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Malebranche by Andrew Pyle

Roger Caldwell has occasion to consider Andrew Pyle’s ideas on Malebranche.

Nicolas Malebranche, the seventeenth-century French philosopher and theologian, was for a long time little more than a footnote in the history of thought, associated with the much-derided and often misunderstood theory of occasionalism. Now, with recent scholarship, he is emerging from the shadows as an original thinker and taking his place amongst his fellow rationalists, Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza. The new paperback edition of Andrew Pyle’s magisterial study fills a much-needed gap, and is easily the most accessible and comprehensive introduction to Malebranche’s work.

Occasionalism is a theory about the mind and has to be understood in the context of Cartesian dualism. Descartes famously posited two kinds of substance, physical and mental, and so landed himself with the intractable problem of how the two could be causally related. How can changes in the physical brain cause changes in the non-physical mind, and vice versa? Descartes’ location of the pineal gland as the point of intersection has something of an ad hoc, not to say desperate, air, and proved convincing to few.

Malebranche took the bull by the horns: if it was difficult to explain how there could be a causal relation between two such different substances as mind and body, this is because there is no such causal relation to begin with. Mental and physical states are quite distinct – they cannot be causes of one another: the only true cause is in God. My mental volition to raise my hand is one thing, and the subsequent physical raising of my hand is another: the one follows from the other because of the direct intervention of God.

For Leibniz, occasionalism smacked too much of God as a miracle-worker. Surely God operates by more rational, more economic means? So Leibniz instead proposed a pre-established harmony, which spared God the inconvenience of continual intervention. When God set up the universe as the best of all possible worlds, the mental and the physical orders were correlated: they were like two clocks set ticking in perfect harmony, so that the physical and the mental chimed together until the end of time.

Few saw this as much of an improvement on occasionalism. It’s no doubt philosophically ingenious, but subject to grave theological difficulties: if all the events of the universe were pre-determined at its inception there seems no provision for free will. Nor was there any opportunity for God to intervene in particular cases, in response to prayer for example. There is no point in praying for God to help you if he has already decided the whole course of the universe in advance. He has, in effect, set the universe running and then washed his hands of it. But these were also problems for Malebranche, and any of his contemporaries who, like him, wanted to reconcile the dictates of their faith with the new scientific picture of a universe governed by laws that admitted no exceptions.

The theory of ‘occasionalism’ is unfortunately named. It suggests God having to make innumerable continual interventions to ensure that the mental and the physical coincide. This demands a sort of miracle overload. Rather, Malebranche supposed that God had set up psychophysical laws: “general laws of the union of mind and body.” Given the establishment of such laws, no particular interventions are necessary. Indeed, in general, Malebranche thinks that the order set up by God is such that the laws of nature by which he “produces this infinite variety found in the world” are “very simple and small in number.” God thus operates by ‘volontés générales’ (general volitions) in the form of laws, not by particular interventions. For example, rain falls according to the laws of nature, enabling seeds to germinate. All seeds are in themselves fertile, but necessarily not all will germinate. The unlucky ones that get insufficient moisture will shrivel up and die. The laws governing rainfall take into account the requirements of seeds in general, not those of any seeds in particular. So too God acts in the distribution of grace towards mankind. He wishes all men to be saved, but knows that some will be damned: his regard is to the generality of mankind, not to individuals. Malebranche sounds very much like Leibniz when he declares that “the universe is not the most perfect that could exist in an absolute sense, but only the most perfect that can exist in relations to the means most worthy of the divine attributes.” That is, God must act in accordance with his character, including through reason, and reason demands that God operates by universal laws. Does this mean, Malebranche’s opponent Arnauld asks him, that God cannot work miracles? It appears Malebranche, in all his voluminous writings, nowhere answers this question – so Andrew Pyle tells us.

Although Malebranche spares God particular interventions, he nonetheless emphasizes the continued engagement of God in the world. “If the world subsists,” he tells us, “it is because God continues to will its existence” and “If God were to withdraw from the world, the universe would cease to exist.” Indeed, it is only through God that we are able to arrive at truth, for otherwise we would see things not as they are but in accordance with the needs of our bodies. Here we encounter another distinctive Malebranchian doctrine, that of ‘the Vision in God’, according to which the human mind is permitted to participate in the divine intellect so that to some extent it is able to grasp God’s reasons for acting. God’s aid is required if we are to know anything truly at all. Furthermore, for Malebranche, what I truly see when I ‘see’ an object, is not the object itself, but the idea of that object. When I see the sun, what I see is strictly an idea of the sun. Perceptions alone are unreliable modes of our own souls: only ideas are eternal, immutable and necessary, as they come from God. So what we see clearly we see in God. But, since what we see are not objects but ideas, it is hard to see what role the physical world plays, even why it is necessary. If we just perceive ideas, why do we need a physical world? (Leibniz had this problem too.) This strand of thought leads towards idealism, and the influence of Malebranche on Berkeley was to be crucial.

Malebranche’s God is one who, far from acting in mysterious ways, acts in ways that are accessible to us all, in principle. The Divine Order is answerable to reason, not the product of an arbitrary, capricious will. For Malebranche, reason and religion are in harmony. The problem is, that for all his ingenuity, as one proceeds through Malebranche’s writings, one finds dissonances breaking out everywhere. Pyle offers us an admirable overview of Malebranche’s works, showing his debts to Saint Augustine and Descartes, taking us through his writings on biology and physics, and the arguments with critics such as Arnauld, which are often of an acrimonious nature. But sometimes it is hard to see the wood for the trees. Pyle quotes Paul Hazard’s aperçu to the effect that Malebranche’s efforts to show the reasonableness of the Christian religion may have served in the end to undermine it. But he fails to draw out explicitly what it is about Malebranche’s (and for that matter, Leibniz’s) project that dooms it in advance to failure. Yet in one respect the matter is sublimely simple. If God is constrained to make a rationally intelligible universe by means of universal laws, then God loses the power to make individual interventions, as he cannot reasonably break his own laws. He ceases to be the personal God required by Christianity. The days of miracles are over. Instead, the world is bound by an inexorable determinism, with God limited by his own laws of nature. Of the seventeenth century rationalists, it is Spinoza who makes the next logical step – which is of identifying the one with the other. God, for Spinoza, is not constrained by nature: rather, God is nature, both in the aspect of natura naturans (the laws that determine all the events that happen in the universe) and natura naturata (the world around us that is the result of those laws – including human beings). The theological problem here is the rather drastic one that God has ceased to be God. Though he would vehemently deny the label, the pantheist Spinoza is in effect an atheist. The devout Malebranche is of course far from being an atheist; but his efforts to reconcile reason and religion nonetheless unwittingly reveal how great the chasm is between the two.

© Roger Caldwell 2008

Roger Caldwell is a writer living in Essex. His book of philosophical poetry, This Being Eden (2001), is published by Peterloo Poets.

• Andrew Pyle, Malebranche, Routledge, 2006, 304pps, $41.95/£21.99 (pbk). ISBN 978-0-415-40811-0.

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