The Medieval Review 11.10.27

Chang, Sheng-Chia. William Ockham's View on Human Capability. European University Studies: Theology. Frankfurt: Peter Lang GmbH, 2010. Pp. 298. . . $ 76.95. ISBN 978-3-631-59016-4.

Reviewed by:

Luca Parisoli
Universit della Calabria

This book is a doctoral dissertation accepted by the Faculty of Protestant Theology of J.W. Goethe University at Frankfurt am Main, and is in fact, as the author stresses, the final version of the original dissertation. A further revision of the typographic page would have been more visually comfortable for the reader, but the semantical message of the analysis by Sheng-Chia Chang is well expressed. This approach to Ockham is characterized by a Protestant influence, stressing, under the notion of human capability, the crucial importance of a direct and personal relationship between man and God. This relationship is not considered as a general feature of Scholastic thought but a specific feature of Ockham's thought, different from Aquinas' or Duns Scotus' strategies. The author's explicit aim is not to make a contribution to the history of ideas, but instead to present Ockham's thought about human capability as a viable resource for contemporary thought: in the face of contemporary phenomenon-driven religion, Chang proposes a better attitude toward human reason characterized by a return to medieval prudence as preferable to a strong charismatic connotation, as a contribution to "systematic theology" (14). The author wants "to improve on Bannach's approach" (11), referring to Klaus Bannach's book Die Lehre von der Doppelten Mach Gottes bei Wilhelm von Ockham (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1975), which proposes that Ockham countered philosophical determinism. Chang's position is quite different: God's omnipotence is no longer a positive interpretative tool and, in Ockham's thought, it is characterized as an ordinary power regulating human reason. With this option, it would be presumptuous to put a direct claim--in a charismatic way--to divine commands, since it is necessary to understand human capability in concrete terms.

The book is divided into three parts: "Human Capability in Light of God's Power," "Human Capability to Understand God," and "Human Capability in Relation to Doctrinal Ordination." In the first part, which is key to the author's aims, the question of potentia dei is analyzed to highlight the originality of Ockham's position. Through a comparative approach, Chang shows the reader the different meanings of potentia dei in Scholastic thought, i.e., that the strong voluntaristic position of Duns Scotus and Ockham is quite different from Aquinas', but in the context of God's two mode powers, viz., potentia absoluta and potentia ordinata, the operative meaning of potentia dei in Scotus does not have the same logical meaning in Ockham. For Scotus, God cannot act inordinately because every action A of God, even if we can now say "A will be inordinate," will be ordinate at the moment of His action, and so now A is ordinate even if A was contra legem in a time before "now." To Ockham, God cannot act inordinately because He is tied to the precedent decisions of His will. From a juridical analysis, based on the Franciscan discussion about evangelical poverty, I have proposed, working on the secondary literature, to show the difference between a normativist Scotus, near the intellectual approach of the supporter of plenitudo potestatis, and a constitutional Ockham, near the intellectual approach of supporter of the limitation of pontifical power. Chang believes that Ockham's solution is sound, and refuses radical criticism, following Gilson, who understands Ockham's agenda as a fideistic one (25). The neo-thomistic approach of Gilson cannot focus on the fact that in God there is only posse, without any distinction between necessity and contingency: "just as He creates by will, He can also do with creatures whatever pleases Him merely by will" (27). The constitutional thought of Ockham is not an intellectual construction, "the principle of non-contradiction is valid only when we can show the material limitation intrinsic to the Creation that God imposes upon Himself" (39), it is really a matter of the network of relationships between man and God. Chang is ready to stress the difference from the juridical interest of Scotus in theological matters, and the lesser interest of Ockham in normative precepts and their interpretation. I am not sure that Ockham's way of thinking is well represented in this way: Luther said that Ockham disdains the Paraclete, and the struggle against Pope John XXII is largely based on canonical and medieval Roman law. But for Chang this is an excellent tool to stress Ockham's interest in "human reason as the situational adjudicator of human acts" and "the duty of exercising the voluntary act of reasoning in a responsible way" (71). Chang also tries to free Ockham from the accusation of Pelagianism, or semi-Pelagianism, a crucial matter in the context of systematic theology, but not so relevant in a context of the history of political thought. The dialectic of divine omnipotence and human capability is not only a matter of academic speculation, but also a matter of ethical practice (8): "from Ockham we have a unique perception about the way God is revered, while in the meantime human capability is safeguarded" (8-9). This is the core of Chang's interest in Ockham, quite different from analysis founded in the primacy of the individuals or on the idea of freedom (12), but compatible with them. The matter of hatred of God commanded by Himself is quite important for Chang's proposal, and the author accepts Ockham's linguistic solution--based on the difference between denotation and connotation--proposed for the case of biblical derogations to the Decalogue's norms.

In the second part, Chang focuses on an element of voluntaristic philosophy, the lesser importance of divine causality, and tries to highlight an approach concerning man-world relations without regard to divine cause (13): Ockham radically rejects Scotus' metaphysics, in that he refuses formal distinction, a distinction different from a real one, but not merely unreal. The empirical primacy in Ockham's ontology leaves no place for a gradualist ontology of things, and there is no place for a unity lesser than the numerical unity but different from the absence of unity: Chang gives preference to Ockham's parsimonious approach in face of the great population in the ontological kingdom of Scotus, in the tradition of Saint Augustine and Saint Anselm. I think that, if we are dealing here with sound argument and not an archeology of thought--as Chang wants to do--Scotus' ontology can be defended in a better theoretical way, that is, by engaging him in a criticism of Ockham's metaphysics, but only in a theoretical scheme that dismisses the primacy of an ontological realm that doesn't include also non-space-time objects. We have here the medieval version of the Russel-Meinong debate about what exists, in that the impossible object (the unreal object) can be said to be or exist for Meinong (it is a true object), but for Russel the impossible object does not exist at all, and no meaning of being or existence can be attributed to that object.

Discussing Ockham's way to understand God and his attributes, Chang states that Ockham is not a fideist in the proper sense (196), he puts human reason in the most important position in a world marked by divine will. But the strict sense of the word "fideist" is too strong: for Chang, a fideist must totally adhere in every sense to the truth of religious matter. On the contrary Ockham shows a naturalistic, non-normative, approach to religious manifestation. In my opinion, however, fideism in philosophy is precisely the idea that there is good reason to believe in a religiously true proposition even if there is no reason to believe in it except the attribute "religiously." Ockham's rhetorical approach is not fideistic in the strict sense: the rhetoric of Ockham is founded in human reason, and this is for Ockham reason to believe in religion--this position is, again, genuinely fideism in my definition.

In the third part, we have an analysis of Ockham's epistemology in ecclesiological matters, relating to Franciscan discord under Pope John XXII, and a discussion about Christ's human nature and the Eucharist. In my opinion, this is the most problematic section of the book, maybe also the most peripheral to the core of Chang's goal: Ockham's political production is as a pamphleteer: when he writes about philosophy, he doesn't write about political matters, but when he starts to write about political matters, he no longer writes about philosophy. I think it is misleading and naïve to read the rhetoric of a pamphlet as a standard political treatise; of course it would also be naïve to think that there could be an absolute pure political theory. The science that Julien Freund called "polemology" is the science of the pamphlet: political thought is always in some degree animated by a pamphlet's intentions, but Ockham's intentions in his political writing are more in the way of a pamphlet than that in Hobbes' Leviathan. It is quite difficult to receive as a theoretical argument in hermeneutic the preference of Ockham for lexical interpretation, as Chang explains in a footnote at p. 209: Ockham is essentially defending a specific part of Franciscan disagreement, not a hermeneutic issue. Only in a pamphleteer context, I say, is it possible to affirm that one person disagreeing with a teaching on the Catholic faith determines the non-binding nature of this teaching (214). And to apply this idea to the Pope against the Franciscans, but not to the Franciscans against the Pope: John XXII and Ockham put the same proposition "one person disagreeing with a teaching on the Catholic faith determines the non-binding nature of this teaching," but John XXII is a pseudo-pope, and Ockham is a true Catholic. This is the political partisan scheme of Carl Schmitt; it is not merely an epistemological rule, but is a strong goal-oriented rule designed to serve a goal. And Chang's interpretation that Ockham preferred a conception of a Church composed by a set of individual human beings is unsound (231). It is well known that in his polemic against John XXII about whether a Franciscan could use something without having the right to use it, Ockham could use his nominalistic attitude to show that the Franciscan Order cannot have a right to use things, because it, the Order, is a persona ficta. Ockham prefers, however, to avoid this strategy against the pretention of John XXII for the impossibility to use something without a right associated to the action of using. There is surely a great deal of political philosophy in Ockham's production, but when in Opus nonaginta dierum Ockham repeats once again the same charges against John XXII, we are faced with a book which aimed to change the religious world of the age. This is compatible with a Marxian notion of political philosophy, but it is quite complicated to associate this speech with the discussions about universals, potentia dei, or formal distinction. Again, Chang speaks sometimes of an early opinion of Ockham that is opposed to a posterior one (206, 219), but the author doesn't imagine that the opinion about the individual Pope, and not the office of Pope, can be different in Ockham's mind. If the Pope is the Antichrist, is it necessary to question the notion of the Papacy or is it enough to question this-individual-pseudo-pope? A conciliarist Ockham would respond accepting the first alternative, a reactionary Ockham would respond accepting the second alternative.

Chang's book is a quite interesting doctoral dissertation, even if a further revision of the work might have stressed the more original propositions and have reduced questions marginal to the author's purposes. In terms of the history of ideas, one might find much to criticize, but Chang's intention is to produce a systematic theology for today: in this regard the book is rich in suggestions, and it is in this direction that Chang's work has to be considered, with the hope that the author will in the future provide more well developed works.