Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Nicolas Malebranche was the chief Cartesian philosopher of the late seventeenth century. He was a member of the Augustinian religious order of the Oratory in Paris, where he originally devoted himself to the studies of ecclesiastical history, biblical criticism, and Hebrew. At the age of twenty-six, he came across a work by René Descartes and was so impressed by its method and the theory it contained that he devoted the next several years to studying Cartesian philosophy and mathematics. The first fruits of these studies appeared in 1674-1675 in his famous work De la recherche de la vérité (1674-1675, 6th ed. 1712; Treatise Concerning the Search After Truth, 1694, best known as The Search After Truth), in which he developed his modified version of Cartesian philosophy. The work was immediately successful and was translated into several languages, including English. It was studied and discussed by major thinkers everywhere and soon led to a series of polemical controversies between Malebranche and his opponents. His Dialogues on Metaphysics and on Religion presents a more literary and definitive version of his theory, as well as answers to many of his critics. It has remained the most popular expression of Malebranche’s theory of knowledge and his metaphysics.

Malebranche’s views were tremendously influential in their own day. For a period, he was the most important metaphysician in Europe, providing the theory that was debated everywhere. Among the thinkers who were greatly influenced by Malebranche’s views were Irish philosopher George Berkeley and Scottish skeptic David Hume. Although his works were severely criticized by the Jesuits, and some of his writings were placed on the Roman Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books, Malebranche had, and continues to have, an enormous influence among French philosophers.