Does Malebranche need efficacious ideas? The cognitive faculties, the ontological status of ideas, and human attention

Journal of the History of Philosophy 43 (1):83-105 (2005)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Journal of the History of Philosophy 43.1 (2005) 83-105 [Access article in PDF] Does Malebranche Need Efficacious Ideas? The Cognitive Faculties, the Ontological Status of Ideas, and Human Attention Susan Peppers-Bates But whatever effort of mind I make, I cannot find an idea of force, efficacy, of power, save in the will of the infinitely perfect Being. Malebranche, Elucidation 15 One of the signatures of 17th century rationalists is their replacement of the Scholastics's dependence on the deliverances of the senses with a dependence on the deliverances of the intellect as the key to gaining knowledge.1 Correct use of the intellect leading to freedom from the passions and to certain knowledge figures prominently in the works of Spinoza and Leibniz. Descartes's Meditations uses skeptical doubt to withdraw the mind from the senses, and his reliance on the meditative genre not only reveals to his readers the intellect as a distinct source of knowledge, but also trains them to use properly their will or faculty of judgment. Commentators have argued persuasively that overthrowing the sense-based epistemology and metaphysics of the Aristotelians depended on "discovering" the primacy of one's intellect over the senses, and using the deliverances of the mind to establish solid foundations for a new metaphysics and epistemology.2 Indeed, [End Page 83] outlining the proper use of the mind's faculties arguably lay at the basis of the Cartesian program in particular. This importance can be seen in Arnauld and Nicole's influential Port-Royal Logic, which aimed at training its readers in the proper use of the intellect.3Few would question Nicolas Malebranche's inclusion in the rationalist tradition.4 For while Malebranche famously takes ideas out of the Cartesian mind and transports them to God's—thus privileging the divine over the natural light—he shares Descartes's belief that our intellect, not our senses, holds the key to metaphysical truths such as the essence of matter, the mind-body distinction, and the existence of God.5 Yet, recently, Nicholas Jolley has contended that Malebranche's later commitment to "efficacious ideas" undermines his earlier belief in the power of the cognitive faculties: he believes that Malebranche abandons his view that the mind makes "real use" of the intellect to know intelligible objects.6 Jolley's position builds upon Alquié and Robinet's claims that around 1694-95 Malebranche moved from a vision "in" God to a vision "by" God. Now God's ideas act on and modify the soul with both sensations and intellectual concepts, rather than the human intellect contemplating ideas in the Divine Reason.7Alquié and Robinet argue that Malebranche, pushed by the battles with Arnauld and Régis over the status of ideas, introduced the language of "efficacious" ideas to explain how the union of the human and the divine mind is supposed to work.8 Robinet in particular suggests that in cashing out the metaphor of God enlightening human minds, Malebranche moved from a static "ontologist" view of idea-objects in God to an active "illuminationist" view whereby divine ideas cause(intellectual [End Page 84] and sensory) perception by modifying the soul.9 Once one accepts this view of the place and function of efficacious ideas in Malebranche's metaphysics, it seems natural to accept Jolley's declaration that the only way for the mind to apprehend ideas in God is if those ideas "act directly on the mind; [if] they thereby cause cognitive states to arise in a substance which is devoid of all genuine cognitive capacities of its own."10 Indeed, Jolley suggests that Malebranche ultimately made the soul passive in all its states, including its volitional ones.11In this paper, I argue that a strong interpretation of efficacious ideas, whereby they appear to become true causal agents, must be rejected precisely because it pushes us into an incorrect reading of Malebranche's theory of the divine and human faculties. Making ideas true causal agents within God privileges divine reason at the...

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Susan Peppers-Bates
Stetson University

Citations of this work

Malebranche and the Riddle of Sensation.Walter Ott - 2012 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 88 (3):689-712.
Malebranche and Descartes on Method: Psychologism, Free Will, and Doubt.David Scott - 2008 - Southern Journal of Philosophy 46 (4):581-604.
Malebranche's "vision in God".Andrew Pessin - 2006 - Philosophy Compass 1 (1):36–47.
Malebranche's method: Knowledge and evidence.David Scott - 2009 - British Journal for the History of Philosophy 17 (1):169 – 183.

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