Numero Uno—“It gives me pleasure to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the Government, steadily pursued for nearly thirty years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching to a happy consummation. Two important tribes have accepted the provision made for their removal at the last session of Congress, and it is believed that their example will induce the remaining tribes also to seek the same obvious advantages.The consequences of a speedy removal will be important to the United States, to individual States, and to the Indians themselves. The pecuniary advantages which it promises to the Government are the least of its recommendations. It puts an end to all possible danger of collision between the authorities of the General and State Governments on account of the Indians. It will place a dense and civilized population in large tracts of country now occupied by a few savage hunters. By opening the whole territory between Tennessee on the north and Louisiana on the south to the settlement of the whites it will incalculably strengthen the southwestern frontier and render the adjacent States strong enough to repel future invasions without remote aid. It will relieve the whole State of Mississippi and the western part of Alabama of Indian occupancy, and enable those States to advance rapidly in population, wealth, and power. It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.
What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization and religion?
The present policy of the Government is but a continuation of the same progressive change by a milder process. The tribes which occupied the countries now constituting the Eastern States were annihilated or have melted away to make room for the whites. The waves of population and civilization are rolling to the westward, and we now propose to acquire the countries occupied by the red men of the South and West by a fair exchange, and, at the expense of the United States, to send them to land where their existence may be prolonged and perhaps made perpetual. Doubtless it will be painful to leave the graves of their fathers; but what do they more than our ancestors did or than our children are now doing? To better their condition in an unknown land our forefathers left all that was dear in earthly objects. Our children by thousands yearly leave the land of their birth to seek new homes in distant regions. Does Humanity weep at these painful separations from everything, animate and inanimate, with which the young heart has become entwined? Far from it. It is rather a source of joy that our country affords scope where our young population may range unconstrained in body or in mind, developing the power and facilities of man in their highest perfection. These remove hundreds and almost thousands of miles at their own expense, purchase the lands they occupy, and support themselves at their new homes from the moment of their arrival. Can it be cruel in this Government when, by events which it can not control, the Indian is made discontented in his ancient home to purchase his lands, to give him a new and extensive territory, to pay the expense of his removal, and support him a year in his new abode? How many thousands of our own people would gladly embrace the opportunity of removing to the West on such conditions! If the offers made to the Indians were extended to them, they would be hailed with gratitude and joy.
And is it supposed that the wandering savage has a stronger attachment to his home than the settled, civilized Christian? Is it more afflicting to him to leave the graves of his fathers than it is to our brothers and children? Rightly considered, the policy of the General Government toward the red man is not only liberal, but generous. He is unwilling to submit to the laws of the States and mingle with their population. To save him from this alternative, or perhaps utter annihilation, the General Government kindly offers him a new home, and proposes to pay the whole expense of his removal and settlement.” Andrew Jackson, Message to Congress on Indian Removal; 1830
Sticking to this image, we ask: In what soil do the roots of the tree of philosophy have their hold? Out of what ground do the roots–and through them the whole tree–receive their nourishing juices and strength? What element, concealed in the ground, enters and lives in the roots that support and nourish the tree? What is the basis and element of metaphysics? What is metaphysics, viewed from its ground? What is metaphysics itself, at bottom?
Metaphysics thinks about beings as beings. Wherever the question is asked what beings are, beings as such are in sight. Metaphysical representation owes this sight to the light of Being. The light itself, i.e., that which such thinking experiences as light, does not come within the range of metaphysical thinking; for metaphysics always represents beings only as beings. Within this perspective, metaphysical thinking does, of course, inquire about the being which is the source and originator of this light. But the light itself is considered sufficiently illuminated as soon as we recognise that we look through it whenever we look at beings.
In whatever manner beings are interpreted–whether as spirit, after the fashion of spiritualism; or as matter and force, after the fashion of materialism; or as becoming and life, or idea, will, substance, subject, or energeia; or as the eternal recurrence of the same event–every time, beings as beings appear in the light of Being. Wherever metaphysics represents beings. Being has entered into the light. Being has arrived in a state of unconcealedness. But whether and how Being itself involves such unconcealedness, whether and how it manifests itself in, and as, metaphysics, remains obscure. Being in its revelatory essence, i. e. in its truth, is not recalled. Nevertheless, when metaphysics gives answers to its question concerning beings as such, metaphysics speaks out of the unnoticed revealedness of Being. The truth of Being may thus be called the ground in which metaphysics, as the root of the tree of philosophy, is kept and from which it is nourished.
Because metaphysics inquires about beings as beings, it remains concerned with beings and does not devote itself to Being as Being. As the root of the tree, it sends all nourishment and all strength into the trunk and its branches. The root branches out in the soil to enable the tree to grow out of the ground and thus to leave it. The tree of philosophy grows out of the soil in which metaphysics is rooted. The ground is the element in which the root of the tree lives, but the growth of the tree is never able to absorb this soil in such a way that it disappears in the tree as part of the tree. Instead, the roots, down to the subtlest tendrils, lose themselves in the soil. The ground is ground for the roots, and in the ground the roots forget themselves for the sake of the tree. The roots still belong to the tree even when they abandon themselves, after a fashion, to the element of the soil. They squander themselves and their element on the tree. As roots, they do not devote themselves to the soil-at least not as if it were their life to grow only into this element and to spread out in it. Presumably, the element would not be the same element either if the roots did not live in it.
Metaphysics, insofar as it always represents only beings as beings, does not recall Being itself. Philosophy does not concentrate on its ground. It always leaves its ground-leaves it by means of metaphysics. And yet it never escapes its ground.
Insofar as a thinker sets out to experience the ground of metaphysics, insofar as he attempts to recall the truth of Being itself instead of merely representing beings as beings, his thinking has in a sense left metaphysics. From the point of view of metaphysics, such thinking goes back into tho ground of metaphysics. But what still appears as ground from this point of view is presumably something else, once it is experienced in its own terms – something as yet unsaid, according to which the essence of metaphysics, too, is something else and not metaphysics.
Such thinking, which recalls the truth of Being, is no longer satisfied with mere metaphysics, to be sure; but it does not oppose and think against metaphysics either. To return to our image, it does not tear up the root of philosophy. It tills the ground and ploughs the soil for this root. Metaphysics remains the basis of philosophy. The basis of thinking, however, it does not reach. When we think of the truth of Being, metaphysics is overcome. We can no longer accept the claim of metaphysics that it takes care of the fundamental involvement in “Being” and that it decisively determines all relations to beings as such. But this “overcoming of metaphysics” does not abolish metaphysics. As long as man remains the animal rationale he is also the animal metaphysicum. As long as man understands himself as the rational animal, metaphysics belongs, as Kant said, to the nature of man. But if our thinking should succeed in its efforts to go back into the ground of metaphysics, it might well help to bring about a change in human nature, accompanied by a transformation of metaphysics.
If, as we unfold the question concerning the truth of Being, we speak of overcoming metaphysics, this means: recalling Being itself. Such recalling goes beyond the tradition of forgetting the ground of the root of philosophy. The thinking attempted in Being and Time (1927) sets out on the way to prepare an overcoming of metaphysics, so understood. That, however, which prompts such thinking can only be that which is to be recalled. That Being itself and how Being itself concerns our thinking does not depend upon our thinking alone. That Being itself, and the manner in which Being itself, strikes a man’s thinking, that rouses his thinking and stirs it to rise from Being itself to respond and correspond to Being as such.
Why, however, should such an overcoming of metaphysics be necessary? Is the point merely to underpin that discipline of philosophy which was the root hitherto, or to supplant it with a yet more basic discipline? Is it a question of changing the philosophic system of instruction? No. (?r are we trying to go back into the ground of metaphysics in order to uncover a hitherto overlooked presupposition of philosophy, and thereby to show that philosophy does not yet stand on an unshakeable foundation and therefore cannot yet be the absolute science? No.
It is something else that is at stake with the arrival of tho truth of Being or its failure to arrive: it is neither the state of philosophy nor philosophy itself alone, but rather the proximity or remoteness of that from which philosophy, insofar as it means the representation of beings as such, receives its nature and its necessity. What is to be decided u nothing less than this: can Being itself, out of its own unique truth, bring about its involvement in human nature; or shall metaphysics, which turns its back to its ground, prevent further that the involvement of Being in man may generate a radiance out of the very essence of this involvement itself radiance which might lead man to belong to Being?
In its answers to the question concerning beings as such, metaphysics operates with a prior conception of Being. It speaks of Being necessarily and hence continually. But metaphysics does not induce Being itself to speak, for metaphysics does not recall Being in its truth, nor does it recall truth as unconcealedness, nor does it recall the nature of unconcealedness. To metaphysics the nature of truth always appears only in the derivative form of the truth of knowledge and the truth of propositions which formulate our knowledge. Unconcealedness, however, might be prior to all truth in the sense of veritas. Alitheia might be the word that offers a hitherto unnoticed hint concerning the nature of esse which has not yet been recalled. If this should be so, then the representational thinking of metaphysics could certainly never reach this nature of truth, however zealously it might devote itself to historical studies of pre-Socratic philosophy; for what is at stake here is not some renaissance of pre-Socratic thinking: any such attempt would be vain and absurd. What is wanted is rather some regard for the arrival of the hitherto unexpressed nature of unconcealedness, for it is in this form that Being has announced itself. Meanwhile the truth of Being has remained concealed from metaphysics during its long history from Anaximander to Nietzsche. Who does metaphysics not recall it? Is the failure to recall it merely a function of some kinds of metaphysical thinking? Or is it an essential feature of the fate of metaphysics that it own ground eludes it because in the rise of unconcealedness! its very core, namely concealedness, stays away in favour of the unconcealed which appears in the form of beings?
Metaphysics, however, speaks continually and in the most various ways of Being. Metaphysics gives, and seems to confirm, the appearance that it asks and answers the question concerning Being. In fact, metaphysics never answers the question concerning the truth of Being, for it never asks this question. Metaphysics does not ask this question because it thinks of Being only by representing beings as beings. It means all beings as a whole, although it speaks of Being. It refers to Being and means beings as beings. From its beginning to its completion, the propositions of metaphysics have been strangely involved in a persistent confusion of beings and Being. This confusion, to be sure, must be considered an event and not a mere mistake. It cannot by any means be charged to a mere negligence of thought or a carelessness of expression. Owing to this persistent confusion, the claim that metaphysics poses the question of Being lands us in utter error.
Due to the manner in which it thinks of beings, metaphysics almost seems to be, without knowing it, the barrier which keeps man from the original involvement of Being in human nature.
What if the absence of this involvement and the oblivion of this absence determined the entire modern age? What if the absence of Being abandoned man more and more exclusively to beings, leaving him forsaken and far from any involvement of Being in his nature, while this forsakenness itself remained veiled? What if this were the case and had been the case for a long time now? What if there were signs that this oblivion will become still more decisive in the future?
Would there still be occasion for a thoughtful person to give himself arrogant airs in view of this fateful withdrawal with which Being presents us? Would there still be occasion, if this should be our situation, to deceive ourselves with pleasant phantasms and to indulge, of all things, in an artificially induced elation? If the oblivion of Being which has been described here should be real, would there not be occasion enough for a thinker who recalls Being to experience a genuine horror? What more can his thinking do than to t endure in dread this fateful withdrawal while first of all facing up to the oblivion of Being? But how could thought achieve this as long as its fatefully granted dread seems to it no more than a mood of depression? What does such dread, which is fated by Being, have to do with psychology or psychoanalysis?
Suppose that the overcoming of metaphysics involved the endeavour to commence with a regard for the oblivion of Being the attempt to learn to develop such a regard, in order to experience this oblivion and to absorb this experience into the involvement of Being in man, and to preserve it there: then, in the distress of the oblivion of Being, the question “What is metaphysics?” might well become the most necessary necessity for thought.
Thus everything depends on this: that our thinking should become more thoughtful in its season. This is achieved when our thinking, instead of implementing a higher degree of exertion, is directed toward a different point of origin. The thinking which is posited by beings as such, and therefore representational and illuminating in that way, must be supplanted by a different kind of thinking which is brought to pass by Being itself and, therefore, responsive to Being.
All attempts are futile which seek to make representational thinking which remains metaphysical, and only metaphysical, effective and useful for immediate action in everyday public life. The more thoughtful our thinking becomes and the more adequate it is to the involvement of Being in it, the purer our thinking will stand eo ipso in the one action appropriate to it: recalling what is meant for it and thus, in a sense, what is already meant.
But who still recalls what is meant? One makes inventions. To lead our thinking on the way on which it may find the involvement of the truth of Being in human nature, to open up a path for our thinking on which it may recall Being itself in its truth-to do that the thinking attempted in Being and Time is “on its way.” On this way-that is, in the service of the question concerning the truth of Being – it becomes necessary to stop and think about human nature; for the experience of the oblivion of Being, which is not specifically mentioned because it still had to be demonstrated, involves the crucial conjecture that in view of the unconcealedness of Being the involvement of Being in human nature is an essential feature of Being. But how could this conjecture, which is experienced here, become an explicit question before every attempt had been made to liberate the determination of human nature from the concept of subjectivity and from the concept of the animal rationale? To characterise with a single term both the involvement of Being in human nature and the essential relation of man to the openness (“there”) of Being as such, the name of “being there [Dasein]” was chosen for that sphere of being in which man stands as man. This term was employed, even though in metaphysics it is used interchangeably with existentia, actuality, reality, and objectivity, and although this metaphysical usage is further supported by the common [German] expression “menschliches Dasein.” Any attempt, therefore, to re-think Being and Time is thwarted as long as one is satisfied with the observation that, in this study, the term “being there” is used in place of “consciousness.” As if this were simply a matter of using different words! As if it were not the one and only thing at stake here: namely, to get men to think about the involvement of Being in human nature and thus, from our point of view, to present first of all an experience of human nature which may prove sufficient to direct our inquiry. The term “being there” neither takes the place of the term “consciousness” nor does the “object” designated as “being there” take the place of what we think of when we speak of “consciousness.” “Being there” names that which should first of all be experienced, and subsequently thought of, as a place namely, the location of the truth of Being.
What the term “being there” means throughout the treatise on Being and Time is indicated immediately (page 42) by its introductory key sentence: “The ‘essence’ of being there lies in its existence.” [Das “Wesen” des Daseins liegt in seiner Existenz.]
To be sure, in the language of metaphysics the word “existence” is a synonym of “being there”: both refer to the reality of anything at all that is real, from God to a grain of sand. As long, therefore, as the quoted sentence is understood only superficially, the difficulty is merely transferred from one word to another, from “being there” to “existence.” In B.&T. the term “existence” is used exclusively for the being of man. Once “existence” is understood rightly, the “essence” of being there can be recalled: in its openness, Being itself manifests and conceals itself, yields itself and withdraws; at the same time, this truth of Being does not exhaust itself in being there, nor can it by any means simply be identified with it after the fashion of the metaphysical proposition: all objectivity is as such also subjectivity.
What does “existence” mean in B.&T.? The word designates a mode of Being; specifically, the Being of those beings who stand open for the openness of Being in which they stand, by standing it. This “standing it,” this enduring, is experienced under the name of “care.” The ecstatic essence of being there is approached by way of care, and, conversely, care is experienced adequately only in its ecstatic essence. “Standing it, experienced in this manner, is the essence of the ekstasis which must be grasped by thought. The ecstatic essence of existence is therefore still understood inadequately as long as one thinks of it as merely “standing out,” while interpreting the “out” as meaning “away from” the inside of an immanence of consciousness and spirit. For in this manner, existence would still be understood in terms of “subjectivity” and “substance”; while, in fact, the “out” ought to be understood in terms of the openness of Being itself. The stasis of the ecstatic consists, strange as it may sound-in standing in the “out” and “there” of unconcealedness in which Being itself is present. What is meant by “existence” in the context of an inquiry that is prompted by, and directed toward, the truth of Being, can be most beautifully designated by the word “instancy [Instandigkeit].” We must think at the same time, however, of standing in the openness of Being, of enduring and outstanding this standing-in (care), and of out-braving the utmost (Being toward death); for it is only together that they constitute the full essence of existence.
The being that exists is man. Man alone exists. Rocks are, but they do not exist. Trees are, but they do not exist. Horses are, but they do not exist. Angels are, but they do not exist. God is, but he does not exist. The proposition “man alone exists” does not mean by any means that man alone is * real being while all other beings are unreal and mere appearances or human ideas. The proposition “man exists” means: man is that being whose Being is distinguished by the open-standing standing-in in the unconcealedness of Being, from Being, in Being. The existential nature of man is the reason why man can represent beings as such, and why ho can be conscious of them. All consciousness presupposes ecstatically understood existence as the essentia of man – essentia meaning that as which man is present insofar as he is j man. But consciousness does not itself create the openness of beings, nor is it consciousness that makes it possible for man to stand open for beings. Whither and whence and in what free dimension could the intentionality of consciousness move, if instancy were not the essence of man in the first instance? What else could be the meaning if anybody has ever seriously thought about this of the word sein in the [German] words Bewusstsein [“consciousness”; literally: “being conscious”] and Selbstbewusstsein[“self-consciousness”] if it did not designate the existential nature of that which is in tho mode of existence? To be a self is admittedly one feature of the nature of that being which exists; but existence does not consist in being a self, nor can it be defined in such terms. We are faced with the fact that metaphysical thinking understands man’s selfhood in terms of substance or – and at bottom this amounts to the same in terms of the subject. It is for this reason that the first way which leads away from metaphysics to the ecstatic existential nature of man must lead through the metaphysical conception of human selfhood (B.&T., §§63 and 64).
The question concerning existence, however, is always subservient to that question which is nothing less than tho only question of thought. This question, yet to be unfolded, concerns the truth of Being as the concealed ground of all metaphysics. For this reason the treatise which sought to point the way back into the ground of metaphysics did not bear the title “Existence and Time,” nor “Consciousness and Time,” but Being and Time. Nor can this title be understood as if it were parallel to the customary juxtapositions of Being and Becoming, Being and Seeming, Being and Thinking, or Being and Ought. For in all these cases Being is limited, as if Becoming, Seeming, Thinking, and Ought did not belong to Being, although it is obvious that they are not nothing and thus belong to Being. In Being and Time, Being is not something other than Time: “Time” is called the first name of the truth of Being, and this truth is the presence of Being and thus Being itself. But why “Time” and “Being”?
By recalling the beginnings of history when Being unveiled itself in the thinking of the Greeks, it can be shown that the Greeks from the very beginning experienced the Being d beings as the presence of the present. When we translate einai as “being” our translation is linguistically correct. Yet we merely substitute one set of sounds for another. As soon as we examine ourselves it becomes obvious that we neither think einai, as it were, in Greek nor have in mind a correspondingly clear and univocal concept when we speak of “being.” What, then, are we saying when instead of einai we say “being,” and instead of “being,” einai and esse? We are saying nothing. The Greek, Latin, and German word all remain equally obtuse. As long as we adhere to the customary usage we merely betray ourselves as the pacemakers of the greatest thoughtlessness which has ever gained currency in human thought and which has remained dominant until this moment. This einai, however, means: to be present [anwesen; this verb form, in place of the idiomatic “anwesend sein,” is Heidegger’s neology]. The true being of this being present [das Wesen dieses Anwesens] is deeply concealed in the earliest names of Being. But for us einai and ousia as par – and apousia means this first of all: in being present there moves, unrecognised and concealed, present time and duration-in one word, Time. Being as such is thus unconcealed owing to Time. Thus Time points to unconcealedness, i. e., the truth of Being. But the Time of which we should think here is not experienced through the changeful career of beings. Time is evidently of an altogether different nature which neither has been recalled by way of the time concept of metaphysics nor ever can be recalled in this way. Thus Time becomes the first name, which is yet to be heeded, of the truth of Being, which is yet to be experienced.
A concealed hint of Time speaks not only out of the earliest metaphysical names of Being but also out of its last name, which is “the eternal recurrence of the same events.” Through the entire epoch of metaphysics, Time is decisively present in the history of Being, without being recognised or thought about. To this Time, space is neither co-ordinated nor merely subordinated.
Suppose one attempts to make a transition from the representation of beings as such to recalling the truth of Being:. such an attempt, which starts from this representation, must still represent, in a certain sense, the truth of Being, too; and any such representation must of necessity be heterogeneous and ultimately, insofar as it is a representation, inadequate for that which is to be thought. This relation, which comes out of metaphysics and tries to enter into the involvement of the truth of Being in human nature, is called understanding. But here understanding is viewed, at the same time, from the point of view of the unconcealedness of Being. Understanding is a project thrust forth and ecstatic, which means that it stands in the sphere of the open. The sphere which opens up as we project, in order that something (Being in this case) may prove itself as something (in this case, Being as itself in its unconcealedness), is called the sense. (Cf. B.&T., p. 151) “The sense of Being” and “the truth of Being” mean the same.
Let us suppose that Time belongs to the truth of Being in a way that is still concealed: then every project that holds open the truth of Being, representing a way of understanding Being, must look out into Time as the horizon of any possible understanding of Being. (Cf. B.&T., §§31-34 and 68.)
The preface to Being and Time, on the first page of the treatise, ends with these sentences: “To furnish a concrete elaboration of the question concerning the sense of ‘Being’ is the intention of the following treatise. The interpretation of Time as the horizon of every possible attempt to understand Being is its provisional goal.”
All philosophy has fallen into the oblivion of Being which has, at the same time, become and remained the fateful demand on thought in B.&T.; and philosophy could hardly have given a clearer demonstration of the power of this oblivion of Being than it has furnished us by the somnambulistic assurance with which it has passed by the real and only question of B.&T. What is at stake here is, therefore, not a series of misunderstandings of a book but our abandonment by Being.
Metaphysics states what beings are as beings. It offers a logos (statement) about the outa (beings). The later title “ontology” characterises its nature, provided, of course, that we understand it in accordance with its true significance and not through its narrow scholastic meaning. Metaphysics moves in the sphere of the on i on: it deals with beings as beings. In this manner, metaphysics always represents beings as such in their totality; it deals with the beingness of beings (the ousia of the on). But metaphysics represents the beingness of beings [die Seiendheit des Seienden] in a twofold manner: in the first place, the totality of beings as such with an eye to their most universal traits (ou katholou koinon😉 but at the same time also the totality of beings as such in the sense of the highest and therefore divine being (on katholon, akrotaton, theiou). In the metaphysics of Aristotle, the unconcealedness of beings as such has specifically developed in this twofold manner.
Because metaphysics represents beings as beings, it is, two-in-one, the truth of beings in their universality and in the highest being. According to its nature, it is at the same time ontology in the narrower sense and theology. This ontotheological nature of philosophy proper (proti psilosopsia) is, no doubt, due to the way in which the onopens up in it, namely as 8v. Thus the theological character of ontology is not merely due to the fact that Greek metaphysics was later taken up and transformed by the ecclesiastic theology of Christianity. Rather it is due to the manner in which beings as beings have from the very beginning disconcealed themselves. It was this unconcealedness of beings that provided the possibility for Christian theology to take possession of Greek philosophy- whether for better or for worse may be decided by the theologians, on the basis of their experience of what is Christian; only they should keep in mind what is written in the First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians: “ouhi emoranen o theos tin sopsian tou kosmou; Has not God let the wisdom of this world become foolishness?” (I Cor. 1:20) The sposia tou kosmou [wisdom of this world], however, is that which, according to 1: 22, theEllines zitousin, the Greeks seek. Aristotle even calls the proti psilosopsia (philosophy proper) quite specifically zitoumeni – what is sought. Will Christian theology make up its mind one day to take seriously the word of the apostle and thus also the conception of philosophy as foolishness?
As the truth of beings as such, metaphysics has a twofold character. The reason for this two-foldness, however, let alone its origin, remains unknown to metaphysics; and this is no accident, nor due to mere neglect. Metaphysics has this twofold character because it is what it is: the representation of beings as beings. Metaphysics has no choice. Being metaphysics, it is by its very nature excluded from the experience of Being; for it always represents beings (on) only with an eye to what of Being has already manifested itself as beings (i on). But metaphysics never pays attention to what has concealed itself in this very on insofar as it became unconcealed.
Thus the time came when it became necessary to make a fresh attempt to grasp by thought what precisely is said when we speak of on or use the word “being” [seiend]. Accordingly, the question concerning the on was reintroduced into human thinking. (Cf. B.&T., Preface.) But this reintroduction is no mere repetition of the Platonic-Aristotelian question; instead it asks about that which conceals itself in the on.
Metaphysics is founded upon that which conceals itself here as long as metaphysics studies the on i on. The attempt to inquire back into what conceals itself here seeks, from the point of view of metaphysics, the fundament of ontology. Therefore this attempt is called, in Being and Time (page l3) “fundamental ontology” [Fundamentalontologie]. Yet this title, like any title, is soon seen to be inappropriate. From the point of view of metaphysics, to be sure, it says something that is correct; but precisely for that reason it is misleading, for what matters is success in the transition from metaphysics to recalling the truth of Being. As long as this thinking calls itself “fundamental ontology” it blocks and obscures its own way with this title. For what the title “fundamental ontology” suggests is, of course, that the attempt to recall the truth of Being-and not, like all ontology, the truth of beings-is itself (seeing that it is called “fundamental ontology”) still a kind of ontology. In fact, the attempt to recall the truth of Being sets out on the way back into the ground of metaphysics, and with its first step it immediately leaves the realm of all ontology. On the other hand, every philosophy which revolves around an indirect or direct conception of “transcendence” remains of necessity essentially an ontology, whether it achieves a new foundation of ontology or whether it assures us that it repudiates ontology as a conceptual freezing of experience.
Coming from the ancient custom of representing beings as such, the very thinking that attempted to recall the truth of Being became entangled in these customary conceptions. Under these circumstances it would seem that both for a preliminary orientation and in order to prepare the transition from representational thinking to a new kind of thinking recalls [das andenkende Denken], that nothing could be more necessary than the question: What is metaphysics?
The unfolding of this question in the following Picture culminates in another question. This is called the basic question of metaphysics: Why is there any being at all and not rather Nothing? Meanwhile [since this lecture was first published in 1929], to be sure, people have talked back and forth a great deal about dread and the Nothing, both of which are spoken of in this lecture. But one has never yet deigned to ask oneself why a lecture which moves from thinking of the truth of Being to the Nothing, and then tries from there to think into the nature of metaphysics, should claim that this question is the basic question of metaphysics. How can an attentive reader help feeling on the tip of his tongue an objection which is far more weighty than all protests against dread and the Nothing? The final question provokes the objection that an inquiry which attempts to recall Being by way of the Nothing returns in the end to a question concerning beings. On top of that, the question even proceeds in the customary manner of metaphysics by beginning with a causal “Why?” To this extent, then, the attempt to recall Being is repudiated in favour of representational knowledge of beings on the basis of beings. And to make matters still worse, the final question is obviously the question which the metaphysician Leibniz posed in his Principes de la nature et de la grace: “Pourquoi il y a plutot quelque chose que rien?”
Does the lecture, then fall short of its intention? After all, this would be quite possible in view of the difficulty of effecting a transition from metaphysics to another kind of thinking. Does the lecture end up by asking Leibniz’ metaphysical question about the supreme cause of all things that have being? Why, then, is Leibniz’ name not mentioned, as decency would seem to require?
Or is the question asked in an altogether different sense? If it does not concern itself with beings and inquire about their first cause among all beings, then the question must begin from that which is not a being. And this is precisely what the question names, and it capitalises the word: the Nothing. This is the sole topic of the lecture. The demand seems obvious that the end of the lecture should be thought through, for once, in its own perspective which determines the whole lecture. What has been called the basic question of metaphysics would then have to be understood and asked in terms of fundamental ontology as the question that comes out of the ground of metaphysics and as the question about this ground.
But if we grant this lecture that in the end it thinks in tho direction of its own distinctive concern, how are we to under- n stand this question?
The question is: Why is there any being at all and not rather Nothing? Suppose that we do not remain within metaphysics to ask metaphysically in the customary manner; suppose we recall the truth of Being out of the nature and the truth of metaphysics; then this might be asked as well: How did it come about that beings take precedence everywhere and lay claim to every ‘is’ while that which is not a being is understood as Nothing, though it is Being itself, and remains forgotten? How did it come about that with Being It really is nothing and that the Nothing really is not? Is it perhaps from this that the as yet unshaken presumption has entered into all metaphysics that ‘Being’ may simply be taken for granted and that Nothing is therefore made more easily than beings? That is indeed the situation regarding Being and Nothing. If it were different, then Leibniz could’nt have said in the same place by way of an explanation: ‘Car le rien est plus simple et plus facile que quelque chose.’ For the nothing is simpler and easier than any thing].’
What is more enigmatic: that beings are, or that Being is? Or does even this reflection fail to bring us close to that enigma which has occurred with the Being of beings?
Whatever the answer may be, the time should have ripened meanwhile for thinking through the lecture ‘What is Metaphysics?’ which has been subjected to so many attacks, from its end, for once-from its end and not from an imaginary end.” Martin Heidegger, “Existence and Being;” 1949
Because Ockham joined the Franciscan order (known as the Order of the Friars Minor or OFM), he would have received his early education at a Franciscan house. From there, he pursued a degree in theology at Oxford University. He never completed it, however, because in 1323 he was summoned to the papal court, which had been moved from Rome to Avignon, to answer to charges of heresy.
Ockham remained in Avignon under a loose form of house arrest for four years while the papacy carried out its investigation. Through this ordeal Ockham became convinced that the papacy was corrupt and finally decided to flee with some other Franciscans on trial there. On May 26, 1328 they escaped in the night on stolen horses to the court of Louis of Bavaria, a would-be emperor, who had his own reasons for opposing the Pope. They were all ex-communicated and hunted down but never captured.
After a brief and unsuccessful campaign in Italy, Louis and his entourage settled in Munich. Ockham spent the rest of his days there as a political activist, writing treatises against the papacy. Ockham died sometime between 1347 and 1349, unreconciled with the Catholic Church. Because he never returned to his academic career, Ockham acquired the nickname “Venerable Inceptor”—an “inceptor” being one who is on the point of earning a degree. Ockham’s other nickname is the “More than Subtle Doctor” because he was thought to have surpassed the Franciscan philosopher John Duns Scotus (1265/6-1308), who was known as the Subtle Doctor.
Methodologically, Ockham fits comfortably within the analytic philosophical tradition. He considers himself a devoted follower of Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.), whom he calls “The Philosopher,” though most Aristotle scholars would find many of his interpretations dubious. Ockham may simply have a unique understanding of Aristotle or he may be using Aristotle as cover for developing views he knew would be threatening to the status quo.
Aside from Aristotle, the French Franciscan philosopher Peter John Olivi (1248 – 1298) was the single most important influence on Ockham. Olivi is an extremely original thinker, pioneering direct realism, nominalism, metaphysical libertarianism, and many of the same political views that Ockham defends later in his career. One notable difference between the two, however, is that, while Ockham loves Aristotle, Olivi hates him. Ockham never acknowledges Olivi because Olivi was condemned as a heretic.
Ockham published several philosophical works before losing official status as an academic. The first was his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, a standard requirement for medieval theology students. The philosopher and archbishop Peter Lombard (1100–1160/4) composed a book of opinions (sententia) for and against various controversial claims. By commenting on this book, students would learn the art of argumentation while at the same time developing their own views. As a student, Ockham also wrote several commentaries on the works of Aristotle. In addition, he engaged in public debates, the proceedings of which were published under the titles Disputed Questions and Quodlibetal Questions—“quodlibet” meaning “whatever you like.” Ockham’s opus magnum, however, is his Suma Logicae, in which he lays out the fundamentals of his logic and its accompanying metaphysics. We do not know exactly when it was written, but it is the latest of his academic works. After the Avignon affair, Ockham wrote and circulated several political treatises unofficially, the most important of which is his Dialogue on the Power of the Emperor and the Pope. All of Ockham’s works have been edited into modern editions but not all have been translated.
Ockham’s Razor is the principle of parsimony or simplicity according to which the simpler theory is more likely to be true. Ockham did not invent this principle; it is found in Aristotle, Aquinas, and other philosophers Ockham read. Nor did he call the principle a “razor.” In fact, the first known use of the term “Occam’s razor” occurs in 1852 in the work of the British mathematician William Rowan Hamilton. Although Ockham never even makes an argument for the validity of the principle, he uses it in many striking ways, and this is how it became associated with him.
For some, the principle of simplicity implies that the world is maximally simple. Aquinas, for example, argues that nature does not employ two instruments where one suffices. This interpretation of the principle is also suggested by its most popular formulation: “Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.” Yet this is a problematic assertion. We know today that nature is often redundant in both form and function. Although medieval philosophers were largely ignorant of evolutionary biology, they did affirm the existence of an omnipotent God, which is alone enough to render the assumption that the world is maximally simple suspicious. In any case, Ockham never makes this assumption and he does not use the popular formulation of the principle.
For Ockham, the principle of simplicity limits the multiplication of hypotheses not necessarily entities. Favoring the formulation “It is useless to do with more what can be done with less,” Ockham implies that theories are meant to do things, namely, explain and predict, and these things can be accomplished more effectively with fewer assumptions.
At one level, this is just common sense. Suppose your car suddenly stops running and your fuel gauge indicates an empty gas tank. It would be silly to hypothesize both that you are out of gas and that you are out of oil. You need only one hypothesis to explain what has happened.
Some would object that the principle of simplicity cannot guarantee truth. The gas gauge on your car may be broken or the empty gas tank may be just one of several things wrong with the car. In response to this objection, one might point out that the principle of simplicity does not tell us which theory is true but only which theory is more likely to be true. Moreover, if there is some other sign of damage, such as a blinking oil gage, then there is a further fact to explain, warranting an additional hypothesis.
Although the razor seems like common sense in everyday situations, when used in science, it can have surprising and powerful effects. For example, in his classic exposition of theoretical physics, A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking attributes the discovery of quantum mechanics to Ockham’s Razor.
Nevertheless, not everyone approves of the razor. Ockham’s contemporary and fellow Franciscan Walter Chatton proposed an “anti-razor” in opposition to Ockham. He declares that if three things are not enough to verify an affirmative proposition about things, a fourth must be added, and so on. Others call Ockham’s razor a “principle of stinginess,” accusing it of quashing creativity and imagination. Still others complain that there is no objective way to determine which of two theories is simpler. Often a theory that is simpler in one way is more complicated in another way. All of these concerns and others make Ockham’s razor controversial.
At bottom, Ockham advocates simplicity in order to reduce the risk of error. Every hypothesis carries the possibility that it may be wrong. The more hypotheses you accept, the more you increase your risk. Ockham strove to avoid error at all times, even if it meant abandoning well-loved, traditional beliefs. This approach helped to earn him his reputation as destroyer of the medieval synthesis of faith and reason.
One of the most basic challenges in metaphysics is to explain how it is that things are the same despite differences. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus (540 – 480 B.C.E.) points out that you can never step into the same river twice, referring not just to rivers, but to places, people, and life itself. Every day everything changes a little bit and everywhere you go you find new things. Heraclitus concludes from such observations that nothing ever remains the same. All reality is in flux.
The problem with seeing the world this way is that it leads to radical skepticism: if nothing stays the same from moment to moment and from place to place, then we can never really be certain about anything. We can’t know our friends, we can’t know the world we live in, we can’t even know ourselves! Moreover, if Heraclitus is right, it seems science is impossible. We could learn the properties of a chemical here today and still have no basis for knowing its properties someplace else tomorrow.
Needless to say, most people would prefer to avoid skepticism. It’s hard to carry on in a state of complete ignorance. Besides, it seems obvious that science is not impossible. Studying the world really does enable us to know how things are over time and across distances. The fact that things change through time and vary from place to place does not seem to prevent us from having knowledge. From this, some philosophers, such as Plato and Augustine (354-430), draw the conclusion that Heraclitus was wrong to suppose that everything is in flux. Something stays the same, something that lays underneath the changing and varying surfaces we perceive, namely, the universal essence of things.
For example, although individual human beings change from day to day and vary from place to place, they all share the universal essence of humanity, which is eternally the same. Likewise for dogs, trees, rocks, and even qualities—there must be a universal essence of blueness, heat, love, and anything else one can think of. Universal essences are not physical realities; if you dissect a human being, you will not find humanity inside like a kidney or a lung! Nevertheless, universal essences are metaphysical realities: they provide the invisible structure of things.
Belief in universal essences is called “metaphysical realism,” because it asserts that universal essences are real even though we cannot physically see them. Although there are various different versions of metaphysical realism, they are all designed to secure a foundation for knowledge. It seems you have a choice: either you accept metaphysical realism or you are stuck with skepticism.
Ockham, however, argues that this is a false dilemma. He rejects metaphysical realism and skepticism in favor of nominalism: the view that universal essences are concepts in the mind. The word “nominalism” comes from the Latin word nomina, meaning name. Earlier nominalists such as the French philosopher Roscelin (1050-1125), had advanced the more radical view that universal essences are just names that have no basis in reality. Ockham developed a more sophisticated version of nominalism often called “conceptualism” because it holds that universal essences are concepts caused in our minds when we perceive real similarities among things in the world.
For example, when a child comes in contact with different human beings over time, he begins to form the concept of humanity. The realist would say that he has detected the invisible common structure of these individuals. Ockham, in contrast, insists that the child has merely perceived similarities that fit naturally under one concept.
It is tempting to assume that Ockham rejects metaphysical realism because of the principle of simplicity. After all, realism requires believing in invisible entities that might not actually exist. As a matter of fact, however, Ockham never uses the razor to attack realism. And on closer examination, this makes sense: the realist position is that the existence of universal essences is a hypothesis necessary to explain how science is possible. Since Ockham was just as concerned as everyone else to avoid skepticism, he might have been persuaded by such an argument.
Ockham has a much deeper worry about realism: he is convinced it is incoherent. Incoherence is the most serious charge a philosopher can level against a theory because it means that the theory contains a contradiction—and contradictions cannot be true. Ockham asserts that metaphysical realism cannot be true because it holds that a universal essence is one thing and many things at the same time. The form of humanity is one thing, because it is what all humans have in common, but it is also many things because it provides an invisible structure of each individual one of us. This is to say that it is both one thing and not one thing at the same time, which is a contradiction.
Realists claim that this apparent contradiction can be explained in various ways. Ockham insists, however, that no matter how you explain it, there is no way to avoid the fact that the notion of a universal essence is an impossible hypothesis. He writes,
There is no universal outside the mind really existing in individual substances or in the essences of things…. The reason is that everything that is not many things is necessarily one thing in number and consequently a singular thing. [Opera Philosophica II, pp. 11-12]
Ockham presents a thought experiment to prove universal essences do not exist. He writes that, according to realism,
…it would follow that God would not be able to annihilate one individual substance without destroying the other individuals of the same kind. For, if he were to annihilate one individual, he would destroy the whole that is essentially that individual and, consequently, he would destroy the universal that is in it and in others of the same essence. Other things of the same essence would not remain, for they could not continue to exist without the universal that constitutes a part of them. [Opera Philosophica I, p. 51]
Since God is omnipotent, he should be able to annihilate a human being. But the universal form of humanity lies within that human being. So, by destroying the individual, he will destroy the universal. And if he destroys the universal, which is humanity, then he destroys all the other humans as well.
The realist may wish to reply that destroying an individual human destroys only part of the universal humanity. But this contradicts the original assertion that the universal humanity is a single shared essence that is eternally the same for everyone! For Ockham, this problem decisively defeats realism and leaves us with the nominalist alternative that universals are concepts caused in our minds when we perceive similar individuals. To support this alternative, Ockham develops an empiricist epistemology.
Epistemology is the study of knowledge: what is it, and how do we come to have it? There are two basic approaches to epistemology: rationalists claim that knowledge consists of innate certainties that we discover through reason; empiricists claim that knowledge consists in accurate perceptions that we accumulate through experience. Although early medieval philosophers such as Augustine and Anselm (1033-1109) were innatists, empiricism came to dominate during the high Middle Ages. This is mostly because Aristotle was an empiricist and the texts in which he promotes empiricism were rediscovered and translated for the first time into Latin during the thirteenth century.
Following Aristotle, Ockham asserts that human beings are born blank states: there are no innate certainties to be discovered in our minds. We learn by observing qualities in objects. Ockham’s version of empiricism is called “direct realism” because he denies that there is any intermediary between the perceiver and the world. (Note that direct realism should not be confused with metaphysical realism, which Ockham rejects, as discussed above.) Direct realism states that if you see an apple, its redness causes you to know that it is red. This may seem obvious, but it actually raises a problem that has led many empiricists, both in Ockham’s day and today, to reject direct realism.
As the French philosopher Peter Aureol (1275-1333) points out, the problem is that there are cases where we perceive something that is not really there. In optical illusions, hallucinations, and dreams, our perceptions are completely disconnected with the external world.
Representationalism is the version of empiricism designed to solve this problem. According to representationalists, human beings perceive the world through a mental mediary, or representation, known in the Middle Ages as the “intelligible species.” Normally, an apple causes an intelligible species of itself for us to perceive it through. In cases of optical illusions, hallucinations, and dreams, something else causes the intelligible species. The perception seems veridical to us because there is no difference in the intelligible species. Even before Peter Aureol, Thomas Aquinas advocated representationalism, and it soon became the dominant view.
The difficulty with representationalism, as the Irish philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1754) amply demonstrates, is that once you introduce an intermediary between the perceiver and the external world, you lose your justification for belief in the external world. If all of our ideas come through representations, how do we know what, if anything, is behind these representations? Something other than physical objects could be causing them. For example, God could be transmitting representations of physical objects to our minds without ever creating any physical objects at all—which is in fact what Berkeley came to believe. This view, known as idealism, is radically skeptical, and most philosophers prefer to avoid it.
Ockham preempts idealism through the notion of intuitive cognition, which plays a crucial role in his four-step account of knowledge acquisition. It can be summarized as follows. The first step is sensory cognition: receiving data through the five senses. This is an ability human beings share with animals. The second step, intuitive cognition, is uniquely human. Intuitive cognition is an awareness that the particular individual perceived exists and has the qualities it has. The third step is recordative cognition, by which we remember past perceptions. The fourth step is abstractive cognition, by which we place individuals in groups of similar individuals.
Notice that, if an apple is set in front of a horse, the horse will receive data about the apple—the color, the smell, etc.—and react appropriately. The horse will not, however, register the reality of the object. Suppose you project a realistic, laser image of an apple in front of the horse and he tries to take a bite. He will become frustrated, and eventually give up, but he will never really “get it.” Human beings, in contrast, have reality-sensitive minds. It’s not a matter of thinking “This is real” every time we see something. On the contrary, Ockham asserts that intuitive cognition is non-propositional. Rather, it is a matter of registering that the apple really has the qualities we perceive. Ockham writes:
Intuitive cognition is such that when some things are cognized, of which one inheres in the other, or one is spatially distant from the other, or exists in some relation to the other, immediately in virtue of that non-propositional cognition of those things, it is known if the thing inheres or does not inhere, if it is spatially distant or not, and the same for other true contingent propositions, unless that cognition is flawed or there is some impediment. [Opera Theologica I, p. 31]
While intuitive cognition is itself non-propositional, it provides the basis for formulating true propositions. A horse cannot say “This apple is red” because its mind is not complex enough to register the reality of what it perceives. The human mind, registering the existence of things—both that they are and how they are—can therefore formulate assertions about them.
Strictly speaking, when one has an intuitive cognition of an apple, one is not yet thinking of it as an apple, because this requires placing it in a group. In normal adult human perception, all four of the above steps happen together so quickly that it is hard to separate them. But try to imagine what perception is like for a toddler: she sees the round, red object and points to it saying “That!” This is an expression of intuitive cognition.
Intuitive cognition secures a causal link between the external world and the human mind. The human mind is entirely passive, according to Ockham, during intuitive cognition. Objects in the world cause us to be aware of their existence, and this explains and justifies our belief in them.
Despite his insistence on the causal link between the world and our minds, Ockham clearly recognizes cases in which intuitive cognition causes false judgment. (See the last line of the above quotation: “…unless that cognition is flawed or there is some impediment.”) For example, when you see a stick half-emerged in water, it looks bent. This is because your intuitive cognition of the stick is being affected by your simultaneous intuitive cognition of the water, and this causes a skewed perception. In addition to leaving room for error on his account, Ockham also leaves room for skepticism: God can transmit representations to human beings that seem exactly like intuitive cognitions.
Given that direct realism cannot rule out skepticism any more than representationalism can, one might wonder why Ockham prefers it. In the end, it is a question of simplicity. Whereas Ockham never uses his razor against metaphysical realism, he does use it against representationalism. Intuitive cognition is necessary to secure a causal link between the world and the mind, and, once it is in place, there is no need for a middle man. The intelligible species is an unnecessary hypothesis.
It is worth noting that intuitive cognition also provides epistemological support for Ockham’s nominalist metaphysics. Representationalists typically hold that the intelligible species emanates from the universal essence of the thing. In their view, you perceive an apple as an apple because the apple’s universal essence of appleness is conveyed to you through its intelligible species. In fact, many metaphysical realists would argue for the superiority of their view precisely on the grounds that universal essences provide a basis for intelligible species, and intelligible species are necessary for us to know what we are perceiving. They would ask: how else do we ever identify apples as apples instead of just so many distinct individuals?
As we have seen, Ockham argues that there is no universal essence. There is therefore no basis for an intelligible species. Each object in the world is an absolute individual and that is how we perceive it at first. Just like toddlers, we are bombarded with a buzzing, booming confusion of colors and sounds. But our minds are powerful sorting machines. We remember perceptions over time (recordative cognition) and organize them into groups (abstractive cognition). This organizational process gives us a coherent understanding of the world and is what Ockham aims to explain in his account of logic.
Although the human mind is born without any knowledge, according to Ockham, it does come fully equip with a system for processing perceptions as they are acquired. This system is thought, which Ockham understands in terms of an unspoken, mental language. He is therefore considered an advocate of “mentalese,” like the American philosopher Noam Chomsky.
Ockham might compare thought to a machine ready to manipulate a vast quantity of empty boxes. As we observe the world, perceptions are placed in the empty boxes. Then the machine sorts and organizes the boxes according to content. Two small boxes with similar contents might be placed together in a big box, and then the big box might be conjoined to another big box. For example, as perceptions of Rover and Fido accumulate, they become the concept dog, and then the concept dog is associated with the concept fleas. This conceptual apparatus enables us to construct meaningful sentences, such as “All dogs have fleas.”
The intuitive cognition in Ockham’s epistemology provides a basis for what is today called a “causal theory of reference” in philosophy of language. The word “dog” means dog because the concept you think of when you write it or say it was caused by the dogs you have perceived. Dogs cause the same kinds of concepts in all human beings. Thus, mentalese is universal among us, even though there are different ways to speak and write words in different countries around the world. While written and spoken language is conventional, signification itself is natural.
Early in his career, Ockham entertained the notion that concepts are mental objects or “ficta” which resemble objects in the world like pictures. He abandoned ficta theory, however, because it presupposes a representationalist epistemology, which in turn presupposes metaphysical realism. Arguing instead for “intellectum theory,” according to which objects can have causal impact on the mind without creating mental pictures of themselves; he offers the following analogy. Medieval pubs received wine in shipments of wooden barrels sealed with hoops. When the shipment arrived, the pub owner would hang a barrel hoop outside the front door to communicate to the townspeople that wine was available. Although the hoop did not resemble wine in any way, it was significant to the townspeople. This is because the presence of the hoop was caused by the arrival of the wine. Likewise, dogs in the world cause concepts in our minds that are significant even though they do not resemble dogs.
It must be noted that there is a drawback to both the barrel hoop analogy and the box illustration: they portray concepts as things. For convenience, Ockham often speaks of concepts loosely as though they were things. However, according to intellectum theory, concepts are not really things at all but rather actions. Perceiving a dog does not cause an entity to exist in your mind; rather, it causes a mental act. Today we would say that it causes a neuron to fire. Repeated acts cause a habit: the disposition to perform the act at will. So, repeated perceptions of dogs cause repeated acts of dog-conceiving and those repeated acts cause a dog-conceiving habit, meaning that you can engage in dog-conceiving actions whenever you want, even when there are no dogs around to perceive.
In Ockham’s view, any coherent thought we have requires connecting or disconnecting concepts by means of linguistic operators. Ockham has a lot of ideas about how the linguistic operators work, which he develops in his version of supposition theory. Although supposition theory was a major preoccupation of late medieval logicians, scholars are still divided over its purpose. Some think it was an effort to build a system of formal logic that ultimately failed. Others think it was more akin to a modern theory of logical form.
Ockham’s interest in supposition theory seems motivated by his concern to clarify conceptual confusion. Much like Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), Ockham asserts that many philosophical errors arise due to the misunderstanding of language. He took metaphysical realism to be a prime example. Conceiving of human beings in general leads us to use the word “humanity.” Metaphysical realists conclude that this word must refer to a universal essence within all human beings. For Ockham, however, the word “humanity” stands for a habit that enables us to conceive of all the human beings we have perceived to date in a very efficient manner: stripped of all of their individual details. In this way, Ockham’s supposition theory is designed to support his nominalist metaphysics while elucidating the rules of thought.
The word “supposition” comes from the Latin word “stand for” but it closely approximates the technical notion known as “reference” in English. At its most basic level, supposition theory tells us how words used in sentences, which Ockham calls “terms,” refer to things.
Medieval logicians recognize three types of supposition—material, personal and simple—but their metaphysical commitments affect their analyses. Most everyone agrees about material supposition. It occurs when a term is mentioned rather than used, as is the term “stop” in the sentence, “The sign says ‘stop.’” But they disagree over personal and simple supposition. For Ockham, personal supposition occurs when a term stands for an object in the world, as does the term “cat” in the sentence, “The cat is on the mat” and simple supposition occurs when a term stands for a concept in the mind, as does “horse” in the sentence, “Horse is a species.” For Ockham’s realist opponents, in contrast, the term “species” stands for a universal essence, which is an object in the world. They therefore have a different account of personal and simple supposition.
In addition to three types of supposition, medieval logicians recognize two types of terms: categorematic and syncategorematic. Categorematic terms refer to existing things and are called “categorematic” because, in his Organon, Aristotle asserts that there are ten categories of existing things. Syncategorematic terms do not refer to anything at all. They are logical operators, such as “all,” “not,” “if,” and “only,” which tell how to associate or disassociate the categorematic terms in a sentence.
Among categorematic terms, some are absolute names while others are connotative names. Ockham describes the difference as follows:
Properly speaking, only absolute names, that is, concepts signifying things composed of matter and form, have definitions expressing real essence. Some examples of this sort of name are “human being,” “lion,” and “goat.” Connotative and relative names, on the other hand, which signify one thing directly and another thing indirectly, have definitions expressing nominal essence. Some examples of this sort of name are “white,” “hot,” “parent,” and “child.” [Opera Philosophica IX, p. 554]
The terms “human being” and “parent” are both names for Betty. The term “human being” signifies Betty in an absolute way because it refers to her alone as an independently existing object. The term “parent” signifies Betty in a connotative way because it signifies her while at the same time signifying her children.
Although the distinction between absolute and connotative terms seems minor, Ockham uses it for radical purposes. According to the standard reading of the Organon, Aristotle holds that there are ten categories of existing things as follows: substance, quality, quantity, relation, place, time, position, state, action, and passion. According to Ockham’s reading, however, Aristotle holds that there are only two categories of existing things: substance and quality. Ockham bases his interpretation on the thesis that only substances and qualities have real essence definitions signifying things composed of matter and form. The other eight categories signify a substance or a quality while connoting something else. They therefore have nominal essence definitions, meaning that they are not existing things.
Consider quantity. Suppose you have one orange. It is a substance with a real essence of citrus fruit. Furthermore, it possesses several qualities, such as its color, its flavor, and its smell. The orange and its qualities are existing things according to Ockham. But the orange is also singular. Is its singularity an existing thing? For mathematical Platonists, the answer is yes: the number one exists as a universal essence and inheres in the orange. Ockham, in contrast, asserts that the singularity of the orange is just a short hand way of saying that there are no other oranges nearby. So, in the sentence “Here is one orange” the term “one” is connotative: it directly signifies the orange itself while indirectly signifying all the other oranges that are not here. Ockham eliminates the rest of the categories along the same lines.
Interestingly, Ockham’s elimination of quantity precipitated his summons to Avignon because it pushed him to a new account of the sacrament of the altar. The sacrament of the altar is the miracle that is supposed to occur when bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This process is known in theology as “transubstantiation” because one substance changes into another substance. The problem is to explain why the bread and wine continue to look, smell, and taste exactly the same despite the underlying change. According to the standard account, the qualities of the bread and wine continue to inhere in their quantity, which remains the same while substances are exchanged. According to Ockham, however, quantity is nothing other than the substance itself; if the substance changes then the quantity changes. So, the qualities cannot continue to inhere in the same quantity. Nor can they transfer from the substance of the bread and wine into the substance of Jesus because it would be blasphemous to say that Jesus was crunchy or wet! Ockham’s solution is to claim that the qualities of the bread and wine continue to exist all by themselves, accompanying the invisible substance of Jesus down the gullet. Needless to say, this solution was a bit too clever.
One question scholars continue to ask is why Ockham allows for two of the ten categories to remain instead of just one, namely, substance. It seems that qualities, such as whiteness, crunchiness, sweetness, etc, can just as easily be reduced to nominal essences: they signify the substance itself while connoting the tongue or nose or eye that perceives it. Of course, if Ockham had eliminated quality, he really would have had no basis left for saving the miracle of transubstantiation. Perhaps that was reason enough to stay his razor.
Despite his departures from orthodoxy and his conflict with the papacy, Ockham never renounced Catholicism. He steadfastly embraced fideism, the view that belief in God is a matter of faith alone. Although fideism was soon to become common among Protestant thinkers, it was not so common among medieval Catholics. At the beginning of the Middle Ages, Augustine proposed a proof of the existence of God and promoted the view that reason is faith seeking understanding. While the standard approach for any medieval philosopher would be to recognize a role for both faith and reason in religion, Ockham makes an uncompromising case for faith alone.
Three assertions reveal Ockham to be a fideist.
The word “science” comes from the Latin word “scientia,” meaning knowledge. In the first book of his Sentences, Peter Lombard raises the issue of whether and in what sense theology is a science. Most philosophers commenting on the Sentences found a way to cast faith as a way of knowing. Ockham, however, makes no such effort. As a staunch empiricist, Ockham is committed to the thesis that all knowledge comes from experience. Yet we have no experience of God. It follows inescapably that we have no knowledge of God, as Ockham affirms in the following passage:
In order to demonstrate the statement of faith that we formulate about God, what we would need for the central concept is a simple cognition of the divine nature in itself—what someone who sees God has. Nevertheless, we cannot have this kind of cognition in our present state. [Quodlibetal Questions, pp. 103-4]
By “present state” Ockham is referring to life on earth as a human being. Just as we now have knowledge of others through intuitive cognitions of their individual essences, those who go to heaven (if there ever are any such) will have knowledge of God through intuitive cognitions of his essence. Until then we can only hope.
The Trinity is the core Christian doctrine according to which God is three persons in one. Christians traditionally consider the Trinity a mystery, meaning that it is beyond the comprehension of the human mind. Ockham goes so far as to admit that it is a blatant contradiction. He displays the problem through the following syllogism:
According to the doctrine of the Trinity:
(1) God is the Father,
(2) Jesus is God.
Therefore, by transitivity, according to the doctrine of the Trinity:
(3) Jesus is the Father.
Yet, according to the doctrine of the Trinity, Jesus is not the Father.
So, according to the doctrine of the Trinity, Jesus both is and is not the Father.
Providing precedent for a recent presidential defense, many medieval philosophers suggested that the transitive inference to the conclusion is broken by different senses of the word “is.” Scotus creatively argues that the logic of the Trinity is an opaque context that does not obey the usual rules. For Ockham, however, this syllogism establishes that theology is not logical and must never be mixed with philosophy.
Living prior to the advent of Christianity, Aristotle never believed in the Trinity. He does, however, seem to believe in a supernatural force that lends purpose to all of nature. This is evident in his doctrine of the Four Causes, according to which every existing thing requires a fourfold explanation. Ockham would cast these four causes in terms of the following four questions:
First Cause: What is it made of?
Second Cause: What does it do?
Third Cause: What brought it about?
Fourth Cause: Why does it do what it does?
Most medieval philosophers found Aristotle’s four causes conducive to the Christian worldview, assimilating the fourth cause to the doctrine of divine providence, according to which everything that happens is ultimately part of God’s plan.
Though Ockham was reluctant to disagree with Aristotle, he was so determined to keep theology separate from science and philosophy, that he felt compelled to criticize the fourth (which he calls “final”) cause. Ockham writes,
If I accepted no authority, I would claim that it cannot be proved either from statements known in themselves or from experience that every effect has a final cause…. Someone who is just following natural reason would claim that the question “why?” is inappropriate in the case of natural actions. For he would maintain that it is no real question to ask something like, “For what reason is fire generated?” [Quodlibetal Questions, pp. 246-9]
No doubt Ockham put his criticism in hypothetical, third-person terms because he knew that openly asserting that the universe itself may be entirely purposeless would never pass muster with the powers that be.
Needless to say, Ockham rejects all of the alleged proofs of the existence of God. Two of the most important proofs then, as now, were Anselm’s ontological proof and Thomas Aquinas’s cosmological proof. Although the former is based on rationalist thinking and the latter is based on empiricist thinking, they boil down to very similar strategies, in Ockham’s view. There were, of course, many different versions of each of these proofs circulating in Ockham’s day just as there are today. Ockham thinks that the most plausible version of each boils down to an infinite regress argument of the following form:
If God does not exist, then there is an infinite regress.
But infinite regresses are impossible.
Therefore, God must exist.
The reason Ockham finds this argument form to be the most plausible is that he fully agrees with the second premise, that infinite regresses are impossible. If it were possible to show that God’s non-existence implied an infinite regress, then Ockham would accept the inference to his existence. Ockham denies, however, that God’s non-existence implies any such thing.
In order to understand Ockham’s aversion to infinite regress, it is necessary to understand Aristotle’s distinction between extensive and intensive infinity. An extensive infinity is an uncountable quantity of actually existing things. Mathematical Platonists conceive of the set of whole numbers as an extensive infinity. Ockham, however, deems the idea of an uncountable quantity contradictory: if the objects exist, then God can count them, and if God can count them, then they are not uncountable. An intensive infinity, on the other hand, is just a lack of limitation. As a nominalist, Ockham understands the set of whole numbers to be an intensive infinity in the sense that there is no upward limit on how far someone can count. This does not mean that the set of whole numbers are an uncountable quantity of actually existing things. Ockham thinks that infinite regresses are impossible only in so far as they imply extensive infinity.
According to Ockham, advocates of the ontological proof reason as follows: There would be an infinite regress among entities if there were not one greatest entity. Therefore, there must be one greatest entity, namely God.
One way to counter this reasoning would be to deny that greatness is an objectively existing quality. Ockham does not, however, take this approach. On the contrary, he seems to take the Great Chain of Being for granted. The Great Chain of Being is a doctrine prevalent throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. According to it, all of nature can be ranked on a hierarchy of value from top to bottom, roughly as follows: God, angels, humans, animals, plants, rocks. The Great Chain of Being implies that greatness is an objectively existing quality.
Ockham’s curt response to the ontological argument is that it does not prove that there is just one greatest entity. Bearing the Great Chain of Being in mind, it is evident what he means to say. If God and the angels do not exist, then human beings are the greatest entities, and there is no single best among us. Notice that, even if there were a single best among humans, he or she would be a “god” in a very different sense than is required by Catholic orthodoxy.
Some scholars have interpreted Ockham to mean that the ontological argument succeeds in proving that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost exist, but not that they are one. It is not clear, however, how Ockham’s empiricism could permit such a conclusion.
According to Ockham, advocates of the cosmological argument reason as follows: There would be an infinite regress among causes if there were not a first cause; therefore, there must be a first cause, namely, God.
There are two different ways to understand “cause” in this argument: efficient cause and conserving cause. An efficient cause brings about an effect successively over time. For example, your grandparents were the efficient cause of your parents who were the efficient cause of you. A conserving cause, in contrast, is a simultaneous support for an effect. For example, the oxygen in the room is a conserving cause of the burning flame on the candle.
In Ockham’s view, the cosmological argument fails using either type of causality. Consider efficient causality first. If the chain of efficient causes that have produced the world as we know it today had no beginning, then it would form, not an extensive infinity, but an intensive infinity, which is harmless. Since the links in the chain would not all exist at the same time, they would not constitute an uncountable quantity of actually existing things. Rather, they would simply imply that the universe is an eternal cycle of unlimited or perpetual motion. Ockham explicitly affirms that it is possible that the world had no beginning, as Aristotle maintained.
Next, consider conserving causality. Conceiving of the world as a product of simultaneous conserving causes is difficult. The idea is perhaps best expressed in a story reported by Stephen Hawking. According to the story, a scientist was giving a lecture on astronomy. After the lecture, an elderly lady came up and told the scientist that he had it all wrong. “The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist asked “And what is the turtle standing on?” To which the lady triumphantly replied: “You’re very clever, young man, but it’s no use – it’s turtles all the way down.”
Ockham readily grants that if the world has to be “held up” by conserving causes, then there must be a first among them because otherwise the set of conserving causes would constitute an uncountable quantity of actually existing things. It is in fact a tenet of belief that God is both an efficient and conserving cause of the cosmos, and Ockham accepts this tenet on faith. He handily points out, however, that, just as the cosmos need not have a beginning; it need not be “held up” in this way at all. Each existing thing may be its own conserving cause. Hence the cosmological argument is entirely inconclusive.
Ockham’s fideism amounts to a refusal to rely on the God hypothesis for theory building. It is worth bearing in mind that there were no philosophy departments or philosophy degrees in the Middle Ages. A student’s only choices for graduate school were law, medicine, or theology. Wanting to be a philosopher, Ockham studied theology and ran through his theological exercises, all the while trying to carve out a separate space for philosophy. The one area where the two worlds collide inextricably for him is in ethics.
Many people think God commands human beings to be kind because kindness is good and that God himself is always kind because his actions are always in conformity with goodness.
Although this was and still is the most common way of conceiving of the relationship between God and morality, Ockham disagrees. In his view, God does not conform to an independently existing standard of goodness; rather, God himself is the standard of goodness. This means it is not the case that God commands us to be kind because kindness is good. Rather, kindness is good because God commands it. Ockham was a divine command theorist: God’s will establishes right and wrong.
Divine command theory has always been unpopular because it carries one very unintuitive implication: if whatever God commands becomes right, and God can command whatever he wants, then God could command us always to be unkind and never to be kind, and then it would be right for us to be unkind and wrong for us to be kind. Kindness would be bad and unkindness would be good! How could this be?
In Ockham’s view, God always has commanded and always will command kindness. Nevertheless, it is possible for him to command otherwise. This possibility is a straightforward requirement of divine omnipotence: God can do anything that does not involve a contradiction. Of course, plenty of philosophers, such as Thomas Aquinas, insist that it is impossible for God to command us to be unkind simply because then God’s will would contradict his nature. For Ockham, however, this is the wrong way to conceive of God’s nature. The most important thing to understand about God’s nature, in Ockham’s view, is that it is maximally free. There are no constraints, external or internal, to what God can will. All of theology stands or falls with this thesis in Ockham’s view.
Ockham grants that it is hard to imagine a world in which God reverses his commands. Yet this is the price of preserving divine freedom. He writes,
I reply that hatred, theft, adultery, and the like may involve evil according to the common law, in so far as they are done by someone who is obligated by a divine command to perform the opposite act. As far as everything absolute in these actions is concerned, however, God can perform them without involving any evil. And they can even be performed meritoriously by someone on earth if they should fall under a divine command, just as now the opposite of these, in fact, fall under a divine command. [Opera Theologica V, p. 352]
One advantage of this approach is that it enables Ockham to make sense of some instances in the Old Testament where it looks as though God is commanding such things as murder (as in the case of Abraham sacrificing Isaac) and deception (as in the case of the Israelites despoiling the Egyptians). But biblical exegesis is not Ockham’s motive. His motive is to cast God as a paradigm of metaphysical freedom, so that he can make sense of human nature as made in his image.
Metaphysical libertarianism is the view that human beings are responsible for their actions as individuals because they have free will, defined as the ability to do other than they do. Metaphysical libertarianism is opposed to determinism, according to which human beings do not have free will but rather are determined by antecedent conditions (such as God or nature or environmental factors) to do exactly what they do.
Suppose Jake eats a cupcake. According to the determinist, antecedent conditions caused him to do this. Hence, he could not have done otherwise unless those antecedent conditions had been different. Given the same conditions, Jake cannot refrain from eating the cupcake. Determinists are content to conclude that freedom is an illusion.
Compatibilism is a version of determinism according to which being determined to do exactly what we do is compatible with freedom as long as the antecedent conditions that determine what we do include our own choices. Compatibilists claim that the choices we make are free even though we could not do otherwise given the same antecedent conditions. On this view, Jake chose to eat the cupcake because his desire for it outweighed all other considerations at that moment. Our choices are always determined by our strongest desires according to compatibilists.
Metaphysical libertarians reject determinism and compatibilism, insisting that free will includes the ability to act against our strongest desires. On this view, Jake could have refrained from eating the cupcake even given the exact same antecedent conditions. While desires influence our choices they do not cause our choices according to metaphysical libertarianism; rather, our choices are caused by our will which is itself an uncaused cause, meaning that it is an independent power, stronger than any antecedent condition. This notion of free will enables the metaphysical libertarian to assign a very strong conception of individual responsibility to human beings: what we do is not attributable to God or nature or environmental factors.
Many people make the assumption that all medieval philosophers were metaphysical libertarians. Whereas Protestant theology classically promotes theological determinism, the view that everything human beings do is foreordained by God, Catholic theology classically promotes the view that God gave human beings free will. While it is true that every medieval philosopher endorses the thesis that human beings are free, few are able to maintain a commitment to free will, defined as the ability to do other than we do given the same antecedent conditions. The reason is that so many other theological and philosophical doctrines conflict with it.
Consider divine foreknowledge. If God is omniscient, then he knows everything that you are ever going to do. Suppose he knows that you will eat an apple for lunch tomorrow. How then is it possible for you to choose not to eat an apple for lunch tomorrow? Even if God does not force you in any way, it seems his present knowledge of your future requires that your choices are already determined.
Medieval philosophers struggle with this and other conflicts with free will. Most give up on metaphysical libertarianism in favor of some form of compatibilism. This is to say they maintain that our choices are free even though they are determined by antecedent conditions.
In his Sentences Commentary, Peter John Olivi makes a long and impassioned argument for an unadulterated metaphysical libertarian conception of free will. Ockham embraces Olivi’s position without ever making much of an argument for it. In Ockham’s view, we experience freedom. We can no more dismiss this experience than we can dismiss our experience of the external world. Ockham goes to great lengths to adjust his account of divine foreknowledge and anything else that might otherwise threaten free will in order to accommodate it. He writes,
The will is freely able to will something and not to will it. By this I mean that it is able to destroy the willing that it has and produce anew a contrary effect, or it is equally able in itself to continue that same effect and not produce a new one. It is able to do all of this without any prior change in the intellect, or in the will, or in something outside them. The idea is that the will is equal for producing and not producing because, with no difference in antecedent conditions, it is able to produce and not to produce. It is poised equally over contrary effects in such a way in fact, that it is able to cause love or hatred of something…. To deny every agent this equal or contrary power is to destroy every praise and blame, every council and deliberation, every freedom of the will. Indeed, without it, the will would not make a human being free any more than appetite does an ass. [Opera Philosophica, pp. 319-21]
Ockham’s reference to an ass here is significant in connection with the famous thought experiment known as Buridan’s Ass.
Jean Buridan was a younger contemporary of Ockham’s. Although he embraced and elaborated Ockham’s nominalism, he openly rejected metaphysical libertarianism, arguing that the human intellect determines the human will. He may have engaged in a public debate with Ockham over the nature of human freedom. At any rate, his name somehow became associated with the following thought experiment.
Imagine a hungry donkey poised between two equally delicious piles of hay. The donkey has reason to eat the hay, but because he caught sight of both piles at the same time, he has no more reason to approach one pile than the other. For lack of any way to break the tie, the donkey starves to death. A human being, in contrast, would never make such an ass of himself. The reason is that, in human beings, the will is not determined by the intellect. Free will is the uniquely human dignity that enables us to break the tie between two equally reasonable options.
The French philosopher Pierre Bale (1647-1706) is the first on record to call this thought experiment “Buridan’s Ass.” Although Buridan mentions the case of a dog poised between food and water, he never discusses the case of the donkey in connection with freedom. It is therefore somewhat of a puzzle why the thought experiment is named after him. Interestingly, Peter John Olivi does discuss the case of the donkey in connection with freedom, and we see Ockham echoing that text here.
So, in the end, Ockham’s ethics is dictated by his empiricism. We experience free will. Therefore, free will is at the core of human nature. Theology tells us that we are made in God’s image. Therefore, free will is at the core of God’s nature. But theology also tells us that God is always good. Therefore, God’s free will must be the objective determinant of goodness.
Setting aside his divine command theory, Ockham’s ethics is rather unremarkable, coming to more or less the same thing as that of his colleagues who reject divine command theory. One might think Ockham takes a long way around the barn just to arrive at yet another conventional account of Christian virtue! But Ockham never minds taking the long way around for the sake of consistency. We see the same unflagging determination in his political theory
Although Ockham was summoned to the papal court in Avignon to defend a number of “suspect theses” extracted from his work, largely concerning the sacrament of the altar, he was never found guilty of heresy, and his conflict with the papacy ultimately had nothing to do with the sacrament of the altar. While staying in Avignon, Ockham met Michael Cesena (1270-1342), the Minister General of the Franciscan Order, who was there in protest of the Pope’s recent pronouncements about the Franciscan vow of poverty. Michael asked Ockham to study these pronouncements, whereupon Ockham joined the protest and soon became irretrievably entangled in a political imbroglio. Leaving academia behind for good, he nevertheless marshaled his central philosophical insights into the debate. While Ockham was not allowed to publish his political treatises, they circulated widely underground, indirectly influencing major developments in political thought.
Who would have guessed that at the root of these developments lay the Franciscan vow of poverty? In Matthew 19, Jesus says to a man, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell all you have, give your money to the poor, and come, and follow me.” The man who was to become St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) took these instructions personally. Raised in a wealthy family, St. Francis gave up the worldly life, founding the Order of the Friar Minor, and requiring all its members to take a vow of poverty. From the very beginning there was controversy over what exactly this vow entailed. By the 1320s, various factions had come to the breaking point.
Michael Cesena promoted the “radical” interpretation, according to which Franciscans should not only live simply but also own nothing, not even the robes on their backs. Pope Nicholas III (1210/1220-1280) had sanctioned this interpretation by arranging for the papacy officially to possess everything that the Franciscans used, including the very food they ate. Living in absolute poverty enabled the Franciscans to preach convincingly against avarice, and, much to the chagrin of Pope John XXII (1244-1334), raise questions about the ever-expanding papal palace in Avignon.
John was determined to amass great wealth for the church and the Franciscan vow of poverty was getting in the way. Trained as a lawyer, John worked up a good argument for revoking Nicholas’s arrangement. Given that the Franciscans enjoyed exclusive use of the donations they received, they were the de facto owners. Papal “ownership” of Franciscan property was ownership in name alone.
As a nominalist, however, Ockham was in an excellent position to show why reducing something to a name is not the same as reducing it to nothing at all. A name is a mental concept, and a mental concept is an intention. Ockham set out to show that the intention to use is distinct from the intention to own.
Ockham derives his definition of ownership from metaphysical libertarianism. Ownership is not just a conventional relationship established through social agreement. It is a natural relationship that arises through the act of making something of your own free will. Free will naturally confers ownership because it implies sole responsibility. Suppose you freely make a choice. Since you could have done otherwise, you are the true cause of the result. To own something is to do what you will with it.
The Franciscans do not do as they will with the donations given to them, according to Ockham, but rather as the owner wills. They are therefore merely using the donations and do not own them. Granted, in normal practice, this distinction may be entirely undetectable, because the will of the owner matches that of the user. But if a conflict of wills should arise, the distinction would become readily apparent. Suppose someone donates some cloth to the Order intending it to be used for robes. The friars must use it for robes even if they would rather use it for something else. And if the donor wants the cloth back even after it is made into robes, the friars will have no basis for refusing and no legal recourse. Ockham puts the crucial point in terms of crucial language: the owner retains a right (ius) to what he owns.
The notion of a right is one of the most important features of modern political theory. Its emergence in the history of Western thought is a long and complicated story. Nevertheless, the Franciscan poverty debate is standardly considered an important watershed, in which Ockham played a significant role.
Ockham extends his commitment to poverty beyond just the Franciscan order, convinced that wealth is an inappropriate source of power for the Catholic Church as a whole. In his view, the Catholic Church has a spiritual power which sets it apart from the secular world. This conviction leads Ockham to propose the doctrine that was to become the foundation of the United States Constitution: separation of church and state.
Throughout the Middle Ages, popes and emperors vied for supremacy across Europe. The political momentum was split in two directions and it was not at all clear which way things would go. One side pushed for hierocracy, where the pope, as the highest authority, appoints the emperor. The other side pushed for imperialism, where the emperor, as the highest authority, appoints the pope. Often the pushing came to shoving; it seemed there would be no end to the ill will and bloodshed.
Ockham boldly proposes a third alternative: the pope and the emperor should be separate but equal, each supreme in his own domain. This was an outrageous suggestion, unwelcome on both sides. Ockham’s argument for it stems from reflections that foreshadow the “state of nature” thought experiments of premier modern political theorists Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632-1704) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).
In the Garden of Eden, God gave the earth to human beings to use to their common benefit. As long as we were willing to share there was no need for property among us. After the fall, however, human beings became selfish and exploitative. Laws became necessary to restrain immoderate appetite for secular or “temporal” goods and to prevent the neglect of their management. Since laws are useless without the ability to enforce them, we arrived at the need for secular power. The function of the secular power is to punish law breakers and in general coerce everyone into obeying the law.
By renouncing property, the Franciscans were attempting to live as God originally intended. In a perfect world, there would be no need for property and the coercive authority it spawns. All Christians should aspire to this anarchic utopia, even though they may never fully achieve it. In the meanwhile, they should avoid mixing the spiritual and the secular as much as possible. Ockham writes,
For this reason, the head of Christians does not, as a rule, have power to punish secular wrongs with a capital penalty and other bodily penalties and it is for thus punishing such wrongs that temporal power and riches are chiefly necessary; such punishment is granted chiefly to the secular power. The pope therefore, can, as a rule, correct wrongdoers only with a spiritual penalty. It is not, therefore, necessary that he should excel in temporal power or abound in temporal riches, but it is enough that Christians should willingly obey him. [A Letter to the Friars Minor and other Writings, p. 204]
For Ockham, the separation of church and state is a separation of the ideal and the real.
Ockham mentions democracy only in passing, arguing in favor of monarchy as the best form of secular government. Moreover, he finds representational forms of government objectionable on the grounds that there is no such thing as a common will. Ockham is not holding out for a superhuman leader. On the contrary, he seems to think that a fairly ordinary, good man can make a decent king. One wonders if Louis of Bavaria, to whose protection he and Michael fled, inspired this confidence. Perhaps Ockham is content with monarchy because, in his view, the secular world will always be intrinsically flawed. He sets his hopes instead on the spiritual world, and this is why he was so bitterly disappointed in Pope John XXII.
Ockham’s battle with the papacy continued after John’s death through two successive popes. Although Ockham never came to criticize the institution of the papacy itself, as would later Protestant thinkers, he did accuse the popes he opposed of heresy and called for their expulsion. Ironically, Ockham’s extensive analysis of the concept of heresy turns into a defense of free speech.
In keeping with his doctrine of the separation of church and state, Ockham maintains that the pope, and only the pope, has the right to level spiritual penalties, and only spiritual penalties, against someone who knowingly asserts theological falsehoods and refuses to be corrected. A man might unknowingly assert a theological falsehood a thousand times, however. As long as he is willing to be corrected, he should not be judged a heretic, especially by the pope.
Ockham’s political treatises are strewn with biblical exegesis, often glaringly ad hoc and sometimes quite interesting, as in the present case. In Matthew 28:20 Jesus promises his disciples: ‘I will be with you always, to the end of the age.’ This text traditionally provided justification for the doctrine of papal infallibility according to which the pope cannot be wrong when speaking about official church matters. Ockham rejects this doctrine, however, arguing that the minimum required for Jesus to keep his promise is that one human being remain faithful at any given time, and this one could be anyone, even a single baptized infant. This implies that the entire institution of the church could become completely corrupt. As a result, any theological claim, no matter how ancient or universally accepted, is always open for dispute.
Even more interesting, however, is Ockham’s view of non-theological speech. He writes that
…purely philosophical assertions which do not pertain to theology should not be solemnly condemned or forbidden by anyone, because in connection with such assertions anyone at all ought to be free to say freely what pleases him, [Dialogus, I.2.22]
This statement long predates the Areopagitica of John Milton (1608-1674), which is typically heralded as the earliest defense of free speech in Western history.
Ockham’s contributions in political thought are less known and appreciated than they may have been if he had been able to publish them. Likewise, there is no telling what he might have accomplished in philosophy if he had been allowed to carry on with his academic career. Ockham was ahead of his time. His role in history was to make way for new ideas, boldly planting seeds that grew and flourished after his death. …
Ockham led an unusually eventful life for a philosopher. As with so many medieval figures who were not prominent when they were born, we know next to nothing about the circumstances of Ockham’s birth and early years, and have to estimate dates by extrapolating from known dates of events later in his life.
Ockham’s life may be divided into three main periods.
Ockham was born, probably in late 1287 or early 1288, in the village of Ockham (= Oak Hamlet) in Surrey, a little to the southwest of London. He probably learned basic Latin at a village school in Ockham or nearby, but this is not certain. At an early age, somewhere between seven and thirteen, Ockham was ‘given’ to the Franciscan order (the so called ‘Greyfriars’). There was no Franciscan house (called a ‘convent’) in the tiny village of Ockham itself; the nearest one was in London, a day’s ride to the northeast. It was there that Ockham was sent.
As an educational institution, even for higher education, London Greyfriars was a distinguished place; at the time, it was second only to the full-fledged Universities of Paris and Oxford. At Greyfriars, Ockham probably got most of his ‘grade school’ education, and then went on to what we might think of as ‘high school’ education in basic logic and ‘science’ (natural philosophy), beginning around the age of fourteen.
Around 1310, when he was about 23, Ockham began his theological training. It is not certain where this training occurred. It could well have been at the London Convent, or it could have been at Oxford, where there was another Franciscan convent associated with the university. In any event, Ockham was at Oxford studying theology by at least the year 1318–19, and probably the previous year as well, when (in 1317) he began a required two-year cycle of lectures commenting on Peter Lombard’s Sentences, the standard theological textbook of the day. Then, probably in 1321, Ockham returned to London Greyfriars, where he remained. Although he had taken the initial steps in the theology program at Oxford (hence his occasional nickname, theVenerabilis Inceptor, ‘Venerable Beginner’), Ockham did not complete the program there, and never became a fully qualified ‘master’ of theology at Oxford. Nevertheless, London Greyfriars was an intellectually lively place, and Ockham was by no means isolated from the heat of academic controversy. Among his ‘housemates’ were two other important Franciscan thinkers of the day, Walter Chatton and Adam Wodeham, both sharp critics of Ockham’s views. It was in this context that Ockham wrote many of his most important philosophical and theological works.
In 1323 Ockham was called before the Franciscan province’s chapter meeting, held that year in Bristol, to defend his views, which were regarded with suspicion by some of his confreres. About the same time, someone—it is not clear who—went from England to the Papal court at Avignon and charged Ockham with teaching heresy. As a result, a commission of theologians was set up to study the case. Ockham was called to Avignon in May, 1324, to answer the charges. He never went back to England.
While in Avignon, Ockham stayed at the Franciscan convent there. It has sometimes been suggested that he was effectively under “house arrest,” but this seems an exaggeration. On the contrary, he appears to have been free to do more or less as he pleased, although of course he did have to be “on hand” in case the investigating commission wanted to question him about his writings. The investigation must not have demanded much of Ockham’s own time, since he was able to work on a number of other projects while he was in Avignon, including finishing his last major theological work, the Quodlibets. It should be pointed out that, although there were some stern pronouncements that came out of the investigation of Ockham, his views were never officially condemned as heretical.
In 1327, Michael of Cesena, the Franciscan “Minister General” (the chief administrative officer of the order) likewise came to Avignon, in his case because of an emerging controversy between the Franciscans and the current Pope, John XXII, over the idea of “Apostolic poverty,” the view that Jesus and the Apostles owned no property at all of their own but, like the mendicant Franciscans, went around begging and living off the generosity of others. The Franciscans held this view, and maintained that their own practices were a special form of “imitation of Christ.” Pope John XXII rejected the doctrine, which is why Michael of Cesena was in Avignon.
Things came to a real crisis in 1328, when Michael and the Pope had a serious confrontation over the matter. As a result, Michael asked Ockham to study the question from the point of view of previous papal statements and John’s own previous writings on the subject. When he did so, Ockham came to the conclusion, apparently somewhat to his own surprise, that John’s view was not only wrong but outright heretical. Furthermore, the heresy was not just an honest mistake; it was stubbornly heretical, a view John maintained even after he had been shown it was wrong. As a result, Ockham argued, Pope John was not just teaching heresy, but was a heretic himself in the strongest possible sense, and had therefore effectively abdicated his papacy. In short, Pope John XXII was no pope at all!
Clearly, things had become intolerable for Ockham in Avignon.
Under cover of darkness the night of May 26, 1328, Michael of Cesena, Ockham, and a few other sympathetic Franciscans fled Avignon and went into exile. They initially went to Italy, where Louis (Ludwig) of Bavaria, the Holy Roman Emperor, was in Pisa at the time, along with his court and retinue. The Holy Roman Emperor was engaged in a political dispute with the Papacy, and Ockham’s group found refuge under his protection. On June 6, 1328, Ockham was officially excommunicated for leaving Avignon without permission. Around 1329, Louis returned to Munich, together with Michael, Ockham and the rest of their fugitive band. Ockham stayed there, or at any rate in areas under Imperial control, until his death. During this time, Ockham wrote exclusively on political matters. He died on the night of April 9/10, 1347, at roughly the age of sixty.
Ockham’s writings are conventionally divided into two groups: the so called “academic” writings and the “political” ones. By and large, the former were written or at least begun while Ockham was still in England, while the latter were written toward the end of Ockham’s Avignon period and later, in exile. With the exception of his Dialogue, a huge political work, all are now available in modern critical editions, and many are now translated into English, in whole or in part. The academic writings are in turn divided into two groups: the “theological” works and the “philosophical” ones, although both groups are essential for any study of Ockham’s philosophy.
Among Ockham’s most important writings are:
- Academic Writings
- Theological Works
- Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard (1317–18). Book I survives in an ordinatio or scriptum—a revised and corrected version, approved by the author himself for distribution. Books II-IV survive only as a reportatio—a transcript of the actually delivered lectures, taken down by a “reporter,” without benefit of later revisions or corrections by the author.
- Seven Quodlibets (based on London disputations held in 1322–24, but revised and edited in Avignon 1324–25).
- Philosophical Works
- Logical Writings
- Expositions of Porphyry’s Isagoge and of Aristotle’s Categories, On Interpretation, and Sophistic Refutations (1321–24).
- Summa of Logic (c. 1323–25). A large, independent and systematic treatment of logic and semantics.
- Treatise on Predestination and God’s Foreknowledge with Respect to Future Contingents (1321–24).
- Writings on Natural Philosophy
- Exposition of Aristotle’s Physics (1322–24). A detailed, close commentary. Incomplete.
- Questions on Aristotle’s Books of the Physics (before 1324). Not strictly a commentary, this work nevertheless discusses a long series of questions arising out of Aristotle’s Physics.
- Logical Writings
- Theological Works
- Political Writings
- Eight Questions on the Power of the Pope (1340–41).
- The Work of Ninety Days (1332–34).
- Letter to the Friars Minor (1334).
- Short Discourse (1341–42).
- Dialogue (c. 1334–46).
Several lesser items are omitted from the above list.
Ockham is rightly regarded as one of the most significant logicians of the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, his originality and influence should not be exaggerated. For all his deserved reputation, his logical views are sometimes derivative and occasionally very idiosyncratic.
Logic, for Ockham, is crucial to the advancement of knowledge. In the “Prefatory Letter” to his Summa of Logic, for example, he praises it in striking language:
For logic is the most useful tool of all the arts. Without it no science can be fully known. It is not worn out by repeated use, after the manner of material tools, but rather admits of continual growth through the diligent exercise of any other science. For just as a mechanic who lacks a complete knowledge of his tool gains a fuller [knowledge] by using it, so one who is educated in the firm principles of logic, while he painstakingly devotes his labor to the other sciences, acquires at the same time a greater skill at this art.
Ockham’s main logical writings consist of a series of commentaries (or “expositions”) on Aristotle’s and Porphyry’s own logical works, plus his own Summa of Logic, his major work in the field. His Treatise on Predestination contains an influential theory on the logic of future contingent propositions, and other works as well include occasional discussions of logical topics, notably his Quodlibets.
Ockham’s Summa of Logic is divided into three parts, with the third part subdivided into four subparts. Part I divides language, in accordance with Aristotle’s On Interpretation (1, 16a3–8, as influenced by Boethius’s interpretation), into written, spoken and mental language, with the written kind dependent on the spoken, and the spoken on mental language. Mental language, the language of thought, is thus the most primitive and basic level of language. Part I goes on to lay out a fairly detailed theory of terms, including the distinctions between (a) categorematic and syncategorematic terms, (b) abstract and concrete terms, and (c) absolute and connotative terms. Part I then concludes with a discussion of the five “predicables” from Porphyry’s Isagoge and of each of Aristotle’s categories.
While Part I is about terms, Part II is about “propositions,” which are made up of terms. Part II gives a systematic and nuanced theory of truth conditions for the four traditional kinds of assertoric categorical propositions on the “Square of Opposition,” and then goes on to tensed, modal and more complicated categorical propositions, as well as a variety of “hypothetical” (molecular) propositions. The vehicle for this account of truth conditions is the semantic theory of “supposition,” which will be treated below.
If Part I is about terms and Part II about propositions made up of terms, Part III is about arguments, which are in turn made up of propositions made up of terms. As mentioned, Part III is divided into four subparts. Part III.1 treats syllogisms, and includes a comprehensive theory of modal syllogistic. Part III.2 concerns demonstrative syllogisms in particular. Part III.3 is in effect Ockham’s theory of consequence, although it also includes discussions of semantic paradoxes like the Liar (the so called insolubilia) and of the still little-understood disputation form known as “obligation.” Part III.4 is a discussion of fallacies.
Thus, while the Summa of Logic is not in any sense a “commentary” on Aristotle’s logical writings, it nevertheless covers all the traditional ground in the traditional order: Porphyry’s Isagoge and Aristotle’s Categories in Part I, On Interpretation in Part II, Prior Analytics in Part III.1, Posterior Analytics in Part III.2, Topics (and much else) in Part III.3, and finally Sophistic Refutations in Part III.4.
Part I of the Summa of Logic also introduces a number of semantic notions that play an important role throughout much of Ockham’s philosophy. None of these notions is original with Ockham, although he develops them with great sophistication and employs them with skill.
The most basic such notion is “signification.” For the Middle Ages, a term “signifies” what it makes us think of. This notion of signification was unanimously accepted; although there was great dispute over what terms signified, there was agreement over the criterion. Ockham, unlike many (but no means all) other medieval logicians, held that terms do not in general signify thought, but can signify anything at all (including things not presently existing). The function of language, therefore, is not so much to communicate thoughts from one mind to another, but to convey information about the world.
In Summa of Logic I.33, Ockham acknowledges four different kinds of signification, although the third and fourth kinds are not clearly distinguished. In his first sense, a term signifies whatever things it is truly predicable of by means of a present-tensed, assertoric copula. That is, a term t signifies a thing x if and only if ‘This is a t’ is true, pointing to x. In the second sense, t signifies x if and only if ‘This is (or was, or will be, or can be) a t’ is true, pointing to x. These first two senses of signification are together called “primary” signification.
In the third and fourth senses, terms can also be said to signify certain things they are not truly predicable of, no matter the tense or modality of the copula. For instance, the word ‘brave’ not only makes us think of brave people (whether presently existing or not); it also makes us think of the bravery in virtue of which we call them “brave.” Thus, ‘brave’ signifies and is truly predicable of brave people, but also signifies bravery, even though it is not truly predicable of bravery. (Bravery is not brave.) This kind of signification is called “secondary” signification. To a first approximation, then, we can say that what a term secondarily signifies is exactly what it signifies but does not primarily signify. Again to a first approximation, we can say that a “connotative” term is just a term that has a secondary signification, and that such a connotative term “connotes” exactly what it secondarily signifies; in short, connotation is just secondary signification.
The theory of supposition was the centerpiece of late medieval semantic theory. Supposition is not the same as signification. First of all, terms signify wherever we encounter them, whereas they have supposition only in the context of a proposition. But the differences go beyond that. Whereas signification is a psychological, cognitive relation, the theory of supposition is, at least in part, a theory of reference. For Ockham, there are three main kinds of supposition:
- Personal supposition, in which a term supposits for (refers to) what it signifies (in either of the first two senses of signification described above). For example, in ‘Every dog is a mammal’, both ‘dog’ and ‘mammal’ have personal supposition.
- Simple supposition, in which a term supposits for a concept it does not signify. Thus, in ‘Dog is a species’ or ‘Dog is a universal’, the subject ‘dog’ has simple supposition. For Ockham the nominalist, the only real universals are universal concepts in the mind and, derivatively, universal spoken or written terms expressing those concepts.
- Material supposition, in which a term supposits for a spoken or written expression it does not signify. Thus, in ‘Dog has three letters’, the subject ‘dog’ has material supposition.
Personal supposition, which was the main focus, was divided into various subkinds, distinguished in terms of a theory of “descent to singulars” and “ascent from singulars.” A quick example will give the flavor: In ‘Every dog is a mammal’, ‘dog’ is said to have “confused and distributive” personal supposition insofar as
- It is possible to “descend to singulars” as follows: “Every dog is a mammal; therefore, Fido is a mammal, and Rover is a mammal, and Bowser is a mammal …,” and so on for all dogs.
- It is not possible to “ascend from any one singular” as follows: “Fido is a mammal; therefore, every dog is a mammal.”
Although the mechanics of this part of supposition theory are well understood, in Ockham and in other authors, its exact purpose remains an open question. Although at first the theory looks like an account of truth conditions for quantified propositions, it will not work for that purpose. And although the theory was sometimes used as an aid to spotting and analyzing fallacies, this was never done systematically and the theory is in any event ill suited for that purpose.
Ockham was the first philosopher to develop in some detail the notion of “mental language” and to put it to work for him. Aristotle, Boethius and several others had mentioned it before, but Ockham’s innovation was to systematically transpose to the fine-grained analysis of human thought both the grammatical categories of his time, such as those of noun, verb, adverb, singular, plural and so on, and — even more importantly — the central semantical ideas of signification, connotation and supposition introduced in the previous section. Written words for him are “subordinated” to spoken words, and spoken words in turn are “subordinated” to mental units called “concepts”, which can be combined into syntactically structured mental propositions, just as spoken and written words can be combined into audible or visible sentences.
Whereas the signification of terms in spoken and written language is purely conventional and can be changed by mutual agreement (hence English speakers say ‘dog’ whereas in French it is chien), the signification of mental terms is established by nature, according to Ockham, and cannot be changed at will. Concepts, in other words, are natural signs: my concept of dog naturally signifies dogs. How this “natural signification” is to be accounted for in the final analysis for Ockham is not entirely clear, but it seems to be based both on the fact that simple concepts are normally caused within the mind by their objects (my simple concept of dog originated in me as an effect of my perceptual encounter with dogs), and on the fact that concepts are in some way “naturally similar” to their objects.
This arrangement provides an account of synonymy and equivocation in spoken and written language. Two simple terms (whether from the same or different spoken or written languages) are synonymous if they are ultimately subordinated to the same concept; a single given term of spoken or written language is equivocal if it is ultimately subordinated to more than one concept.
This raises an obvious question: Is there synonymy or equivocation in mental language itself? (If there is, it will obviously have to be accounted for in some other way than for spoken/written language.) A great deal of modern secondary literature has been devoted to this question. Trentman  was the first to argue that no, there is no synonymy or equivocation in mental language. On the contrary, mental language for Ockham is a kind of lean, stripped down, “canonical” language with no frills or inessentials, a little like the “ideal languages” postulated by logical atomists in the first part of the twentieth century. Spade  likewise argued in greater detail, on both theoretical and textual grounds, that there is no synonymy or equivocation in mental language. More recently, Panaccio [1990, 2004], Tweedale  (both on largely textual grounds), and Chalmers  (on mainly theoretical grounds) have argued for a different interpretation, which now tends to be more widely accepted. What comes out at this point is that Ockham’s mental language is not to be seen as a logically ideal language and that it does incorporate both some redundancies and some ambiguities.
The question is complicated, but it goes to the heart of much of what Ockham is up to. In order to see why, let us return briefly to the theory of connotation. Connotation was described above in terms of primary and secondary signification. But in Summa of Logic I.10, Ockham himself draws the distinction between absolute and connotative terms by means of the theory of definition.
For Ockham, there are two kinds of definitions: real definitions and nominal definitions. A real definition is somehow supposed to reveal the essential metaphysical structure of what it defines; nominal definitions do not do that. As Ockham sets it up, all connotative terms have nominal definitions, never real definitions, and absolute terms (although not all of them) have real definitions, never nominal definitions. (Some absolute terms have no definitions at all.)
As an example of a real definition, consider: ‘Man is a rational animal’ or ‘Man is a substance composed of a body and an intellective soul’. Each of these traditional definitions is correct, and each in its own way expresses the essential metaphysical structure of a human being. But notice: the two definitions do not signify (make us think of) exactly the same things. The first one makes us think of all rational things (in virtue of the first word of the definiens) plus all animals (whether rational or not, in virtue of the second word of the definiens). The second definition makes us think of, among other things, all substances (in virtue of the word ‘substance’ in the definiens), whereas the first one does not. It follows therefore that an absolute term can have several distinct real definitions that don’t always signify exactly the same things. They will primarily signify—be truly predicable of—exactly the same things, since they will primarily signify just what the term they define primarily signifies. But they can also (secondarily) signify other things as well.
Nominal definitions, Ockham says, are different: There is one and only one nominal definition for any given connotative term. While a real definition is expected to provide a structural description of certain things (which can be done in various ways, as we just saw), a nominal definition, by contrast, is supposed to unfold in a precise way the signification of the connotative term it serves to define, and this can only be done, Ockham thinks, by explicitly mentioning, in the right order and with the right connections, which kind of things are primarily signified by this term and which are secondarily signified. The nominal definition of the connotative term “brave”, to take a simple example, is “a living being endowed with bravery”; this reveals that “brave” primarily signifies certain living beings (referred to by the first part of the definition) and that it secondarily signifies — or connotes — singular qualities of bravery (referred to by the last part of the definition). Any non-equivalent nominal definition is bound to indicate a different signification and would, consequently, be unsuitable if the original one was correct.
Now, several commentators, following Trentman and Spade, concluded on this basis that there are no simple connotative terms in Ockham’s mental language. They reasoned as follows: a connotative term is synonymous with its nominal definition, but there is no synonymy in mental language according to Ockham; mental language, therefore, cannot contain both a simple connotative term and its complex nominal definition; since it must certainly have the resources for formulating adequate definitions, what must be dispensed with is the defined simple term; and since all connotative terms are supposed to have a nominal definition, it follows that mental language contains only absolute terms (along with syncategorematic ones, of course). It even came to be supposed in this line of interpretation, that the very central point of Ockham’s nominalist program was to show that if anything can be truly said about the world, it can be said using only absolute and syncategorematic terms, and that this is precisely what happens in mental language.
The consequences were far-reaching. Not only did this interpretation claim to provide an overall understanding of what Ockham was up to, but it also inevitably led to conclude that his whole nominalist program was bound to failure. All relational terms, indeed, are taken to be connotative terms in Ockham’s semantics. The program, consequently, was thought to require the semantical reduction of all relational terms to combinations of non-relational ones, which seems hardly possible. Thus, the question whether there are simple connotative terms or not in Ockham’s mental language is crucial to our understanding of the success of his overall ontological project. Since spoken and written languages are semantically derivative on mental language, it is vital that we get the semantics of mental language to work out right for Ockham, or else the systematic coherence of much of what he has to say will be in jeopardy.
In view of recent scholarship, though, it appears highly doubtful that Ockham’s purpose really was to use nominal definitions to eliminate all simple connotative terms from mental language. For one thing, as Spade had remarked himself, Ockham never systematically engages in explicit attempts at such semantical reductions, which would be quite surprising if this was the central component of his nominalism. Furthermore it was shown that Ockham did in fact hold that there are simple connotative terms in mental language. He says it explicitly and repeatedly, and in a variety of texts from his earlier to his later philosophical and theological writings. The secondary literature, consequently, has now gradually converged on the view that, for Ockham, there is no synonymy among simple terms in mental language, but that there can be some redundancy between simple terms and complex expressions, or between various complex expressions. If so, nothing prevents a simple connotative concept to coexist in mental language with its nominal definition.
Ockham indeed explicitly denies that a complex definition is in general wholly synonymous with the corresponding defined term. His point, presumably, is that the definition usually signifies more things than the defined term. Take “brave” again. Its definition, remember, is “a living being endowed with bravery”. Now, the first part of this complex expression makes us think of all living beings, whereas the simple term “brave” has only the brave ones as its primary significates and does not signify in any way the non-brave living beings. This shows in effect that simple connotative terms are not — at least not always — shorthand abbreviations for their nominal definitions in Ockham’s view. And it must be conjectured that some simple connotative concepts can be directly acquired on the basis of perceptual experiences, just as absolute ones are supposed to be (think of a relational concept like “taller than” or a qualitative one like “white”).
Ockham’s nominal definitions, then, should not be seen as reductionist devices for eliminating certain terms, but as a privileged means for making conspicuous what the (primary and secondary) significates of the defined terms are. The main point here is that such definitions, when correctly formulated, explicitly reveal the ontological commitments associated with the normal use of the defined terms. The definition of “brave” as “a living being endowed with bravery”, for example, shows that the correct use of the term “brave” commits us only to the existence of singular living beings and singular braveries. Ockham’s nominalism does not require the elimination of simple connotative concepts after all; its main relevant thesis, on the contrary, is that their use is ontologically harmless since they do not signify (either primarily or secondarily) anything but individual things, as their nominal definitions are supposed to make it clear.
Ockham was a nominalist, indeed he is the person whose name is perhaps most famously associated with nominalism. But nominalism means many different things:
- A denial of metaphysical universals. Ockham was emphatically a nominalist in this sense.
- An emphasis on reducing one’s ontology to a bare minimum, on paring down the supply of fundamental ontological categories. Ockham was likewise a nominalist in this sense.
- A denial of “abstract” entities. Depending on what one means, Ockham was or was not a nominalist in this sense. He believed in “abstractions” such as whiteness and humanity, for instance, although he did not believe they were universals. (On the contrary, there are at least as many distinct whitenesses as there are white things.) He certainly believed in immaterial entities such as God and angels. He did not believe in mathematical (“quantitative”) entities of any kind.
The first two kinds of nominalism listed above are independent of one another. Historically, there have been philosophers who denied metaphysical universals, but allowed (individual) entities in more ontological categories than Ockham does. Conversely, one might reduce the number of ontological categories, and yet hold that universal entities are needed in the categories that remain.
Still, Ockham’s “nominalism,” in both the first and the second of the above senses, is often viewed as derived from a common source: an underlying concern for ontological parsimony. This is summed up in the famous slogan known as “Ockham’s Razor,” often expressed as “Don’t multiply entities beyond necessity.” Although the sentiment is certainly Ockham’s, that particular formulation is nowhere to be found in his texts. Moreover, as usually stated, it is a sentiment that virtually all philosophers, medieval or otherwise, would accept; no one wants a needlessly bloated ontology. The question, of course, is which entities are needed and which are not.
Ockham’s Razor, in the senses in which it can be found in Ockham himself, never allows us to deny putative entities; at best it allows us to refrain from positing them in the absence of known compelling reasons for doing so. In part, this is because human beings can never be sure they know what is and what is not “beyond necessity”; the necessities are not always clear to us. But even if we did know them, Ockham would still not allow that his Razor allows us to deny entities that are unnecessary. For Ockham, the only truly necessary entity is God; everything else, the whole of creation, is radically contingent through and through. In short, Ockham does not accept the Principle of Sufficient Reason.
Nevertheless, we do sometimes have sufficient methodological grounds for positively affirming the existence of certain things. Ockham acknowledges three sources for such grounds (three sources of positive knowledge). As he says in Sent. I, dist. 30, q. 1: “For nothing ought to be posited without a reason given, unless it is self-evident (literally, known through itself) or known by experience or proved by the authority of Sacred Scripture.”
In the case of universal entities, Ockham’s nominalism is not based on his Razor, his principle of parsimony. That is, Ockham does not hold merely that there is no good reason for affirming universals, so that we should refrain from doing so in the absence of further evidence. No, he holds that theories of universals, or at least the theories he considers, are outright incoherent; they either are self-contradictory or at least violate certain other things we know are true in virtue of the three sources just cited. For Ockham, the only universal entities it makes sense to talk about are universal concepts, and derivative on them, universal terms in spoken and written language. Metaphysically, these “universal” concepts are singular entities like all others; they are “universal” only in the sense of being “predicable of many.”
With respect to the exact ontological status of such conceptual entities, however, Ockham changed his view over the course of his career. To begin with, he adopted what is known as the fictum-theory, a theory according to which universals have no “real” existence at all in the Aristotelian categories, but instead are purely “intentional objects” with a special mode of existence; they have only a kind of “thought”-reality. Eventually, however, Ockham came to think this intentional realm of “fictive” entities was not needed, and by the time of his Summa of Logic and the Quodlibets adopts instead a so called intellectio-theory, according to which a universal concept is just the act of thinking about several objects at once; metaphysically such an “act” is a singular quality of an individual mind, and is “universal” only in the sense of being a mental sign of several things at once and being predicable of them in mental propositions.
Thus, Ockham is quite certain there are no metaphysically universal entities. But when it comes to paring down the number of basic ontological categories, he is more cautious, and it is there that he uses his Razor ruthlessly—always to suspend judgment, never to deny.
The main vehicle for this “ontological reduction” is the theory of connotation, coupled with the related theory of “exposition.” The theory of exposition, which is not fully developed in Ockham, will become increasingly prominent in authors immediately after him. In effect, the theory of connotation is related to the theory of exposition as explicit definition is related to contextual definition. The notion of the “square” of a number can be explicitly defined, for example, as the result of multiplying that number by itself. Contextual definition operates not at the level of terms, but at the level of propositions. Thus, Bertrand Russell famously treated ‘The present king of France is bald’ as amounting to ‘There is an x such that x is a present king of France and x is bald, and for all y if y is a present king of France then y = x’. We are never given any outright definition of the term ‘present king of France’, but instead are given a technique of paraphrasing away seemingly referential occurrences of that term in such a way that we are not committed to any actually existing present kings of France. So too, Ockham tries to provide us, at the propositional level, with paraphrases of propositions that seem at first to refer to entities he sees no reason to believe in.
For example, in Summa of Logic, II.11, among other places, Ockham argues that we can account for the truth of ‘Socrates is similar to Plato’ without having to appeal to a relational entity called “similarity”:
For example, for the truth of ‘Socrates is similar to Plato’, it is required that Socrates have some quality and that Plato have a quality of the same species. Thus, from the very fact that Socrates is white and Plato is white, Socrates is similar to Plato and conversely. Likewise, if both are black, or hot, [then] they are similar without anything else added. (Emphasis added.)
In this way, Ockham removes all need for entities in seven of the traditional Aristotelian ten categories; all that remain are entities in the categories of substance and quality, and a few entities in the category of relation, which Ockham thinks are required for theological reasons pertaining to the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Eucharist, even though our natural cognitive powers would see no reason for them at all. As is to be expected, the ultimate success of Ockham’s program is a matter of considerable dispute.
It should be stressed again, however, that this program in no way requires that it should be possible to dispense altogether with terms from any of the ten Aristotelian categories (relational and quantitative terms in particular). Ockham’s claim is simply that all our basic scientific terms, whether absolute or connotative, signify nothing but singular substances or qualities (plus some singular relations in certain exceptional theological cases).
Ockham’s “physics” or natural philosophy is of a broadly Aristotelian sort, although he interprets Aristotle in his own fashion. Ockham wrote a great deal in this area; indeed his Exposition of Aristotle’s Physics is his longest work except for his Commentary on the Sentences.
As a nominalist about universals, Ockham had to deal with the Aristotelian claim in the Posterior Analytics that science pertains to certain propositions about what is universal and necessary. He discusses this issue in the Prologue to his Exposition of the Physics, and there agrees with Aristotle. But he interprets Aristotle’s dictum as saying that science is about certain propositions with general (universal) terms in them; it is only in that sense that science deals with the universal. This of course does not mean that for Ockham our scientific knowledge can never get beyond the level of language to actual things. He distinguishes various senses of ‘to know’ (scire, from which we get scientia or “science”):
- In one sense, to “know” is to know a proposition, or a term in that proposition. It is in this sense that the object of a science is universal, and this is what Aristotle had in mind.
- In another sense, we can be said to “know” what the proposition is about, what its terms have supposition for. What we “know” in that sense is always metaphysically individual, since for Ockham there isn’t anything else. This is not the sense in which Aristotle was speaking.
As described earlier, Ockham holds that we do not need to allow special entities in all ten of Aristotle’s categories. In particular, we do not need them in the category of quantity. For Ockham, there is no need for real “mathematical” entities such as numbers, points, lines, and surfaces as distinct from individual substances and qualities. Apparent talk about such things can invariably be parsed away, via the theory of connotation or exposition, in favor of talk about substances and qualities (and, in certain theological contexts, a few relations). This Ockhamist move is illustrative of and influential on an important development in late medieval physics: the application of mathematics to non-mathematical things, culminating in Galileo’s famous statement that the “book of nature” is written in the “language of mathematics.”
Such an application of mathematics violates a traditional Aristotelian prohibition against metabasis eis allo genos, grounded on quite reasonable considerations. The basic idea is that things cannot be legitimately compared in any respect in which they differ in species. Thus it makes little sense to ask whether the soprano’s high C is higher or lower than Mount Everest—much less to ask (quantitatively) how much higher or lower it is. But for Aristotle, straight lines and curved lines belong to different species of lines. Hence they cannot be meaningfully compared or measured against one another. The same holds for rectilinear motion and circular motion.
Although the basic idea is reasonable enough, Ockham recognized that there are problems. The length of a coiled rope, for example, can straightforwardly be compared to the length of an uncoiled rope, and the one can meaningfully be said to be longer or shorter than, or equal in length to, the other. For that matter, a single rope surely stays the same length, whether it is coiled or extended full-length. Ockham’s solution to these problems is to note that, on his ontology, straight lines and curved lines are not really different species of lines—because lines are not extra things in the first place. Talk about lines is simply a “manner of speaking” about substances and qualities.
Thus, to compare a “curved” (coiled) rope with a “straight” (uncoiled) one is not really to talk about the lengths of lines in two different species; it is to talk about two ropes, which are after all in the same species. To describe the one as curved (coiled) and the other as straight (uncoiled) is not to appeal to specifically different kinds of entities—curvature and straightness—but merely to describe the ropes in ways that can be expounded according to two different patterns. Since such talk does not have ontological implications that require specifically different kinds of entities, the Aristotelian prohibition of metabasis does not apply.
Once one realizes that we can appeal to connotation theory, and more generally the theory of exposition, without invoking new entities, the door is opened to applying mathematical analyses (all of which are exponible, for Ockham) to all kinds of things, and in particular to physical nature.
Ockham’s contributions were by no means the only factor in the increasing mathematization of science in the fourteenth century. But they were important ones.
Like most medieval accounts of knowledge, Ockham’s is not much concerned with answering skeptical doubts. He takes it for granted that humans not only can but frequently do know things, and focuses his attention instead on the “mechanisms” by which this knowledge comes about.
Ockham’s theory of knowledge, like his natural philosophy, is broadly Aristotelian in form, although—again, like his natural philosophy—it is “Aristotelian” in its own way. For most Aristotelians of the day, knowledge involved the transmission of a “species”between the object and the mind. At the sensory level, this species may be compared to the more recent notion of a sense “impression.” More generally, we can think of it as the structure or configuration of the object, a structure or configuration that can be “encoded” in different ways and found isomorphically in a variety of contexts. One recent author, describing the theory as it occurs in Aquinas, puts it like this:
Consider, for example, blueprints. In a blueprint of a library, the configuration of the library itself, that is, the very configuration that will be in the finished library, is captured on paper but in such a way that it does not make the paper itself into a library. Rather, the configuration is imposed on the paper in a different sort of way from the way it is imposed on the materials of the library. What Aquinas thinks of as transferring and preserving a configuration we tend to consider as a way of encoding information.
The configuration of features found in the external object is also found in “encoded” form as a species in the organ that senses the object. (Depending on the sense modality, it may also be found in an intervening medium. For example, with vision and hearing, the species is transmitted through the air to the sense organ.) At the intellectual level, the so called “agent intellect” goes to work on this species and somehow produces the universal concept that is the raw material of intellectual cognition.
Ockham rejected this entire theory of species. For him, species are unnecessary to a successful theory of cognition, and he dispenses with them. Moreover, he argues, the species theory is not supported by experience; introspection reveals no such species in our cognitive processes. This rejection of the species theory of cognition, which had been foreshadowed by several previous authors (such as Henry of Ghent in the thirteenth century), was an important development in late medieval epistemology.
One of the more intriguing features of late medieval epistemology in general, and of Ockham’s view in particular, is the development of a theory known as “intuitive and abstractive cognition.” The theory is found in authors as diverse as Duns Scotus, Peter Auriol, Walter Chatton, and Ockham. But their theories of intuitive and abstractive cognition are so different that it is hard to see any one thing they are all supposed to be theories of. Nevertheless, to a first approximation, intuitive cognition can be thought of as perception, whereas abstractive cognition is closer to imagination or remembering. The fit is not exact, however, since authors who had a theory of intuitive and abstractive cognition usually also allowed the distinction at the intellectual level as well.
It is important to note that abstractive cognition, in the sense of this theory, has nothing necessarily to do with “abstraction” in the sense of producing universal concepts from cognitive encounters with individuals. Instead, what abstractive cognition “abstracts” from is the question of the existence or non-existence of the object. By contrast, intuitive cognition is very much tied up with the existence or non-existence of the object. Here is how Ockham distinguishes them:
For intuitive cognition of a thing is a cognition such that by virtue of it it can be known whether the thing exists or not, in such a way that if the thing does exist, the intellect at once judges it to exist and evidently knows it to exist … Likewise, intuitive cognition is such that when some things are known, one of which inheres in the other or the one is distant in place from the other or is related in another way to the other, it is at once known by virtue of the incomplex cognitions of those things whether the thing inheres or does not inhere, whether it is distant or not distant, and so on for other contingent truths …Abstractive cognition, however, is that by virtue of which it cannot be evidently known of the thing whether it exists or does not exist. And in this way abstractive cognition, as opposed to intuitive cognition, “abstracts” from existence and non-existence, because by it neither can it be evidently known of an existing thing that it exists, nor of a non-existent one that it does not exist.
Ockham’s main point here is that an intuitive cognition naturally causes in the mind a number of true contingent judgements about the external thing(s) that caused this intuitive cognition; for example, that this thing exists, or that it is white, and so on. This does not prevent God from deceiving any particular creature if He wants to, even when an intuitive cognition is present, but in such a case, God would have to neutralize the natural causal effect of this intuitive cognition (this is something He can always do, according to Ockham) and directly cause instead a false judgement. Intuitive cognitions, on the other hand, can sometimes induce false beliefs, too, if the circumstances are abnormal (in cases of perceptual illusions in particular), but even then, they would still cause some true contingent judgements. The latter at any rate is their distinctive feature. Abstractive cognitions, by contrast, are not such as to naturally cause true judgements about contingent matters.
Ockham’s ethics combines a number of themes. For one, it is a will-based ethics in which intentions count for everything and external behavior or actions count for nothing. In themselves, all actions are morally neutral.
Again, there is a strong dose of divine command theory in Ockham’s ethics. Certain things (i.e., in light of the previous point, certain intentions) becomes morally obligatory, permitted or forbidden simply because God decrees so. Thus, in Exodus, the Israelites’ “spoiling the Egyptians” (or rather their intention to do so, which they carried out) was not a matter of theft or plunder, but was morally permissible and indeed obligatory—because God had commanded it.
Nevertheless, despite the divine command themes in Ockham’s ethics, it is also clear that he wanted morality to be to some extent a matter of reason. There is even a sense in which one can find a kind of natural law theory in Ockham’s ethics; one way in which God conveys his divine commands to us is by giving us the natures we have. Unlike Augustine, Ockham accepted the possibility of the “virtuous pagan”; moral virtue for Ockham does not depend on having access to revelation.
But while moral virtue is possible even for the pagan, moral virtue is not by itself enough for salvation. Salvation requires not just virtue (the opposite of which is moral vice) but merit (the opposite of which is sin), and merit requires grace, a free gift from God. In short, there is no necessary connection between virtue—moral goodness—and salvation. Ockham repeatedly emphasizes that “God is a debtor to no one”; he does not owe us anything, no matter what we do.
For Ockham, acts of will are morally virtuous either extrinsically, i.e. derivatively, through their conformity to some more fundamental act of will, or intrinsically. On pain of infinite regress, therefore, extrinsically virtuous acts of will must ultimately lead back to an intrinsically virtuous act of will. That intrinsically virtuous act of will, for Ockham, is an act of “loving God above all else and for his own sake.”
In his early work, On the Connection of the Virtues, Ockham distinguishes five grades or stages of moral virtue, which have been the topic of considerable speculation in the secondary literature:
- The first and lowest stage is found when someone wills to act in accordance with “right reason”—i.e., because it is “the right thing to do.”
- The second stage adds moral “seriousness” to the picture. The agent is willing to act in accordance with right reason even in the face of contrary considerations, even—if necessary—at the cost of death.
- The third stage adds a certain exclusivity to the motivation; one wills to act in this way only because right reason requires it. It is not enough to will to act in accordance with right reason, even heroically, if one does so on the basis of extraneous, non-moral motives.
- At the fourth stage of moral virtue, one wills to act in this way “precisely for the love of God.” This stage “alone is the true and perfect moral virtue of which the Saints speak.”
- The fifth and final stage can be built immediately on either the third or the fourth stage; thus one can have the fifth without the fourth stage. The fifth stage adds an element of extraordinary moral heroism that goes beyond even the “seriousness” of stage two.
The difficulty in understanding this hierarchy comes at the fourth stage, where it is not clear exactly what moral factor is added to the preceding three stages.
At the beginning of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle remarked that “the good is that at which all things aim.” Each thing, therefore, aims at the good, according to the demands of its nature. In the Middle Ages, “Aristotelians” like Thomas Aquinas held that the good for human beings in particular is “happiness,” the enjoyment of the direct vision of God in the next life. And, whether they realize it or not, that is what all human beings are ultimately aiming at in their actions. For someone like Aquinas, therefore, the human will is “free” only in a certain restricted sense. We are not free to choose for or against our final end; that is built into us by nature. But we are free to choose various means to that end. All our choices, therefore, are made under the aspect of leading to that final goal. To be sure, sometimes we make the wrong choices, but when that occurs it is because of ignorance, distraction, self-deception, etc. In an important sense, then, someone like Aquinas accepts a version of the so called Socratic Paradox: No one knowingly and deliberately does evil.
Ockham’s view is quite different. Although he is very suspicious of the notion of final causality (teleology) in general, he thinks it is quite appropriate for intelligent, voluntary agents such as human beings. Thus the frequent charge that Ockham severs ethics from metaphysics by denying teleology seems wrong. Nevertheless, while Ockham grants that human beings have a natural orientation, a tendency toward their own ultimate good, he does not think this restricts their choices.
For Ockham, as for Aristotle and Aquinas, I can choose the means to achieve my ultimate good. But in addition, for Ockham unlike Aristotle and Aquinas, I can choose whether to will that ultimate good. The natural orientation and tendency toward that good is built in; I cannot do anything about that. But I can choose whether or not to to act to achieve that good. I might choose, for example, to do nothing at all, and I might choose this knowing full well what I am doing. But more: I can choose to act knowingly directly against my ultimate good, to thwart it. I can choose evil as evil.
For Ockham, this is required if I am going to be morally responsible for my actions. If I could not help but will to act to achieve my ultimate good, then it would not be morally praiseworthy of me to do so; moral “sins of omission” would be impossible (although of course I could be mistaken in the means I adopt). By the same token, moral “sins of commission” would be impossible if I could not knowingly act against my ultimate good. But for Ockham these conclusions are not just required by theory; they are confirmed by experience.
The divine command themes so prominent in Ockham’s ethics are much more muted in his political theory, which on the contrary tends to be far more “natural” and “secular.” As sketched above, Ockham’s political writings began at Avignon with a discussion of the issue of poverty. But later on the issues were generalized to include church/state relations more broadly. He was one of the first medieval authors to advocate a form of church/state separation, and was important for the early development of the notion of property rights.
The Franciscan Order at this time was divided into two parties, which came to be known as the “Conventuals” and the “Spirituals” (or “zealots”). The Spirituals, among whom were Ockham, Michael of Cesena, and the other exiles who joined them in fleeing Avignon, tried to preserve the original ideal of austere poverty practiced and advocated by St. Francis himself (c. 1181–1226). The Conventuals, on the other hand, while recognizing this ideal, were prepared to compromise in order to accommodate the practical needs of a large, organized religious order; they were by far the majority of the order. The issue between the two parties was never one of doctrine; neither side accused the other of heresy. Rather, the question was one of how to shape and run the order—in particular, whether the Franciscans should (or even could) renounce all property rights.
The ideal of poverty had been (and still is) a common one in religious communities. Typically, the idea is that the individual member of the order owns no property at all. If a member buys a car, for instance, it is not strictly his car, even though he may have exclusive use of it, and it was not bought with his money; he doesn’t have any money of his own. Rather it belongs to the order.
The original Franciscan ideal went further. Not only did the individual friar have no property of his own, neither did the order. The Franciscans, therefore, were really supposed to be “mendicants,” to live by begging. Anything donated to the order, such as a house or a piece of land, strictly speaking remained the property of the original owner (who merely granted the use of it to the Franciscans). (Or, if that would not work—as, for example, in the case of a bequest in a will, after the original owner had died—the ownership would go to the Papacy.)
Both the Spirituals and the Conventuals thought this ideal of uncompromising poverty was exhibited by the life of Jesus and the Apostles, who—they said—had given up all property, both individually and collectively. St. Francis regarded this as the clear implication of several Scriptural passages: e.g., Matt. 6:24–34, 8:20, 19:21. In short, the Apostolic (and Franciscan) ideal was, “Live without a safety net.”
Of course, if everyone lived according to this ideal, so that no one owned any property either individually or collectively, then there would be no property at all. The Franciscan ideal, then, shared by Conventuals and Spirituals alike, entailed the total abolition of all property rights.
Not everyone shared this view. Outside the Franciscan order, most theoreticians agreed that Jesus and the Apostles lived without individual property, but thought they did share property collectively. Nevertheless, Pope Nicholas III, in 1279, had officially approved the Franciscan view, not just as a view about how to organize the Franciscan order, but about the interpretation of the Scriptural passages concerning Jesus and the Apostles. His approval did not mean he was endorsing the Franciscan reading as the correct interpretation of Scripture, but only that it was a permissible one, that there was nothing doctrinally suspect about it.
Nevertheless, this interpretation was a clear reproach to the Papacy, which at Avignon was wallowing in wealth to a degree it had never seen before. The clear implication of the Franciscan view, therefore, was that the Avignon Popes were conspicuously notliving their lives as an “imitation of Christ.” Whether for this reason or another, the Avignon Pope John XXII decided to reopen discussion of the question of Apostolic poverty and to come to some resolution of the matter. But, as Mollat  puts it (perhaps not without some taking of sides):
When discussions began at Avignon, conflicting opinions were freely put forward. Meanwhile, Michael of Cesena, acting with insolent audacity, did not await the Holy See’s decision: on 30 May 1322 the chapter-general [of the Franciscan order] at Perugia declared itself convinced of the absolute poverty of Christ and the Apostles.
It was this act that provoked John XXII to issue his first contribution to the dispute, his bull Ad conditorem in 1322. There he put the whole matter in a legal framework.
According to Roman law, as formulated in the Code of Justinian, “ownership” and “legitimate use” cannot be permanently separated. For example, it is one thing for me to own a book but to let you use it for a while. Ownership in that case means that I can recall the book, and even if I do not do so, you should return it to me when you are done with it. But it is quite another matter for me to own the book but to grant you permanent use of it, to agree not to recall it as long as you want to keep it, and to agree that you have no obligation to give it back ever. John XXII points out that, from the point of view of Roman law, the latter case makes no sense. There is no practical difference in that case between your having the use of the book and your owning it; for all intents and purposes, it is yours.
Notice the criticism here. It is a legal argument against the claim that the Papacy as an institution can own something and yet the Franciscans as an order, collectively, have a permanent right to use it. The complaint is not against the notion that an individual friar might have a right to use something until he dies, at which time use reverts to the order (or as the Franciscans would have it, to the Papacy). This would still allow some distinction between ownership and mere use. Rather the complaint is against the notion that the order would not own anything outright, but would nevertheless have permanent use of it that goes beyond the life or death of any individual friar, so that the ownership somehow remained permanently with the Papacy, even though the Pope could not reclaim it, use it, or do anything at all with it. John XXII argues that this simply abolishes the distinction between use and ownership.
Special problems arise if the property involved is such that the use of it involves consuming it—e.g., food. In that case, it appears that there is no real difference between ownership and even temporary use. For things like food, using them amounts for practical purposes to owning them; they cannot be recalled after they are used. In short, for John XXII, it follows that it is impossible fully to live the life of absolute poverty, even for the individual person (much less for a permanent institution like the Franciscan order). The institution of property, and property ‘rights,’ therefore began in the Garden of Eden, the first time Adam or Eve ate something. These property rights are not ‘natural’ rights; on the contrary, they are established by a kind of positive law by God, who gave everything in the Garden to Adam and Eve.
Ockham disagreed. For him, there was no “property” in the Garden of Eden. Instead, Adam and Eve there had a natural right to use anything at hand. This natural right did not amount to a property right, however, since it could not have been used as the basis of any kind of legal claim. Both John XXII and Ockham seem to agree in requiring that ‘property’ (ownership) be a matter of positive law, not simply of natural law. But John says there was such property in the Garden of Eden, whereas Ockham claims there was not; there was only a natural right, so that Adam and Eve’s use of the goods there was legitimate. For Ockham, ‘property’ first emerged only after the Fall when, by a kind of divine permission, people began to set up special positive legal arrangements assigning the legal right to use certain things to certain people (the owners), to the exclusion of anyone else’s having a legal right to them. The owners can then give permission to others to use what the owners own, but that permission does not amount to giving them a legal right they could appeal to in a court of law; it can be revoked at any time. For Ockham, this is the way the Franciscans operate. Their benefactors and donors do not give them any legal rights to use the things donated to them—i.e., no right they could appeal to in a court of law. Rather the donation amounts only to a kind of permission that restores the original natural (not legal) right of use in the Garden of Eden.” Sharon Kaye, “Ockham (Occam) William of,” Paul Vincent Spade, “William of Ockham;” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Circa 2000, 2015
Oksana studied forestry in a third-tier college – the only one she could attend for free. Upon graduating she could expect to get a clerical job in a state agency tallying birches and firs on paper. She and her mother shared a two-room apartment in a standard concrete building. In one respect their housing situation stood out: right below them, on the third floor, lived an incredibly noisy family of violent alcoholics. Every night the floor shook with screams, banging, and knocking; the lady of the house regularly interrupted her partying to stumble outside and yell ‘Murder!’ and ‘Help!’ Oksana tiptoed past their ravaged door; outside she dressed in dark clothing and wore her hat low over her face.
This was because she came home late, when it was already dark: she had the precious opportunity to take an affordable evening English class her school had introduced. Her mother told her about a certain Vladimir Lenin, who had learned a new language by translating a page of text into Russian and then back into the language, and Oksana adopted Lenin’s method, translating texts about logging, rafting, and skidding – clearly her college expected its students to haul timber on the Thames. The students protested, insisting that England didn’t need Russian loggers with college degrees, and begged to be taught normal spoken English.
At that time, Oksana’s mother was unemployed. She had set aside her hopes of being hired as an editor and tried to pick up at least some copyediting. She called publishers and received ‘test assignments:’ a novel in two volumes, an action thriller of five hundred pages, a pharmacology textbook. Two weeks per project. At first Nina Sergeevna laughed at these assignments and their illiterate language and quoted the best lines to Oksana: ‘a passerby passed by’ or ‘he was sitting on a seat.’ Driven by professional pride, she stayed up all night rewriting these miserable tomes down to the last comma. But when she tried to reach her so-called employers, she always ended up speaking to their secretaries, who told her that, alas, she hadn’t passed the test. Oksana rightly suspected that these so-called publishers took advantage of her mother’s free labor. To make ends meet, Nina Sergeevna worked as an attendant at a day care center, where she shared a tiny unheated booth with an overfed mongrel, a kind of guard dog who never left her quilted blanket and responded with nervous barking to the voice of the teacher behind the thin wall.
Soon this existence, already meager and not very happy, changed for the worse. One night there was a long-distance call: it was Klava, the mother of Nina Sergeevna’s first husband, who had died very young, calling from Poltava in Ukraine. This Klava visited Nina even after she remarried and had Oksana; she used to bring bags of boys’ clothes that had belonged to her grandson, Misha. Before long Klava lost her younger son, too. Misha’s mother remarried and moved to Israel, but Misha refused to leave his school and friends and moved in with Klava. For years Oksana had to wear Misha’s hand-me-downs, including an emerald tuxedo with padded shoulders that made her cry. Oksana had never met Misha, but she couldn’t stand him. And there you have the background to the midnight call.
The former mother-in-law informed Nina Sergeevna in an expressionless, metallic voice that Misha had lost everything; people to whom he owed money had taken over his company, and Klava had had to sell her apartment and move into a summer shack. The shack is made of plywood, Klava droned, the water and power are turned off after the summer, and someone has filled her well with trash. The firewood has run out; she tried to burn tree branches, but they wouldn’t burn. The cold has been incredible this winter — already it’s started snowing. She went to the city to collect her pension but steered clear of her former building: Misha told her she may be taken hostage if someone recognizes her. A happy New Year to you all, Klava concluded her monologue.
Nina Sergeevna used the pause to invite Klava to come stay with them, then hung up the phone and stared with her big eyes at her tall daughter, who stared back. “Here we go again,” concluded Oksana with a sigh. She was used to her mother’s almost daily acts of irrational charity. The most recent one happened just the day before at the Belorussky Station. Nina Sergeevna was crossing the bridge, sadly contemplating her editorial career that ended in a guard’s booth, when in front of her she noticed a tall woman with ramrod-straight posture who walked woodenly and carried a pile of snow on her head like a Pushkin monument. Nina Sergeevna bypassed the strange creature and hurried toward the warm metro station. But the woman caught up with her and asked if she was going to Minsk — because she was; that is, she wanted to, but she had no money — she’d been cheated. She came from Belarus, she said, having brought with her some cosmetics for sale, but the buyer didn’t show up, and she wasn’t paid. The woman produced a Belarusian passport. Nina Sergeevna told her to come inside the metro station, it was too cold to talk in the street, but the woman looked at her in terror: “Are you going to give me away to the cops?” Ah, of course! The poor thing didn’t have a Moscow registration and could be arrested at the entrance to the subway! Nina Sergeevna asked how much she needed to get home. The poor woman tried to calculate: five hundred thousand, no, three hundred thousand, no, three hundred rubles! Nina Sergeevna gave her the money and also a baguette she’d been carrying home. Three hundred rubles was exactly one third of what remained of her pension after paying the rent. Thank God the monument hadn’t asked for five hundred or a thousand — Nina Sergeevna would have satisfied any request for help; often she didn’t wait for people to ask and just gave away what she had.
Two days later they picked up Baba Klava at the station. Baba Klava had some luggage with her: the familiar backpack with summer work clothes from her dacha, two paper icons, and a sack of apples. Misha the grandson had forbidden her to go back to the apartment, and as a result Klava had not a stitch of winter clothing and was wearing a summer shirt in December.
At Nina Sergeevna’s, Klava installed her paper icons behind the glass front of the bookcase. She prayed to them constantly yet, she believed, discreetly. Her apples were left to rot under the kitchen table: Klava expected them to ripen by New Year’s Eve. She shared Nina Sergeevna’s sofa bed in the walk-through room but couldn’t sleep — she did her best to lie still between Nina Sergeevna and the wall. Meanwhile, the tired mother and daughter slept dreamlessly, treasuring every moment of rest.
Nina Sergeevna got back in touch with a half forgotten friend who dabbled in philanthropy. That friend helped her get an appointment at a decent secondhand store, and Nina brought home a warm jacket and two quilted house robes for Klava, and also a length of light, gold-toned material — a former curtain. Oksana asked her mother sharply what the rag was for — they had plenty of rags as it was. “They offered; I took it,” explained Nina Sergeevna innocently. “Looks like silk, almost.”
Later, Klava reluctantly recounted the tragic events that had led to her homelessness. Misha the grandson had had a small publishing business that printed calendars. He’d wanted to expand, and so he put out an expensive monograph by a Moscow artist (who had convinced Misha that he was the artist of the moment). The book didn’t sell, and Misha owed money all around. The meter was ticking, and finally his creditor sent “shakers” — thugs who shake out money.
By then Oksana was taking classes part-time, in the evenings, and had found work at a landscape design company. Graduation was postponed by two years. She was paid very little but did impeccable work for both the owner and her bookkeeper. What Oksana missed most was her English class. She always carried in her purse the same book, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and tried to read it on the train but immediately would doze off.
In her free time Nina Sergeevna worked on getting poor Baba Klava recognized as a Russian citizen or at least a legal resident, so she could see a doctor. Moscow’s plutocracy treated Klava as a foreign spy, simply because she was Ukrainian, and denied her all rights. After talking to fellow sufferers in endless lines, Nina decided she needed to go to Poltava to get a piece of paper from the local archive saying Klava had been born in Stavropol and was therefore a Russian citizen. Klava froze up. She was terrified the shakers would find out her address in Moscow. When the exhausted Nina returned with the necessary paper in hand, Klava asked in a fearful whisper whether Nina had visited her house. “Of course not!” Nina told her lightly. “I only stopped by the city hall and came right back. You will now receive your citizenship and a pension!”
When Klava went to watch television, Nina explained to Oksana that she had visited Klava’s courtyard and chatted with some neighbors, that was all; told them she was a Muscovite wanting to move to Poltava — were there any apartments for sale in that building? Nothing, they told her. But, she said, apartment ten had just been sold, she’d heard. No comment. When she was leaving, one of the women caught up with her and took her phone number. Oksana almost fainted. “When will you learn to think? Why did you give that woman our number?”
“You know how I can read people!”
“That’s right, you read that monument from Belarus the other day real well.”
“This woman, Valentina, mentioned Klava: she remembered Misha as well as his mother, who had immigrated, and his dead father, Klava’s son. She used to work as a pediatric nurse and treated Misha as a child. I spoke to her, true, but I knew what I was doing!”
“Oh, Mama. I bet we’ll have visitors soon.” And Oksana was right.
Late at night on December 28, the phone rang out with long-distance calls. “Oksana, get Klava, quick!”
Klava’s body formed a little bump under a heavy blanket. The bump was trembling. “Who is it, shakers?”
“No, no, it’s Misha’s mom calling from Jerusalem!”
As soon as Klava said hello in her metallic voice, the connection broke. “Couldn’t bear to speak to me. Finally remembered Misha. Too late — he’s probably gone,” Klava said, and marched off to the bathroom.
The next day Oksana brought home from her office a small potted juniper — a Christmas tree. “Oh, jumper,” Klava whispered solemnly. “Just like the one on our family gravesite. My two sons are there, and my dear husband. Thank you, Oksanochka.” Klava’s mood was solemn these days. She loved watching TV police dramas in which justice temporarily triumphed. They calmed her down but didn’t make her any more optimistic.
Nina Sergeevna was busily working on the piece of almost-silk from the secondhand store. The prerevolutionary Singer filled the little apartment with knocking. Klava was in the kitchen making a holiday pie with the rescued dacha apples. Oksana was trying to study in her little room when Nina Sergeevna emerged with a pile of golden fabric.
“Our New Year’s present to you, honey,” she tentatively addressed her stern daughter. “To wear when you go out!”
“Mama! Stop imagining things! I’m not going out, and I’m not wearing this!”
“But, honey, Klava worked on it, too! She used to be a professional tailor. Remember the green tuxedo? She made it herself!”
“Tuxedo? Mama! I have finals in two weeks! My boss wouldn’t give me any time off! She says she can’t afford to give me time off — she’s supporting a husband. She yelled at me for an hour. Now think, Mama: Do you really believe I can be interested in your secondhand garments?”
Klava walked into the room, saw the heap of silk, pursed her lips, and whispered, “Sorry, Oksanochka, I used to sew well, but my hands are not what they used to be. Nina, I told you she wouldn’t wear it!” She turned back to the walk-through room and loudly began to pray.
Oksana glanced at the clock: an hour before New Year’s. She took a bath, then sat down with wet hair at her old computer. Nina Sergeevna stroked her shoulder. “Please, baby. Klavochka is terribly upset that you won’t even try it on. What will it cost you? She is eighty years old!”
From Klava’s room came loud mumbling. Oksana gave in. In the bathroom, in front of the little mirror, she changed into the new dress. It was a very open evening gown with a slip and a weightless scarf to cover her bare shoulders. The scarf’s edges were embroidered by Nina Sergeevna. For goodness’ sake, thought Oksana, why did she waste her time on this embroidery? Who’s going to see it? Who’s going to see me? Her future of endless toil, without romance or happiness, flashed before her eyes. A messy office with bookkeeper Dina, an aging beauty from the provinces whose daughter refused to speak to her; her boss Olga, an emaciated workhorse with bags under her eyes, darting from client to client in a broken-down car. And the clients, wives of the new Russians, with their dreams of garden gnomes and potted junipers as seen in soap operas and their contempt of simple Russian trees. Suddenly Oksana reached for her never-used cosmetics purse and brushed her lashes thickly with mascara, shook out her damp hair to create a wave, applied her mother’s blush to her cheekbones, painted her lips generously. Why she was doing all this, for whom, Oksana didn’t know. New Year’s Eve. New dress. Black hair down to her waist. Big, rosy mouth.
Oksana stepped into the hall. The usual bangs and screams could be heard from the apartment downstairs. Oksana opened the door to her mother’s room. Nina’s eyes widened. “Klavochka!” she yelled in the direction of the kitchen. “Come here! Our princess has put on your dress.”
Klava pursed her lips into a tight smile and announced, “Like Penélope like Cruz.” The Moscow like had become Klava’s default expression of strong emotion.
Nina Sergeevna laughed with delight. “Once, at the dacha, years ago,” she said, “we all decided to go mushroom picking, and our neighbor Vera — she was at least eighty at the time — dashed over to the mirror and started painting her lips. My mother said to her, ‘Aunt Vera, we are going to the woods; who’s the lipstick for?’ And Vera replied — I’ll never forget it — ‘Who knows? Maybe that’s where it will happen!’ ’’
Klava pursed her lips again, Oksana shrugged, and the doorbell rang. Nina opened the door a crack and saw a strange young man.
“A happy New Year to you, ma’am,” said the man. “You should call the cops: somebody’s getting killed downstairs.”
“Don’t worry, the cops stopped coming here a long time ago. They’ll come when someone finally dies, they told us,” said Oksana’s mother, shutting the door and then rushing to the kitchen, where the chicken was burning. The doorbell rang again and kept on ringing. Oksana sighed, grabbed the phone, and shuffled to the door. Alcoholics are human, too, she thought — let them use the damn phone.
The young man was still standing on the doorstep, holding his expensive leather suitcase. When he saw Oksana, his jaw dropped. “Excuse me,” he mumbled, “may I speak with you?”
“What is it?” Oksana asked impatiently. Suddenly Klava began screaming, “Misha!” Downstairs a man drunkenly yelled, “Friend, friend, come back!” and a woman begged them to call an ambulance — their own phone had been disconnected. Klava continued screaming, “Misha, is that you?”
The stranger nodded silently, staring at Oksana, unable to say a word. ‘May I come in?’ he finally asked — the voices from downstairs were approaching. Oksana sighed and stepped aside.
‘Babushka, please stop yelling; let me get undressed,’ said Misha. Then he addressed Oksana: ‘May I ask your name, Miss?’
Oksana looked at him with her enormous eyes, straightened her long neck, and answered quietly, ‘Xenia.’
‘Xenia,’ repeated Misha. ‘What a lovely name. I need nothing else in this life.’
Klava was brought to the scene. Oohs and aahs, hugs and kisses followed, along with Misha’s assurances that Klava would have a new apartment; that everything would be taken care of — here are some presents for everyone.
Mama Nina observed her daughter and wondered where this new slow grace in her movements had come from, the twinkles in her laughing black eyes, the wave in her hair, the gorgeous dress… Of course: she had made it herself.” Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, “Like Penelope;” 2013
And I should say a warm welcome to the UN Special Representative in Somalia, Michael Keating, who is here today. On Monday, we commemorated VE Day, the anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in Europe.
VE Day marked the defeat of fascism and the beginning of the end of a global war that claimed seventy million lives. General Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied forces in 1944, went on to become Republican President of the United States during some of the most dangerous years of the Cold War in the 1950s.
In his final televised address to the American people as President, Eisenhower gave a stark warning of what he described as ‘the acquisition of unwarranted influence by the military-industrial complex.’ ‘Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry,’ he said,’“can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defence with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.’
Sadly, in the more than half a century since that speech, I think it’s clear that Eisenhower’s warning has not been heeded. Too much of our debate about defence and security is one dimensional. You are either for or against what is presented as ‘strong defence,’ regardless of the actual record of what that has meant in practice.
Alert citizens or political leaders who advocate other routes to security are dismissed or treated as unreliable. My own political views were shaped by the horrors of war and the threat of a nuclear holocaust. My parents met while organising solidarity with the elected government of Spain against Franco’s fascists during the Spanish civil war.
My generation grew up under the shadow of the cold war. On television, through the 1960s and into the seventies, the news was dominated by Vietnam. I was haunted by images of civilians fleeing chemical weapons used by the United States.
I didn’t imagine then that nearly fifty years later we would see chemical weapons still being used against innocent civilians. What an abject failure. How is it that history keeps repeating itself? At the end of the cold war, when the Berlin Wall came down we were told it was the end of history. Global leaders promised a more peaceful, stable world. It didn’t work out like that.
Today the world is more unstable than even at the height of the cold war. The approach to international security we have been using since the 1990s has simply not worked. Regime change wars in Afghanistan Iraq, Libya, and Syria – and Western interventions in Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen – have failed in their own terms, and made the world a more dangerous place.
This is the fourth General Election in a row to be held while Britain is at war and our armed forces are in action in the Middle East and beyond. The fact is that the ‘war on terror’ which has driven these interventions has failed.
They have not increased our security at home – just the opposite. And they have caused destabilisation and devastation abroad.
Last September, the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee published a report on David Cameron’s Libyan war. They concluded the intervention led to political and economic collapse, humanitarian and migrant crises and fuelled the rise of Isis in Africa and across the Middle East. Is that really the way to deliver security to the British people? Who seriously believes that’s what real strength looks like?
We need to step back and have some fresh thinking. The world faces huge problems. As well as the legacy of regime change wars, there is a dangerous cocktail of ethnic conflicts, of food insecurity, water scarcity, the emerging effects of climate change. Add to that mix a grotesque and growing level of inequality in which just eight billionaires own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion poorest people.
And you end up with a refugee crisis of epic proportions affecting every continent in the world. With more displaced people in the world than since the Second World War. These problems are getting worse and fuelling threats and instability. The global situation is becoming more dangerous.
And the new US President seems determined to add to the dangers by recklessly escalating the confrontation with North Korea, unilaterally launching missile strikes on Syria, opposing President Obama’s nuclear arms deal with Iran and backing a new nuclear arms race.
A Labour Government will want a strong and friendly relationship with the United States. But we will not be afraid to speak our mind. The US is the strongest military power on the planet by a very long way. It has a special responsibility to use its power with care and to support international efforts to resolve conflicts collectively and peacefully.
Waiting to see which way the wind blows in Washington isn’t strong leadership. And pandering to an erratic Trump administration will not deliver stability. When Theresa May addressed a Republican Party conference in Philadelphia in January she spoke in alarmist terms about the rise of China and India and of the danger of the West being eclipsed.
She said America and Britain had to ‘stand strong’ together and use their military might to protect their interests. This is the sort of language that led to calamity in Iraq and Libya and all the other disastrous wars that stole the post-Cold War promise of a new world order.
I do not see India and China in those terms. Nor do I think the vast majority of Americans or British people want the boots of their young men and women on the ground in Syria fighting a war that would escalate the suffering and slaughter even further. Britain deserves better than simply outsourcing our country’s security and prosperity to the whims of the Trump White House. So no more hand holding with Donald Trump.
A Labour Government will conduct a robust and independent foreign policy – made in Britain. A Labour Government would seek to work for peace and security with all the other permanent members of the United Nations security council – the US, China, Russia and France. And with other countries with a major role to play such as India, South Africa, Brazil and Germany. The ‘bomb first, talk later’ approach to security has failed. To persist with it, as the Conservative Government has made clear it is determined to do, is a recipe for increasing, not reducing, threats and insecurity.
I am often asked if as prime minister I would order the use of nuclear weapons. It’s an extraordinary question when you think about it – would you order the indiscriminate killing of millions of people? Would you risk such extensive contamination of the planet that no life could exist across large parts of the world? If circumstances arose where that was a real option, it would represent complete and cataclysmic failure. It would mean world leaders had already triggered a spiral of catastrophe for humankind.
Labour is committed actively to pursue disarmament under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and we are committed to no first use of nuclear weapons. But let me make this absolutely clear. If elected prime minister, I will do everything necessary to protect the safety and security of our people and our country. That would be my first duty.
And to achieve it, I know I will have to work with other countries to solve problems, defuse tensions and build collective security. The best defence for Britain is a government actively engaged in seeking peaceful solutions to the world’s problems. But I am not a pacifist.
I accept that military action, under international law and as a genuine last resort, is in some circumstances necessary. But that is very far from the kind of unilateral wars and interventions that have almost become routine in recent times. I will not take lectures on security or humanitarian action from a Conservative Party that stood by in the 1980s – refusing even to impose sanctions – while children on the streets of Soweto were being shot dead in the streets, or which has backed every move to put our armed forces in harm’s way regardless of the impact on our people’s security.
Once again, in this election, it’s become clear that a vote for Theresa May could be a vote to escalate the war in Syria, risking military confrontation with Russia, adding to the suffering of the Syrian people and increasing global insecurity. When you see children suffering in war, it is only natural to want to do something. But the last thing we need is more of the same failed recipe that has served us so badly and the people of the region so calamitously.
Labour will stand up for the people of Syria. We will press for war crimes to be properly investigated. And we will work tirelessly to make the Geneva talks work. Every action that is taken over Syria must be judged by whether it helps to bring an end to the tragedy of the Syrian war or does the opposite.
Even if ISIS is defeated militarily, the conflict will not end until there is a negotiated settlement involving all the main parties, including the regional and international powers and an inclusive government in Iraq. All wars and conflicts eventually are brought to an end by political means.
So Labour would adopt a new approach. We will not step back from our responsibilities. But our focus will be on strengthening international co-operation and supporting the efforts of the United Nations to resolve conflicts.
A Labour Government will respect international law and oppose lawlessness and unilateralism in international relations. We believe human rights and social justice should drive our foreign policy. In 1968, Harold Wilson’s Labour Government signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
As prime minister, I hope to build on that achievement. Labour’s support for the renewal of the Trident submarine system does not preclude working for meaningful, multilateral steps to achieve reductions in nuclear arsenals. A Labour Government will pursue a triple commitment to the interlocking foreign policy instruments of: defence, development and diplomacy. For all their bluster, the Tory record on defence and security has been one of incompetence and failure.
They have balanced the books on the backs of servicemen and women. Deep cuts have seen the Army reduced to its smallest size since the Napoleonic wars. From stagnant pay and worsening conditions, to poor housing. The morale of our service personnel and veterans is at rock bottom.
And as the security threats and challenges we face are not bound by geographic borders it is vital that as Britain leaves the EU, we maintain a close relationship with our European partners alongside our commitment to NATO and spending at least 2 per cent on defence.
That means working with our allies to ensure peace and security in Europe. We will work to halt the drift to confrontation with Russia and the escalation of military deployments across the continent.
There is no need whatever to weaken our opposition to Russia’s human rights abuses at home or abroad to understand the necessity of winding down tensions on the Russia-Nato border and supporting dialogue to reduce the risk of international conflict. We will back a new conference on security and cooperation in Europe and seek to defuse the crisis in Ukraine through implementation of the Minsk agreements.
We will continue to work with the EU on operational missions to promote and support global and regional security. This means our Armed Forces will have the necessary capabilities to fulfil the full range of obligations ensuring they are versatile and able to participate in rapid stabilisation, disaster relief, UN peacekeeping and conflict resolution activities. Because security is not only about direct military defence, it’s about conflict resolution and prevention, underpinned by strong diplomacy.
So the next Labour Government will invest in the UK’s diplomatic networks and consular services. We will seek to rebuild some of the key capabilities and services that have been lost as a result of Conservative cuts in recent years.
Finally, while Theresa May seeks to build a coalition of risk and insecurity with Donald Trump, a Labour Government will refocus Britain’s influence towards cooperation, peaceful settlements and social justice. The life chances, security and prosperity of our citizens are dependent on a stable international environment. We will strengthen our commitment to the UN. But we are well aware of its shortcomings, particularly in the light of repeated abuses of the veto power in the UN Security Council.
So we will work with allies and partners from around the world to build support for UN reform in order to make its institutions more effective and responsive. And as a permanent member of the Security Council we will provide a lead by respecting the authority of International Law.
To lead this work, Labour has created a Minister for Peace who will work across the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We will reclaim Britain’s leading role in tackling climate change, working hard to preserve the Paris Agreement and deliver on international commitments to reduce carbon emissions.
Labour will re-examine the arms export licensing regulations to ensure that all British arms exports are consistent with our legal and moral obligations. This means refusing to grant export licences for arms when there is a clear risk that they will be used to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law. Weapons supplied to Saudi Arabia, when the evidence of grave breaches of humanitarian law in Yemen is overwhelming, must be halted immediately.
I see it as the next Labour’s Government task, as my task, to make the case for Britain to advance a security and foreign policy with integrity and human rights at its core. So there is a clear choice at this election.
Between continuing with the failed policy of continual and devastating military interventions, that have intensified conflicts and increased the terrorist threat. Or being willing to step back, learn the lessons of the past and find new ways to solve and prevent conflicts. As Dwight Eisenhower said on another occasion: If people ‘can develop weapons that are so terrifying as to make the thought of global war almost a sentence for suicide, you would think that man’s intelligence would include also his ability to find a peaceful solution.’
And in the words of Martin Luther King, ‘The chain reaction of evil – hate – begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark days of annihilation.’ I believe we can find those solutions. We can walk the hard yards to a better way to live together on this planet.
A Labour Government will give leadership in a new and constructive way and that is the leadership we are ready to provide both at home and abroad. Thank you.” Jeremy Corbyn, “Chatham House Speech;” 2017: https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/