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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.

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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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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 516

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 entire section contains 3110 words.)

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