Nicholas Malebranche (1638-1715)

Nicholas Malebranche was one of the principal figures in the development of Cartesianism. He both explicated and defended Descartes, and developed original views which he ably defended in controversy. Besides Descartes, the other great influence on Malebranche was Augustine's Christian Platonism, from which Malbranche drew, among other things, the view that the ideas we immediately perceive are the archetypes in the divine mind. Malebranche engaged in an important controversy with Antoine Arnauld, as well as with other notable philosophical figures including Foucher, Fontenelle, Leibniz, Regis, and Lamay. In Malbranche and British PhilosophyCharles MacCraken notes that Malebranche is not well known in the English speaking world, that "...the student in an introductory philosophy unlikely to learn more than that he taught a curious doctrine about causality (a doctrine that is usually portrayed as a product of a Cartesian's struggle to extricate himself, by quite arbitrary means, from the toils of mind body interaction). MacCraken goes on to note that French scholars have had, for a long time, a far higher opinion of Malebranche; and that in his own day, both in France and in England, Malebranche was very famous.

Malebranche's most important work De la recherche de la vérité où l'on traite de la Nature de l'Esprit de l'homme, & de l'usage qu'il en doit faire pour éviter l'erreur dans les Sciences or The Search After Truth or a Treatise on the Nature of the soul of Man & on the way which one ought to have for avoiding error in the Sciences, was Cartesian in inspiration and asserted views connected with the mechanical philosophy including the rejection of Scholastic apparatus of substantial forms, real qualities and powers in favor of the doctrine that the behavior of bodies must be explained by the configuration and movement of their parts and the claim that there is nothing in bodies like our ideas of color, taste and smell. Malebranche agreed with Descartes that awareness of mental states is immediate and infallible, perception of bodies is indirect and fallible, and that knowledge of things comes from clear and distinct ideas grasped by reason, and not by sensation or imagination. Malebranche also maintained some specifically Cartesian metaphysical doctrines such as the definition of matter as extension, that animals are machines, and that man has a soul really distinct from his body.

Among Malebranche's most distinctive and original views are:

  1. the doctrine that we have knowledge of extended things only because we "see all things in God";
  2. that God alone is the true cause of all events, and
  3. that God, as the good in general, is the only intrinsically lovable being.

Seeing All things in God

Malebranche's doctrine of seeing all things in God begins with the truism of the representational theory of perception that we do not directly perceive external objects - that what we immediately perceive our ideas. Though there is agreement that we do not immediately perceive objects, there is considerable disagreement about the origin and nature of the ideas we immediately perceive. Malebranche proceeds by considering a variety of hypotheses about the origin and nature of ideas, raising objections and eliminating competing hypotheses until his own -- that the ideas we immediately perceive are archetypes of objects in the mind of God. Malebranche holds a view of the reality of ideas as archetypes in God's mind which was rejected by such thinkers as Arnauld and Locke.

Malebranche's doctrine that "we see all things in God" might more accurately be put "we see all the things we see in God" since some things we do not see, notably the self or soul and God. Malebranche rejects the Cartesian view that we have a clear and distinct idea of the nature or essence of the mind, Malebranche holds that neither the nature nor the modification of the mind are known by way of ideas. Our knowledge of ourselves is limited to internal sensations or immediate consciousness of its particular states of modifications. It thus may well have been from his study of Malebranche that David Hume came to his famous and remarkable conclusion that in introspection he could find no idea of himself.

That God alone is the true cause of events.

Malebranche holds that we lack a clear idea of the power or force in bodies which is supposed to account for their motion. From an examination of our idea of some particular body, we cannot determine under what conditions it will move or move other bodies, and though we have experience of uniformities of motions in bodies, we do not observe any necessary connection between cause and effect but only a constant conjunction of events.

Following Descartes, Malebranche holds that if a body depends for its existence on God, it must not only be created, but must be conserved by Him from moment to moment. Since God is responsible for the conservation of all beings from moment to moment, He must will either that it come into being in the same place in successive moments, or in some different place, that is, be at rest or in motion. Since nothing can move a body which God wills to remain at rest, or impede or change the motion of a body which God wills to move, bodies are causally ineffacious. Since there is a necessary connection between the volition of an omnipotent being and the execution of that volition, as Willis Doney puts it: "God is the true cause of motion in bodies, and the action of his will is their moving force." (Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol.5 . Pg. 143)

According to Malebranche the doctrine that bodies have powers to effect other bodies is the most dangerous error of the philosophy of antiquity. If we believe that bodies have the power to effect us we will come to love and fear them rather than God, the true cause of our well being.

God, as the general good, is the only intrinsically lovable being

Malebranche holds that the will is determined towards the good, and that God is the most perfect being and the most perfect goodness. It is an imperfection, in fact the essence of sin, to love a less perfect being more than a perfect being. So God created us to love himself. This love is irresistible. Towards lesser goods, however, we are inclined but not necessitated, for "there is no particular good that presents itself to us as the sole all-compelling fulfillment of our desires. Our liberty consists in our ability to 'suspend' our inclination to some particular good, and to redirect our unvarying desire for the general good to some other (apparent) particular good." (McCracken, Pg. 43)

The influence of Malebranche on Berkeley and Hume

At the high water mark, Malebranche was being read not only in England, but among the Irish philosophical community in Dublin, including such notables as William Molyneaux, John Toland, Dean Swift and Archbishop King. George Berkeley, a young student at Trinity College, Dublin, who was profoundly distrustful of the modern mechanical philosophy of Gassendi, Descartes, Boyle, Locke and Newton, found in Malebranche:

...a detailed defense of the doctrines that primary qualities vary as much, relative to the perceiver, as do the secondary, that God, not matter is the cause of our sensations; that the objects we perceive are neither material substances, nor modifications of our own minds, but a realm of idea things which exist independently of our minds; and that no proof can be given that matter exists. ---McCraken, Malebranche and English Philosophy, Pp. 18-19
Thus, during the primary period of his intellectual development, Berkeley encountered arguments in Malebranche, which play a prominent role in his doctrine of immaterialism.

David Hume some forty years later, also found many doctrines in Malebranche which were to play an important role in his philosophy. These include the claim that truths are either relations of ideas or matters of fact and existence; arguments that neither sense nor reason can discover any necessary connection between cause and effect; that our belief that there is such a necessary connection is custom engendered by habit of observing events constantly conjoined and that we have no idea of the self. All of these ideas were to play an important role in Hume's philosophical system.

Malebranche Time Line

1638 August 6, born in Paris to Nicolas Malebranche, secretary to Louis XIII, and Catherine de Lauzon, sister of a viceroy of Canada.

1660 Having studied theology at the Sorbonne joins the congregation of the Oratory.

1664 Ordained. Reads Descartes' "Treatise on Man" and spends the next ten years studying Descartes.

1674 Publishes the results of his research of Descartes, De la recherche de la vérité où l'on traite de la Nature de l'Esprit de l'homme, & de l'usage qu'il en doit faire pour éviter l'erreur dans les Sciences

1677 Writes Conversations metaphysiques et chretiennes.

1680 Writes "Treatise of Nature and Grace"

1683 Beginning of his dispute with Arnauld.

1688 Writes Dialogues on Metaphysics and on Religion.

1690 "Treatise of Nature and Grace" placed on the Index.

1697 Writes "Treatise on the Love of God."

1699 Admitted an honorary member of the Academy of Sciences.

1709 Recherche placed on the Index.

1715 October 13, he dies.

Malebranche Time Line Sources


Captain's Choice of Selected Secondary Sources