The Importance of Skepticism in Nicholas Malebranche

The Importance of Skepticism in Nicholas Malebranche

June 27, 2021 Off By Felso

A. Criticism of Classical Skepticism

Even if he knows whether a limited being can “know” or not, it is known that the discussions about where the limit of this begins and ends go back to ancient times. In Greek philosophy, the problem of knowledge, which turned into a systematic discussion between dogmatic philosophers and sophists, continued on the axis of dogmatism-skepticism in the following ages. Those who write the history of skepticism have had to relate most philosophers in some way to this problem of knowledge.

Malebranche participated in the discussion as an ardent defender of the rationalist idealist tradition of the possibility of knowledge. Stating that the variability and misleading of the sensations obtained by human abilities and the information arising from them does not mean that all knowledge is impossible, Malebranche argues that the truth can be reached by using doubt as a method. In Malebranche, as in Descartes, there is a fierce opposition to classical skepticism. He mocks classical skepticism and skeptical philosophers in many places, especially in Montaigne’s brief but heavy criticism of his Essays (1997/II: 256-274). Because, like his predecessor, Descartes, his aim is to refute the arguments of skepticism and to reveal that precise and true knowledge is possible (Popkin 2003: 255).

While criticizing skepticism, Malebranche puts Aristotle and Aristotelians on the target board. As a matter of fact, the philosopher cynically criticizes Aristotelians for finding Descartes to be unsuccessful, claiming that only mathematics can provide precise information, metaphysics, morality and physics provide contingent information, talking about physics as if he were talking about geometry, and giving physics certainty (1997/I: 28). Thinking that the criticisms against Descartes are unfounded, Malebranche thinks that these people who spend years chasing the judgment “nothing can be known” do not understand Descartes. “If they had not read his works like fairy tales and novels for entertainment and knowledge, they would not have so publicly condemned him,” says Malebranche (ibid., 31). The thinker, whether Aristotle is read or Descartes, is of the opinion that no hasty decision should be made. All philosophers, including Aristotle, are human. Considering that Aristotelians have followed the same path for two thousand years without producing any solution, the difficulty of the problem is understandable (ibid., 32–33).

According to him, in order to reach the knowledge of the Truth, it is necessary to get rid of prejudices without forgetting the rule that there is no room for doubt in “things that are clearly seen”. The “evidence” feature is absent in “believe” as in the natural sciences. Because human faculties were created by God to recognize the natural order of things. God has given “thoughts” only enough to ensure compliance with this natural order. Believe me, since the mysteries come from a supernatural world, it is not surprising that there is no evidence for them. Because we don’t even have “thoughts” about them. Malebranche sees here “thought” as the first step of knowledge. “Believe me, it is necessary to distinguish the mystery from the works of nature. Both faith and self-evidence must be obeyed… To be a believer, one must believe blindly, but to be a philosopher one must see clearly”, pointing out the difference between knowledge and faith (ibid., 34-35).

B. Doubt as a Method

The method of using doubt as a tool to reach certain knowledge, first seen in Augustine, then in Ghazali (1059-1111) and later in Descartes, maintains its importance in Malebranche as well. This type of doubt aims to destroy classical skepticism (Pyrrhonism) and to prove the availability of absolute knowledge. As a matter of fact, both the arguments in Augustine’s work against the Academics (Copleston 1950: 51–52), the doubt that Ghazali states that it should be used as a tool to reach the truth (Gazali 1978: 37-43) and Descartes’ ontological and The doubt that he uses to base epistemological inferences (Descartes 1998: 5-25) is a type of doubt that is completely opposite to classical skepticism, which argues that knowledge is impossible and that human beings cannot reach such a thing as absolute truth with their limited nature.

Along with Augustine’s view that “the truth is in man”, his warnings that “the senses mislead people” (Çotuksöken & Babur 2000: 73) is a fact that Malebranche also adopts as a principle. However, while it is recommended to be skeptical of incompetent abilities, one should not take the doubt too far.

According to Malebranche, there are two important types of doubt. The first of these is dangerous, the second is useful, worthy of philosophers and a means of finding the truth. Says Malebranche: “Not every doubt is a doubt. People doubt because of anger, rudeness, ignorance and evil, or because of business. However, people also doubt because of farsightedness, foresight, avoidance, wisdom and understanding of mind. academic