Encyclopedia of Medieval Philosophy

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Adam Wodeham

  • Stephen E. LaheyEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-024-1151-5_11-2


Adam Wodeham (d. 1358) is an Oxford Franciscan protégé of Ockham and influential adherent of Ockham’s philosophical approach in the years of Oxford’s “Golden Age” of theology. Wodeham’s most important philosophical innovation was the “complex significable,” akin to the contemporary idea of States of Affairs. He developed this in his epistemological project of ascertaining what we understand when we claim knowledge of things in the world. Ockham had held that the objects of scientific knowledge are mental propositions in which the concept naturally signifies the perceived objects, which led to questions about whether we make judgments about mental propositions or things. Wodeham’s innovation was to argue that we formulate judgments about things in the world when things conform to the way the mind formulates propositions about them. While this does not introduce a new layer of ontological complexity to the extramental world, it does focus attention on the natural method by which we propositionalize what we perceive. Wodeham’s doctrine of complex significables was to be influential in later scholastic epistemological discourse, and it contributed importantly to the logico-semantic approach of Oxford theology. Wodeham was also an important opponent of spatiotemporal atomism, a view that arose within the philosophical speculation about how to mathematize our understanding of the physical world that characterizes the thought of the Mertonian “Calculators.”


Adam Wodeham (c. 1295–1358) is a Franciscan theologian and associate of William Ockham at Oxford where he is known to have been studying by 1320 and where he likely remained at least through the 1330s and possibly until his death. He began as a student of Walter Chatton, with whom he famously disagreed throughout his philosophical career. While Wodeham was known as the foremost expositor of Ockham’s thought following the latter’s departure from Oxford in 1324, he disagreed with his master on several critical points, particularly in epistemic questions and in matters regarding the Trinity and Eucharist. Wodeham lectured on the Sentences in Norwich, in London, (scholars continue to disagree regarding the dating of these two sets of lectures) and finally in Oxford in 1334. The set known as the Norwich lectures, entitled Lectura secunda, are the only widely available Sentence commentaries, having been published in 1990. The Oxford lectures, which contain references to many of the views of his contemporaries, as well as a rich offering of his philosophical theology, remain unpublished. In addition, Wodeham’s Tractatus de indivisibilibus, a compendium of arguments against spatiotemporal atomism then at issue in Oxford, remains, while his commentaries on the Cantica canticorum and Ecclesiasticus, Postilla de sacramento eucharistiae, and several other works appear to have been lost. Wodeham’s reputation as a philosophical theologian remained considerable into the sixteenth century, when John Mair published Henry Totting of Oyta’s abbreviated account of Wodeham’s Oxford lectures. His postulation of the complex significable as the object of knowledge remains an important philosophical innovation, arguably prescient of contemporary understanding of States of Affairs.

Epistemology in the Norwich Lectures

The Norwich lectures begin with a 250-page analysis of the epistemological problems associated with scientific knowledge, a necessary preamble to understanding the possibilities open to theology as a science. How is scientific knowledge of the world possible, and how do we glean understanding from what we perceive? Ockham and Scotus had argued that there is a difference of kind between intuitive and abstractive cognition correspondent to the sensitive and intellective souls that compose the knowing self. While Scotus understood the two kinds of souls to be formally distinct, for Ockham, the distinction was real, making a unified, composite perceiving and understanding self, which Wodeham felt to be philosophically untenable, better explained by one soul capable of both perceiving and understanding. This forced him to admit that perceiving a red apple counts as an intellective act, which fits uncomfortably into the Aristotelian epistemic scheme. Wodeham maintained the distinction between intuitive and abstractive cognition, in which our cognition of this individual apple is distinct from the more general cognition of redness or apples as such, which we abstract from perception experiences, but in rejecting a corresponding distinction between kinds of souls to which these differing kinds of cognitive acts are suited, Wodeham stands out among fourteenth-century philosophers. His articulation of the relation between intuitive and abstractive cognition owes more to Scotus than to Ockham, who had posited an intermediate, imperfect intuitive cognition to account for objects once, but not now presently, perceived. Our presence to memory of a once-perceived object, Wodeham argues, is an abstractive cognition correspondent to an act of memory, and we need not posit an intermediate species of cognition to account for it.

Ockham had famously argued for the possibility of an intuitive cognition of nonexistent objects, provided that God brought about such cognition through potentia absoluta. A lively philosophical dialogue ensued regarding cases in which we seem to have intuitive cognition of nonexistent beings without direct divine intervention, which contributed significantly to Wodeham’s epistemology. Peter Auriol had dominated the argument by describing our intuitive cognition’s reliance intentional beings, created as direct result of our raw sense perceptions. The force of this argument had been powerful, likely contributing to Ockham’s earlier theory of concepts as “thought objects,” esse obiectivum. Auriol had noticed that our raw sensations can produce illusions, as when someone whirls a torch quickly in the night, creating an afterimage of a circle immediately present to our eyes. The afterimage is, in reality, not there, not outside our eyes, but it has a presence that suggests a regular tendency in our perception to create intentional beings for our intuitive cognition of external objects. Chatton had interpreted Auriol’s account as being a good argument in favor of skepticism, the thin edge of the wedge that might lead to doubting the veridicality of all intuitive cognition. Wodeham was determined to oppose this, arguing that Auriol’s illusions arising from raw sensations did not necessitate recognition of an intuitive cognition of nonexistents; reason and experience both help us to recognize illusions that arise from our perception, and they rein in tendencies to imagine these illusions as having sufficient force as to threaten our knowledge of the perceptible world. The real problem here is Auriol’s interposition of an intentional being arising from raw sensation that serves as the object of our intuitive cognition. Wodeham argues vigorously against these phantom intermediaries, recognizing that Auriol’s arguments rely heavily on the illusion problems that can be laid to rest by relying on reason’s mediating role in intuitive cognition. In opposing Auriol, however, Wodeham is not ignoring the possibility that God could be causing our intuitive cognition of something that appears present to us, but is not. Ockham had argued that such a divinely caused apparent presence would become rapidly apparent to us as illusory, which position Wodeham regarded as untenable. Wodeham was more willing to face skepticism than was Ockham, recognizing the possibility of divinely caused intuitive cognition of nonexistent entities as leading to the impossibility of certain empirical knowledge of perceived objects. This impossibility is ultimately not deleterious to scientific knowledge, though; provided that God is not actively deceiving us, our perceptions may function as direct evidence of objects in the world.

The focus of theological knowledge is, of course, God. Intuitive cognition of God would be beatific vision, available only to the blessed in heaven. When Wodeham was lecturing, John XXII was arguing against the beatific vision prior to Judgment Day, throwing the theological world into a furor; Adam makes no mention of this in the Norwich lectures. So the question is about the possibility of abstractive cognition of God, and here need arises to distinguish between three kinds of abstractive cognition. The first arises from reasoned argument grounded in concepts themselves abstracted from experiences in the world, as with the proofs for God’s existence common in the schools. The second is a more specific, simple concept not dependent on other abstracted cognitions, but specific to its object alone. The third abstractive cognition arises from intuitive cognition immediately, prior to rational analysis, as when we focus our attention to the red of an apple without yet forming assertions or denials in comparison to other reds we may have experienced. This kind of abstractive cognition is certainly possible in mystic vision, Adam argues, which fall short of the beatific vision but only just. Short of such mystic vision, though, will abstractive cognition arising from reason provide a simple concept proper to God alone? This “God-shaped” concept would be specific to divinity, in the way that “apple” is specific to apples only and not any other kind of fruit, but the “God-shaped” concept would be different in that it would have only one correlate in reality, an ontological being so unlike any created being as to stretch the referential functioning of a concept beyond breaking. Scotus, for whom the univocity of being came closest to creating such a concept, did not recognize such a simple God concept, and neither did Wodeham. Walter Chatton did, providing Wodeham opportunity to pour scorn on his predecessor, an opportunity he rarely denied himself when it arose.

Here Wodeham introduces the innovation for which he is perhaps best known, the complex significable. After having surveyed the fundamental questions of epistemology in the Prologue to the Norwich lectures, he fixed his attention on ascertaining what it is we understand when we claim knowledge of things in the world sufficient to undergird the concepts we use in theological argument. To do this, he triangulated between the views of Ockham and Chatton. Chatton had argued that the objects of scientific knowledge are extramental objects that we translate into the terms populating mental propositions. Ockham held that the objects of scientific knowledge are the mental propositions themselves. Both contain elements of the truth, Wodeham argued. Ockham had argued for a more instantaneous natural translation of perceptions into terms than Chatton had admitted, but both believed that our understanding grasps extramental reality and naturally arranges it into the subjects and predicates that make up our propositionally structured understanding. Chatton’s disagreement with Ockham lies in the mediation of mental propositions, which he felt were unnecessary mediaries. Wodeham agreed with Chatton that when we make judgments about things in the world, it is about the things, not mental propositions we construct about them. But the judgments we make frequently rely on temporal qualification; it would be folly to assume that “there was an elephant in the room” and “there will be an elephant in the room” are functionally equivalent. Hence, we make judgments not just about the bare particulars, in this case, elephants and rooms, but about how things are in the world. This is what Wodeham refers to as a complex significable, a thing known through having been signified through a complex proposition. We understand and make judgments about how things are in the world when the world conforms to the mode of signifying characteristic of the proposition formed in the mind. In effect, Wodeham’s complex significable “propositionalizes” the world. This is not to say that Wodeham has thereby added a rich ontological layer of qualifiers onto reality that correspond to the symbols, terms, and concepts we use to understand the natural world. There is no additional complexity to being beyond the things that exist in the way they exist in the world, but our propositionalizing what we perceive must be seen as taking into account both the existing and the mode of existing. Take the knowledge you now (presumably) have of there not being an elephant in the room. The object of this proposition, “There is no elephant in the room” is elephant-not-being-in-the-room. This is not a proposition enriching the being of some elephant somewhere, or of the room, nor is it wholly the product of the proposition-constructing mind intuitively cognizing the room. It is a truth about the room that corresponds to the proposition-constructing mind’s abstractive intuition. Another example will show the constructive steps that go into our use of complex significables. Take the proposition, “Brontops nursed its young.” On the assumption that you do not know what Brontops is, you cannot say whether the proposition is true or false, and the complex significable to which it may or may not correspond remains hidden. Upon learning that Brontops is an extinct mammal, the general proposition “Brontops nursed its young” becomes evidently so. There is a complex significable to which this proposition refers, even though there are no Brontops now to which it refers. Contemporary philosophers are likely to recognize some similarity in Wodeham’s complex significable to States of Affairs, but this similarity depends very much upon the semantics and ontology to which one is willing to commit. Recent interpretations of Wodeham, particularly that of Susan Brower-Toland, argue in favor of this similarity, holding that Wodeham recognized that his theory of judgment committed him to complex significables having factual reality. In any case, Alexius Meinong and Adolf Harnack can certainly be counted as heirs of Wodeham’s approach; their conception of Sachverhalte suggests a sufficiently rich ontology as to admit of elephants-not-being-in-the-room being a real object of a proposition. Wodeham’s approach was influential on Wyclif, who developed it in his propositional realism, and on Gregory Rimini, who made use of the idea in his Sentence commentary as well.

Consequent to the complex significable account must be the knowledge or belief to which recognition of a complex leads. When one gives mental assent to a proposition like “Socrates is seated,” is the object of assent Socrates himself, the mental proposition “Socrates is seated,” or the complex Socrates-being-seated? Chatton had limited the object under consideration to Socrates and the mental proposition about him, but Wodeham insists that these two alone lead only to a partial object of assent; the complex is necessary for recognition as there being consistency between Socrates and the mental proposition. This further enhances the correspondent ontological commitment accompanying complex significables by making them not only correspondent to propositions we form about the world but also the truth-makers behind the acts of assent we give or withhold to these mental propositions. This seems to require that they be more than nothing, but Wodeham hesitates. He denies that the complex is but a nothing but stopped short at naming them “somethings.” Gregory of Rimini felt that Wodeham’s understanding of what entails a “something” was at fault, and his account is notable largely for giving a broader definition of “something” than Wodeham’s. As mentioned, it can be argued that Wodeham in fact viewed the complex significable as a functioning something, real constituents of extramental reality, on a par with States of Affairs.


Fourteenth-century Oxford was famous for its attention to the relation of semantics and logic to the natural sciences, particularly Aristotelian physics. The Mertonian “Calculators” were especially concerned to explore the relation of mathematical analysis to questions about movement through media like time and space. A natural result of this was the philosophical investigation into the ultimate structure of spatiotemporal reality. The common view had long been that space and time are both infinitely divisible, but by the 1320s, sufficient disagreement had arisen to lead to three classes of “atomists.” The first, of whom Chatton was most prominent, held that any continuum, whether spatial distance or temporal duration, was made up of a finite number of indivisible points or atoms. The second group, of whom Henry Harclay was best known, held that a continuum was composed of an infinite number of indivisible points, each conjoined to the other without space in between. The third, associated with Grosseteste, argued that the infinite number of atoms making up the continuum was mediately conjoined. Divisibilists rejected indivisibles in physical reality, while admitting immaterial indivisibles such as the intellectual soul. Ockham and Wodeham were among the most thoroughgoing of the indivisibilists, holding that an indivisible particle of spatiotemporal reality was simply a contradiction, a term we can imagine, like “square circle,” without possible referent. Others, the majority, were willing to countenance indivisibles as real but unwilling to assert their uniform presence as the sole constituents of spatiotemporal continua. Wodeham’s position is noteworthy for two reasons. First, his Tractatus de indivisibilibus serves as a guidebook to almost all the major positions and arguments in play in Oxford and, second, because his vigorous attack on atomists seems to have effectively ended the matter, at least until the 1360s. Wodeham collected a mass of arguments against indivisibles, cataloging every possible philosophical problem that can arise from supporting the infinite divisibility of space and time. Indeed, Wodeham eagerly wades into the Zeno paradoxes familiar to philosophy students today, exploring the soundness of Aristotle’s resolutions of these classic problems. An earlier Quaestio de divisione et compositione continui exists as evidence for the evolution of Wodeham’s thought; in it, he articulates the idea that all infinite series must be equal, when considered as infinite. Imagining one infinite series beginning early in the day, and another beginning at the end of the day, we are constrained to admit that the former has more constituents than the latter, but as infinites, the two are equal. In the later Tractatus, though, Wodeham shifts, arguing in Q.5 that one infinity can be greater than another, a position that had earlier been argued by Grosseteste.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Medieval Philosophy and TheologyBoston CollegeChestnut HillUSA
  2. 2.Department of Classics and Religious StudiesUniversity of NebraskaLincolnUSA