Ockham’s Error | Etienne Gilson, Unity of Philosophical Experience Ch 3


Okay. I have elected to start with chapter 3. Chapters 1 & 2 get us back into the medieval
period, Abelard and others, and some logical work. You’re more than welcome to read those, but
I want to begin with chapter 3. Because Chapter 3 really begins us, “The
Road to Skepticism,” with the patterns in late medieval thought, especially 14th century
thought, Ockham, that are going to be the origin of the environment in which Descartes
emerges then, later on in the in the 17th century. So we see that Gilson begins chapter 3 by
praising Thomas Aquinas, extolling his virtues, his modesty, the modesty of his intellectual
method and his conclusions. Gilson is a Thomist of a certain variety,
with strong attention to the history of philosophy. Some of you know him by reputation as being
a history of philosophy scholar. Two things he notes here on the very first
page: that in addition to his modesty, Aquinas has the virtue of not mixing his theology
with his philosophy. He keeps the principles of theology separate
from the principles of his philosophy, one a natural discipline, the other a supernatural
discipline. But one of the themes we will see throughout
Gilson’s work is his emphasis on not mixing methods between sciences. If one attempts to do philosophy using the
principles of theology, one will make mistakes. If one attempts to do theology using the principles
of philosophy or psychology or any other science, one will similarly make mistakes. And so Gilson is emphasizing, as it were,
the kind of discrete methods that are appropriate to each field of study. As we’ll see, one of his criticisms of Ockham
in this chapter is that Ockham takes a theological principle about God’s omnipotence and makes
it answer philosophical questions in his system. According to Gilson, this is always going
to be an error. In fact it might be the characteristic error
of the views he criticizes, going through Kant, through Descartes, through the different
philosophers dealt with in the other chapters of this book. So, the first thing to note. Page 50: “Himself a theologian, St. Thomas
had asked the professors of theology never to prove an article of faith by rational demonstration,
for faith is not based on reason, but on the word of God, and if you try to prove it, you
destroy it.” So we have the separation between the philosophical
and the theological in Thomas. This is the source of virtue and praise from
Gilson. Now let’s take a look at what’s going on with
William of Ockham. William of Ockham, 14th century, English,
perhaps takes part in that sort of empirical oriented national character. Also a Franciscan, later in his life excommunicated;
that didn’t hamper his scholarly career much. William of Ockham, if some of you have read
Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose,” or seen the movie starring Sean Connery, the
protagonist of that book, a sort of Franciscan monk-friar-detective, solving a murder mystery
in the monastery, is based on William of Ockham. And some of you of course know of Ockham’s
Razor, a principle of parsimony in explanation, which I don’t think comes directly from Ockham,
but takes part in the spirit of his thought. Ockham, the most important thing about Ockham,
I think, is at the bottom of page 50, that Ockham emphasizes the first article of the
Christian Creed above all else: “I believe in God Almighty.” So it’s the omnipotence of God, the power
of God that is going to receive the primary emphasis in the philosophical thought of Ockham. And the Logos of God is going to receive,
we might say, a kind of secondary emphasis. For Ockham it really all comes back to: God
possesses *all the power*. There is literally nothing that is more powerful
than God, there is nothing powerful enough to set limits to God, and if you begin to
speak of the divine Logos in a way that suggests that it limits the effective power of God’s
will, Ockham is going to blow the whistle, throw the red flag on that play. That’s not a legitimate way of thinking about
God. It compromises and limits the power of God. Those of you who’ve read Pope Benedict’s “Regensburg
Address” might recollect that in that he talks a great deal about the relation between
God’s logos and God’s power. That might be a good text for us to come to,
perhaps later in the semester. Here, looking at one reason that you get such
attention is because in Ockham and then also in other religious traditions, particularly
in some varieties of Islam, the power of God takes on this kind of overshadowing character
over all the other predicates of God, all the other ways of knowing God that one might
have. As the first study question I’ve given indicates:
in some sense all of Ockham’s philosophy is distorted by this decision to place full
weight on the power of God as opposed to the logos of God. We can sort of classify different systems
of theologies and different philosophical approaches to God according to which predicate
of God they make primary. In addition to emphasizing God’s omnipotence
to perhaps the neglect of His logos, we find also in Ockham the mixture of theology, theological
and philosophical principles. At the top of page 51 Gilson says… Bottom of 50:
“…Ockham [did not] use it as a principle in theology, which [would be] very proper…,
but he also resorted to [using] it in discussing various philosophical problems, as if any
theological dogma, held by faith alone, could become the source of philosophical and…
rational conclusions.” So we have this error of mixing methods again,
expecting a philosophic, a theological principle to solve a philosophical problem. Like Ghostbusters: crossing the streams, don’t
do that, you’re in danger of bringing the world to an end. What was Occam’s philosophy? I want to take a close look at this, because
what he says in the pages that follow is that there’s no fundamental different, no difference
in the fundamental position, between Ockham and others, other philosophers, but there’s
a vast difference in their ultimate conclusions. So there’s something going wrong in the way
that Ockham is reasoning about individuals and universals, and our goal I think, for
the next four or five pages, is to find this distinction. So my third question on the reading sheet:
Contrast Duns Scotus, Thomas Aquinas, and Harclay on the reality of universals… [Music]

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