Apr 102016


Today is the Anglican commemoration of William of Ockham (also Occam) c. 1287 – 1347, an English Franciscan friar, scholastic philosopher and theologian, who is believed to have been born in Ockham, a small village in Surrey. He is considered to be one of the major figures of medieval thought and was at the centre of the major intellectual and political controversies of the 14th century. He is commonly known for Occam’s razor, the methodological principle that bears his name, and also produced significant works on logic, physics, and theology.


William of Ockham joined the Franciscan order at an early age. It is believed that he studied theology at the University of Oxford from 1309 to 1321, but while he completed all the requirements for a master’s degree in theology (the English 14th century equivalent of a doctorate), he was never made regent master. During the Middle Ages, theologian Peter Lombard’s Sentences (1150) had become a standard work of theology, and many ambitious theological scholars wrote commentaries on it. William of Ockham was among these scholarly commentators and his works were heavily criticized leading to charges of heresy.

It is generally believed that these charges were levied by Oxford chancellor John Lutterell. The Franciscan Minister General, Michael of Cesena, had been summoned to Avignon, to answer charges of heresy. A theological commission had been asked to review his Commentary on the Sentences, and it was during this that Ockham found himself involved in a different debate. Michael of Cesena had asked Ockham to review arguments surrounding Apostolic poverty. The Franciscans believed that Jesus and his apostles owned no property either individually or in common, and The Rule of Saint Francis commanded members of the order to follow this practice. This brought them into conflict with Pope John XXII. Fans of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose will be familiar with this debate. Tough one – should the church and its leaders get rich or not?


Because of the pope’s attack on the Rule of Saint Francis, Ockham, Michael of Cesena and other leading Franciscans fled Avignon on 26 May 1328, and eventually took refuge in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV of Bavaria, who was also engaged in dispute with the papacy, and became Ockham’s patron. After studying the works of John XXII and previous papal statements, Ockham agreed with the Minister General. In return for protection and patronage Ockham wrote treatises that argued for emperor Louis to have supreme control over church and state in the Holy Roman Empire. On June 6, 1328, Ockham was officially excommunicated for leaving Avignon without permission, and Ockham argued that John XXII was a heretic for attacking the doctrine of Apostolic poverty and the Rule of Saint Francis, which had been endorsed by previous popes. Despite his excommunication, Ockham’s philosophy was never officially condemned as heretical.

He spent much of the remainder of his life writing about political issues, including the relative authority and rights of the spiritual and temporal powers. After Michael of Cesena’s death in 1342, William became the leader of the small band of Franciscan dissidents living in exile with Louis IV. Ockham died (prior to the outbreak of the plague, or Black Death) on 9 April 1347. He was officially rehabilitated by Innocent VI in 1359.


William of Ockham believed,

only faith gives us access to theological truths. The ways of God are not open to reason, for God has freely chosen to create a world and establish a way of salvation within it apart from any necessary laws that human logic or rationality can uncover.

Ockham’s theism was based solely on private revelation and faith (fideism). He believed that science was a matter of discovery. Therefore in the modern world his importance lies in his strongly developed interest in logical method.

In inquiry, Ockham advocated for a reform both in method and in content, the aim of which was simplification. Ockham incorporated much of the work of some previous theologians, especially John Duns Scotus. From Scotus, Ockham derived his view of divine omnipotence, his view of grace and justification, much of his epistemology and ethical convictions. However, he also reacted to and against Scotus in the areas of predestination, penance, his understanding of universals.

Discussion of Ockham’s philosophy and theology will get us into deep waters very quickly.  I will say, though, that his ideas are still discussed. His view of parsimony which became known as Occam’s Razor, is certainly his best known tenet, but unfortunately it bears his name undeservedly. The idea can easily be traced to Pythagoras and Aristotle.

The term “Occam’s razor” first appeared in 1852 in the works of Sir William Hamilton, 9th Baronet (1788–1856) Its association with Ockham is probably be due to the frequency and effectiveness with which he used it. Ockham stated the principle in various ways, but the most popular version, “Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity” (Non sunt multiplicanda entia sine necessitate) was formulated by the Irish Franciscan philosopher John Punch in his 1639 commentary on the works of Duns Scotus (from whom Ockham derived it).

I usually phrase the principle informally thus: “If two competing hypotheses have equal merit, choose the simplest.” It is not a rule of logic or science, but merely a guideline for inquiry. Its force lies in the simple notion that if you are trying to develop a scientific theory, the fewer assumptions you make in deriving the theory, the better. Well and good. But as my mentor and friend, Rodney Needham (professor of Social Anthropology at Oxford University from 1976 to 1990) pointed out, the principle of parsimony is not useful in all fields of inquiry. You don’t want an analysis of Hamlet, for example, reduced to a few simple sentences: just the opposite. The more complex, the better.

So . . . what about cooking? Can we apply Occam’s razor to recipes? Here we have a matter of personal choice. Longtime readers here will recall my incredibly convoluted recipes, as well as my simplest. Which is better? This question strikes at the heart of evolving culinary traditions. Fads come and go. Generally I prefer simplicity, but I’m not averse to dishes that involve days-long preparation, using myriad ingredients.

Here is a traditional recipe for Surrey fish pudding which I think serves for simplicity, is delicious, and comes from Ockham’s home county. There’s no telling, but it might have been made in his day.


Surrey Fish Pudding


1½ lb cooked firm fish
½ cup breadcrumbs
2 eggs, beaten
½ cup whole milk
1 oz butter, melted
anchovy paste
chopped parsley
salt and pepper


Break up the fish as finely as possible in a bowl. Mix in the breadcrumbs, then fold in the rest of the ingredients (anchovy paste, parsley, salt and pepper to taste).

Place the ingredients in a buttered mould and steam for 45 minutes.