Malebranche, Nicolas (1638–1715)

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Early Life and Recherche

One of the major figures in postRené Descartes Cartesianism, Nicolas Malebranche was one of many children born to his mother, Catherine de Lauzon, the sister of a viceroy of Canada, and his father, also Nicolas Malebranche, a secretary to Louis XIII. As in the case of Descartes and Blaise Pascal, Malebranche was born in frail health. His particular afflictions were a severe malformation of the spine and weak lungs, and because of these conditions he needed to be tutored at home until the age of sixteen. Subsequently, he was a student at the Collège de la Marche, and after graduating he went to study theology at the Sorbonne. His education left him with a dislike of a scholasticism that focused on the work of Aristotle. Thus, in 1660 he decided to leave the universities and enter the Oratory, a religious congregation founded in Paris in 1611 by the Augustinian theologian Pierre Bérulle. At the Oratory Malebranche studied ecclesiastical history, linguistics, and the Bible, and with his fellow students he also immersed himself in the work of St. Augustine. Though judged to be merely a mediocre student, he was ordained a priest on September 14, 1664.

The same year he was ordained, Malebranche happened in a Paris bookstall upon a posthumous edition of Descartes's Traité de l'homme (Treatise on Man ), which provides a sketch of a mechanistic account of the physiology of the human body. Malebranche's early biographer, Father Yves M. André, reports that he was so "ecstatic" on reading this account that he experienced "such violent palpitations of the heart that he was obliged to leave his book at frequent intervals, and to interrupt his reading of it in order to breathe more easily" (André 1970, pp. 1112). Though André does not indicate why Malebranche was so moved, one can speculate that he had discovered in this text a way to investigate the natural world without relying on Aristotelian scholasticism. In any case, after his encounter with L'homme Malebranche devoted himself to a decade-long study of the Cartesian method and its results in mathematics and natural philosophy.

The principal fruit of this study was a two-volume work bearing the title De la recherche de la vérité. Où l'on traitte de la nature de l'esprit de l'homme, et de l'usage qu'il en doit faire pour eviter l'erreur dans les sciences (The Search after Truth, first published 16741675), in which is treated the nature of the human mind and the use that must be made of it to avoid error in the sciences. It is primarily this text that provides the basis for Malebranche's reputation in the early modern period. As its full title indicates, the Recherche focuses on the principal sources of human error and on the method for avoiding those errors and for finding the truth. The first five books enumerate the various errors deriving from the senses,imagination, pure understanding, inclinations, and passions, respectivelyand a sixth book is devoted to the Cartesian method of avoiding such errors through attention to clear and distinct ideas. The centerpiece of the third book, on pure understanding, is a defense of the claim that the ideas through which one perceives bodies exist in God. Tucked away in the final book, on method, is a critique of "the most dangerous error of the ancients," namely, the Aristotelian position that there are secondary causes in nature distinct from God.

The first volume of the Recherche, containing the first three books, was published in 1674 and drew an immediate response in 1675 from Simon Foucher, the canon of Sainte Chapelle of Dijon. Foucher was an "academic skeptic" who attacked the assumption that ideas in one can represent objects distinct from oneself (see Foucher 1969). The Cartesian Benedictine Robert Desgabets replied to Foucher by insisting that the Cartesian rule that clear and distinct ideas are true presupposes that one's thoughts correspond to real external objects. In brief prefaces added to various editions of the second volume of the Recherche, Malebranche chastised both thinkers for failing to read the work they were discussing, noting in particular that he had explicitly argued in the Recherche that the ideas one perceives exist in God rather than in oneself.

Malebranche solicited written responses to the Recherche modeled on the sets of objections published with Descartes's Meditations. Perhaps put off by Malebranche's harsh treatment of Foucher and Desgabets, his critics offered instead only informal objections channeled through mutual friends. In 1678 Malebranche appended to the Recherche a set of sixteen Eclaircissements, or clarifications, that respond to these objections. Among the more important objections addressed are those that concern Malebranche's assertion that one has a freedom to "consent" to certain motives for action (Eclaircissement I), his claim that reason does not yield a demonstrative argument for the existence of the material world (Eclaircissement VI), his doctrine of the vision of ideas in God (Eclaircissement X), his conclusion that one knows one's own soul through a confused consciousness rather than through a clear idea of its nature (Eclaircissement XI), and his occasionalist thesis that God is the only true cause (Eclaircissement XV). In the 1678 edition there is a final Eclaircissement that defends the importance "not only for knowledge of nature but also for knowledge of religion and morals" of the view, only hinted at in the text of the Recherche itself, that God acts for the most part through "general volitions" (volontez générales ), and that He acts though "particular volitions" (volontez particulières ) only in the exceptional case of miracles.

Nature Et GrÂce and the Debate with Arnauld

Malebranche developed his theory of divin action in his 1680 Traité de la nature et de la grâce (Treatise on Nature and Grace ). He published this work over the objections of the Jansenist theologian and Cartesian philosopher Antoine Arnauld, who was disturbed by what he saw as Malebranche's denial of the claim in the Scriptures and Catholic tradition that God attends to particular details in matters of grace. Arnauld responded to the publication of Nature et de la grâce by publishing a response to Malebranche, and the ensuing battle between these two individuals became one of the major intellectual events of the day. Arnauld's opening salvo was the 1683 Des vraies et des fausses idées (On True and False Ideas ), which attacks not Nature et de la grâce but the Recherche (see Arnauld 1990). His strategy here is to undermine Malebranche's influence in theological matters by revealing the inadequacy of his philosophical views. In particular, Arnauld attacks Malebranche's assumption that ideas are "representative beings" distinct from one's perceptions, offering instead the position, which he plausibly ascribes to Descartes, that ideas are simply aspects of the perceptual modifications of one's soul. This argument reflects a sympathy for Descartes's views that dates back to Arnauld's set of comments on the Meditations.

The same year that Arnauld presented his initial critique, Malebranche published the Méditations chretiennes et métaphysiques (Christian and Metaphysical Meditations ), where "the Word" (i.e., the Second Person of the Trinity) offers a summary of Malebranche's system that highlights the central role that God plays in both metaphysics and morality. This work was in some ways a follow up to his 1677 Conversations chrétiennes (Christian Conversations ). In this earlier text Malebranche presents a defense of the Christian religion that emphasizes the Augustinian theme of one's dependence on God for knowledge and happiness. In 1684 Malebranche further develop his views in moral philosophy in the Traité de morale (Treatise on Ethics ), in which he argues that moral virtue requires a love of the "immutable order" that God reveals to those who seek to know it.

Also in 1684 Malebranche responded to Arnauld's Idées, and after a further exchange on the topic of the nature of ideas the debate turned to the religious issues of divine providence, grace, and miracles. The battle became increasingly bitter, and as a result of a campaign on the part of Arnauld and his supporters, Malebranche's Nature et de la grâce was put on the Catholic Index librorum prohibitorum (Index of Prohibited Books ) in 1690 (the Recherche was added in 1709). The Malebranche-Arnauld polemic continued even after Arnauld's death in 1694, with the posthumous publication of two letters from Arnauld in 1699 and of Malebranche's responses to those letters in 1704.

Entretiens and Debates with Leibniz and RÈgis

In 1688 Malebranche published his Entretiens sur la métaphysique et la religion (Dialogues on Metaphysics and on Religion ), a concise summary of his main metaphysical doctrines of the vision in God and occasionalism that also addresses the problem of evil. In 1696 he appended to this text the Entretiens sur la mort (Dialogues on Death ), which he composed after a life-threatening illness.

In 1692 Malebranche published a short study, the Lois de la communication des mouvements (Laws of the Communication of Motions ), in which he endorses Descartes's law of the conservation of the quantity of motion but offers rules governing collision that, unlike Descartes's own rules, involve no appeal to a force in bodies to remain at rest. In correspondence with Malebranche, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz emphasized difficulties with Descartes's conservation law and that correspondence led Malebranche to insert into a 1700 edition of the Lois the claim that experience reveals the falsity of this law.

In 1693 Malebranche responded to the criticisms of the Recherche in the 1690 Systême de philosophie (System of Philosophy ) by the French Cartesian Pierre-Sylvain Régis. Régis defended an account of ideas similar to the one that Arnauld had defended against Malebranche during the 1680s, and Arnauld used the Régis-Malebranche exchange as an occasion to return to the issue of ideas during the last year of his life (on this exchange, see Schmaltz 2002, chapter 5). Despite their dispute, Malebranche and Régis were both appointed as honorary members of the French Académie des sciences when it was reorganized in 1699. Malebranche presented an inaugural lecture to the Académie that defends against Descartes an account of color in terms of the frequency of vibrations of light. In later published versions of the lecture Malebranche revised his discussion to take into account the theory of the nature of color in the work of the great English natural philosopher Sir Isaac Newton.

Final Works

In 1699 Malebranche published Traité de l'amour de Dieu (Treatise on the Love of God ), along with Trois lettres à Lamy (Three Letters to Lamy ), in which he rejects the claim of the Benedictine François Lamy (not to be confused with his Cartesian contemporary, the Oratorian Bernard Lamy) that passages from the Traité de morale and other texts support the quietist position, that moral action derives from a disinterested "pure love of God." This rejection of Lamy's quietism provided the basis for Malebranche's reconciliation with the French cleric and establishment figure Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet. Bossuet had earlier enlisted the aid of François de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon in writing against Malebranche's occasionalism and his appeals to God's "general will," but later became a bitter enemy of Fénelon's quietism.

With the support of the apostolic vicar in China, Malebranche published in 1708 Entretien d'un philosophe chrétien et d'un philosophe chinois, sur l'existence et la nature de Dieu (Dialogue between a Christian Philosopher and a Chinese Philosopher on the Existence and Nature of God ). In this text, Chinese philosophy is closely allied with the monism found in the early modern Dutch thinker, Benedict (Baruch) de Spinoza.

A sixth and last edition of the Recherche appeared in 1712, and in 1715 Malebranche published his final work, Réflexions sur la prémotion physique (Reflections on Physical Premotion ), in which he responded to the claim of the abbé Laurent-François Boursier that occasionalism leads naturally to the Thomistic position that God determines one's actions by means of a "physical premotion." In his response, Malebranche defended the claim, present from the first edition of the Recherche, that one's free actions involve a "consent" that God does not determine.

Nature of Ideas and the Vision in God

In a section of the third book of the Recherche devoted to "the nature of ideas," Malebranche argues for his famous doctrine of the vision in God. More precisely, the thesis in this section is that one sees external objects by means of ideas in God. The argument for this thesis begins with the claim at the beginning of this section that "everyone agrees that we do not perceive objects external to us by themselves" since it can hardly be the case that "the soul should leave the body to stroll about the heavens to see the objects present there" (Malebranche 1997b, III-2.i.§1). Arnauld later took exception to this starting point, countering that "ideas, taken in the sense of representative beings, distinct from perceptions, are not needed by our soul in order to see bodies" (Arnauld 1990, p. 18). His main objection is that Malebranche stacks the deck in favor of his doctrine that one sees ideas of bodies in God by assuming from the start that these ideas are distinct from one's own perceptions.

In developing his own position, Arnauld appeals to Descartes's distinction in the Third Meditation between the formal reality of an idea as a perceptual modification of mind and its objective reality as a representation of an object. Arnauld insists that a representative idea is simply the objective reality of a perception, and thus not something distinct from that perception. However, it is important to note that Malebranche's definition of an idea does not rule out such a position from the start. As he himself insists to Arnauld, the claim that one must perceive external objects through ideas leaves open the question of whether an idea is "a modality of the soul, according to the opinion of M. Arnauld; an express species, according to certain philosophers, or an entity created with the soul, according to others; or finally intelligible extension rendered sensible by color or light, according to my opinion" (Malebranche 19581984, p. 6:95).

Malebranche's description of his own opinion goes beyond what can be found in the original edition of the Recherche. However, his description of the other alternatives is drawn directly from this text. In particular, Malebranche argues that there are only four alternatives to the conclusion that one sees bodies through ideas in God: (1) bodies transmit resembling species to the soul; (2) one's soul has the power to produce ideas when triggered by nonresembling bodily impression; (3) ideas are created with the soul or produced in it successively by God; and (4) one's soul sees both the essence and the existence of bodies by considering its own perfections. Malebranche tells Arnauld that because this list constitutes "an exact division of all the ways in which we can see objects" and because each of the alternative accounts yields "manifest contradictions," his argument from elimination serves to demonstrate the doctrine of the vision in God (Malebranche 19581984, p. 6:198f).

It is difficult to determine from the Recherche the precise source of the enumeration. However, Desmond Connell (1967) establishes that Malebranche's argument was drawn from the account of angelic knowledge in the work of the sixteenth-century Spanish scholastic Francisco Suárez. Particularly crucial for Malebranche's enumeration is Suárez's claim that angels must know material objects through species that God adds to their mind given that God alone can know them through His own substance. In light of this claim, one can take Malebranche's first three hypotheses to cover the various ways in which one can perceive bodies through immaterial species "superadded" to one's soul, and his fourth hypothesis to cover the possibility that one perceives bodies in the perfections of one's soul. In arguing against the last hypothesis Malebranche notes that because a finite being can see in itself neither the infinite nor an infinite number of beings (as Suárez argues in the case of angels), and because one in fact perceives both the infinite and infinity in external objects, it must be that one sees these objects by means of perfections contained in the only being that can possess an infinity of ideas, namely, God Himself.

Malebranche takes the conclusion here to confirm the view in "an infinity of passages" in Augustine that "we see God" in knowing eternal truths. This appeal to the Augustinian theory of divine illumination provides the basis for an argument for the vision in God that bypasses the unusual enumeration in the Recherche. This more direct argument is introduced in Eclaircissement X, where Malebranche urges that the ideas one perceives must exist in an "immutable and necessary Reason" because they are themselves immutable and necessary (Malebranche 19581984, p. 3:129f). Malebranche emphasizes that the Augustinian view that eternal truths derive from uncreated features of the divine intellect conflicts directly with the voluntarist conclusion in Descartes that these truths derive rather from God's free and indifferent will. Particularly in his exchanges with Arnauld, Malebranche attempts to present his doctrine of the vision in God as a natural consequence of Descartes's account of ideas. However, Malebranche's own Augustinian argument serves to show that Descartes could not have accepted this doctrine. Moreover, such an argument reveals the most fundamental reason for Malebranche's rejection of Arnauld's Cartesian identification of ideas with one's own perceptions. Because Malebranche identified these ideas with necessary and immutable essences, and because he held that these ideas derive their necessity and immutability from the divine intellect, he concludes that Arnauld's position can lead only to a radical subjectivism that renders impossible any sort of a priori knowledge of the material world.

Intelligible Extension and Efficacious Ideas

Eclaircissement X also introduces the notion of "intelligible extension" mentioned in Malebranche's claim to Arnauld quoted earlier concerning his own opinion. According to this text, God has a single ideal extension that serves to represent particular bodies to Him. Arnauld objects that this position involves a retraction of the claim in the Recherche that one perceives bodies by means of distinct ideas in God. In response, Malebranche insists that his view all along is that God represents particular bodies by means of His own simple "absolute being." For Arnauld, however, the view that God contains extension in this way is objectionable because it is connected to the heretical view in the work of Spinoza that God is extended substance. The charge of Spinozism reappears in Malebranche's 17131714 correspondence with one of his former students, J. J. Dortous de Mairan, who later became the secretary of the Paris Académie des sciences (for this correspondence, see Malebranche 1995). As in the case of Arnauld, so in this correspondence Malebranche vigorously denies this charge. In both cases he responds by emphasizing that the infinite and indivisible ideal extension that exists in God differs from the finite and divisible extension in the material world.

A final feature of Malebranche's doctrine of the vision in God is connected to the notion in his writings of the "efficacious idea" (idée efficace ). This notion became entrenched in Malebranche's system around 1695, after his encounter with his Cartesian critic Régis (see Robinet 1965). In his Systême de philosophie Régis challenges the claim in the preface to the Recherche that one's mind is united to God in a manner that "raises the mind above all things" and is the source of "its life, its light, and its entire felicity." While he grants the commonplace claim that God must create and conserve one's soul, Régis denies that one is enlightened by means of a union with ideas of bodies in God. Rather, he insists that God conserves in one ideas that derive directly from the bodies they represent. In his 1693 Réponse à Régis (Response to Régis ) Malebranche emphasizes his Augustinian position that one can be instructed as to the nature of bodies only through a union with God. However, he puts a new spin on this position when he notes that the union with God involves an "affecting" or "touching" of one's mind by God's idea of extension.

Already in the 1688 Entretiens sur la métaphysique Malebranche suggests that the union with God can be explicated in terms of a causal relation between God's ideas and one's mind. After 1695 he develops this suggestion by introducing the notion of "pure" or nonsensory intellectual perceptions that are produced by God's efficacious idea of extension. Still, he also stresses in this later period that such an idea is the causal source of one's sensations. One advantage of this extension of the doctrine of efficacious ideas to sensations is that it yields a fairly clear explanation of Malebranche's claim to Arnauld that an idea is "intelligible extension rendered sensible by color or light." Before 1695 Malebranche explained how intelligible extension is so rendered by appealing somewhat obscurely to the view that the soul "attaches" colors to a nonsensory idea. However, the theory of efficacious ideas allows him to say that this idea is rendered sensible by causing in one the appropriate sensations of light and color. The claim that one sees ideas in God is thus transformed into the claim that one's soul has intellectual and sensory perceptions that yield an understanding of the truth concerning bodies in virtue of their causal relation to God's idea of extension. One scholar concludes that while Malebranche starts with the vision in God, he ends with a vision by God (Alquié 1974, 209).

Cartesian Dualism and Sensation

Malebranche tells Arnauld that it was Augustine's authority "which has given me the desire to put forth the new philosophy of ideas " (Malebranche 19581984, p. 6:80). By contrast, he emphasizes in the preface of the Recherche that Augustine failed to see that sensible qualities "are not clearly contained in the idea we have of matter," adding that "the difference between mind and body has been known with sufficient clarity for only a few years." The allusion here is to Descartes's discovery of an idea of matter that reveals that its nature consists in extension alone. This idea dictates that sensible qualities such as colors, tastes, and odors that are not reducible to modes of extension cannot exist external to mind. But since these qualities exist in the mind, and in particular in the mind's perception of the qualities, the mind itself must be distinguished from body. In this way the Cartesian idea of matter reveals "the difference between mind and body."

In the initial book of the Recherche, on the errors of the senses, Malebranche proposes that the erroneous belief of the Aristotelians as well as of Augustine that sensible qualities exist in bodies has its source in a misuse of "natural judgments" that help in the conservation of the human body. Here, he is following Descartes's account in the Sixth Meditation of the "teachings of nature," and in particular the claim there that the purpose of sensations is not to teach one about the nature of bodies but simply to inform one of what is beneficial or harmful to the human composite. Just as Descartes urged that erroneous beliefs about the nature of body can be avoided by attending to the clear and distinct perceptions of the intellect, so Malebranche counsels that one avoid error by attending to what the clear idea of matter reveals to one about the nature of body. As noted earlier, Malebranche has Augustinian reasons for saying that the idea that so instructs one exists in God. By his own admission, however, the conclusion that the idea that instructs one is an idea of extension derives from Descartes's discoveries.

Malebranche emphasizes that the clear idea of extension must be distinguished from one's confused sensations. One point he wants to make is that the idea exists in God while the sensations are only modifications of one's mind. However, his emphasis that this idea is "pure" or nonsensory indicates that one's experience of the material world has an intellectual component. His late doctrine of the efficacious idea involved the position that one has pure intellectual perceptions produced by God's intellectual idea of extension. But his mature position that this idea is also the cause of one's sensations allows for the claim that one's most basic sensory contact with the material world has an intellectual component.

Malebranche's doctrine of the vision in God also conflicts with Descartes's doctrine of the creation of the eternal truths. However, there are further departures from orthodox Cartesianism that are linked to two qualifications of this doctrine. The first qualification is that God's idea of extension can reveal only the nature of bodies and not their existence. This qualification is not explicit in the initial edition of the Recherche, which says only that the existence of properties of bodies external to one is "very difficult to prove" (Malebranche, 1997b, I.x.§1). Foucher objected that Malebranche has no good reason to affirm the external existence of these properties. In Eclaircissement VI, Malebranche urges that the idea of extension does reveal the possible existence of the material world and that Descartes has shown that one has a probable argument for its actual existence deriving from one's natural propensity to believe that there are bodies. However, he concedes in this textwithout crediting Foucherthat neither he nor Descartes can provide an argument from reason that demonstrates "with evidence" or "with geometric rigor" that this belief is true. His claim is that any conclusive argument must appeal to faith in the veracity of the report in the Scriptures that God has created the heavens and the earth.

According to the second qualification of the vision in Godwhich is found in the original edition of the Recherche one perceives the nature of one's soul not through a clear idea in God, but only through a confused "consciousness or inner sensation" (conscience ou sentiment intérieur ). Malebranche accepts the Cartesian commonplace that consciousness reveals immediately the existence of the soul. He allows that one knows the nature of one's soul to consist in thought; moreover, he embraces the Cartesian conclusion that the soul as a thinking substance is distinct from the body as an extended substance. Still, he insists that one knows that the soul is distinct from the body not by means of any direct insight into the nature of thought, but by seeing that thought is not contained in the idea of matter. More generally, Malebranche claims that one's lack of access to a clear idea of the soul is evident because one does not have knowledge of thought that matches one's knowledge of the mathematical features of bodies. This last point turns on its head Descartes's own conclusion in the Second Meditation that the nature of the human mind is "better known" than the nature of body; for Malebranche, it is the nature of body that is better known than the nature of mind.

In Eclaircissement XI Malebranche attempts to counter "the authority of Descartes" by arguing that the Cartesians themselves must admit that they have only a confused awareness of the nature of the sensory modifications of the soul. He notes that whereas the intellectual idea allows the various modes of extension to be related in a precise manner, there is no clear scale on which one can order one's sensations of different shades of the same color, not to mention one's sensations of sensible qualities of different kinds. Malebranche takes the confusion in the sensations to reveal a confusion in one's perception of the nature of the soul. He adds that Cartesians can discern that sensible qualities are modifications of an immaterial soul only by seeing that they are "not clearly contained in the idea we have of matter" (Malebranche 19581984, pp. 3:168, 170f).

Occasionalism and General Volitions

Malebranche is known for his occasionalism, that is, his doctrine that God is the only causal agent and that creatures are merely "occasional causes" that prompt divine action. On the old textbook account, occasionalism was an ad hoc response to the purported problem in Descartes of how substances as distinct in nature as mind and body can causally interact. According to this account, Malebranche was driven by this problem with Cartesian dualism to propose that it is God who brings it about that one's sensations and volitions are correlated with motions in one's body.

However, occasionalism was already an old doctrine at the time that St. Thomas Aquinas wrote against it in the thirteenth century. Thomas indicated that the primary concern of the occasionalists was to strengthen the assertion of God's omnipotence. Though he allowed that God must "concur" with creatures in producing effects, he also claimed that there is reason to conclude that creatures are true secondary causes. For instance, he urged that it is more in accord with divine greatness to say that God communicates His power to creatures. Moreover, he claimed that it is simply evident to the senses that creatures have the power to bring about effects. Thomas also argued that if there were no natures in creatures that explain effects, then there could be no true scientific explanation of effects through their natural causes.

Malebranche was concerned to respond to all these arguments against occasionalism, particularly as they were developed in the work of scholastics such as Suárez. Against the first point that God's greatness requires the communication of His power, Malebranche counters that it is in fact idolatrous to attribute divine power to creatures. His argument that God alone can produce effects relies on the assumption that "a true cause is one such that the mind perceives a necessary connection [liaison nécessaire ] between it and its effects" (Malebranche 1997b, VI-2.iii). Malebranche claims that there is such a connection neither among bodily states, nor between bodily and mental states, nor among mental states. In all these cases one can deny the connections without contradiction. There can be a necessary causal connection in only one case, namely, the connection between the volitions of an omnipotent agent and its upshots. Thus, only such an agent, namely, God, can be a true cause.

In the Entretiens sur la métaphysique Malebranche offers a different argument based on Descartes's suggestion in the Third Meditation that God conserves the world by continuously creating it. The argument begins with the claim that God must create bodies in some particular place and in determinate relations of distance to other bodies. If God conserves a body by creating it in the same place from moment to moment, that body remains at rest, and if He conserves it by creating it in different places from moment to moment, it is in motion. One cannot even create motion in one's own body. Rather, it is God who must produce it on the occasion of volitional states. Moreover, it is not motions in one's brain that cause one's sensory states, but God who produces them on the occasion of the presence of such motions.

Unlike the argument from necessary connection, this argument from continuous creation is for the most part restricted to the case of body. There is a good reason for this restriction since the argument depends on the premisedictated by a Cartesian understanding of the nature of body in terms of extension alonethat particular bodies cannot exist without bearing determinate relations of distance among themselves. As noted, Malebranche denies that one has a clear knowledge of the nature of the soul. No consideration of the soul could therefore reveal that it can exist only with a determinate set of modes. Indeed, Malebranche allows for the view that God creates souls with an indeterminate inclination toward "the good in general." Even so, he insists that God must be the cause of "everything real" in one's soul on the grounds that such real effects can be produced only by the power of creation. In this way the argument from continuous creation converges on the conclusion, which Malebranche claims to find in Augustine, that all creatures depend entirely on God.

The second scholastic argument against occasionalism appealed to the purported fact that it is evident to the senses that creatures have causal power. For Malebranche, however, this argument is no more persuasive than the argument that bodies must have qualities such as colors and tastes since one's senses tell one that they do. As indicated earlier, Malebranche offers Cartesian grounds for thinking that the purpose of one's sensations is not to reveal the true nature of the material world, but to indicate what is helpful or harmful to one's body. Malebranche holds that one's attribution of causal powers to bodies manifests in particular an attachment to the body that is an effect of original sin. Because of this attachment, one takes objects in the material world to be a cause of one's happiness rather than God.

In Eclaircissement XV Malebranche responds to the scholastic point that occasionalism renders scientific explanation impossible by appealing to the fact that God is not an arbitrary agent, but acts in accord with His wisdom. This wisdom dictates that He act "almost always" by means of a "general and efficacious will." Such a will produces effects that are perfectly lawlike. For instance, God acts by a general will in producing changes in bodies in accord with the law of the communication of motion. Malebranche does allow that God can produce miracles by "particular volitions" that are not lawlike. However, he emphasizes that there are relatively few such volitions in God. Thus, one can offer scientific explanations that appeal to the laws of motion that reflect the nature of God's general will.

Malebranche was not the first Cartesian to endorse occasionalism. There were followers of Descartes, such as Louis de la Forge and Claude Clerselier, who stressed that God must be the cause of the communication of motion in bodily collisions given the passivity of Cartesian matter. These Cartesians attempted to preserve some room for the action of finite minds on the body, but the Cartesian Géraud de Cordemoy went further in claiming that only God can cause changes in the material world. However, none of these thinkers went as far as Malebranche in asserting that God must produce all real changes in nature. Moreover, Malebranche is distinctive in providing an explanation of God's action that distinguishes His general will from His particular volitions.

Theodicy and Freedom

The presence of various evils in the world is problematic for any theist who claims that this world was created by a God who has infinite power, knowledge, and goodness. However, the problem is particularly acute for an occasionalist, such as Malebranche, who holds that God is the only true cause of effects in nature. Malebranche offers a theodicy that addresses the problem of evil by stressing that in the "order of nature" God acts for the most part through His general will. In Nature et de la grâce he starts by admitting that God could have acted by particular volitions to prevent natural evils such as malformed offspring (a fitting example given his own malformed spine), and thus could have produced a more perfect world than He actually did create. However, he urges that God could have done so only by departing from simple laws, thereby sacrificing the simplicity and uniformity of action that is a supreme mark of His wisdom. God produces the natural evils that follow from simple laws not because He wills those particular effects, but because He wills a world that best reflects His wisdom by possessing the most effects governed by the fewest laws.

In his Réflexions on Malebranche's Nature et de la grâce Arnauld objects to what he takes to be the suggestion in his target text that God has concern only for general features of the world and does not will the details of His effects. For Arnauld, divine providence requires that God intend all the particularities of the world He creates. There is some controversy over whether Arnauld's critique is based on a proper interpretation of Malebranche. Certain commentators follow Arnauld in thinking that Malebranche's claim in Nature et de la grâce that God acts by relatively few general volitions involves a rejection of the position that He has volitions for each particular effect. Others insist that this claim says only that God has volitions in accord with general laws and that the doctrine of God's continual creation in the Entretiens in fact requires distinct volitions for distinct effects. Some evidence for the former view is provided by the fact that Malebranche emphasizes that the laws themselves are "efficacious" and that God employs relatively few volitions in producing effects in the order of nature.

Malebranche insists that God's general will is operative not only in the order of nature but also in the "order of grace." However, he notes that the production of effects in the latter order also involves human action that is free in the strong sense of not being determined by anything external to the agent. His appeal to this sort of freedom is in fact central to his solution to the problem of moral evil, that is, the compatibility of sin with God's goodness. According to Malebranche God is not responsible for sinful action since such action derives not from Him but from sinful agents. Arnauld objects that this solution is "more pelagian than anything in Pelagius" and that one must side with Augustine, who declares Pelagianism a heresy. Malebranche responds that he does not follow Pelagius in denying the importance of grace and that Augustine himself emphasizes one's freedom in action.

Malebranche also insists that it is obvious by "inner sensation" that one is genuinely free. However, there is some question whether this introspective report is compatible with Malebranche's occasionalist claim that God is the only real cause. As indicated earlier, Malebranche does hold that God alone is the cause of one's indeterminate inclination to love the good in general. However, he insists that one is free to "consent" to the stopping of that inclination at a particular object other than God. Such consent results in an "absolute and intrinsic" love of that object that is sinful given that this love is worthy only of God. The consent is free because one is always able to suspend consent and to search for objects more worthy of one's love. Malebranche claims that one's freedom to consent or suspend consent does not conflict with occasionalism since these acts produce no "real" or "physical" change in one's mind. Sometimes he suggests that consent is nothing real because it is involves merely resting with a particular good. One problem with this suggestion is that it makes it difficult to understand how taking the opposite course of suspending consent could also involve the production of nothing real. However, Malebranche sometimes indicates that both consent and suspense produce nothing real merely in the sense that they create neither new thoughts nor an increase in inclination. He also indicates that though God determines one's "natural love" for particular objects, he leaves undetermined our "free love" for such objects.

Although Malebranche himself is less than explicit on the point, he seems at times to have left at least some room for the position that one's consent involves the determination of one's free love, whereas one's suspense involves leaving that love in its indeterminate state. In neither case is there the production of a physical change because there is no creation of new thoughts or of an increase in inclination. Whether this reflects Malebranche's own considered view is, however, a matter of scholarly dispute.

Moral Theory and Self-Love

The theocentrism that is evident in Malebranche's doctrines of the vision in God and occasionalism would lead one to expect that God plays a central role in his moral theory. This expectation is borne out by his remarks in the Traité de morale. Indeed, Malebranche's two doctrines are prominent in this work. The vision in God is reflected in the insistence that moral duties are dictated by "relations of perfection" revealed in God's wisdom. As in the case of necessary truths concerning body, so in the case of moral truths Malebranche unequivocally rejects Cartesian voluntarism. The doctrine of occasionalism is reflected in Malebranche's insistence that God is one's greatest good because He alone can cause one's happiness. This point indicates that Malebranche takes moral action to require a consideration not only of abstract relations of perfection but also of the happiness of the self.

Malebranche starts from the Augustinian position that morality concerns the proper ordering of one's love. Given the importance of human freedom for his theodicy, it is not surprising that Malebranche insists that the love required for moral action involve the free exercise of the will. In his view, the "good will" is one that freely strives to be guided in action by objective relations of perfection that hold among the various objects of love. God is the most perfect being and hence the most worthy of one's love, whereas human beings are more perfect than mere material beings and thus more worthy of one's love. When the intensity of one's love matches the order among perfections, one has a right love that provides the basis for virtue, that is, a habitual inclination to love objects according to their perfections.

Malebranche holds that because of original sin, one is inclined not to right love directed by one's perception of relations of perfection in God's wisdom, but to a disordered love directed by bodily pleasures deriving from the soul-body union. This is the counterpart to the disordered inclination of one's will to make judgments about the nature of the material world that are based on sensations deriving from the union. For Malebranche, a corrective to both of these disorders of the will is to attend to clear ideas that exist in God.

Malebranche sometimes suggested that disordered love of bodily pleasure derives from self-love. Encouraged by this suggestion, one of his followers, François Lamy, claimed that his position leads to the quietist view in Fénelon that moral conduct requires a "pure love of God" that involves no concern for the self or its pleasure. This position, which Lamy himself endorsed, was later condemned by the Catholic Church, due in large part to a campaign against Fénelon directed by his critic, Bossuet. But Malebranche insisted that such a position directly conflicts with his own view that pleasure itself is a good that is required as a motive for action. When critics such as Arnauld and Régis charged that this view results in hedonism, Malebranche responded that it is only ordered pleasures that bring the greatest good. This response is reflected in Malebranche's claim to Lamy that a disordered love of self is to be contrasted not with pure love of God, but with an ordered love that seeks happiness in the contemplation of the greatest good, God. In emphasizing the need for this sort of love of God, Malebranche was returning to his view in the preface to the Recherche that it is through a union with God that the mind "receives its life, its light, and its entire felicity."

Historical Influence

Malebranche's influence on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophy was significant. This is clear in the case of Leibniz, who wrote to Malebranche in 1679 that "I enthusiastically approve of the two propositions that you put forward: namely, that we see all things in God and that bodies strictly speaking do not act on us." Moreover, Leibniz's discussion in his 1684 Discours de la métaphysique (Discourse on Metaphysics ) bears an evident relation to Malebranche's Nature et de la grâce. Here, Leibniz follows Malebranche in insisting that God acts in accord with wisdom and that He selects from among an infinity of possible worlds that world that best reflects His perfection by balancing simple laws and variety of effects. Leibniz stresses, in line with Malebranche's views, that the simplicity constraint governs both laws of nature and laws of grace.

The Discours also includes a section in which Leibniz comments on the Arnauld-Malebranche debate on the nature of ideas and offers some complimentary remarks concerning the Malebranchean doctrine of the vision in God. In his 1710 Théodicée, Leibniz highlights his agreement with the claim in Nature et de la grâce that natural evil exists because God's wisdom dictates that He restrict himself to a "general will." However, he also charges in this text that Malebranche's occasionalism leads to a kind of Spinozism insofar as it denies the activity and thus the substantiality of creatures. Leibniz offers his "preestablished harmony," on which creatures have the power to cause alterations in their own states. This theory, which is anticipated in the Discours, distinguishes Leibniz's view from Malebranche's. However, Leibniz himself sometimes presents the preestablished harmony as an internal correction to the Malebranchean system that is in accord with Malebranche's own emphasis on the perfection of divine action in creation.

Malebranche's influence extended across the Channel, where he gained admirers such as John Norris, Thomas Taylor, and Arthur Collier. His views drew a more critical reception from John Locke, who wrote Examination of Père Malebranche's Opinion of Seeing All Things in God, which was published posthumously in 1706. Though Malebranche himself did not respond to this work, it later received a full reply from the Savoyard cardinal, Giacinto Sigismondo Gerdil, who would have been elected pope in 1800 were it not for the veto exercised by the Austrians on political grounds. In his Défense du sentiment du P. Malebranche, published in 1748, Gerdil urged that Malebranche's hypothesis that God causes one's perceptions is more intelligible than Locke's own hypothesis that passive matter is the cause of these states. Because of Gerdil's influence, Malebranche's views gained a following in Italy.

During the eighteenth century Malebranche also won the grudging respect of George Berkeley and David Hume. Berkeley indeed appeared to his critics to be a "Malbranchiste de bonne foi," a view that Berkeley himself counters when he writes in the third (1734) edition of his Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous that "there are no principles more fundamentally opposed than [Malebranche's] and mine." Berkeley does differ from Malebranche in rejecting the existence of an external material world, in insisting that ideas exist in one's mind rather than in God's and in claiming that the senses reveal immediately the true nature of sensible objects. However, Berkeley follows Malebranche in rejecting the Aristotelian conception of nature and in attributing causal efficacy in natural interactions to God (though Berkeley does attempt, with questionable success, to leave room for the power of finite spirits to move their own bodies). Also, Berkeley holds with Malebranche that one's perceptions are related to certain "archetypes" in the divine mind that serve as the pattern for God's creation (Luce [1934] is the classic study of the relation between Berkeley and Malebranche).

In 1737 Hume wrote to his friend Michael Ramsey that he should prepare himself for "the metaphysical Parts" of the reasoning in the forthcoming Treatise of Human Nature (17391740) by reading "once over la Recherche de la Vérité of Pere Malebranche," along with selected works from Descartes, Berkeley, and Pierre Bayle. Malebranche is important primarily for the account of causation and causal belief in the Treatise. Hume relies there explicitly on Malebranche's argument for the negative conclusion that neither external nor internal experience affords one any idea of power. With Malebranche, Hume emphasizes the importance of necessary connection to the understanding of causation. Hume does reject Malebranche's own claim that God is the only real cause, noting in a famous passage from the Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748) that with such a claim "we are got into fairy land, long ere we have reached the last steps of our theory." Hume's preference is for a psychological account of causal belief that sticks closely to "common life and experience" and that emphasizes the central role of the imagination. Nonetheless, Hume's own discussion belies his remark in the Enquiry that "the glory of Malebranche is confined to his own nation, and to his own age."

See also Arnauld, Antoine; Aristotle; Augustine, St.; Bayle, Pierre; Berkeley, George; Bossuet, Jacques Bénigne; Cartesianism; Chinese Philosophy; Collier, Arthur; Descartes, René; Desgabets, Robert; Determinism and Freedom; Ethics, History of; Evil, The Problem of; Fénelon, François de Salignac de la Mothe; Foucher, Simon; General Will, The; Hume, David; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Locke, John; Newton, Isaac; Norris, John; Pascal, Blaise; Pelagius and Pelagianism; Régis, Pierre-Sylvain; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Spinozism; Suárez, Francisco; Thomism; Volition; Voluntarism.


works by malebranche

Oeuvres complètes de Malebranche. 20 vols, edited by André Robinet. Paris: J. Vrin, 19581984.

Dialogue between a Christian Philosopher and a Chinese Philosopher on the Existence and Nature of God. Translated by Dominick A. Iorio. Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1980.

Treatise on Ethics. Trans. C. Walton. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1993.

Malebranche's First and Last Critics: Simon Foucher and Dortous de Mairan. Translated by Richard A. Watson and Marjorie Grene. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995.

Dialogues on Metaphysics and on Religion. Translated by David Scott; edited by Nicholas Jolley. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997a.

The Search after Truth. Translated and edited by Thomas M. Lennon and Paul J. Olscamp. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997b.

works on malebranche

Alquié, Ferdinand. Le cartésianisme de Malebranche. Paris: J. Vrin, 1974.

André, Yves M. La vie du R. P. Malebranche. Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1970.

Arnauld, Antoine. On True and False Ideas. Translated by Elmar J. Kremer. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990.

Bardout, Jean-Christophe. Malebranche et la métaphysique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1999.

Brown, Stuart, ed. Nicolas Malebranche: His Philosophical Critics and Successors. Assen, Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1991.

Chappell, Vere, ed. Nicholas Malebranche. New York: Garland, 1992.

Connell, Desmond. The Vision in God: Malebranche's Scholastic Sources. Louvain, Belgium: Nauwelaerts, 1967.

Easton, Patricia, Thomas M. Lennon, and Gregor Sebba, eds. Bibliographia Malebranchiana: A Critical Guide to the Malebranche Literature into 1989. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992.

Foucher, Simon Critique de la recherche de la verité, edited by Richard A. Watson. New York: Johnson Reprint, 1969.

Gueroult, Martial. Malebranche. 3 vols. Paris: Aubier, 19551959.

Jolley, Nicholas. The Light of the Soul: Theories of Ideas in Leibniz, Malebranche, and Descartes. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1990.

Luce, A. A. Berkeley and Malebranche: A Study in the Origins of Berkeley's Thought. London: H. Milford, 1934.

McCracken, Charles J. Malebranche and British Philosophy. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1983.

Moreau, Denis. Deux cartésiens: La polemique entre Antoine Arnauld et Nicolas Malebranche. Paris: J. Vrin, 1999.

Nadler, Steven, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Malebranche. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Nadler, Steven. Malebranche and Ideas. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Pyle, Andrew. Malebranche. London: Routledge, 2003.

Radner, Daisie. Malebranche: A Study of a Cartesian System. Assen, Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1978.

Robinet, André. Système et existence dans l'oeuvre de Malebranche. Paris: J. Vrin, 1965.

Rodis-Lewis, Geneviève. Nicolas Malebranche. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1963.

Schmaltz, Tad M. Malebranche's Theory of the Soul: A Cartesian Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Schmaltz, Tad M. Radical Cartesianism: The French Reception of Descartes. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Sebba, Gregor, ed. Nicolas Malebranche, 16381715: A Preliminary Bibliography. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1959.

Walton, Craig. De la Recherche du Bien: A Study of Malebranche's Science of Ethics. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1972.

Tad M. Schmaltz (2005)