Monday, September 27, 2004

Dissertation Week

I learn from Sharon at Early Modern Notes that it's Dissertation Week at Chapati Mystery, and I thought I'd join in the fun. I wrote the following sometime back to help me keep in view the whole argument of my thesis while doing revisions. Having done it, I would strongly recommend that people who are doing philosophy dissertations do something like this as early as possible, and revise it while revising the real thing. I've found it helps keep things remarkably clear and on-track. It doesn't have to be beautiful or in-depth, just involved enough that you can see all the large steps in your argument (in other words, bigger than a proposal or abstract). If anyone has any questions about my summary, I'd love to hear them.

SUMMARY
Reason and the External World:
Malebranche's Account of Our Knowledge of the Existence of Bodies

In recent years considerable work has been done to uncover Nicolas Malebranche's views on causation and ideas. One likely reason for this is that scholars have come to Malebranche in order to determine how he has influenced major debates of the time, and causation and ideas are the two most obvious cases. His views on other matters, however, such as how we know the existence and nature of bodies, have been relatively neglected. In this work I propose a new understanding of Malebranche in order to clarify his difficult and unusual account of our knowledge of bodies. The argument begins by laying down a general foundation for understanding Malebranche's system, then looks at successively more precise issues, thus making it possible to understand the account within its Malebranchean context.

My first chapter examines Malebranche's theory of ideas, arguing that it needs to be seen as part of a larger theory of reason. The core of this theory of ideas is Malebranche's thesis that we see all things in God. I explain his major arguments for this thesis and in doing so argue that they all are constructed as arguments about a particular aspect of our relation to objective reason. In particular, his concern with infinity leads him to argue that objective reason can only be located in an infinite being, which as a Cartesian he considers to be divine. This is confirmed when we look at an issue that has puzzled much recent Malebranche scholarship, namely, the ontological status of ideas. When we see how Malebranche's theory of ideas is intended to be subserve a more fundamental theory of reason, we can understand why Malebranche chooses to characterize the nature of ideas the way he does.

There is more to Malebranche's theory of reason than ideas, however; and in my second chapter I turn to some of these additional elements. The elements are rather disparate, but they are unified by what Malebranche considers to be reason's teaching role. Reason teaches human beings not only by presenting them with ideas, but also by influencing our inquiry by giving us veridical sentiments. I clarify this by considering a puzzle in the literature proposed by Nicholas Jolley. Given the difficulties that face a theistic solution like Malebranche's vision in God thesis, would it not be better to posit an objective world of ideas along the lines of Plato or Frege? In this way one might be able to have a system that is consistent with Malebranche's arguments for his theory of ideas, but without the problems that face the conclusion that ideas are seen in God. Whatever might be the relative merits of the theistic and the Platonic solutions, I argue that Malebranche's understanding of the role sentiments play in rational inquiry gives him good reason to prefer the theistic solution. He does not regard ideas as purely logical objects of perception; he believes that we experience them exercising causal efficacy over us by making us feel pleasure or pain in various ways. These include pangs of intellectual and moral conscience. I then suggest some ways that make it easier to see how someone with Malebranche's understanding of sentiments would find it plausible to say that reason is a personal agent or, to use the phrase he borrows from Augustine, an "Interior Teacher".

To this point the discussion considers the theory of reason at a very basic level. There is, however, a complication. Despite reason's active teaching role, we have many experiences in which we seem to fall short of being ideal reasoners. Malebranche, however, has arguments requiring him to say that human beings were created in a rationally ideal condition. Determining how he reconciles these two aspects of his account is the concern of my third chapter. Assuming that we originated in ideal condition but are not in that condition now requires us to say that there has been some historical event that has changed matters. Malebranche uses this as an opportunity to appeal to the Christian doctrine of a Fall and original sin. Original sin plays a significant role in his philosophy, since he thinks it results in a defect that is not only moral but also epistemological. Much of this chapter discusses the way in which this defect is epistemological and the way in which Malebranche thinks it causes problems for philosophical thoughts. As an example I show how it influences in important ways Malebranche's better known views on causation.

Because Malebranche thinks reason in its teaching role is working to counteract the defect of original sin, any discussion of his epistemology needs to take into account the historical narrative that results: we begin as ideal reasoners, we fall into the defect of original sin, and reason begins to bring us out of this state. Given this, we cannot assume that what Malebranche says about one stage of this narrative applies to every other stage. In the fourth chapter I turn to sorting out how Malebranche's account of our knowledge of bodies differs depending on which stage of human history he is considering. He says several obscure things about the way knowledge works in the Garden of Eden. I resolve some of these obscurities and point out which of them are due to his failure to develop his notions beyond a set of scattered remarks. The two best known elements of Malebranche's theory of our knowledge of bodies are his ambiguous rejection of Descartes's argument for the existence of bodies and his appeal to faith and Scripture as part of his own argument. Using the background developed thus far, I argue that the key to understanding both of these elements is to see how they fit into the narrative structure created by our fall into original sin and reason's work in restoring us to our original state. When we do this the ambiguities of his refusal to follow Descartes are clarified and it becomes easier to see why he appeals to faith and Scripture as he does.

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