The Spirit-Body Dualism of Nicolas Malebranche and Descartes

The Spirit-Body Dualism of Nicolas Malebranche and Descartes

June 27, 2021 Off By Felso

A major Cartesian, Malebranche was born in Paris, studied philosophy at the college of La Marche and theology at the Sorbonne, joined the Oratory of Jesus in 1660 and was ordained as a priest in 1664.

Oratorians adopted Augustinianism. It was here that Malebranche became acquainted with Augustinianism, which had a significant impact on his philosophy. After reading Descartes’ The Study of Man, he chose to combine Augustinianism with Cartesianism in an original way. His major works are: Treatise on Nature and Grace (1660), The Search for Truth (1675), Christian Reflections (1683), Opinions on Metaphysics and Religion (1688).

Although his philosophy was of a religious color, he was also interested in epistemological issues such as the acts and functioning of the mind, how we can know universal truths, as well as metaphysical issues. It is called Cartesian because it adopted Descartes’ concept of substance and proposed a solution similar to Geulincx’s to the mind-body problem. In terms of nature’s substance, Malebranche accepted the spirit-matter, mind-body duality. But how could the extended but unconscious body affect the conscious but non-extended mind? Malebranche tried to circumvent this problem with an occasional attitude. According to him, there is a correspondence between mind and body, but this is not an interaction as Descartes mentioned, but a spiritual-physical parallelism.

The will of the soul cannot move even the smallest object in the world. For example, there is no necessary connection between our desire to move our arm and the movement of the arm. Although our arm moves when we want it, our will is only the occasion-cause. The real reason that moves the arm is God. Because, according to Malebranche, to be a real cause is to be a creative cause. Man cannot be creative. So the only real cause is God. With these views, Malebranche analyzed causality in relation to God on an empirical basis. In this thought, the soul seems to be inactive in terms of its connection with the body. As a matter of fact, according to Malebranche, the soul is not united with the body, but only with God. It is clear that this is open to debate.

According to Malebranche, there is not an interaction between the soul and the body, but a parallelism. This is called the mental-physical parallelism.

This opportunistic attitude towards the mind-body relationship opens the human freedom of will to discussion. For if God is the only real reason, man cannot freely initiate any enterprise. Malebranche tries to circumvent this problem by arguing that God instills an inclination towards him in spiritual creatures. This is an orientation towards the good in general, but no finite goodness can satisfy the human inclination towards the good. The sole purpose of this tendency is God, and it can be satisfied only by God. If God has given man this inclination and man will do what is necessary, how can it be called freedom of will? In the face of this question, Malebranche says that it is the “path to freedom” for people to go beyond particular goodnesses and to see God as the highest value and turn to him. The human soul is spiritual and has no direct relation to matter. Since God is also spiritual, the human spirit can only directly relate to God.

According to Malebranche, on the way to reach the reality, it is necessary to eliminate the misconceptions arising from the mind’s relationship with the body. Error is an evil principle that produces evil. It hurts the soul, and true happiness cannot be achieved without avoiding it (cited in Copleston, 1996: 73). Although error is inevitable for man, there is also the ability to reach reality in his nature. Truth can be attained by disapproving of things other than what we clearly see. To be a devout devotee there is no other way than to believe, but to be a philosopher it is necessary to see clearly. What is meant by seeing clearly is that we see ideas clearly in our minds.

According to Malebranche, the main reason that misleads us on the way to reaching reality is that we make hasty decisions with our will.

Malebranche, like Descartes, says that it is not our senses that deceives us, but our will. Making hasty decisions with our will leads us to wrong judgments. For example, when sensing heat, no one is deceived into believing that they can feel it; but if he judges that the warmth he feels is outside his own soul, he is deceived. Sensations such as temperature, color, taste, smell, sound, as contents of consciousness, are only spiritual experiences and are not found in external objects. It is a wrong judgment to attribute them to external objects. Malebranche once again agrees with Descartes in arguing that secondary qualities are not objective. Perceiving primary qualities sensibly does not give sufficient information about what things-in-itself are. The senses only allow us to perceive their relationship to our body.

Malebranche has elaborated on sensation. According to him, there are four elements in a sensation. These are the action of the object (for example, the motion of particles), the sensory mechanism in the body (sensory organs, nerves and brain), the sensation or perception in the soul and the judgment of the soul regarding it. Because these elements coexist and occur simultaneously, they are