Dialogues on Metaphysics and on Religion

by Nicolas Malebranche

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 290

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.

The First Dialogue

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Dialogues on Metaphysics and on Religion is written more in the style of Saint Augustine than in that of Plato. It presents a statement of Malebranche’s theories rather than a discussion of philosophical issues. In it, two spokespersons for Malebranche expound his views to a student, Aristes, and correct the latter’s misunderstandings.

The first dialogue begins with Theodore instructing Aristes in the method of finding philosophical truth. Understanding should be gained through reason; hence, for the time being, faith is not taken as a source of knowledge. The sensuous or material world should be ignored, so that the senses and the imagination will not interfere with the pursuit of rational knowledge. With this much in mind, the analysis of what rational truths people can possess is begun.

The analysis proceeds as follows. Because nothing, or nonbeing, can have no qualities, I, who think, must exist. (I have at least the quality of thinking; hence, I cannot be nothing, or nonexistent.) What, however, am I? I am not a body, because a body is only a piece of extension. When I examine my idea of a body, the only properties that I find belonging to it are extensional ones, relations of distance. Thought is not a property or type of extension, because thoughts cannot be defined in terms of distances, and because they can be conceived without reference to any properties of extension. Hence, people’s conception of themselves is totally different from their conception of bodies. (Malebranche offers these considerations as evidence that people are not material bodies.)

When people examine their ideas, they find that what they are directly acquainted with is an intelligible world, and not a material one. People know ideas, and not physical things. Even if all material objects disappeared, people’s ideas might remain the same. Because everything that a person can know is an idea, it is only the intelligible world that directly concerns people. When people inspect this intelligible world of ideas, they find that it has an eternal, immutable, and necessary structure that is not in any way dependent on their thinking about it. Truths, such as 3 x 3 = 9, are always true and they must be true. One does not decide or will that they be true; instead, one is forced to recognize and accept their truth. Furthermore, the truths of the intelligible world are infinite, in that they apply to an infinite number of objects; hence, these necessary and unchangeable truths must apply not only to the limited, finite number of things in a person’s mind but also to what Malebranche calls “intelligible extension”—the entire rational world of concepts.

All of this is intended to show that the world of intelligible extension, the realm of true ideas, cannot be a feature of a person’s mind. Intelligible extension has a structure unlike that of oneself, in that it is eternal, infinite, immutable, and necessary. Hence, although a person is aware of certain aspects of intelligible extension, it must be located elsewhere, in something that possesses the actual characteristics of the intelligible world—namely, God.

The Second Dialogue

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The second dialogue deals with the nature and existence of God. Malebranche emphatically denies that intelligible extension is God. Such a view would be similar to that held by Baruch Spinoza. Instead, Malebranche contends that the recognition of intelligible extension makes people realize that God is, because he alone can be the locus of intelligible extension. This does not state, however, what God is. In fact, people know of God only in relation to what he makes people know, or by what he illuminates. Anytime that a person has any knowledge, that person knows that God exists, but one can never know his nature.

To clarify this point, Malebranche argues that God is unlimited Perfection or Being or Infinite Reality. No human idea can represent such a Being, because all human ideas are determinate. In this lifetime, a person cannot attain a clear idea of what God is; people only can see that he is, and how he is related to everything that people know. People realize that the proposition “There is a God” is obviously true, and that God’s essence includes his existence, but they cannot understand what his nature really is.

According to Malebranche, “We see all things in God,” but we do not actually see him. The ideas we have that constitute knowledge do not properly belong to our own minds, but rather to intelligible extension. Because of the characteristics of intelligible extension, it must be located in God; hence, whenever we know something, we are seeing a truth in God, and seeing it because he illuminates it for us. In this respect, Malebranche’s theory of knowledge differs sharply from that of Descartes. According to the latter, people establish truths about reality from the clear and distinct ideas in their own minds. Descartes contended that because God gave people these ideas, and because he is no deceiver, whatever is clear and distinct about human ideas must be true of the real universe as well. Critics have noted that Descartes never succeeded in building a bridge from his ideas of reality. Malebranche removes the need for such a bridge building by insisting that the ideas are not located in people’s minds, but are instead in God’s Mind. A truth is a direct observation of intelligible extension in God, and people see what is God’s Mind because he illuminates the ideas and enables people to see them. Thus, Malebranche’s theory is a type of direct Platonic realism. The only truths are truths about the world of ideas, and these are known not by inference from the contents of human minds but by direct vision of the Divine Mind.

Ideas and the Senses

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In the third, fourth, and fifth dialogues, Malebranche discusses the relationship of ideas to sense information. Ideas are intelligible. This means that they can be defined, so that people can understand why they have the characteristics they do. In terms of this conception of “ideas,” the only ideas people have are divine ones. People do not have an idea of themselves because they do not know their own natures completely, and people cannot make themselves know themselves. People do not have ideas of their sense experiences, which Malebranche calls “feelings,” because they cannot give clear definitions of them.

In a famous passage, Aristes and Theodore appropriately illustrate this point by discussing music. When one tries to make intelligible the real reason why people hear the sounds they do, the explanation is in terms of the mathematical relationships of vibrating strings, and not in terms of experienced qualities. The mathematical relationships can be defined in terms of the ideas involved in intelligible extension; however, the sounds cannot be defined, only “felt.” In addition, no intelligible connection can be discovered between the vibrations and the felt sounds. (Does a certain sound experience have to be the result of vibrations of a certain frequency?)

What people can understand relates only to the realm of ideas, the realm of intelligible extension. Sense qualities are not features of mathematical ideas, for, as far as is known, they are only feelings in people. There is nothing in the mathematical relationships that people can understand about moving bodies that explains the occurrence of these feelings. The ideas that people have of bodies allow understanding of them in terms of the principles of mathematical physics without reference to feelings.

Then, what accounts for having feelings and experiencing them in some orderly relation to physical events? In giving his answer, Malebranche presents his theory of occasionalism. Bodies cannot cause feelings, because bodies are only extended objects moving. People cannot be the cause of their feelings, because they have no control of them. God, then, must be the cause, giving people a certain set of feelings whenever certain physical events occur. There must be laws of the conjunction of the soul and the body by which God operates on both substances, so that when an event happens to one, a corresponding event happens to the other. Each of these events is the “occasion” but not the cause of the other’s occurrence. There is no necessary connection between a physical event and a mental event. God, acting according to general laws he has laid down, causes two independent sets of events, the physical ones and the feelings and ideas. The mind and the body have no contact with each other; however, God wills incessantly and produces a sequence of physical events that are correlated with a conjoined series of mental events. By means of the system God employs, people ascertain, through discovering the general laws God provides, what is necessary for self-preservation. Feelings alert people to bodily needs, so that they seek food when they have the feeling of hunger, and so on.

The sense “feelings” that God provides serve not only as warning signs for the care and maintenance of people’s bodies (which they otherwise would know nothing about, because their knowledge is only about ideas) but also as the occasions for becoming aware of truths about ideas. The diagrams employed in mathematics, which are only sensations, cannot teach since they do not contain the pure ideas; however, they can function as cues, attracting attention to the truths people can learn from reason. Learning actually consists of a person being made aware of some fact about the intelligible world, and of being made aware of this fact by God, who alone has the power to make a person think and know.

Metaphysical Theory

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The sixth and seventh dialogues bring out the crucial characteristics of Malebranche’s metaphysical theory, showing why God is the sole causal agent in the universe. The universe contains three types of beings: God, whose existence can be demonstrated from his definition; mind, which can be directly apprehended through its mental processes, though it cannot be clearly known; and bodies, whose existence is known only by Revelation. The last point startles Aristes, so Theodore examines the evidence available for the existence of bodies.

People do not know bodies by ideas, because their ideas are of intelligible extension, and not of physical extension. They do not feel bodies, because their feelings are only modifications of their own souls, caused by God in consequence of his general laws. In terms of what people know and feel, it is quite possible that bodies do not exist at all. Human knowledge and experience could be exactly the same, because God directly causes all, whether bodies exist or do not exist. In fact, Malebranche goes on to argue, it cannot be shown that bodies must exist, but it can be shown that God need not create bodies. If God is infinitely perfect, there is no reason why he has to create anything. It is compatible with God’s nature either that he has created a physical world or that he has not. If it could be shown that he had to create a physical world, then God would not be perfect (and, as Malebranche interprets this term, self-sufficient). He would require something other than himself; namely, what he had to create. Because, by definition, God is dependent on nothing, if he created a physical world, he did it arbitrarily and not necessarily. What Malebranche, in effect, claims is that no necessary conclusion about the nature of created things follows from the concept of an all-perfect, omnipotent deity.

If all of this is accepted, then is there any reason to believe that bodies do, in fact, exist? First, some proofs are convincing but not conclusive. The constancy of human experience, along with people’s natural inclination to attribute experiences to bodies, persuades them that there are bodies. This persuasion, however, could be erroneous, because people know that they could have the experiences they do, together with an inclination to believe certain things about these experiences, without there being any bodies—God could produce all such effects in them. The decisive evidence, according to Malebranche, is given by faith, in the statements that appear in the beginning of the book of Genesis, which states that God created heaven and earth. (Bishop Berkeley later disputed whether the text in question says anything about whether God created a physical world, or whether it refers only to a world of ideas.)

In the seventh dialogue, the climax of this metaphysical view is reached. A third character, Theotimus, is introduced, who is a spokesperson for Malebranche’s theological views. Theodore and Theotimus together defend the theory that God alone is an efficacious agent in the universe. It already had been shown that unaided minds have no power, but receive only those ideas and feelings that God wills to give them. Now it is argued that bodies are also powerless, because their sole defining properties are extensional, that is, relations of distance. Bodies exist only because of God’s will, and their particular location at any moment must also be the result of God’s will. If all this is the case, then obviously bodies cannot be the cause of their own motions, or of the motions of each other—only God can be. The same point can be brought out from God’s side. If he is omnipotent, then nothing besides God can have any power to act. If it did, then there would be something God could not do, namely, control the actions of a particular object. God’s omnipotence implies, according to Malebranche, that God is the only possible active agent in the entire universe. This point is made in the striking assertion that not all the angels and demons acting together can move a bit of straw unless God so wills.

Then what makes the world operate? In general, it is God’s will. In particular, the world proceeds according to general laws that God provides. Malebranche insists that God wills according to the principle of economy that the smallest set of fixed laws should be employed. God can change everything at any moment, because he is the only active agent; however, because he wills in keeping with his principle of economy, effects continue to occur in lawful sequences, which people can learn through the study of nature. The world as people know it, because it is the effect of God’s will, can only be described, never explained. People never know any reason why events happen, beyond the general formula that God so wills them. There is no necessary connection between events; hence, the created world must be known descriptively, not logically.

The remainder of Dialogues on Metaphysics and on Religion deals with Malebranche’s theology. The author tries to show that his version of Cartesian philosophy is in accord with Christian doctrine and attempts to answer some of the theological objections that had been raised.

To an extent, Malebranche’s theory represented the culmination of the grand tradition of seventeenth century metaphysical inquiry. Starting with Descartes, the “new philosophers” had tried to explain why the world discovered by modern science must have the characteristics it does. Malebranche, by consistently following out some of the main themes of Descartes, reduced the hope of reaching a rational explanation of the world to nothing, leaving only theology, instead of philosophy, as the source of knowledge about the world. Berkeley and Hume then followed some of Malebranche’s insights, and Hume reduced the theological vision of Malebranche to a complete skepticism.


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Additional Reading

Arnauld, Antoine. On True and False Ideas. Translated by Stephen Gaukroger. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1990. Arnauld’s penetrating criticism in a modern edition, but with Old French spelling.

Black, Andrew S. “Malebranche’s Theodicy.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 35, no. 1 (January, 1997): 27-44. Defense against objections by Antoine Arnauld.

Brehier, Emile. The Seventeenth Century. Vol. 4 in The History of Philosophy. Translated by Wade Baskin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966. Places Malebranche’s thought in the context of Cartesianism and its followers and developers. Many references in this and Vol. 5, The Eighteenth Century, to Malebranche’s influence on subsequent thinkers. Sound bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

Nadler, Steven M. Malebranche and Ideas. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. A book-length version of an introduction written for a collection of Malebranche translations, with full scholarly apparatus.

Radner, Daisie. Malebranche. Assen, Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1978. Shows Malebranche’s relation to Descartes’s philosophy in complete detail as regards his theories of physical reality.

Schmaltz, Ted. Malebranche’s Theory of the Soul: A Cartesian Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Schmaltz presents and defends many of Malebranche’s arguments and shows how they are relevant to prevailing themes in the philosophy.

Watson, Richard A., and Marjorie Grene. Malebranche’s First and Last Critics: Simon Foucher and Dortous de Mairan. Published for the Journal of the History of Philosophy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995. Translations, with excellent introductions, of two volumes of criticism of The Search After Truth.

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