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

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...

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The Second Dialogue

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,...

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Ideas and the Senses

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...

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Metaphysical Theory

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...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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