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  • The Philosophy of William of Ockham in the Light of Its Principles
  • Robert Pasnau
Armand Maurer . The Philosophy of William of Ockham in the Light of Its Principles. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1999. Pp. x + 590. Cloth, $85.00.

Someone must be looking out for William Ockham. Excommunicated and exiled in his own lifetime, Ockham's philosophical works were revitalized in the twentieth century like those of no other medieval author. The two best medieval monographs of the century, from a philosophical point of view, were studies of Ockham, namely, Ernest Moody, The Logic of William of Ockham (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1935); and Marilyn Adams, William Ockham (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987). And while the still unfinished Opera Omnia of Aquinas and Scotus plodded along, a brilliant group of scholars assembled in Olean, New York, to publish Ockham's Opera Philosophica et Theologica over a mere twenty-three years. (St. Bonaventure: Franciscan Institute Publications, 1967-1989. Sadly, St. Bonaventure University has in recent years eviscerated the Franciscan Institute). And in a century that saw sophisticated bodies of philosophical scholarship grow up around the ancient and early modern periods, only Ockham among the medievals can lay claim to anything remotely analogous. This literature has centered around the work of Paul Spade, ground zero being his acclaimed web site:

Now Armand Maurer, at a mere 84 years of age, has managed to slip one more contribution into a century that, for Ockham Studies, was already venerable enough. It should be said from the start that Maurer's volume cannot compare, in philosophical detail and sophistication, with Marilyn Adams's even longer book on the subject. But this is nevertheless an important and valuable work. Maurer seeks to provide an introduction to Ockham's philosophy (10) and he succeeds entirely, in a manner worthy of comparison to Copleston and perhaps even Gilson.

It is surprisingly difficult to determine just what Maurer means by "the philosophy of Ockham." He does not have in mind the medieval sense of "philosophy." Though the volume begins with logic and metaphysics, and devotes a long chapter to physics, it is Ockham's Opera Theologica that receive most of Maurer's attention. But the focus is also not philosophy in the usual modern sense. Maurer structures the work much as a medieval theologian might: Part I. Principles; Part II. God; Part III. Creatures.

Part II contains an interesting discussion of the Trinity; Part III devotes a whole chapter to angels. Maurer speaks at one point of "the theologian who is also a philosopher" (295). Perhaps "philosophy" should be understood to denote a certain rationalistic method of inquiry, rather than a fixed subject-matter. In this sense, virtually all of Ockham's works can be considered philosophical, which suits the broad scope of Maurer's study. (The neglect among philosophers of Ockham's later political writings is so widespread that it can almost go without saying that these works are neglected here, too.)

We might wish that more theologians today were philosophical in this sense. But would we want them to be philosophers in the manner of Ockham? Maurer would not. One noteworthy feature of this volume is that it does not attempt to defend Ockhamism." The author is not a devotee of that philosophy; but he wrote the book in the first place not to criticize it but to elucidate it" (10). In some respects this stance gives the study a refreshing neutrality, but it will frustrate readers who prefer a more critical [End Page 590] engagement with the issues. Maurer provides an admirably full discussion of the scholastic background to Ockham's work, and his footnotes take account of the most recent scholarship. But he rarely considers the merits of the views under discussion. Occasionally, the reader is rewarded with a few dry remarks questioning the feasibility of this or that account (e.g., 292, 425). But such remarks are never developed.

As his title suggests, Maurer believes that most of Ockham's distinctive views can be traced back to a few basic principles. He stresses Ockham's commitment to "empirical and linguistic approaches...


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