Biography

William of Ockham, born in the village of Ockham in Surrey (England) about 1285, was the most influential philosopher of the 14th century and a controversial theologian.

He entered the Franciscan order at an early age and took the traditional course of theological studies at Oxford. Strong opposition to his opinions from members of the theological faculty prevented him from obtaining his Master's degree. His teaching had also aroused the attention of Pope John XXII, who summoned him to the papal court in Avignion (France) in 1324.

The charges against him were presented by Jogh Lutterell, the former chancellor of the university of Oxford. Ockham was never condemned, but in 1327, while residing in Avignion, he became involved in the dispute over apostolic poverty. When this controversy reached a critical stage in 1328, and the Pope was about to issue a condemnation of the position held by the Franciscans, Ockham and two other Franciscans fled from Avignion to seek the protection of Emperor Louis IV, the Bavarian.

They followed the emperor to Munich (Germany) in 1330, where Ockham wrote fervently against the papacy in a series of treatises on papal power and civil sovereignty. The medieval rule of parsimony, or principle of economy, frequently used by Ockham came to be known as Ockham's razor. The rule, which said that plurality should not be assumed without necessity (or, in modern English, keep it simple, stupid), was used to eliminate many pseudo-explanatory entities.

It is believed that he died in a convent in Munich in 1349, a victim of the Black Death. His name, spelled Occam, lives on in the names of streets and restaurants in Munich ... and in the brave new world of high-performance safety-critical parallel computing.

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Copyright 1994 Dave Beckett, University of Kent at Canterbury, UK.