5 Misunderstood Philosophy Quotes. Ockham’s Razor

This morning i found myself yet again browsing through pages upon pages of philosophy quotes. There is just something I like about browsing through tonnes of these tiny little snippets of philosophy, each a tiny little window into vast and complex philosophical systems and ideas, any of which I could peer through by reading these short, sometimes simple quotes. Unfortunately however in my google-spree, more often than not it turns out that many of these quotes are recycled ‘junk philosophy’, that contains wisdom that one philosopher had at a time, but has been repeated over and over again to the point where it’s hard to determine which philosopher had even said it, let alone what they really mean when they said it. This awful chinese-whisper like transformation seems to remove and/or drastically change the ideas that these philosophers originally meant, and what’s worse is that these horrible corrupted versions often fall into ‘common knowledge’. We all know the people that Ayn Rand talks about in her “Why Philosophy” spiel, where she points out the various sayings that are heard every day, and shows the link to the real philosophy that is behind them but seemingly invisible to those advocating it. What ever doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger, right? How many people would correctly identify that as Nietzsche, further how many people would understand him and what he means when he says it? though I think that would be asking a lot in this circumstance, i mean, it’s Nietzsche, i feel like i can’t understand him at the best of times.

So in all of my rage filled yelling directed at my monitor, inspired by these awful recycled philosophy, i feel obliged to balance the Internet out in my own small way, by going through a few quotes, and trying to re-open these little windows of insight, so that people may once again gaze in at the beauty that is the philosophy being quoted, and go past mere words. Over the coming weeks i will explore 5 of the most commonly misused and misunderstood quotes and hopefully restore them to what philosophy quotes ought to be; Windows to the world of ideas.

“Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily” – William of Ockham


Ockham’s razor, is one of a few philosophical razors and by far the most well known (slightly ahead of Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword’ which is likely known purely because of it’s badass name). The purpose of these razors are to provide a principled ‘rule of thumb’ to help us cut down (hence razor) on the amount of theories, or the complexities within the theories, and to help us in choosing which theories to discount and which to take on board. Ockham’s razor is as the quote suggests, that the number of entities (things, concepts, variables, etc) should be kept to a minimum, as the simpler the theory, the less things that could go wrong with it. It’s purpose is to help us decide between competing hypotheses, and as a guide when creating them, when two hypotheses have the same explanatory power, the one with the simplest, least amount of assumptions and ancillary hypotheses should be preferred.

Karl Popper talks extensively about the problems caused by ancillary hypotheses and how people tend to shift the blame when something goes wrong with the hypothesis, which razor’s like Ockham’s (Popper appropriates Ockham’s razor and reformulates it, to fit his falsifiability criteria, by the way) would surely help fix.

Where people go wrong

it’s always thrown about in the strangest of ways and so widely misused it would surely raise the blood pressure of any nearby philosophers, even Galileo made fun of the misuse in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.

I could write endless pages on this one, but I’ll save that for the next quote. The biggest problem I encounter when reading people talk about this razor, is when people misunderstand and say that it’s “the simpler the theory, the more likely it is to be true”, which is definitely not the case, perhaps with other razors, but not this one.

Let us consider a theoretical situation. We have just witnessed a phenomenon, which we label A. Now, we think about A, and attempt to explain and understand why and how the phenomenon came to be, and instantly, we have multiple, competing hypotheses. Ockham’s razor suggests that the one with the least ‘quantitative things’’ ought to be preferred based on practical grounds. We have hypothesis B and C. B has 4 major concepts within, and 6 ancillary hypotheses, that rely on outside theories and conceptual understandings and a vast structured metaphysics. C however has only 3 major concepts, and only 1 ancillary hypothesis; They both have the same explanatory power, in that, they both, if true, allow us to sufficiently understand this phenomenon (whether it’s causal nature or whatnot). This is a rule of thumb, this does not make that simpler theory more likely to be true, it makes it easier to test. Further if C is wrong, you do not have to look far to alter the hypothesis, because you have few major hypothesis and only one ancillary, as opposed to B. If B was called into question, we would need to sort through all those ancillary hypotheses, call into question the metaphysics, and question all of the hypotheses that it contains.