Arnauld, Antoine (1612–94)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA001-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 16, 2021, from

3. The Arnauld–Malebranche debate

In 1680, Arnauld came across the manuscript of Malebranche’s Traité de la nature et de la grace (Treatise on Nature and Grace), which was in the process of being printed. He was so astounded by what he read there that, unable to halt its publication, he decided to publicly refute Malebranche’s entire system. His ultimate target was Malebranche’s views on grace and on God’s general modus operandi. But he chose to begin his attack by undermining what he took to be the philosophical foundations of Malebranche’s theology. Thus, in 1683 he published Des vraies et des fausses idées, an attack on Malebranche’s theory of ideas as presented in his most important philosophical work, De la recherche de la vérité (1674–5) (see Malebranche, N. §§2, 3, 6).

Malebranche had argued that ideas, the immaterial representations present to the mind in perception and knowledge, are not themselves modes of our thought, as sensations are, but are the very archetypes or essences of things in God’s mind, to which we have access through a kind of divine illumination or union with God.

Like most seventeenth-century philosophers, Arnauld believed that representative ideas play an essential role in human cognition. His objection was to thinking of ideas as image-objects in their own right, independent of the mind and mediating its access to the external world. Malebranche’s view, he alleged, is a result of the same confusions that gave rise to the Aristotelians’ ‘sensible species’. As children, we wrongly assume that the images or reflections through which we sometimes see things not actually before the eyes are themselves objects, and later come to suppose that it is through similar image-objects that the mind thinks of things in their absence. But philosophers have realized that even in ordinary sense-perception the material bodies before the eyes are not immediately present to the soul. They conclude that in sense-perception what is directly perceived are representative beings rather than bodies themselves. This line of reasoning, Arnauld argues, treats the soul as if it were material, assuming that the way the senses work and the way the mind works are analogous. More importantly, a theory that makes ideas into mind-independent entities mediating cognition of the world has the absurd consequence that we never know or perceive that world: all we ever perceive are ideas. The mind is surrounded by a ‘palace of ideas’ that keeps it from the world of things that God intended it to know. Malebranche ‘transports us to unknown lands… where a man sees, instead of the men toward whom he turns his eyes, only intelligible men; instead of the sun and the stars which God has created, only an intelligible sun and intelligible stars’ (Arnauld 1683: 227–8). Even Malebranche must reject such extreme Pyrrhonism (see Pyrrho; Pyrrhonism).

Arnauld goes on to argue that the ideas that function in human perception and knowledge are not ‘representative beings distinct from the mind’s perceptions’, but just are those perceptions: ‘I take the idea of an object and the perception of an object to be the same thing’ (1683: 198). To have an idea of a thing just is to perceive or think of that thing; it is not to have some proxy object standing before the mind. The idea is a mental act or operation which, through its ‘form’ (a term borrowed from Descartes, who defines an idea as the forma cogitationis), is directed at some object but which is not itself the object of perception. One can thus characterize a thought through its object (for example, as the idea of the sun) by attending to its form, or one can consider it simply as an act or mode of the mind:

I have said that I take the perception and the idea to be the same thing. Nevertheless, it must be remarked that this thing, although single, stands in two relations: one to the soul which it modifies, the other to the thing perceived, in so far as it exists objectively in the soul. The word perception more directly indicates the first relation; the word idea, the latter.

(Arnauld 1683: 198)

There is still a sense in which we perceive material objects only mediately or indirectly, since we perceive a thing through the form of the perceptual act (that is, through the idea of the thing). But it does not follow from this that we perceive things indirectly in the strong and unacceptable sense of ‘indirect’ entailed by Malebranche’s account.

In Arnauld’s eyes, then, his debate with Malebranche over the nature of ideas pitted something like a direct realist account of perceptual acquaintance with Malebranche’s representationalist or indirect realist account. But the debate is also a rich source for early modern theories of intentionality (see Intentionality). Arnauld claims that it is not his intention to do away with all representative beings, since he grants that the mind’s modifications are themselves representative of objects. This, in fact, is how his act-ideas achieve their relatedness to objects (the second relation in which every idea stands). Every perception is the perception of something because it has a representational content (what Arnauld, again following Descartes, calls its ‘objective reality’) and thus is representative of some object: ‘The perceptions that our soul has of objects are necessarily representative of these objects’ (Arnauld 1684: 381). This representative character is an intrinsic feature of the perceptual act and is what gives the act its intentionality, or directedness-towards-an-object. And for Arnauld this is true for every mental event – not just clear and distinct perceptions, but also sensations and passions. Malebranche, by contrast, claims that only intellections have intentionality, and their intentionality is explained by the real presence to the mind of some distinct object which the mind apprehends – that is, a divine idea – and not by some features intrinsic to the mental operation itself.

Arnauld also directed his considerable critical skills to the doctrine of the vision in God. Much of his concern was focused on Malebranche’s claim that our ideas of extended beings, or the idea of extension itself (what Malebranche calls the ‘infinite intelligible extension’) are in God. He suspected that this was tantamount to placing extension itself really or ‘formally’ in God and thus making God extended or material, and that Malebranche’s doctrine harboured a latent Spinozism or Gassendism (see Spinoza, B. de §4; Gassendi, P. §4). Arnauld accused Malebranche of distorting the thought of both Descartes and Augustine – whom Arnauld and Malebranche alike took as their mentors – and even of propounding anti-Cartesian, anti-Augustinian and anti-Christian views.

The clash over representative ideas – which continued until Arnauld’s death – was only supposed to be a preliminary, however, for the real issue: God’s manner of acting in the realms of nature and grace. Malebranche, in his theodicy, had argued that evil and sin occur because God acts only by what he calls ‘general volitions’ – volitions that carry out general and simple laws. God would like to forestall evil and to save every human being, but actually to do so would require a great number of ad hoc, particular volitions and would demand that God should violate the principles of his own nature, which determines him to carry out his plans by the wisest and most simple means. So God must allow imperfections in the world and the damnation of many (see Malebranche, N. §5).

Arnauld objected strongly to this model of God’s activity. He accused Malebranche of undermining God’s omnipotence and of treating God’s agency no differently from human agency. He insists that, on Malebranche’s account, God is like some distant king who only issues general edicts and has no concern over how his kingdom is run in its details. Such a picture threatens the true Catholic system of divine providence and removes God from direct governance of the world. Moreover, Arnauld rejects any attempt to limit God’s absolute power, even if that limit comes from God’s own nature. God’s absolute freedom is the freedom of a will that determines itself and wills with a complete indifference.

Many of Arnauld’s criticisms of Malebranche are rooted in his Jansenism. For it is clear that what really bothers Arnauld is the notion that God could will something (for example, that all humans should be saved or that the world should be without evil) and the object of his will not obtain, that is, that a divine volition might not be efficacious. For Arnauld, all God’s volitions are necessarily efficacious, and if God had willed that all humans should be saved – and this claim is, by itself, unacceptable to Arnauld – then all humans would have been saved.

Citing this article:
Nadler, Steven. The Arnauld–Malebranche debate. Arnauld, Antoine (1612–94), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA001-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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