Philosophy 22 Lecture Notes: Malebranche

Nicolas Malebranche, 1638-1715, was the most influential Cartesian of his day. He developed a number of themes in Descartes's philosophy, most notably the account of the material world as consisting of extended bodies whose changes are governed by laws of motion. It is of note that although Malebranche adopted Descartes's three laws of motion in modified form, he modified his account when Leibniz pointed out that they were erroneous. (For Leibniz's assessment of Malebranche, see "Conversation of Philarète and Ariste," in the Leibniz text.) Malebranche is best known for those of his doctrines that were not congenial to Descartes's philosophy.

We See All Things in God

The first of these is that most of human knowledge comes from the union of the human mind with the mind of God, summarized in Malebranche's slogan that "we see all things in God." Malebranche had been influenced strongly by St. Augustine (354-430 A.D), a philosopher in the "neo-Platonic" tradition that had begun with Plotinus in the third century A.D. (For a very brief synopsis of Augustine, see my lecture notes from Philosophy 1.) Plato's view was that the true natures of things is to be found in eternally existing forms, and that knowledge of these natures is therefore knowledge of the forms. (See my Philosophy 1 lecture notes on Plato.) Plotinus had located the forms in a primordial mind he called The Intelligence (Noûs). "Such beings must exist before the cosmos, must not be typical of other beings, but must themselves be archetypal. They are the very essence of The Intelligence" (Enneads V, 9, 5). Christian neo-Platonists such as Augustine had located the forms (which he called "ideas") in the mind of God. Augustine had identified The Intelligence with the second person of the trinity, the divine Word. In a passage quoted by Malebranche in the Preface to his Dialogues on Metayphsics, Augustine wrote that ideas are

principal forms or stable and unchangeable essence of things. They are themselves not formed, and they are eternal and always in the same state because they are contained in God's intelligence. They neither come into being nor do they pass away, but everything that can or does come into being and pass away is formed in accordance with them.
According to Descartes, the relevant contents of the Divine mind, that is, those mathematical structures through which we understand extended things, are innate ideas, implanted in the mind by God.
When I first discover [countless particulars concerning shapes, number, movement, and the like], it seems I am not so much learning something new as recalling something I knew beforehand. In other words, it seems as though I am noticing things for the first time that were in fact in me a long while, although I had not previously directed a mental gaze upon them. (Meditation Three)

In The Search After Truth, Malebranche canvassed the various ways in which the minds might know the nature of things, discovering exactly five possibilities.

We assert the absolute necessity, then, of the following: either the ideas we have of bodies and of all other objects we do not perceive by themselves come from these bodies or objects; or (b) our soul has the power of producing these ideas; or (c) God has produced them in us while creating the soul or produces them every time we think about a given object; or (d) the soul has in itself all the perfections it sees in bodies; or else (e) the soul is joined to a completely perfect being that contains all intelligible perfections, or all the ideas of created beings. (The Search after Truth, Book Three: Part Two, Chapter Five)
He systematically rejected options (a) through (d), settling on (e) as the best explanation. It is worth noting that he rejected option (c), the Cartesian alternative, on the grounds that the mind can conceive "an infinity of infinite numbers" in order to be able to know all possible figuers of bodies, but since God could bring about the same effect in the much simpler way (e), that way is more plausible. Moreover, Malebranche raises a problem concerning the mind would know which innate idea to apply to an object presented to the senses.

Malebranche concludes, then, that the human mind is united with the mind of God and perceives the ideas reposing in that mind. First, the ideas are already in God's mind, and it is through them that God perceives all created beings. Second, God is the "place" of minds, just as space is the place of bodies. It is natural to conclude from these two theses that the minds perceive what is in the "place" where they reside. It must be noted, however, the human minds do not see the essence of God which is perfect, but only the ideas which are the archetypes of imperfect created beings. And this depends on God's willing to reveal them to us.

Malebranche goes on to give a number of arguments in support of his doctrine. The one of most interest here is that the human mind has an idea of the infinite, which is prior to its idea of the finite. This allows us to prove that God exists, and it could only come from our union with the mind of God.

Thus, the mind perceives nothing except in the idea it has of the infinite, and from this idea, being formed from the confused collection of all our ideas of particular beings (as philosophers think), all these particular ideas are in fact but participations in the general idea of the infinite; just as God does not draw His being from creatures, while every creature is but an imperfect participation in the divine being.
Descartes had already claimed that the mind comprehends the infinite before the finite. "The perception of the infinite is somehow prior in me to the perception of the finite, that is, my perception of God is prior to my perception of myself" (Meditation Three). Malebranche merely exploited this position by denying the doctrine of innate ideas, so that there remained no other alternative to his view.


The other doctrine most famously associated with Malebranche is occasionalism, the view that the only cause operating on the physical world is God. Descartes had held that God acts on the world through laws of nature, which are "secondary and particular causes" distinct from God himself, who is the primary and general cause of motion in the world through its creation. (Principles of Philosophy, Part II, Section 37; Matthews, p. 100). Malebranche's view actually sounds very much like Descartes's.

God created the world because He willed it: "Dixit, & facta sunt" [Ps. 32:9]; and He moves all things, and thus produces all the effects that we see happening, because He also willed certain laws according to which motion is communicated upon the collision of bodies; and because these laws are efficacious, they act, whereas bodies cannot act. There are therefore no forces, powers, or true causes in the material, sensible world." (The Search after Truth, Book Six: Part Two, Chapter Three).
The chief dispute with Descartes may be a verbal one: Descartes spoke of forces, of bodies moving other bodies (e.g. at Principles, Part II, Section 40; Matthews, p. 103f.) But Malebranche made a strong case that Descartes's philosophy of nature has no room for them.

Nor had he any use for Aristotelean explanations of change. In the passage just cited, he added that "it is not necessary to admit the existence of forms, faculties, and real qualities for producing effects that bodies do not produce and for sharing with God the force and power essential to Him." In fact, Malebranche argued, the attribution of faculties to bodies was a serious error of the ancient philosophers that led them away from God, who would then play no explanatory role in the production of change.

Finally, we have seen how Descartes struggled to give an account of the way in which the human mind interacts with extended things. Occasionalism provides a neat solution to the problem: there is no interaction. "It appears to me quite certain that the will of minds is incapable of moving the smallest body in the world, for it is clear that thre is no necessary connection between our will to move our arms, for example, and the movement of our arms" (The Search after Truth, Book Six: Part Two, Chapter Three). Malebranche's arguments to this end were used by Hume, who also claimed that we can discover no necessary connection between our will and motion in our bodies. Hume, however, thought it illegitimate to explain change in bodies by recourse to the causal powers of God. He claimed that at best we can observe constant conjunction but can never justify a stronger notion of causality. (For more on this issue, see my lecture notes on Hume from Philosophy 23.)

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