Five Things We Confuse in Sensory Experience

On the surface, Malebranche retains his list of four things we confuse in sensation. The first three elements are the same. Even the last seems untouched: it ‘is the judgment the soul makes when it perceives that what it perceives is in the hand and in the fire.’ But Malebranche’s new gloss on natural judgment is startling: ‘Now, this natural judgment is only a composite sensation (‘sensation composee’), but the sensation or natural judgment is almost always followed by another, free judgment that the soul makes so habitually it is almost unable to avoid it.’[1] So we have five things, not four, happening in sensory experience:

i) the act of the object

ii) the change in the sense organs

iii) sensations (modes of the mind)

iv) composite sensations (what I’ll call ‘anemic natural judgments’)

v) free (though habitual and difficult to resist) judgments[2]

The robust natural judgments of the first edition might have been taken by the soul to be sensations because of their familiarity; for all that, it was clear that they were in fact judgments, with a truth value (namely, false). Among these robust natural judgments, I’ve argued, is a second layer that is capable of correcting for distortions and illusions in the frst. Malebranche now changes course dramatically: natural judgments really are (and are not mistaken for) sensations. Genuine judgment comes in only at (v), where we make free judgments that can be resisted.[3] In principle, one can, it seems, be cured of the tendency to form the belief that sensible qualities are in bodies; such a philosophical saint would still have the compound sensations necessary to think of the objects in her environment.

The precise relationship between the new free and natural judgments is hard to discern. At times, it looks as if they are affirmations of the same propositional content: ‘for men not only judge through a natural judgment that pain, for example, is in their hand, they also judge it by a free judgment; not only do they feel it there, they believe it to be there... ’6 So the difference is between feeling that something is the case and believing that it is. The problem is that we can negate the free judgment while still making the natural one. indeed, this is just what the philosopher who has thrown off the beliefs of childhood should do. Such a paragon of wisdom would then be involved in inconsistency at every moment of perception, helplessly affirming the very same proposition she willfully denies.

However that may be, we should wonder in what sense anemic natural judgments are really judgments at all. Here is Malebranche’s fullest defense ofhis use ofthe term to describe mere sensations. (This passage is inserted at the very end of the chapter on distance perception.)

I feel I must warn again that judgments about the distance, size, and so on, of objects are formed in the ways I have just explained, not by the soul, but by God according to the laws of the union of the soul and the body. I have therefore called these judgments natural in order to emphasize that they occur in us independently of us, and even in spite of us. But as God fashions them in and for us in such a way that we could form them ourselves if we knew optics and geometry as God does, if we knew everything that occurs in judgments, one of which is natural, the other free. One is a judgment of the senses or a compound sensation, which is within us, occurs independently of us, and even in spite of us, and according to which no judgment should be made. The other is a free judgment of the will, which can be avoided, and which consequently we must not make if we are to avoid error.’ The corresponding passage in the 1674 edition (I.xiii/ 106) is content simply to say that those who see the stars in the heavens make a false judgment. There is no talk of this error as involving a compound sensation and a free judgment.

6 SAT I.iv/LO 69. Note that this passage does not appear in the first, 1674 edition.

our eyes and brain, and if our soul could act on its own and cause its own sensations, I attribute to the soul the performance of judgments and inferences as well as the subsequent production of its sensations, which can be the effect only of an infinite power and intelligence.[4]

All the work of perceptual cognition has been outsourced to God.[5] It can be attributed to us only in the counterfactual sense that if we knew as much as God does, we would make these judgments for ourselves. (By the same reasoning, I can be said to make all the same moves in chess that a grand master does, because if I knew as much as Karpov, I would move my pieces in the way he does.) But again, since these judgments are just compound sensations, what Malebranche must mean is that we would combine our sensations in the way God combines them for us.

In fact, it’s far from obvious just what a sensation composee is supposed to be. The notion is best explored by examining its origins, in Malebranche’s own critique of his earlier view. In the 1674 version of (in LO, I.vii), Malebranche posited such judgments to correct for the initial presentation of the cube as having unequal sides.[6] This second layer of robust judgment is responsible for our grasp of the sides of the cube as in fact equal.

But in later editions, Malebranche presents his old account as if it were merely something that ‘might be said.’ Arguing against his own earlier self, he writes, ‘... [A]s it is given to the senses only to sense and never, properly speaking, to judge, it is clear that this natural judgment

[which presents the sides of the cube as equal] is but a compound sensation that consequently can sometimes be mistaken.’[7] [8] Thus even the correction of the original sensory experience, which one might have thought had the best chance of surviving as a genuine judgment, is now reduced to a compound sensation.

On its face, it isn’t obvious why Malebranche thinks the sensation can be true or false simply in virtue of being compound. There is no doubt that he has in mind a scholastic commonplace, traceable back to Aristotle’s On Interpretation:

[F]alsity and truth have to do with combination and separation. Thus names and verbs by themselves—for instance ‘man’ or ‘white’ when nothing further is added—are like the thoughts that are without combination or separation; for so far they are neither true nor false.11

Combining or separating simple elements allows truth and falsity to come on the scene. Malebranche might well be thinking that this commonplace justifies his attributing truth or falsity to anemic natural judgments. The problem comes when we look at the next line from Aristotle’s text: ‘[E]ven ‘goat-stag’ signifies something but not, as yet, anything true or false—unless ‘is’ or ‘is not’ is added.’[9] It is not just any joining of simple elements that generates truth and falsity; only joining or separating by ‘is’ or ‘is not’ can do that.

So far, I have been talking as if compound sensations were one or more sensations somehow combined by the mind. But there is at least one text that undermines that assumption. Malebranche explains that he calls a natural judgment a ‘compound sensation’ only because

it depends on two or more impressions occurring in the eye at the same time. When I look at a man walking toward me, for example, it is certain that, as he approaches, the image or impression of his height traced in the fundus of my eyes continually increases and is finally doubled as he moves from ten to five feet away. But because the impression of distance decreases in the same proportion as the other increases, I see him as always having the same size. Thus the sensation I have of the man always depends on two different impressions, not counting the change in the eyes’ position and other matters.. .[10]

Anemic natural judgments are compound sensations only in a historical sense: they are the result of multiple impressions occurring in the eye. The sensation that we ultimately experience might be uniform. We experience the hawk as uniform in color even as it moves from sunlight to shade. But we must keep in mind that Malebranche’s ‘impressions’ are purely physical, taking place in the eyeball. So he is at most describing the states of the extended world that occasion God’s causing the relevant experiences in us. Whether compound sensations are composed of two different mental states or simply occasioned by more than one physical impression in a sense organ, they seem incapable of doing the work Malebranche needs them to do. We need a substitute for robust natural judgments that admit of truth and falsity, and neither reading of sensation composee does the trick.

The theory of anemic natural judgments is Malebranche’s attempt to walk a very fine line. On one side lies the earlier view: a set of unconscious or quasi-conscious inferences that allow us to produce a full-fledged sensory experience of ordinary three-dimensional objects. On the other side lies the abyss of blank, non-representational sensations. Merely compounding two such sensations hardly seems sufficient to generate the robust end-product of sensory experience. Moreover, we have seen that Malebranche needs the natural judgments to have propositional content. But mere sensations do not have such content: one needs ideas for that. Let’s turn now to one possible means of navigating between these two perils.

  • [1] SAT I.x/LO 52. LO’s translation omits the word ‘composee.’
  • [2] As an anonymous referee pointed out to me, the judgment at stage (v) is free andcan be resisted. So it seems odd to suppose that that judgment is really part of oursensory experience. I suppose Malebranche might mean simply that most peoplemake the free judgment alongside sensory experience and fail to distinguish it fromthe other four elements he isolates.
  • [3] Consider SAT I.xiv/LO 68: since the stars we immediately see are not in theheavens but in the mind of God, ‘everyone who sees the stars in the heavens makes afalse judgment and who then voluntarily judges that they are there performs two false
  • [4] SAT I.ix/LO 46-7.
  • [5] See Theo C. Meyering (1989) for an intriguing discussion of Malebranche in lightof cognitive science. Meyering takes Malebranche to anticipate some contemporarydevelopments, with the exception, of course, of the outsourcing of cognitive ‘processing’to God.
  • [6] There is some irony in the fact that, when Locke argues against Malebranche’slater position, he ends up doing so on behalf of the earlier one. Locke writes, ‘In thenext place where he says that when we look on a cube “we see all its sides equal.” This,I think, is a mistake; and I have in another place [presumably Essay II.ix] shown howthe idea we have from a regular solid, is not the true idea of that solid, but such an oneas by custom (as the name of it does) serves to excite our judgment to form such anone’ (‘An Examination of P. Malebranche’s Opinion of Seeing all Things in God,’ inLocke 1823, vol.8, section 16).
  • [7] SAT I.vii/LO 34.
  • [8] On Interpretation 16a11-16. I am indebted to an anonymous referee for directing me to this text and suggesting it lies behind Malebranche’s confidence that anemicnatural judgments achieve truth values.
  • [9] On Interpretation 16a17-18.
  • [10] SAT I.vii/LO 34. This text does not appear in the 1674 edition.
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