Malebranche, Nicolas (1638–1715)

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

3. Vision in God (cont.)

Malebranche’s position is that the ideas that function in human perception and knowledge are simply the ideas – the eternal essences and archetypes – in the divine understanding: that ‘we see all things in God’. In the Recherche itself, he relies mainly on an argument from elimination. He shows how all other accounts of the source of our ideas – the Scholastic and Epicurean doctrines, various Cartesian theories (innatism, self-production by the soul) – are untenable, thus leaving the vision in God as the only viable alternative (see Epicureanism). But in this work and others, he also marshals more positive considerations in support of his doctrine. His account, he insists, is simpler than any other hypothesis (hence more worthy of God’s ways), and best fosters a proper and pious sense of our ontological and epistemological dependence upon our creator: we as knowers and perceivers are not self-sufficient, no more than we as beings are self-sufficient substances.

In the Eclaircissements appended to the Recherche, Malebranche’s debt to Augustine becomes more overt. For Augustine, what we see in God are eternal and immutable truths. Truth is, by its nature, changeless, universal and uncreated. Moreover, truth is higher than, and common to, many minds. Hence, it can be nowhere but in the divine reason, in God himself (in Augustine’s words, truth is God) (see Augustine §§6–7). For Malebranche, too, truth is necessarily universal, immutable and infinite. But the truths we know just are relations between ideas. Thus, the ideas themselves must be universal, immutable, and infinite. And such ideas can only be those in God’s understanding. The vision in God is the only possible explanation for our common knowledge of necessary truth – we are all similarly united with one universal, infinite Reason, in which we perceive the same ideas.

Malebranche’s doctrine of the vision in God is motivated, then, not just by the problem of how we perceive bodies in the external world – a specifically Cartesian concern – but primarily by the problem of how we have knowledge of eternal truths. And behind it all lies Malebranche’s deep fear of the dangers of scepticism. The vision in God represents for Malebranche the most effective countersceptical strategy available. First, we can be sure that the ideas we apprehend in sense-perception really do represent bodies in the world because these ideas just are the archetypes that served and directed God in creating those bodies. Thus, they cannot fail to reveal the nature of extended things as they are. On the other hand, if ideas were, as many Cartesians insist, merely fleeting and subjective modifications of the soul, there would be no justification for believing that what they represent about bodies in the world really characterizes those bodies. This would seriously undermine the certainty of physics. Second, any sceptical worries about the necessity, universality and objectivity of mathematical and moral knowledge are forestalled by showing that the ideas upon which such knowledge is based are mind-independent (non-subjective) realities, accessible to all knowers in a universal Reason.

To be sure, there are many relevant questions that the doctrine of vision in God cannot, and is not intended to, answer. For example, while the ideas we apprehend in God inform us as to the essences of things, they cannot provide any evidence about the existence of things. Certainty in this regard can only come about through a combination of faith and sensory experience. This is not to say that Malebranche is a sceptic when it comes to the existence of the external world. Although he claims that we cannot have rational and demonstrative certainty about the existence of a world of things, we still have no good reasons to doubt of it, as well as a natural propensity to believe in it. Nor does the vision in God provide us with a clear and distinct idea of the soul, which would make possible a science of the soul as certain as our science of bodies (physics) based on the idea of body. Our knowledge of the soul is limited to the testimony of sentiment intérieur, to what we actually experience in consciousness, and Malebranche rejects Descartes’ claim that we know the soul as well as (or even better than) the body.

The vision in God is a systematic attempt to combine the doctrine of divine illumination that Malebranche found in Augustine with a somewhat deviant Cartesian metaphysics and philosophy of mind. The theory is deeply Augustinian in inspiration, but is geared also to answer certain epistemological questions that really only arise in the seventeenth century.

As Malebranche’s contemporary critics were quick to point out, the doctrine was fraught with ambiguities and inconsistencies. For example, if there is a single immutable idea in God for each object or kind of object he created, how is it that we perceive change and motion in extended things? In the Eclaircissements Malebranche denies that he ever meant that there is a plurality of individual, discrete ideas in God. He insists that there is in God an ‘infinite intelligible extension’, and that by applying our minds to this extension in various ways we apprehend representations of different extended bodies in different states of being.

Foucher, in one of his criticisms of Malebranche, focused on the ontological status of ideas. If ideas are spiritual, but are not substances, then they must be modifications of some spiritual substance. Malebranche denies that they are (he insists that they are neither modifications of our minds nor of the divine substance), but then what else can they be? And if they are not ‘ways of being’ of our minds, then they must be as external to our minds as anything else and not ‘present’ to the mind in the manner required for direct cognition. Foucher also asks how immaterial ideas could possibly represent material bodies that they do not resemble (see Foucher, S. §3).

Arnauld argued that the whole notion of ideas as representative beings, distinct from the mind’s perceptions and which are in fact the mind’s objects in perception, is false and even incoherent. Ideas, Arnauld insisted, are not distinguished from the mental acts (he calls them perceptions) which represent objects to the mind but are not themselves distinct objects. He claims that Malebranche’s theory, far from explaining how we perceive bodies external to us, actually demonstrates that we never perceive such bodies, and that the mind is surrounded by a ‘palace of ideas’ beyond which it has no cognitive access. Arnauld also focused in his attack on Malebranche’s doctrine of the infinite intelligible extension, and wonders how Malebranche can avoid the charge of materialism, of having placed extension really (that is, ‘formally’) in God and thus making God himself extended (see Arnauld, A. §3). This point is taken up in Spinozistic terms by Dortuous de Mairan, a young man whom Malebranche had once tutored. Mairan was impressed by Spinoza, and he challenged Malebranche both to refute Spinoza’s arguments and to show how the relationship between the infinite intelligible extension in God and the material extension of bodies differs from the substance/affection (or mode) relationship that for Spinoza characterizes the relationship between infinite extension and particular bodies (see Spinoza, B. §§2–3).

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