William of Ockham Attacks Thomist Ideas Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

William of Ockham attacked Thomist ideas in philosophical and theological writings that questioned the teachings of the Catholic Church, preparing the way for the Protestant Reformation.

Summary of Event

Although the philosophical and theological system created by Thomas Aquinas Thomas Aquinas represents the highest point of medieval Scholastic Scholasticism thought and has long been the official philosophy of the Catholic Church, it was not without critics during its time, especially during the fourteenth century, when Thomism had not yet completely established itself. One of the sharpest and most influential of these critics was the English theologian and philosopher, William of Ockham, and his views both reflected a differing vision of truth than that of Aquinas and helped prepare the way for the Protestant Reformation. Reformation [kw]William of Ockham Attacks Thomist Ideas (c. 1310-1350) [kw]Ockham Attacks Thomist Ideas, William of (c. 1310-1350) Ockham, William of Europe (general);1310-c. 1350: William of Ockham Attacks Thomist Ideas[2640] Cultural and intellectual history;c. 1310-1350: William of Ockham Attacks Thomist Ideas[2640] Religion;c. 1310-1350: William of Ockham Attacks Thomist Ideas[2640] Ockham, William of Thomas Aquinas Louis the Bavarian

Aquinas’s greatest and definitive work, the Summa theologiae (c. 1265-1273; Summa Theologica Summa Theologica (Thomas Aquinas) , 1911-1921), made use of the thoughts and concepts of many of his philosophical and theological forerunners, but its greatest debt is to the Greek philosopher Aristotle Aristotle . In a very real sense, Thomistic philosophy is Aristotelian philosophy Christianized, and William of Ockham’s criticisms of Aquinas were inevitably linked to objections to Aristotle that stretched back to classical Greece.

The basic quarrel between Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham involved the issue of “realism” versus “nominalism.” Briefly stated, “realism” posits that universals, or the perfect form of earthly objects, exist in some real yet abstract state. Plato had taught that these universals were in fact the only reality. Thus there is, in some world beyond this one, for example, the “perfect chair” of which all earthly chairs are inferior copies. Aristotle believed that universals could exist only in specific things, but those specific things shared the essence of the universal. Aquinas, following Aristotle’s lead, claimed that these universals existed in the mind of God prior to creation, but thereafter were found only in specific objects, while still retaining their universal character. A horse, for example, shares with all other horses a certain quidditas (roughly translated as “whatness,” or even, in this case, “horseness”). This quidditas is the essential quality that distinguishes horses from all other creatures. Although human beings can perceive quidditas only as it is resident in a particular thing, it is a universal reality.

Aquinas used this relatively simple concept, linked with Christian belief, as a key part in his work to produce a broad and systematic philosophical Philosophy;France and theological scheme. William of Ockham objected to this system because he rejected its foundation. William’s cardinal principle was that universals existed not in reality but only as constructs of the human mind. Everything outside of the mind was individual. The philosophical term given to this view is “nominalism,” Nominalism and William’s view that a universal is only a term to label a group of individuals has earned his philosophy the name “Terminism.” Terminism He taught that the terms used to group individuals may be useful but they are not, in any ultimate sense, real. This led to sharp divisions with Thomistic thought.

Aquinas had sought to unite faith and reason, and so had defended the scientific character of theology. Indeed, he claimed that theology was the noblest of all the sciences, since it provides knowledge of the ultimate truths regarding God and his creation. William, on the other hand, denied that theology was a science at all, since it can rest only on the faith of the individual and the divinely granted authority of the Church. For William, science is knowledge gained from experience, principles, or conclusions drawn from the two; since the fundamental “facts” of theology are outside human experience, theology cannot be a science. Theology;England Theology;France

Aquinas had taught that theology is universal and unlimited, able to use all philosophical and scientific truths in order to fashion a higher and clearer vision of ultimate reality. In this way he could use what he would term universal truths to fashion various proofs for the existence of God from the natural world around him. William, who had a much more skeptical view of human reason, maintained that theology was basically a collection of mental habits, undoubtedly divinely inspired but limited by our human nature, which had the common purpose of leading human beings to salvation. He thus rejected Aquinas’s belief that theology was a single characteristic of the human mind that was capable of unlimited development. Here, William anticipates a key tenet of later Protestant thought, which emphasizes the infinite gulf between God and human beings.

Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham diverge again on the question of ethics. For Aquinas, ethics and human goodness are questions that relate to the perfection that is possible through God’s sharing of his own goodness and perfection. In essence, Aquinas seems to be arguing that God wants us to be good, perhaps even perfect, and will provide the means by which to attain this. In traditional Catholic belief, this is accomplished not solely by individual action but through the assistance of the Church, which includes both the earthly version of the institution and the saints in heaven.

Again, William takes a differing view. For him, ethics and morality are based on the obligation human beings have to follow the laws laid down by God. “Goodness,” a universal, does not exist as a thing in itself; it is merely a term that signifies that something is as it ought to be according to God’s commandments. Here, William makes a breathtaking step and claims that God’s commandments are not set according to an abstract concept of “good,” but are determined purely by God’s pleasure. Because God is free to do as he chooses, he can command as he pleases. People have been commanded to love God; therefore, to love him is good. Had he chosen to command people to hate him, however, “goodness” in human beings would consist of obeying that commandment, incomprehensible as that might seem. In a similar fashion, William explains, God has condemned and forbidden adultery, but God could change this and make adultery good and meritorious.


The view of God’s universal authority, unmediated by the presence of the Church and its traditions, has caused some to label William of Ockham “the first Protestant.” Martin Luther was later to refer to William as one of his major influences, and traces of William’s philosophy are clearly seen in Protestant theological thought. William’s personal history adds some credence to this description. Accused, or at least suspected, of heresy Heresy;William of Ockham by the Papacy, he was for a time confined to the Franciscan house in Avignon and later fled to the court of his protector, Louis Louis IV (king of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor) the Bavarian, Holy Roman Emperor (known as Emperor Louis IV), where he lived until his death. As a dedicated Franciscan who rejected material goods and preached the virtues of poverty, William ran against the current of the established Church of his time.

William’s ideas on the importance of the individual in the religious scheme of things and his rejection of universals in favor of directly observed particulars were later taken up and developed by empirical philosophers such as his fellow Englishman, John Locke. His major importance for both philosophy and theology is in his systematic and comprehensive marshaling of logical arguments in favor of nominalism over realism and his emphasis on the individual and the particular over the universal and general. Both views would later become central elements in the thought of the Protestant Reformation.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adams, Marilyn McCord. William Ockham. 2 vols. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987. A detailed and comprehensive review of William of Ockham’s thought.
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    xlink:type="simple">Carre, Meyrick. Realists and Nominalists. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1946. An essential study of differences between Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham within the setting of medieval Scholastic thought.
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    xlink:type="simple">Dancy, Jonathan, and Ernest Sousa, eds. A Companion to Epistemology. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992. Provides a brief but thorough introduction to William of Ockham’s thought and helps place it within the context of general Scholastic philosophy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gilson, Etienne. The History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages. New York: Random House, 1955. This survey of the whole of medieval Christian philosophy puts Thomism in its historical context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Honderich, Ted, ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. The section on William of Ockham gives a basic introduction to his theories in an accessible fashion.
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    xlink:type="simple">Martin, Christopher, ed. The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas: Introductory Reading. London: Routledge, 1988. Contains a representative sampling of all of Aquinas’s important works, including a selection of his Summa Theologica, with excellent introductions of each selection.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maurer, Armand. Medieval Philosophy. New York: Random House, 1962. An invaluable starting point for a study of Scholastic philosophy as well as William of Ockham’s individual contributions to the field.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mole, Phil. “Ockham’s Razor Cuts Both Ways: The Uses and Abuses of Simplicity in Scientific Theories.” Skeptic 10, no. 1 (2003): 40-47. A brief, scholarly analysis of the concept “Ockham’s (or Occam’) razor,” which was named after William of Ockham and refers to the principle of parsimony, or simplicity, in thinking about scientific problems such as universals.

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