restricted access 9. Ockham’s Intervention
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Part III The Via moderna F6925.indb 177 F6925.indb 177 10/24/16 12:52:29 PM 10/24/16 12:52:29 PM F6925.indb 178 F6925.indb 178 10/24/16 12:52:29 PM 10/24/16 12:52:29 PM This page intentionally left blank 179 chapter nine Ockham’s Intervention A t the end of the fifteenth century, a philosopher from the University of Erfurt, Bartholomew of Usingen, described the English Franciscan William of Ockham, who had been dead for approximately 150 years, as the “venerable initiator of the modern approach” (venerabilis inceptor viae modernae). The via moderna, in this context, is what others of the same period called the nominalist way. Ockham was not considered its only—nor always its principal—master: other authors of the fourteenth century , John Buridan, Gregory of Rimini, Marsilius of Inghen, and Peter of Ailly, would often be credited with as much if not more importance than him in the history of this movement as it was reconstructed in the fifteenth century. But to Ockham was at least attributed the status of originator. While certain recent scholars have contested, on good grounds, whether William founded a genuine school—as one can say of Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus —we must credit him with having built, for the first time, on the ontological rejection of universals a complete, well-articulated philosophical system and establishing through this a rich program of research and discussion in which the theme of mental discourse played a central role. After him—and largely due to his influence—this theme remained at the center of philosophical preoccupations for a great number of authors, from the Englishmen Adam Wodeham and Robert Holcot in the 1330s to the school of John Mair in the first half of the sixteenth century by way of John Buridan in the fourteenth century and the nominalistae of the fifteenth century. I will not attempt to retrace this history in full: the material on it is too abundant and has yet to be adequately explored. In the present chapter I will consider in detail Ockham’s doctrine on the subject of oratio mentalis, and in the following chapter I will be content to review certain reactions it quickly prompted in England and France. This will suffice to allow us to appreciate both its originality and importance. 1. Oberman 1987, 447. 2. The most important work in this regard is Tachau 1988. 3. Of note, however: Ashworth 1974, 1985; Nuchelmans 1980; and Broadie 1985; all of which address, here and there, the question of mental language in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. 4. For recent presentations of the whole Ockhamist theory of mental language, see especially: Tabarroni 1989; Normore 1990; Panaccio 1992a, chap. 2; Karger 1994; Maierù 1996; Biard 1997a; and Panaccio 1999b. F6925.indb 179 F6925.indb 179 10/24/16 12:52:29 PM 10/24/16 12:52:29 PM 180 The Via moderna The object of knowledge Chronologically, Ockham’s first text to develop his conception of interior discourse with any emphasis appears in question 4 of distinction 2 of the Ordinatio , in the course of a long discussion on the problem of universals. Its precise context is furnished by an epistemological objection, threatening for the nominalist : it is necessary that the universal be a true reality outside the soul, says the objector, because there exists a science of real things, a scientia realis, and there is no science except of the universal, as Aristotle says. This is what we today call an argument of “indispensability”: science as we know it is impossible if universals do not really exist. Ockham’s reply, crucial for his system, allows us to directly grasp the original motivations of his reflection on mental language. The objects of scientific knowledge, he insists, are not things external to the mind or to language, but rather propositions, either spoken, written, or mental. This explains why we can say that there is no science except of the universal, since those propositions are always composed of general terms. Yet it does not prevent science from bearing on reality itself, populated as it is only by individuals, because the general terms in question—spoken, written, or thought—can very well stand for external things—“supposit for them,” Ockham says, fittingly resorting here to the technical vocabulary of terminist semantics. Here are the most pertinent extracts of this text: But a proposition, according to Boethius on On Interpretation I...