William of Ockham

A nice piece I read this morning in Philosophy Now, contains a quote which largely summarises my endeavours at work this week:

It is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer.

Ascribed to William of Ockham, who lived from c1285 to 1348 – it is as true in the modern world of work as it no doubt was in a medieval monastery.

Here’s a little of what writer Terence Green has to say about Ockham in Philosophy Now [which at just £17 for a year’s subscription would comfortably pass Green’s excise the excess Ockham test]:

William from Ockham (or Occam), an otherwise obscure village in Surrey, England, was the greatest philosopher of the fourteenth century. Known as the Doctor Invincibilis, he didn’t care whom he offended, and with his rough and ready style of argument, he offended plenty of people – which eventually got him into big trouble.

He became a Franciscan monk, an order famous for its commitment to poverty. But this meant he was at risk of having idle hands (one of poverty’s unacknowledged benefits), and so doing the Devil’s work. To avoid this calamity, he wrote widely on logic, physics, and theology.

Today he is most often associated with ‘Ockham’s Razor’, his idea that explanations should be as simple as possible; alternative formulations of this principle include ‘Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity’ and ‘It is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer’. Frankly, this is a good rule of thumb whatever you’re thinking about.

Having already been condemned as a heretic in 1326 for having unorthodox views, since he argued against Aquinas’s philosophy, he didn’t help himself when in 1328 he sided with those who argued against the Pope that Jesus and his disciples didn’t own any property. This was obviously a matter of considerable importance to the Pope, who owned a lot of property.

Seeing what was coming (imprisonment and execution), William took refuge with the Holy Roman Emperor in Bavaria. Excommunicated, but feeling a bit safer, he wrote polemics against the Pope’s claim to temporal power, thus emulating Dante.

The invincible teacher was finally beaten around 1347/48, probably by the Black Death. The Pope had died earlier, in 1334, still owning lots of property.

© Terence Green 2019