William of Ockham

William of Ockham was among the notable figures of Church who spearheaded an intellectual movement in the medieval period and significantly contributed to both secular and theological philosophy at the time. Being a Franciscan friar, William had access to a vast body of classic literature and he consequently penned many major works on theology, physics, logic and politics among other subjects.

Early Life and Education

William of Ockham was born in 1285 and he became a part of the Franciscan order of friars are a very young age. It was as a part of the Order that he was able to have access to a vast body of literature, both philosophical and theological.

He further studied theology at the University of Oxford where he continued to study until 1321. Although he completed all prerequisites of a master’s degree at the university, he was given the title of an Inceptor rather than a Regent Master. This means that although he became a teacher at the university, his title continued to be that of a student.

Disputes with the Church and Papacy

Around 1324, William penned down a commentary on the ‘Sentences’ of Peter Lombard. However, his commentary didn’t find approval with the Church authorities and was deemed unorthodox. He then had to appear before a papal court to defend the commentary.

A more troublesome conflict with Church authorities came in 1327 when William was once again summoned to a papal court and was embroiled in a debate about apostolic poverty.

Since Franciscans, including William, avidly believed in apostolic poverty while Pope John XXII at the time disapproved of it, the issue put the leading Franciscans at odds with the Papacy. As a result, William fled the proceedings of the papal court in Avignon in 1328 and sought refuge in the court of Louis IV of Bavaria, Holy Roman Emperor at the time.

Exile and Death

While living in exile from the Papacy, William defended his views in writing and criticised the views of John XXII as heretical. The dispute with the Papacy also led him to put more trust in the temporal monarchs, arguing in his subsequent treatises that the emperor should have full control over the church and the state in the Holy Roman Empire. Following his flight from Avignon, William had been excommunicated. William died in 1347 and his excommunication was lifted by Pope Innocent VI in 1359.

Works and Philosophy

Ockham firmly believed that faith and private revelation were crucial for an individual to be able to reach the truth. He actively advocated a nominalist philosophy, putting the individual at the centre of all experience and regarding all universals as mere mental concepts.

In logic, he penned down the ‘Sum of Logic’, a work in which he proposed the use of new concepts in logic as well as a new logical system. It was through his works that he offered the principle later termed ‘Occam’s Razor’, arguing for explanations which require least number of hypothesis.

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