Of Truth and Cards

We included the young monk, Michael, in our weekly Karnöffel game, but then we harassed him, as older men will, when they perceive excessive seriousness in a young scholar. 

“What are you studying?” Zell asked.

“Mathematics, Latin, theology–”

Hubmaier yawned.  “Are you learning anything?  What did you learn yesterday?” 

“We talked more of the Via moderna.”

“The Modern Way,” Zell said.  “The modern way to where?”

Michael lay a card on the barrel, which Zell and I use for a table in our sty.  “Not a way to somewhere.  A way of  thinking.”

Hubmaier played.  “How is thinking different, now that it is modern?”

The boy sighed.  “Aquinas believed that theology and philosophy were one.  He united Aristotle to Scripture.  This was the old way.  The via antiqua.”

“I like Aquinas,” I said, as I caught the cards.

“Yes, but Scotus and William of Ockham began the via moderna.”

We all played again.

Michael pointed to a card face.  “See that object.  What is it?”

“An acorn,” I said.

“How do you know?  Have you a knowledge of some universal acornness?”

“I suppose.”

Michael shook his head.  “William of Ockham believed only in particulars.  So in the via moderna there are only individual things.  Acorns, leaves, hearts.  But the word ‘acorn’ is only a name.  So, the via moderna is called ‘nominalism‘.”

Zell played.  “Why should it matter whether I say, ‘acornness existed first’ or ‘I see the object and call it an acorn after I see it?'”

“Because the question is: how does man know anything?  Ockham, in his nominalism, said that the universal quality is only the voice’s breath–flatus vocis–so that to share a universal is simply to be described by that word.  The object is an acorn.  Acornness does not exist.”  

“But I knew ‘acornness’,” I said, “before I saw that one.”

“From previous objects, you learned the name was ‘acorn’.”

Hubmaier uncorked a costrel of ale and passed it around.  “How does that help me?”

“Ockham simplified Aristotle’s and Plato’s explanations of how man knows anything.  He devised the Law of Parsimony, called ‘Ockham’s Razor.’  You excise the intermediate steps.  There is the acorn, which you know only through your senses.  You were not born with knowledge of a universal acorn.  You experience the individual acorn first.  Later, you may imagine a universal concept of an acorn, but that will only be a name.  To understand the acorn, there is no need to compare it to a universal.  You delete that with Ockham’s Razor.”

There was a long pause.  Then Hubmaier spoke.  “This modern way seems a dreary philosophy.”

Michael looked surprised.  “How so?”

“Does it not reduce all knowledge to that of the senses?  There is nothing greater, nothing transcendental?”

Michael frowned.  “Maybe.”

“No universal acorn, no universal beauty.  No universal good.  No ideal of  what man can be.”

Michael shrugged.  “Man can strive to be better.”

“What is ‘better’?  If there is no ideal good, but only individual goodnesses, then there is no Better, but only individual betters.  No Truth but only individual truths.”


“Who defines those individual truths?”

“The Church.  The Pope, theologians–”

“They never agree.  So each must decide for himself.  Every man decides his own truth.” 

The young monk frowned.  Ockham only said that philosophy and theology are separate things.  There is reason and faith.  One, a man arrives at by his logic.  The other, he receives by revelation.”

“But won’t that lead to skepticism toward faith in the man committed to reason?”

Michael’s frown deepened.  “Can you not see that there are two truths?  One from reason and one from faith?”

“Two truths,” Hubmaier said softly.  “I don’t understand that.  How can there be multiple truths?  Truth is truth.  It must be one consistent entity.  If we say there are two truths, why not three hundred?  As many truths as men.  In which case, if my truth contradicts your truth, I do not see how there is any truth at all.”

(All 16th-Century German Playing Cards from The World of Playing Cards)

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. There’s a book which I consider to be the quintessential discussion of nominalism and its lasting effects on western culture. Ideas have Consequences by Richard M. Weaver. “The practical result of nominalist philosophy,” he says, “is to banish the reality which is perceived by the intellect and to posit as reality that which is perceived by the senses. With this change in the affirmation of what is real, the whole orientation of culture takes a turn. . .”

  2. Hail RefGeek,
    I dash to the bookseller’s in haste. Many thanks.

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