8

MALEBRANCHE ON THE SOUL AND SELF-KNOWLEDGE

Descartes’ arguments for the immateriality of the soul

Malebranche is usually described, in histories of philosophy, as a disciple of Descartes. In many respects, this is unproblematic and undeniable: the influence of Descartes can be felt throughout Malebranche’s strictly philosophical writings. On a number of important points, however, Malebranche takes care to distance himself from his illustrious predecessor, while maintaining that this dissent is itself Cartesian in spirit. The true Cartesian, he teaches in the Recherche, uses the writings of Descartes to stimulate his own meditations; to believe anything merely because ‘the master has said it’ would be not discipleship but betrayal (OCM I 412, LO 215).

Our topic in this chapter is one of Malebranche’s most significant modifications of Cartesian metaphysics: his denial that we possess a clear idea of the soul. My central claim is that this denial undermines the spiritualistic metaphysics that Malebranche is explicitly concerned to defend. He may not have been aware of it, but he was demolishing rational psychology from within. The philosophical morals were pointed out by Kant in the Paralogisms of Pure Reason of the first Critique, but by that time the demolition job had already been done. The edifice of Cartesian rational psychology had been pulled down by its own defenders.

Descartes offers his readers three distinct types of argument for his belief in the immateriality of the soul. I shall label them the positive a priori argument, the negative a priori argument, and the a posteriori argument respectively. The basic outlines of these three distinct strategies are as follows.

The positive a priori argument presupposes that we possess some rational insight into the nature of the soul itself. Intellectual intuition reveals it as a simple spiritual substance, the essence of which is to think

-186-

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Malebranche
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Abbreviations and Editions x
  • Preface xii
  • 1 - Introduction 1
  • 2 - Tensions in Cartesian Metaphysics 18
  • 3 - The Vision in God 47
  • 4 - The Dispute with Arnauld Over the Nature of Ideas 74
  • 5 - Occasionalism and Continuous Creation 96
  • 6 - Malebranche's Modifications of Cartesian Physics 131
  • 7 - Malebranche's Biology 158
  • 8 - Malebranche on the Soul and Self-Knowledge 186
  • 9 - Malebranche on Freedom, Grace and the Will 209
  • 10 - The Downfall of Malebranchism 234
  • Notes 262
  • Bibliography 279
  • Indexes 286
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