Friday, December 31, 2010

Ockham on the BBC

Researching ways in which I might write a useful and interesting and improving article on Ockham for the Daily Mail, I found this excellent programme on the life and work and legacy of Ockham, first broadcast 8:00 a.m., Thursday 31 May 2007, on Radio 4. It doesn’t tell us a huge amount that someone familiar with Ockham or that period of medieval thought would not have already known. Its interest lies in the great way it summarises Ockham. Given you have five minutes, twenty minutes or (as in the case of this broadcast) 45 minutes to talk about Ockham, what actually do you say? The Wikipedia article is truly awful (for reasons I explain here, if it is not self-evident from just looking at the article). The article in the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy is simply not going to be comprehensible to the average Daily Mail reader.

The opening (by Bragg) is picturesque.

The small village of Ockham, near Woking in Surrey, stands a church. Made of
grey stone, it has a pitched roof and an unassuming church tower but parts of it
date back to the 13th century. This means they it have been standing when the
village witnessed the birth of one of the greatest philosophers in Medieval
Europe. His name was William and he became known as William of Ockham. William
of Ockham’s ideas on human freedom and the nature of reality influenced Thomas
Hobbes and helped fuel the Reformation. During a turbulent career he managed to
offend the Chancellor of Oxford University, disagree with his own ecclesiastical
order and get excommunicated by the Pope. He also declared that the authority of
rulers derives from the people they govern and was one of the first people so to
do. Ockham’s razor is the idea that philosophical arguments should be kept as
simple as possible, something that Ockham himself practised severely on the
theories of his predecessors.
That's right! Begin with a picture of where Ockham grew up, and a place he might have seen in some earlier form. Designate him as ‘one of the greatest philosophers in medieval Europe. Say that he ‘fuelled the Reformation’, that he disagreed with his own order, and was excommunicated by the Pope (as was Anthony Kenny, one of the participants in the programme, as it happens). The only thing it is missing is the wonderful “under cover of darkness” from the Stanford article, describing his flight from Avignon for Pisa. Probably the only part of that article that would not have been out of place in the Mail. The programme is well worth a visit. In summary:
  • What sort of world did Ockham live in (Kenny, 1:19)

  • His early life (Adams 5:50)

  • The problem of universals (Adams 7:46). There is a wonderful moment where Adams says “The problem is really a problem about whether similarity is to be grounded in the identity of metaphysical components. If each of us is a human being, we are maximally similar with respect to rational animality. But does that similarity between two individuals ... have to be grounded in a common metaphysical consituent which we all share, and if it does, then would there have to be another constituent which makes us to be the very individuals that we are - the haecceity". Bragg understandably asks her to run that one past him again.

  • Ockham on universals. (Adams 9:05) Ockham's view that any explanation in terms of a common nature and an individuating component requires an account of the connection between the nature and the individuator is, and O thinks that any attempt to give an account of this will end in contradiction.

  • The Holy Trinity. (Cross - 10:48). This is a wonderful explanation of why Ockham’s view on universals was controversial. If there aren't shared natures, it is hard to explain how there is just one God, where there are supposed to be three divine persons who all share something (the divine nature/essence), plus a distinguishing feature. If in principle there couldn't be a shared essence, it looks as though you have ruled out the Trinity on philosophical grounds. Oh no.

  • How Ockham gets round it (Cross, 12:46). Ockham simply thought that theology is an exception. A bit of a sidestep, and an unsatisfactory position for a medieval philosopher, given their program, which had some success, of showing the overall consistency and coherency of Christianity, even if its truth cannot be logically proved.

  • Ockham's Razor (Kenny 15:51). “Scotus had grown huge metaphysical fuzzy beard that needed cutting off”. This is how Kenny achieved fame and respect and universal admiration in the philosophical universe. However, he does add that Ockham was the most brilliant philosopher ever to have taught at Oxford, and Kenny taught at Oxford.

  • The political period (Cross, 22:40). The spiritual Franciscans, who believed in Franciscan poverty – the use of things, but not the ownership of property - were a bit ‘like hippies’, and also possibly a bit mad. Pope John XXII proclaimed that Franciscans had a right to use things, which Ockham said contradicted a proclamation in 1279 proclamation, since a ‘right to use’ is the same as ownership. Ockham’s finally declared that the pope was a heretic. ‘Quite bold really’, comments Bragg (although Adams adds that it was actually quite common in those days for popes to be denounced as heretics).

  • Church and state. (Adams 31:40). Ockham defended a dualist or parallel system of church and state. He had a liberal view of the state - after the fall, you wouldn’t have to have property ownership if everyone would live by natural reason – but not everyone will, so you need the state. The state should stay out of church affairs, the church should stay out of temporal affairs. He also emphasised personal liberty, so clearly was a very modern person.

  • Divine right. (Kenny 35:44) The right of monarchs does not derive directly from God. It comes from God to the citizens who then pass it on, if they wish, to the king. Ockham’s significance. (Cross, 37:50) Ockham’s theory is a modern democratic theory, promoting a liberal state. This idea might have reached Hobbes, who had been reading Grotius, who might have been reading someone like Ockham or Marsilius.

  • Ockham’s real significance. (Cross 41:10) Ockham was more influential for his logic - not least because early modern philosophers were nominalists.
The programme features host Melvyn Bragg, with experts Anthony Kenny, Marilyn McCord Adams and Richard Cross.


David Brightly said...

'In Our Time' is one of the best things on R4. Listening to knowledgeable and articulate people is a great joy.

You may be amused that earlier in the year I spotted in a lay-by on the westbound A3 just beyond J10 on the M25 a mobile snack bar entitled 'Ockham Bites'.

Edward Ockham said...

>> a mobile snack bar entitled 'Ockham Bites'.

Teeth, as well as a razor?

(For those many readers who are not locals, Junction 10 of the M25 is just outside the small village of Ockham, where it is generally agreed William was born around 1285).

David Brightly said...

>>Teeth, as well as a razor?