April 10, 2018: Who Invented “Occam’s Razor?”

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A Brief History

On April 10, 2018, adherents of the Anglican Church celebrate the Feast Day of St. William of Ockham, the Franciscan theologian and philosopher that gave us the logical tool known as Occam’s Razor, an idea oversimplified as ‘the briefest, most likely explanation is the best.’

Digging Deeper

Born in Ockham, Surrey, England around 1285, William joined the Franciscan Order as a lad and was probably educated at Oxford, believed to have completed his studies in theology for a master’s degree which was apparently not awarded (for unknown reasons). William wrote an unpopular commentary on the Peter Lombard work, Sentences, that drew the ire of Church officials. William was ordered to Avignon, France, to be tried by a Papal Court, and was faced with further charges of blasphemy for agreeing with the Franciscan principal that since Jesus and the Apostles owned no earthly goods, neither should the clergy, a position hotly denied by Pope John XXII.

Painting of a young cleanshaven man wearing golden robes and a tall conical hat with elaborate designs. He is holding a large book in his lap, and looking towards the viewer.

William and other Franciscans fled to the protection of the court of Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV of Bavaria where William continued his writing on theology and philosophy. William further angered Pope John XXII by stating that the Holy Roman Emperor should have primacy in all Church matters, not the Pope. Pope John XXII, angered by William’s writings, excommunicated William for “leaving Avignon without permission,” never specifically addressing the idea that the Emperor and not the Pope should rule the Christian world.

William died in 1347, narrowly missing the Black Death, and in 1359 was put back into the good graces of the Church by Pope Innocent VI, and was made a Saint in the Anglican Church, with a Feast Day of April 10th. William of Ockham left behind an enormous legacy of writings on theology, philosophy, politics and translations of other works. His most prominent theological/philosophical ideas included fideism, the idea that faith and reason are separate things that cannot be combined as the ways of God are not open or subject to reason. Another Ockham idea known as nominalism was that only the individual exists, that there is no “supra-individual” form such as universals, essences or abstract extra-mental forms.  Some scholars claim Ockham was a conceptualist, a believer in names as concepts rather than existing realities, that is, a concept in the mind. William also was an early pioneer of the idea that Church and State should be separate.

William of Ockham depicted on a stained glass window at a church

Of course, the most famous of William’s ideas was “Occam’s Razor,” a problem-solving philosophy that requires the elimination of as many hypothetical explanations for a phenomenon as possible. If something needs a magical, supernatural, or other hypothetical explanation for a position to be valid, that position is probably not valid. In other words, the person trying to solve a problem should not make up unprovable hypotheticals to force an explanation. Although more complex than my short explanation, you can think of Occam’s Razor as “The simplest explanation is most likely the correct one.” Occam’s Razor is not to be confused with the Scientific Method, though in a way it can perhaps be considered a sort of corollary to the Scientific Method.

Question for students (and subscribers): Have you subscribed to Occam’s Razor problem solving? Can you think of any cases where this philosophy was used to good results, or should have been used? Please tell us any experience or opinions you have about William of Ockham and his famous Occam’s Razor in the comments section below this article.

The scientific method as a cyclic or iterative process

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Bain, Francis. Occam’s Razor: The Application of a Principle; To Political Economy; To the Conditions of Progress; To Socialism; To Politics.  Forgotten Books, 2017.

Sobor, Elliott. Ockham’s Razors: A User’s Manual. Cambridge University Press, 2015.

The featured image in this article, a sketch by Ockham labelled ‘frater Occham iste’ from a manuscipt of Ockham’s Summa Logicae, MS Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, 464/571, fol. 69r},  is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.