On August 6, 1638, French priest and rationalist philosopher Nicolas Malebranche was born. Malebranche sought to synthesize the thought of St. Augustine and Descartes, in order to demonstrate the active role of God in every aspect of the world. Malebranche is best known for his doctrines of Vision in God, Occasionalism and Ontologism.
Nicolas Malebranche joined the Collège de la Marche at the age of 16 to study philosophy and later studied theology at the Collège de Sorbonne. In 1660 he entered the Oratory where he studied ecclesiastical history and linguistics as well as the Bible and the works of Saint Augustine. In 1664 he became a priest. It is beelieved that around 1664, Malebranche read Descartes’ Treatise on Man and that he was then highly influenced by it. The work allowed Malebranche to view the natural world without Aristotelian scholasticism. He spent the next decade studying the Cartesian system.
During the 1670s, Malebranche published the two volumes of his first and most extensive philosophical work, titled “Concerning the Search after Truth”. In it, Malebranche discussed the nature of the human mind and the use that must be made of it to avoid error in the sciences. In his third book, Malebranche defended a claim that the ideas through which we perceive objects exist in God.
Abbé Simon Foucher became one of Nicolas Malebranche first critics and after his ‘attack’ on Malebranche’s first volume, he added about 50% to the book with a sequence of seventeen Elucidations. Malebranche developed the theory of ‘intelligible extension’, a single, archetypal idea of extension into which the ideas of all particular kinds of bodies could be jointly resolved. Malebranche placed a greater emphasis than he had previously done on his occasionalist account of causation, and particularly on his contention that God acted for the most part through ‘general volitions’ and only rarely, as in the case of miracles, through ‘particular volitions’. He expanded these ideas in his 1680 ‘Treatise on Nature and Grace’. In it, Malebranche made it explicit that generality of the laws whereby God regulated His behaviour extended not only to His activity in the natural world but also applied to His gift of grace to human beings.
Malebranche followed Augustine in his description of intellectual knowledge and he became a follower of Descarted in his approach to mind-body problems. Descartes considered it possible to form a clear and distinct idea of the mind. In contrast, Malebranche argued in the ‘Dialogues on Metaphysics’, a dialogue between Theodore and Aristes, that we do not have a complete conception of the powers of the mind, and thus no clear conception of the nature of the mind.
References and Further Reading:
- Nicolas Malebranche at MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive
- Nicolas Malebranche at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Malebranche’s Theory of Ideas and Vision in God at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy