Front Page Titles (by Subject) IX.: Malebranche (1638-1715) † - The Method, Meditations and Philosophy of Descartes
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IX.: Malebranche (1638-1715) † - Réné Descartes, The Method, Meditations and Philosophy of Descartes 
The Method, Meditations and Philosophy of Descartes, translated from the Original Texts, with a new introductory Essay, Historical and Critical by John Veitch and a Special Introduction by Frank Sewall (Washington: M. Walter Dunne, 1901).
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Inaccordance with the usual Hegelian formula as applied to history, an attempt is made to show that the system of Descartes is part of the evolution of what is called “thought.” It is assumed, accordingly, that there is but a single conception at the root of the philosophy of Descartes,— that this runs all through his thinking,— and that it is carried to its necessary development by the force of “the immanent dialectic,” through Malebranche and Spinoza. One of the worst features of the Hegelian mode of looking at the history of speculation comes out here. Assuming that speculative thought develops necessarily through a series of specified moments, it must either find the single moment in a given system or reject the system as unspeculative. The result of this method is, on the one hand, an attempt to make a system express one of the moments; or, on the other, arrogantly to pass by the system as of no account. We have thus frequently instead of “pure thought” pure phantasy in dealing with a system of philosophy, and a willful blindness to the facts of history and experience. In the case of Descartes the Hegelian mistake is twofold. It is wrongly assumed that the philosophy of Descartes represents a single thought, or a single moment of thought, and it either incorrectly or inadequately describes the main thought which animates his philosophy.
With Descartes, according to Hegel, we have to renounce every prejudgment in order to gain a pure beginning. The spirit of the philosophy of Descartes is consciousness as the unity of thought and being. The “I” in the philosophy of Descartes has the meaning of thought, not the individuality (Einzelnheit) of self-consciousness. Descartes appeals to consciousness for his first principle; but he only naively gets at the consequences of it, or at least at the propositions of philosophy. He does not at first properly state the principle out of which the whole content (Inhalt) of philosophy is to be derived. The identity of being and thought,—altogether the most interesting idea of modern times,— Descartes has not farther proved, but for it has singly and alone appealed to consciousness, and provisionally placed it in the front. For with Descartes the necessity is not in any way present to develop difference out of the “I think.” Fichte first proceeded to this, and out of this point of absolute certainty to derive all determinations. Then of course we must expect to find that Descartes takes being in its wholly positive sense, and has no conception that it is the negative of self-consciousness. Then there is constant talk of the pure consciousness contained in the concrete “I.” And Descartes is criticised in respect that the certainty of self-consciousness does not properly pass over to truth, or the determined. This passing over is done “externally” and reflectively only. Consciousness does not determine itself.
In plain language, the whole basis and method of Descartes are criticised from an assumption that human knowledge is possible from a mere universal or abstract something called pure thought, or the pure consciousness of the “I,”—above altogether, in the first place at least, ordinary consciousness or knowledge. This system is not only unvindicable in itself and its principles, but it has really no connection, logical or historical, with the true system of Descartes. Nothing, for example, can be more out of place historically than to connect Descartes with Fichte, or to suppose that the system of the latter is any way a fair logical evolution from that of the former. It is even ludicrous to set up this so-called Hegelian development of “reason,” and by virtue of the gathered power of a word, whose connotation is altogether different from the Hegelian, to ask us to renounce the experiential method of Descartes and nearly the whole of subsequent modern philosophy. It is a complete mistake historically to assume that the moment of Cartesianism is consciousness,—spoken of in the vague generality with which Hegel deals with it. The consciousness of Descartes is a self-guaranteeing principle,— which is a great deal more than Hegel has vindicated or can vindicate for his Pure Being. In truth, the first principle of Descartes is not consciousness properly speaking, but self-consciousness,—tested experimentally and found self-guaranteeing. Self-consciousness was never more truly or fully appreciated than in the system of Descartes. It is, if anything is, his most vitalizing thought. And if the system of Descartes be one thoroughly of self-consciousness, neither that of Kant nor that of Fichte can be so described. The basis of Fichte's system is an absolute Ego, of which the Ego of consciousness is at best phenomenal; and the real Ego of Kant is wholly noumenal, not in phenomenal consciousness at all, while his phenomenal Ego has but a generic or logical identity.
Nor do later attempts to find the one thought of Descartes fare better. To say absolutely that Descartes stated a thought which was legitimately developed by Malebranche and Spinoza is thoroughly misleading. There are points in, Descartes which were fairly enough developed by these later thinkers; there are others which were not. There are important points in the philosophy of Descartes which were not touched by either. Descartes thought was manifold; and so must be its developments.
The aim of Descartes was, no doubt, to find absolutely ultimate truth and certainty, as guaranteed by the reflective analysis of consciousness—to obtain therein a criterion of truth and falsehood—and, if possible, to develop by demonstration from the single ultimate fact, the truth about the world and God,—and thus to subordinate and correlate the truths of philosophy. But the peculiarity of Descartes was not, as we have seen, so much this aim — which is the common one of speculative systems — as his method of seeking it, in an examination of consciousness, and finding it in the principle of limit to conscious thought. It is this point of limit which, in a speculative view, is the peculiarity of Cartesianism; and it is this exactly which, in the so-called evolution of his thought, Malebranche partially and unconsciously, and Spinoza wholly and consciously, sought to reverse. If the reversal of a position, and, I should add, the illegitimate reversal, is a development, we have the highest reach of Cartesianism in Spinoza. Spinoza developed Descartes by amending the formula cogito ergo sum, into cogito ergo non sum.
The truth is, that both Malebranche and Spinoza seized on those subordinate points in the philosophy of Descartes which tended to lower human activity and personality, and in different ways sought to ascribe all real efficacy or casuality to a Power above and outside of man. Malebranche certainly kept up the conception of a Personal Deity as the Supreme Cause, though inconsistently with his conception of Deity as mere indeterminate or unrestricted being. Spinoza held by an Indeterminate Substance. It is doubtful, however, whether Malebranche, in virtually annihilating human personality in experience, had any right thereafter to speak of a Divine Personality; and certainly Spinoza precluded himself even from the conception of a Finite Personality by placing at the source of the universe of Being mere Indeterminate Substance. There would be an inconsistency on the doctrine of either in making this Divine or Substantial Power all, and at the same time holding Man to be something—either a spontaneous agent, a responsible power, or even a being in any way resembling the living reality of human consciousness.
On one cardinal point of Descartes—the knowledge of mind in consciousness, and the corollary that the soul is better and more clearly known than the body—Malebranche entirely differs from him. Malebranche maintains that we have no idea of the mind, and therefore no clear knowledge of it. We know it only through internal sentiment — that is, consciousness; but we have no proper idea of it. Our knowledge of body or extension, on the other hand, is by means of idea; and hence it is a clearer knowledge than that of the soul. As if, forsooth, in the consciousness of extension, the extension or object were clearer than the conscious act of apprehension. We know, however, by this inner feeling or consciousness, that the soul is; but we do not know what it is. His practical test of the superior clearness of our knowledge of extension is, that extension being in idea, we can evolve or deduce from the idea of it alone all its numerous properties and relations: whereas from the so-called idea of the soul we can deduce none of its properties — either pleasure, pain, or any other. Malebranche thus, instead of advancing on Descartes in a legitimate and necessary manner, simply deviated wholly from the spirit and procedure of the method. He regarded a method of deduction and demonstration as the only truly philosophical. He was wholly misled by the analogy of mathematics, as Descartes himself partly was, and sought to deal with the range of knowledge, as a geometer may deal with the properties of space which he borrows and defines. But there is no true analogy. Given space, we can evolve its properties, for we need not proceed beyond itself, save by way of limit, and limit of space is itself space. Given an abstract Ego, it must always remain such. Given a conscious Ego, it is me-conscious, and conscious in one definite way. And let this be knowledge of an object, we cannot proceed merely from this to evolve either desire or volition, or any property specifically distinct from knowledge. We must wait the development of consciousness itself, for our knowledge, even conception, of those new modes. We can no more do this than the physical philosopher can, from the sight of a definite kind and quantity of motion, predict its passage into light or heat, before he has any experience of such a transition. The light or heat are sensations of a specifically different kind from the modes of motion regarded as objects of vision. And these, therefore, it is impossible a priori to predict—impossible even a priori to conceive. Malebranche shows himself distinctly aware of this in relation to mind. “The soul knows not that it is capable of this or that sensation by any view it takes of itself, but by experience; on the other hand, it knows that extension is capable of an infinite number of figures by the idea representative of extension. . . . We cannot give a definition which shall explain the modifications of the soul. . . . It is evident that if a man had never seen color nor felt heat, he could not be made to understand those sensations by any definition.” But while thus speaking, Malebranche discredited entirely the philosophical method,— the spirit of reflection and the analysis of consciousness on which Descartes relied for the foundations of his philosophy, and which were destined to bring men face to face with the real facts of mental life. Malebranche, in so doing, left himself no basis for his own deduction, and no guaranteed law or method of deduction.
The alleged advance on Descartes, or carrying out of Cartesian principles by Malebranche, is simple, and in many respects irrelevant enough. Descartes' dualism of thought and extension was his preliminary difficulty and puzzle. How can these disparate substances be connected in knowledge? Instead of recognizing the artificial nature of the difficulty, he admitted it as real, and sought to solve it The soul can but perceive that which is immediately united with it. Things that are corporeal cannot be immediately perceived. Everybody, it seems, admits this. And what is the solution? Sense and imagination give us one set of modes of consciousness or thoughts about this extended world. These are sentiments— in a word, sensations — such as light, color, heat, pleasure, and pain. These are not in body; they tell us nothing of its nature; they are relative simply to our bodily organization. They have a reality only in us, yet we do not produce them. They are caused in us by God himself; he is the only and the efficient cause of our sensations. Because, according to the view of Malebranche, God is the only real and efficient cause in the universe.
De la Forge, Cordemoy, and Geulincx, had more or less anticipated the doctrine of Occasional Causes. They all felt, as Malebranche himself did, that invariable sequence or correspondence is no true causality. It is a proof simply that causality is in operation; but it is not the causality itself. They had applied this doctrine to the connection between mind and body. It was reserved for Malebranche to apply it universally to the relations of all created things or phenomena of the universe. No finite being, according to Malebranche, be it mind or body or extra-organic object, can act on any other with a true efficiency. There is harmony or correspondence in their manifestations, but that is all. God alone is the efficient cause at work in the world. Things are occasions; their manifestations are subject to definite laws or decrees; the Divine Power is the only sufficient agency in the world,— whether it relate to the production of perceptions, or the realization of volitions. Mind is purely passive, whether there be organic change in the body, or whether even there be resolution. The nervous action, on which the realization of volition depends, is wholly unknown to us. We have thus no power over it; no more power than we have over the organic impressions which are the occasion of sensation. God is all in all,— operating efficiently in and through all. A bad psychology, or rather an unwarrantable deduction, had thus destroyed the activity of knowledge and the reality of freedom and the force of personality.
But we have more than sensations; we have ideas. These are in the sphere of the Pure Understanding. They are the immediate objects of the act of perception; and they are distinct from bodies. Extension, figure, motion — these are not sensations; they are ideas. “ In perceiving anything of a sensible nature, two things occur in our perception—Sensation and Pure Idea. The sensation is a modification of our soul, and God causes it in us. ... The idea, which is joined to the sensation, is in God; and we see it, because it pleases him to reveal it to us. God connects the sensation with the idea, when the objects are present.” But whence come ideas? Malebranche exhausts the possibilities of their origin by a comprehensive statement. The possible explanations are as follow: (1.) Ideas come from bodies, (2.) The soul has the power of producing them. (3.) God produces them in the soul at its creation. (4.) God produces them whenever we think an object. (5.) The soul has or sees in itself all the perfections of bodies. (6.) The soul is united to an all-perfect being who embraces the ideas or perfections of created things. He concludes by adopting the last solution that the soul is united to a supremely Perfect Being, who contains the ideas of all created beings. It therefore sees all ideas in God. The finite is in the bosom of the infinite. He is the place of spirits, as space is the place of bodies; and we are immediately conscious of the ideas of the qualities of body in God himself.
Yet we have a higher assurance of the reality of the idea than of the quality or body which the idea represents. The idea is external to us, yet it is surely known in God; but the world of material reality which the ideas represent is only a probable inference from the reality of the ideas themselves. “ It is not necessary that there should be anything without like to the idea.” The only reality which is the object of perception—that is, of which we are immediately cognizant and certain — is the idea itself. And we must not suppose that these ideas are identical with the Divine substance or essence; they express only certain of his relations to his creatures. The consciousness, accordingly, of me, the finite, in apprehending those ideas, would be inaccurately described as identical with the Divine consciousness. In knowing those ideas, I am as far from the real inner essence of the Divine consciousness, as I am from the reality of the thing represented. He says, “it is not properly to see God, to see the creatures in him. It is not to see his essence to see the essence of creatures in his substance.” All that can be alleged is, that I the percipient and Deity have a common object of knowledge in the idea.
So far we can attach a meaning to this system. But the question arises, what does this vision of all things in God precisely mean? Does it refer to the perception of the qualities of body, however numerous, passing, contingent these may be in time and space? Are the ideas perceived in God as numerous as the actual qualities or things of experience? Then, what becomes of the unity and indivisibility of Deity? What is he in this case but another name for the sum of our experience? What is he but peopled space and time? Or does the vision in Deity refer merely to the laws and types of things under which perception and thought are possibles? Malebranche vacillates on this point. But he was finally driven to the latter conception. His idea in God came to mean the essence or type of the thing; and he names it intelligible extension. It is this idea which is in God, and which we see in God. Along with it God determines in us certain passing sensations — such as color, sound, heat or cold. These are in our consciousness, though confused: the idea is in God. It is the permanent essence. But what is this intelligible extension? Is it extension — that is, space, without limit or figure — conceived as infinite? Is this identical with the ideas of our perception? If so, how? Is this the world we are supposed to perceive in the representative idea? The idea of the figure, definite, limited? Again, what is the connection between this ideal and the real extension? Between space conceived as empty, and space perceived as filled with matter? The truth is, that such a position cannot be vindicated consistently with the facts of the intuitional consciousness. It means simply abstract or void space, and this is as far from the reality of the world, as possibility is from actuality, or absolute monotony from the variety of experience.
As to the nature of our knowledge of God, Malebranche differed in one important respect from Descartes; though whether it was an advance or the reverse is matter of question. Descartes distinguished the idea from the reality of the supremely perfect, and made the reality an inference from the idea. But just as Malebranche held that the soul is not known through idea, he held that Deity, or the Being of Beings, the supremely Perfect, is not known by us through idea. It is not conceivable that anything created can represent the infinite; that being without restriction, the immense being, can be perceived by an idea, that is, by a particular being and a being different from the universal and infinite being. One might suppose that in this case our knowledge of the supremely Perfect would be obscure, like our knowledge of the soul itself. But no. The soul is immediately united with the substance of God himself; we thus know him as he is in himself. On occasion of every apprehension of sensation even, or of bodily movement, we know the infinite. “If I think the infinite, the infinite is.” This is the sole demonstration of Malebranche. Yet even while he seems to unite the finite consciousness to the divine substance in order that, as more than finite, it may know this substance or itself, it turns out that it does not wholly know the substance; our apprehension is not infinite; we are therefore, less than the infinite is.
This, then, is another and higher vision in God. The soul is now immediately cognizant of God in his essence; and, though only in a limited way, we thus see the infinite perfection of Deity and their relations. We see ideas, principles eternal and immutable; we perceive also truths — that is, the relations of those ideas. This is Reason — which is absolutely impersonal — common to all intelligences, human and divine. It is manifested in the form of speculative or metaphysical laws, and in that of practical or moral laws. The former are modifications of the idea of quantity, subsisting between ideas of the same nature; the latter of perfection or graduated order among beings of different natures.
Malebranche here made an advance beyond Descartes. The latter had founded the distinctions of true and false, right and wrong, beautiful and deformed, on the mere will of God. Malebranche very properly departed from this position, and founded those distinctions on the intelligence of Deity itself. The one supreme thing in the universe is the sovereignty of the Reason. It bends to the will neither of man nor of God. But there is nothing to show that he connects the doctrine of the Impersonal Reason with the hypothesis — the identity of the human consciousness with the divine substance or consciousness. This is not at all necessary to his doctrine, and it is not legitimately involved in it. On the contrary, our knowledge of the infinite is with him never coextensive with the reality. The fair issue of the doctrine of Malebranche regarding the infinite, which, to be intelligible, means the principle of universal truths, is that there is a common knowledge between man and God. But to say that the consciousness I am and experience, is the consciousness of God, or God's consciousness of himself, is to assume this convertibility, and it is either to abolish me altogether, or to abolish God; for it gives me a God convertible with all the conditions and limitations in essence and in time of a temporal consciousness.
The utmost identity predicable in such a case is a merely logical or generic identity. The human and the divine possess common laws of knowledge. This no more proves the identity of the human and divine intelligence, as existences, than the community of the laws of knowledge among human intelligents destroys the individuality and variety of the self-hood of each. The whole question as to the relation of me, the being in time, to an Eternal Being, stands just where it was.
[†]His writing appeared from 1674 to 1715. Spinoza lived from 1632-1677. His writings appeared from 1663 to 1677. Malebranche, as in some respects nearer in doctrine to Descartes, is first considered.