In order to understand Malebranche’s epistemology, it must be kept in mind that he was a run-of-the-mill Cartesian dualist. That is, he believed in two kinds of substances: mind(immaterial substance) and body(extended substance). Extended substance is material and takes up space, and the immaterial substance that constitutes mind does not.
God, of course, does not have a physical body and is an example of non-extended or immaterial substance. Indeed, for Malebranche, God is simple rather than constituted in parts(Nolan, 2013). What becomes counterintuitive in Malebranche’s metaphysics of theology proper is that God is “being in general”, with each particular creature being a participation in and imitation of the perfections of God(Nolan, 2013). God is only understood relatively insofar as creatures participate in these perfections, rather than being held directly. While Malebranche’s understanding of God as indeterminate being or being in general was typical of the Thomist orthodoxy of the time, the notion that we are able to discern the perfections of God by observing His material creations was novel. According to this view, each material creation of body is a kind of ectype pointing back to the primordial archetype that is the Creator(Nolan, 2013).
It would be out of accord with Malebranche’s rationalism, however, to simply say that we perceive material beings(Nolan, 2013). Rather, when we “see” material entities, we are only capable of beholding these objects by means of the ideas that represent them. Unintelligible in themselves, knowledge of these material beings are only imparted to us by means of “something spiritual and immediately present to the mind”(Nolan, 2013). This representationalism, counterintuitive though it may be, is according to many scholars, simply a reiteration of the epistemological views expounded by Descartes(Nolan, 2013).
Where he departs from Descartes is in rejecting the latter’s Neoplatonist leanings according to which we possess innate ideas of these representations when we enter the world, which representations constitute our minds and give us the ability to behold and comprehend these ideas. Instead, Malebranche argued that these ideas are eternal, immutable elements in the mind of God. It is in this sense that humans perceive material objects “in God”(Nolan, 2013). That is, when we behold a material object, we are indirectly perceiving immaterial, archetypal ideas residing in the mind of God(Nolan, 2013).
This element of Malebranche’s epistemology is known as the “Vision of God” doctrine, and it ought to be kept in mind that it is restricted to “our sensory perception of material objects and their properties and to the abstract thought of mathematical essences”(Nolan, 2013). Knowledge of the essence of God, as well as the mind(one’s own mind and the minds of others)on the other hand, fall outside of its purview(Nolan, 2013). Malebranche, unlike Descartes, does not believe that God furnishes us with an idea of the mind. Since it is by means of ideas that knowledge of a thing’s essence is imparted to us, it follows that humans cannot know the essence of the mind. While it is obviously the case that, like Descartes, Malebranche believes that one can know that one exists, he at this point makes a crucial distinction between two sorts of knowledge(Nolan, 2013):
1) Knowledge given to us by means of ideas through the Vision of God(Nolan, 2013).
2) Knowledge through bare consciousness(Nolan, 2013).
Malebranche clearly favors the former sort of knowledge to the latter(Nolan, 2013). While I am aware that my mind exists, and have a degree of awareness of its contents, this awareness does not afford me awareness of its inner nature. Like Augustine, one of his chief intellectual ancestors, Malebranche believes that only by means of God’s illumination of the mind can we have any knowledge of it(Nolan, 2013).
Malebranche, in his Elucidations, tends to treat ideas as abstract, “intelligible extensions”(Nolan, 2013). Such an intelligible extension is distinct from material objects, which in and of themselves are unintelligible, and which are only made intelligible by means of the intelligible extensions that are abstract ideas. Although referred to as extensions, it ought to be kept in mind that these ideas are not sensual in themselves, but are the non-sensual means by which sensual objects are made intelligible(Nolan, 2013).
To our modern, highly positivistic minds, Malebranche’s epistemology of perception sounds highly intellectualized and on this account, highly counterintuitive(Nolan, 2013). How are ideas and sensations related to one another? While ideas are non-sensuous extensions in God, sensations “of colors, sounds, odors, heat, pleasure, etc…are modifications of finite minds”(Nolan, 2013). Furthermore, ideas are the representational means by which sensations impressed upon our minds by material objects are made intelligible(Nolan, 2013). For example, while on the one hand, the idea of a computer screen represents its material ectype, the sensuous taste of an apple does not resemble the object itself(Nolan, 2013). It is by means of a kind of synthesis of sensation and ideational perception that humans have knowledge of the material world: “In sense perception the mind ‘projects’ its sensations onto intelligible extension, or some determinate part of it, thereby rendering sensible what is otherwise abstract and general”(Nolan, 2013) To elaborate a bit on this:
In characterizing the relation between ideas and sensations here, Malebranche relies partially on metaphors. He speaks of ‘projecting’ our sensations onto ideas and elsewhere he compares intelligible extension to a canvas onto which sensations are ‘painted’ (OC 6:78). Some commentators have attempted to unpack these metaphors and to offer a more specific account of the relation between ideas and sensations in sense perception(Nolan, 2013).
Furthermore, it must be kept in mind that Malebranche sees the function of sensation as affirming the existence of physical bodies, but not their essence. It is the function of ideas to inform us of the essence of objects. Nevertheless, sensation does not provide us with infallible knowledge of the existence of such objects(Nolan, 2013). For example, he denies that sensible qualities, such as colors or odors actually inhere in the sensible objects we perceive(Nolan, 2013). Nevertheless, it is our natural inclination to attribute inherence in such bodies. Therefore, for Malebranche, it is at least plausible that our senses may deceive us as to the very existence of such bodies(Nolan, 2013). Deceptive though they may often be, Malebranche, believes that the senses serve the important functional purpose of protecting us from danger(Nolan, 2013). We detect the heat of a fire and we avoid it in order to prevent from being burned, for example.
As far as the intellectual heritage of Malebranche’s epistemology is concerned, it is best understood as a synthesis of Augustinian and Cartesian thought(Nolan, 2013). His aim in doing this was to preserve the benefits of both while also avoiding their disadvantages. According to a popular reading of Descartes, he teaches a form of representationalism according to which ideas, rather than the perceptions they are intended to represent, constitute the immediate object of perception(Nolan, 2013). It is only by means of such ideas, he argues, that we are capable of perceiving reality(Nolan, 2013). These ideas are not images themselves, but rather the precondition of perceiving images(Nolan, 2013). Contrary to commonsense though such a position may seem, Malebranche’s motivation for adhering to such a position is in order to account for the possibility of deceptive perception(Nolan, 2013). If I hallucinate, I engage in intentionality toward an “ideal” or ideational object(Nolan, 2013). That is, ideas are introduced at this point in order to explain how intentionality can occur even in the absence of a real object(Nolan, 2013). Malebranche furthermore argues that this ideational principle must hold for both true and illusory perceptions on the grounds that all perceptions must have as their object the same ontological kind. Therefore, both true and illusory perceptions have the same kind of ideational objects(Nolan, 2013).
Malebranche departs from Cartesian epistemology when he argues that ideas reside in God Himself rather than in the human mind(Nolan, 2013). It is at this point that he sees fit to synthesize Augustinian epistemology with Cartesian epistemology as the latter’s corrective. While Descartes argues that ideas are embedded into the very structure of the human mind, Malebranche locates these ideas in God, making them eternal rather than finite components of the human mind(Nolan, 2013).
Although purely mental, Descartes insists that these “ideas” are real beings. He compares them to geometrical figures whose “essences”, he insists are immutable and eternal(Nolan, 2013). For example, it is impossible for me to think of a square circle, on the grounds that the immutable and eternal essence of squareness and circleness would be contradicted. These ideas, it must kept in mind, are innate elements of the human mind and can therefore not be contradicted(Nolan, 2013).
Although Malebranche agrees with Descartes that such ideas are eternal, necessary and immutable, it must be kept in mind that Malebranche holds that such ideas reside in the Being of God Himself and partake of His essence(Nolan, 2013). That is, they are of the same sort of metaphysical substance. Therefore, Descartes, having affirmed the necessity, immutability and eternality of such ideas, ought to have gone Malebranche’s route and affirmed their residence in the Godhead rather than in merely finite man(Nolan, 2013). After all, an eternal and universal idea cannot be created, which is what would be required were ideas to reside in finite and particular humans. It is here that the influence of Augustine’s Neoplatonist epistemology is most keenly felt. He veers slightly from a straightforward Augustinianism, howeever, in arguing that we “ideas” in God rather than immediate “truth.” Truth instead has to do with relations among ideas, and therefore constitute the means by which we comprehend truth(Nolan, 2013).
He also departs from Augustine’s theory of illumination by extending Augustine’s theory of divine illumination, according to which we only come to know God by means of God’s direct intervention, to knowledge of material things as well:
Malebranche conceives Vision in God as an all-encompassing theory of cognition that includes the sensory perception of sensible objects in the world. Malebranche believes that Augustine was prevented from seeing how the theory of illumination could be extended in this way as a result of two philosophical prejudices. First, he maintained that we see bodies directly, without the aid of ideas. Second, like most philosophers prior to the scientific revolution he thought that colors, sounds, pains, heat, and other sensory qualities are in bodies. But of course these qualities change. If these two prejudices are combined, as Malebranche believed they were in Augustine’s thinking, then to say that we see material things in God would mean that God contains objects that are changeable and corruptible. But this violates God’s immutability. Malebranche, however, thinks he has the resources for avoiding this result(Nolan, 2013).
One of Malebranche’s favorite strategies for attempting to establish the necessity of divine ideas is to reason about the infinite, divine God in order to draw conclusions concerning the finite human. Such a strategy is common among the rationalists of his day(Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, etc.)(Nolan, 2013). Harking back to Augustine, he argues that ideas must reside in God, otherwise God would not have been able to rationally ordain and order creation(Nolan, 2013). Archetypes must have preceded the ectypes which God created, otherwise, He would not have been the rational architect of creation. He also reminds his readers of the dependence upon God which His creatures experience(Nolan, 2013). God is omnipresent, and this is no less the case with respect to His continual presence to our minds. Since we always and unavoidably have direct and immediate access to God, it follows that we are participants in God’s ideas(Nolan, 2013).
Malebranche outlines five main arguments for the position that it is by virtue of the very nature of God that his epistemological representationalism follows:
1) The simplicity of God’s behavior – Malebranche argues that God never does anything in an unnecessarily complicated manner, and that this is the simplest way by which He could have gone about creating humans and imparting knowledge to us(Nolan, 2013). He believes that the classical Cartesian belief that God simply endows each human with finite “ideas” violates this principle(Nolan, 2013). Rather than creating finite, particular ideas for finite, particular humans in order to enable us to experience an infinite number of experiences, it would make more sense for God to simply cause us to participate in His eternal, immutable, infinite ideas. It would not be in accord with God’s wisdom for Him to violate such a principle. Therefore, it makes more sense to suppose that we participate in God’s eternal, infinite and immutable ideas rather than to believe as Descartes does that God endows each human with them(Nolan, 2013).
2) Dependence upon God – According to the Christian doctrine of concurrence, the finite human is continually dependent upon God for its continued existence and preservation(Nolan, 2013). Malebranche broadens this principle to include not merely the preservation of our lives and continued existence, but cognitive components as well(Nolan, 2013). Indeed, as an occasionalist who believes that God is the final and only true cause of all things, it comes as no surprise that he includes epistemological realities within its purview(Nolan, 2013).
3) God’s infinite cognitive capacity – Malebranche believes that the only rational explanation of how humans are capable of thinking an infinite number of thoughts is by virtue of God’s infinite cognitive capacity(Nolan, 2013). Since humans are epistemologically dependent upon God’s ideas for their thoughts, it follows that we are capable of thinking an infinite number of thoughts(Nolan, 2013). Humans are endowed with the idea of infinity from God, which he takes to be conceptually prior to the finite, and finite thoughts are only brought forth by means of negating the infinite. Malebranche also supplements this argument with a distinctly Platonist doctrine of recollection (employed by his intellectual mentor, Augustine):
Malebranche asserts that whenever we desire to think of some particular object we must first survey all beings and then focus on the object we wish to think about. If we did not already have at least a general and confused apprehension of the object we wished to consider, then we could not direct our attention to it. Malebranche takes this to be a datum of our experience, but the underlying principle is of Platonic origin. Plato famously argues in the Meno that all knowledge is recollection, for it is impossible to inquire about that of which one is ignorant. One must be at least dimly aware of all things one seeks to know, and thus learning is more like remembering than discovering something entirely new (cf. McCracken 1983, 66). Augustine (On the Teacher10.33) had already adapted this argument for his own ends, and here Malebranche is following suit(Nolan, 2013).
4) God’s causal efficacy – The ideas in God are causally efficacious upon the human mind(Nolan, 2013). He takes the Augustinian position according to which God, by means of His ideas, are capable of causally acting upon our minds because God is superior to it(Nolan, 2013).
5) The purpose of God’s creation – This is a distinctly teleological approach according to which one must accept that God is only capable of acting for His glory(Nolan, 2013). God created the universe solely in order that His perfections might be revealed:
The Purpose of Creation: In his final argument, Malebranche appeals once again to creation, focusing this time on its purpose. He maintains that as an absolutely perfect being, God can act only for his own glory. There is nothing that he lacks for which created beings somehow compensate. Thus, God created the universe so that his works would reflect his perfections and, as much as possible, be directed toward him. As conscious beings whose thoughts point beyond themselves, minds are especially well suited to this purpose for only they are capable of knowing his perfections. But don’t we know other things besides God? Yes, Malebranche will answer, but given God’s aim in creation we can know his works only if we also see him to some extent (3.2.6, OC 1:442-3; LO 233). Vision in God satisfies this requirement, for it affirms that we see all things in God by way of ideas that are identical with his substance(Nolan, 2013).
Nolan, Lawrence, “Malebranche’s Theory of Ideas and Vision in God”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/malebranche-ideas/>.