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Jenny E. Pelletier, William Ockham on Metaphysics: The Science of Being and God - PhilPapers

Share Give access Share full text access. Share full text access. Please review our Terms and Conditions of Use and check box below to share full-text version of article. Get access to the full version of this article. View access options below. You previously purchased this article through ReadCube. Institutional Login. Log in to Wiley Online Library. Purchase Instant Access. View Preview. Learn more Check out. Volume 39 , Issue 3 September Pages His philosophy was radical in his day and continues to provide insight into current philosophical debates.

William of Ockham was born around in the small village of Ockham in Surrey, England, although nothing is known of his parents or his early life before he joined the Franciscan order probably in London at the age of fourteen. He was ordained a subdeacon by the Archbishop of Canterbury in Southwark , London in , and was sent to study theology at the University of Oxford in at some point he probably studied under John Duns Scotus and derived many of his views from him.

In , he completed study for his bachelor's degree , and he lectured on Logic and natural philosophy in a Franciscan school from to , while he waited to return to university to study for his doctorate although events were to overtake him and he never completed his master's degree or doctorate. During these years he wrote many deep works on philosophy and Logic , including his monumental three-part "Summa logicae" in which he lays out the fundamentals of his Logic and its accompanying Metaphysics.

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In , he was summoned to the Papal court at Avignon , France, under charges of heresy possibly levied by the Oxford Chancellor John Lutterell , and a theological commission was asked to review his "Commentary on the Sentences" a commentary he wrote on the "Book of Sentences" of the 12th Century Italian theologian Peter Lombard , a standard requirement for medieval theology students.

Lutterell made a list of 56 statements later reduced to 49 which he deemed to be erroneous or heretical , but in fact Ockham's views were fairly conservative and his religious statements mostly had adherents among the leading Franciscans , so he was not formally condemned for his teachings.

However, while undergoing these disciplinary difficulties, under a loose form of house arrest , Ockham also became involved in another debate , when he was asked to review the arguments surrounding "apostolic poverty" the belief that Jesus and his apostles owned no personal property and survived by begging and accepting the gifts of others. Having weighed the evidence, Ockham sided with the Minister General, which brought them both into conflict with the Pope, whom Ockham effectively accused of heresy himself.

Fearing imprisonment and possible execution , Ockham, Cesena and other Franciscan sympathizers fled Avignon for Pisa in , taking refuge with the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV of Bavaria , who was also engaged in a dispute with the papacy at the time. Ockham was excommunicated for leaving Avignon, but his philosophy was never officially condemned. When the court of the Emperor returned from Italy to Munich , Ockham went with them and he lived out the rest of his life in the Franciscan convent at Munich. He spent much of the remainder of his life writing on political issues , especially on the relations between Church and State notably his "Dialogue on the Power of the Emperor and the Pope" , and he continued to attack papal power , always employing logical reasoning in his arguments.

After Michael of Cesena's death in , he became the leader of the small band of Franciscan dissidents living in exile with Louis IV. Ockham died some time between and before to the outbreak of the Black Death in the Franciscan convent at Munich in Bavaria, Germany, still unreconciled with the Catholic Church. He was officially rehabilitated by Pope Innocent VI in As a Scholastic , Ockham was strongly committed to the ideas of Aristotle , and advocated reform both in method and in content, the main aim of which was simplification.

It should be pointed out that, although there were some stern pronouncements that came out of the investigation of Ockham, his views were never officially condemned as heretical. Things came to a real crisis in , when Michael and the Pope had a serious confrontation over the matter. Furthermore, the heresy was not just an honest mistake; it was stubbornly heretical, a view John maintained even after he had been shown it was wrong.

Pelletier, Jenny E.

As a result, Ockham argued, Pope John was not just teaching heresy, but was a heretic himself in the strongest possible sense, and had therefore effectively abdicated his papacy. Under cover of darkness the night of May 26, , Michael of Cesena, Ockham, and a few other sympathetic Franciscans fled Avignon and went into exile. On June 6, , Ockham was officially excommunicated for leaving Avignon without permission.

Ockham stayed there, or at any rate in areas under Imperial control, until his death. During this time, Ockham wrote exclusively on political matters. Ockham is rightly regarded as one of the most significant logicians of the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, his originality and influence should not be exaggerated. For all his deserved reputation, his logical views are sometimes derivative [ 11 ] and occasionally very idiosyncratic. Logic, for Ockham, is crucial to the advancement of knowledge. His Treatise on Predestination contains an influential theory on the logic of future contingent propositions, and other works as well include occasional discussions of logical topics, notably his Quodlibets.

Mental language, the language of thought, is thus the most primitive and basic level of language. Part I goes on to lay out a fairly detailed theory of terms, including the distinctions between a categorematic and syncategorematic terms, b abstract and concrete terms, and c absolute and connotative terms. It is divided into four subparts. Part III. None of these notions is original with Ockham, although he develops them with great sophistication and employs them with skill. This notion of signification was unanimously accepted; although there was great dispute over what terms signified, there was agreement over the criterion.


The function of language, therefore, is not so much to communicate thoughts from one mind to another, but to convey information about the world. In Summa of Logic I. In his first sense, a term signifies whatever things it is truly predicable of by means of a present-tensed, assertoric copula. In the third sense, terms can also be said to signify certain things they are not truly predicable of, no matter the tense or modality of the copula. Bravery is not brave. A sentence signifies in this sense whatever it is that its terms primarily or secondarily signify.

The theory of supposition was the centerpiece of late medieval semantic theory. Supposition is not the same as signification. First of all, terms signify wherever we encounter them, whereas they have supposition only in the context of a proposition. But the differences go beyond that. Whereas signification is a psychological, cognitive relation, the theory of supposition is, at least in part, a theory of reference. For Ockham, there are three main kinds of supposition [ 19 ] :. Although the mechanics of this part of supposition theory are well understood, in Ockham and in other authors, its exact purpose remains an open question.

Although at first the theory looks like an account of truth conditions for quantified propositions, it will not work for that purpose. And although the theory was sometimes used as an aid to spotting and analyzing fallacies, this was never done systematically and the theory is in any event ill suited for that purpose.

Concepts, in other words, are natural signs : my concept of dog naturally signifies dogs. This arrangement provides an account of synonymy and equivocation in spoken and written language. Two simple terms whether from the same or different spoken or written languages are synonymous if they are ultimately subordinated to the same concept; a single given term of spoken or written language is equivocal if it is ultimately subordinated to more than one concept.

This raises an obvious question: Is there synonymy or equivocation in mental language itself? A great deal of modern secondary literature has been devoted to this question. Trentman [] was the first to argue that no, there is no synonymy or equivocation in mental language. Spade [] likewise argued in greater detail, on both theoretical and textual grounds, that there is no synonymy or equivocation in mental language.

More recently, Panaccio [, ], Tweedale [] both on largely textual grounds , and Chalmers [] on mainly theoretical grounds have argued for a different interpretation, which now tends to be more widely accepted. The question is complicated, but it goes to the heart of much of what Ockham is up to. In order to see why, let us return briefly to the theory of connotation. But in Summa of Logic I. For Ockham, there are two kinds of definitions: real definitions and nominal definitions.

A real definition is somehow supposed to reveal the essential metaphysical structure of what it defines; nominal definitions do not do that. As Ockham sets it up, all connotative terms have nominal definitions, never real definitions, and absolute terms although not all of them have real definitions, never nominal definitions. Some absolute terms have no definitions at all.

Each of these traditional definitions is correct, and each in its own way expresses the essential metaphysical structure of a human being. But notice: the two definitions do not signify make us think of exactly the same things. The first one makes us think of all rational things in virtue of the first word of the definiens plus all animals whether rational or not, in virtue of the second word of the definiens.

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They will primarily signify—be truly predicable of—exactly the same things, since they will primarily signify just what the term they define primarily signifies. But they can also secondarily signify other things as well. Nominal definitions, Ockham says, are different: There is one and only one nominal definition for any given connotative term. They reasoned as follows: a connotative term is synonymous with its nominal definition, but there is no synonymy in mental language according to Ockham; mental language, therefore, cannot contain both a simple connotative term and its complex nominal definition; since it must certainly have the resources for formulating adequate definitions, what must be dispensed with is the defined simple term; and since all connotative terms are supposed to have a nominal definition, it follows that mental language contains only absolute terms along with syncategorematic ones, of course.

The consequences were far-reaching. Not only did this interpretation claim to provide an overall understanding of what Ockham was up to, but it also inevitably led to conclude that his whole nominalist program was bound to failure. The program, consequently, was thought to require the semantical reduction of all relational terms to combinations of non-relational ones, which seems hardly possible. Since spoken and written languages are semantically derivative on mental language, it is vital that we get the semantics of mental language to work out right for Ockham, or else the systematic coherence of much of what he has to say will be in jeopardy.

For one thing, as Spade had remarked himself, Ockham never systematically engages in explicit attempts at such semantical reductions, which would be quite odd if this was the central component of his nominalism.