Social syllogizing. William of Ockham, John Lutterell, Walter Chatton and Adam Wodeham on the division of epistemic labour*

In my last post, I suggested that Ockham’s account of language and concepts might be founded on the thesis of a “division of linguistic labour”. In what follows, I would like to say more about this thesis by showing how it figures in the debate over the demonstrability of articles of faith. Far from being a debate of merely theological interest, I believe that the thesis is put to work as founding the idea of a division of epistemic labour, even between the living wayfarers (viatores) and those considered happy in heaven (beati). [If you are mainly interested in Ockham’s account of the division of epistemic labour, you can jump straight to section 2 of this post.]

When Ockham’s pupil Adam Wodeham delivered his Commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences around 1330 in Norwich, Ockham had already been excommunicated. But this didn’t stop Wodeham from defending and elaborating Ockham’s doctrines. Like many of his contemporaries, he particularly dealt with questions concerning the relation between theology and the Aristotelian notion of science. One of these questions was whether articles of faith such as ‘God is three and one’ can be scientifically demonstrated. Wodeham’s answer to this question might sound quite peculiar: Instead of a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’, he replies that it is possible in principle to demonstrate such creditive propositions, but not by means that are available to wayfarers, i.e. human beings in this life. Yet they are demonstrable through sentences formed by one who is blessed in heaven. So, in order for this solution to work, we have to imagine a syllogism that contains the premises of a blessed one in heaven and the conclusion of a wayfarer in this earthly life. In this sense, the epistemic labour is shared even across domains as different as heaven and earth …

Wodeham provides intriguing arguments to defend this thesis, which was originally proposed by Ockham. But what is at stake here? To be sure, it’s one of the big themes: the relation between faith and reason. The question of the demonstrability of creditive propositions aims at the epistemological status of theology. Quoting Augustine, already Peter Lombard warned theologians against endorsing the truths of faith on the grounds of ecclesiastical authorities alone. If theologians do not wish to be utterly defenceless against hair-splitting logicians, they had better come up with some reasonable arguments as well. But how was the gap between natural reason and faith to be bridged? From the mid 13th century onwards, Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics – a book that clearly did not consider matters of catholic faith – was the leading source on scientific knowledge. If the traditional talk of ‘truths of faith’ is to be taken seriously and that is taken literally, then we require a general answer to the question of what it means for such a ‘truth’ to be true and demonstrable. Yet, if articles of faith were as evident as principles of science, then faith would have to belong to the realm of naturally accessible human knowledge. And since the knowledge of both realms would be equally evident, the difference between the wayfarer’s faith and the beatific vision of a blessed one would be lost. If, however, articles of faith belong to the realm of heavenly knowledge only, then it is incongruous to call theology a science.

I think that Ockham’s solution to this dilemma gave a new meaning to the debate, in the sense that it is rooted in the conviction that knowledge – no matter whether it’s heavenly or earthly – has a general form: it is subject to general criteria of rationality. This form or structure is for Ockham psychologically real in that knowledge is generally given in the structure of a mental language, which means (to a first approximation) that the concepts we have in our minds are structured in ways significantly similar to the sentences we utter. Thus, the difference between a wayfarer (viator) and a blessed one (beatus) is not that they have different types of lower and higher knowledge (or rationality), the difference is simply that they are in different epistemic situations. But for Ockham’s solution to work, it is not enough that there is a common structure of knowledge. We also have to take the different epistemic situations of different knowers into account. Thus, the idea of a common rationality requires a division of epistemic labour. Let’s now look at the debate.

  1. Lutterell’s critique

Ockham’s teaching in Oxford and London provoked many criticisms. Already John Lutterell (Chancellor of Oxford University till 1322) was deeply concerned about Ockham’s doctrines: Ockham held that we do not know things but mental sentences whose terms stand for things. Mental terms, in turn, are caused by cognizing things. This doctrine tries to acknowledge the fact that an assent or dissent does not aim at things but at propositions: we don’t say, for instance, ‘the stone is true’, but ‘the mental sentence’, whose subject-term stands for a stone, ‘is true’. To have knowledge, then, is to have a certain mental attitude towards a proposition. Lutterell, however, concluded: “This is dangerous, because it eliminates all real science and faith.” (Libellus contra Ockham, art. 30)

Now since, on Ockham’s account, forming an evident judgement requires epistemic access to the things the proposition refers to, Ockham indeed denied that theology is, strictly speaking, a science and he denied that articles of faith can be demonstrated in this life, although they could be demonstrated in principle by means of premises formed by someone who has epistemic access to God, namely a blessed one. Lutterell, however, won’t have that. One of his main arguments against Ockham’s position is that the blessed would not form a proposition at all. On his account – and in accordance with many medieval theologians resorting to Augustine – the blessed one has a sort of vision which enables him or her to form a single and simple unstructured concept (Libellus contra Ockham, art. 4), whereas humans in this life attain simplicity only in complex ways, that is they do not attain real simplicity at all.

An helpful illustration of the difference between complex and simple thought is the difference between writing a text on your word-processor and looking at the photocopy or pdf of a text: With the word-processor you can alter the text you’re writing, you can copy words or phrases and put them elsewhere and so on; by looking at the photocopy you get the whole text at once, but there’s no way of altering the text or transporting bits of it elsewhere.

Simplicity is a feature of divine perfection and is therefore traditionally held to be a property of the beatific cognition: since, unlike complexity which is often associated with materiality, spatial and temporal order, simplicity precludes falsity or error. Seeing God, then, precludes the formation of complex concepts or any kind of discursive thinking. On Lutterell’s account, the knowledge of the blessed is shaped with regard to the object of knowledge and is thus simple, whereas the wayfarer has to form complex propositions about God, hence reaching the simple only through complex means.

Lutterell’s defence of theology as a science is largely owing to Aquinas, who held that we can justly claim that our complex conclusions about the divine are true, so long as we believe in the principles of the higher and simple knowledge of the blessed ones. But Ockham didn’t buy this argument, maintaining that we cannot know conclusions unless we evidently know the premises.

  1. Ockham’s position

Ockham’s own position is quite different. On my reading (see here and here for details), his point is that this way of talking and dividing knowledge is generally ill-formed. So his arguments amount to saying: I grant that these articles of faith aren’t demonstrable in this life, since otherwise they wouldn’t be articles of faith, and there would be no difference between this life and beatific vision. I also grant that we have to construe articles of faith as being demonstrable in principle, since otherwise our faith would aim at nothing. But if we want to say that our sentences could be demonstrable through the premises of the blessed, we first have to grant that our and their knowledge is compatible. And since our knowledge is structured, we had better assume that their knowledge is structured as well, otherwise it wouldn’t be compatible with ours.

But how can Ockham reasonably hold that articles of faith are demonstrable in principle? A scientifically demonstrable conclusion requires that the proposition is (1) necessary, that it is (2) deducible from necessary and evident propositions in a syllogistic discourse and that it is (3) doubtful (otherwise it would be self-evident, and therefore not demonstrable from other propositions). Now, the blessed one can form the required evident propositions, but the trouble is, the blessed one couldn’t form a doubtful proposition, since it would be – presumably – immediately evident to him or her, and thus independent of any argument or any other proposition.

To fulfill the criteria of demonstration it is required that we are in a position to form a doubtful proposition which the blessed one could access in principle. Ockham argues that this requirement is met, if there is someone who can doubt the proposition or if the blessed one was once in a position to doubt the proposition, which in turn requires that the sentence structures are preserved.

As I see it, Ockham’s reply combines two lines of argument: On the one hand, he insists that the structure of thought is the same for all. On the other hand, he argues that the dubitability is provided once there is someone (else) in a position to doubt (see In I Sent, d. 3, q. 4; OTh II, 440-441). It is with this move that Ockham makes the case for a division of epistemic labour. Properties of thought do not have to be fulfilled by every individual thinker. Rather it suffices if someone can fulfil them. In the given case, demonstrability even requires that thinkers are (or have) been in different epistemic situations.

  1. Chatton’s critique

Ockham’s idea is, then, that the very same proposition is doubted or believed by the wayfarer and evidently known by the blessed one. So it is possible that someone, let’s call her Martha, reads a theological treatise and stumbles upon the sentence ‘God is three and one’. Martha thinks hard, but neither can she infer this sentence from any principles she knows, nor did she have any experience with any entity that is at once three and one. We may say that she simply entertains the sentence in her mind, without judging its truth or falsity. But then she thinks even harder and realises the overt contradiction in the ascription of something being three and one at once. Now Martha, not familiar with the many logical twists and turns of trinitarian debates, concludes that it may be impossible for something to be three and one at once and doubts the sentence. Now, she may have a conversation with the author of the theological treatise in question and find him rather learned and trustworthy, so that she eventually casts aside her doubts and believes that after all there might be one entity that is very special just because it is beyond contradictions in terms. We might say then that she believes the sentence on certain premises. Now, let’s assume that Martha dies and is entitled to beatific vision. She might then, as it were, remember the sentence and evidently judge that it is necessarily true.

Although one might argue that this judgement is not a demonstration, because the kind of sentences she can form on the grounds of immediate experience are self-evident and not dubitable, we can reply with Ockham that it is indeed a demonstration because the blessed one’s newly acquired sentences are the very premises from which she infers the truth of the very sentence she formerly believed. Sentences and its parts are transportable. They can recur in different contexts, even in heaven. But Ockham pushes the point even further: it is sufficient that someone can doubt the proposition in question. Presumably, the blessed ones cannot doubt articles of faith. Therefore, it is vital that some wayfarers in this life have doubts, and thus enable the division of epistemic labour.

On Lutterell’s account, this cannot be true, because the blessed one doesn’t entertain propositions in his or her mind, so the parts of former propositions could not be transported into the newly formed simple cognition. But Ockham encountered smarter opponents than Lutterell. To be sure, it’s perfectly possible to grant that the blessed one can think discursively, and still deny that wayfarer and blessed one can entertain the very same propositions.

Ockham’s opponent and fellow Franciscan Walter Chatton attacked his doctrines in many respects. Chatton granted that the blessed ones can think discursively, but he still denied that articles of faith can be demonstrated, on the grounds that such an article cannot be the conclusion of a heavenly demonstration. In this life we have premises from which we might infer a sentence and believe it; in heaven we have other premises from which we might infer a similar sentence, but – says Chatton – although our common manner of speaking might suggest that we are dealing with the same sentence, we have in fact sentences of a different kind. Because different kinds of premises acquired under different epistemic conditions entail different kinds of conclusions. And the blessed one could not but immediately judge that the wayfarer’s sentence is true. So Chatton infers that, although the knowledge of the wayfarer and the blessed one might be discursively structured, it still is of different kinds and thus incompatible.

  1. Ockham’s reply and Wodeham’s defence

Ockham concedes that the wayfarer’s premises are different from the premises available to the blessed one, but he denies that Chatton’s inference, according to which ‘different kinds of premises entail different kinds of conclusions’ is valid. As Aristotle had already established in his Posterior Analytics, the knowledge of the conclusion is not necessarily caused through the knowledge of the premises. Accordingly, Ockham claims that the blessed one might have the conclusion before he or she turns to assess the premises in order to prove the conclusion. And this conclusion may well be the article of faith that the now blessed one formerly entertained as a wayfarer in this life under insufficient epistemic conditions.

As I have said in the beginning, Ockham’s pupil Adam Wodeham defended this position. He counters Chatton’s tenets by pointing out that it does not contradict the beatific state of the blessed one if he or she forms the sentence of a wayfarer. This was exactly the idea that Chatton meant to attack, when he claimed that the article of faith of a wayfarer could by no means function as the conclusion of a demonstration, otherwise – Chatton had argued – we couldn’t say that the blessed one has more evident knowledge than the wayfarer.

Wodeham’s move against Chatton is even more subtle than Ockham’s initial defence. Wodeham repeats Chatton’s thesis that “the blessed one could not but immediately judge that the wayfarer’s sentence is true” and asks how the blessed one could achieve this judgement without engaging in a syllogistic discourse. Wodeham then explains that, if the blessed one assesses the sentence of the wayfarer, the blessed one has to demonstrate not his own but the wayfarers’ conclusion. Wodeham thus points to the logical blunder committed by Chatton: If the blessed one had solely knowledge of a different type, incompatible with the wayfarer’s knowledge, then the blessed one couldn’t know whether the wayfarer’s sentence is true. According to Wodeham, Chatton missed his target and refuted himself.

  1. Conclusion

Ockham and Wodeham argued against their opponents that the degree of certainty of knowledge and belief depends on the epistemic conditions of the knower. The difference between the knowledge of a wayfarer and of a blessed one is not a difference between types of knowledge but a difference of epistemic situations: If, for instance, I actually see something, I can form a reliable judgement about its existence and the properties belonging to the object seen. If I see God, then I can claim to have evident knowledge about him; in this life however, the sentences I form are expressions of faith. There is thus no difference with regard to the type of rationality, such as the difference between simple intuitions and complex propositions. All knowledge is processed in mental sentences which have a compositional structure and transportable parts.

Ockham’s point was not to raise hopes that we might meet the odd blessed one and ask him or her to demonstrate our conclusions. His thought experiment was designed to show that we need to assume a generally consistent structure of knowledge, if we want to claim compatible criteria for identifying and assessing judgements formed under different epistemic conditions. The scope of rationality that Ockham assumes comprises the knowledge of all thinking creatures, including humans, blessed ones and angels, creatures whose knowledge is shaped by common structures, rendering knowledge identifiable under different epistemic conditions. But for the idea of a common rationality to work, there also needs to be a division of epistemic labour. In this sense, Ockham defends a social notion of rationality.

  1. An afterthought

Ockham’s and particularly Wodeham’s subtle defence against those who assumed a plurality of incompatible types of lower and higher knowledge rest on interesting arguments. But as in many construals of logical form as not merely an instrument but the actual shape of knowledge itself, there remain troubling questions, one of which I’d like to sketch now at the end of this post: Do not many of these defences amount to transcendental arguments by means of which we proceed from supposed facts to the necessary conditions of their possibility? I think we are indeed inclined to infer from the fact that our reasonings are logically reconstructible, that it is a necessary condition of the possibility of such a reconstruction that the logical form really is a feature of our knowledge. Recall: Wodeham claimed that, for the blessed one to assess the wayfarer’s sentence, he or she needs to entertain and demonstrate the wayfarer’s sentence, and that hence their shapes of rationality have to be compatible. That seems quite conclusive.

If I assess a sentence S, the necessary condition of the possibility of my assessing S is obviously that I can form and entertain S, and thus that my mental capacities and structures have to be of a kind allowing for the entertainment of S. We couldn’t even talk about the blessed one doing so without implicitly or explicitly ascribing to him or her that capacity.

The trouble with such arguments is that our ascription of such capacities can be both indispensable and false, false at least in the sense that the capacity of entertaining S might completely exhaust the blessed one’s structured rationality, and that every other piece of his knowledge is indeed couched in a different, namely structureless type of rationality. On a lighter note we might urge this point as follows: When you have finished reading this post and you’ll start forming critical responses in your mind, you’ll certainly do so on the assumption that I have written this post in English and that we share a common rationality. You’ll say: the fact that Martin has written this post and might even respond to my comments rests on the condition that he has the capacity to speak English. But maybe I have just shot my bolt and wouldn’t know how to write anything else that might look like English; perhaps this post is just a sort of gap in my otherwise entirely different way of thinking. To put it in terms of the illustration I gave in the beginning: I might not be processing words, but simply be tossing out a sort of photocopy. So if I can’t reply to your comments the reason may well be that I didn’t write this post in English in the first place. The letters I have written down here may just look very similar to English words. But then again: how could I tell you that without sharing or anticipating your assumptions?


*This blog post is the revised version of an unpublished paper, first presented at the conference Dialectic on Trial, Cambridge, Clare Hall, 2005, and it contains some passages from my papers published here and here.


Ockham on the division of linguistic labour

One fascinating feature of language is that it enables us to talk about and thus handle things that we have no clue about. Although I have never seen a dinosaur, I can talk about dinosaurs and even recognise images of them. Arguably, this feature of language is owing to what Putnam called the “division of linguistic labour”. Although I don’t know anything about or at least not much about certain things, I can apply the words correctly. The reason I can do so is that I defer to other speakers, in this case experts who do have the knowledge I lack. According to this view, language is not a solitary tool like a hammer, but a social tool, only working in a collective, like a steamship. Although the social understanding of language is often portrayed as a modern idea, I’d like to suggest that it dates back at least to the early 14th century.

Thinking about language in wake of Putnam, we might find the thesis of the division of linguistic labour quite intuitive. But it doesn’t come naturally if we follow the standard interpretation of what is now known as the semantic triangle as sketched in Aristotle’s Peri hermenias (16a3-9). Here, Aristotle suggests that words relate to things in virtue of the mental concepts we have of things. The reason that words like “apple”, “pomum” or “Apfel” signify the same things is that they signify the same non-linguistic concepts. A common way to take this mediation of the word-thing relation through concepts is to assume that speakers must know the things they refer to. Using the word “apple”, then, requires me to have the concept of apple and thus knowledge of apples. – Now, in the first chapter of his Summa logicae, Ockham rejects this assumption. As is often the case, he frames his rejection as the proper interpretation of Aristotle. The details are a bit technical, but his own view is clear enough. In the translation by Paul Spade (p. 5-6), Ockham argues as follows:

Now I say that utterances are signs subordinated to concepts …, not because, taking the word ‘signs’ in a proper sense, these utterances always signify those concepts of the soul primarily and properly, but rather because utterances are imposed to signify the same things that are signified by the concepts of the mind, so that the concept primarily signifies something naturally, and the utterance secondarily signifies the same thing, to such an extent that once an utterance is instituted to signify something signified by a concept in the mind, if that concept were to change its significate, the utterance itself would by that fact, without any new institution, change its significate. The Philosopher says as much when he says that utterances are “the marks of the passions that are in the soul”. Boethius too means the same thing when he says that utterances “signify” concepts.

According to Ockham, then, words (translated as “utterances”) don’t signify things by signifying concepts first; rather it is enough that words signify the same things that are signified by the concepts that the words are subordinated to. Let’s compare these views schematically (the arrow indicates a signification relation):

Aristotle:            word     –>         concept  –>     thing

Ockham:            concept –>       thing

                            word      –>         “

So while the Aristotelian model suggests that each successful use of a word requires the user to have a concept that is signified by the word, Ockham’s model only requires that the word be subordinated to a concept. It is neither required that every actual use is mediated by a concept, nor is it required that the actual user does have the concept in question. Arguably, it is enough if some users have such a concept. If this is correct, we can assume that even those users who don’t have the pertinent concepts can use words correctly.

Although Ockham does not develop this idea straightforwardly into a thesis of division of linguistic labour, his rejection of the standard Aristotelian model clearly opens the door to such a view. Although she does not ascribe such a division thesis to Ockham, Sonja Schierbaum’s discussion of Ockham provides further evidence for such a reading. Ockham doesn’t develop this subordination semantics out of the blue. The discussion about the naming of God already led others before him to acknowledge that the use of words allows for talk about things that we don’t understand or have concepts of. (See here for more on this issue.) What Ockham adds in the Summa logicae is the idea that words can generally be used for referring to things irrespective of our concepts or knowledge. All that we need is that some other users have those concepts.

The upshot is (1) that conventional language is a more powerful tool than the mental concepts to which conventional language is subordinated and (2) that individual language use requires other users, especially for cases in which we lack pertinent concepts or knowledge.

What are we on about? Making claims about claims

A: Can you see that?

B: What?

A: [Points to the ceiling:] That thing right there!

B: No. Could you point a bit more clearly?

You probably know this, too. Someone points somewhere assuming that pointing gestures are sufficient. But they are not. If you’re pointing, you’re always pointing at a multitude of things. And we can’t see unless we already know what kind of thing we’re supposed to look for. Pointing gestures might help, but without prior or additional information they are underdetermined. Of course we can try and tell our interlocutor what kind of thing we’re pointing at. But the problem is that quite often we don’t know ourselves what kind of thing we’re pointing at. So we end up saying something like “the black one there”. Now the worry I’d like to address today is that texts offer the same kind of challenge. What is this text about? What does it claim? These are recurrent and tricky questions. And if you want to produce silence in a lively course, just ask one of them.

But why are such questions so tricky? My hunch is that we notoriously mistake the question for something else. The question suggests that the answer could be discovered by looking into the text. In some sense, this is of course a good strategy. But without further information the question is as underdetermined as a pointing gesture. “Try some of those words” doesn’t help. We need to know what kind of text it is. But most things that can be said about the text are not to be found in the text. One might even claim that there is hardly anything to discover in the text. That’s why I prefer to speak of “determining” the claim rather than “finding out” what it is about.

In saying this I don’t want to discourage you from reading. Read the text, by all means! But I think it’s important to take the question about the claim of a text in the right way. Let’s look at some tacit presuppositions first. The question will have a different ring in a police station and a seminar room or lecture hall. If we’re in a seminar room, we might indeed assume that there is a claim to be found. So the very room matters. The date matters. The place of origin matters. Authorship matters. Sincerity matters. In addition to these non-textual factors, the genre and language matter. So what if we’re having a poem in front of us, perhaps a very prosaic poem? And is the author sincere or joking? How do you figure this out?

But, you will retort, there is the text itself. It does carry information. OK then. Let’s assume all of the above matters are settled. How do you get to the claim? A straightforward way seems to be to figure out what a text is intended to explain or argue for. For illustrating this exercise, I often like to pick Ockham’s Summa logicae. It’s a lovely text with a title and a preface indicating what it is about. So, it’s about logic, innit? Well, back in the day I read and even added to a number of studies determining what the first chapters of that book are about. In those chapters, Ockham talks about something called “mental propositions”, and my question is: what are mental propositions supposed to account for? Here are a few answers:

  • Peter Geach: Mental propositions are invoked to explain grammatical features of Latin (1957)
  • John Trentman: Mental propositions form an ideal language, roughly in the Fregean sense (1970)
  • Joan Gibson: Mental propositions form a communication system for angels (1976)
  • Calvin Normore: Mental propositions form a mental language, like Fodor’s mentalese (1990)
  • Sonja Schierbaum: Ockham isn’t Fodor (2014)

Now imagine this great group of people in a seminar and tell them who gave the right answer. But note that all of them have read more than one of Ockham’s texts carefully and provided succinct arguments for their reading. In fact, most of them are talking to one another and respectfully agree on many things before giving their verdicts on what the texts on mental propositions claim. All of them point at the same texts, what they “discover” there is quite different, though. And as you will probably know, by determining the claim you also settle what counts as a support or argument for the claim. And depending on whether you look out for arguments supporting an angelic communication system or the mental language humans think in, you will find what you discover better or worse.

So what is it that determines the claim of a text?* By and large it might be governed by what we find (philosophically) relevant. This is tied to the question why a certain problem arises for you in the first place. While many factors are set by the norms and terms of the scholarly discussion that is already underway, the claims seem to go with the preferred or fashionable trends in philosophy. While John Trentman seems to have favoured early analytic ideal language philosophy, Calvin Normore was clearly guided by one of the leading figures in the philosophy of mind. Although Peter Geach is rather dismissive, all of these works are intriguing interpretations of Ockham’s text. That said, we all should get together more often to discuss what we are actually on about when we determine the claims of texts. At least if we want to avoid that we are mostly greeted with the parroting of the most influential interpretations.


* You’ll find more on this question in my follow-up piece.

Ockham’s razor as a principle of (epistemic) agency

[ Since I’m officially on holiday, I take the liberty to reblog this post. However, the main idea expressed here is still not part of the canonical reading of Ockham:) ]

During a recent workshop in Bucharest I asked the participants to connect two dots on a piece of paper.* Guess what! They all chose the simplest way of doing it and drew a perfectly straight line. This is perhaps not surprising. What I would like to suggest, however, is that this example might hint at a neglected way of understanding what is often called “Ockham’s razor”, the “principle of simplicity” or the “principle of parsimony”.

Along with the principle of non-contradiction and the principle of divine omnipotence, the principle of parsimony counts as one of the crucial principles in Ockham’s thought. Without much ado, he applies it to underpin his semantics, epistemology and ontology. But how, if at all, is the principle justified?

As Elliott Sober points out in a widely circulated article, the justification of Ockham’s razor and its variants is a matter of continuous debate. Already in medieval discussions we encounter the simplicity principle long before Ockham and in a number of contexts. Echoing the Aristotelian idea that nature does nothing in vain, much of the debates before and after Ockham are about the question whether the principle is founded on natural teleology. But Ockham, of all people, does not seem to offer any justification.

As I see it, the crucial context for this question is the debate about divine action and power. Comparing, for example, the positions of Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham, we can clearly see two contrary versions of the simplicity principle. Aquinas endorses a teleological version, when he states that “Deus et natura nihil frustra faciunt” and that “natura non facit per duo, quod per unum potest facere.” Now, as is well known, Ockham often uses the simplicity principle in a merely explanatory sense when he writes, for instance: “frustra fit per plura quod fieri potest per pauciora”. Indeed, Ockham directly contradicts the claim of natural simplicity when he states that “frequenter facit Deus mediantibus pluribus quod posset facere mediantibus paucioribus, nec ideo male facit, quia eo ipso quod iste vult, bene et iuste facit.” (In I Sent., d. 17, q. 3)

So Ockham tells us that God often violates the principle of simplicity and takes diversions, even if there might be simpler ways. Now Ockham also clearly sees that, in claiming this, he might contradict the usual justification of simplicity. This is why he adds that God, in taking diversions, does not act without justification or badly. Rather it is the other way round: the fact that God wills to act thus and so makes it the case that it is good and apt.

What’s going on here? Although the distinction between rationalism and voluntarism is often misleading, it might help to use it for illustration. Aquinas is a rationalist, which means that for God reason is prior to will, not the other way round. God acts out of reasons that are at least partly determined by the way natural things and processes are set up. Doing “nothing in vain” means not to counter this order. Ockham takes the opposite position: something is rational or right because God wills it, not vice versa.

Now this result seems to render Ockham as an outright opponent of what is called Ockham’s razor. For if God sets the standards and God might often will complex diversions, there seems to be not only no justification for the simplicity principle, rather Ockham’s idea seems to undermine any epistemic value it might have.

So is there any non-teleological justification of the simplicity principle that Ockham could invoke? I think there might be an option once we consider the formulations of the principle. In the literature, discussions of the simplicity principle often concentrated on the nouns “natura”, “deus”, “entia”, “causae rerum” etc. But “frustra” is used as an adverb; it qualifies “facere”, “agere”, or “ponere” – making, acting, making assumptions. The point I want urge, then, is that the razor is about action. If you do something, there is a simple way of doing it. This would make it a principle of means-ends rationality as opposed to the divine or natural simplicity that Aquinas relies on.

While the natural-teleological version of the simplicity principle seems very much at home amongst fairly laden principles such as the principle of sufficient reason or the principle of the uniformity of nature, Ockham’s razor seems to be resonating with a different set of principles, such as the idea that explanations have to end somewhere and that infinite regresses should be avoided. These principles weigh with us not solely because we might reach an epistemic goal. Sometimes we don’t, and then we have to practise epistemic humility or agnosticism. It often makes sense for us limited beings to act with as little effort as possible, but it’s not always conclusive.

Connecting these ideas to the discussion about divine action might be insightful. Ockham contends that God can do things in complex ways without acting improperly. The upshot might be that humans cannot do this in the same way, since the human will does not set the norms of how things should be. Thus, for us, it is important to come to an end, not in the natural-teleological sense but in the profane sense of finishing or stopping.

You might say this is too profane to justify the principle. But maybe the point is conceptual. Maybe the simplest way of performing an action is what defines a certain type of action in the first place. As soon as you pick a more complex way, you do it improperly, unless you are God. So if you’re asked to combine two dots, you might think the goal is to combine them in a perfect way, whatever that might mean. But you might also assume that the point is to get it done with the least effort. And if you take a diversion, you do it improperly. One might even argue that a diversion constitutes a different action altogether. Combining three dots is different from combining two.

In any case, I hope to have pointed to a promising way of justifying Ockham’s razor (in the medieval discussion) without invoking a supposed simplicity in nature. As I hope to work on a project on the simplicity principle in medieval and early modern philosophy soonish, I would be very grateful for any kind of feedback.


*Thanks to the participants of this workshop I now can connect a few more historical and conceptual dots. Special thanks to Peter Anstey, Laura Georgescu, Madalina Giurgea, Dana Jalobeanu and Doina-Cristina Rusu as well as to many of my colleagues in Groningen.