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(1638 — 1715)



Nicolas Malebranche was born in Paris, where his father was secretary to Louis XIII. He studied philosophy at the College of La Marche and theology at the Sorbonne. He joined the Congregation of the Oratory, was ordained in 1664, and was elected to the Académie des Sciences in 1699.



[1] According to Malebranche [Search after Truth, I, 1], there are two sorts of substances: unextended spiritual substance and material substance [a], which is extended, has shape, and can be moved. Similarly he contrasts the soul or mind (esprit) with the body. These do not interact. Rather there are parallel processes occurring in each [b], and Malebranche offers a mechanistic account of these. Thus, he talks of external objects acting on our sense organs, the motions of nerves being transmitted by 'animal spirits', and of the productions of sensations in the brain. At the same time corresponding 'mental' experiences arise in the soul. But strictly speaking external bodies are not acting on the soul itself. Likewise the soul cannot produce changes in external bodies. How then does it come about that my arm rises when I will it? Malebranche's answer [for example, ibid. VI, 2, i-v], is that while I may be said to cause this result, this is not a true cause; it is only a natural or 'occasional' one [VI, 2, iii]. By this he means that the one true and creative cause (God) intervenes on the occasion of my willing [c] so as to ensure that occurrences in the spiritual realm should always correspond or run parallel to what happens in the material realm. (It is because he holds this view that Malebranche is usually called an occasionalist.) Thus the soul is united immediately to God. He says our minds can perceive necessary connections between this true cause and its effects, but we can have no knowledge of supposed causal 'powers' in bodies themselves [d]. By God Malebranche means the infinitely perfect being. He seeks to prove God's existence by an ontological argument [see Dialogues II, 4 and 5; VIII, 1] [e]. We cannot form the idea of the infinite from finite things. Rather we start with the idea as a manifestation of God's presence, which itself contains intelligible ideas of finite things. We see God's existence as inseparable from His essence. The proposition 'God exists' is thus seen to be clear and certain [f].

[2] There would seem to be a problem with attributing freedom to both man and God. If God is the one true cause, then how can man's actions be said to be freely chosen? Malebranche argues [for example, Search I, 2; IV, 1] that while once (before the 'Fall') the soul was in complete union with the body, it is now dependent on it and thus inclines towards sensible things in proportion to this dependence. God, however, has implanted in us a natural inclination to free ourselves from this dependence and thereby seek the good (and hence happiness) — though this can be satisfied only by God. And we are able to give or withhold our consent to the movement of our will towards a particular good [a] in so far as we believe that that good does not represent the totality of goodness. Nevertheless, although we can in this sense 'will' a finite good, what actually occurs in our bodies and the external world is still a consequence of God's agency on the occasions of our acts of willing. As for God Himself, His creative act — what is decreed — is necessary in that He wills it eternally and it is immutable [see Dialogues, VIII, 2]. Having been willed it has to be; the order of things cannot be altered (and includes what we call miracles). But the act itself is freely chosen, stemming as it does from God's nature; and all God's acts are directed towards maximizing the perfection of His creation [b].




[3] [See Search, I, 1-6.] Malebranche starts from the conviction that we are prone to error but that knowledge and truth are attainable. He considers error in relation to (1) the senses, (2) the imagination, and (3) the understanding n all of which he refers to collectively as 'perception'. In the case of the senses we fall into error when, following our inclination or will, we make judgements which are not justified, that is, when we assent to propositions which are not evident. We might suppose, for example, that the qualities we perceive things to have (warmth, colour, size, etc.) are actually in them. We should confine ourselves to judging only the relations external objects have to our own bodies. Likewise, in the case of imagination we may often judge our images (especially vivid ones) to represent things to be exactly as we imagine them to be: whereas such things may not even exist. As for the 'pure understanding' [a] (by which he means the mind's faculty of knowing external things without any images being present in us) this is prone to error because the mind is finite. We need, Malebranche says, to distinguish what is evident, such as the necessary truths of mathematics, metaphysics (and even some truths of physics and ethics), from what is merely probable [b], such as the contingent truths of history. (Other truths are probable so long as certainty has not been attained.) Malebranche sets out a procedure to be followed if we are to acquire genuine knowledge [VI, 2, i]. We should start from clear and distinct ideas and from the "simplest and easiest things", and then move to the more complicated in an orderly fashion. (He says the study of mathematics will train us in the use of this 'analytic' method) [c].

Where then do our ideas come from? [See III, 2, vi and vii.] Given Malebranche's view that there is no interaction between the soul and other bodies, they cannot come directly from external things. Sense-perception, whether of primary or secondary qualities cannot give us any knowledge of things in themselves. Ideas of objects are thus neither 'adventitious' and 'factitious'. He also rejects the doctrine of innate ideas [d] (in the sense that the mind produces them itself). His central thesis therefore is that "we see all things in God" [III, 2, i] in so far as all the things He has created are held within the divine essence. We do not of course behold the divine essence as such — even in the 'beatific vision' after death. We see God only in or though the ideas. God in effect illuminates the mind so it can come to know truths. Of the ideas we actually see in God, he distinguishes three groups. (1) Eternal truths — the ideas of the numbers 2 and 4, for example, from which we come to grasp the truth of the relations between them (say, 2 x 2 = 4). (2) The idea of intelligible extension as an 'archetype' of extended matter and thus of all actual or possible sensible things. We do not have direct and certain knowledge either of external objects in themselves, or of other intelligent beings (men or angels) [e]. (3) Eternal moral laws. We see eternal moral truths as a consequence of our being united with the divine word. But actual moral laws are known through the inclination God has put in us to know Him and goodness as our final end [f][f]. Thus for knowledge we must in the last analysis rely on God's revelation [g]. Malebranche in fact distinguishes between natural revelation and supernatural revelation [Dialogues, VI, 3]. The former is shown in his 'occasional' interventions — as when, for example, he arranges for me to feel pain when I prick my finger. The latter provides us with absolute certainty about the existence of other things. However Malebranche says we can have knowledge of the soul, which does not have to be seen in God, nor even require an idea. Rather we know it through 'interior feeling' in our consciousness [h] — what we perceive in our consciousness as occurring in it.



Malebranche was strongly influenced by Descartes but did not accept his philosophy uncritically. He is noted particularly for his view that we see all things in God and for his adoption of psycho-physical parallelism and 'occasionalism' to deal with the problem of interaction between mind and body. However, his attribution of epistemological and explanatory primacy to God leads to difficulties.

(1) If we see all things in God in the sense that He puts the ideas into our minds we can have no direct knowledge of the external world. We can appeal to clear and distinct ideas as a criterion for the veridicality of judgements about physical things, but it is God who is ultimately responsible for our ideas.

(2) If all things are under the direct control of God — subject to His will, what of human freedom? Malebranche's view that we have freedom to choose but only in relation to finite goods is not convincing, denying as it does the possibility of resistance of movement towards God as the universal good.

(3) In so far as God is not to be identified with the archetypal eternal truths in his mind Malebranche is not a pantheist. But, as in mediaeval philosophy, this gives rise to the problem of reconciling God's freedom with His supposed immutability.

(4) God is central to Malebranche's philosophy. However, his 'vision' of all things in God needs to be supported by rational proof. Unfortunately he offers only the Cartesian version of the ontological argument; and this of course is open to the standard objections.



Malebranche: De la Recherche de la Vérité (1674-5) (On the Search after Truth); Dialogues on Metaphysics and on Religion (1688) (Entretiens sur la Métaphysique et sur la Religion). There are a number of English translations of his writings, for example, The Search for Truth (by T. M. Lennon and P. J. Ollscamp), and the Dialogues (by N. Jolley and D Scott ).


A. A. Luce, Berkeley and Malebranche.

A. Pyle, Malebranche.

B. K. Rome, The Philosophy of Malebranch.

Collection of essays

S. Nadler (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Malebranche.






[1a] Substances — spiritual and extended    Descartes [3a d e]


[1b] No mind-body interaction: parallelism






[1c] God as sole creative cause intervenes in realms of mind and matter: occasionalism




[3b 3g]




[1d] No real connections in 'natural' causes; no knowledge of 'powers' in things: mind perceives necessary connections only in what is caused by God




[3d e]




[1e] Ontological argument to prove God's existence    Descartes [3c]


[1f] Proposition 'God exists' — clear and certain    Descartes [3b]


[2a 3f] Natural inclination to good and happiness — implanted by God; man seeks to free dependence of soul on body    Augustine [5a 7a b 8a]


[2b] God's creative act willed eternally — necessary and immutable, but God still free; creates to produce maximally perfect world





[2e 3c]

[5f g]


[3a] Error: assent to non-evident propositions or false images    Descartes [3i]


[3b] Mathematics, metaphysics, some propositions of physics and ethics — evident not probable



[1e g]



[3c] Genuine knowledge through clear and distinct ideas; the analytic method: simple to more complex    Descartes [1c 2a]


[3d] Ideas of objects not adventitious, factual, or innate; primary and secondary qualities do not give likenesses/ knowledge of things themselves


   Aquinas [e.g.]





[2b 2c]

[2b 2c e]



[3e] All things seen in God — through illumination; eternal truths/moral law, archetypes of sensible things; 'beatific vision' after death


   Aquinas [e.g.]




[2a-c 4c 8a]

[6d e]





[3f; cf. 2a] Actual moral laws known through God    Augustine [8a]


[3g; cf. 3c] Genuine knowledge requires revelation    Augustine [1i]


[3h] Knowledge of soul through 'interior feeling' of consciousness