Nicolas Malebranche

Who was Nicolas Malebranche?

Malebranche (1637-1715) was a rationalist, like René Descartes (1596-1650), who tried to solve the problem of how the mind and body interact.

How did Nicolas Malebranche react to Descartes' mind-body problem?

Nicolas Malebranche denied that anything, either mental or physical, could cause, or be the effect of, anything else. His reasoning was that physical bodies were inert and passive, without any force within them that could cause anything or even sustain movement. Neither can mental things cause anything, because there is no necessary connection between any human act of will and any other event. Only God has an effective will in this sense. Therefore, all causal connections in nature are in reality the actions of God. Causal chains in nature are like two clocks that are one minute apart in time. There may be an appearance of the clock that is ahead in time causing the movements of the slower clock, but this is no more than an appearance.

Did Malebranche have a more extensive philosophy to support his theory of causation?

Yes, Malebranche was highly regarded as a theological metaphysician. In his major book, The Search after Truth (1674), he developed his theory of "vision in God." Malebranche agreed with René Descartes (1596-1650) that ideas in the mind are the basic units of perception and knowledge, but he argued that our ideas are actually in God, rather than in us. This vision in God was especially important for abstract knowledge, according to Malebranche, because universals, mathematical truths, and moral understanding were part of the vision in God. As such, they reflected God's knowledge of what was eternally true about the world He had created.

In his Treatise on Nature and Grace (1680), Malebranche provided an explanation of how God's goodness, omnipotence, and omniscience could allow evil in the world. He claimed that God could have created a more perfect world without the known evils of the present one. This more or mostly perfect world, however, would have been more complicated than the world God did create, and creating that world would have contradicted God's principle of acting in the simplest possible way, according to general laws. This simplicity and generality could also explain the unequal distribution of grace among human beings.

Did Malebranche lead an exciting life?

If he did, it was in his inner life. To all outward appearances, Nicolas Malebranche was a scholar with the temperament of a religious recluse. He was born and died in Paris and throughout his life liked solitude.

Malebranche was sickly as a child, born with a deformed spine and prone to respiratory problems. He was educated at home by a tutor until the age of 16. His father, Nicolas, was a royal counselor who managed the finances of five farms. His mother was sister to the viceroy of Canada.

Malebranche entered the College de la Marche of the University of Paris, receiving an M.A. in two years, after which he studied theology at the Sorbonne in Paris for another three years. He was ordained as a priest in 1665 at Faubourg St. Jaques. His family contributed to his support by the Church, and he had no official duties beyond teaching mathematics in 1674. In 1690 the Church put his Traité de la nature et de la grace (1680) on the Index of books that Catholics were forbidden by the Church to read because his claim that all of our ideas are in God was controversial and because he'd been successful in spreading René Descartes' (1596-1650) mathematics. (Descartes' writings were on the Church's index of forbidden books, so Catholics were forbidden to read them and they could not be taught in Church schools.) Although his most important work, The Search after Truth (1674), won him wide acclaim, his students, such as Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), were considered of greater ability; Malebranche encouraged their research.

In 1871, Alexander Campbell Frasier, a biographer of philosophers, wrote this account of how the young philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1783) was the "occasional cause" of the death of Malebranche:

[Berkeley] found the ingenious Father [Malebranche] in a cell, cooking, in a small pipkin [an earthenware cooking pot that was positioned directly over a flame], a medicine for a disorder with which he was then troubled—an inflammation on the lungs. The conversation naturally turned on [George]

Berkeley's [(1685-1783)] system, of which he had received some knowledge from a translation just published. But the issue of the debate proved tragic to poor Malebranche. In the heat of the disputation, he raised his voice so high, and gave way so freely to the natural impetuosity of a man of parts and a Frenchman, that he brought on himself a violent increase of his disorder, which carried him off a few days after.

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