Front Page Titles (by Subject) Jean Gerson and Ockhamism - Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1981, vol. 4, No. 3
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Jean Gerson and Ockhamism - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1981, vol. 4, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Jean Gerson and Ockhamism
“Ockhamism in Jean Gerson.” Michigan Academician 12(Winter 1980):365–374.
During the fourteenth century, Ockhamism spread through Western European universities, where philosophers and theologians accepted it as enthusiastically as they had the rediscovered Aristotle two centuries earlier. However, the limitations of certitude in the system soon became apparent. If philosophy and theology furnished only scant knowledge of God and the divine, other avenues to ultimate certitude had to be discovered. Thus it is understandable that, along with a new emphasis on experience and natural science, an interest in mysticism should develop as a way of filling the gap of certainty.
Within the context of mysticism and religious thought, the manner in which Jean Gerson adopted Okhamism is of interest in other fields also, particularly since Gerson was to develop an early form of individual rights theory against this religious background in such works as De Vita Spirituali Animae (1402) and Definitiones Terminorum Theologiae Moralis (1400–1415).
William of Ockham (1285–1350) had taught that knowledge of God was possible through an abstract, composite concept based on the properties and perfections of worldly things. Nevertheless, since it was impossible for a mere creature to intuit the Divine Essence, this concept was a simple supposition. For good or ill, it had to serve as the object of our knowledge of the Divinity. Thus, our concept of God stands as quite distinct from God himself. Furthermore, since our concept of God has been abstracted from a finite order of experience, it only describes the way God has freely chosen to work with the world and man. It tells nothing of what he is like in himself.
Jean Gerson (1363–1429), chancelor of the University of Paris, ecclesiastic, formulator of an early version of property rights, and mystical theologian, provides a noteworthy example of Ockhamistic influence. In his best known work, De Mistica Theologica, Gerson uses an Ockhamistic epistemology to justify his positions.
Mysticism had always been recognized in the Christian Church as a valid approach to God. But Gerson's reliance on Ockham's notion of our knowledge of God creates a dilemma for him. If he allows no real knowledge of God but only a conceptual supposition taken from things, what sort of knowledge has Gerson the mystic achieved? And, more practically, what does he love and what does he serve?
Dismissing the disputatious logic chopping of the Scholastics, Gerson praises mystical theology as the most certain of all. Theologia mystica can claim such certainty because it is grounded immediately in internal experience, and, for him, there is nothing more certain than this. Gerson advises the aspiring mystic to acquire his spiritual insight through affective penance rather than by intellectual investigation. Since love is superior to knowledge as the will is to intellect and charity to faith, mystical theology may justly claim a position of pre-eminence. Along with the Pseudo-Dionysus, Gerson acclaims mystical theology as “irrational and delirious; it is stupid wisdom exceeding all praise.”
Thus, Gerson energetically asserts the certainty of mystical knowledge. Practically, however, Gerson downplays the role of knowledge in mystical theology.