George Walford: Occam Grows a Beard

At school we were told of a medieval philosopher named William of Occam. (Because he grew up in a place whose name is spelt Ockham; they did tell us the strangest things at school). He introduced a principle of logic, first known as Occam’s Razor, more recently as the principle of parsimony, which declared, in effect: “Thou shalt not multiply entities unnecessarily.” (If you have a taste for polysyllables you can call it ontological economy). The rule is valued as one of the necessary conditions of clear thinking and is generally accepted. The left wing, for example, when they undertake to explain the behaviour of society as an outcome of relations between classes, use the minimum number of classes.

Occam’s Razor is usually treated with respect by people writing for serious journals such as the TLS. Usually, but not always In the TLS for 15 Aug 86 the writer of a one-and-a-half column review of a book on the assassination of Gaitan introduces this list of actors and influences:

The guerillas, a Liberal leader, elected Latin American leaders, the Conservative president of Colombia, Communists, conciliatory Liberals, the Conservative party, the Liberal party, war factions, peace factions, the urban crowd, business men, government and gaitanista leaders, policemen, priests, soldiers, Red Cross volunteers, an amateur film-maker, a professional photographer, rioters, symbols of national and international capitalism, the Jockey Club, the Gun Club, Francoist clergy, educational establishments, radical Liberal ideologues, small property-owners, a self-selecting elite, workers, capitalists, Conservative and Liberal elites, and a military regime.

It’s almost as good as the telephone directory; with a cast like that you don’t need any plot.

from Ideological Commentary 25, January 1987.