Monday, December 12, 2011

Scotus' Razor

From The Extremely Subtle Questions on the Books of Metaphysics of Aristotle, Book VIII, Q.1, n.22:

Aliter dicitur ad quaestionem quod paucitas semper est ponenda quando per ipsam salvantur apparentia . . . Et ideo positio plurium semper debet dicere necessitatem manifestam propter quam ponantur tot; nihil autem apparet in accidentibus propter quod debeant poni composita ex duabus partibus essentialibus, communiter loquendo . . .Ideo communiter negatur talis compositio.

"Otherwise it should be said to the question [which is whether accidents are simple or composite] that we should always posit fewer things when the appearances can be saved thereby . . . therefore in positing more things we should always indicate the manifest necessity on account of which so many things are posited. But there is no apparent reason why accidents should be taken to be composed of two essential parts, commonly speaking . . . therefore such composition is commonly denied."

Scotus is a big fan of what has come to be called Ockham's Razor. Of course we find it in Aquinas too, for instance in Summa theologiae Pars 1 q.2 a.3.1: quod potest compleri per pauciora principia, non fit per plura, what can be accomplished with fewer principles doesn't happen through more. The origins of the Razor go back to Aristotle and his insight that nature does nothing in vain. It was commonly known to the scholastics, but Scotus was particularly fond of invoking it. Why then is it so associated with Ockham rather than Scotus? Is it that Scotus balances it with a judicious use of the Anti-Razor, keeping a full toolkit and insisting that we not deny more entities when they are necessary to explain the appearances, whereas Ockham uses his fewer tools more ostentatiously and vigorously?

This is, of course, the self-serving scotist interpretation. The issue has been on my mind, however, since I've been reading Armand Maurer's fine book The Philosophy of William of Ockham in the Light of His Principles. I'll say something about it here soon.


X-Cathedra said...

Sooooo what you're saying is: we have ANOTHER good reason to lay all the blame for the downfall of western civilization on Scotus's shoulders?


Pax Christi,

Edward Ockham said...

And I think I mentioned elsewhere Ockham's frequent appeal to the infinite regress argument against multiplying entities - multiplying once either means multiplying again, and then to infinity, or not multiplying, in which you don't need to multiply even once 'by parity of reason'.

It seems Ockham took a handful basic and already established principles then applied them relentlessly and consistently in places they had never been applied before.

Scotus' influence on Ockham is of course manifest in several places.

I must get hold of the Maurer. Perhaps you could say more about it here, while I am saving up the money to buy it?

Scott Williams said...

@ X-Cathedra: well, if you think the principle of parsimony leads to the downfall of western civilization, maybe you should look at Aristotle? The irony, of course, is that Aristotelian philosophy lost its celebrity during "the modern period" (whenever that was). So, maybe the downfall (if one were inclined to play this game, I am not so much) is with the rejection of Aristotelian philosophy? But that's just silly, I think. I'm not inclined to buy hook, line, and sinker the "big man" theory of history in which certain men (not women, of course?) change all of western civilization. It's not to say that the history of ideas is unimportant (of course it is important), it's just that human history is so much more complicated.

Michael Sullivan said...


I think our friend X was being flippant!


I'll post something on the Maurer book in the next day or two; I was already planning on it.