Malebranche, Nicolas (1638–1715)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA055-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 16, 2021, from

1. Life and works

Nicolas Malebranche was born in Paris on 6 August 1638, one of the many children of Catherine de Lauzon and Nicolas Malebranche, a royal secretary. Because of a malformation of the spine which caused lifelong pain, he was kept at home for his education, under the direction of his mother, until the age of sixteen. In 1656, he graduated from the Collège de la Marche. The education he received there, and from three years studying theology at the Sorbonne, was heavily laden with Aristotelianism, and it left Malebranche highly dissatisfied. After rejecting the offer of a canonry at Notre-Dame de Paris, Malebranche entered the Oratory in 1660 and was ordained in 1664.

His four years in the Oratory proved to be of great intellectual consequence. While studying the Bible, ecclesiastical history and Hebrew, Malebranche, like other Oratorians, immersed himself in the writings of Augustine. There were also Cartesians among his teachers, who introduced him to the doctrines of Descartes. He did not read any of Descartes’ works, however, until 1664 when he happened upon a copy of Descartes’ Treatise on Man (L’homme) in a bookstall. The event was life-changing: according to his biographer, Father André, the joy of becoming acquainted with so many discoveries ‘caused him such palpitations of the heart that he had to stop reading in order to recover his breath’. Malebranche devoted the next ten years of his life to studying mathematics and philosophy. He was particularly taken by Descartes’ critique of the Aristotelian philosophy that he had earlier found so stultifying and sterile (see Medieval philosophy).

Those ten years of study culminated in the publication in 1674–5 of De la recherche de la vérité (The Search After Truth), Malebranche’s first and most ambitious work and a synthesis of the systems of Augustine and Descartes. Malebranche’s stated goal in the Recherche is to investigate the sources of human error and to direct us towards the clear and distinct perception of truth – truth about ourselves, about the world around us and about God. His motives are deeply theological, and he is ultimately concerned to demonstrate the essential and active role of God in every aspect – material, cognitive and moral – of the created world. The Recherche, quickly supplemented by seventeen Eclaircissements, contains early but solidly-argued presentations of Malebranche’s three most famous doctrines: the vision in God, occasionalism and his theodicy.

While the Abbé Simon Foucher, canon of Sainte Chapelle of Dijon, was the first in a long line of critics of Malebranche’s doctrines, the Jansenist theologian and Cartesian philosopher Antoine Arnauld was undoubtedly the harshest and most acute (see Foucher, S.; Arnauld, A. §3). Arnauld approved of the Recherche upon first reading it. But when he later learned of Malebranche’s views on grace and divine providence – sketchily presented in the Recherche but more fully expounded in the Traité de la Nature et de la Grace (Treatise on Nature and Grace) in 1680 – he embarked on a detailed critique of the major theses of the Recherche. Arnauld’s Des vraies et des fausses idées (1683), and Malebranche’s reply, Réponse du Père Malebranche au livre des vraies et des fausses idées (1684), were only the opening salvos in what would come to be a long, often bitter public battle on both philosophical and (to the participants more importantly) theological matters. Although Arnauld’s allies succeeded in having the Traité put on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1690 (the Recherche was added in 1709), their exchanges – public and private – continued until Arnauld’s death in 1694. The debate, one of the great intellectual events of the seventeenth century, attracted the attention of Leibniz, Spinoza, Bayle, Locke, Newton and many others.

After the publication of the Recherche, Malebranche turned to a ‘justification’ of the Catholic religion and morality, presented in suitably Malebranchian terms and published as the Conversations Chrétiennes in 1676. This was followed in 1683 by the Médiations Chrétiennes et Métaphysiques, which consists of dialogues in which ‘the Word’ explains and defends Malebranche’s system. That same year Malebranche also published his Traité de Morale in which he undertakes a rigorous demonstration of a true Christian ethics.

By the mid-1680s, Malebranche was widely regarded as the most important, if highly unorthodox, representative of the Cartesian philosophy. His regular correspondents included Leibniz and the physicist Pierre-Sylvain Régis. With Leibniz he debated the Cartesian account of the laws of motion (Malebranche published his Traité des lois de la communication du mouvement in 1692), as well as occasionalism and the nature of causal relations. With Régis, who defended a more orthodox brand of Cartesianism, he discussed natural philosophy and the nature of ideas (see Leibniz, G.W. §11; Régis, P.-S.).

Having been forced in his arguments with Arnauld, Régis and others to clarify, develop and even modify his doctrines, Malebranche decided, at the urging of friends, to compose a treatise in which he would both present an up-to-date and concise picture of his theories and defend them as a proper Augustinian (and Catholic) system. The Entretiens sur la métaphysique (Dialogues on Metaphysics) were published in 1688 and were supplemented in 1696 by the Entretiens sur la mort, which Malebranche wrote after an illness from which he did not expect to recover. In 1699, he was elected to the Académie Royale des Sciences.

During the last fifteen years of his life, Malebranche remained actively engaged in philosophical, theological, and scientific matters, publishing the Entretien d’un philosophe chrétien et d’un philosophe chinois, sur l’existence et la nature de Dieu in 1708 and his Réflexions sur la prémotion physique in 1715. He also continued to work on the Recherche, producing the sixth edition, the last to appear in his lifetime, in 1712. In June 1715, Malebranche became ill while visiting a friend in Villeneuve St. Georges. He was taken back to the Oratory in Paris, where he died on October 13.

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