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Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Consequences of William of Ockham

William of Ockham
Richard M. Weaver, in his 1948 bestseller Ideas Have Consequences, says that the scholastic logician William of Ockham paved way for the dissolution of the Western civilization by giving birth to nominalism, which is a doctrine that denies the existence of the Universals.

Weaver begins the Introduction to his book with a dramatic denunciation of Ockham’s role in the fourteenth century:
Like Macbeth, Western man made an evil decision, which has become the efficient and final cause of other evil decisions. Have we forgotten our encounter with the witches on the heath? It occurred in the late fourteenth century, and what the witches said to the protagonist of this drama was that man could realize himself more fully if he would only abandon his belief in the existence of transcendentals. The powers of darkness were working subtly, as always, and they couched this proposition in the seemingly innocent form of an attack upon universals. The defeat of logical realism in the great medieval debate was the crucial event in the history of Western culture; from this flowed those acts which issue now in modern decadence.
A paragraph later, Weaver directly mentions Ockham in connection with the propagation of nominalism:
For this reason I turn to William of Occam as the best representative of a change which came over man’s concep­tion of reality at this historic juncture. It was William of Occam who propounded the fateful doctrine of nominalism, which denies that universals have a real existence. His triumph tended to leave universal terms mere names serving our convenience. The issue ultimately involved is whether there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man; and the answer to the question is decisive for one’s view of the nature and destiny of humankind. The practical result of nominalist philosophy is to banish the reality which is perceived by the intellect and to posit as reality that which is perceived by the senses. With this change in the affirmation of what is real, the whole orientation of culture takes a turn, and we arc on the road to modern empiricism. 
Weaver's perspectives on Ockham's philosophy is similar to what Etienne Gilson has said in his book The Unity of Philosophical Experience (1937). The Chapter 3, “The Road to Skepticism,” in Gilson's book is devoted to exploring the consequences of Ockham’s nominalist philosophy. Gilson writes: “as a philosopher, it was Ockham’s privilege to usher into the world what I think is the first known case of a new intellectual disease.”

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