In This Article Nicolas Malebranche

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Collections
  • Primary Texts
  • Bibliographies and Biographies
  • Occasionalism: Interpretation and Sources
  • Occasionalism: Arguments
  • Occasionalism, Mechanism, and Organic Generation
  • Theodicy
  • The Vision in God
  • Sensation
  • Embodiment and Passions
  • Human Freedom
  • Malebranche-Arnauld Polemic
  • Malebranche’s Ethical Theory
  • Malebranche’s Cartesianism
  • Method
  • Malebranche’s Reception

Renaissance and Reformation Nicolas Malebranche
by
Eric Stencil
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0440

Introduction

Nicolas Malebranche (b. 1638–d. 1715) was a Parisian-born French philosopher and Oratorian. In 1660, Malebranche entered the Congregation of the Oratory—a Catholic order founded by Pierre Bérulle in 1611—and was ordained in 1664. As relayed by his first biographer—Yves André—in the same year as being ordained, Malebranche discovered a copy of René Descartes’s Treatise on Man in Paris and upon reading it was so ecstatic that he experienced violent heart palpitations. Ultimately, Malebranche developed a philosophical and theological system that was intentionally an amalgam of Cartesianism and the thought of Augustine of Hippo. He is among the preeminent continental rationalists of 17th century Europe along with the more well-known thinkers René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and Gottfried Leibniz. While one must be careful to not import too much into this categorization as it can at times obscure more than it illuminates, rationalism is roughly the view that persons can have some substantive knowledge independent of any sensory experience. Malebranche’s magnum opus—The Search after Truth—was first published in 1674–1675 and underwent numerous editions with substantive additions called Elucidations. Arguably his other greatest work—the Dialogues on Metaphysics and on Religion—is a beautifully written dialogue and a relatively concise account of his mature worldview first published in 1688. He is especially well known for defending three distinctive positions: (1) Occasionalism, (2) the view that we “see all things in God” (the Vision in God), and (3) a highly original Theodicy. All three of these positions are described in their respective section headings in this entry, but, in brief, occasionalism is the view that only God has true causal power; the Vision in God is the view that ideas, which Malebranche uses in a technical sense and are essential to our perception, are in God; and a theodicy is an (attempted) reconciliation of the existence of evil with the existence of an all good, all knowing, and all powerful God. Malebranche was also active in many controversies, not the least of which was his decade long public dispute with the Jansenist theologian Antoine Arnauld. This often bitter and heated debate was one of the premier intellectual events in Europe in the latter half of the 17th century. Malebranche published his final work, Réflexions sur la prémotion physique, in 1715 and died on 13 October of that same year at the Oratory in Paris.

General Overviews

Malebranche was a system builder par excellence. The philosophical and theological system he built and refined over his lifetime is a noteworthy achievement. Some of his positions, when taken out of context, may seem odd or even untenable to contemporary readers. But Malebranche’s theories are usually well defended, fit into his system, and are well grounded in a set of assumptions shared by many of his contemporaries. For these reasons, overviews are especially important for appreciating the value and significance of Malebranche’s thought. An excellent book-length starting point in English is Pyle 2003. Schmaltz 2017 is an excellent article-length introduction to Malebranche in English. Nadler 2000 (cited under Edited Collections) is also an excellent starting point. In French, Moreau 2004 is an accessible and great book-length entry point. Academic interest in Malebranche in French has been substantial and relatively consistent for the last century. Excellent examples of such interest are Gouhier 1926 (cited under Bibliographies and Biographies), Gouhier 1948, Gueroult 1955–1959, Rodis-Lewis 1963, and Robinet 1965, all of which are renowned works that remain very relevant today. English-language scholarship, on the other hand, historically did not pay as much attention to Malebranche. However, English-language scholarship on Malebranche has greatly increased since about the 1980s. Radner 1978 is an excellent concise introduction to Malebranche, though it came at the very beginning of (and helped spur) the Malebranche renaissance in English so it does not introduce the reader to recent scholarship. Other key works that spurred the English renaissance in Malebranche’s thought include the Lennon/Olscamp English translation of The Search after Truth, first published in 1980 (see Malebranche 1997b cited under Primary Texts) and several monographs focusing on more specific aspects of his thought, including McCracken 1983 (cited under Malebranche’s Reception), Nadler 1992 (cited under the Vision in God), and Schmaltz 1996 (cited under Malebranche’s Cartesianism). Bardout 1999 and Pellegrin 2006 are more systematic studies than general overviews, but either would serve to introduce the reader to key aspects of Malebranche’s system.

  • Bardout, Jean-Christophe. Malebranche et la métaphysique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1999.

    DOI: 10.3917/puf.bardo.1999.01E-mail Citation »

    Systematic study of Malebranche from the perspective of metaphysics covering topics including representation, essence, God, body, and soul.

  • Gouhier, Henri. La philosophie de Malebranche et son expérience religieuse. Paris: Vrin, 1948.

    E-mail Citation »

    Early and still key study of Malebranche that focuses on God, grace, and Vision in God.

  • Gueroult, Martial. Malebranche. 3 vols. Paris: Aubier, 1955–1959.

    E-mail Citation »

    Influential and important three-volume work on Malebranche. Volume 1 focuses on the Vision in God. Volume 2 focuses on occasionalism and order. Volume 3 focuses on nature and grace.

  • Moreau, Denis. Malebranche: Une philosophie de l’expérience. Paris: Vrin, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    General and accessible overview of Malebranche’s philosophy. Excellent entry point to Malebranche in French.

  • Pellegrin, Marie-Frédérique. Le système de la loi de Nicolas Malebranche. Paris: Vrin, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    Pellegrin examines Malebranche’s system from the perspective of laws and the role law plays therein. The book engages a number of central topics, including Theodicy, occasionalism, and God.

  • Pyle, Andrew. Malebranche. London: Routledge, 2003.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203417706E-mail Citation »

    An excellent book-length account of Malebranche’s philosophy that covers the most significant areas of Malebranche’s thought. This book serves as a general introduction and includes much that is original. Excellent entry point for studying Malebranche in English.

  • Radner, Daisie. Malebranche: A Study of a Cartesian System. Assen, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1978.

    E-mail Citation »

    A key book-length work on Malebranche’s philosophical commitments. Though Radner’s book came out at the very beginning of the English language resurgence of interest in Malebranche’s philosophy, it remains a valuable and important resource.

  • Robinet, André. Système et existence dans l’oeuvres de Malebranche. Paris: Vrin, 1965.

    E-mail Citation »

    Important examination of Malebranche focusing on the development of his thought through five “moments,” or stages.

  • Rodis-Lewis, Geneviève. Nicolas Malebranche. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1963.

    E-mail Citation »

    Important, substantive, and accessible overview of the philosophy of Malebranche.

  • Schmaltz, Tad. “Nicolas Malebranche.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta, 2017. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2017.

    E-mail Citation »

    Excellent article-length introduction to Malebranche’s philosophical thought with sections devoted to Vision in God, occasionalism, dualism, moral theory, and Theodicy.

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