In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section William of Ockham

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies of the Secondary Literature
  • General Overviews
  • Ockham’s Works in Latin
  • Ockham’s Philosophical Works in English Translation
  • Ockham’s Theological Works in English Translation
  • Ockham’s Political Works in English Translation
  • Ockham’s Metaphysics
  • Ockham’s Epistemology
  • Ockham’s Ethics
  • Ockham’s Logic
  • Ockham’s Philosophy of Mind
  • Ockham’s Natural Philosophy
  • Ockham’s Political Philosophy
  • Ockham’s Theology

Philosophy William of Ockham
Sharon Kaye
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0271


William of Ockham (c. 1285/7–c. 1347) was an English Franciscan philosopher who challenged scholasticism and the papacy, thereby hastening the end of the medieval period. His claim to fame was “Ockham’s Razor,” the principle of parsimony, according to which plurality should not be posited without necessity. Although Ockham did not invent the Razor, he wielded it so systematically and with such striking effect that it came to bear his name. Above all, Ockham used the Razor to interpret Aristotle in a more radically empiricist manner than did his predecessors, accepting into his ontology only individual substances and individual qualities. This helped him to advance a new version of nominalism, according to which universals, such as man, are not metaphysical realities but only concepts in the mind. He contended that human beings perceive objects directly through “intuitive cognition,” without the help of any universals. His theory of mental language aimed to show how we can speak of universals without thereby presupposing that universals exist. For example, the universal term “man” refers to this or that man while grouping them with all the other men. Ockham’s ontological reduction was suspected of having unorthodox implications for the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, according to which bread and wine is miraculously transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Consequently, he was summoned to the papal court in Avignon before he was able to finish his degree at Oxford University. Though Ockham’s dispute with church authority began with metaphysics, it soon became political. After four years under house arrest, he escaped, claiming Pope John XXII was a heretic himself. He never returned to finish his degree (hence his nickname, “Venerable Inceptor”) but, from exile in Germany, wrote political treatises that provide groundbreaking defense of individual rights, separation of church and state, and freedom of speech. Throughout his career, Ockham remained a fideist, convinced that belief in God is a matter of faith alone. Against the scholastic mainstream, he insisted that theology is not a science and rejected all the alleged proofs of the existence of God. At the same time, however, he upheld the absolute omnipotence of God, which committed him to “divine command theory” in ethics—God can command individuals to do things that may ordinarily be wrong (such as disobey the pope), making them right through his command.

Bibliographies of the Secondary Literature

A few bibliographies of works about Ockham cover most of the 20th-century scholarship. In chronological order, the first is Heynick 1950, then Reilly 1968, and last Beckmann 1992.

  • Beckmann, Jan P. Ockham—Bibliographie: 1900–1990. Hamburg, Germany: Felix Meiner, 1992.

    This bibliography covers the majority of the 20th century, mostly works in English, French, and German.

  • Heynick, Valens. “Ockham-Literatur: 1919–1949.” Franziskanische Studien 32 (1950): 164–183.

    This bibliography covers the majority of the first half of the 20th century, mostly works in English, French, and German.

  • Reilly, James P. “Ockham Bibliography, 1950–1967.” Franciscan Studies 28 (1968): 197–214.

    DOI: 10.1353/frc.1968.0006

    This bibliography covers a renaissance of Ockham scholarship during a seventeen-year period in the middle of the 20th century, mostly works in English, French, and German.

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