Malebranche, Nicolas

, a French philosopher, was born at Paris, Aug. 6, 1638, and was first placed under a domestic tutor, who taught him Greek and Latin. He | afterwards went through a course of philosophy at the college of la Marche, and that of divinity in the Sorbonne; and was admitted into the congregation of the Oratory at Paris, in 1660, After he had spent some time there, he consulted father le Cointe, in what manner he should pursue his studies; who advised him to apply himself to ecclesiastical history. Upon this he began to read Eusebius, Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodoret; but soon grew weary of this study, and next applied himself to father Simon, who recommended Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, rabbinical learning, and critical inquiries into the sense of the Scriptures. But this kind of study was not at all more suitable to his genius, than the former. At last, in 1664, he met with Des Cartes’s “Treatise upon Man,” which he read over with great satisfaction, and devoted himself immediately to the study of his philosophy; of which, in a few years, he became as perfect a master as Des Cartes himself. In 1699, he was admitted an honorary member of the royal academy of sciences. He died Oct. 13, 1715, being then seventy-seven years of age. From the time that he began to read Des Cartes, he studied only to enlighten his mind, and not to furnish his memory; so that he knew a great deal, though he read but little. He avoided every thing that was mere erudition; an insect pleased him much more than all the Greek and Roman history. He despised likewise that kind of learning, which consists only in knowing the opinions of different philosophers; since it was his opinion that a person may easily know the history of other men’s thoughts, without ever thinking at all himself. Such was his aversion to poetry, that he could never read ten verses together without disgust. He meditated with his windows shut, in order to keep out the light, which he found to be a disturbance to him. His conversation turned upon the same subjects as his books, but was mixed with so much modesty and deference to the judgment of others, that it was much courted. Few foreigners, who were men of learning, neglected to visit him when they came to Paris: and it is said, that an English officer, who was taken prisoner during die war between William III. and the king of France, was content with his lot, when he was. brought to Paris, because it gave him an opportunity to see Louis XIV. and father Malebranche.

He wrote several works. The first and principal, as | in-deed it gave rise to almost all that followed, was his “Be la Recherche de la Verite,” or his “Search after Truth,” printed at Paris in 1674, and afterwards augmented in several successive editions. His design in this book is to point out the errors into which we are daily led by our senses, imaginvvtion, and passions;. and to prescribe a method for discovering the truth, which he does, by starting the notion of seeing all things in God. Hence he is led to think and speak meanly of human knowledge, either as it lies in written books, or in the book of nature, compared with that light which displays itself from the ideal world; and by attending to which, with pure and defecated minds, he supposes knowledge to be most easily had. These sentiments, recommended by various beauties of style, made many admire his genius who could not understand, or agree to his principles. Locke, in his “Examination of Malebranche’s opinion of seeing all things in God,” styles him an “acute and ingenious author;” and tells us, that there are “a great many very fine thoughts, judicious reasonings, and uncommon reflections in his Recherche:” but in that piece, endeavours to refute the chief principles of his system. Brucker is of opinion that the doctrine of his “Search after Truth,” though in many respects original, is raised upon Cartesian principles, and is, in some particulars, Platonic. The author represents, in string colours, the causes of error, arising from the disorders of the imagination and passions, the abuse of liberty, and an implicit confidence in the senses. He explains the action of the animal spirits, the nature of memory; the connection of the brain with other parts of the body, and their influence upon the understanding and will. On the subject of intellect, he maintains, that thought alone is essential to mind, and deduces the imperfect state of science from the imperfection of the human understanding, as well as from the inconstancy of the will in inquiring after truth. Rejecting the ancient doctrine of species sent forth from material objects, and denying the power of the mind to produce ideas, he ascribes their production immediately to God; and asserts, that the human mind immediately perceives God, and sees all things in him. As he derives the imperfection of the human mind from its dependence upon the body, so he places its perfection in union with God, by means of the knowledge of truth and the love of virtue. | Singular and paradoxical, Brucker adds, as the notion of “seeing all things in God,” and some other dogmas of this writer, must have appeared, the work was written with such elegance and splendour of diction, and its tenets were supported by such ingenious reasonings, that it obtained general applause, and procured the author a distinguished name among philosophers, and a numerous train of followers. Its popularity might, perhaps, he in part owing to the appeal which the author makes to the authority of St. Augustine, from whom he professes to have borrowed his hypothesis concerning the origin of ideas. The immediate intercourse which this doctrine supposes, between the human and the divine mind, has led some to remark a strong resemblance between the notions of Malebranche, and those of the sect called Quakers.

Dr. Reid, on the other hand, does not allow, that either Plato or the latter Platonists, or St. Augustine, or the Mystics, thought, that we perceive the objects of sense in the divine ideas. This theory of our perceiving the objects of sense in the ideas of the Deity, he considers as the invention of father Malebranche himself. Although St. Augustine speaks in a very high strain of God’s being the light of our minds, of our being illuminated immediately by the eternal light, and uses other similar expressions; yet he seems to apply those expressions only to our illumination in moral and divine things, and not to the perception of objects by the senses. Mr. Bayle imagines, that some traces of this opinion of Malebranche are to be found in Amelius the Platonist, and even in Democritus; but his authorities seem, as Dr. Reid conceives, to be strained, Malebranche, with a very penetrating genius, entered into a more minute examination of the powers of the human mind than any one before him; and he availed himself of the previous discoveries made by Des Cartes, without servile attachment. He lays it down as a principle admitted by all philosophers, and in itself unquestionable, that we do not perceive external objects immediately, but by means of images or ideas of them present to the mind. “The things which the soul perceives,” says Malebranche,“are of two kinds. They are either in the soul, or without the soul: those that are in the soul are its own thoughts, that is to say, all its different modifications. The soul has no need of ideas for perceiving these things. But with regard to things without the soul, we cannot perceive them but | by means of ideas.” He then proceeds to enumerate all the possible ways by which the ideas of sensible objects may be presented to the mind: either, 1st, they come from the bodies, which we perceive; or, 2dly, the soul has the power of producing them in itself; or, 3dly, they are produced by the Deity in our creation, or occasionally as there is use for them: or, 4thly, the soul has in itself virtually and eminently, as the schools speak, all the perfections which it perceives in bodies: or, 5thly, the soul is united with a Being possessed of all perfection, who has in himself the ideas of all created things. The last mode is th^it which he adopts, and which he endeavours to confirm by various arguments. The Deity, being always present to our minds in a more intimate manner than any other being, may, upon occasion of the impressions made on our bodies, discover to us, as far as he thinks proper, and according to fixed laws, his own ideas of the object; and thus we see all things in God, or in the divine ideas.

However visionary this system may appear on a superficial view, yet when we consider, says Dr. Reid, that he agreed with the whole tribe of philosophers in conceiving ideas to be the immediate objects of perception, and, that he found insuperable difficulties, and even absurdities, in every other hypothesis concerning them, it will not seem so wonderful that a man of very great genius should fall into this; and probably it pleased so devout a man the more, that it sets in the most striking light our dependence upon God, and his continual presence with us. He distinguished more accurately than any philosopher had done before, the objects which we perceive from the sensations in our own minds, which, by the laws of nature, always accompany the perception of the object: and in this respect, as well as in many others, he had great merit. For this, as Dr. Reid apprehends, is a key that opens the way to a right understanding, both of our external senses, and of other powers of the mind.

The next piece which Malebranche published, was his “Conversations Chretiennes, dans lesquelles sont justifié la verite de la religion & de la morale de J. C.Paris, 1676. He was moved, it is said, to write this piece, at the desire of the duke de Chevreuse, to shew the consistency and agreement between his philosophy and religion. His “Traité de la nature & de la grace,1680, was occaioned by a conference he had with M. Arnaud, about those | peculiar notions of grace into which Malebranche’s system had led that divine. This was followed by other pieces, which were all the result of the philosophical and theological dispute our author had with M. Arnaud. In 1688, he published his “Entretien sur la inetaphysique & la religion:” in which work he collected what he had written against M. Arnaud, but disengaged it from that air of dispute which is not agreeable to every reader. In 1697, he published his “Traite de P amour de Dieu.” When the doctrine of the new mystics began to be much talked of in France, father Lamy, a Benedictine, in his book “De la connoissance de soi-mme,” cited some passages out of this author’s “Recherche de la verit6,” as favourable to that party; upon this, Malebranche thought proper to defend himself in this book, by shewing in what sense it may be said, without clashing with the authority of the church or reason, that the love of God is disinterested. In 1708, he published his “Entretiens d‘un philosophe Chretien, & d’un philosophe Chinois sur l’existence & la nature de Dieu:” or, “Dialogues between a Christian philosopher and a Chinese philosopher, upon the existence and nature of God.” The bishop of Rozalie having remarked some conformity between the opinions of the Chinese, and the notions laid down in the “Recherche de la Verite”,“mentioned it to the author, who on that account thought himself obliged to write this tract. Malebranche wrote many other pieces besides what we have mentioned, all tending some way or other to confirm his main system established in the” Recherche," and to clear it from the objections which were brought against it, or from the consequences which were deduced from it: and, if he has not attained what he aimed at in these several productions, he has certainly shewn great ingenuity and abilities. 1


Gen. Dict. Nicerou, vol. II. —Brucker. Reid’s Essays. —Rees’s Cyclopaedia.