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It is commonly said that modern science neglects formal causes but attends to efficient and material causes; but classically understood, efficient and material causes cannot function or even be conceived without formal causes, for it is form which informs matter, giving concrete objects their power to act on other objects. The loss of formal causality is thus in a sense the loss of efficient and material causality as well—an implication that is not quite fully realized until we see it brilliantly explored in the philosophy of David Hume.

Of course, the gravity of the loss of teleology is also evident in the realm of ethics. Ockham was no libertine or relativist, but he prepared the way for the intractable confusion of modern moral reflection. Morality is concerned with ends, and humans, having the natures they do, need to acquire certain further qualities or forms—virtues—which help them fulfill their essential natures and achieve their ultimate end. Alasdair MacIntyre has most famously traced the inevitable failure of the Enlightenment project to explain morality without teleology. Ockham’s denial of forms and formal causality is unquestionably part of the conceptual disaster that left Enlightenment thinkers with only misunderstood fragments of a once very different project of moral theorizing.

There is another, even more basic, implication of the nominalist rejection of forms and formal causality. In the realist framework, the intrinsic connection between causes and effects was particularly important for explaining how the mind knows the world; concepts formed by the mind, insofar as they are causally connected to things which are the foundation of those concepts, necessarily retain some intrinsic connection to those things. While we can be mistaken in particular judgments, we can be assured of the basic soundness of the mind’s power, thanks to the intrinsic connection between concept and object. The kind of radical skepticism Descartes proposed, even if only methodologically, was simply never entertained through most of the middle ages. More classical versions of skepticism, usually having to do with the fallibility of the senses, were commonplace, but the possibility of a complete incongruity between the mind and reality—such that even mathematical concepts could be the product of some deceptive manipulation and have no connection to the mathematical “realities” they seem to represent—this was not available in a realist framework for which concepts are formally and so essentially related to their objects...

WHAT’S WRONG WITH OCKHAM? Reassessing the Role of Nominalism in the Dissolution of the West -

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