do not wonder even when we find him treating as a “miserable” the philosopher who tore away the veil.
Malebranche saw “all things in God.” In other words, he taught that knowledge is possible only in so far as thought is the expression, not of the nature of the individual subject as such, but of a universal life in which he and all other rational beings partake. “No one can feel my individual pain; every one can see the truth which I contemplate—why is it so? The reason is that my pain is a modification of my substance, but truth is the common good of all spirits.” This idea is ever present to Malebranche, and is repeated by him in an endless variety of forms of expression. Thus, like Descartes, but with more decision, he tells us that the idea of the infinite is prior to the idea of the finite. “We conceive of the infinite being by the very fact that we conceive of being without thinking whether it be finite or no. But in order that we may think of a finite being, we must necessarily cut off or deduct something from the general notion of being, which consequently we must previously possess. Thus the mind does not apprehend anything whatever, except in and through the idea that it has of the infinite; and so far is it from being the case that this idea is formed by the confused assemblage of all the ideas of particular things as the philosophers maintain, that, on the contrary, all these particular ideas are only participations in the general idea of the infinite, just as God does not derive his being from the creatures, but all the creatures are imperfect participations of the divine Being.” Again, he tells us, in the same chapter, that “when we wish to think of any particular thing, we first cast our view upon all being, and then apply it to the consideration of the object in question. We could not desire to see any particular object unless we saw it already in a confused and general way, and as there is nothing which we cannot desire to see, so all objects must be in a manner present to our spirit.” Or, as he puts it in another place, “our mind would not be capable of representing to itself the general ideas of genera and species if it did not see all things as contained in one; for every creature being an individual we cannot say that we are apprehending any created thing when we think the general idea of a triangle.”
The main idea that is expressed in all these different ways is simply this, that to determine any individual object as such, we must relate it to, and distinguish it from, the whole of which it is a part; and that, therefore, thought could never Relation of the Divine mind to human knowledge. apprehend anything if it did not bring with itself the idea of the intelligible world as a unity. Descartes had already expressed this truth in his Meditations, but he had deprived it of its full significance by making a distinction between the being and the idea of God, the former of which, in his view, was only the cause of the latter. Malebranche detects this error, and denies that there is any idea of the infinite, which is a somewhat crude way of saying that there is no division between the idea of the infinite and its reality. What Reid asserted of the external world, that it is not represented by an idea in our minds, but is actually present to them, Malebranche asserted of God. No individual thing, he tells us—and an idea is but an individual thing—could represent the infinite. On the contrary, all individual things are represented through the infinite Being, who contains them all in his substance “très efficace, et par conséquence très intelligible.” We know God by himself, material things only by their ideas in God, for they are “unintelligible in themselves, and we can see them only in the being who contains them in an intelligible manner.” And thus, unless we in some way “saw God, we should be able to see nothing else.” The vision of God or in God, therefore, is an “intellectual intuition” in which seer and seen, knower and known, are one. Our knowledge of things is our participation in God’s knowledge of them.
When we have gone so far with Malebranche, we are tempted to ask why he does not follow out his thought to its natural conclusion. If the idea of God is not separable from his existence, if it is through the idea of him that all things are known, and through his existence that all things are, then it would seem necessarily to follow that our consciousness of God is but a part of God’s consciousness of himself, that our consciousness of self and other things is but God’s consciousness of them, and lastly, that there is no existence either of ourselves or other things except in this consciousness. To understand Malebranche is mainly to understand how he stopped short of results that seemed to lie so directly in the line of his thought.
To begin with the last point, it is easy to see that Malebranche only asserts unity of idea and reality in God, to deny it everywhere else, which with him is equivalent to asserting it in general and denying it in particular. To him, as to Descartes, the opposition between mind and matter is absolute. Material things cannot come into our minds nor can our minds go out of themselves “pour se promener dans les cieux.” Hence they are in themselves absolutely unknown; they are known only in God, in whom are their ideas, and as these ideas again are quite distinct from the reality, they “might be presented to the mind without anything existing.” That they exist out of God in another manner than the intelligible manner of their existence in God, is explained by a mere act of His will, that is, it is not explained at all. Though we see all things in God, therefore, there is no connexion between his existence and theirs. The “world is not a necessary emanation of divinity; God is perfectly self-sufficient, and the idea of the infinitely perfect Being can be conceived quite apart from any other. The existence of the creatures is due to the free decrees of God.” Malebranche, therefore, still treats of external things as “things in themselves,” which have an existence apart from thought, even the divine thought, though it is only in and through the divine thought they can be known by us. “To see the material world, or rather to judge that it exists (since in itself it is invisible), it is necessary that God should reveal it to us, for we cannot see the result of his arbitrary will through necessary reason.”
But if we know external things only through their idea in God, how do we know ourselves? Is it also through the idea of us in God? Here we come upon a point in which Malebranche diverges very far from his master. We do not, he says, properly know ourselves at all as we know God or even external objects. We are conscious of ourselves by inner sense (sentiment interieur), and from this we know that we are, but we do not know what we are. “We know the existence of our soul more distinctly than of our body, but we have not so perfect a knowledge of our soul as of our body.” This is shown by the fact that from our idea of body as extended substance, we can at once see what are its possible modifications. In other words, we only need the idea of extended substance to see that there is an inexhaustible number of figures and motions of which it is capable. The whole of geometry is but a development of what is given already in the conception of extension. But it is not so with our consciousness of self, which does not enable us to say prior to actual experience what sensations or passions are possible to us. We only know what heat, cold, light, colour, hunger, anger and desire are by feeling them. Our knowledge extends as far as our experience and no further. Nay, we have good reason to believe that many of these modifications exist in our soul only by reason of its accidental association with a body, and that if it were freed from that body it would be capable of far other and higher experiences. “We know by feeling that our soul is great, but perhaps we know almost nothing of what it is in itself.” The informations of sense have, as Descartes taught, only a practical but no theoretical value; they tell us nothing of the external world, the real nature of which We know not through touch and taste and sight, but only through our idea of extended substances; while of the nature of the soul they do not tell us much more than that it exists and that it is not material. And in this latter case we have no idea, nothing better than sense to raise us above its illusions. It is clear from these statements that by self-consciousness Malebranche means consciousness of desires and feelings, which belong to the individual as such, and not consciousness of self as thinking. He begins, in fact, where Descartes ended, and identifies the consciousness of self as thinking, and so transcending the limits of its own particular being, with the consciousness or idea of God. And between the consciousness of the finite in sense and the consciousness of the infinite in thought, or in other words, between the consciousness of the universal and the consciousness of the individual, he sees no connexion. Malebranche is just one step from the pantheistic conclusion that the consciousness of finite individuality as such is illusory, and that as all bodies are but modes of one infinite extension, so all souls are but modes of one infinite thought. But while he willingly accepts this result in regard to matter, his religious feelings prevent him from accepting it in relation to mind. He is driven, therefore, to the inconsistency of holding that sense and feeling, through which in his view we apprehend the finite as such, give us true though imperfect knowledge of the soul, while the knowledge they give us of body is not only imperfect but false. Thus the finite spirit is still allowed to be a substance, distinct from the infinite, though it holds its substantial existence on a precarious tenure. It is left hanging, we may say, on the verge of the infinite, whose attraction must soon prove too strong for it. Ideas are living things, and often remould the minds that admit them in spite of the greatest resistance of dead custom and traditionary belief. In the grasp of a logic that overpowers him the more easily in that he is unconscious of its tendency. Malebranche is brought within one step of the pantheistic conclusion, and all his Christian feeling and priestly training can do is just to save him from denial of the personality of man.But even this denial is not the last word of pantheism. When the principle that the finite is known only in relation to the infinite, the individual only in relation to the universal, is interpreted as
- Morale, i. I, §2.
- Recherche, iii. pt. ii. ch. vi.
- Recherche, ch. vii.
- Recherche, ch. i.
- Morale, i. 2, § 5.
- Entretien. i. § 5.
- Recherche, iii. pt. ii ch. vii., § 4.