Self-knowledge in Descartes and Malebranche

Journal of the History of Philosophy 43 (1):55-81 (2005)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Journal of the History of Philosophy 43.1 (2005) 55-81 [Access article in PDF] Self-Knowledge in Descartes and Malebranche Lawrence Nolan John Whipple 1. Introduction Descartes's notorious claim that mind is better known than body has been the target of repeated criticisms, but none appears more challenging than that of his intellectual heir Nicolas Malebranche.1 Whereas other critics—especially twentieth-century philosophers eager to use Descartes as their whipping boy—have often been uncharitable, Malebranche accepts many of the fundamental Cartesian doctrines, including mind-body dualism. But he argues that Descartes's position on knowledge of the mind is internally inconsistent. Malebranche agrees with Descartes that the existence of the mind is better known than that of body, but he vehemently denies that the nature of the mind is better known. This denial is based on his view that we lack a clear idea of the mind.2 [End Page 55]Malebranche's polemic has attracted much attention in recent scholarship.3 The growing consensus among commentators is that Malebranche develops a devastating internal critique of Descartes's theory of the mind. For example, Nicholas Jolley writes: "In his case for his negative thesis [concerning knowledge of the mind] Malebranche mounted a powerful, even annihilating, critique of Descartes. This critique embodies the remarkable insight that there is a serious muddle at the heart of Descartes's whole theory of knowledge."4 In a book-length defense of Malebranche's critique, Tad Schmaltz also emphasizes its internal character: "the interpretation here of Malebranche's theory presents it as fundamentally Cartesian, and thereby serves to reinforce his own view that he has provided an authoritative interpretation of the account of mind in the writings of Descartes and other Cartesians."5 Schmaltz also asserts: "Malebranche took his negative thesis concerning our knowledge of the soul to involve not so much a rejection of Cartesianism as an internal correction of it."6We think such remarks misstate the case. Indeed, we argue in this paper that Malebranche's polemic fails as an internal critique of Descartes's theory of the mind. Although we do not here aspire to defend Descartes's strong thesis—that mind is better known than body—we do think he can consistently maintain that we have a clear and distinct idea of the mind, and thus that our knowledge of the mind's nature is at least on a par with our knowledge of corporeal nature.7 While Malebranche's rhetoric would encourage us to think that the debate between him and his predecessor is being fought on common or neutral ground, the fact is that Malebranche often appeals to assumptions and aspects of his own theory of "Vision in God" that Descartes would reject. Once more, he interprets Descartes's theory of knowledge in ways that are misguided and sometimes even uncharitable. If Malebranche's critique succeeds at all, it succeeds only against a straw man—Malebranche's Descartes and not the historical figure.Ours is not the first effort to defend Descartes against this particular attack. When Malebranche first published his critique in Book Three of his first great work, The Search After Truth (1674),8 Descartes had been dead for over two decades, [End Page 56] but he was ably defended by the famous Cartesian Antoine Arnauld in On True and False Ideas (1683). In the ensuing debate Arnauld was clearly the superior dialectician, but while winning several tactical points, he appears not to fully appreciate the crux of Malebranche's argument, or at least that is the view of Jolley and Schmaltz.9 We have a somewhat higher opinion of Arnauld's side of the debate. Granted, some of his defenses are facile and can be easily dismissed; others however are quite compelling when properly developed. In at least one instance, we attempt to provide that development. At the same time we think it is a mistake to treat Arnauld as Descartes's surrogate or as if he had issued the final salvo from the camp of the orthodox Cartesians. Arnauld was a...

Author Profiles

Lawrence Nolan
California State University, Long Beach
John Whipple
University of Illinois, Chicago


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