William Ockham on Metaphysics: The Science of Being and God

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In William Ockham on Metaphysics , Jenny Pelletier offers an account of Ockham's concept of metaphysics as it emerges throughout his philosophical and theological work. She argues that Ockham c. Metaphysics is the science that studies all beings and their most general properties. Ockham was considered by some to be profoundly skeptical of metaphysics. Recent scholarship tends to focus on regional metaphysical issues e.

Jenny Pelletier provides a positive interpretation of Ockham on metaphysics as such that enriches our current understanding of this seminal medieval thinker. Read more Read less. The 'common nature' is neither really distinct from that which 'individuates', nor is it formally distinct; nor can the 'common nature' be both singular and universal depending on the way we think about it. The universal first and second 'intention' for Ockham [see, for example, Comms I, 2, vi - viii; Quodlibet.

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IV, 9] is an signifying 'act of the understanding' and has no real existence. It is simply a concept of a collection of signified individuals and known in a confused manner. He talks of nature as being known in the universal 'occultly'. There can be no extramental existent universals. This constitutes a separate order of being from real things in the world [e]. Relations, for example, 'being the father of', have no real existence; they are names or concepts which stand for 'absolutes' in the natural world. The relationship of creatures to God or vice versa is likewise neither real nor 'mental'; it is but the way we talk about how created beings depend on a relative Being.

A similar 'nominalist' rejection of essentialism is to be found in Ockham's account of motion, space, and time [f].

William of Ockham (Occam, c. 1280—c. 1349)

No thing is denoted by these terms. Rather it is individual things which move, that is, change their place, time being inseparable from motion and signifying the soul's knowledge of before and after. Ockham thinks of individual things or 'absolutes' substances, sensible qualities as distinct and independent of each other. Ockham's approach to the doctrine of four causes is consistently empirical and anti-metaphysical. Matter and form are thus not strictly causes in Aristotle's sense. Ockham admits efficient causality but interprets it empirically: to say that A is the efficient cause of B is to say that B regularly follows when A occurs but otherwise does not.

Moreover, knowledge that A is the cause of B presupposes intuitive cognition of both the cause and effect, and that we have repeated experience of their conjunction. As for the notion of final cause, Ockham dismisses this as metaphorical. We have no evidence that natural bodies act to bring about some end , only that they behave as if, they were. In reality they act in a particular way depending on circumstances because it is of their nature to do so. Causal relationships in general are contingent in that they have to be verified empirically [h].

Still less could we show that there is but one end, namely, God. As for the argument from efficient causality, we cannot prove that there is not an infinite regress. And even if we can show there is a first efficient cause we can know nothing of its nature; it is therefore not God [a]. It follows from his criticisms of such arguments that, for Ockham, the philosopher can say nothing about God's nature except imperfectly and inaccurately by the use of 'connotative' or negative terms [ Ibid.

I, 35, v] [b]. Thus if God is a being, then we can affirm that he must be good, as this is a property common to himself and his creatures.

What is Occam's Razor?

In general Ockham said that God's attributes can be demonstrated provided the middle term of the relevant syllogism is a concept which is common in this sense, that is, a connotative term. Otherwise the middle term forms the definition of what we seek to establish, and the argument is then circular as, for example, with the concept of creativity. To claim that God can produce something out of nothing, that He is omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, and so on is a matter for theology not philosophy; and therefore no proof is possible [c]. This position also informs Ockham's discussion of the treatment by earlier philosophers of divine ideas, divine knowledge, and will.

He rejects the view that there is any real plurality or distinction in God's intellect. Given Ockham's nominalism and emphasis on individuality, there can be no such ideas if equated with the universal, species, negations, and so on. The number of 'individuals', however, is infinite.

Account Options

If God knows His creatures, He must also have perfect intuitive knowledge of past and future contingent events directly through His essence : but Ockham says we cannot say how precisely God accomplishes this. All we can affirm is that either A is true or not-A is true and that God knows which is the case [ Ibid I, 35, v; 38, i]. However , Ockham rejects fatalism [e]. However, we may talk of will with reference to God's omnipotence and his ability to cause directly anything to occur without intermediate or secondary causes, provided it is logically possible [ Ibid.

I, 17] [g]. At the lowest level we have a corporeal soul as do animals in general. Lastly there is the intellectual soul [a]. This is regarded as incorruptible and therefore cannot inform corruptible matter directly. However, the soul's nature and its immortality cannot be demonstrated philosophically [b]. Ockham says also that each soul is integral. Thus the intellectual soul cannot be divided into parts or faculties , though it can bring about different kinds of act.

He also maintains that the sensitive and rational souls are not only distinct but also separable from each other. At the same time he continues to regard man as a unity. And he says there is no proof of a universal active intellect; this is a matter of faith [c]. He also places emphasis on the ensouled man's freedom to accept or reject the dictates of both the sensitive appetites and the judgements of the intellect. By virtue of his 'appointed power' potentia ordinata God has laid down a particular moral code for His creatures to follow.

But this is a consequence of His will not his essence; and Ockham says God, by virtue of His absolute power, can demand obedience to acts quite opposite to those He has established, though we are obliged to obey whatever ordinances He has in fact determined. Ockham thus rejects the idea of an immutable natural law grounded in God's Reason [a].

Pelletier, Jenny E. [WorldCat Identities]

Nevertheless, our wills remain free to obey or disobey both revealed truths and judgements of our rational intellects [b]. Our acts are virtuous only when they both conform to our conscience, that is, what we believe to be right reason, and are done because they accord with it [ Ordinatio , I, d. They are not virtuous when done for other motives. Even if one's conscience is erroneous one is obliged to follow it, for the Divine Will wills that creatures should follow the dictates of non-blameworthy reason. Indeed not to do so would be a sin [ Reportatio , III q.

While he shared some points in common with Scotus, Ockham was generally a vigorous critic not only of the Subtle Doctor's metaphysical realism but also of certain aspects of Aristotelianism. There has been some dispute as to whether Ockham should be regarded as a conceptualist or as a nominalist. However, given his emphasis on the primacy of natural signs as states of mind but not as entities existing ante rem rather than on words, 'conceptualist' would seem to be the more appropriate description.

William Ockham on metaphysics : the science of being and God

For reasons connected with his astronomy, Aristotle postulated a God. His God, however, had nothing to do with the universe; it was not his creation, and he was, of necessity, indifferent to its vicissitudes he could not otherwise have been an unmoved mover. It is a mistake to imagine that everything in the Aristotelian universe is trying to fulfill a purpose that God has ordained for it. On the contrary, the teleology of which use is here made is unconscious; although things all tend to an end, they do not in general consciously seek that end.

They are like organs in a living body that fulfill a function and yet seemingly have not been put there for that purpose. As this last remark will suggest, an important source of Aristotelian thought is reflection on natural growth and decay.


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Aristotle, who was the son of a doctor, was himself a pioneer in natural history, and it is not surprising that he thought in biological terms. What is surprising, and gives his system a continuing interest, is the extent to which he succeeded in applying ideas in fields that are remote from their origin. He was without doubt more successful in some fields than in others: in dealing with the phenomena of social life, for instance, as opposed to those of physical reality. Men still, on occasions, think like Aristotle, and, as long as that is so, Aristotelianism will remain a live metaphysical option.

The advent of Christianity had important effects in philosophy as in other aspects of human life. Initially Christians were opposed to philosophical claims of any kind; they saw philosophy as an essentially pagan phenomenon and refused to allow the propriety of subjecting Christian dogma to philosophical scrutiny.


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Christian truth rested on revelation and did not need any certificate of authenticity from mere reason. Thomas Aquinas was only one of a number of important thinkers in medieval times who produced Christian philosophies; others—such as the philosophers John Duns Scotus in the late 13th century and William of Ockham in the first half of the 14th century—took significantly different views.

In selecting the system of Aquinas for summary here, the factor that has weighed most has been its persistent influence, particularly in postmedieval times. Aquinas was not the only medieval philosopher of distinction, but Thomism is alive as other medieval systems are not. The central claim of Thomism is that reflection on everyday things and the everyday world reveals it as pointing beyond itself to God as its sustaining cause. Ordinary existents, such as human beings, are in process of constant change.

The change, however, is not normally the result of their own efforts, and even when it is, it does not depend on them exclusively. No object in the familiar world can fully account for its own esse i. To say this is to say that they are one and all finite. Although finite things can be, and commonly are, stimulated to activity or kept in activity by other finite things, it does not follow that there might be finite things and nothing else. On the contrary, the finite necessarily points beyond itself to the infinite ; the system of limited beings, each dependent for its activity on something else of the same kind, demands for its completion the existence of an unlimited being, one that is the source of change in other things but is not subject to change itself.

Such a being would be not a cause like any other but a first or ultimate cause; it would be the unconditioned condition of the existence of all other things. Aquinas believed that human reason can produce definitive proofs of the existence of an infinite or perfect being, and he had no hesitation in identifying that being with the Christian God.