Tuesday, April 05, 2005

A Puzzle about Seventeenth Century French

I do not see it is possible to find any other reason to prevent me from believing generally that bodies exist despite [contre] all the various sensations I have of them, sensations so consistent, so linked together, so well ordered, that it seems to me certain that God would be deceiving us if there were nothing in everything we see.

This (from Malebranche's Dialogues on Metaphysics, Dialogue VI, Jolley-Scott 99) seems a puzzling sentence. Usually contre in this context would mean exactly what Scott translated it to mean: despite, in spite of. It suggests opposition. But the two parts of the sentence make no sense if put into opposition; the first says that there doesn't seem to be anything to stop him from believing that God exists, and the second gives the reason for it. I feel like I'm missing something obvious here, but I can't see what. I'll be looking up the passage in the critical edition later this week, but given both the English translation in the Jolley-Scott and Rodis-Lewis's French text, the text certainly says 'contre', and there's probably nothing in the Oeuvres Complètes that will shed light on it. Is there some meaning of contre that I'm just stupidly unaware of?

UPDATE: Here's the Rodis-Lewis (the Oeuvres published by Gallimard; very handy little books!)

...je ne vois pas qu'il soit possible d'en trouver quelque autre, pour m'empêcher de croire en générale qu'il y a des corps, contre tous les divers sentiments que j'en ai: sentiments tellement suivis, tellement enchaînés , si bien ordonnés, qu'il me parait comme certain que Dieu voudrait nous tromper, s'il n'y avait rien de tout ce que nous voyons.
(p. 772)

It occurs to me that one possibility is that there is just a misleading shift in the sentence; the 'despite' might well make sense if the 'diverse sensations' are intended to be the pool from which one would expect to find reasons not to believe in general that there are bodies. The next part of the sentence, then, isn't intended to be part of the 'despite' clause (the way JS takes it). Rather, the sense may be: "I don't see that we can find any other reason to prevent me from believing in general that bodies exist, despite all the different sorts of sensations [M. uses 'sentiment' and 'sensation' interchangeably, but prefers the former] we have of bodies. These sensations [in fact] are so consistent, so connected, so well-ordered, that it seems to me that God would be deceiving us if there were nothing to them." It's an clumsy transition, but the punctuation in the Rodis-Lewis makes it slightly less jarring than what we get in Scott's translation.

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