Tuesday, August 24, 2010

He Sold More than Razors

My reference here is to William of Ockham (1290-1349), famed for the principle of parsimony, usually rendered as Ockham’s Razor, which says that we should always prefer the simplest hypothesis able to explain the available facts. I came across Ockham in a conscious sort of way a couple of days ago, pondering the subject of the unity of the soul or self—and discovered that he asserted that intellect and will were a single unity. He is not alone in this. Among scholastics Duns Scotus held similar views; Aquinas said that “will and intellect mutually include each other,” but he set the dominant tone in scholasticism and gave the nod, the priority, to intellect.

Interesting, all of this. I’ve concluded long ago, based on little else than the sovereign power of intuition—and the lame sort of feelings I always get when abstractions begin to multiply and take on life—that the soul is a single unity in which intellect, will, and feelings are all facets of one thing; by feelings here I don’t mean sensory experiences but inward motions of the self—joy and revulsion, attraction and repulsion. The more I learned of Ockham—and it’s difficult to find things—the more I felt myself in sympathetic company.

Mortimer Adler, whom I admire, opted to omit Ockham from the Great Books of the Western World, a reliable source I managed to get cheaply long ago. (People buy such works with best intentions, but when the kids leave home, out they go, never read.) Internet summarizers of Ockham’s thought opt to focus on matters of modern interest, of which the soul does not happen to be one. My source of knowledge is therefore principally the Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion, W.L. Reese, editor, where, for instance, I discovered that Ockham held man to be “a complete rational being, incapable of inhering in anything and not supported by anything” [p. 629, emphasis added]. Ridiculous although that sounds, bound as we are to our bodies, I’ve long, long felt the same intuitive certainty in the very face of all contrary evidence.

Perusing that article, I noted that Ockham’s views on matter and form are also more simpatico. He saw matter simply as matter (“body”) and form as its arrangement (“structure”) —which strikes me as much more pleasingly parsimonious than the ultimately Aristotelian notions of prime matter and form together somehow fusing to make substance. Prime matter must be conceived of as pure potential lacking all actuality, and form a kind of agency of actualization. The energy involved in this fusion is never seemingly addressed.

I also lean in Ockham’s direction in seeing intuition as the genuine source of knowledge. The Aristotelian/Thomistic division of intellect into a passive (read matter) and an active or “agent” (read formal) duality—rejected by Ockham—also strikes me as carrying the concept of substance-dualism too far—especially if you think of the soul as the real thing and intellect as one of its powers.

Ockham’s thought developed as it did, it seems, because he was intent on simplifying scholasticism. If I were intent on such a project, I too would be tempted to attack substance dualism and to examine such strange notions as, for instance, that God creates essences and then, in a separate act, gives them existence. Labors along these lines made Ockham a nominalist (“universals don't exist independently of minds”). It makes sense in Ockham's context, but when it comes to universals, my own intuition leans the other way. I plant myself in the realist camp (“universals have real existence”) because it seems to me that that something, the something that makes a horse a horse, simply has to have an independent existence somewhere. I can't help myself. I see real patterns out there. I don't “abstract” them from anything. I see them. I deal with the weirdness of “form” in the Platonic-Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition by thinking of that idea as intention. In the greater cosmos, the intentions are divine. In the narrow, human, I see a lot of universals that spring from human intentions.

My survey courses in college omitted Ockham too. Thus it was fascinating to meet the maker of the razor late in life. Much of what he appears to have said resonates. I like his notions of the soul’s unity, at least as I find it expressed in the singleness of will and intellect. And I like his reliance on intuition.

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