Aquinas, Ockham and the Power of Ideas (Nominalism I)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

Ideas Have Consequences

It is reported that William Temple, who became the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1942, once asked his father, who was then the Archbishop, “Daddy, why don’t the philosophers rule the world?” His father looked down at the boy and replied, “Of course they do, silly—two hundred years after they’re dead!”

The more one studies history, the more apparent it becomes that William Temple’s father had a point.  In fact, we could state the matter in even stronger terms: there has never been a more powerful influence, a greater agency of change or a stronger force for good or ill in this world than that of human ideas.

Such a statement may seem out of place in a society that has long since relegated philosophy (the science of correct thinking) to a specialist discipline. Reflection on ideas has little or no relevance to the world of everyday affairs, many people think. We have come a long way from the time when philosophy was considered to be the backbone of all the disciplines, including the sciences (indeed, the early scientists called themselves “Natural Philosophers”).

One’s philosophy of the world, or worldview, is still the backbone for how we view everything else, whether we realize it or not.  This is even true for those who have never given much thought to questions of worldview. As John Byl puts it in his book The Divine Challenge, “Many people hold their worldviews implicitly, without having deeply reflected on what they believe and why they believe it. They may not even realize that they have a worldview. Consequently, they may unwittingly hold beliefs that are mutually contradictory.”

A person’s life, motivations, priorities, agendas, conversation and assumptions are just some of the areas affected by our philosophy of the world, whether that philosophy is thought-out or merely implicit and unconscious.

Background Understandings

Often the most powerful ideas are those which exist, not as disengaged concepts in a person’s head, nor even as ideas that can be reduced to a set of propositions on paper, but as unstated understandings that create the ‘background’ for how we perceive the world and navigate social space. As I pointed out in the first article in my ongoing series on Gnosticism, these background narratives often find expression in inchoate practices, assumptions and conventions which implicitly ‘carry’ philosophical ideas even while those ideas may not be explicitly affirmed or self-consciously acknowledged.

Over the next few months I hope to use this Changepoint column to draw attention to one philosophical idea which exists both as an explicit proposition and (more frequently) as part of the background for how we spontaneously understand our world. It is an idea that has its origins deep in antiquity and yet remains incredibly relevant to the present age. The idea I want to talk about is called nominalism.

William of Ockham and Nominalism

Nominalism is an idea associated with the English Franciscan friar William of Ockham, who was born in England sometime between 1280 and 1285.

William of Ockham’s world was deeply influenced by the type of Scholasticism associated with Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), which attempted to synthesize Christian theology with the insights of Aristotelian logic. Before we are in a position to understand Ockham’s alternative to the Thomistic synthesis, we need to understand a little about Aquinas’s worldview.

The Aristotelian/Thomistic Synthesis

Aquinas taught that things have an inherent purpose according to their nature. Using Aristotle’s nomenclature of causality, he was able to argue that the end for which a thing exists is the final cause of a thing, the sake for which a thing is what it is. Put another way, everything that exists has its own built in telos which is the end or purpose for which it exists. So the end or purpose of a hammer is to bang things while the end or purpose of a seed is an adult plant. This, of course, assumes the real existence of universals, so that we can make meaningful generalizations about classes of things like hammers, seeds, etc.

These categories allowed those within the Aristotelian/Thomistic tradition to assert a rational and ordered universe in which everything had its own natural perfection. Charles Taylor put it like this in his book A Secular Age,

See Also

“The Aristotelian notion of nature seems to define for each thing its natural perfection, its proper good. This would be independent of God’s will, except that he it is who has created the thing thus. But once created, it would appear that God cannot further redefine what the good is for the thing.”

The idea that God cannot redefine the nature of things was central to the realism of the Aristotelian/Thomistic approach. It meant that when God wills something or issues a command, He is not arbitrarily assigning ethical valuations to particular actions or states of being that might equally have been given alternative valuations. This is because God’s will is not the ultimate source of moral values. Rather, the ultimate source of moral values is the nature of how reality is. God’s will for a thing corresponds to what the real nature of that thing actually is (hence, the term ‘realism’ was used to describe this approach). Hans Boersma put it like this in his recent book Heavenly Participation,

“For Aquinas, we might say, divine decisions had always been in line with eternal truth. For example, when God condemned theft or adultery, this was not an arbitrary divine decision, but it was in line with the truth of divine rationality. Or, to use another example, when God rewarded almsgiving, this was not because he arbitrarily decided that almsgiving was a commendable practice, but because it was in line with the very truth of God’s character.”

The point about God’s character is key here. When the scholastics asserted that everything in the world possessed an inherent purpose or telos, and that God’s will conforms to the rational ecosystem of natures, it can sound as if they are granting an autonomy to the natural world which pushes God to the margins. This would be the case if it were not for the fact that they saw God’s own eternal character as the source from which this rational ecosystem derives its meaning and legitimacy. Thus, when we recognize that falsehood is disordered according to the nature and final end of speech, this is because reality has its source in a God whose very nature is truth. The reason God could not have made adultery virtuous is because God’s will (like reality itself) is rooted in the unchanging constants of His Holy character.

Another way to make the same point would be to note that an action is not good simply because God wills it; but neither does God will an action simply because it is good, at least if ‘good’ is taken to be a standard external to Himself. Rather, both God’s will and the goodness of the action both follow from the goodness of His eternal character. Since God’s actions are anchored by His character (which is perfect goodness, justice, love, holiness, truth, etc.), there are some things that He simply cannot do, such as lie (Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:18). (C.S. Lewis has an insightful discussion about this in The Problem of Pain.)

In a follow-up article, we will consider how William of Ockham challenged this understanding, and the consequences this has had for Western civilization.

Further Reading

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