Monday, August 16, 2004

Hot Off the Presses

I just now finished this short passage in the chapter I'm working on; it's part of a larger section. I've been a bit surprised at how much trouble it has given me, so I thought I would put it up to see if anyone might have anything helpful to say on it -- comments on readability (which is a big issue) or clarity of argument, or anything. In the passage immediately prior to this one, I have been talking about Malebranche's major move in epistemology, namely, treating Reason as a personal agent (indeed, as a divine personal agent): we are all rational in virtue of our personal interaction with divine Reason. (One of the difficulties I've been having all along is with presenting this in a way that shows just how powerful a move it is, despite its more obvious disadvantages.) I have been looking at how this affects Malebranche's theory of ideas, and then say, "There is, however, another way in which Reason affects us, namely, by convictions and reproaches." (I should say that LO = the Lennon-Olscamp translation of Malebranche's Search after Truth, and JS = the Jolley-Scott translation of his Dialogues on Metaphysics and on Religion.)


Malebranche opens the Search with a discussion of the understanding and will. The understanding is “that passive faculty of the soul by means of which it receives all the modifications of which it is capable” (LO 3). The will, on the other hand, is “the impression or natural impulse that carries us toward general and indeterminate good” (LO 5). The will is both active, although Malebranche is careful to qualify this by the phrase “in a sense” (LO 4), and free, where freedom is “the power that the mind as of turning this impression toward objects that please us so that our natural inclinations are made to settle upon some particular object” (LO 5). The will is a blind power that can only tend toward the various things that are presented to it by the understanding, but the judgments and inferences we associate with the understanding are also accomplished by the will. The intellect does nothing but perceive; through our will, and only through our will, we can consent to what is presented to us through our intellects. When we believe something necessary, it is because “there is in these things no further relation to be considered that the understanding has not already perceived” (LO 9). We need freedom because there are many cases in which this has not yet occurred, requiring us to direct our attention (another act of the will) in other directions, and, more importantly, because everything the intellect receives has some appearance of truth (we seem to perceive it, after all), so “if the will were not free and if it were infallibly and necessarily led to everything having the appearance of truth and goodness, it would almost always be deceived” (LO 10). This would force us to conclude that God, as Author of our natures, was the source of our errors.

As a good Cartesian, Malebranche does not find this result palatable. He concludes therefore that God gives us freedom that we may under these circumstances avoid falling into error. In particular, we are given freedom so that we may refrain from accepting the merely probable, by continuing to investigate “until everything to be investigated is unravelled and brought to light” (LO 10). We have, therefore, an epistemic duty to use our freedom as much as we can, as long as we do not use it to avoid yielding to evidence, which is to say, “the clear and distinct perception of all the constituents and relations of the object necessary to support a well-founded judgment” (LO 10). How do we know when we have reached this point? Interestingly, Malebranche’s brief statements of how we know we have reached clear and distinct perception never consider it to be something intrinsic to the clear and distinct perception itself. Rather, he considers it to be due to the “inward reproaches of our reason” (LO 10), “the powerful voice of the Author of Nature, which till now I have called the reproaches of our reason and the remorse of our conscience” (LO 11). In addition to these pangs of intellectual conscience, we are led by “a certain inward conviction” and “the impulses felt while meditating” (LO 13). These sentiments are the first mentions of Reason in the Search, and as similar sentiments about “the replies He gives to all those who know how to question Him properly” arise in the conclusion to the work, they may perhaps be said to frame the entire work.

Not only does Reason teach by illuminating us with ideas, then; it also teaches by giving us inquiry-guiding sentiments. This appears to be what is behind an otherwise entirely inexplicable passage in the Search, where Malebranche says that we know God wills order through interior sentiment (LO 579). This should be compared to the discussion at the end of Dialogue VIII. The topic of the discussion is whether God can will that we love more what deserves to be loved less, which is related to the issue of order, since order is the reason He cannot. Aristes, who is hesitant about this claim, says, “I am convinced by a kind of interior sentiment that God cannot will that we love and esteem more what deserves to be loved and esteemed less; but I do not see it very clearly” (JS 145, slightly modified). Then, after he has given further reasons for the proposition, says,

Consider them well, Aristes, in order to remain convinced of them, not simply by a kind of interior sentiment by which God inwardly persuades all those whose heart is not hardened and entirely corrupted, but also by an evidence such that you can demonstrate it…. (JS 147, slightly modified)

In these passages we see what seems to be an explicit example of Reason’s teaching through sentiment. This would make considerable sense. We know God not through any idea in the ordinary sense, but through Himself, for “He can act on our mind and reveal Himself to it” (LO 236). The most obvious way in which He does so is by “illuminating” us. We have seen, however, that Reason also serves as our intellectual conscience in philosophical meditation, rebuking us when we are obstinate and giving us “inward convictions” of the truth. It is not, therefore, surprising that we have some sort of knowledge through interior sentiment of the fact that God always wills order. It is not a direct knowledge in the way interior sentiment gives us a direct knowledge of the fact that we are thinking. There can, however be some form of cognitive dissonance at the thought of God not willing order; even to someone who has not yet thought the matter through, there can seem something rather absurd and incredible about this thought. We are not left with this alone; Theodore gives supporting reasons, and the passage in Elucidation Eight suggests as an additional reason the failure of all objections to it. Nonetheless, it is clear that Reason’s teaching function extends beyond illuminating us with ideas to instilling in us inquiry-guiding sentiments. Nor is this the end of Reason’s magisterial function in Malebranche’s system. We are further told that He teaches by sensible example in the Incarnation (LO 367) and, related to this, He instructs Christians through the authority of the Church (JS 92). We will return to these in a later chapter.

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