationally demonstrable by the earlier scholastics. Along with this went a corresponding skepticism about the intellect's ability to achieve any certainty either in natural science or in philosophy. The God who was believed to have created such a world did so with an arbitrariness restricted only by the principle of contradiction. Instead of the divine essence as intelligible being the source and exemplar of the universe, it is the divine will that establishes all things even to their intelligible natures. Instead of right reason being the norm of morality, now the command to act in such a way alone determines moral good and evil. A universe so conceived cannot do without faith. Once that faith was lost, skepticism or a return to reason conceived as sufficient for itself were the only possible answers.

See Also: nominalism; scholasticism.

Bibliography: w. ockham, Quodlibetal Questions, tr. a. freddoso, and f. kelley (New Haven, Conn. 1991). m. bastit, Les principes des choses en ontologie medievale: Thomas d'Aquin, Scot, Occam (Bordeaux 1997). j. p. beckman, Wilhelm von Ockham (Munich 1995); Ockham-Bibliographie (Hamburg 1992). g. leff, The Dissolution of the Medieval Outlook: An Essay on Intellectual and Spiritual Change in the Fourteenth Century (New York 1976). a. a. maurer, The Philosophy of William of Ockham in the Light of Its Principles (Toronto 1999). k. b. osborne, ed., A History of Franciscan Theology (St. Bonaventure 1994). c. panaccio, Les mots, les concepts, et les choses: La semantique de Guillaume d'Occam et le nominalisme d'aujourd'hui (Montreal 1992). p. v. spade, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Ockham (Cambridge 1999).

[h. r. klocker]

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

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Ockhamism." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . 16 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Ockhamism." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . (August 16, 2018).

"Ockhamism." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 16, 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.