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Eric Hagedorn (Philosophy) outside Boyle, where he has his office. Hagedorn joined the St. Norbert faculty in 2012.

SNC Philosopher Achieves Publishing Double: Both Oxford and Cambridge Have Brought Out His Recent Work

Who should have the authority to tell us what to think and believe? This was no easier to answer in the 14th century than now, but you’d expect a Franciscan friar teaching theology at Oxford to side with the pope.

Yet William of Ockham fell out with the Church on the matter, lost his academic status and ended his days in exile at around the time that Thomas Aquinas became a saint and the Catholic establishment’s philosopher of choice. It’s Ockham’s challenging of the status quo that makes him someone to investigate in the present day, says St. Norbert’s Eric Hagedorn (Philosophy), who is possibly Ockham’s biggest fan but also teaches a course on Aquinas.

Hagedorn is emerging from several years immersed in Ockham’s writings, with publications on the medieval maverick by both Oxford and Cambridge universities this year. “Ockham is thought of as one of the first – maybe the very first – Christian thinker to make a case for the separation of church and state and for at least some form of freedom of thought or freedom of speech,” Hagedorn says.

“Those are ideas that wouldn’t really take off until almost 300 years after his death, but it’s still worth exploring the genesis of those ideas, which began as a very personal matter for him.

“Beyond that, he is the source of many of our cultural defaults, for much of what the average person largely takes for granted about the scope of free will, moral responsibility, religious ethics and more. We can’t understand our present unless we understand our past. I think it’s worth exploring this relatively obscure Franciscan friar who charted a path that so many people have since walked down in the past 700 years.”

With Cambridge University Press ... 
Hagedorn’s translations from the Latin of the “greatest hits” among Ockham’s ethical writings are collected in “William of Ockham: Questions on Virtue, Goodness and the Will” (2021), published by Cambridge University Press. The questions are knotty ones, such as “Is a Bad Angel always doing a Bad Thing?” (Ockham argues here that if humans have free will, surely angels do too). “These writings are important for the history of philosophy, the history of theology and maybe for contemporary religious ethics as well. Many of them have not been available in an English translation before. I’d thought for some years that someone really should put together a collection and eventually realized that ‘someone’ could be me.”

After an early career as a software engineer (his undergraduate majors were in philosophy and computer science) Hagedorn found that “the philosophy bug never quite went away.” In graduate school, he was grateful for the basic Latin he had studied for extra credits in senior year. “I realized I would need more Latin. I had settled on what I wanted to do by then and the skills you need for translation and coding are not that dissimilar.”

... and with Oxford University Press
Hagedorn’s other publication this year is an article in the OUP journal Oxford Studies in Medieval Philosophy. This he says is “a question for followers of various kinds of religious ethics: Which is more basic; loving God or obeying God? The two normally go hand in hand, but could they come apart?”

The article investigates how Ockham “tries to puzzle out what one’s ethical duties would be if God commanded us not to love him, or even if God commanded us to hate him.” Ockham’s solutions have long confused scholars, but Hagedorn believes that thanks to his work on the “Questions” collection, he has now nailed it (no spoilers).

“I was able to put together a very plausible interpretation of everything Ockham says about this: in the article’s introduction I say that ‘I hope to forestall confusion for future generations’. We’ll see.”

A philosophical approach to life
Hagedorn is a passionate champion of the study of philosophy. “I can see undergraduates’ thinking starting to shift after a month of philosophy classes,” he says. I’m a great believer in the importance of critical thinking, of being trained to follow evidence. Many of us are very bad at dispassionately examining our own beliefs. We’re bad reasoners who constantly engage in confirmation bias, only seeking out evidence that will prove our existing beliefs and disprove what we already reject. We can’t blame Facebook and Twitter for this, we’ve always done it; although social media has made this trait more evident.

“At the end of the day, every major decision we make in life – and many of the minor ones – depends upon what we think about a few basic philosophical questions, like: “What is truly valuable and important? What are my ethical obligations to other human beings? How should society be arranged?” The very nature of the choices we must make in our lives requires us to have some sort of answers to those philosophical questions; the only real question is whether or not our answers are going to be thoughtful and reflective.”

Reading list
“William of Ockham: Questions on Virtue, Goodness and the Will” (Cambridge University Press 2021)

“On Loving God Contrary to a Divine Command” (Oxford Studies in Medieval Philosophy Volume 9 2021) 

Oct. 20, 2021