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

  • Introduction
  • Tools for Further Research
  • Editions
  • Principle of Parsimony
  • Semantics and Philosophy of Language
  • Logic
  • Knowledge
  • Natural Philosophy
  • Political Philosophy
  • Reception and Influence

Medieval Studies William of Ockham
Jenny Pelletier, Magali Roques
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0275


William of Ockham (b. c. 1287–d. 1347) is one of the giants of medieval philosophy. He was an innovative and controversial thinker who lived an extraordinarily eventful life. He entered the Franciscan order as a young boy and then studied in Oxford and London, where he composed an extensive body of work on logic, natural philosophy, and theology in accordance with the academic requirements of the time. While waiting to incept as a magister with the right to teach in the faculty of theology at Oxford, he was summoned to the papal court at Avignon in 1324, where some of his doctrines were suspected of being heretical. There, he was drawn into the current political crisis of the day between Pope John XXII and the Franciscan order on the question of who owned the property that the Franciscan order used (buildings, clothing, food, etc.). John XXII argued that use entailed ownership; the Franciscans argued that it did not. Ockham waded into the debate, inaugurating an interest in politics and political philosophy that would occupy him exclusively until his death. Eventually convinced that John XXII was a heretic, Ockham fled Avignon in 1328 in the company of Michael of Cesena and other Franciscan leaders, finding protection at the court of Ludwig of Bavaria, the Holy Roman Emperor. He composed a second body of work on property and property rights, heresy, and the nature, origin, and relationship of temporal and spiritual power. Ockham was excommunicated in 1328 but never officially charged with heresy. Ockham’s body of work is remarkable, and not only because of the abrupt shift in his intellectual and political pursuits. Despite the risk of oversimplification, we can identify certain pervasive tendencies in his thought. He exhibits a general preference for parsimony and privileges minimalism in metaphysics while developing a highly sophisticated analysis of language and logic. He insists on a firm foundation for knowledge in our direct experience of individual and contingent objects. He emphasizes divine omnipotence, simplicity, and freedom, and places human freedom and rationality at the heart of his ethics and politics. Ockham’s reputation as an enfant terrible of the late Middle Ages, whose doctrines were commonly represented as either calamitous or revolutionary, depending on the interpreter, has been substantially revised in the past three decades. A balanced and critical assessment of his thought and position in the history of medieval philosophy nevertheless remains an ongoing project.

General Overviews

Adams 1987 remains the gold standard of monographs in English on Ockham’s philosophy and much of his theology. This monograph is a dense but detailed discussion that is more suited for experts and advanced undergraduates, whereas Biard 1997, Maurer 1999, and Keele 2010 are clear and accessible introductions. All three are well suited for introducing Ockham’s philosophy to undergraduates and non-experts. Spade and Panaccio 2019 is a lucid, up-to-date survey, covering all of Ockham’s thought in a clear and concise fashion. The controversial Alféri 1989 and even-handed Ghisalberti 1996 remain interesting and influential introductions to Ockham in Europe.

  • Adams, Marilyn McCord. William Ockham. 2 vols. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987.

    An exhaustive and exacting analysis of Ockham’s philosophy, with particular strengths in metaphysics, cognition, natural philosophy, and theology. The foundations of his ethics are discussed in the context of his theology, but his political philosophy is not mentioned. Significant attention is paid to Ockham’s contemporary interlocutors.

  • Alféri, Pierre. Guillaume d’Ockham: Le singulier. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1989.

    An extensive monograph that aims to present a systematic account of Ockham’s thinking on ontology, experience, and language. It takes the individual as Ockham’s basic point of departure and the irreducible nucleus of his entire philosophical project.

  • Biard, Joël. Guillaume d’Ockham, Logique et Philosophie. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1997.

    DOI: 10.3917/puf.biard.1997.01

    A brief introduction to Ockham’s logic, especially semantics, cognition, and epistemology, in French. Ideal for undergraduates and non-experts.

  • Ghisalberti, Alessandro. Guglielmo di Ockham. Milan: Vita e Pensiero, Pubblicazioni de’ll Università del Sacro Cuore, 1996.

    Originally published in 1972, this Italian introduction to Ockham’s thought covers the full breadth of his thought, from logic, to “rational theology,” to political philosophy, and includes an opening chapter on his life and works. This monograph predates much of the critical edition (Ockham 1967–1988, cited under Editions).

  • Keele, Rondo. Ockham Explained: From Razor to Rebellion. Chicago: Open Court, 2010.

    A short and clear introduction to Ockham’s thought, with some attention to his biography and an interest in placing him in dialogue with contemporary analytic philosophy.

  • Maurer, Armand. The Philosophy of William of Ockham in the Light of Its Principles. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1999.

    A comprehensive and accessible survey of Ockham’s philosophical and theological writings. Better suited for non-experts than Adams 1987.

  • Spade, Paul Vincent, and Claude Panaccio. “William of Ockham.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2019.

    A current overview of the major themes in Ockham’s thought.

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