Tuesday, March 08, 2005


Jonathan Bennett has recently put up a translation of Malebranche's Dialogues on Metaphysics and on Religion in his series of texts converted into 'modern day English'. I didn't expect to like it, and I don't. For utterly no reason whatsoever, Bennett refuses to capitalize 'Reason'. In a single note he misleadingly characterizes Reason three times: He calls it a thing, the mind of God, and saying that 'reason' is another name for God. These can all be interpreted in a Malebranchean sense, but none of the three is Malebranchean in the plainest reading of the phrases; on Malebranche's view, Reason is not a thing but a divine person, the Divine Word (hence the capital), in virtue of whom all rational beings are rational. Anyone not familiar with Malebranche's actual view will come away with an inaccurate impression. Many of the clarificatory additions are not really clarificatory, e.g.:

if the circle I perceive were nothing, in thinking of it I would be thinking of nothing, which is tantamount to not thinking of anything.

where the italicized is Bennett's own addition; it doesn't, as far as I can see, really contribute anything to the meaning of the sentence. There are several cases of these. Further, some of the additions use philosophical terminology that doesn't necessarily fit well with Malebranche's actual views (e.g., a priori and a posteriori discovery, as Bennett describes them, is only debatably the same distinction being made about discovery through different general laws); and I am perplexed at the inconsistency of students who have a good grasp of analytic jargon and can't follow a translation as straightforward as the Jolley-Scott. He oddly chooses to keep l'étendue in the French, despite the fact that in the note explaining this he gives a perfectly good English equivalent, i.e., 'the extended'. He has Theodore talking about the 'idea of color in general' and the 'idea of sensation in general' (we have no such ideas on Malebranche's view; colors and sensations are modifications of the soul).

All this is mostly minor. But this note had me gaping in shock:

[‘God’ here translates le Verbe divin = ‘the divine Word’, which Malebranche sometimes uses to name God, on the strength of various passages in the New Testament - especially ‘the word was with God, and the word was God’. None of his doctrines depends on this; and avoiding it helps to create salutary difference of tone between this version and Malebranche’s original.]

None of his doctrines depends on this! None of his doctrines depends on this! I say again in utter disbelief: None of his doctrines depends on this! Since the last several dialogues are specifically about how the Divine Word, who is Reason, exercises His teaching authority as Christ and the Head of the Church, because the whole world was made for His sake, I have no notion how even to begin responding to this. Malebranche's entire philosophical system is about the Divine Word in particular; the Second Person of the Trinity is the whole point of most of what he says. He gets this in part from Augustine. And he goes on to use Trinitarian terminology, which Bennett merely obscures:

universal reason, which enlightens every mind including the one with which it is consubstantial. [He means ‘God’s mind’, which is ‘consubstantial’ with universal reason in the sense that universal reason is the same substance as - is one and the same thing as - God’s mind.]

He very assuredly does not mean universal reason is the same thing as God's mind. He very deliberately means that the Second Person of the Trinity is consubstantial with God. I really don't see why Bennett goes to such great lengths to hide what is ineliminably in the text; Malebranche is using the terminology of Trinitarian theology. Wouldn't it be far clearer just to keep the terminology and provide notes indicating that Malebranche is using traditional terms from Catholic theology? Malebranche is always very explicit that he is a Catholic philosopher; he does Catholic philosophy, and always does it as a Catholic. I'm sorry if it causes problems, but if you have students who can't get a hold of the basic Nicene elements of Trinitarian theology, you shouldn't be teaching them Malebranche. This tendency to cut out much of Malebranche's Catholicity is apparent everywhere in Bennett's 'translation'; e.g., he cuts down Theodore's defense of the Catholic Church as infallible, he cuts out the discussion of natural emblems, which has the literary function of setting the stage for the later discussion of the Church, etc. But to return to the point about the Divine Word: the Dialogues are about the Divine Word; it is the Divine Word that unifies all the topics discussed in the book.

Another botched note in theology from much later in the work:

our fortunate death depends on God because it depends on Jesus Christ: in him God has given us a head who watches over us and won’t allow an unfortunate death to come upon us if we ask him in the right way for the gift of persevering [here = ‘living for ever’].

What makes a 'fortunate death' is the state of your soul when you die. The gift of perseverance is not the gift of 'living forever', which doesn't even really make sense in this context.

And so forth (e.g., the Augustinian meaning of 'concupiscence' isn't made very clear when Malebranche talks about original sin, despite the fact that it is the whole point). There is no way to convey Malebranche accurately without identifying the theological issues on which he is (quite deliberately) touching.

[UPDATE: Forgot the link! Sorry about that!]

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