Malebranche, Nicolas (1638–1715)

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

2. Vision in God

Malebranche’s system is fundamentally Augustinian, and he was inspired by Descartes’ philosophy not just because of the scientific and mathematical discoveries he found there but especially because of its own Augustinian nature. He tried to be as faithful as possible to Augustine’s thought while at the same time incorporating into his doctrines what he took to be the important metaphysical and epistemological insights of the new mechanistic science. This is particularly evident in his theory of ideas and account of human knowledge.

Nearly all philosophers in the seventeenth century agreed that perception and knowledge is mediated by immaterial representations immediately present to the mind, after Descartes generally called ‘ideas’. There was much disagreement, however, over the origin and ontological status of these ideas: How do ideas become present to the mind? Are ideas ‘modifications’ of the mind? Are they acts of the mind or the objects of perception? Malebranche’s doctrine of the vision in God was the most unorthodox and controversial theory of ideas in the period. He looked back to the Christian-Platonic and Augustinian model, according to which ideas proper are archetypes or essences in the divine understanding. Human beings have access to these ideas, which serve as the ground of all eternal truths, through a continuous process of illumination that informs their cognitive powers.

Malebranche orients his discussion of ideas and knowledge in the Recherche around the problem of error, particularly the errors that arise when we base our judgments on the testimony of the senses and the imagination, rather than on reason and understanding. He relies in his analysis of error on what is probably the most comprehensive and systematic account of the physiology of sense and imagination in the seventeenth century. For example, based upon a detailed investigation into the structure of the eye and the geometry of optics, he argues that our sight does not present to us the extension of external bodies as it is in itself, but rather only as it is in relation to our body. He describes the eye as a kind of ‘natural spectacles’, and examines the ways in which the material images conveyed into the brain (and thus the sensory images these stimulate in the soul) are variously affected by the distance between the eyes, the different humours in the eyes, the shape of the crystalline lens and its distance from the retina, and other factors. The difference between sensation and imagination is due simply to the fact that in imagination the tiny fibres in the centre of the brain are agitated not by the impressions made by external objects on the exterior surface of the nerves, but by the flow of the animal spirits initiated by the soul itself. These animal spirits are easily affected by the changing state of the body and by external things, as well as by ‘moral’ causes (prejudices, ‘conditions of living’). The imagination thus represents a second important source of the differences between minds and how things are represented to them. Malebranche’s goal in highlighting how the senses and the imagination ‘lead us into error’ is to warn us not to allow their images to serve as a basis for judgment about the truth of things. We should rely, rather, on the testimony of reason and the perfect evidence of clear and distinct ideas.

Malebranche’s account of the nature of ideas is grounded in the basic dualist framework of Cartesian ontology. Mind, or thinking substance, is unextended thought, and has absolutely nothing in common with matter, defined as extension. A material body has only the mathematical properties of shape, size, divisibility and mobility. All other sensible qualities – colour, heat, cold, taste, odour and so on – are really only sensations in the mind, mental modifications occasioned by external material objects. While such sensations may indicate to us the presence of bodies to our own body, they cannot provide us with clear and distinct knowledge of those bodies. Sensations can only inform us of what is presently taking place in our own minds; they have no representational value with respect to the external world. Malebranche claims, however, that in addition to our own inner sensations we have access to representative ideas. Ideas, unlike qualitative sensations, have a clear and distinct representational content – generally of a quantitative nature – and provide us with unambiguous and complete knowledge about objects and their properties. The idea of the square, for example, presents with perfect evidence all the information needed for full knowledge of the geometric properties of squares. On the other hand, the heat one feels when near a fire is simply an obscure sensation that reveals nothing about the nature of fire itself as an extended reality. Malebranche’s ideas are pure concepts, and their content has no sensory component whatsoever. They just are the logical essences of things or kinds. His epistemological distinction between ideas and sensations derives from Descartes’ distinction between clear and distinct ideas and obscure, confused ideas. It roughly corresponds to the distinction made famous by Boyle and Locke between primary quality ideas and secondary quality ideas (see Boyle, R.; Descartes, R. §8; Locke, J. §4).

This epistemological difference between ideas and sensations is, for Malebranche, grounded in an ontological one. While sensations are mental, ideas are not. Representative ideas are ‘present to the mind’, but they are not modifications of the mind’s substance. (Their presence is what allows them to represent extended beings to the mind.) Rather, they are in God, and finite minds have access to them because God wills to reveal them to those minds, all of which exist in a perpetual union with God. That ideas do not belong to the mind becomes clear from the fact that some of our ideas are infinite, and it is impossible for a finite mind to have an infinite modification. Likewise, our ideas are all general – they only become particular or specific when combined with some sensory components – and a particular substance such as the mind cannot have a modification that is general.

Ideas function in all of the mind’s cognitive activities; most importantly, in conception and perception. In conception, the mind apprehends a pure idea by itself, without any sensations to particularize the experience (for example, conceiving a geometric circle). In perception, ideas are present but are accompanied by various sensory elements. Thus, when we perceive the sun, the pure idea of a geometric circle is accompanied by colour (yellow) and heat sensations.

Malebranche offers two kinds of argument to demonstrate that representative ideas are required for knowledge and perception. First, he argues that there is generally an unbridgeable distance between the mind and its objects. He sometimes appears to mean this literally, and to be relying on the fact that the mind is not locally present to the external bodies it knows and sees, and that in cognition it is neither the case that objects travel to the mind or that the mind leaves the body to ‘travel across the great spaces’ that separate it from its objects. His more considered intention, however, is probably to draw our attention to the metaphysical, rather than the physical gulf that separates mind from matter: bodies, being extended, cannot be united with, and thus present to, the unextended mind in the way required for direct cognitive acquaintance. Thus, what is required are intermediary entities that can both represent extended bodies and be immediately present to the mind: ideas.

Second, it is often the case that we have a perceptual experience of an object when in fact the object itself does not actually exist (for example, in hallucinations and dreams). But Malebranche insists upon the truth of the principle of intentionality, or the claim that every perception must be object-directed – ‘to perceive is to perceive something’ (see Intentionality). As Malebranche understands this principle, every perception must be the direct and immediate apprehension of some really present object. As the illusory cases illustrate, however, the intentional objects of the mind cannot be really existing material bodies; for if they were, we could never have perceptual experiences of objects that do not exist. Thus, it must be that we directly apprehend ideas, non-material representations, even though sometimes there is no external body corresponding to the idea.

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