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Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715) was one of the greatest French philosophers, and among the most important figures in early modern philosophy. Although his ideas have now largely been rejected or even dismissed as ridiculous, his work focussed on some of the biggest philosophical issues of the time and offered an interesting development of many ideas of Rene Descartes. He also proved very influential on some thinkers who followed, principally Bishop George Berkeley.


Malebranche was born in Paris on August 5, 1638. His father, also Nicolas, was a secretary to Louis XIII, and his mother's brother was a Viceroy of Canada, then in French hands. His family's wealth was apparently sufficient to support him for most of his life.

He was afflicted by bad health from birth, with a malformed spine and weak lungs. Due to illness, he was tutored at home until he was 16, then attended the Collège de la Marche and studied theology at the Sorbonne, where he was unhappy with the Aristotelian bias. In 1660 he transferred to the Oratory, a religious school, where he studied the Bible, church history, and linguistics. Although he was bored by many of his studies, he was particularly interested in the Neoplatonist ideas of Augustine. On September 14, 1664, he was ordained as a priest.

The same year he chanced upon a copy of Descartes's Traité de l'homme (Treatise on Man), which set out the philospher's mechanistic view of physiology. Malebranche was so impressed he spent the next ten years studying Descartes and writing his greatest philosophical work, De la recherche de la vérité (Search After Truth), published in two volumes in 1674-75. This was initially attacked on publication by the skeptic Simon Foucher and the Cartesian Robert Desgabets. He requested other criticisms, and used them to write a set of clarifications, Eclaircissements, published in 1678.

His next major undertaking was the Traité de la nature et de la grâce (Treatise on Nature and Grace), a more theological work. Malebranche faced objections from his greatest critic, Jansenist and Cartesian Antoine Arnauld, whose Des vraies et des fausses idées (On True and False Ideas) (1683) attacked Malebranche's Recherche; contrary to Malebranche, Arnauld claimed that ideas are generated in our minds by the actions of external objects. He was also attacked by the famed preacher Jacques-Benigne Bossuet, who called his ideas "pulchra, nova, falsa" (beautiful, new, false).

Malebranche also wrote a number of books on more narrowly Christian subjects, including Conversations chrétiennes (Christian Conversations) (1677) and Méditations chretiennes et métaphysiques (Christian and Metaphysical Meditations) (1683). Entretiens sur la métaphysique et la religion (Dialogues on Metaphysics and Religion) (1688) offered a summary of his main ideas and also discussed the problem of evil.

However, his ideas had proved controversial and thanks to Arnauld's campaigning, Traité de la nature et de la grâce was put on the Vatican index of prohibited books, the Index librorum prohibitum, in 1690. This seemed to redirect Malebranche's writing away from theology: he corresponded with Gottfried Leibniz about physics and wrote Lois de la communication des mouvements (Laws of the Communication of Motions) (1692). He also lectured on the idea that colour was based on the frequency of light, popularising the ideas of Isaac Newton.

Other works from this time included Entretiens sur la mort (Dialogues on Death) (1696) and Traité de l'amour de Dieu (Treatise on the Love of God) (1699) which was directed against Benedictine François Lamy's criticism of a perceived quietism in his work (Malebranche believed strongly in Augustine's idea of submission to God, but was not a quietist). In 1708 he published Entretien d'un philosophe chrétien et d'un philosophe chinois, sur l'existence et la nature de Dieu (Dialogue between a Christian Philosopher and a Chinese Philosopher on the Existence and Nature of God). His final work was Réflexions sur la prémotion physique (Reflections on Physical Premotion) (1715).

He died in Paris on October 13, 1715.

Philosophical background

Malebranche's work was principally concerned with issues of epistemology and philosophy of mind which had also been the concern of Rene Descartes and were later more fully developed by David Hume and Immanuel Kant amongst others. At stake were fundamental questions about human knowledge of the world and how the thoughts in our minds are related to physical objects.

If you consider what happens when you look at a ship, the ship exists in the external world and you have thoughts about the ship in your mind. The external world is very different to the mind, and there is a big question of how the idea of the ship relates to the physical ship. Based on a mechanistic model of perception, philosophers of the time hypothesised a cause-and-effect relationship so that the ship causes light rays in the eyes which send signals up nerves and in turn create sense-impressions in the mind; these sense-impressions are mental things which in some way represent the physical ship when we think about or perceive the ship.

Faced with the riddle of how the ship in the sea causes an idea of a ship in the mind, it is not surprising that Descartes, Malebranche, and other philosophers at the time devoted as much attention to the study of light as to the study of philosophy. In the seventeenth century, advances in optics and physiology made it ever more apparent that we do not have a direct knowledge of the world and could only infer its existence and properties through our senses. In particular they began to doubt that sensible qualities like colour truly existed in physical objects; rather they must be created in some way when an object is perceived.

This mechanical model seems to offer a reasonable account of perception, but because it requires a translation from physical to mental objects, it poses new problems. With no direct access to external objects, the fundamental problem that Descartes considered was how could we be certain that our perceptions were truthful. It was well understood that certain disorders could affect perceptions, and perceptions in dreams are hard to distinguish from reality. Descartes even considered whether the human brain might be incapable of reasoning correctly and whether all our perceptions could be wrong i.e. whether we might never have a true perception.

Descartes had attempted to get around his doubts and establish a foundation for true knowledge through a complex procedure outlined in his Meditations. This process involved rejecting all common-sense ideas that could not be justified, and trying to replace them with facts of which any thinker could be sure. He questioned the existence of any external world, but found more certainty in the existence of thoughts and the mind which thought them; the cause-and-effect chain of perception makes the existence of mind far more certain than the physical world at the other end of the chain.

In order to establish a trustworthy basis, Descartes had to rely in a number of arguments on an honest God, whose existence he proved with a number of ingenious methods. He used the benevolence of God to allow him the justification that his thought processes might be accurate. Descartes then proved the existence of the external world by noting that it involuntarily caused perceptions in him; he believed he had perfect knowledge of his mind and therefore could not create perceptions unconsciously. Such an external source of perceptions could only be (1) the external world, (2) God, or (3) another being deceiving him. Descartes believed that the existence of God made it certain that it was the external world he was perceiving, and thus he was able to establish that it was possible to have true knowledge of the world.

His ideas were problematic when it came to the relationship between the physical and mental worlds: it is unclear how things so different as the physical and mental can affect each other, a difficulty now called the mind/body problem. This becomes an issue both when a physical object creates an idea in the mind, i.e. perception, and when we make a decision to cause some change in the physical world.

Malebranche's work is essentially a modification of Descartes's thought with respect to two major topics, (1) the way in which we have a knowledge of objects, i.e. Malebranche's idea that we perceive them by way of God, and (2) Malebranche's theory of causation, a doctrine known as occasionalism.

Vision in God

We do not see external objects without some mediation; this theory is known as representative realism, and was held by Descartes and Malebranche. It is obvious that the mind does not leave the body and engage directly with physical objects. There are only a few ways we can perceive external objects, and Malebranche considered and rejected four theories of perception (this list appears to have been taken by Malebranche from the Spanish philosopher Francisco Suarez):

(1) external bodies create something in the mind which resembles the body, emitting tiny particles of cube-ness or square-ness that enter the mind, an idea going back to Aristotle; however it is not clear how this allows us to perceive two identical objects as being separate or how it allows us to see an infinity of objects from one place.

(2) Our soul produces ideas when triggered by impressions, although the ideas do not resemble the impressions; however for Malebranche this requires creation of spiritual matter from physical matter, as well facing the problem that to create an idea of something you must already know about it.

(3) Ideas of everything in every possible aspect were created in the soul by God when the soul was created; he dismisses this by a principle of parsimony.

(4) Our soul sees bodies by considering its own perfections, as the soul is so perfect it contains lesser things; Malebranche challenged that human imperfection rendered that impossible, for example we can perceive infinity but cannot contain it.

Instead of the above, Malebranche drew on Augustine to assert that when we know eternal truths we are seeing God; or to be more accurate not God as a whole but ideas residing in God. This also seems inspired by Plato's notion of ideal forms, i.e. that true beauty, squareness, etc, exist in a higher plane and things in this world are all more or less inaccurate approximations of them. The mechanism for vision is therefore that ideas of all things exist in God and when we perceive them God implants the idea in our minds. This accords with Malebranche's Christian beliefs and his notion of submission to God.

His theory about perception and the formation of ideas was widely misunderstood at the time, and it is perhaps useful to consider what he did not say. Malebranche was widely attacked for saying that we had knowledge of the essense of God; in fact he denied this, believing it was only a certain aspect or property of God that we were able to perceive.

Following Descartes, he believed that the only thing we had true knowledge of was extension (since colour etc are secondary properties created in the process of perception) (Med. III P19). Against Malebranche, it is hard to see how the physical property of extension could be present in God, particularly bearing in mind the Cartesian division between physical and mental (the latter which includes God and human minds). Malebranche was accused of the same heresy as Spinoza, because he seems to require that God contains extended substance and therefore was physical; Malebranche countered that God existed in a pure and divine extension different from the extension of the world we know, and while we had knowledge of this extension we did not have knowledge of God. Later in his life he moved more to a position that God puts ideas in our mind rather than us perceiving them in God, which seems to lessen this problem.

Malebranche argued in justification of his idea that ideas must be immutable and necessary and therefore must exist in an immutable and necessary medium, which must be God. In contrast, Descartes had claimed ideas corresponded to impressions, a position Malebranche attacked as promoting subjectivism. Nonetheless, while Malebranche seems to get around the problem of mind-body interaction, in his theory the physical world is essentially superfluous - Bishop Berkeley would carry this idea to its logical extension by denying the existence of an external world made of matter.


Malebranche developed Descartes's theory of cause and effect and of motion. Malebranche believed that God must be responsible for all motion. He saw that there was a problem in supposing causal connections between utterly unlike physical and mental states (Descartes weakly supposed that the pineal gland could mediate between the two), but Malebranche also supposed that there might be a problem with causal connections between two physical objects or two mental objects. Only God, he believed, could act as a true cause.

Occasionalism was not an idea original to Malebranche; it had been debated by the medieval scholastic philosophers and criticised by Thomas Aquinas. Descartes had suggested that every event had two causes, the primary cause being God and the secondary cause the particular event that produces motion in matter e.g. getting hit by a bat. Descartes also theorised that all physical objects only continue to exist because God continues to create them over and over again:

For the whole time of my life may be divided into an infinity of parts, each of which is in no way dependent on any other; and, accordingly, because I was in existence a short time ago, it does not follow that I must now exist, unless in this moment some cause create me anew as it were, that is, conserve me. In truth, it is perfectly clear and evident to all who will attentively consider the nature of duration, that the conservation of a substance, in each moment of its duration, requires the same power and act that would be necessary to create it, supposing it were not yet in existence (Descartes, Med. III P31)
If God is required to sustain existence in each moment, it is not a great step to attribute to him a role as the cause of every action.

Drawn from this idea, Malebranche's theory was justified by reflection on God's nature. He believed that only God had the power to be a cause, and to allow other objects this divine power was blasphemous. He also argued that a true cause requires a mind to perceive a necessary connection between cause and effect; for this he drew on Descartes's modal metaphysics. An old argument against occasionalism is that it is obvious from common sense that bodies and living things act as causal agents on each other. But since much of common sense had been rejected by the study of perception and the reflections of Descartes, Malebranche felt justified in rejecting this too.

Occasionalism seems to go against the principles of science because the behaviour of physical objects is not controlled by physical laws but by the arbitrary will of God. Malebranche suggested in reply that God would almost always act in accordance with natural laws, whilst still being able to cause the occasional miracle. The notion that God is responsible for everything also makes the problem of evil a more urgent issue: if God is directly causing all actions, then how can he be benevolent? The idea that God acts in accordance with natural law, what Malebranche called his general Will, helps stall this objection.

It also threatens the existence of free will, since he claims mental events like physical events are caused by God. Drawing on Augustine again, Malebranche believed that our free will lay in our ability to decide what we should love: the Good or something else. Such a change of inclination, he supposed, involved no real change in the mind and hence did not require the agency of God. Despite his explanations Malebranche's theories disturbed a great number of theologians.

Since Malebranche's time, few metaphysicians have allowed God such a significant role in the universe. This is partly due to the same mechanistic principles that inspired Descartes, and partly due to a growing sense that much more of the universe can be explained without God. However it would be wrong to think that the issues which Malebranche discussed have been finally decided: the human mind is far from an open book, and the nature of cause and effect and scientific laws are as mysterious as ever.

  • "Malebranche, Nicolas". Galileo Project. http://es.rice.edu/ES/humsoc/Galileo/Catalog/Files/malbrnch.html
  • "Nicholas Malebranche". The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed, James Fieser. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/m/malebran.htm
  • Tad Schmaltz. "Nicolas Malebranche". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2002. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/malebranche/
  • Lawrence Nolan. "Malebranche's Theory of Ideas and Vision in God". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2003. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/malebranche-ideas/
  • James Bridge. "Nicholas Malebranche". The Catholic Encyclopedia. 1914. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09568a.htm

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