Simon Ings

The great disrupter: how William of Occam overturned medieval thought

In his efforts to demolish the entire edifice of medieval philosophy, the friar from Surrey gave birth to the idea of modern science, says Johnjoe McFadden

Sketch of William of Occam c.1341. [Alamy]

Astonishing where an idea can lead you. You start with something that 800 years hence will sound like it’s being taught at kindergarten: fathers are fathers, not because they are filled with some ‘essence of fatherhood’, but because they have children.

Fast-forward a few years, and the Pope is trying to have you killed. Not only have you run roughshod over his beloved eucharist (justified, till then, by some very dodgy Aristotelian logic-chopping); you’re also saying there’s no ‘essence of kinghood’, either. If kings are only kings because they have subjects, then, said William of Occam, ‘power should not be entrusted to anyone without the consent of all’. Heady stuff for 1334.

How this progression of thought gave birth to the very idea of modern science is the subject of what may be the most sheerly enjoyable history of science of recent years.

William was born around 1288 in the little town of Ockham in Surrey. He was probably an orphan; at any rate he was given to the Franciscan order at about the age of 11. He shone at Greyfriars in London, and around 1310 was dispatched to Oxford’s newfangled university. All manner of intellectual, theological and political shenanigans followed, mostly to do with William’s efforts to demolish almost the entire edifice of medieval philosophy.

It needed demolishing, and that’s because it still held to Aristotle’s ideas about what an object is. He wondered how single objects and multiples can co-exist. His solution: categorise everything. A cherry is a cherry is a cherry, and all cherries have cherryness in common. A cherry is a ‘universal’; the properties that might distinguish one cherry from another are ‘accidental’.

The trouble with Aristotle’s universals, though, is that they assume a one-to-one correspondence between word and thing, and posit a universe made up of a terrifying number of unique things — at least one for each noun or verb in the language.

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