March 1st, 2011

S.C. Hickman

Rondo Keele: Ockham Explained

"Ockham was an excellent logician."
     -Rondo Keele, Ockham Explained

I have Graham Harman to thank for turning me on to this excellent and informative book by Rondo Keele. As Harman tells us it is from the same Open Court series as his own Heidegger Explained. Keele opens the book with a theft, the theft of the Franciscan Order's stamp of authority used to maintain its power in the world. William of Ockham belonged to this order, and had recently undertaken the dubious task of uncovering the heresies of the Pope living in Avignon John XXII. It was against the Pope's power and politics that both Ockham and many in the Franciscan Order had decided to leave under cover of night for parts unknown.  

Keele interweaves the actual life and thought of William of Ockham in a story that illuminates the medieval world: its politics, religion, and power struggles in both spheres. Along with Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus, William Ockham was the third in the a tripartite of still valued philosophers from the Medieval world. As Keele reminds us it was William Ockham's "logic, defiance, and piety" that will be remembered, his abandonment of his native England for Germany where he "would finally die in Munich"; and, it was here that for the last twenty years of his natural born life he would use the full gamut of his intellectual resources to battle against the "problems of power and authority, church and state, prince and pope" (OE, p. 2). [1]

Ultimately two key points underlay all of Ockham's basic philosophical logic: first, how we use language to describe the world or the real can lead us into false and "absurd metaphysical conclusions" (i.e., we must be more subtle about language); and, second, philosophers sometimes believe optimistically in the power of their own arguments, and therefore invest more in "the power of reason" than is warranted (i.e., we must be more realistic about such things) (OE, p. 3). And, of course, as we all know Ockham is known for Ockham's Razor: but how many know that he never used the term razor? Instead it was coined hundreds of years later. Instead what we have is his classic statement that "No plurality should be assumed unless it can be proved (a) by reason, or (b) by experience, or (c) by some infallible authority," in his Sentences Commentary from 1318-1319, in Treatise on Quantity from 1323-24, and in other places (OE, p. 94-95). 

The book is less than two hundred pages and is lively, entertaining, and informative; full of anecdotal and factual information; short, crisp passages, that move quickly over the details of Ockham's life and thought. This is a book for both the beginner and the expert, it is always good to reacquaint one's self with those key figures and precursors of our philosophical heritage, otherwise we fall into the lax belief that we know more than they did, when all we know is our own laziness and sloppy habits of thought. William Ockham can teach you to cut through bloated discourse and reach the kernel of any argument with a razor that bleeds logic. And, Rondo Keele is your guide on this journey, and as a guide he makes this journey both fruitful and equitable, that challenges us to see the man in his time, as well as how he still lives on within our minds even now.

1. Keele, Rondo, Ockham Explained From Razor to Rebellion (Open Court 2010 by Carus Publishing Company)