(CONTENDING IDEAS in WESTERN EUROPE – continued)
William of Ockham, the Franciscan with a razor
Hard times did not diminish a passion for learning. And, as always, upheaval stimulated questions. The plague had caused people to question divine purpose, the nature of God and society. During these times the Franciscans defended their view that knowledge of God can come only through revelation and that the divine cannot be known through logic or reason. One of the more creative of such Franciscans was William of Ockham, who studied and taught at Oxford University.
Similar to Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham focused on the importance of specifics over Plato's abstractions, and, unlike Aquinas, Ockham doubted that one could build from Aristotle's deductive logic to knowledge of the first cause of anything. He rejected abstractions hanging on to nothing concrete. There was no fatherhood, said Ockham, without fathers. He stated that what could be expressed in fewer words was expressed "in vain with more" – which came to be known as Ockham's razor. For William of Ockham it was back to apostle Paul, who based his Christianity on faith and scripture, not on Greek philosophy.
In scholastic circles Ockham's point of view gained wide popularity. But he was at odds with Pope John XXII, Ockham siding with those Franciscans that the Church condemned as heretics for holding onto the doctrine of apostolic poverty. The Inquisition was hunting down the rebel Franciscans, and Ockham fled to the court of the emperor Louis at Munich. The Pope dismissed Ockham from the Franciscan order in 1331. And Ockham died in Bavaria in 1349, a victim perhaps of the plague while he was trying to reconcile with the Church.
After Ockham's death, the intellectual movement he had founded grew. But while pursuing philosophical questions, intellectuals still lacked interest in experimentation and quantification. They kept to the common belief that everything in nature operates in accord with the Divine Spirit. But their emphasis on the specific over the general was setting the stage for the scientific revolution of the 1500s.
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