The Right Really Doesn’t Like William of Ockham

No, no, not a piece on how the right’s current tendency towards consipracy theories or misplaced explanations. The Right (or at least the tiny section of the right who knows who he was) don’t like the actual William of Ockham 1285-1347. William, an English Fransciscan monk is an important figure in the philosophy of epistmology and reasoning. Also, there’s a weird coda at the end…

So why don’t the right like him? In the review I did of conservative philosopher Edward Feser’s book on how Thomas Aquinas somehow disproved atheism (spoiler: he didn’t) I pointed out how William of Ockham and Duns Scotus are seen as the villains of the middle-ages by the new advocates of Thomism. Feser’s main beef with William O was his fideism – the notion that faith is the only or primary route to theological truth. While that principle sounds very devout, it eliminates the possibility of their being logical or rational ways of learning theological truths i.e. if you adopt fideism you give up trying to prove the existence of god. So while William of Ockham is devout he is seen as creating a kind of back door in Western thought for atheism.

I cam across another piece on William of Ockham at that weird conservative site Intellectual Takeout – the place that had that odd piece on Hannah Arendt. This time the piece is called William of Ockham: The Man Who Started the Decline of the West. The title shouldn’t be surprising by now – we’ve seen enough figures on the right and the alt-right hankering for a return to the middle-ages to no this isn’t a parody of modern conservatism.

The writer, Danile Lattiter, points on Ockham’s nominalism as the issue:

“Prior to Ockham, the dominant Western understanding held that individual things (“particulars”) have common natures (“universals”) which dictate the purpose of each thing, and which can be known by man. Thus, for instance, if an individual was referred to as “human,” it was because he really possessed a human nature that was ordered toward flourishing through a life of virtue (as Aristotle says) or participation in the divine life (as Christian revelation says).

However, Ockham denied the real existence of universal natures. In Ockham’s view, the universe is inhabited by a number of individual things that have no necessary connection with each other. We can call human beings “human” based on their sharing a certain resemblance with each other, but we can’t infer anything about them based on their common name. We can know that one thing can cause another thing to happen only based on repeated experience, not on some abstract knowledge of a thing’s nature (thus laying the groundwork for modern science). Anything theological—such as the existence of God or his attributes—can be known by faith alone (thus, apparently, laying the groundwork for the Reformation).”

Lattiter cast the article as him reporting the views of others rather than his own views but he doesn’t put much of a counter case. Personally I doubt William of Ockham personaly set this train of ideas in motion – the flaws in reasoning he was exposing become manifest the more people engage with the world as it is. The Platonic/Aristotlean-Thomistic approach was not going to last and if it had we wouldn’t have just had philosophical stagnation but technological and social stagnation in Europe as well. There isn’t a plausible alternate universe in which Western thought stuck with Aquinas AND developed the technology it did.

Anyway, not the worst article I’ve seen there but not great.

Looking at the articles the author wrote though, I found this piece of nonsense:

It’s pretty much a classic conservative lament: things are all different and changing and wasn’t it great when things were how they used to be. It isn’t good and the ideas are confused.

The weird coda is finding Sarah Hoyt laying into the same article at Mad Genius Club:

Hoyt’s attempted fisking of the piece isn’t great either but what’s funny is somewhere along the way Hoyt and the commenters assume the piece is by a leftist. So they set up various strawmen positions that the writer didn’t espouse and knock those down.

Here’s our old pal Phantom commenting on an article he presumably didn’t read:

“One more Leftist screaming SHUT UP!!!11! in a futile attempt to shove the Internet genie back in the bottle.

This is my favorite part: “We need to identify the key texts that should act as the foundation of our shared cultural and interpersonal knowledge.”

This guy wants to make -me- stop writing. By which I mean, me personally. Because I assure you, my work does not support his notion of “shared cultural knowledge.” Quite the reverse, I hope.

Come and get me, hipster twinkies. Molon labe.”

Nope – it is a rightist implying people should shut up in a futile attempt to shove the societal change genie back in the bottle. I doubt they want Phantom to stop writing as such but then hey probably haven’t read what he writes…




35 thoughts on “The Right Really Doesn’t Like William of Ockham

  1. So, the Spanish word for noodle is “fideo” which makes me think that Ockham could also be responsible for opening the way to cult of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. You know, sometimes Communist Hordes and Fascist Nostalgists can come together and agree that some ideas are bad, regardless of the politics of the person presenting them.

    Or maybe Hoyt et al have sprinted so far the the right that stodgy old school conservatives actually are far to their left?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think Ockham’s Razor would say that they’re just a bunch of idiots. (Yes, I couldn’t resist)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The notion that common texts make a strong culture is a conservative idea. It’s the idea behind much of home-schooling culture (the Great Books approach, for instance) and the frequent panics we see from the Right about how this university or that one is no longer requiring students to read Shakespeare. It’s also behind the frequently touted idea that SF/F writers “have” to read Heinlein, or Asimov, or whoever.

    Don’t these pups even know their own tenets?

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Have -you- read the article, Floppy? Its classic de-platforming based on the “but QUALITY!!!1!” argument so beloved of Hugo gatekeepers. Just eliminate all those poorly written tacky books, and concentrate on the Good Ones. Which he gets to decide on, of course.

    There’s a saying attributed to the son of a bitch that burnt the Great Library of Alexandria. “If it agrees with the Koran, it is superfluous. If it disagrees, it is blasphemous.” Same thing, just faster.

    Essentially what they’re doing on Twitter, Facebook and Google right now, but without the lying, sneaking and weaseling.

    Somebody tell me again how far it is from San Jose to Mountainview.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes Phantom, I have READ the article. Yes, I guess you could call it “classic deplatforming based on the ‘but quality’ argument” if that’s how you feel. The revealing thing is how you miscoded it as left rather than right. If Sarah had presented it as a solid conservative argument for traditional values or Brad had presented it as an argument for a return to the good old days of literature, you’d have been agreeing with the article furiously and explaining how the left just don’t understand. There in lies your problem Phantom – you don’t engage with the substance of the argument but only with whether you’ve been queued into seeing it as left (booh) or right (hoorah). I note Dr Mauser (who can be insightful) maybe has twigged that the article isn’t what you thinl it is.

      Don’t get me wrong though Phantom. The article is genuinely shit. Actually, that alone should clue you in that you went off half-cocked. You might want to try reading it again. 🙂

      Oh gosh! I get to make two replies to this comment Phantom.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. //There’s a saying attributed to the son of a bitch that burnt the Great Library of Alexandria. “If it agrees with the Koran, it is superfluous. If it disagrees, it is blasphemous.”//

      Wow! What a quote! The Copitic Pope Theophilius must have been remarkably prescient to say that when he had the library burnt down, considering that:
      -he was a christian
      -and it 391 AD, hundreds of years before the Koran was written
      -and weirdly the library wasn’t being used for holding books at the time.

      //Essentially what they’re doing on Twitter, Facebook and Google right now,//

      As in, nothing at all because it was just a stupid bullshit quote that you didn’t understand and that makes no historical sense and you posted just because it sounded kind of cool?

      I can’t even call what you are doing “lying”. Lying implies at least SOME recognition that truth is a thing. Or as Caliph Omar the Seventh said as he layed seige to Machu-Pichu in 600 BC with the aid of his Roman Leigonairres and a fleet of hovercraft “Get those m_ther-feckin snakes off my m_ther-feckin plane.” [citation needed]

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Not to mention the armies of Julius Caesar were credited with starting a fire in the Library that destroyed much of the collection too…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. This disagreement over “who burned the library” is pretty much a red herring. Especially since you are all more or less correct. Egypt got conquered multiple times, and the library was burned multiple times, and often it was targeted due to its reputation rather than it’s actual merit. The first time was indeed by Caesar’s army in 45 BCE. It was only partially burned and was rebuilt. It was destroyed again in around 750 CE by Emperor Aurelian and that was pretty much it for it’s collection. What Theophilius burned down was not the library of Alexandria, but the Serapeum, which was not a library. It was a philosophical school run by a woman named Hypatia. Supposedly, in 640 CE Caliph Omar burned what was left after uttering his famous line. The main problem with that is the only written account of it was from Bishop Gregory Bar Hebræus, who was notorious for slandering Muslims. But if Omar did burn a library, it was likely the library at the Temple of Serapis, which was in a different part of Alexandria.

        Liked by 3 people

    3. I love this new right wing jargon – de-platforming. Is it ignorance or spin, like “intelligent design,” “pro life,” etc.?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. De-platforming was (and is I think) a policy of the National Union of Students (NUS) in the UK in which they refused a platform (ie the use of their facilities in Universities) to certain speakers, especially political extremists. That’s where I first heard of it. The character of the NUS tends to be left-leaning (although many individual branches and universities are not) and has been arguably harsher in banning right-wingers.

        What deplatforming has been taken to mean by opponents (and sometimes proponents) is not merely refusing the use of the NUS’ facilities but allowing them any platform at all; not allowing them into the university itself (the symbiotic relationship between student unions and the universities can be complicated) or wider still as boycotts and protests.

        So anyway, a policy of “we as an institution get to choose who speaks and who doesn’t in our facilities” has been inflated to “the left gets to choose who speaks anywhere”.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. @Neil – Ah, it must be a UK or European thing. We call it no-platforming here, which doesn’t imply something is being taken away. I generally see the term in relation to neo-fascists like Richard Spencer and other extremists who have only recently climbed far enough out of the primordial slime to demand a platform. I’m sure the concept has been abused, though.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Kathodus: We call it no-platforming here

          Yes, the use of the term “de-platforming” by alt-righters is really irksome, because they use it to describe cases where they never had any right to be given a platform to begin with — yet they are loudly complaining that something to which they were never entitled in the first place has been “taken away” from them.

          Liked by 3 people

      3. Ian, thanks, but I think I’m really more special teams. Although I did play offensive line as a young ‘un at recess and after school.


    4. “There’s a saying attributed to the son of a bitch that burnt the Great Library of Alexandria. “If it agrees with the Koran, it is superfluous. If it disagrees, it is blasphemous.” Same thing, just faster.”

      Ah, no. The Library was slightly burned by Caesar in 48 BC., but the Quran was written 650 years later. Those parts were rebuilt again. You might be talking about the later burning of the Serapeum of Alexandria in 391 AD. It had housed the books from The Great Library for a while, but they had already been moved out again at that time. Also, that burning was done by pope Theophilus of Alexandria, more than 200 years before the Quran was written.

      Also, the words you quote are said to be from when John Philoponus asked the Caliph Omar about the books. Philoponus died in 570 AD, Omar wasn’t born until 586 AD and the start of the writing of the Quran started in 609 AD, so it isn’t likely those words were ever said.

      Liked by 4 people

    5. The story about Omar burning the Library of Alexandria has been around for a long time (I learned it from Asimov, of all people), but even as early as the 18th Century, Gibbon (“Fall of the Roman Empire”) didn’t believe it, and today I think essentially all historians regard it as a myth.

      Liked by 2 people

    6. Phantom, no one among the Hugo electorate wants to eliminate poorly written or tacky books. I’m happy that Larry Correia, JDA, JCW, Declan Finn, Brad Torgersen, etc… get to publish their books and have the chance to find an audience that enjoys what they write. I just don’t want to have to read those books and I don’t want them rammed down my throat, because they managed to slate their way into a Hugo shortlist (and coincidentally, I’m also not happy when a non-puppy author whose work I don’t like gets a Hugo nomination, because that means I have to spend time on a work I very probably won’t like). However, not wanting to read something is different from not wanting it to exist.

      As for the article (yes, I read it, too), of course, I agree that the author is completely and utterly wrong. However, he is not arguing from the left perspective (where you can occasionally find similar arguments), but from a rightwing conservative perspective. What this author wants is fewer books, so everybody can concentrate on the same few “great books”, whatever they may be, and have a common cultural background. It’s a literary take on the “Leitkultur” (guiding culture) debate, which occasionally rears its ugly head in Germany, inevitably from the far right.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It’s a continual theme that Puppies can’t comprehend that it was the cheating that made them unpopular. Sure, the lack of quality work and the insults didn’t help, but they’d have been ostracized for stacking the deck if nothing else. Just like the time the Scientologists tried it. People still read L.Ron, they just didn’t approve of his work being gamed onto the ballot.

        See Mssr. Langford’s eyewitness report

        But at least the Scienos weren’t claiming to “save SF”, were generally polite about it, didn’t threaten people with SWAT teams — and they still finished behind NA, with audience boos.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It wasn’t technically cheating; it was exploiting a hole in the rules. Still bad sportsmanship though. Particularly when they objected to fans voting their gamed selections under no award–something that was also within the rules. “Cheaters and sore losers” isn’t 100% accurate, but I have to admit it has about the right flavor.

        What scares me is that although we’ve fixed the hole in the rules (mostly) with EPH, there are people who are still lobbying to repeal EPH and go back to the old method.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. Why would it have been impossible to reach todaylevel technology based on the philosphical thinking of thinking of Thomas? Or is that maybe to big a question?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. So Bill of O led to the industrial revolution and the European colonization of other places, yet they call him the “decline” of the West.

    Yeah, sure. Sun never setting on the British Empire followed by several decades of American dominance is really the “decline” of Western strength and influence.


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