This doctrine, that truth is not to be found in differences but in identity, was strong in medieval times, from the third century on. There was a bias against originality and a belief that every singular thing in the world, including every person, should be as like as possible to its ideal type.
Then, toward the end of the eleventh century, a reaction against this sovereignty of the abstract absolute set in. The particular began to stake its claim in opposition to the universal, and to a marked extent subvert the strenuous efforts Plato had made to keep language honest. As long as Truth was external to minds, external to. sentences and even to individual “true” things, it was safe. Language
could not trivialize or belittle it. Plato said we know what truth is because Truth is an independent entity in a separate domain, and the Sophists should keep their greedy hands off it.
Danger beckoned once the reality of universals was under question, since Christianity itself was based on such otherworldly absolutes as God and the Trinity. What if these eternal entities were not real at all, not outside time and space and even human thoughts, but simply words, names, that human beings had invented? That unsettling thesis came to be known as “nominalism,” originating in the teachings of the eleventh-century scholastic philosopher Roscellinus, whose Latin formula was universalis sunt nomina, “universals are (only) names.” Nominalism was destined to cast its influence over most of Europe. It was known as the via modema, or modern way, and eventually it was to spell the collapse of the Whole grand synthesis of medieval thought. By arguing that there is no reality apart from the single individual, that the world can be understood only one thing, one fact, at a time, nominalism made all human knowledge suspect. It also threw into question the entire relationship between language and thought. Loosely speaking, nominalism was a latter-day revival of the Sophistic distinction between pbysis and nomos, the natural and the artificial, between what is given and what is made. A Sophist, holding the View that there is a profusion of “truths”-perhaps as many as there are people to believe them-but no single, final Truth, and that language makes its own reality, would have been a nominalist in the fourteenth century AD.
In fact, Antisthenes, a leading Sophist who was among the handful of close associates present in the room with Socrates when he drank hemlock, has been called “the first nominalist.” Antisthenes denied the existence of the Platonic Forms as independent realities. There is a tale that he once said to Plato: “I see a horse, but I don’t see horseness.” Don’t feel proud of yourself, was the gist of Plato’s response. Regard it as a defect of intuition. “For you have the eye with which a horse is seen, but you have not yet acquired the eye to see horseness.” Or treeness. or blueness. or chariotness, presumably. To a nominalist, each tree, each shade of blue, every chariot, is uniq,1Q and different. Even if we could conceive horseness, the universal equine essence, it would exist only in our minds, and is just a fiction of reason. A thing has one and only one Logos; it cannot be spoken of except by its own proper description. Therefore there we go again-it is impossible to speak falsely or to contradict. Aristotle, the philosopher of common sense, called Antisthenes foolish and his followers “crude thinkers.”
At first, the rise of nominalism seemed to pose no deadly harm to church teaching and in fact tended to underscore the importance of revelation, since it also contested the Platonic idea that human rea. son can show that universals are real. You had to rely on faith. In the fourteenth century, however, nominalism, with its world-altering message that mankind can never know ultimate truth by the power of reason alone, burst onto the scene with renewed intensity and force. On the night of May 26, 1328, William of Ockham, a young Franciscan friar accused of propagating ideas deeply subversive of church authority, together with a handful of. like-minded colleagues, fled from his convent in Avignon, home of the popes in exile. Barely escaping arrest, they took ship secretly down the Rhone. At AiguesMortes, an imperial galley waited to take them to the emperor Louis of Bavaria. Ayear earlier, Louis had deposed the Avignon pope, John XXII, and set up an anti-pope in Rome. ,Ockham, a lecturer at Oxford, had been summoned to Avignon, where a committee of six theologians decided that fifty-one items in his commentaries were “heretical and pestilential.” He refused to disown them, inviting more grief for himself by taking sides against the pope on the bitterly controversial question of poverty. Ockham championed the cause of the Spirituals, a group of Franciscans who believed in practicing absolute poverty, as did the early Christians. Property, after all, did not exist in the Garden Of Eden. Two years later, he signed a protesi against a papal bull which condemned the doctrine. His escapt enabled him to carry on his polemical opposition from a secure dis/ game. He and his companions finally reached Pisa, where he pui pimself under the protection of the emperor, campaigning for political democracy in church and State, and stressing the importance of the individual over society as a whole.
The nocturnal flight of Ockham has been called a decisive moment in the history of European thought, comparable to the secret journey of Lenin in 1917 from Switzerland to Petrograd in a Sealed train, there to spread the virus of an untested ideology. In a phrase intended to emphasize that the force of ideas is not weaker diam the might of armies, Ockham’s first words to the emperor are reputed to have been: “Protect me with your sword, and I will defend You with my pen.” ’
Was Ockham the Lenin of his day? An exaggeration, certainly. In fact, he has been likened to a nineteenth-century liberal, someone like John Stuart Mill, for his utilitarian theory of property, his advocacy of civil and, to a limited extent, religious liberty and freedom of debate, and his strong belief that exceptions to rules are one of the inescapable facts of life. Like Darwin, Ockham also held fast to the view that metaphysics must be separated absolutely from the task of understanding nature. His ideas ultimately helped to bring about a fundamental change. in Western ways of thinking. Well into the twentieth century, one scholar notes, “Ockham’s name continued to carry the faint odor of disreputability and scandal in certain quarters.” His ideas have been compared to those of the twentieth-century theorist of “language games,” Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Ockham became a household word, thanks to his celebrated razor, the ever sharp blade of logic that shaves away superfluous terms and finicky distinctions that Scholasticism had manufactured in bulk over centuries of medieval thought. He probably never used such a word, but the metaphor of the razor as an instrument of economy and parsimony runs through all his work. “To employ a number of principles when it is possible to use a few is a waste of time,” is a typical Ockhamist statement of belief in the power of logital frugality.
Ockham was profoundly loyal to the church. He did not place under suspicion such theological untouchables as the Trinity. He merely shelved all aspirations to match up the inadequate instrument of the human mind with the enormous mystery of God’s operations. Like Protagoras, though in very different terms, Ockha,11 decided it was a waste of time even to attempt such an ambitious task. God must remain incomprehensible, a book closed to reason His Logos and ours are just completely different, and that is that, '
Putting the divine purpose off-limits to discussion in that way had a tremendously liberating effect on secular thought. One could do philosophy, study the natural world, uninhibited by the encumbrances of theological dogma, speculation, and authority. This implied a clean separation of the human mind from the superhuman, of history from theology, the political from the ecclesiastical) and to some extent the present from the past. Eventually, Ockham’s nominalism would lead to the vast upheavals of the Reformation, to Martin Luther. Already, in the fourteenth century, John Wycliffe in England had sided with nominalism in his campaign to make the scriptures available to all and sundry.
The sense that language had lost its moorings can be noticed in the work of William Langland, a younger contemporary of Ockham. His Piers Plowman, an allegorical poem about the search for truth, is full of tricky wordplay, verbal ambiguity, mistaken meaning, puns, and warped syntax. The scholar Mary Carruthers sees as a basic concern of the poem the task of redeeming a language that has lost its . metaphysical connection with truth. The biggest fool in Piers Plowman is a character named Will, who has a hugely inflated idea of his own ability to interpret what others say to him on important matters.
Chaucer, the greatest poet of the fourteenth century, was familiar with nominalist thinking and tinkered with the notion that no two people can communicate with each other in any meaningful way. john Gardner presents Chaucer to us moderns as a philosophical poet fascinated with nominalism, especially the idea that since my abstraction from the concrete individual thing is not “real,” but just a thought-up name, it may be entirely different from yours. I see a tomato and classify it as a fruit, but you may call it a vegetable, In the extreme version, the unreality of universals means that all ideas are private and uncommunicable: judgment subsides into mere opinion. Gardner inserts the fateful word “relativism” into his discussion pf late medieval nominalism. Our minds are just not up to the task.