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The Philosophy of Nicolas de Malebranche

I. General Notions

Of the two problems left unsolved by Descartes (the relationship between the infinite and the finite, and between spirit and matter) Malebranche retains the distinction between the two substances (God and the creature, spirit and matter) but attributes all connection to God alone. Creatures are none other than the occasion for the direct action of God both on material and spiritual substances (Occasionalism).

II. Life and Works

Nicolas de Malebranche ( picture) was born in Paris in 1638. After early studies in his paternal home he studied philosophy in the college of Marche, and theology at the Sorbonne. In 1660 he entered the Oratory, where he came under the strong influence of the thought of St. Augustine which predominated there. But his enthusiasm for Descartes was stronger, and he became an admirer of the father of modern philosophy. He published De la recherche de la verite (On the Search for Truth) in 1674. It was well received, and caused considerable discussion. His other works can be considered as developments of the doctrine of this, his masterpiece. He died in 1715.

III. Theory of Knowledge

In regard to the problem of knowledge, Malebranche, following the teaching of St. Augustine and the entire Augustinian current, affirms that validity of knowledge rests entirely in the idea. Ideas, then, are necessary and immutable, for they cannot come from sense knowledge, which is contingent and mutable. Nor can they come from the intellect, for first of all the intellect is contingent. Furthermore, it requires a higher power to produce an idea than to create material things, and this power certainly does not belong to man. Hence ideas are eternal and necessary exemplars in God, and it is in God that we see them.

Sense knowledge does not have any great value. We have a clear and distinct idea of extension, in so far as it is apprehended in God, but this does not assure us of the real existence of the external world; thus we have but a confused idea of the world. All knowledge is restricted to the ideas which are seen in God. This is ontologism.

IV. Metaphysics

In metaphysics, Malebranche proves the existence of God by having recourse to the customary ontological argument so dear to Augustinians and to Descartes, to whom our intuition of ideas existing in God and the sense of His presence in our souls are proofs of God's existence. As for God's attributes, Malebranche admits the traditional Catholic teaching that God is the creator of spirits and of matter. But he denies any causality between spirit and matter and vice versa.

The soul cannot act upon the body, nor can the body act upon the soul. The only cause is God, who produces all effects, whether in matter or in spirits. Created beings are not secondary causes, as Scholasticism teaches, but simple occasions for the direct intervention of God (Occasionalism). Hence, Malebranche admits, contrary to Spinoza, the plurality of substances, but he agrees with Spinoza in teaching the oneness of cause. We see here the usual principle of immanence which runs through the philosophy of this period.

Regarding the knowledge of God, Malebranche teaches that we do not have clear and distinct ideas of God's attributes. Even the idea of extension, although clear as such, cannot give us the idea of the infinity of God. We have a clear idea of the existence of the soul but only confused ideas regarding its nature. On the contrary, however, we have a clear and distinct idea of the nature of the world, which consists in extension (for Descartes, substance is reduced to extension), but not a clear idea of its existence. We do not know things directly, but we know them only through the ideas which correspond to them, and these ideas we see in God.

V. Ethics

Regarding morality, Malebranche, who had reduced all causality to God, is confronted with the difficulty of moral evil, sin, which certainly cannot be attributed to God. Malebranche holds that moral evil is not an effect of a cause but rather the suspension of an effect. This suspension is entirely due to man, who abuses his liberty by placing an impediment to the causality of God. The reason man is capable of rendering the causality of God inefficacious, Malebranche states, is to be found in original sin, which placed disorder between right reason and the passions, between creature and God.

The occasionalism of Malebranche leaves the limits between the supernatural and the natural quite undefined, and strengthens the pantheistic immanentism of Cartesian Rationalism through the principle of oneness of cause.

Adapted from the book: "Modern Philosophy"

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