Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Malebranche, Practical Knowledge, and Efficacy of Ideas (Part II)

Part I

Malebranche's Efficacious Ideas

I began this paper with two passages from Jolley pointing to puzzles that arise if we try to combine Malebranche's claim that ideas are efficacious with a position that views Malebranchean ideas as abstract entities or 'third realm' entities. Jolley is admirably clear about the matter, but he is certainly not alone in taking this view of Malebranche's ideas. Pyle, for instance, who tends to talk about Malebranche's ideas in terms of logical concepts, appears to see them as analogous to Fregean senses.[18] It cannot be denied that this view is an advance over any view that fails to recognize Malebranche's anti-psychologism about ideas, which is one reason for its attraction. When we combine it with the claim that ideas are efficacious, however, the puzzles noted by Jolley become quite severe. This is particular true given that Malebranche seems to think it obvious that ideas are efficacious:

It is certain that ideas are efficacious, since they act up on the mind and enlighten it, and since they make it happy or unhappy through the pleasant or unpleasant perceptions by which they affect it. (LO 232; OC 1:442)

Perhaps he fails to give us any developed analysis of his efficacy thesis precisely because he regards it as obvious. There is reason to suspect, however, that the puzzling character of the thesis has more to do with the assumption that ideas are abstract entities. Logical concepts, abstract entities, and the like are all philosophical notions that are primarily introduced in order to clarify speculative knowledge. The understanding of 'idea' presupposed by Malebranche (one deriving from the theory of ideas) treats ideas chiefly as units of practical knowledge.[19] It is not surprising that an account of Malebranche's theory of ideas will have difficulty making sense of the efficacy of ideas if it treats knowledge in a way that abstracts it from action.

This position has a number of features that impede attempts to identify Malebranche's ideas with what we might call abstract entities. For instance, the arguments for the vision-in-God thesis are also intended to be arguments that universal Reason is divine; because of his conclusion that universal Reason is divine, Malebranche has no hesitation in identifying Reason with the divine Word.[20] There is no sharp distinction between the efficacy of ideas, the efficacy of the divine substance, and the efficacy of the divine Word or universal Reason. Consider the full context of the above passage:

It is certain that ideas are efficacious, since they act upon the mind and enlighten it, and since they make it happy or unhappy through the pleasant or unpleasant perceptions by which they affect it. Now nothing can act immediately upon the mind unless it is superior to it--nothing but God alone; for only the Author of our being can change its modifications. All our ideas, therefore, must be located in the efficacious substance of the Divinity, which alone is intelligible or capable of enlightening us, because it alone can affect intelligences. (LO 232; OC 1:442)

Here we find an interesting set of identifications. The efficacy attributed to ideas is exactly the same as the efficacy attributed to the "efficacious substance of the divinity," which is exactly the same as that attributed to God as creator or "Author of our being."

Malebranche says elsewhere that we should not let our minds "be ignorant of Him from whom their enlightenment comes, the Reason to which they are essentially related" (LO 623; OC 3:146). This occurs in the context of his clarification of the claim that God alone can act on the soul; immediately before this he says that "He alone can illuminate it, affect it, modify it through the efficacy of His ideas." The same efficacy (in enlightening minds) that is attributed to God, divine ideas, and the divine substance is attributed to universal Reason. The efficacy attributed to the divine substance in passages like these is the same as that attributed to ideas; or, to put it another way, the efficacy ideas have is entirely due to their being, in their base reality, nothing other than the efficacious divine substance. Malebranche attributes efficacy to ideas because (1) they act on us by enlightening us and (2) they act on us by making us happy or unhappy. The only thing that can, properly speaking, do this, however, is the divine substance, because changing a thing's modifications (manières d'être) requires the ability to change its very being, an ability only God can have. The conclusion to the argument, then, is that the capacity of ideas to affect us is nothing other than God's capacity to affect us; for ideas to do what they do, they must be located in the efficacious substance of the Divinity. Talking about efficacy of ideas is just another way of saying, "It is God we see by a direct and immediate sight; only He can enlighten our mind with His own substance" (OC 1:449; cp. LO 236-237).

That efficacy in the divine is primarily a matter of the divine substance is something that has been recognized by Peppers-Bates; however, she goes on to argue:

[I]deas are not the kinds of thing that could initiate causal sequences: they do not possess a will, they do not individually possess an intellect, although in their totality they are identified with the divine Reason. Ideas are not substances in their own right.[21]

A bit later she also claims that an aspect of God, which does not possess a will or an intellect, cannot act.[22] Immediately afterward, however, she says that the human perception of limitations in, or aspects of, God does not establish any real, ontological divisions in God to which we might assign independent causal powers in the first place. I think this is quite right; an aspect of God (e.g., the divine ideas) cannot have independent causal power. However, that we are able to distinguish divine 'aspects' does not imply that there is a real division in God between entities, each of which has independent causal powers, because there is no reason to think these 'aspects' could not share the efficacy of the divine substance itself. Ideas are, to be sure, not substances simply speaking, but this is only because they are, as Cook has shown in discussing the ontological status of ideas, the divine substance itself considered in different ways.[23] Since Malebranche is clear that every idea is the divine substance (albeit as considered in a certain very limited light), and he is also clear that the divine substance is efficacious, there appears to be no good reason to deny that ideas are efficacious. Given Peppers-Bates's emphasis on the efficacy of the divine substance (an emphasis which she is quite right to have), it seems less implausible to think of ideas initiating causal sequences.

Jolley has a very clever argument suggesting that Malebranche's occasionalism commits him to a position that contradicts his claim that ideas are efficacious:

According to Malebranche's central argument for occasionalism, true causality implies a necessary connection between a cause and its efect, and it is Malebranche's contention that there is such a necessary connection only between the will of God and its upshot. For Malebranche the occasionalist, then, God is the only genuine cause by virtue of having an omnipotent will, not by virtue of being the region of ideas. Thus the theory of efficacious ideas could be convicted of something like a category mistake.[24]

On first glance this seems correct. After arguing that we cannot find any necessary connection between created things and effects, Malebranche goes on to note that we do find such a connection between the divine will and effects:

But when one thinks about the idea of God, i.e., of an infinitely perfect and consequently all-powerful being, one knows there is such a connection between His will and the motion of all bodies, that it is impossible to conceive that He wills a body to be moved and that this body not be moved. We must therefore say that only His will can move bodies if we wish to state things as we conceive them and not as we sense them. (LO 448; OC 2:313)

At one point in the argument Malebranche does provide a description of a true cause that might be taken for a definition:

A true cause as I understand it is one such that the mind perceives a necessary connection between it and its effect. Now the mind perceives a necessary connection only between the will of an infinitely perfect being and its effects. (LO 450)

I think, however, that reading this as a definition of 'true cause' is a mistake. And it seems that the conclusion suggested by Jolley, that God is the only genuine cause only by virtue of having an omnipotent will, would only follow from Malebranche's claims if the contrastive case were other divine attributes. That is, to draw this conclusion from the argument, we must assume that Malebranche intends to attribute efficacy to the divine will rather than to some other divine attribute. However, the contrastive case in this context is not other divine attributes but created wills. He has just finished denying that any created will has the relevant necessary connection to its effects; in the above passage, he is merely pointing out that the divine will (as opposed to any created will) does have this connection. Further, both before and after this passage Malebranche lists God's enlightenment of minds as one of the reasons He alone is true cause. Such enlightenment is usually associated with ideas, not the will specifically, in the Oratorian's thought. Thus there is at least some suggestion in this very argument that other divine attributes beside the will may be said to be efficacious, and nothing about the argument requires that we attribute efficacy exclusively to the divine will.

One of the reasons I think we tend to find plausible objections like those we have just seen in Peppers-Bates and Jolley, is that we tend to associate will and efficacy. However, it is clear that Malebranche does not. There is an entire class of wills that are not efficacious at all, namely, those of creatures. The divine will is efficacious not because it is a will but because it is divine, and what makes the divine will efficacious is that it is identifiable with the divine substance.[25] The divine will, in other words, is efficacious because this follows from its being the will of infinite perfect being. Ideas, however, are also identifiable with the divine substance. An idea is the divine substance insofar as it is represented in the divine self-image (i.e., divine Reason) as participable by creatures of a certain sort. Divine ideas could be called efficacious for the same reason the divine will is: they are divine. Therefore the fact that divine ideas are distinguished from the divine will does not provide an adequate reason for rejecting the efficacy of divine ideas.

We have seen, then, that there is no difference between the efficacy of the divine substance and the efficacy of the divine ideas; that there is no difference between the efficacy of ideas and the efficacy of universal Reason (the divine Word); and that there appears to be nothing about the argument for the efficacy of God's will that eliminates the possibility of divine ideas being efficacious. Ideas are efficacious for us because they are universal Reason, which is God's complete self-representation in divine self-knowledge. Malebranche's theory of ideas requires that they be God's substance insofar as God is able to create the world and knows this in His self-representation. What we see when we see the idea of X is just divine Reason itself in its representing of X. Since Malebranche identifies divine Reason with the divine Word, Reason is not so much a third realm as an agent. It is not surprising, then, that Malebranche opens the Tenth Elucidation, on the nature of ideas, with a discussion of Reason. The world of ideas is simply Reason in its activity of representing things God could make; this does not cause problems for Reason's being efficacious, but presupposes it.

Likewise, the two claims, that Reason is a divine person and that ideas are seen in God, cannot really conflict with each other in the way suggested by the second puzzle noted at the beginning of this paper. The latter claim is a way of specifying the former claim. When Malebranche insists that God is the Intelligible World or public space of minds, he is not being inconsistent in also saying that the Intelligible World is causally active; the agency of God qua Reason is the basis for the belief that God is the Intelligible World.

There is, as noted before, a major difference between an account of divine ideas like that found in Aquinas and the account found in Malebranche. Whereas Aquinas insists that the theory of ideas and the theory of the divine Word, although closely related, are distinct, Malebranche makes the theory of ideas little more than a subsidiary part of his theory of the divine Word (i.e., universal Reason), and takes discussion of divine ideas simply to be a way of discussing the divine Word. This difference can be clarified by drawing an analogy to another conclusion (correct, I think) drawn by Jolley. In The Light of the Soul, he attempts to construct one possible train of thought Malebranche might have followed to arrive at the claim that ideas are efficacious. He notes that Malebranche is (borrowing a term from Bennett) a "causal rationalist" in that he seems to assimilate causal relations to logical relations. If this is true, we can go part of the way toward the claim that ideas are efficacious by starting with Malebranche's insistence that ideas are prior to perceptions:

Suppose that this means that ideas are logically prior to perceptions; the existence of a perception is logically dependent on the existence of an idea....[G]iven Malebranche's causal rationalism, the thesis that perceptions are logically dependent on ideas becomes the thesis that perceptions are causally dependent on ideas. It is true that this result may not be as strong as the thesis Malebranche intends to assert; for our argument establishes only that ideas are causally necessary conditions of perceptions; it does not establish that they are causally sufficient.[26]

Without getting into the question of casual rationalism, we seem to find ourselves in a similar situation if we proceed only on our recognition that Malebranche's ideas are divine ideas. We saw above when discussing why the intellect, as well as the will, can be a cause of existence by noting that, despite the fact that we do not have a problem with the will being a cause, it is actually in much the same situation as the intellect. The conclusion of that discussion was that intellect and will alike, when alone, are causally necessary, not causally sufficient, conditions for the effect. Effects presuppose both. Malebranche's occasionalism, however, seems to demand that we only regard as efficacious what is causally sufficient. It would appear, then, that even when we recognize ideas as elements of practical knowledge that we do not get the efficacy thesis, but a much weaker thesis: Divine ideas are a contributing factor (but not necessarily the sole contributing factor) for certain effects.[27]

One way one might try to reach the stronger efficacy thesis is suggested by Aquinas's somewhat brief reference to divine simplicity in the passage from ST 1.14.8 that was previously quoted ("His being is His understanding"). We drew our conclusions about the roles of intellect and will in practical knowledge from the example of an artisan making an artifact. However, this can only be an analogy, for at least one very good reason: God is simple, and the distinctions we make among God's various attributes are purely conceptual. Distinctions between them have more to do with the way we think than with God's nature. If 'divine intellect' and 'divine will' are just two different ways of conceptualizing one thing, then that to which each refers has to be efficacious.

This would fit very nicely with Malebranche's claims that divine substance is efficacious. It is unclear, however, that he ever appeals to simplicity in this way. Indeed, he rarely appeals to divine simplicity at all. Instead, he moves directly from talking about divine ideas to talking about universal Reason. This suggests a more truly Malebranchean way of supporting the stronger thesis. Divine ideas just are universal Reason insofar as He represents creatures; and universal Reason, being the divine Word, is a divine agent. This somewhat eccentric move eliminates any need to clarify how ideas can be causally sufficient; ideas themselves just are a person that, being consubstantial with God, is able to exercise divine efficacy. Malebranche's modification of the divine ideas tradition strengthens the tendency to treat ideas as efficacious.


We began with puzzles about the proper way to interpret Malebranche's claim that ideas are efficacious. Malebranche appears to consider this an obvious truth. Commentators, however, have had some difficulty with it. To find a way of interpreting Malebranche's theory of ideas that would make the claim less puzzling,w e began looking at the fact that an idea in an account of divine ideas (to which Malebranche explicitly appeals) would be an element of practical knowledge rather than speculative knowledge. Understood this way, they can be regarded as causative (to use Aquinas's term) or efficacious. However, in Malebranche's theory of ideas, the reasons for attributing this efficacy to ideas is strengthened by the fact that he lacks the careful distinction between Word and idea that is found in Aquinas. The efficacy of the idea is the efficacy of Reason, and Reason is understood to be a divine agent, the divine Word. It is a peculiar view, but interpreting Malebranche in this way clarifies why he himself did not find the efficacy thesis puzzling. Given his willingness to identify Reason with the Word, there would be little reason for him to hesitate at the thought of taking ideas to be efficacious.


*****

[18] See, for example, Malebranche, 88-89.

[19] Malebranche does sometimes appeal to Descartes's account of ideas, and we might consider this an exception. However, this is a case of the exception proving the rule, for Descartes himself claims that he chose the word 'idea' because of its role in accounts of divine practical knowledge (AT VII, 181; CSM 2:127-128). This etymology does not (at least on the surface) appear to play any central role in Descartes's discussion of ideas. In a sense, Malebranche just takes this connection between the original meaning of 'idea' and Descartes's adaptation of it more seriously than Descartes does.

[20] Nor can we assume that this is just a throw-away identification. As Jasper Reid has argued with regard to intelligible extension ("Malebranche on Intelligible Extension," British Journal for the History of Philosophy 11 (2003) 581-608), the identification does real work in Malebranche's discussion of Reason.

[21] Peppers-Bates, "Does Malebranche Need Efficacious Ideas?" Journal of the History of Philosophy (2005) 91.

[22] Peppers-Bates, "Does Malebranche Need Efficacious Ideas?" 95.

[23] Cook, "The Ontological Status of Malebranchean Ideas," Journal of the History of Philosophy (1998) 525-544.

[24] Jolley, "Berkeley, Malebranche, and Vision in God," 542.

[25] We hae already seen a passage in which Malebranche explicitly attributes efficacy to the substance as such -- namely, the argument previously noted that is based on the claim that ideas are efficacious!

[26] Jolley, The Light of the Soul, 77.

[27] While I will suggest that one can find general reasons for attributing the stronger claim to Malebranche, there is a possibility, not often recognized in the literature, that when Malebranche is talking specifically about the efficacy of ideas, that Malebranche should be taken in the weaker sense. There is another theological tradition in which Malebranche clearly has an interest that may have a role to play, namely, the theology of grace. 'Efficacious grace' is a pre-existing technical term, one that Malebranche regularly uses in his own discussions of grace. For instance, he states explicitly that the laws of grace are efficacious in the second discourse of the Traité de la nature et de la grâce. Malebranche is not committed to a strong sense of efficacy here; he is simply using the common vocabulary for talking about grace. Malebranche holds that there are two forms of grace: light and sentiment. We have seen these two before, since Malebranche's argument for the vision in God based on the efficacy of ideas appeals to the ability off ideas to enlighten us and instill pleasant and unpleasant perceptions. Does it not seem very plausible that Malebranche is framing his argument in the terms with which he talks about grace, so that the latter should be taken as determinative for his meaning? Determining the precise implications of this, however, is difficult; the possible connection between efficacious ideas and efficacious grace is surprisingly unexplored in Malebranche scholarship.

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