Nicolas Malebranche Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)
0111207236-Malebranche.jpg Nicolas Malebranche (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Malebranche sought to reconcile René Descartes’s mechanistic philosophy with the God-filled universe of Saint Augustine and the Neoplatonists, and he preserved the centrality of God’s action in his doctrine of occasionalism.

Early Life

Nicolas Malebranche’s father, also named Nicolas, was a secretary to King Louis XIII. He and his wife, Catherine de Lauzon, had a number of children, of whom Nicolas was the youngest. A malformation of the spine led to Malebranche’s education at home until age sixteen, when he entered the Collège de la Marche, from which he graduated in 1656 as Maitre ès Arts. He spent the next three years at the Sorbonne; in 1660, he joined the Congregation of the Oratory and was ordained in 1664. He would spend the rest of his life in the Oratory of the Rue St.-Honoré, but these first four years permanently shaped his thought and philosophy. The order took its theological tone from its founder, Cardinal Bérulle, who was both a devoted follower of Saint Augustine, with his doctrine of God’s grace, and a personal friend of philosopher René Descartes. Malebranche’s discovery of Descartes’s Traité de l’homme (1662; in Latin as De Homine, 1664; Treatise of Man, 1972) launched him on a study of the mathematics and physics that underlay Cartesian thought. By 1674-1675, his first major work, The Search After Truth, had appeared. It contained the essence of Malebranche’s thinking; the works that followed amplified its conclusions, tightened its presentation, and responded to critics.

Life’s Work

The Search After Truth contains many of the essential correspondences and differences between Descartes’s and Malebranche’s thinking, and it provides comparisons between them. Both men concluded that the universe is composed of three elements: mind, body, and God. Both agreed that body is defined entirely by extension—that is, by its pure physical existence, in much the same way that matter is defined in present-day textbooks as that which possesses mass and occupies space (mass frequently was left out of consideration before English physicist Isaac Newton demonstrated the effects of its magnitude in the seventeenth century). Body could have no inherent motion but must be set into motion by an external cause; it cannot be a causal agent.

Mind is a separate substance from body. Both thinkers conclude that the known world is a world of ideas held in the mind; the body, being separate, can give no information about that world. For Descartes, both animals and humans are mechanical devices composed of body animated by mind. The distinction between them is that humans possess a soul that, according to a chain of careful Cartesian reasoning, connects humanity to God. People’s certainty about the world in which they live and move, then, is guaranteed by God. Their certainty about what they know, however, is a mathematician’s certainty: What people perceive clearly and distinctly is what they know in that mind that exists separately from the body. The clarity and distinction is almost Euclidean: People can know the existence of a triangle, or the relation of its sides and angles to those of another triangle, without appealing to God for specific certification of this knowledge. By extension, people can know that mind causes body to move and accomplish the actions of everyday life.

For Malebranche, the relation between God, mind, and body is much more subtle. To begin with, neither body nor mind is a causal agent. The sole cause in the universe is God. What a person perceives as cause and effect—for example, the motion imparted to a body on collision—is in fact the result of God’s intervention, in accordance with rules he has himself laid down. This doctrine is called occasionalism—that is, each apparent cause-effect occurrence is actually an occasion of God’s intervention. The part mind plays in this is that mind is the essential element that makes a human being. Malebranche sets aside completely the notion of a body-mechanism actuated by mind, in favor of his occasionalist causality. People are thinking beings only, their existence contained solely in their perception of ideas that form an intelligible extension (in contrast to the physical extension that is the only attribute of body). This intelligible extension of ideas lies in God—indeed, Malebranche affirms, along with Saint Paul, that people see all things in (or through) God—though intelligible extension is not identical with God. The ideas he speaks of are archetypes or Platonic ideals, eternal and infinite; people understand them incompletely, and only as God illuminates them.

What Malebranche is doing in this God-centered development of Cartesian thought is expressing a thoroughly Augustinian admixture of theology and metaphysics—that is, of the unseen world...

(The entire section is 2024 words.)