Nicolas Malebranche

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2024

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.

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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 of God and of the origin and being of the seen world about people. He is in no way confused in treating these things together. Where Descartes had said that he preferred to concentrate on metaphysics and leave theology to theologians, Malebranche saw no reason to separate the two. Both are legitimate parts of a universe that has its being in God. This fits with, or even proceeds from, his theodicy, or explanation of how God’s wisdom and power can be reconciled with imperfection and evil in the world. God acts in the simplest ways possible, and according to intentions that have the character of physical laws, as manifested in the causality of occasionalism. If these actions (drought, say, or famine) appear imperfect to humanity, this is because people have not recognized that the sum of the actions makes for the best world possible.

Malebranche’s two major contributions to Cartesian philosophy—occasionalism and his doctrine of seeing all things in God—are thus presented in his first work, along with his theodicy. The Search After Truth went through six editions during Malebranche’s lifetime, and Malebranche added an Éclaircissements (Elucidations) in the course of them. Subsequent writings amplified and clarified his views, as well as presenting more specific defenses of Roman Catholic theology. These include Conversations chrétiennes, a justification of Catholicism; Treatise of Nature and Grace; Méditations chrétiennes et métaphysiques), an explanation of Malebranche’s system of philosophy and a defense against his critics; A Treatise of Morality, a demonstration of Christian ethics; Dialogues on Metaphysics and on Religion, Malebranche’s second major presentation of his philosophy, presented not as a treatise but as a three-person dialogue in the style of Plato; Entretiens sur la mort, a supplement to the Dialogues on Metaphysics and on Religion; and a number of lesser works in philosophy, physics, and mathematics.


Malebranche’s ideas attracted adverse criticism almost from their first publication. The most acute and unsparing critic was Antoine Arnauld, author of the major Jansenist treatise De la fréquente communion (1643; on frequent communion) and coauthor with Pierre Nicole of the Jansenists’ La Logique: Ou, L’Art de penser contenant, outre les regles communes, plusieurs observations nouelles propres à former le jugement (1662; Logic: Or, The Art of Thinking, 1685, known as the Port-Royal logic). Jansenism was a movement within the Roman Catholic Church that attracted many French clergy; its principal theological convictions were a rigorous predestination, an insistence that the soul could be converted to God only within the Church and by God’s freely given grace, and the view that frequent communion was unnecessary for the converted. Arnauld’s Des vrayes et des fausses idées: Contre ce qu’enseigne Iaideur de La recherche de la vérité (1683; On True and False Ideas, 1990) objected to Malebranche’s ideas about grace but chose to attack them through the more vulnerable ideas about vision in God. Arnauld considered false the view that ideas exist separately from perceptions, and only in the mind of God, as representative entities or archetypes. He felt that this view arose because of a confusion about what constitutes the presence of an idea in the mind, leading to the false notion that an object can be perceived only if a representative entity in the mind of God acts as a surrogate for it.

Throughout Des vrayes et des fausses idées, Arnauld distances himself from his opponent by referring to him as “the Author of the ‘Search After Truth,’” or even just “this Author.” In later publications, he focuses on his real concern, Malebranche’s overreliance on reason and his consequent softness on grace as the only means of salvation. A long polemic exchange occurred, and Arnauld even managed to have Treatise of Nature and Grace placed on the Church’s Index of Prohibited Books; later The Search After Truth was added. The battle between Arnauld and Malebranche ended only with the death of the former in 1694; some of his objections were published posthumously, but Malebranche did not hesitate to have the last word after that. The result of this activity, and of lively exchanges with other critics that sharpened his thinking and the published expressions of his views, was that Malebranche became a leading philosophical figure in the latter part of the seventeenth century. To be a malebranchiste was to concur in the ideas of a recognized and respectable school of metaphysical thought.

If Malebranche was a major influence during his lifetime, his ideas persisted in the eighteenth century, if only by way of reaction to them. Philosopher John Locke, Malebranche’s contemporary, reacted to Malebranche’s doctrine of vision in God, in a published essay, and agreed that people’s knowledge and existence lie only in their ideas, although he did not take Malebranche’s extreme view that this knowledge is a reflection of the representative entities in the mind of God. Irish philosopher Bishop George Berkeley argued that ideas and their qualities arise in the mind through people’s perceptions, although their continued existence is guaranteed by God. Scottish philosopher David Hume took the last step in this skeptical direction and explained humans’ being as nothing but perceptions, and their notions of causality as nothing but the familiarity of repeated sequences of events. This brought Cartesian metaphysics to a standstill that had to wait to be resolved by philosopher Immanuel Kant at the end of the eighteenth century.

Malebranche’s original contributions to Cartesian philosophy, as expressed in The Search After Truth and the Treatise of Nature and Grace, were the doctrines of occasionalism and of the vision of all things in God. He published the last edition of The Search After Truth in 1712. In the summer of 1715, he fell ill while visiting a friend in Villeneuve St. Georges, outside Paris. He returned to the Oratory a few days later but apparently did not recover fully. He died in October of that year.

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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