How Occam used his razor

Everyone is familiar with “Occam’s Razor”- the axiom that explanitory principles must not be multiplied beyond necessity- but almost no one is familiar with how Occam himself used the principle. The particular principles that Occam deemed unnecessary were intelligible/ specific forms like whiteness or beauty: e.g. he thought it was unnecessary to say that a white thing is white by its whiteness, a good thing was good by its goodness, or that man had the form of humanity. Occam says all this entails that:

God creates by his creation, is good by his goodness, mighty by his might… that an accident inheres by its inherence, a subject is sujected by its subjection, the apt is by its aptitude… and so on for innumerable cases.

Summa Logicae, vol 1. p.1, c.51

Occam, of course, has a point: the talk of whiteness or goodness, etc. sounds absurd if we merely multiply out the examples of it, and it would take little wit to parody. One simply has to get the hang of using suffixes like “-ness” and “-iety” and he could bring the table to a roar. But were St. Thomas, Aristotle, and Plato really as silly as all this? All three indeed insist that that any X is what it is by having the form of X- what could they have possibly meant?

The idea only seems absurd when we try to understand it by starting halfway. The ancients and Medievals saw the need for forms becuse they got to the roots of things, and were able in particular to see potency as a real principle of changeable and mobile things. So long as we recognize potency as a real principle of a real thing, it is evident from the terms that the real thing will be what it actually is through some act (call it “form”), which its potential participates in. The form is that by which something is actual, but it is not identical in everyway to the actual thing. To take an example that has been used many times: man (the composite of potency and form) is a man by humanity (the form) even though no man is humanity. But to say all this is to go too quickly: all this talk of principle and form and humanity can take on a sort of jibber-jabber quality unless we start with what is trully first.

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