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Claude Panaccio and David Piché

Ockham’s stance toward skepticism has been variously assessed

throughout the last hundred years of medieval scholarship, and much
of the fuss, as it turns out, revolved around his controversial thesis
about the intuition of non-existent beings. The great Polish medievalist
Konstanty Michalski, for one, considered this thesis to be highly char-
acteristic of the Venerabilis Inceptor’s thought, and described it in the
nineteen-twenties as “a destructive idea which had a large influence on
fourteenth century”: “The steady and ill-considered application of this
principle in the field of knowledge”, Michalski wrote, “was bound to
engender distrust and skeptical spirit in philosophy of nature as well
as in metaphysics and theology.”2 This assessment was shared by and
large by such renowned scholars as Étienne Gilson and Anton Pegis in
the thirties and the forties.3 Philotheus Boehner and Sebastian Day, on
the other hand, energetically criticized it as early as the nineteen-forties
on the basis of a much closer study of Ockham’s own writings, and
decisively corrected some of their predecessor’s worst misinterpreta-
tions, rightly insisting in the process on the fact that the intuition of
non-existents is not meant by Ockham to be misleading since it is sup-
posed to lead to the true judgement that the object in question does not
exist.4 Marilyn Adams in her landmark book of 1987 dedicated a long
and finely shaded chapter to “Certainty and Skepticism in Ockham’s
Epistemology” and concluded that Ockham on the whole showed but
very small interest in the question of skepticism and that his thought in
general and his doctrine of the intuition of non-existents in particular

All references to Ockham’s writings will be to the critical edition published under
the supervision of Father Gedeon Gál by the Franciscan Institute, St. Bonaventure,
N.Y., in two series: Opera Theologica (abrev.: OTh), 10 vols., 1967–1986; and Opera
Philosophica (abrev.: OPh), 7 vols., 1974–1988. Unless otherwise stated, the English
translations of the quotations are ours.
Michalski, 1921, p. 9 (our translation). For more on Michalski’s reading of Ockham,
see Panaccio, forthcoming a.
See Gilson, 1937, especially pp. 61–91: “The Road to Skepticism”; and Pegis, 1944.
See Boehner, 1943, 1945, and Day, 1947.

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can hardly be seen as the beginning of a skeptical trend in late medi-

eval and early modern philosophy.5 And the French scholar Elizabeth
Karger went even further in a recent paper by contending that Ockham’s
thesis about the intuition of non-existents is largely driven by strong
antiskeptical motivations.6
As a result, the current consensus is that the traditional readings of
Ockham in the first half of the twentieth century were generally mis-
guided on these topics. It is still far from clear, however, what Ockham’s
precise motivations were for holding the rather bizarre positions he
did defend about the intuition of non-existents and what connection
exactly his attitude on the subject has with the question of skepticism.
This is what we intend to re-examine in this paper. We will first recall
the main components of Ockham’s relevant doctrine, and then suc-
cessively consider what theological and philosophical reasons he may
have had for them. Our main conclusion will be that although he did
have theological reasons to some extent, the most distinctive features of
Ockham’s thought on the matter are based on a properly philosophical
attitude with respect to knowledge, which can legitimately be labelled,
in contemporary terms, as a strong form of reliabilism.

Ockham’s Theses

Ockham repeatedly describes intuitive cognition as “this cognition of

a thing in virtue of which it can be known whether the thing exists
or not;”7 and he is very explicit that “through an intuitive cognition I
judge not only that a thing exists, when it exists, but also that it does not
exist, when it does not exist.”8 Against Duns Scotus, who—in Ockham’s
rendering—holds that intuitive cognition bears “only upon what really
exists and is present”,9 the possibility of intuiting non-existent things
is clearly admitted by the Venerabilis Inceptor.

Adams, 1987, chap. 14, pp. 551–629.
Karger, 2004.
Ordinatio (abrev.: Ord.), Prologue, quest. 1, OTh I, p. 31 (with our italics).
Quodlibeta Septem (abrev.: Quodl.), V, 5, OTh IX, p. 496; Engl. transl. Freddoso
and Kelley, 1991, p. 414 (with our italics). Ockham’s main developments on the subject
are to be found in Ord., Prologue, quest. 1, OTh I, pp. 30–39 and 70–71, Reportatio
(abrev.: Rep.) II, quest. 12–13, OTh V, pp. 256–261, and Quodl. V, 5, OTh IX, pp.
495–500, and VI, 6, OTh IX, pp. 604–607.
Ord., Prologue, quest. 1, OTh I, p. 33. On this whole disagreement between Ockham
and Scotus, see Day, 1947.

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ockham’s reliabilism 99

Among human beings, however, such intuitions, according to him,

can only occur miraculously.10 In the natural order, human beings, he
thinks, can have sensible or intellectual intuitions of existing things
only, and whenever such an intuitive grasping naturally occurs, it
causes in the mind an evident assent to the contingent truth that this
thing presently exists, plus normally a number of other contingently
true judgements about the thing, that it is white, for example, or that
it is presently moving, and so on.11 As long as the laws of nature hold,
there is no such thing for us as an intuition of a non-existent being.
This is true at least for what Ockham calls ‘perfect intuitive cogni-
tion’, which exclusively has to do with present tense judgements. He
also admits of an ‘imperfect intuitive cognition’, which he defines as
“that in virtue of which we judge that a thing once was or was not.”12
Imperfect intuitive cognition, then, is a ‘recordative cognition’ (cognitio
recordativa), and can naturally occur, of course, even if its object no
longer exists at the time of the intuitive act: I might vividly remember
something that I saw just a few minutes ago, but which has ceased
to exist in the meanwhile. The object of this cognition in such a case
turns out to be something that does not presently exist.13 Yet this is
not the sort of situation we are interested in here, and Ockham him-
self, actually, finally concludes that “an imperfect intuitive cognition
is simply an abstractive cognition” since it does not induce in us a
true judgement about the present existence of anything.14 The sort of
cases we want to discuss, rather, are those intuitions of non-existent
beings that, according to Ockham, can only be caused in us by God’s
miraculous intervention.
The important point to keep in mind in this regard is that what the
intuitive cognition would cause in us in a situation of this sort is the
evident judgement that the thing does not exist. Even when miraculously

See Quodl. VI, 6, OTh IX, pp. 604–606: “The first [conclusion] is that by God’s
power there can be an intuitive cognition of an object that does not exist [. . .] The
second thesis is that an intuitive cognition cannot be naturally caused or conserved if
its object does not exist” (Engl. transl. Freddoso and Kelley, 1991, pp. 506–507).
For an explicit mention of these other contingent judgements that can be caused
by intuitive cognitions, in addition to judgements of existence, see Ord., Prologue,
quest. 1, OTh I, p. 31.
Rep. II, quest. 12–13, OTh V, p. 261.
Note however that the judgement naturally caused by such a cognition in this
case is not that the thing does not exist anymore, but only that it did exist a moment
Rep. II, quest. 12–13, OTh V, p. 262.

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caused, and even when their objects don’t exist, intuitive cognitions
for Ockham always cause true judgements about the existence or non-
existence of their objects. This is a peculiar thesis, which ran counter
to the dominant position in medieval philosophy both before and after
Ockham, and which, pace Michalski, never was very influential, as
Katherine Tachau, in particular, has amply documented.15
The doctrine, moreover, became even stranger when Ockham paused
to consider the following objection. Imagine that you have a naturally
produced intuitive grasping of some existing thing, by which you are
caused to rightly judge that this thing exists, as happens all the time in
normal life. And suppose now that God miraculously annihilates the
thing in question without modifying in any way your intuitive act of
grasping. This is something he can do according to Ockham’s theology,
since there are two really distinct things in this situation: the external
object on the one hand, and your intuitive act on the other hand. On
Ockham’s theory, you should now be induced to (rightly again) judge
that the intuited object does not exist. Which is to say that the very same
intuition which previously caused a true judgement of existence now
causes a true judgement of non-existence. But, the objection goes, how
can the very same thing—this particular intuitive act namely—cause
both a certain judgement and its opposite?16
Ockham’s answer is that when the thing exists, the intuitive act is but
a partial cause of the judgement that the thing exists, the thing itself,
in this circumstance, being another partial cause of this judgement.
Which is why, Ockham writes,
[. . .] I concede that the cause of those [opposite] judgements is not the
same, since the cause of one of them is the cognition without the thing,
while the cause of the other is the cognition with the thing as an addi-
tional partial cause.17
The rather bizarre picture we end up with is that when an intuitive
cognition acts alone, what it causes in the mind is a judgement of
non-existence, and when the thing joins in, the total effect is radically
different without the intuitive act itself being modified in any way, as

See Tachau, 1988, e.g. p. 124n.: “[. . .] when medieval scholars before and after
Ockham spoke of an ‘intuitive cognition of a non-existent [object]’ they generally
specified that they referred to the ‘intuitive cognition of a non-existent object by which
it is perceived as present and existing’.”
Ord., Prologue, quest. 1, OTh I, p. 56.
Ibid., p. 71.

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ockham’s reliabilism 101

if the external thing had some independent effect on our judgements

without going through the channel of our intuitive grasping of it!
And further surprising consequences of the theory come out when
the following question is raised: Which object is it exactly that we are
intuiting when we have an intuition of a non-existent thing? Ockham’s
answer was that the intuited object in such a case is the one thing that
would have caused this very same intuitive act if the latter had been
naturally caused instead of being miraculously induced by God.18
Since, however, this particular object is not supposed to exist in the
situation, this answer seems to strongly commit him to attributing a
special ontological status to mere possibilia: there would simply be no
distinction, otherwise, between this particular non-existent object that
would have caused this intuitive act in natural circumstances, and
any other old non-existent thing. And it also seems to imply certain
unexpected positions about causality: that in the natural order, namely,
any given effect can have only one singular (though possibly complex)
cause. If, in other words, A is a singular thing that is in fact caused by
another singular thing B in the natural order, then A could not in any
naturally possible world be caused by anything but B. Which is indeed
an interesting, but pretty strong metaphysical thesis to hold . . .
None of this, obviously, can be grounded on empirical evidence. The
question, then, is this: What exactly did Ockham want this peculiar
doctrine for? What were his theoretical motivations? And were they,
in particular, predominantly theological, or did some properly philo-
sophical and epistemological considerations play, as we will maintain,
a decisive role in its resolute adoption by the Venerabilis Inceptor?

Theological Reasons

Given his professional title and the texts he was reading, Ockham is
prima facie likely to have worked out some theological doctrines that
might have logically implied the thesis of the intuition of non-existents.
We have retained four candidates in order to check this assumption:
(1) divine omnipotence; (2) divine omniscience; (3) beatific vision; (4)
prophetic knowledge.

Quodl. I, 13, OTh IX, p. 76.

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Divine Omnipotence
Among these four, the doctrine of divine omnipotence holds a particu-
lar status, since it is, so to speak, the condition of possibility for the
Ockhamistic thesis of the intuition of non-existents, and the Venerabilis
Inceptor in fact explicitly uses it in support of the thesis.19
There are two ways, in his view, to make explicit the idea that God
can do everything, except what is contradictory. First, God can perform
immediately by himself everything that he ordinarily does by means of
secondary causes. Second, given two absolute things, distinct in place
and subject, God can make it that one of them exists without the other.
Both statements directly apply to the case of intuitive cognition. It fol-
lows from the first one that although God has established the natural
order of things in such a way that the direct cause of an intuition nor-
mally is an existent and present object, he can immediately produce an
intuitive act in any cognitive power even if the object of this intuitive
cognition does not exist. And it follows from the second statement that
God can give existence to an intuitive act without giving existence to
its object, since the former is an absolute thing which is locally and
subjectively distinct from the latter.
So there is no doubt about this: divine omnipotence is the doctrine
without which the thesis of the intuition of non-existents would not be
possible in Ockham’s thought. What does not follow from it, however,
is that the intuitive act in such a case should cause the true judgement
that the thing does not exist. It would have been totally compatible
with God’s omnipotence that an intuitive act miraculously kept in
existence without its normal object should then cause in us the very
same judgement that it would normally cause if the object existed, that
the object exists namely, a judgement which in this special case would
simply be false. This is how most other medieval authors who accepted
the possibility of an intuition of non-existents viewed the matter, and
nothing in the first article of the Catholic Creed, “Credo in Deum Patrem
omnipotentem”, implies differently. God’s omnipotence, in other words,
is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for Ockham’s special theses
about the intuition of non-existent beings.

Quodl. VI, 6, OTh IX, pp. 604–605.

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Divine Omniscience
Ockham falls in with the idea, commonly accepted by the theologians
of his time, that God knows not only himself, but also all things pres-
ent, past, future and even possible. Properly speaking, we should say,
Ockham thinks, that “God himself, or the divine essence, is one single
intuitive cognition both of himself and of every other thing.”20 How
God knows all things other than himself, however, turned out to be
a difficult problem for medieval thinkers, which had to be solved in
conformity with two essential beliefs: God’s unconditional freedom and
his absolute simplicity. The key to the solution was usually sought in
the Augustinian doctrine of divine ideas, and Ockham in this respect
is no exception. Yet he puts forward a completely new interpretation
of this doctrine, which, as we shall see, has significant bearing on the
question of the intuition of non-existents.
The term ‘idea’, for him, is a connotative term, and its meaning,
consequently, can be unfolded in a nominal definition,21 which, he
contends, should be the following: “an idea is something cognized by
an efficient intellectual principle which is such that attending to it, this
active principle can produce something in real being.”22 For Ockham,
the question is: what is it that this definition applies to in the case
of God? After having considered and dismissed divine essence itself
and both real relations and relations of reason as possible candidates,
he surmises that as a characterization of divine ideas, the definition
adequately applies only to the creatures themselves.23 This is Ockham’s
original view on the matter: the divine ideas are the creatures them-
selves, which are known from eternity by the divine intellect as possible
beings, to which God can give real existence in a rational way, precisely
by looking at them as patterns of production. The creatable thing is for
itself its own archetype; and the best one indeed since it is identical to

Ord. I, dist. 38, questio unica, OTh IV, p. 585.
Ord. I, dist. 35, quest. 5, OTh IV, p. 485. It is a crucial tenet of Ockham’s seman-
tics that all connotative terms—by contrast with what he calls ‘absolute terms’—have
a nominal definition, which makes their meaning explicit. See on this his Summa
logicae I, 10, OPh I, pp. 36–37. A detailed account of the role of nominal definitions
in Ockham is provided in Panaccio, 2004, chap. 5, pp. 85–102.
Ord. I, dist. 35, quest. 5, OTh IV, p. 486.
Ibid., pp. 488–489.

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itself! No intermediary archetypal entity intervenes in the process of

God’s cognition of the creatures.24
Provided that we take the ideas to be objects of thought which give
a term to the divine act of knowing, it is correct, according to Ock-
ham, to claim with the Christian tradition after Augustine, that God
knows all things other than himself by the ideas, which in Ockhamistic
terms amounts to saying that God knows the creatures by grasping the
creatures themselves. Yet the idea is not merely the quo, that by which
something other is known, or the ratio, the cause or the principle, of
God’s knowledge, but rather “illud quod cognoscitur”,25 that very thing
which is known. In order to create the various things with wisdom,
God does not need anything but his own knowledge of the creature.
Since this knowledge is nothing but the divine essence itself, Ockham
ends up with the claim that it is because God is God that he knows
all things.
This radical and ontologically simple position has the merit, first
and foremost, of being consistent with two crucial ideas in Ockham’s
thought, namely the ontological singularity of every thing, and the
epistemological immediacy of intuitive cognition. It is in harmony,
moreover, with the two dogmatic beliefs mentioned above. Indeed, it
guarantees the unconditional freedom of God, since nothing apart from
the divine mind is necessary with respect to the act of creation; and it
does not compromise the absolute simplicity of God, since the many
ideas neither are the divine essence, nor different ways of conceiving
this essence as imitable, and if the ideas are said to be in God, that only
means that they are known by him.
But what kind of existence are we to attribute to the creatures insofar
as they are so grasped by the divine intuition? The problem arises if we
consider the novelty of the world in connection with the divine eternity
(if such a thing is possible): from eternity, before the world was made,
the divine mind must have conceived of all things, while none of these
existed. And even if we consider the situation which prevails after the
creation of the world, we are led to conclude that there are plenty of
things that God cognizes as things that could be created, but which
he knows he will never give existence to, as opposed to the things he

Several studies have been dedicated to this theme in Ockham. See in particular:
Adams, 1987, especially chap. 24, pp. 1033–1063; Biard, 1999, especially pp. 67–85;
Maurer, 1999, especially chap. 5, pp. 205–228; Michon, 2002; Robert, 2003.
Ord. I. dist. 35, quest. 5, OTh IV, p. 507.

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ockham’s reliabilism 105

has actually decided to create. God, then, must be seen, in Ockham’s

thought, as a single intuitive act who cognizes from eternity an infinite
number of non-existent things. From which it follows that the intuition
of non-existents, before being a logical possibility for the wayfarer, is
a real act in God. Moreover, since the foundation of the creation is an
uncreated intuition of all creatable things which could exist but do not
exist yet, and perhaps will never exist, what is logically possible for the
wayfarer—namely the intuition of non-existents—is founded on the
absolute necessity of the first being.
As a matter of fact, the link between divine knowledge and the
intuition of non-existents is explicitly drawn twice by Ockham himself.
In the first question of the Prologue of the Ordinatio, after having con-
cluded that the intuitive knowledge of a non-existent thing is possible,
Ockham writes that it is clear thus how God knows with evidence that
the creatures do not exist, when they do not exist, just like he knows
with evidence that they exist, when they exist, since God has the intuitive
knowledge of all things, existent as well as non-existent.26 And in his
Quodlibeta VI, question 6, Ockham holds that there is no contradiction
that what is not actual should be the object of an intuition, provided
that it could exist as a being in act or that it already did exist as such.
Which is why, he adds, “God saw from eternity all creatable things,
although they were nothing.”27
Once more, however, this understanding of God’s knowledge as
involving an intuitive cognition of non-existents, in no way entails that
such intuitions should cause true judgements of non-existence when
they miraculously occur in human beings. Even if God is credited with
an adequate intuitive and immediate grasping of every possible being, as
Ockham holds, this yields no prima facie reason to believe that human
intuitive acts are never misleading. Human intuitions, after all, are a
completely different sort of reality than the divine intuition, the latter,
in Ockham’s view, being identical with God himself. Ockham’s theology
here, however closely related to his general ontology and epistemol-
ogy, cannot account for the distinctive peculiarities of his theory of the
intuition of non-existents in human beings, any more than his theology
of divine omnipotence did.

Ord., Prologue, quest. 1, OTh I, p. 39.
Quodl. VI, 6, OTh IX, p. 607.

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Beatific Vision
Given the Ockhamistic idea of God as an infinite intuitive cognition of
all creatable things, one might be tempted to conclude that the blessed
who sees the divine essence would then have in himself the intuition
of some non-existent things. The reasoning would be the following: the
divine essence, which is an infinite cognition, is a perfect representation
of any thing, existent or non-existent; but the beatific vision precisely
consists in grasping by a single act of intuition the divine essence and
everything it represents; the blessed, therefore, intuitively cognizes
(although in a mediate way) some things which do not exist.
If this reasoning was right, the thesis of the intuition of non-existents
would follow from the doctrine of the beatific vision, and we would thus
have a strong additional theological reason in favour of it. Ockham,
however, would have refused both the major and the minor premises
of the argument.
To see why the major premiss should be rejected from an Ock-
hamistic point of view, we must turn to Ockham’s analysis of the verb
‘to represent’ in Quodlibeta IV, 3, where he explicitly addresses the
subject of beatific vision. ‘To represent’, he says there, can be taken
in three senses: (1) the first meaning is “to be that by means of which
something is cognized, in the way that something is cognized by means
of a cognition”: a representation in this sense is the cognitive act itself;
(2) in the second meaning, “ ‘represent’ is taken for that which is such
that once it is cognized, something else is cognized”, as in the case of
an image which leads to the cognition of what it represents by means
of the memory; (3) in the third meaning, finally, “‘represent’ is taken
for something that causes a cognition, in the way that an object or an
intellect causes a cognition.”28
Now, God for Ockham is a representation in the first sense of the
word, since he is a cognition of all things. But in this sense, he repre-
sents only for himself, since his essence is a cognition by which no one
other than himself cognizes.29 In the second sense, Ockham believes
that it is possible that God would be a representation of some things
for somebody other than himself. The person who would have a cogni-
tion of God would then be led, by the mediation of a commemorative

Quodl. IV, 3, OTh IX, p. 310 (Engl. transl. Freddoso and Kelley, 1991, p. 257).
Ibid., pp. 310–311.

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cognition (notitia recordativa), to think abstractly of a creature he would

have seen or known before.30 But such a cognition being abstractive,
no intuition of non-existents is involved in this case. According to the
third sense of the verb ‘to represent’, finally, God indeed represents all
things, but as a voluntary, not a natural cause. In this sense, God, if he
wanted so, could of course cause the vision of any given creature in the
blessed intellect, but the causal process, then, would be neither neces-
sary nor natural.31 Although an intuition of non-existents could then
occur—since this is something God can induce in anybody—, it would
not automatically follow upon the beatific grasping of God’s essence,
but it would depend on an additional special divine intervention.32
As to the minor premiss of the argument formulated above, it should
also be rejected under the terms of Ockham’s doctrine of beatific vision.
Beatific vision, according to him, is indeed a simple intuitive act, and
a direct one (rectus) since it is a cognition of the thing seen and not
a cognition of the cognition of this thing (in which case it would be
a reflexive act).33 But in order for such an act to be beatific, according
to Ockham, it is enough for it to have precisely for object the divine
essence and nothing else, or, stated otherwise, it is enough for the
essential beatification of an intellect that God causes in it a vision of
his essence, without inducing any intuition of creatures.34 Contrary,
then, to what was assumed in the minor premiss of the above argu-
ment, it is not necessary for an act to be beatific that anything besides
God should be intuited by it.
In short, the Ockhamistic doctrine of beatific vision does not dis-
tinctively require the thesis of the intuition of non-existents. For the
blessed as well as for the wayfarer, this kind of intuition is a special
supernatural event which occurs only if God decides to intervene in
this way.

Ibid., p. 311. See also Quodl. IV, 5, p. 319 (Engl. transl. Freddoso and Kelley,
p. 263): “[. . .] one who sees God does not see distinctly all the things that God sees.
Still, he is indeed able to cognize all those things abstractively [. . .]”.
Quodl. IV, 3, p. 312.
See Rep. IV, quest. 15, OTh VII, p. 326: “[. . .] it can be reasonably posited that
God when causing an act of vision with respect to his own essence can also cause an
act with respect to one or several creatures, as it pleases him [. . .]”
See Rep. IV, quest. 15, OTh VII, p. 329.
See on this the whole development of Rep. IV, quest. 15, OTh VII, pp. 318–339.

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Prophetic Knowledge
There are prima facie reasons to think that prophetic knowledge, as
described in the Bible, involves something like the intuition of non-
existents. Prophets sometimes relate having had visions of things that
did not exist at the moment of the visions. Ezechiel, for example, claims
to have clearly seen in a vision the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s temple with
all the details of its new architectural structure.35 And Amos describes
a number of things that God showed to him in visions: a cloud of
locusts, a mason’s tool, or a basket of fruits.36 The prophet in such cases
presumably knows that the singular objects of these visions do not
presently exist, even if he thinks that they might come to exist under
certain circumstances. It could be conjectured, then, that Ockham’s
doctrine of the intuition of non-existents was specifically designed to
accommodate these prophetic visions.
Ockham’s own description of prophetic knowledge, however, explic-
itly leaves it open that it might occur without the support of any intui-
tive cognition. In Quodlibeta IV, 4, he acknowledges three different
possibilities.37 The first of these, admittedly, is that the prophet might
have an evident knowledge of a future contingent proposition (e.g. that
the Virgin will give birth) on the basis of an intuitive cognition of what
the terms of this proposition stand for. Since the required intuitions
then relate to things which do not exist at the time when the revela-
tion occurs, God himself, in this hypothesis, must have supernaturally
caused these intuitions in the intellect of the prophet, and they must be
such that once they are so caused, the prophet knows that these objects
do not presently exist. Which indeed closely corresponds to Ockham’s
typical description of intuitive cognitions of non-existent beings. But
the problem is that Ockham also admits of two other acceptable ways of
accounting for prophetic knowledge. In one of them, God would directly
cause in the prophet’s intellect an evident assent to a future contingent
proposition without the intermediary of any intuitive cognition. In the
other one, God would cause in the prophetic intellect an act of faith
(or belief) rather than an evident knowledge, in which case, obviously,
no intuition at all would be implied. Ockham, then, concludes, not
without a touch of humour, that which one of these possibilities was

See Ezechiel 40.
See Amos 7–8.
Quodl. IV, 4, OTh IX, pp. 317–318.

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ockham’s reliabilism 109

in fact realized in the minds of the prophets, he simply doesn’t know

since this has not been revealed to him (“quid de facto sit nescio quia
non est mihi revelatum”) . . .38
The case of prophetic knowledge, therefore, leads us to a non deci-
sive result with respect to our initial questioning. Although the occur-
rence of intuitive cognitions of non-existent beings is acknowledged
by Ockham as a possibility in such cases, this could hardly have been
his main motivation for the doctrine: since he also admits of other
possibilities, among which he refuses to choose in the end, we cannot
conclude that the Ockhamistic conception of what prophecy amounts
to, inevitably calls for the thesis of the intuition of non-existents as he
understands it.
Our general conclusion, at this point, must be that among the four
theological theories that we have considered, only divine omnipotence
has, in the context of Ockham’s thought, a direct impact on the pos-
sibility of intuitive cognitions of non-existent things by human minds,
but that it is not sufficient in itself to account for what is most specific
about Ockham’s doctrine on the matter, namely that such intuitions,
should they occur, would cause true judgements of non-existence.
Divine omniscience, on the other hand, does entail, as Ockham under-
stands it, that God has a direct and adequate intuitive cognition of
non-existent beings, but it has no consequence whatsoever upon human
cognition. As to beatific vision and prophetic knowledge, it turns out
that they could occur, in Ockham’s view, without any human intuition
of non-existent beings.

Philosophical Concerns

This being clarified, our contention is that Ockham’s distinctive doctrine

of the intuition of non-existents was rooted in what is called today a
basically ‘reliabilist’ attitude with respect to human knowledge. In order
to make the point, we will first demarcate our interpretation from an
intriguing suggestion recently advanced by Elizabeth Karger, according
to which what Ockham really sought with this doctrine was to neutralize
the radical skeptical consequences that acknowledging the possibility
of divine deception would otherwise entail. And we will then explain

Ibid., p. 318.

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our own view of how Ockham’s position on the matter is related with
the philosophical question of skepticism.

Divine Deception
The theological possibility that God should deceive us even in our
most vivid experiences seems to imply some sort of radical skepticism.
Couldn’t I be, after all, a brain in a vat or a purely spiritual being manip-
ulated for some mysterious reasons by an omnipotent God? Elizabeth
Karger, in a recent paper, contrasts Ockham and Adam Wodeham on
this. Wodeham, she says, bites the bullet and grants “that we cannot
know of any external thing—more precisely, of any thing other than
our own mind—that it exists.”39 “Ockham, on the other hand,” Karger
claims, “avoided this consequence”;40 and how he did it, she holds, was
precisely with his doctrine of the intuition of non-existents. Ockham’s
view, according to Karger, was that the possibility of divine decep-
tion—which he does admit—is rendered “epistemologically harmless”41
by the theory in question:
[. . .] on Ockham’s doctrine, when I am perceiving a thing, as I am now
perceiving a tree, and it seems to me evident, in virtue of the perception
I am having of it, that the thing exists, causing me to judge that it exists,
I can rule out the possibility that God should be deceiving me in the way
just described.42
If Karger is right, it must have been one of Ockham’s main motiva-
tions for his peculiar theses on the intuition of non-existent beings
to philosophically neutralize the wild theological possibility that we
should be radically deceived by God in our existential judgements
about external things.
There is much we find to agree with in Karger’s interpretation, but
she goes a bit too far, we think, in claiming that a human cognitive

Karger, 2004, p. 229. Her—totally convincing—references are to questions 2 and
6 of Wodeham’s Prologue to his Lectura Secunda in librum primum Sententiarum, ed.
R. Wood, St. Bonaventure, NY, The Franciscan Institute, 1990, vol. I, pp. 34–64 and
143–179. See e.g. p. 169: “No such judgement [about the existence of some external
thing] is simply evident with an evidence that excludes any possible doubt”; and p. 170:
“In virtue, however, of an intuitive cognition [. . .], it can evidently be judged that a
whiteness exists unless God is deceiving us” (italics by us).
Karger, 2004, p. 229.
Ibid., p. 225.
Ibid., p. 232.

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ockham’s reliabilism 111

agent could be in a position to rule out—on his own, so to say—the pos-

sibility of presently being deceived by God. As Karger rightly remarks,
Ockham does admit the possibility for God to deceive us any time he so
chooses, by directly causing in us a false conviction about the existence
of some external things.43 In such a case the false conviction would
not be caused by an intuitive act, but directly by God, and this would
not be, therefore, a situation where an intuitive cognition misleads the
agent. Nevertheless, the agent would indeed be misled: “And through
such an act of belief”, Ockham says, “a thing can appear to be present
when it is absent.”44 Nothing indicates that Ockham wanted to endow
intuitive acts with special subjective features that would allow the agent
to distinguish them from miraculous false appearances. We can never
fully rule out, then, the possibility that this is what is presently hap-
pening when something seems to be present to us.
Compare, in particular, the following two situations: first, the normal
one, in which I have an intuitive grasping of something, and I rightly
judge, because of this grasping, that the thing exists; and second, the
miraculous situation in which God annihilates the external thing, but
keeps this very same intuitive cognition in existence within me, while
neutralizing its causal import, causing in me instead a false judgement
of existence. Our point is that Ockham is fully—and self-consciously—
committed to the possibility of the second situation, and that those two
situations, in his view, would be totally indiscernible from one another
for the agent. What ultimately distinguishes the second situation from
the first one is how the judgement of existence is caused: it is caused
by the intuitive act in the normal situation, and directly by God in
the miraculous situation. But such causal paths, for Ockham, are not
introspectively perspicuous to the agent.
It is true, of course, that if the proposition that this tree exists seems
evident to me in virtue of my intuitive cognition of the existing tree,
then it could not be the case that the tree does not exist. It cannot
simultaneously be the case, in other words, that my intuitive cognition
is caused by the existing tree and that the tree does not exist: this would
be a plain contradiction. But the point is that I can never, in Ockham’s
approach, completely rule out the possibility that both the intuitive

Quodl. V, 5, OTh IX, p. 498.
Ibid., p. 498; Engl. transl. Freddoso and Kelley, 1991, p. 416 (slightly amended;
italicized by us).

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112 claude panaccio and david piché

cognition and my judgement of existence are directly caused by God

while the external thing does not exist. Since the existential judgement
would then be false, what it all amounts to is that I can never rule out
the possibility that I am presently being misled in precisely this way.
The general Ockhamistic principle that applies here is that whatever
is in the agent’s mind at any given moment is a distinct mental qual-
ity, and that, consequently, it could in principle be kept in existence
by God, whatever the external contingent conditions are. However it
is that I internally feel, in other words, and whatever mental quality
is present in me, it is always logically compatible with God deceiving
me. The possibility, then, that I am presently being radically deceived
by God as to what is going on around me, simply cannot be ruled out
on the basis of my internally accessible states of mind. This directly
follows from some of Ockham’s most deeply entrenched positions,
and he could hardly have failed to notice it. Our conviction, indeed,
is that he would have granted the point without qualms and that this
is just what he was doing in fact when he wrote, as quoted earlier,
that through God’s miraculous intervention, “a thing can appear to be
present when it is absent.”
If so, the main point of Ockham’s doctrine of the intuition of non-
existents cannot have been to neutralize the epistemological skepticism
induced by such radical possibilities.

The Reliability of Intuition

We do think, however, that there is some antiskeptical motivation
for the doctrine in Ockham, but of a more modest brand, so to say: a
reliabilist motivation namely. Reliabilism, in recent philosophy, is the
idea that a belief is justified insofar as it has been caused by a reliable
process, the reliability of a process, in this vocabulary, being its tendency
to cause true judgements.45 Reliabilism normally goes hand in hand
with some form of externalism in epistemology, which is the thesis
that a belief is justified insofar as certain external factors are present:
how much a belief is justified for a certain agent in this view, is not
merely a matter of what is subjectively accessible to the agent, of how
he feels so to say, but it depends, rather, on whether certain objective

For a short and well-informed presentation of reliabilism, see Goldman, 1993. In
recent philosophy, the position has been promoted in particular by Armstrong, 1973,
Goldman, 1986, and Sosa, 1991, among others.

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ockham’s reliabilism 113

conditions actually hold, independently of whether the agent is aware

of it or not. In a reliabilist approach, these non-subjective factors will
have to do with how the belief was actually caused.
Now, this is what we have in Ockham. In the strong sense, an
authentic knowledge is defined by him as an ‘evident cognition’;46 and
a cognition, in his vocabulary, is said to be ‘evident’ not merely when
it is taken by the knower as subjectively certain, however strong this
conviction might be, but when (1) it bears upon a true proposition, and
(2) “it is apt to be sufficiently caused, mediately or immediately, by the
incomplex cognition of the terms [of this proposition].”47 That a belief,
then, should be so justified as to be called ‘knowledge’ depends upon
two external factors. The first one is that the belief has to be true. Not
even God could induce in me an evident knowledge of something false:
this would simply be contradictory.48 And the truth of a proposition,
of course, usually depends on how the world really is, not on how the
agent feels. But it is mainly the second condition which is of interest
for us in the present context. The cognitive status of a belief, for Ock-
ham, depends on how it is caused, which is something the agent might
not be aware of: Ockham, in this way, resolutely turns out to be an
externalist in epistemology.49 And what, in his perspective, grounds the
‘evidence’ of a cognition is that the causal process in question should
be naturally reliable.
The latter point is the one we want to stress. In the natural order,
the cognitive process Ockham has in mind can be divided in two
stages. First, the external thing, when it is present and the conditions
are favourable, causes an intuitive act in the agent’s mind. And second,
this intuitive act in turn causes the agent to give his assent to the true
contingent proposition that the thing exists. Ockham, we surmise,
seems to have thought that the epistemological reliability of the whole

Exp. in libros Physicorum Aristotelis, Prologue, paragr. 2, OPh IV, p. 6. Ockham
in this passage distinguishes four senses of the term ‘knowledge’ (scientia), and only
the weakest—according to which certain things are said to be known when they are
believed on the basis of reliable testimonies—makes no use of the notion of ‘evident
cognition’. See on this Panaccio, forthcoming b.
Ord., Prologue, quest. 1, OTh I, p. 5.
See Quodl. V, 5, OTh IX, p. 408: “[. . .] God cannot cause in us a cognition through
which it would evidently appear to us that a thing is present when it is absent, since
this involves a contradiction” (Engl. transl. Freddoso and Kelley, 1991, p. 415; itali-
cized by us).
For a detailed argument on this, see Panaccio, Forthcoming c, especially section
3: “Epistemic externalism”.

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114 claude panaccio and david piché

process required the independent reliability of the second stage. Which

amounts to saying, just as he did, that intuitive acts, once they occur,
should naturally cause true existential judgements. God, of course, could
miraculously prevent a given intuitive cognition from causing anything
and he could instead cause a false conviction within the agent—this is
where the possibility of divine deception comes in—, but the point is
that if the intuitive act should cause an existential judgement at all, then
it will be a true judgement, even if the first stage of the process has been
independently tampered by God. From which it follows that if God has
chosen to cause an intuitive act himself while the external object did
not exist, the existential judgement caused by this intuitive act should
be that the thing does not exist, as Ockham holds.
What Ockham wants, in other words, is that the natural cognitive
process which is triggered inside the intellect by an intuitive act should
be independently reliable, even though the agent is normally not aware
of how it works. Not only does this reliabilist attitude smoothly account
for his most distinctive thesis about the intuition of non-existents
(that it leads to true judgements of non existence, namely), but it is
consonant, moreover, with some very explicit statements he makes
about human cognition. In the Reportatio, for example, he subscribes
to the principle that our intellectual processes should not be taken by
philosophers to be intrinsically misleading: “what leads the intellect
in error should not be posited within the intellect.”50 This principle,
admittedly, occurs in the formulation of an objection addressed to
him about intuitive cognition, but his reply makes it clear that he does
accept it, and that intuitive cognition, in his view, “in no way leads the
intellect in error”, whether it is naturally or supernaturally caused, and
whether its external object exists or not.51 And he makes it clear in the
Ordinatio that the main feature he wants for intuitive cognition is that
it should be such as to lead the intellect to true existential judgements,
whatever its own cause should be:
It is sufficient for intuitive cognition that whenever it occurs, it should
suffice by itself for producing a correct judgement about the existence or
non-existence of a thing.52

Rep. II, quest. 12–13, OTh V, p. 281.
Ibid., pp. 286–287.
Ord., Prologue, quest. 1, OTh I, p. 70.

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ockham’s reliabilism 115

Human intellectual intuitive acts constitute a natural kind of men-

tal qualities for Ockham. The principle of divine omnipotence as he
understands it entails, as we saw, that such qualities can be caused by
God even if their normal objects do not exist. And it also entails that
their own causal powers can be neutralized by God if he so wishes.
But what turns out to be essential to them, in Ockham’s view, is their
natural reliability: once they come into existence, whether naturally or
supernaturally, then the causal process they are part of (along with the
thing, if it exists) naturally tend to cause true judgements about the
existence (or non-existence) of their objects.
It is true, as Elizabeth Karger has shown, that in cases of sensory illu-
sions, Ockham admits that our intuitive graspings can tend to induce
in us certain false judgements.53 Seeing a stick half-immersed in water,
for example, can tend to cause in me the erroneous belief that the stick
is broken.54 But, as Karger has also rightly insisted, these phenomena
occur only in special circumstances, and the false judgements induced
by such illusions can always be resisted, e.g. by someone who is familiar
with refraction. And sensory illusions, above all, do not prevent any
given intuitive act to also cause true contingent judgements, about the
existence of certain things in particular. Within these limits, then, intui-
tive cognitions can still be said to be essentially reliable for Ockham.
This reliabilist perspective, most notably, has a crucial consequence
for the question of skepticism: it makes it possible for human beings
to evidently know certain contingent truths about external things. And
this holds even though, pace Karger, we can never fully rule out the
possibility that God is presently deceiving us. To see the point, let us
recall that an evident knowledge, for Ockham, is a true judgement
naturally induced in us by the cognition of those singular things that
the component terms of the believed proposition refers to. I can be
said, for example, to evidently know that this thing in front of me is
white when my belief that it is white is indeed true, and caused, in
addition, by my intuitive cognitions of the thing in question and of
its whiteness. This is basically what happens, according to Ockham,
when an intuitive cognition occurs in me (unless, of course, its causal
powers should be supernaturally neutralized). Contrary to Wodeham,

See Karger, 1999, especially pp. 218–220. Ockham’s relevant development is in
Ord. I, dist. 27, quest. 3, OTh IV, pp. 243–251.
Ord. I, dist. 27, quest. 3, OTh IV, p. 247.

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then, Ockham can grant without reservation the possibility of human

contingent knowledge about the existence of external things. Karger
on this is absolutely right.
Yet, this remains compatible with the supernatural possibility of
radical divine deception, because it is sufficient for human knowledge,
according to Ockham, that the relevant causal conditions should be
fulfilled in fact. He does not take it to be necessary, in addition, that we
should know that they are so fulfilled. Ockham, in other terms, agrees
with modern reliabilists that first-order knowledge does not require
that the agent should have any second-order knowledge about his own
knowledge: I can have the evident knowledge that a certain thing exists
without having the evident knowledge that I have this knowledge. So
even if I cannot rule out the possibility that God presently deceives
me, if my belief that a certain thing exists (or not) is in fact correctly
caused by my intuitive cognitions, then I do have an evident knowledge
that the thing exists (or not). Ockham’s reliabilism effectively counters
skepticism understood as the thesis that human beings can never have
any evident knowledge about external things, but it does so without
neutralizing the radical possibility that most of our existential beliefs
might turn out to be false, should God be deceiving us.


Ockham’s basic motivation for his distinctive doctrine of the intuition

of non-existents, in short, must have been that it simultaneously pre-
serves both God’s omnipotence and the reliability of intuitive cognitions
with respect to existential judgements. The first of these two ideas is
undoubtedly of a theological character, but what it amounts to in effect
in the present context is to grant the logical possibility that we should
be radically wrong in our beliefs about the external world. As to the
reliabilist thesis, it too can plausibly be attributed a theological ground
in Ockham’s thought: his conviction that human intellectual processes
are basically reliable presumably owes much to his trust in the Creator’s
goodness and wisdom. But it also stands as a philosophical requirement
of its own within Ockham’s system insofar as it is brought about by a
general philosophical enterprise in which he clearly was engaged: that
of accounting for the possibility of human knowledge on the basis of
natural causal processes.
He could have pursued it otherwise, no doubt, than by way of his
peculiar theses about the intuition of non-existents. It might have been

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ockham’s reliabilism 117

sufficient, for example, that our cognitive processes should be reliable

under non-miraculous circumstances only; the reliability of human
intuitions of non-existent things, then, would not have been called
for. But Ockham, apparently, was convinced that the internal part of
the human intuitive process—the part that goes on merely within the
mind—had to be independently reliable, in such a way that what judge-
ment is caused within the intellect when it occurs varies according to
whether the external object exists or not. This amounts to saying that
once an intuitive act is elicited within a human intellect by whatever
external cause, it naturally tends in turn to cause in this intellect some
true contingent judgements. This is, in the last analysis, the core of
Ockham’s distinctive brand of philosophical reliabilism; and his most
surprising theses about the intuition of non-existents directly depend
on it.55


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