In last week's Notebook
I mentioned Ockham's razor, and have since had questions seeking clarification. Who was he? What was his razor all about? William of Ockham (or Occam) was an extremely influential 14th-century English philosopher whose relevance today should be far greater than it is. For one, he died of the plague. I know this, as a trip to Munich to visit his tomb was planned as part of my exciting eschatological hobby, creeping around European graveyards to visit the tombs of my favourite philosophers.
Ockham died in Munich, during the bubonic plague pandemic which wiped out most of the population of Europe in the Middle Ages – reducing it from 75 million to 20 million. Its epithet, The Black Death, still resonates with a shudder in the European psyche, to a greater extent than the more recent Spanish flu. Death from bubonic plague was horrible. Mystified as to what caused it, medieval doctors were unable to prevent or cure it. Rats, the most feared of rodents, were long thought to be the main carrier of the plague, but scientists have discovered that the vector is a flea that lives on the much-maligned mammal.
Medieval treatments included rubbing onions, herbs or chopped-up snake on the boils of an infected body. One can only hope that hallucinogenic mushrooms or 'medicinal' cannabis were freely available at the time, without the censorious disapproval of the morally upstanding muttering about brain-addled dope-heads. Luckily for the latter, the 'holy smoke' was mostly confined to Egypt. As to the psychotropic fungus, although it was widely consumed back then, the Church associated its consumption with witchcraft. It's doubtful Ockham – a Franciscan theologian – partook in either medicine to ease his undoubtedly painful demise. Interestingly, both ancient psychotropic remedies are making a comeback in modern medicine.
Radical with a razor-sharp mind
Anyway, what about Ockham's philosophy and his famous razor? The British philosopher A N Whitehead famously wrote that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato. Similarly, it could be argued that all British philosophy is a footnote to Ockham. Most 20th-century British philosophers saw themselves as working in the empiricist tradition of Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley and David Hume. But these thinkers owe much of their philosophy to Ockham, whose creed was that sense experience, combined with logic, is the only sure path to knowledge. This basic stance is behind the hard-nosed logical positivism of Russell, Carnap and the early Wittgenstein.
Part of Ockham's austere approach to philosophising is his famous razor, the principle that in order to explain anything, no more assumptions should be made than are strictly necessary. No flannel allowed. This is a very useful tool for getting shot of Plato's forms for example, as the British empiricists did. But it's also a tool which if used excessively, can veer off into scepticism and ultimately, anti-intellectualism. If not employed carefully, the razor can cut off the head as well as the beard.
Ockham's scepticism and anti-intellectualism is best seen in his insistence that many of the most important Christian doctrines cannot be established by philosophical reasoning, but instead should be accepted merely on faith. Despite the best efforts of his most famous scholastic predecessors, Aquinas and our very own Duns Scotus, philosophy cannot be utilised to defend Christianity. It is for good reason that Ockham is often called 'the First Protestant'. He is often taken to mark the death of scholasticism and the beginning of modernity.
Ockham was more than a theologian with a taste for logic. He was also a radical of sorts, throwing himself into the political disputes of the day. He famously backed the imperial power of the Holy Roman Empire in its ongoing dispute with the papacy. He went so far as to deny the Pope any authority in temporal matters. Obviously getting him in trouble, he was called to answer for his views before the pontifical court. Managing to escape, he sought refuge with Louis of Bavaria, along with other political radicals of his day (John of Jandun and Marsilius of Padua in particular). Hanging out with radicals on the lam from the Pope, before dying of the plague, makes him a rather romantic figure. It's not surprising that the detective in Eco's The Name of the Rose
was based on William of Ockham.
A lonely death
Many infected by the bubonic plague would have died alone without medical care or family around them. During this current coronavirus pandemic, we call these lonely deaths 'home deaths'. Not much is said or written about them, probably because there are fewer of them. Still, it's worth highlighting the isolated tragedies taking place across the country.
It was only a matter of time before we would hear the news that someone we knew had died of COVID-19. And sure enough, it came last week. The brother of a close friend died alone in London. We don't know exactly when he died because his body was found days after he did. My friend, isolating here in Glasgow, became increasingly concerned that she couldn't get through to his mobile phone. He was an old-fashioned gent whose mobile was an old Nokia-style model – forever giving up – that he couldn't be bothered upgrading. Eventually, my friend called his neighbour who broke down the door and found her brother's body. What the poor man endured before he died, we will never know.
We all strive for 'a good death' with any luck, but COVID-19 has put paid to that, wherever you die. It's heartbreaking for my bereaved friend enduring her loss in this strange and distressing time. Not one of us can sit with her to console her as her brother's ashes, having been cremated alone, lie in a London funeral parlour. Pauline McNeil, MSP, wrote about the plight of the bereaved in The Scotsman
recently. Speaking for her constituent, she also spoke for my friend: 'Like everyone else in this country, she should have the right to personal support... She should have the right to not have to suffer in isolation'. The problem, in the current context, is how to exercise that right. Damnable times.