By combining the philosophies of Augustine and Descartes, Nicolas Malebranche may have been the most innovative of the Cartesians. But does this radically orthodox Catholic thinker end up proposing a very unorthodox vision of God and the world? Here are some provocative consequences that I think emerge from Malebranche’s system.
Malebranche recognized that if the objective reality of our idea of God necessarily corresponds to a formal reality of an infinite being, then such a being must be beyond our finite minds’ ability to capture it, and by extension, so must all other ideas. Moreover, it is via these ideas, which belong to this infinite being and which are universal, archetypal, and cosubstantial with its essence, that not only is human cognition made possible, but the very existence of the world comes to be.
These notions comprise the essence of Malebranche’s controversial doctrines of “Occasionalism” and “Vision in God”, which are essentially the ontological and cognitive sides of the same theosophic coin. It’s a brilliant system which aroused much response in his own day, particularly from his ex-colleague Antoine Arnauld, the notorious Jansenist controversialist. What follows now are my own remarks.