Thursday, February 4, 2016

Ockham and the Present

Ockham Explained by Keele is an excellent work describing Ockham and his philosophical thought. It is worth reading for those who want an introduction to Ockham and also for those who have spent time reading and trying to understand Ockham.

The book is arranged chronologically with Ockham’s life and it presents a well-orchestrated flow of the development of his philosophical ideas, especially the development of his view of nominalism. What is important to understand is that Ockham came from the culture of Scholasticism and form of argument was often as important as content. The Scholastic was initially trained in the Trivium (Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric) which placed significant emphasis on forms of usage and methods of argumentation. Breaking through that cultural-temporal mask can oftentimes be difficult if not impossible but Keele does a brilliant job in making is accessible to the present day audience.

The book is arranged by chronological segments in his life. Chapter 2 is an excellent presentation of the education of a young Friar in the Franciscans in England. pp 17-18 is one of the better presentations of the ten Categories of Aristotle, as learned in the Trivium by all students in the day. It would become one of the pillars that Ockham would chip away at. Aristotle, the Philosopher, was regarded as a near divinity in understanding by many of the Scholastics but it was Ockham who using the tools of Scholastic analysis started to chip away at this then 1600 century fa├žade. pp 21-22 discusses the construct of Universals and its importance to the Church. This is acritical factor to understand. Whereas much of Aquinas had been rejected shortly after his death he was soon resurrected and canonized a Saint and his “logic” became a bulwark for the Church. This is a problem for Ockham.

Chapter 3 takes the student as Ockham a bit further from the basics of Grammar to the intricacies of logic. The author does a wonderful presentation on terms and also on the basics of logic as engaged by Ockham at the time. This is a critical chapter for the reader to understand the transition of Ockham from a student who learns the tools to Ockham the philosopher who starts to break them down. The summary on p 59 is excellent in setting the stage for the development of what would be the rebel phases.

Chapter 4 discusses Ockham as a teacher. It is not clear from the record as to whether Ockham was at Oxford of in London and what time he may have been at each. In the records of Merton at Oxford there is even ambiguity and uncertainty. However he did manage to go back and forth. This Chapter does a brilliant job in explaining how Ockham took apart Aristotle’s Categories and in the process sets the stage for nominalism. Starting on pp 63-64 he uses Porphyrian trees to demonstrate the categories and in turn the individuals which we recognize. A good example of the problem is the statement that “Roses are red”. We understand the universal species of a rose and the predicate red. But what do we mean by red? Today we can a spectrophotometer and present a detailed spectrum of a red rose. The problem is that each red rose may very well have a slightly different spectrophotometer reading. So what are we to believe; the facts of our “lying” eyes? That is a challenge for Ockham. This Chapter ends on p 84 with a discussion of the connotation theory which is essential to much of the further insight.

Chapter 5 starts the discussion of the attacks on Ockham. One would have suspected attacks by the Dominicans but his attacks came from Franciscans. Chapter 5 is an excellent discussion of those attacks and especially the articulation of the “razor” principle and its explanation. The author has a superb talent in explaining the razor with various twists and turns and all in very readable style. Frankly this is one of the best I have read over the years.

Chapter 6 discusses Ockham’s response. But what I found most enlightening was the discussion on Ockham and motion. I have read some of Ockham’s writings on motion and unless one truly understands the Scholastics mind one can get quite confused. Motion to Ockham was not motion as we understand it.  pp 122-131 is a superb discussion of this issue and the author presents the understanding of motion by the Scholastic as something much different than what we do today. It does raise the question, however, of what influence the work of Roger Bacon may have had since Bacon “measured” things whereas Ockham remains in the world of Scholastic abstraction. The reader less attuned to Scholastic thought and technique may wonder what the fuss is all about; but read the material and it will easily explain.

Chapter 7 takes Ockham to Avignon and in a sense this is the beginning of the Renaissance and the end of the Middle Ages. Ockham is ordered to report to Pope John XXII, the Avignon French Pope, no longer and the Bishop of Rome. The initial demand to appear is over possible heretical implications in his writings. Frankly this was not all that uncommon; many writings were purged with no serious consequence to the author, Aquinas being one at times. But Ockham was then drawn into the battle of poverty, the Spirituals in the Franciscan order and the examination of the writings of John XXII. John XXII was a regal pope and educated as a Canon Lawyer. Canon Lawyers and Theologians were like plumbers versus vascular surgeons. No criticism on plumbers, but they knew the code often as they wrote it. Theologians were few and far between whereas Canon Lawyers ran rampant in Papal hallways. Thus the battle was joined. Ockham read the writings on John XXII and to his surprise found them heretical. Thus he saw the Pope as a heretic, since after he explained them the Pope did not recant but attacked. One suspects that Ockham lacked some basic Palace social skills!

In Chapter 8 the author briefly takes Ockham on his midnight escape from Avignon to Munich. The chapter is brief and of all the writing in the book I had hope for an equal amount of attention, at least on the Work of Ninety Days, his political thesis. It was from 1328 through 1348 when he dies that there was a mass of writings on political thought. In fact it was some of the most powerful political writings and the beginning of what we now understand as democratic liberalism (I use liberalism in the classic English political sense). Thus the one thing I would have really like would be the author’s writings on this period.

As noted, the book is not all of Ockham. To some degree that is regrettable but understandable. What the author presents of Ockham and his philosophical insight as explained above. What is missing are the other two parts of Ockham’s writings; his theological works and most importantly his political works. Theologically Ockham was in stark contradistinction to Aquinas. As Aquinas saw logic and reason as a means to understand God we see Ockham reintroducing faith. On the political front there is a significant amount of Ockham introducing the concepts of individualism, the separation of Church and State, and the limited powers of the ruling class. The author has no mention of Marsilius of Padua who played a parallel role to Ockham in the political area. 

But why is Ockham so important today? His philosophy or theology is just fine. However his political philosophy is critical. He was the first true philosopher of individualism. He saw in a Pope a hertic and said so. Strange that John XXIII took a name to follow John XXII. But Ockham stated that Popes have at best some limited spiritual authority but no temporal. He also noted the essential nature of the individual and that the power of the ruler came from the people and not God. This is an excellent work and worthy of some thought.