Malebranche, Nicolas (1638–1715)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA055-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 26, 2021, from

7. Influence

Malebranche’s influence in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was significant, but subtle and often unacknowledged. There is no question that his contemporaries recognized him as the major representative of the Cartesian system, however unorthodox his Cartesianism may have been. Leibniz’s arguments against ‘the Cartesians’, for example, are often directed at Malebranche. And yet, despite his criticisms of occasionalism, Leibniz was himself impressed by Malebranche’s discussion of causation and critique of interaction between substances. Moreover, Leibniz’s own theodicy and solution to the problem of evil were clearly influenced by what he read in Malebranche. Like Malebranche, Leibniz insists that God in creation chooses from an infinity of possible worlds, and that God pays particular attention not just to the created theatre itself, but especially to its relationship with the laws of nature and grace. Malebranche considers the laws as separate from ‘the world’, and gives them a higher value. He grants that the world God created may not be, absolutely speaking, the best of all possible worlds, but it is the best that can be done given the absolute simplicity of means God employs. Leibniz, on the other hand, considers the laws and the universe they govern together as ‘the world’, and insists that the combination is the best world overall. But they agree that evil and sin occur because God allows them to occur as a result of the ordinary course of nature as governed by the laws God has chosen. They agree that God could diminish the imperfections of the created world, but only by violating the simplicity of the divine ways (as Malebranche would put it), or by detracting from the overall optimality of the world (as Leibniz would say). Leibniz even goes so far as to suggest to Malebranche that, in the end, their accounts are the same, although Malebranche disagrees.

Malebranche’s influence extended across the Channel (and not just to such overt followers as John Norris). Despite Berkeley’s indignant claim that ‘there are no principles more fundamentally opposed than his [Malebranche’s] and mine’, there are obvious echoes of Malebranche’s doctrines in Berkeley’s works (see Berkeley, G. §2). For example, Berkeley’s ideas, like Malebranche’s ideas, are not modifications of the finite mind but are independent of it. They are also in the mind of God, since it is ‘an infinite spirit who contains and supports’ the world of ideas. Similarly, with respect to causation, Berkeley denies that our ideas of bodies provide us with any notion of causal power or efficacy. And while Berkeley departs from Malebranche’s doctrine and grants real causal power to the human soul (and thus is not a complete occasionalist), he insists, like Malebranche, that the ordinary course of natural phenomena, the regularities and correspondences in our ideas of things, are the result of the causal activity of the will of a governing spirit, that is, God.

Hume was more forthcoming in acknowledging his debt to Malebranche in his conclusions about causality. His arguments denying that our idea of body affords us any notion of causal power and his insistence that all that experience reveals is a constant conjunction between events seem to come right out of Malebranche’s Recherche. Both Hume and Malebranche stress the centrality of the concept of necessary connection to our understanding of causation, and both deny that such necessity can be discovered (by reason or experience) between any things in nature. The difference is that Malebranche held that we can perceive a necessary connection between the will of God and any event willed by God, while Hume rejected any such claim.

Citing this article:
Nadler, Steven. Influence. Malebranche, Nicolas (1638–1715), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA055-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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