Malebranche, Nicolas (1638-1715)

Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715), a French Catholic theologian, was the most important Cartesian philosopher of the second half of the seventeenth century. His philosophical system was a grand synthesis of the thought of his two intellectual mentors: Augustine and Descartes. His most important work, De la recherche de la vérité (The Search After Truth), is a wide-ranging opus that covers various topics in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, physics, the physiology of cognition, and philosophical theology. It was both admired and criticized by many of the most celebrated thinkers of the period (including Leibniz, Arnauld and Locke), and was the focus of several fierce and time-consuming public debates. Malebranche's philosophical reputation rests mainly on three doctrines. Occasionalism - of which he is the most systematic and famous exponent - is a theory of causation according to which God is the only genuine causal agent in the universe; all physical and mental events in nature are merely 'occasions' for God to exercise his necessarily efficacious power. In the doctrine known as 'vision in God', Malebranche argues that the representational ideas that function in human knowledge and perception are, in fact, the ideas in God's understanding, the eternal archetypes or essences of things. And in his theodicy, Malebranche justifies God's ways and explains the existence of evil and sin in the world by appealing to the simplicity and universality of the laws of nature and grace that God has established and is compelled to follow. In all three doctrines, Malebranche's overwhelming concern is to demonstrate the essential and active role of God in every aspect - material, cognitive and moral - of the universe.

  1. Life and works
  2. Vision in God
  3. Vision in God (cont.)
  4. Occasionalism
  5. Ethics
  6. Philosophical theology
  7. Influence

1. Life and works

Nicolas Malebranche was born in Paris on 6 August 1638, one of the many children of Catherine de Lauzon and Nicolas Malebranche, a royal secretary. Because of a malformation of the spine which caused lifelong pain, he was kept at home for his education, under the direction of his mother, until the age of sixteen. In 1656, he graduated from the Collège de la Marche. The education he received there, and from three years studying theology at the Sorbonne, was heavily laden with Aristotelianism, and it left Malebranche highly dissatisfied. After rejecting the offer of a canonry at Notre-Dame de Paris, Malebranche entered the Oratory in 1660 and was ordained in 1664.

His four years in the Oratory proved to be of great intellectual consequence. While studying the Bible, ecclesiastical history and Hebrew, Malebranche, like other Oratorians, immersed himself in the writings of Augustine. There were also Cartesians among his teachers, who introduced him to the doctrines of Descartes. He did not read any of Descartes' works, however, until 1664 when he happened upon a copy of Descartes' Treatise on Man (L'homme) in a bookstall. The event was life-changing: according to his biographer, Father André, the joy of becoming acquainted with so many discoveries 'caused him such palpitations of the heart that he had to stop reading in order to recover his breath'. Malebranche devoted the next ten years of his life to studying mathematics and philosophy. He was particularly taken by Descartes' critique of the Aristotelian philosophy that he had earlier found so stultifying and sterile (see Medieval philosophy).

Those ten years of study culminated in the publication in 1674-5 of De la recherche de la vérité (The Search After Truth), Malebranche's first and most ambitious work and a synthesis of the systems of Augustine and Descartes. Malebranche's stated goal in the Recherche is to investigate the sources of human error and to direct us towards the clear and distinct perception of truth - truth about ourselves, about the world around us and about God. His motives are deeply theological, and he is ultimately concerned to demonstrate the essential and active role of God in every aspect - material, cognitive and moral - of the created world. The Recherche, quickly supplemented by seventeen Eclaircissements, contains early but solidly-argued presentations of Malebranche's three most famous doctrines: the vision in God, occasionalism and his theodicy.

While the Abbé Simon Foucher, canon of Sainte Chapelle of Dijon, was the first in a long line of critics of Malebranche's doctrines, the Jansenist theologian and Cartesian philosopher Antoine Arnauld was undoubtedly the harshest and most acute (see Foucher, S.; Arnauld, A. §3). Arnauld approved of the Recherche upon first reading it. But when he later learned of Malebranche's views on grace and divine providence - sketchily presented in the Recherche but more fully expounded in the Traité de la Nature et de la Grace (Treatise on Nature and Grace) in 1680 - he embarked on a detailed critique of the major theses of the Recherche. Arnauld's Des vraies et des fausses idées (1683), and Malebranche's reply, Réponse du Père Malebranche au livre des vraies et des fausses idées (1684), were only the opening salvos in what would come to be a long, often bitter public battle on both philosophical and (to the participants more importantly) theological matters. Although Arnauld's allies succeeded in having the Traité put on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1690 (the Recherche was added in 1709), their exchanges - public and private - continued until Arnauld's death in 1694. The debate, one of the great intellectual events of the seventeenth century, attracted the attention of Leibniz, Spinoza, Bayle, Locke, Newton and many others.

After the publication of the Recherche, Malebranche turned to a 'justification' of the Catholic religion and morality, presented in suitably Malebranchian terms and published as the Conversations Chrétiennes in 1676. This was followed in 1683 by the Médiations Chrétiennes et Métaphysiques, which consists of dialogues in which 'the Word' explains and defends Malebranche's system. That same year Malebranche also published his Traité de Morale in which he undertakes a rigorous demonstration of a true Christian ethics.

By the mid-1680s, Malebranche was widely regarded as the most important, if highly unorthodox, representative of the Cartesian philosophy. His regular correspondents included Leibniz and the physicist Pierre-Sylvain Régis. With Leibniz he debated the Cartesian account of the laws of motion (Malebranche published his Traité des lois de la communication du mouvement in 1692), as well as occasionalism and the nature of causal relations. With Régis, who defended a more orthodox brand of Cartesianism, he discussed natural philosophy and the nature of ideas (see Leibniz, G.W. §11; Régis, P.-S.).

Having been forced in his arguments with Arnauld, Régis and others to clarify, develop and even modify his doctrines, Malebranche decided, at the urging of friends, to compose a treatise in which he would both present an up-to-date and concise picture of his theories and defend them as a proper Augustinian (and Catholic) system. The Entretiens sur la métaphysique (Dialogues on Metaphysics) were published in 1688 and were supplemented in 1696 by the Entretiens sur la mort, which Malebranche wrote after an illness from which he did not expect to recover. In 1699, he was elected to the Académie Royale des Sciences.

During the last fifteen years of his life, Malebranche remained actively engaged in philosophical, theological, and scientific matters, publishing the Entretien d'un philosophe chrétien et d'un philosophe chinois, sur l'existence et la nature de Dieu in 1708 and his Réflexions sur la prémotion physique in 1715. He also continued to work on the Recherche, producing the sixth edition, the last to appear in his lifetime, in 1712. In June 1715, Malebranche became ill while visiting a friend in Villeneuve St. Georges. He was taken back to the Oratory in Paris, where he died on October 13.

2. Vision in God

Malebranche's system is fundamentally Augustinian, and he was inspired by Descartes' philosophy not just because of the scientific and mathematical discoveries he found there but especially because of its own Augustinian nature. He tried to be as faithful as possible to Augustine's thought while at the same time incorporating into his doctrines what he took to be the important metaphysical and epistemological insights of the new mechanistic science. This is particularly evident in his theory of ideas and account of human knowledge.

Nearly all philosophers in the seventeenth century agreed that perception and knowledge is mediated by immaterial representations immediately present to the mind, after Descartes generally called 'ideas'. There was much disagreement, however, over the origin and ontological status of these ideas: How do ideas become present to the mind? Are ideas 'modifications' of the mind? Are they acts of the mind or the objects of perception? Malebranche's doctrine of the vision in God was the most unorthodox and controversial theory of ideas in the period. He looked back to the Christian-Platonic and Augustinian model, according to which ideas proper are archetypes or essences in the divine understanding. Human beings have access to these ideas, which serve as the ground of all eternal truths, through a continuous process of illumination that informs their cognitive powers.

Malebranche orients his discussion of ideas and knowledge in the Recherche around the problem of error, particularly the errors that arise when we base our judgments on the testimony of the senses and the imagination, rather than on reason and understanding. He relies in his analysis of error on what is probably the most comprehensive and systematic account of the physiology of sense and imagination in the seventeenth century. For example, based upon a detailed investigation into the structure of the eye and the geometry of optics, he argues that our sight does not present to us the extension of external bodies as it is in itself, but rather only as it is in relation to our body. He describes the eye as a kind of 'natural spectacles', and examines the ways in which the material images conveyed into the brain (and thus the sensory images these stimulate in the soul) are variously affected by the distance between the eyes, the different humours in the eyes, the shape of the crystalline lens and its distance from the retina, and other factors. The difference between sensation and imagination is due simply to the fact that in imagination the tiny fibres in the centre of the brain are agitated not by the impressions made by external objects on the exterior surface of the nerves, but by the flow of the animal spirits initiated by the soul itself. These animal spirits are easily affected by the changing state of the body and by external things, as well as by 'moral' causes (prejudices, 'conditions of living'). The imagination thus represents a second important source of the differences between minds and how things are represented to them. Malebranche's goal in highlighting how the senses and the imagination 'lead us into error' is to warn us not to allow their images to serve as a basis for judgment about the truth of things. We should rely, rather, on the testimony of reason and the perfect evidence of clear and distinct ideas.

Malebranche's account of the nature of ideas is grounded in the basic dualist framework of Cartesian ontology. Mind, or thinking substance, is unextended thought, and has absolutely nothing in common with matter, defined as extension. A material body has only the mathematical properties of shape, size, divisibility and mobility. All other sensible qualities - colour, heat, cold, taste, odour and so on - are really only sensations in the mind, mental modifications occasioned by external material objects. While such sensations may indicate to us the presence of bodies to our own body, they cannot provide us with clear and distinct knowledge of those bodies. Sensations can only inform us of what is presently taking place in our own minds; they have no representational value with respect to the external world. Malebranche claims, however, that in addition to our own inner sensations we have access to representative ideas. Ideas, unlike qualitative sensations, have a clear and distinct representational content - generally of a quantitative nature - and provide us with unambiguous and complete knowledge about objects and their properties. The idea of the square, for example, presents with perfect evidence all the information needed for full knowledge of the geometric properties of squares. On the other hand, the heat one feels when near a fire is simply an obscure sensation that reveals nothing about the nature of fire itself as an extended reality. Malebranche's ideas are pure concepts, and their content has no sensory component whatsoever. They just are the logical essences of things or kinds. His epistemological distinction between ideas and sensations derives from Descartes' distinction between clear and distinct ideas and obscure, confused ideas. It roughly corresponds to the distinction made famous by Boyle and Locke between primary quality ideas and secondary quality ideas (see Boyle, R.; Descartes, R. §8; Locke, J. §4).

This epistemological difference between ideas and sensations is, for Malebranche, grounded in an ontological one. While sensations are mental, ideas are not. Representative ideas are 'present to the mind', but they are not modifications of the mind's substance. (Their presence is what allows them to represent extended beings to the mind.) Rather, they are in God, and finite minds have access to them because God wills to reveal them to those minds, all of which exist in a perpetual union with God. That ideas do not belong to the mind becomes clear from the fact that some of our ideas are infinite, and it is impossible for a finite mind to have an infinite modification. Likewise, our ideas are all general - they only become particular or specific when combined with some sensory components - and a particular substance such as the mind cannot have a modification that is general.

Ideas function in all of the mind's cognitive activities; most importantly, in conception and perception. In conception, the mind apprehends a pure idea by itself, without any sensations to particularize the experience (for example, conceiving a geometric circle). In perception, ideas are present but are accompanied by various sensory elements. Thus, when we perceive the sun, the pure idea of a geometric circle is accompanied by colour (yellow) and heat sensations.

Malebranche offers two kinds of argument to demonstrate that representative ideas are required for knowledge and perception. First, he argues that there is generally an unbridgeable distance between the mind and its objects. He sometimes appears to mean this literally, and to be relying on the fact that the mind is not locally present to the external bodies it knows and sees, and that in cognition it is neither the case that objects travel to the mind or that the mind leaves the body to 'travel across the great spaces' that separate it from its objects. His more considered intention, however, is probably to draw our attention to the metaphysical, rather than the physical gulf that separates mind from matter: bodies, being extended, cannot be united with, and thus present to, the unextended mind in the way required for direct cognitive acquaintance. Thus, what is required are intermediary entities that can both represent extended bodies and be immediately present to the mind: ideas.

Second, it is often the case that we have a perceptual experience of an object when in fact the object itself does not actually exist (for example, in hallucinations and dreams). But Malebranche insists upon the truth of the principle of intentionality, or the claim that every perception must be object-directed - 'to perceive is to perceive something' (see Intentionality). As Malebranche understands this principle, every perception must be the direct and immediate apprehension of some really present object. As the illusory cases illustrate, however, the intentional objects of the mind cannot be really existing material bodies; for if they were, we could never have perceptual experiences of objects that do not exist. Thus, it must be that we directly apprehend ideas, non-material representations, even though sometimes there is no external body corresponding to the idea.

3. Vision in God (cont.)

Malebranche's position is that the ideas that function in human perception and knowledge are simply the ideas - the eternal essences and archetypes - in the divine understanding: that 'we see all things in God'. In the Recherche itself, he relies mainly on an argument from elimination. He shows how all other accounts of the source of our ideas - the Scholastic and Epicurean doctrines, various Cartesian theories (innatism, self-production by the soul) - are untenable, thus leaving the vision in God as the only viable alternative (see Epicureanism). But in this work and others, he also marshals more positive considerations in support of his doctrine. His account, he insists, is simpler than any other hypothesis (hence more worthy of God's ways), and best fosters a proper and pious sense of our ontological and epistemological dependence upon our creator: we as knowers and perceivers are not self-sufficient, no more than we as beings are self-sufficient substances.

In the Eclaircissements appended to the Recherche, Malebranche's debt to Augustine becomes more overt. For Augustine, what we see in God are eternal and immutable truths. Truth is, by its nature, changeless, universal and uncreated. Moreover, truth is higher than, and common to, many minds. Hence, it can be nowhere but in the divine reason, in God himself (in Augustine's words, truth is God) (see Augustine §§6-7). For Malebranche, too, truth is necessarily universal, immutable and infinite. But the truths we know just are relations between ideas. Thus, the ideas themselves must be universal, immutable, and infinite. And such ideas can only be those in God's understanding. The vision in God is the only possible explanation for our common knowledge of necessary truth - we are all similarly united with one universal, infinite Reason, in which we perceive the same ideas.

Malebranche's doctrine of the vision in God is motivated, then, not just by the problem of how we perceive bodies in the external world - a specifically Cartesian concern - but primarily by the problem of how we have knowledge of eternal truths. And behind it all lies Malebranche's deep fear of the dangers of scepticism. The vision in God represents for Malebranche the most effective countersceptical strategy available. First, we can be sure that the ideas we apprehend in sense-perception really do represent bodies in the world because these ideas just are the archetypes that served and directed God in creating those bodies. Thus, they cannot fail to reveal the nature of extended things as they are. On the other hand, if ideas were, as many Cartesians insist, merely fleeting and subjective modifications of the soul, there would be no justification for believing that what they represent about bodies in the world really characterizes those bodies. This would seriously undermine the certainty of physics. Second, any sceptical worries about the necessity, universality and objectivity of mathematical and moral knowledge are forestalled by showing that the ideas upon which such knowledge is based are mind-independent (non-subjective) realities, accessible to all knowers in a universal Reason.

To be sure, there are many relevant questions that the doctrine of vision in God cannot, and is not intended to, answer. For example, while the ideas we apprehend in God inform us as to the essences of things, they cannot provide any evidence about the existence of things. Certainty in this regard can only come about through a combination of faith and sensory experience. This is not to say that Malebranche is a sceptic when it comes to the existence of the external world. Although he claims that we cannot have rational and demonstrative certainty about the existence of a world of things, we still have no good reasons to doubt of it, as well as a natural propensity to believe in it. Nor does the vision in God provide us with a clear and distinct idea of the soul, which would make possible a science of the soul as certain as our science of bodies (physics) based on the idea of body. Our knowledge of the soul is limited to the testimony of sentiment intérieur, to what we actually experience in consciousness, and Malebranche rejects Descartes' claim that we know the soul as well as (or even better than) the body.

The vision in God is a systematic attempt to combine the doctrine of divine illumination that Malebranche found in Augustine with a somewhat deviant Cartesian metaphysics and philosophy of mind. The theory is deeply Augustinian in inspiration, but is geared also to answer certain epistemological questions that really only arise in the seventeenth century.

As Malebranche's contemporary critics were quick to point out, the doctrine was fraught with ambiguities and inconsistencies. For example, if there is a single immutable idea in God for each object or kind of object he created, how is it that we perceive change and motion in extended things? In the Eclaircissements Malebranche denies that he ever meant that there is a plurality of individual, discrete ideas in God. He insists that there is in God an 'infinite intelligible extension', and that by applying our minds to this extension in various ways we apprehend representations of different extended bodies in different states of being.

Foucher, in one of his criticisms of Malebranche, focused on the ontological status of ideas. If ideas are spiritual, but are not substances, then they must be modifications of some spiritual substance. Malebranche denies that they are (he insists that they are neither modifications of our minds nor of the divine substance), but then what else can they be? And if they are not 'ways of being' of our minds, then they must be as external to our minds as anything else and not 'present' to the mind in the manner required for direct cognition. Foucher also asks how immaterial ideas could possibly represent material bodies that they do not resemble (see Foucher, S. §3).

Arnauld argued that the whole notion of ideas as representative beings, distinct from the mind's perceptions and which are in fact the mind's objects in perception, is false and even incoherent. Ideas, Arnauld insisted, are not distinguished from the mental acts (he calls them perceptions) which represent objects to the mind but are not themselves distinct objects. He claims that Malebranche's theory, far from explaining how we perceive bodies external to us, actually demonstrates that we never perceive such bodies, and that the mind is surrounded by a 'palace of ideas' beyond which it has no cognitive access. Arnauld also focused in his attack on Malebranche's doctrine of the infinite intelligible extension, and wonders how Malebranche can avoid the charge of materialism, of having placed extension really (that is, 'formally') in God and thus making God himself extended (see Arnauld, A. §3). This point is taken up in Spinozistic terms by Dortuous de Mairan, a young man whom Malebranche had once tutored. Mairan was impressed by Spinoza, and he challenged Malebranche both to refute Spinoza's arguments and to show how the relationship between the infinite intelligible extension in God and the material extension of bodies differs from the substance/affection (or mode) relationship that for Spinoza characterizes the relationship between infinite extension and particular bodies (see Spinoza, B. §§2-3).

4. Occasionalism

Just as the doctrine of the vision in God demonstrates the epistemological dependence that we as knowers have upon God, so the causal doctrine of occasionalism demonstrates the ontological dependence that we and all beings have upon an omnipotent God (see Occasionalism). Nothing, it claims, exists or happens in the universe that is not a direct and immediate effect of the divine will. Although occasionalism has its ancestry in certain medieval Islamic, Jewish and Christian theories of causation and divine omnipotence, especially the voluntarist tradition (see Al-Ghazali; Damian, P.), as well as in Descartes' metaphysics; and while there were others before Malebranche who were, to one degree or another, occasionalists (see Clauberg, J.; Cordemoy, G. de; Geulincx, A.; La Forge, L. de), Malebranche was the first to argue systematically for a thoroughgoing and rigorous version of the doctrine.

Occasionalism is the doctrine that all finite created entities are absolutely devoid of causal efficacy and that God is the only true causal agent. God is directly, immediately and solely responsible for bringing about all phenomena. When a needle pricks the skin, the physical event is merely an occasion for God to cause the appropriate mental state (pain); a volition in the soul to raise an arm or to think of something is only an occasion for God to cause the arm to rise or the idea to be present to the mind; and the impact of one billiard ball upon another is an occasion for God to move the second ball. In all three contexts - mind-body, mind alone and body-body - God's ubiquitous causal activity proceeds in accordance with certain general laws, and (except in the case of miracles) he acts only when the requisite material or psychic conditions obtain.

Far from being an ad hoc solution to a Cartesian mind-body problem as it has traditionally been portrayed, occasionalism is argued for by Malebranche (and others) from general philosophical considerations of the nature of causal relations, from an analysis of the Cartesian concept of matter and, perhaps most importantly, from theological premises about the essential ontological relationship between an omnipotent God and the created world that he sustains in existence.

Malebranche's first argument that there are no real causal powers in finite created substances and that God is the sole causal agent, focuses on the motion of bodies. He begins with the causal principle that in order for one thing, A (which can be a substance or a state of being of a substance), to count as the cause of another thing, B, there must be a necessary connection between the existence of A and the existence of B. 'A true cause as I understand it is one such that the mind perceives a necessary connection [liaison nécessaire] between it and its effects' (1674-5 vol. 2: 316). But we can find no such connection between any two physical events, nor between any human mental event and a corresponding physical event. For example, it is certainly conceivable that one can will to raise one's arm but the arm will not rise. 'When we examine our idea of all finite minds, we do not see any necessary connection between their will and the motion of any body whatsoever. On the contrary, we see that there is none and that there can be none' (1674-5 vol. 2: 313). When we consider God, however, as an infinitely perfect being, we see that there is such a necessary connection between the divine will and the motion of bodies, since it is logically impossible that an omnipotent God should will to move a body and it does not move; such is the nature of omnipotence. God, therefore, is the only true cause of the motion of bodies.

Malebranche's second argument is based on the 'inconceivability' that any natural cause, any finite mind or material body, should have 'a force, a power, an efficacy to produce anything' (1674-5 vol. 3: 204). First, an idea of body - that is, the clear and distinct idea of extension - represents it as having only one property: the entirely passive faculty of 'receiving various figures and various movements' (1688: 148). It certainly does not represent body as having any active power. Here Malebranche is drawing out the ramifications of Descartes' conception of matter: a Cartesian material body, qua pure extension, is essentially passive and inert, and devoid of any motive force. In fact, such a force or power is perceived as incompatible with the notion of extension, since it cannot be reduced to or explained in terms of relations of shape, divisibility and distance. Thus, bodies cannot act, whether on minds or other bodies. Second, whatever minimal knowledge I have of my soul does not involve the perception of any power, whether to move the body or even to produce its own ideas. All I perceive through inner consciousness is an actual volition to move my arm upwards, and all I notice in my body is that my arm subsequently rises. But I do not perceive, either by inner consciousness or by reason, any power on the part of the soul by means of which it might effect this motion. It is in this sense that 'those who maintain that creatures have force and power in themselves advance what they do not clearly perceive' (1674-5 vol. 3: 204). Indeed, according to Malebranche, I perceive a general incompatibility between the idea of a created finite being and such a power or productive faculty. Only in my idea of the will of an infinite being do I clearly and distinctly recognize any element of power whatsoever.

The third argument is based on a supposedly intuitive premise which (echoing an argument for occasionalism introduced by Geulincx) sets an epistemic condition on the notion of 'cause': in order to count as the cause of an effect, a thing must know how to bring about that effect. Malebranche then appeals to the evident fact that this condition is not satisfied by our minds in order to show that we do not, in fact, cause those motions that we consider voluntary: 'There is no man who knows what must be done to move one of his fingers by means of animal spirits' (1674-5 vol. 2: 315). This same condition rules out the mind's ability to produce its own ideas. It also rules out, a fortiori, the possession of causal efficacy by bodies.

Malebranche's most general argument against real interaction appeals to God's role as creator and sustainer of the universe. The argument - which has its roots in both medieval and Cartesian doctrines - purports to show that it is an 'absolute contradiction' that anything besides God should move a body. God's activity is required not only to create the world, but, since creatures are absolutely dependent on God, to sustain it in existence as well. Indeed, for God there is no essential difference between creating and sustaining: 'If the world subsists, it is because God continues to will that the world exist. On the part of God, the conservation of the creatures is simply their continued creation' (1688: 316). When God conserves/recreates a body, he must recreate it in some particular place and in some relation of distance to other bodies. If God conserves it in the same relative place from moment to moment, it remains at rest; if God conserves it successively in different places, it is in motion. But this means that God is and can be the only cause of motion: 'The moving force of a body, then, is simply the efficacy of the volition of God who conserves it successively in different places.... Hence, bodies cannot move one another, and their encounter or impact is only an occasional cause of the distribution of their motions' (1688: 162). And finite minds are no more causes of motion than bodies are.

Thus, God is the direct and efficacious cause of every event in nature; finite beings are only 'secondary' or 'occasional' causes. Malebranche's doctrine can be seen as embedded within a voluntarist tradition that extends from certain medieval thinkers - many of whom attacked the Aristotelian theory of nature in the name of safeguarding God's omnipotence - up through Descartes (see Voluntarism).

This does not mean that for Malebranche natural philosophy has been reduced to a single theocratic claim. At the level of physics proper, the task of the scientist is still to uncover regularities in nature and formulate the laws that govern the correlations between events. The programme of the mechanical philosophy, to which Malebranche enthusiastically subscribes, remains the same: to discover the hidden mechanisms that underlie observed phenomena and to frame such explanations (referring to secondary causes) solely in terms of matter and motion. What Malebranche's occasionalism does is to give an account of the metaphysical foundations of Cartesian physics. Motion, the primary explanatory element in the new science, must ultimately be grounded in something higher than the passive inert extension of Cartesian bodies; it needs a causal ground in an active power or force. Because a body consists in extension alone, motive force cannot be an inherent property of bodies. Malebranche accordingly - and his account seems to be a logical extension of the role Descartes gives to God as the 'universal and primary cause of motion' (see Descartes, R. §§6, 11) - places the locus of force in the will of God, and bodies behave the way they do because that is how God moves them around, following the laws of nature he has established.

Malebranche did, in fact, use his metaphysics of motion to modify some details of Descartes' physics, particularly the rules governing bodily impact. This led to an extended debate with Leibniz over the laws of motion. In the Recherche Malebranche insists, contrary to Descartes, that bodies at rest do not have a force to remain at rest (unlike bodies in motion, which have a force to remain in motion). This conclusion follows directly from his occasionalist account of motion: although God does need to will positively to put a body in motion, he does not need to apply any force to keep it at rest; all he needs to do is will that it continue to exist, that is, recreate it in the same relative place. Thus, the tiniest body in motion will contain more force than the largest body at rest. And this means that three of Descartes' seven rules of impact are wrong. Leibniz, in his general critique of Cartesian physics, praised Malebranche for recognizing Descartes' errors. He insisted, however, that because Malebranche was still wedded to Descartes' conservation law (where what is conserved is quantity of motion, rather than the quantity of motive force that Leibniz proposed), Malebranche has failed to see that all except the first of Descartes' rules, along with the new rules he had substituted for the ones he rejected, were wrong (see Leibniz, G.W. §11). In 1692, Malebranche published his Des lois de la communication des mouvements, in which he concedes that Leibniz is right about the rules themselves, but continues to maintain the old conservation law. It was not until a letter to Leibniz in 1699 and the 1700 edition of the Recherche (which contains a revised version of Des lois) that Malebranche admits that Descartes' conservation law is false.

5. Ethics

For Malebranche, God's ubiquitous causal activity does not eliminate freedom of the will in human beings. God is the direct source of an invincible inclination or 'natural motion' in the soul towards good in general. We cannot not will to be happy, and we necessarily love what we 'clearly know and vividly feel' to be good. But it is in our power to allow or to refuse to allow this general determination towards good given to us by God to rest upon one or another of the particular things we believe to be good. All minds, he notes, love God 'by the necessity of their nature', and if they love anything else, it is by a free choice of their will. We sin when, rather than directing the will by a clear and distinct perception of the supreme good to the love of God, we allow it to be directed away from God towards the pleasing but false goods presented to us by our senses.

In the Traité de morale (1683b), Malebranche elaborates on just what this love of God involves, providing a fuller account of our ethical duties. Within God, there lies an immutable order or law which God consults when acting. This order is constituted by what Malebranche calls 'relations of perfection', which in turn entail a hierarchy of value among beings. Order dictates, for example, that a beast is more perfect, hence more worthy or 'estimable' than a rock, and a human being more perfect and worthy than a beast. A human being is thus to be treated with more consideration than a horse. Through our 'union with the eternal word, with universal reason' we can have rational knowledge of order. Our duty, then, consists in 'submitting ourselves to God's law, and in following order'. We ought, like God, to regulate our actions and esteem by consulting it. In this way, 'there is a true and a false, a just and an unjust' that is binding upon all intelligent beings. Malebranche insists that our principal duty and our 'fundamental and universal virtue' is to love order and obey its precepts.

6. Philosophical theology

Malebranche's occasionalism takes on greater importance in the context of his theodicy, or justification of God's ways in the realms of nature and grace. In his Traité de la nature et de la grace (1680), Malebranche undertakes the task of explaining how God's omnipotence, benevolence and perfection can be reconciled with the persistence of evil and imperfections in the natural world (including human suffering and sin) and with the apparent unfairness and inefficiency in the distribution of divine grace and everlasting happiness.

Our concept of God tells us that God is infinitely wise, good, powerful and perfect. And yet the world which God has created certainly appears to us to be quite imperfect in its details and full of disorders of every variety. As Theodore, Malebranche's spokesman in the Entretiens sur la métaphysique, exclaims, 'The Universe then is the most perfect that God can make? But really! So many monsters, so many disorders, the great number of impious men - does all this contribute to the perfection of the universe?' (1688: 211). Aristes, his interlocutor, is led thereby to wonder either about the efficacy of God's will or the benevolence of God's intentions.

The resolution of this conundrum, as presented in both the Entretiens and the Traité, is to be found in the consideration not just of the particular, superficial and obvious details of the universe, but also of the means undertaken to achieve and sustain the whole. God, according to Malebranche, looks not only to the final result of his creative act (that is, to the goodness and perfection of the world per se), but also to his work or ways of operation. And the activity or means most expressive of God's nature are of maximum simplicity, uniformity, fecundity and universality. God does not accomplish by complex means that which can be accomplished by simple means; and God does not execute with many particular volitions that which can be executed by a few general volitions. This holds true even if it means that the world created by God could be spared some imperfections were God to compromise the simplicity and generality of his operations. Thus, the perfection of the world in its details as a product is completely relative to the mode of activity that is most worthy of God. God might increase the absolute perfection of the world, perhaps by decreasing the number of defects or evils therein. But this would entail greater complexity in the divine ways and constant departures from the general laws of nature established at creation.

Thus, the world that God has created is the one of the infinitely many possible worlds that best reconciles perfection of design with simplicity and generality of means of production and conservation. By a number of 'particular volitions' - that is, volitions that are ad hoc and not occasioned by some prior event in accordance with some law of nature - God could correct deformities of birth, keep fruit from rotting on trees, prevent physical disasters about to occur by the regular course of the laws of nature, and forestall sin and wickedness. But, Malebranche insists, 'we must be careful not to require constant miracles from God, nor to attribute them to him at every moment' (1680: 34). God, in other words, acts only by 'general volitions' - that is, volitions that are in accordance with some law and whose operation is occasioned by a prior event, as dictated by that law - and the most simple ways.

Similar considerations apply to the problem of grace. A benevolent God wills, with what Malebranche calls a 'simple volition', that sinners convert and that all humans should be saved. But clearly not all humans are saved; many are lost. And not all those who are saved appear to be worthy of salvation or ready to receive grace. The anomaly is again explained by the generality of God's volitions. The distribution of grace is governed by certain general laws willed by God, and the occasional causes responsible for the actual distribution of grace in accordance with those laws are the thoughts and desires in the human soul of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus qua human has finite cognitive capacities, he cannot at any given time attend to all the relevant facts about the agent upon whom grace is to be bestowed - for example, whether they are ready to make the best use of it - or actually think of all who deserve to be saved. Thus, as with the distribution of evil and imperfection in the natural world, God allows grace to be distributed unevenly and even inequitably by the laws of grace in combination with the occasional causes that activate them.

It was the Traité, with its claim that God wills to save all humans and the implication that God's volitions are not always efficacious (since not everyone is saved), that initially aroused Arnauld's ire and occasioned his attack on Malebranche's whole system. Arnauld, as a Jansenist, was committed first and foremost to a strong doctrine of predestination and to the efficacy of divine volitions, particularly in the matter of grace. Pierre Bayle rallied to Malebranche's defence on this and other issues, and the pages of Bayle's Nouvelles de la république des lettres in the 1680s became an important battleground for the debates instigated by Malebranche's works.

7. Influence

Malebranche's influence in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was significant, but subtle and often unacknowledged. There is no question that his contemporaries recognized him as the major representative of the Cartesian system, however unorthodox his Cartesianism may have been. Leibniz's arguments against 'the Cartesians', for example, are often directed at Malebranche. And yet, despite his criticisms of occasionalism, Leibniz was himself impressed by Malebranche's discussion of causation and critique of interaction between substances. Moreover, Leibniz's own theodicy and solution to the problem of evil were clearly influenced by what he read in Malebranche. Like Malebranche, Leibniz insists that God in creation chooses from an infinity of possible worlds, and that God pays particular attention not just to the created theatre itself, but especially to its relationship with the laws of nature and grace. Malebranche considers the laws as separate from 'the world', and gives them a higher value. He grants that the world God created may not be, absolutely speaking, the best of all possible worlds, but it is the best that can be done given the absolute simplicity of means God employs. Leibniz, on the other hand, considers the laws and the universe they govern together as 'the world', and insists that the combination is the best world overall. But they agree that evil and sin occur because God allows them to occur as a result of the ordinary course of nature as governed by the laws God has chosen. They agree that God could diminish the imperfections of the created world, but only by violating the simplicity of the divine ways (as Malebranche would put it), or by detracting from the overall optimality of the world (as Leibniz would say). Leibniz even goes so far as to suggest to Malebranche that, in the end, their accounts are the same, although Malebranche disagrees.

Malebranche's influence extended across the Channel (and not just to such overt followers as John Norris). Despite Berkeley's indignant claim that 'there are no principles more fundamentally opposed than his [Malebranche's] and mine', there are obvious echoes of Malebranche's doctrines in Berkeley's works (see Berkeley, G. §2). For example, Berkeley's ideas, like Malebranche's ideas, are not modifications of the finite mind but are independent of it. They are also in the mind of God, since it is 'an infinite spirit who contains and supports' the world of ideas. Similarly, with respect to causation, Berkeley denies that our ideas of bodies provide us with any notion of causal power or efficacy. And while Berkeley departs from Malebranche's doctrine and grants real causal power to the human soul (and thus is not a complete occasionalist), he insists, like Malebranche, that the ordinary course of natural phenomena, the regularities and correspondences in our ideas of things, are the result of the causal activity of the will of a governing spirit, that is, God.

Hume was more forthcoming in acknowledging his debt to Malebranche in his conclusions about causality. His arguments denying that our idea of body affords us any notion of causal power and his insistence that all that experience reveals is a constant conjunction between events seem to come right out of Malebranche's Recherche. Both Hume and Malebranche stress the centrality of the concept of necessary connection to our understanding of causation, and both deny that such necessity can be discovered (by reason or experience) between any things in nature. The difference is that Malebranche held that we can perceive a necessary connection between the will of God and any event willed by God, while Hume rejected any such claim.

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

List of works

Malebranche, N. (1958-67) Oeuvres complètes de Malebranche (Complete works of Malebranche), ed. A. Robinet, Paris: J. Vrin, 20 vols. (The standard edition of Malebranche's writings. The main philosophical works are in the volumes listed below.)

Malebranche, N. (1674-5) De la recherche de la vérité, in Oeuvres, vols 1-3, 6th edn, 1712; trans. T. Lennon and P.J. Olscamp as The Search After Truth/Elucidations of the Search After Truth, Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1980. (Malebranche's most important philosophical work. Vol. 3 of the Oeuvres contains the Éclaircissements.)

Malebranche, N. (1676) Conversations chrétiennes (Christian conversations), in Oeuvres, vol. 4. (A 'justification' of the Catholic religion and morality.)

Malebranche, N. (1680) Traité de la nature et de la grace, in Oeuvres, vol. 5; trans. P. Riley as Treatise on Nature and Grace, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. (Malebranche's theodicy and account of human freedom.)

Malebranche, N. (1683a) Méditations chrétiennes et métaphysiques (Christian and metaphysical meditations), in Oeuvres, vol. 10. (A reworking of his metaphysical and epistemological doctrines including the vision of God.)

Malebranche, N. (1683b) Traité de morale (Treatise on morality), in Oeuvres, vol. 11. (A treatise in Christian ethics and human happiness.)

Malebranche, N. (1684-94) Recueil de toutes les réponses à M. Arnauld (Collection of all the responses to M. Arnauld), in Oeuvres, vols 6-9. (Contains correspondence related to the Malebranche-Arnauld debate, as well as Malebranche's Réponse to Arnauld's Des vraies et des fausses idées, and some other pieces.)

Malebranche, N. (1688) Entretiens sur la métaphysique et sur la religion, in Oeuvres, vol. 12; trans. W. Doney as Dialogues on Metaphysics, New York: Abaris, 1980. (A presentation, in dialogue form, of Malebranche's doctrines c.1688, after some development since the Recherche in the light of various debates.)

Malebranche, N. (1692) Traité des lois de la communication du mouvement, in Oeuvres, vol. 2. (A critique of Descartes' account of the rule of impact.)

Malebranche, N. (1696) Entretiens sur la mort, in Oeuvres, vol. 13. (A continuation of the dialogues on metaphysics concentrating on death and the soul.)

Malebranche, N. (1708) Entretien d'un philosophe chrétien et d'un philosophe chinois (Dialogue between a Christian philosopher and a Chinese philosopher), in Oeuvres, vol. 15. (Christian apologetics.)

Malebranche, N. (1715) Réflexions sur la prémotion physique (Reflections on physical premotion), in Oeuvres, vol. 16. (Malebranche's response to Abbé Boursier on God's action on creatures.)

References and further reading

Alquié, F. (1974) Le Cartésianisme de Malebranche (The Cartesianism of Malebranche), Paris: J. Vrin. (An examination of what Malebranche inherits from orthodox Cartesianism and what he modifies or rejects.)

André, Y. (1886) La vie du R. P. Malebranche, prêtre de l'Oratoire, avec l'histoire de ses ouvrages (The life of Father Malebranche, priest of the oratory, with the history of his works), Paris; Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1970. (Written in the first half of the eighteenth century; still the standard source on Malebranche's life.)

Arnauld, A. (1683) Des vraies et des fausses idées; trans. E. Kremer as On True and False Ideas, Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellon Press, 1990; also trans. S. Gaukroger, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990. (Arnauld's attack on Malebranche's theory of ideas and doctrine of the vision in God.)

Brown, S. (ed.) (1991) Nicolas Malebranche: His Philosophical Critics and Successors, Assen: Van Gorcum. (A collection of essays on Malebranche, his influence, and his contemporary and later critics.)

Church, R.W. (1931) A Study in the Philosophy of Malebranche, London: Allen & Unwin. (A valuable general study of Malebranche's philosophy.)

Dreyfus, G. (1958) La volonté selon Malebranche (The will according to Malebranche), Paris: J. Vrin. (A thorough account of Malebranche on the divine will and the human will.)

Easton, P., Lennon, T. and Sebba, G. (1991) Bibliographia Malebranchiana: A Critical Guide to the Malebranche Literature 1638-1988, Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. (A comprehensive bibliography covering both Malebranche and his friends and critics.)

Gouhier, H. (1948) La philosophie de Malebranche et son expérience religieuse (The philosophy of Malebranche and his religious experience), Paris: J. Vrin. (An examination of some essential Malebranchian doctrines and their theological aspects.)

Gueroult, M. (1955) Malebranche, Paris: Aubier, 3 vols. (An exhaustive and masterly study of Malebranche's system.)

Jolley, N. (1990) The Light of the Soul: Theories of Ideas in Leibniz, Malebranche, and Descartes, Oxford: Clarendon Press. (Examines Malebranche's theory of ideas, especially in comparison to Descartes' and Leibniz's accounts.)

McCracken, C. (1983) Malebranche and British Philosophy, Oxford: Clarendon Press. (Looks at the way Malebranche's philosophy was variously assimilated and criticized in early modern British philosophy; chapters on Locke, Berkeley and Hume.)

Nadler, S. (1992) Malebranche and Ideas, New York: Oxford University Press. (An analysis of Malebranche's theory of ideas and doctrine of the vision in God.)

Prost, J. (1907) Essai sur l'atomisme et l'occasionalisme dans la philosophie cartésienne (Essay on atomism and occasionalism in Cartesian philosophy), Paris: Henry Paulin. (A fine study of occasionalism and its roots in Descartes' philosophy, with several chapters on Malebranche.)

Radner, D. (1978) Malebranche: A Study of a Cartesian System, Assen: Van Gorcum. (A useful general and analytical presentation of Malebranche's doctrines.)

Robinet, A. (1955) Malebranche et Leibniz: relations personelles (Malebranche and Leibniz: personal relations), Paris: J. Vrin. (A valuable resource that contains correspondence and other documents concerning the mutual relations between Malebranche and Leibniz.)

Robinet, A. (1965) Système et existence dans l'oeuvre de Malebranche (System and existence in the work of Malebranche), Paris: J. Vrin. (One of the most important studies of Malebranche's philosophy, with emphasis on its development.)

Rodis-Lewis, G. (1963) Nicolas Malebranche, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. (A general account of Malebranche's life and thought.)

Walton, C. (1972) De la recherche du bien: A Study of Malebranche's Science of Ethics, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff. (An analysis of Malebranche's moral philosophy, concentrating on his account of virtue and duty.)

Main Page