For your enjoyment, Blawgletter reproduces below the all-time most popular item from Barnett’s Notes on Commercial Litigation.

Mattel released Rock’Em Sock’Em Robots in 1966. Red Rocker just knocked Blue Bomber’s block off.

William of Ockham lived in extreme poverty near East Horsley of 14th-century Surrey, England. A Franciscan friar, he thought a lot. He tried so hard to figure things out, in fact, that he decided not to strain his brain so much. Simple explanations usually trump complex ones, he concluded — we may assume after many hours of devout contemplation and a lot of ale-and-porridge suppers.

William’s view of the world has made his village famous. "Ockham’s razor" — which some call ontological parsimony — refers to William’s conclusion that an explanation with few assumptions will, more often than not, prevail over an account with many.

What the heck does that mean, you say? A little abstract for your liking? Don’t feel like the Lone Ranger.

But let’s see if we can put some meat on old Ockham’s bones. And let’s do try to tie his razor into commercial litigation somehow.

Party A breaks a contract to supply widgets to Party B. We want to know why. Most of us would assume, without knowing anything more, that a business reason motivated the breach — perhaps that Party A lost money on the contract. We wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that Party A’s widget factory burned down, that the president of Party A wanted to avenge a slight that he suffered in high school at the hands of Party B’s bully president, or that Martians unionized Party A’s workers and took them out on strike. William of Ockham would say we did right by not making more assumptions than necessary to explain Party A’s behavior.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the widget factory, in fact, didn’t go up in flames, that Party A’s president didn’t want to get back at his teenage tormentor, or that an alien Norma Rae didn’t agitate for higher wages. Those things may have happened. But Friar William reminds us not to assume, without cause, that they did.

Trial lawyers intuitively use Ockham’s razor when they present a case to a judge or jury. They prune unnecessary assumptions. They slice out the non-essential, sharpen the simplest explanation that favors their clients, and slash away at gaps in the other side’s story. They may have never heard of William or Ockham or ontological parsimony, but their instincts tell them that Ockham’s razor cuts deep indeed.

Barry Barnett

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